Hel (Old Norse Hel, “Hidden;” pronounced like the English word “Hell”) is the most general name for the underworld where many of the dead dwell. It’s presided over by a fearsome goddess whose name is also Hel. Occasionally, it’s also referred to as “Helheim,” “The Realm of Hel,” although this is much more common in the secondary literature than in the Old Norse primary sources.
Like physical graves, Hel was thought to be located underground. Some sources also place it in the north, the direction which is cold and dark like the grave. A dog is sometimes said to guard its entrance, much like Cerberus in Greek mythology.
What Kind of Place Was Hel?
The names of Hel and Hell, the Christian realm of eternal suffering ruled over by Satan, come from the same root in the Proto-Germanic language, which is an ancestor of both Old Norse and, by way of Old English, modern English. That common root has been reconstructed by modern scholars as *haljo, “concealed place,” and words stemming from *haljo seem to have been used to denote the underworld in virtually all Germanic languages. We modern English speakers call the Christian concept of a land of damnation “Hell” because the concept was called hel or helle in Old English. Presumably, hel/helle originally referred to the same kind of Germanic pagan underworld as the Norse Hel, and Christian missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons used the closest word they could find in Old English to refer to Satan’s realm.
But apart from the fact that Hel and Hell are both realms of the dead located beneath the ground, the two concepts have nothing in common. While the Old Norse sources are far from clear on exactly how one ended up in one of the Norse afterlife realms rather than another (there were several), what is clear is that where one goes after death isn’t any kind of reward for moral behavior or pious belief, or punishment for immoral behavior or impious belief. (See the article on Death and the Afterlife for more on this point.)
Furthermore, while the underworld isn’t described often in the sources, when it is, it’s generally cast in neutral or even positive terms. As a place where the dead live on in some capacity, it’s sometimes portrayed as a land of startlingly abundant life on the other side of death. The dead in Hel spend their time doing the same kinds of things that Viking Age men and women did: eating, drinking, fighting, sleeping, and so forth. It wasn’t a place of eternal bliss or torment as much as it was simply a continuation of life somewhere else.
Of all of the Old Norse sources, only one describes Hel as a thoroughly unpleasant place: the Prose Edda of the thirteenth-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. Snorri wrote many generations after Norse paganism had given way to Christianity and ceased to be a living tradition, and he had a habit of stretching the evidence available to him to present his pre-Christian ancestors as having anticipated aspects of Christianity. His downright comically over-the-top portrayal of Hel is an excellent example of this tendency of his. For Snorri, the plate of the goddess Hel is called Hunger (Hungr), her servants Slow (Ganglati) and Lazy (Ganglöt), the threshold of her door Stumbling Block (Fallandaforað), her bed Illness (Kör), and her curtains Bleak Misfortune (Blíkjandabölr).Few scholars accept such descriptions as being authentic products of the Viking Age.
Similarly laughable is Snorri’s assertion that those who die in battle go to Valhalla, the sublime hall of the god Odin, while those who die of sickness or old age go to Hel. Snorri himself blatantly contradicts his distinction between Valhalla and Hel in his version of the tale of the death of Baldur, Odin’s son, who is killed violently and is nevertheless borne to Hel. No other source makes this distinction, and several offer further examples to the contrary.
The Road to Hel
The Old Norse sources describe in uncharacteristic detail the course that one has to travel in order to reach Hel. It even has a name that comes up repeatedly in Old Norse literature: Helvegr, “The Road/Way to Hel.” Given how closely the accounts of this course correspond to the narratives of traditional shamanic journeys of other circumpolar peoples, they seem to recount, and possibly provide templates for, the journeys of Norse shamans. Throughout the Old Norse sources, we find instances of such journeys to Hel undertaken by gods or humans in order to recover a dead spirit or obtain knowledge from the dead.
A journey by the hero Hadding from the Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) by the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus is typical. Here is Old Norse scholar E.O.G. Turville-Petre’s apt summary:
While he was living with Ragnhild, Hadding had another mysterious experience. A woman appeared bearing some herbs. Wishing to know where such herbs grew in winter, Hadding went with this woman under the earth. They passed through mists, and then through sunny, fertile regions, where the herbs had grown. Then they came to a raging torrent, flowing with weapons. Crossing by a bridge, they came upon armies of fallen warriors, locked in eternal battle. As they pressed forward, a wall stood in their way; they could go no further, but the woman tore off the head of a cock, which she happened to have with her, and flung it over the wall. Immediately the cock came to life and crowed.
The chicken being thrown over the wall of the underworld (variously called Helgrindr, “The Fence of Hel,” Nágrindr, “Corpse-Fence,” or Valgrindr, “The Fence of the Fallen”) is especially intriguing. I have yet to see a convincing explanation as to its meaning, but it seems to correspond to a Norse funeral custom. The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan recorded a scene he witnessed where a Norse chief had died and a woman was about to be killed to accompany him, and she cut off a hen’s head and threw it into the ship where her dead body would soon follow.
Another typical account is the journey of Hermod to Hel to attempt to retrieve Baldur, who had been killed by Loki. While the account comes exclusively from Snorri, it matches the other pieces of this genre of underworld-journey narratives closely enough, both in its overall form and in small details, that we can be sure that Snorri relied on an older source or sources now lost to us. The relevant part of the story goes like this:
The god Hermod departed from Asgard, the celestial stronghold of the gods, on Sleipnir, the horse of Odin. He descended down the trunk of Yggdrasil, the great tree that forms the central axis of the cosmos. For nine nights, he rode through deep valleys, so pitch-black he could not see the way. Finally, he came to a river, Gjöll (“Loud Noise”), which was spanned by a bridge named Gjallarbrú (“Bridge over Gjöll”). On the bridge stood a giantess, Móðguðr (“Furious Battle”). The guardian of the bridge wanted to know why Hermod wanted to cross, since she could tell from his appearance that he was not yet dead. His answer, that he was going to look after Baldur, was evidently satisfactory to the giantess, who let him cross, telling him that Hel lay downwards and northwards (niðr ok norðr) from the bridge. When Hermod arrived at the fence around Hel, he jumped over it rather than going through the gate. He then made his way toward the hall of Hel (the goddess), where he found Baldur sitting in the seat of honor.
The common elements in Snorri’s and Saxo’s accounts seem to be the following: Hel was located underground – down and to the north, the realm of cold and general lifelessness. It was reached by descending from a higher point with the help of a guide – an unnamed (dead) woman in Hadding’s case, and Sleipnir in the Prose Edda and the poem Baldrs Draumar (Baldur’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda. After traveling through darkness and mist, the traveler would come to a river, perhaps a torrential river of water, but more commonly a river of clanging weapons. There was a bridge over the river that one had to cross. After a time, one would finally arrive at the wall surrounding Hel. The dead presumably entered through the main gate, but those living beings who, for whatever reasons, undertook the journey to Hel seem to have thought it either impossible or unwise to enter through the gate. So they either found sneakier ways to cross into Hel or turned back.