Hello everyone. This week’s issue of “Realms of The Norse; Helheimr” is kind of tricky. Why? Because we Norse consider Helheimr to be one of the most predominant of the 9 realms of the Norse. It is a fairly well-documented realm of the dead. I was not really wanting to get into the realm of Helheimr as I was planning to save it to be the last in this series, which would lead to my next series “Realms of the Norse Afterlife”. But one of our members specifically asked me to do this one this week, so here it is.
What is Helheimr
Helheimr is one of the 9 primary realms of the Norse universe. Helheimr directly translates to “House of Hel”. There are many names for Helheimr, and they are used often. Some of the names and translations include:
- Hall of The Dead
- House of Hel
- Realm of Death
- Hall of Hella
None of those references are specifically wrong, but I personally prefer the term Helheimr. I think the primary reason that I prefer the term Helheimr is because there is an entity named Hel, and for me, it helps to keep the 2 separate.
Hel VS Helheimr
Hel is the daughter of Loki and Angrboða. As punishment for Loki stepping out on Sigyn Hel was forced into having jurisdiction over Helheimr. Because of her jurisdiction, many referred to the realm as Helheim or the house of Hel. Without going into any more detail than I have to because I am planning for a series of posts about the Gods and Goddesses later. Hel is considered by all accounts to be half monstrous and skeleton in appearance and half beautiful.
Most of us know that Helheimr is a realm and more specifically it is a realm that only the dead may enter without special permission. Some suggest that Helheimr can be found in the world of Niflheimr but this is an unsupported theory. That said large parts of the Norse faith are based on such UPG. It’s sometimes argued that the two are one and the same and while others, like myself, agree there are those that believe they are two separate realms altogether.
Geography of Helheimr
Helheimr is a dark place by all accounts. The air is so heavy with moisture that it is misty nearly all times. It is at the lowest level of the Nordic Universe. Its surrounded by a great river called Gjallarbrú (Gjoll) with only a single bridge to enter. Svartalfheimr and Niflheimr are said to border Helheim.
For those of you that do not know this river flows from the spring of Hvergelmar. The giant Hraesvelg sits on the edge of this world and watches over Helheimr in the form of an eagle. Hraesvelg is also known as the corpse eater.
Some sources suggest it to be a cold and dark place, others paint it as a continuation of life, indistinguishable from our mortal life. It was said that it resided under Miðgarðr, with a mountain in Norway being named “The Entrance to Hel”. Most of Helheimr is located underground and at the end of a long road from Svartalfheimr. This road is often referred to as the Helway but is also called Helvegr, it is described in a variety of different sources. The only recognizable light that comes from this Helway is that from the glittering bridge known as the golden Gallarbridge. The bridge is guarded by Moðgunn. Upon arrival, you are asked “Why do you wish to enter Hel’s domain?
There is a gate at the end of the road and after crossing the bridge known as Hel’s Gate.
The entrance itself into Helheimr is guarded by a monstrous dog. This dog is named Garm which translates into Helhound.
Similarities In Christianity
You may be aware there is a version of Hell in the Christian religion where there are some similar aspects of the realms. But do not mistake the Christian version for the Norse version as they are different even with the few and minor similarities. Helheimr is unique in that it is a Viking world and certainly shows reflections of the Viking culture and beliefs.
The Norse version of Hel is not the same as the Christian version where you get tortured and punished. However, that is not to say there is not a place in Helheimr for the wicked and evil. When Baldur arrived at Helheimr, he was welcomed as a guest of honor, and he was served fresh food. You will, at least, in the case of Hermóð be allowed to enter and leave again, if you are not dead.
Norse mythology did have an equivalent of the Christian Hell, it was a place within Helheimr called Nastronð, where the dragon Niðhoggr chews on the corpses of the wicked. Due to the presence of Niðhoggr, it is widely debated as to whether Nastronð is in Helheimr or Niflheimr as he has a duty to protect the “Bubbling Boiling Spring” of Niflheimr and it is said that he will only leave during Ragnarok were he will swallow Loki’s army in one bite.
What Helheimr does have in common with the Christian idea of Hell was that it was a place that was completely cut off from the rest of the cosmos, by the river Gjoll, and from which no one living could return unless Hel gave them permission to do so.
All That Power
Here is an example.
The one and only poem featuring Hel, is the poem, the death of Baldr. In this, poem Hermóð the brave voluntarily rode down into the darkness for nine days on Sleipnir to bring Baldr back from the dead. When he came to the river Gjöll, one of Élivágar’s eleven rivers, he had to cross the Gjöll Bridge into Helheimr.
But he was stopped by the maiden Móðgunn who demanded that he explained what he wanted before he was allowed to pass, he then ignores her request and uses Sleipnir to jump into Helheimr. When he met Hel in her realm, she would only agree to let Baldur return with him, if every last thing in the universe would weep a single tear for him.
Everything did weep, except for Þökk a single giantess. It mattered not what the Gods did, she completely refused to shed even a single tear for Baldr. Some believe that it was really Loki in a disguise, as he’d donned various disguises many times before. Another one of his tricks to destroy everything for the Gods. Because Þökk refused to weep, the Gods failed to get Baldr back from the dead, and Baldr will remain in Helheim until Ragnarök is over, at which point he will walk from Ygddrasil and rule over Asgarðr.
Admittedly I’m stunned by the fact that Oðin did not just say “I’m taking him back to Asgarðr!”, and be done with it. Makes me wonder why? But this self-restraint shows something about Oðin. It shows that not only did he have some serious self-restraint but he also takes the values of Honor and integrity very seriously. Maybe he knew he as a leader needed to lead by example. I don’t know that and we will never truly know why he made the decision to handle this matter the way he did.
Something to keep in mind and perhaps this is Oðin’s thoughts as well. The dead are destined to leave Helheimr one day. With the prophecy of Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world. Loki will lead an army of the dead to fight against the Gods. Loki and anyone confined to Nastronð will depart Helheimr on a ship made of fingernails and toenails from the dead. For this reason, when the Norse buried their deceased, they would cut their nails back so that Loki had less to work with when building his ship, thus decreasing the size of the ship.