Norse mythology often mentions nine realms. Among the identified realms, the gods’ enclosure, Asgard, is vaguely ‘higher’ than humankind’s middle enclosure, Midgard, and the anti-gods’ homes seem to lie outside of the Midgard’s protective outer ocean. This leaves us with Hel, the realm of the dead.
Travelling to Hel
In an old poem about the great heroic family called the Volsungs, we hear about the cremation of the Valkyrie Brynhild atop a wagon. After her cremation, we find her riding the ‘Hel-road’ and passing a farm.
Contained in this deceptively simple statement about the Hel-road is an apparently complex idea of traveling to Hel. The funeral itself seems to be the first step in the journey, with the incinerated woman perhaps envisioned as ‘transported’ or even ‘reassembled’ in some invisible way to this other realm, along with the material goods incinerated with her, notably the wagon.
And yet the place of ‘reassembly’ is not within Hel, but merely on the road to it, passing by a farm.
This particular farm, however, is occupied not by a human family, but by an unidentified anti-goddess.
As the deceased Brynhild rides past, this supernatural woman asks her why she is visiting ‘my houses’—so is this anti-goddess in fact Hel herself, the ruler of the realm of the dead?
It is never stated, and Brynhild seems to have a poor opinion of the woman, though that might be expected toward someone who will imprison us in the realm of the dead.
A similar reference, in another Eddic poem, called Balder’s Dreams, describes Odin’s concern about the bad dreams of his son Balder. Odin saddles up his eight-legged horse Sleipnir and rides ‘down’ to ‘dark Hel’. Odin also rides on a road, until he comes to ‘the high house of Hel’.
But instead of going inside Hel, Odin rides east of the door, where he knows ‘a witch’s paths’. Upon these paths, he finds the grave of a dead volva or seeress, and he uses his magic to awaken her.
Odin asks the volva why the hall of Hel looks prepared for a banquet, with fresh-brewed mead ready to serve. The seeress tells Odin it’s for the coming of Balder, and she tells him some of the details of the upcoming tragedy of Balder’s death.
Then, we jump to a time following Balder’s death, when we see another visit from outside to the realm of the dead, this time by the hero Hermoth, who is riding Odin’s horse Sleipnir.
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According to Snorri, Hermoth rides for nine nights through deep, dark valleys until he comes to the golden-roofed bridge over the river Gjoll.
There he meets a woman (of unspecified kin or kind) named Mothguth, who guards the bridge.
Mothguth tells the hero Hermoth that Balder has already crossed the bridge on his horse that was cremated with him, and that ‘the road to Hel lies down and north’. From there, Hermoth rides further until he reaches the gates of Hel.
Traveling from Other Realms
From these three scenes together, we see a conception of Hel that is perhaps underground. It is ‘down’ for Odin at least, though he is coming from a physically higher place in Asgard anyway. However, it is physically reachable by living beings that travel there from other realms.
On the other hand, human beings who die in Midgard may get a one-time ‘teleportation’ there, which in the Norse conception finds them appearing in that other spot on the map with whatever they had in their possession, and whatever vehicle they were in, at their funeral.
No Distinction between Body and Soul
It is noteworthy that the Norse do not distinguish readily between the body and the soul. The whole person travels altogether into the next world, with whatever was on them, and whatever had marked them.
Thus, out of the nine realms, Hel is clearly the one situated underground. Yet, when it comes to the other realms, curiously, nowhere in our sources are nine realms counted out.
Most likely there was never a fixed definition of what these nine realms were, and the number nine, so significant in Norse mythology, was used mostly for its mythic resonance. Or perhaps the identity of the ninth realm was as mysterious to the original audience as it is to us.
Common Questions about Hel, the Realm of the Dead
Odin was concerned about the bad dreams of his son Balder. He saddled up his eight-legged horse Sleipnir and rode ‘down’ to ‘dark Hel’. There he found the grave of a dead volva or seeress, and he used his magic to awaken her.
Odin asked the volva why the hall of Hel looked prepared for a banquet, with fresh-brewed mead ready to serve. The seeress told Odin it was for the coming of Balder, and she told him some of the details of the upcoming tragedy of Balder’s death.
The human beings who die in Midgard might get a one-time ‘teleportation’ to Hel, which in the Norse conception finds them appearing in that other spot on the map with whatever they had in their possession, and whatever vehicle they were in, at their funeral.