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Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though. The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself. Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.
Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon. Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence. A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse. Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.
In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet. She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead. Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder. Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism. In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”
Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings. During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death. After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound). The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.
In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology. Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists. Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim. However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants. The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir. He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).
Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated. many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.
The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous. Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead. Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength. Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.
The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead. The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together. Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry. The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth. All poetry we have is sour and ersatz. Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…
In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms. An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.
Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard. Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children. One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm). Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent. When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world. There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail. In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.
Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar). Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment. The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir. Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales. Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world. Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface. The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.
Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök. When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves. This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living. Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.
The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity. They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil. Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves. One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight. One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence. The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree. Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).
Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity. Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post). Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.
The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim. This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences. The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and Vé, slew him and cut him apart). Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger). Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants. But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.