The Nordic Underworld is a Complicated Place

Welcome to part the second of Thalassa’s Guide to Norse Mythology! (It will be re-located to Thalassa’s Lexicon [inside Info and Disclaimers] as soon as possible.)

WARNING: This is only my personal opinion. I know there are different versions, but this is how I see the myths, using information from various sources and my own reasoning. I also know you might disagree with me, so please don’t leave any comments on how I’m “wrong”. Remember: PERSONAL OPINION.

Also, I’m sorry to those who find the topic of death scary/creepy/weird, but it has to be done. This will not be explaining funerals and death rites, but more on what comes after.

Anyhoo…

In today’s class, we will be talking about the afterlife, the second-most complicated part of the mythology.

Now, there are three places for the dead. There are two places for those who died in battle and one where either those who committed evil acts (as in, murder) or those who died in relative peace (old age/sickness) went. Let’s look into them, shall we?

Odin, king of Asgard, and Freya, the Vanir goddess of love, agreed to split half of the souls of those who died in battle. The souls can end up in either Valhalla or Fólkvangr.

Valhalla is the feasting hall of Odin, located somewhere in Asgard. Souls who are brought here by the Valkyries, or warrior-maidens, are specially chosen by Odin. They then join the ranks of the Einherjar, warriors destined to fight at Ragnarök, the end of the world.

Fólkvangr is a meadow or field ruled by Freya. Its location in unknown. (It could be in Asgard, but it could also be in Vanaheim, Freya’s birthplace.) It’s likely that those who go here are not intended to fight at Ragnarök.

Helgafjell is not mentioned in the mainstream mythology, and therefore is hard to figure out what kind of dead go here. For simplicity’s sake, I will not write about this, but you are welcome to leave information about it below in the comments.

Now we’ve arrived at Helheim, which is the Ninth Realm. Located at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and the largest of the Nine, this is where the rest of the dead go. Anyone would end up here anyway unless you died a heroic death on the battlefield.

First off, we need to know about Hela, the namesake of Helheim. There is a long and complicated story around her birth, but I will get to that later. Hela is the daughter of Loki, the God of Mischief and Lies, and the Frost Giantess Angrboda, Chief of the Wolf Clan and ruler of the Ironwood, which is located within Jötunheim. Half of Hela’s body is that of a beautiful woman, and the other half is that of a corpse. When she began her rule, she remade the land of the dead, known as Jormungrund at the time, and named it Helheim, making it a peaceful final resting place.

There are four parts of Helheim. I have separated them according to the Greek Underworld, which some of you might find easier to understand, but if you don’t, then just ignore the extra notes.

  • Before entering Helheim, you must cross the river Gjöll (like the River Styx) using the bridge Gjallarbrú. Then, you pass one of the great gates that surround the realm. The main gate is guarded by the wolf Garmr, but he also patrols the other gates. Garmr is the equivalent of Cerebus, though Garmr doesn’t have three heads. Instead, he is a shapeshifter, and can take human form. (I use ‘human’ very loosely)
  • Náströnd is known as the “Shore of the Dead.” It is where Nídhögg, a monstrous dragon bound by Yggdrasil’s roots, is imprisoned. He gnaws at his bindings until he breaks free during Ragnarök. (He also eats the corpses of those who land here, though I’m not sure if it’s the ‘regular’ dead or the to-be-punished ones.) I correspond it with the Fields of Asphodel, where those who do not live good or bad lives go. They are still punished, since we all do bad at one time or another, but their punishment is just to stand in those fields…forever.
  • Hela’s palace is called Eljudni. It is said that half of it is a great palace and the other half is a ruin, mirroring the goddess. Here, she feeds all her charges and takes care of them. Even though she is not a motherly figure, she is very protective of the dead in her realm. She lives in the palace most of the time, unless she’s off travelling around the realm.
  • Niflhel is not actually in the main ‘city’ of Helheim, but it’s somewhere near it. This is the place where those who have committed evil acts (such as murder) arrive. It is the equivalent of the Fields of Punishment, whose occupants suffer eternal torment, and Tartarus, the deep pit where the Titan Kronos is imprisoned (along with other major evildoers). (NOTE: Many people confuse Niflhel with Niflheim,which is the primordial land of ice. To be clear, they are two separate places.)

Now that this is cleared up, I can go write up my list of gods, giants, and other important people! Also, please check out my poll and keep voting on it! I only have one voter so far, but I need more! It’s located here.

Until next time!

Thalassa

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