(Author’s note: Updated as of 16/2/14)
In Norse myths, there are three places for the dead: two places for those who died in battle (or notable deaths) and one where either those who committed evil acts or those who died in relative peace (old age/sickness) went.
Odin, king of Asgard, and Freya, the Vanir goddess of love, agreed to split half of the souls of those who died in battle/notable deaths. 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 is 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.
Now we’ve arrived at Helheim, which is the Ninth Realm (depending on what translation you read). Located at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and the largest of the Nine, this is where the rest of the dead go.
(There is a bit of a mix-up between Helheim, Niflhel, and Niflheim, but I have Niflheim and Helheim listed as separate realms [see “The Nine Realms of Yggdrasil”])
First off, we need to know about Hela, the namesake of Helheim. (There is a long and complicated story around her birth, but I’ll get to that eventually.) 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.
Before entering Helheim, you must cross the river Gjöll (like the River Styx in Greek myths) 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 a shapeshifter, and can take ‘human’ form. (I use ‘human’ very loosely)
- Náströnd is known as the “Shore of the Dead” or “Corpse Shore.” The Hall of Serpents is located here, where souls of the dead are tormented by venom that drips from the numerous snakes that inhabit the rafters. Interestingly, the doors of the Hall aren’t locked. Those within the Hall of Serpents are there of their own choosing, feeling that punishment is a step towards their atonement.
- Somewhere near Náströnd is Hvergelmir, a spring infested with serpents and 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 in Náströnd guilty of murder, adultery, and oath-breaking.
- Hela’s palace (or hall) is called Eljudni. It is said that half of it is a great palace and the other half is a ruin, mirroring the goddess’ form. Here, she feeds all her charges and takes care of them. 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.
Helgafjell is mentioned in West Norse sources as a “holy mountain,” located on Midgard within a nearby mountain range. It was very sacred, and the afterlife led here by members of the Norse clans was quite similar to the lives they led while alive.