The Rocky Road to Hel
A while back I wrote a piece about Valhöll, and how so many aspects of our tradition end up getting oversimplified into easy to swallow ‘Christianized’ binaries. The same logic that so often tries to turn Valhöll into ‘Heathen Heaven’ usually paints Hel on the flip side of Valhöll’s coin.
Hel is frequently presented as a dreary, gray realm; ruled by an unforgiving goddess of the same name. A cold and thankless land for those who die of old age or illness. There’s even a pit where the vilest souls who enter that domain are kept. Firmly undesirable real estate, to say the least! There’s just one problem. There is only ONE source for this narrative, and it conflicts with just about every other source we have.
Yup, you guessed it…
The Prose Edda would divide the destinations of the dead into separate worlds, but before the 1300’s their locations were far more vague. In older descriptions, the word Hel simply meant ‘death’ or ‘to die’; like in the phrase “þykkir eigi betra lif en hel” ‘Life seemed no better than death’. To say that someone had been claimed by Hel was akin to saying that a ship had been claimed by the sea. It was a force of nature at work.
As opposed to being a translocative realm, removed from the mortal world, Hel was often portrayed as a physical place that the living may enter at their own peril. Descriptions of this underworld are few, but those tales that have survived paint a picture of a diverse and varied landscape, usually hidden beneath the earth.
Journeying to the Underworld
In The Road to Hel, Dr. Hilda Ellis explains:
“There are of course journeys like that of Hermóðr into the kingdom of Hel to visit the dead Balder, where we are told definitely that the goal of the traveler is the realm of the dead that he may converse with those who have passed from this world. There are also journeys […] where the traveler has to brave a number of perils and finally pass through a barrier of fire to gain what he seeks; such are the experiences of Skírnir and Svipdagr in the Edda poems.”
Interestingly, while descriptions of Hel itself are few and far between, there are some intriguing commonalities to be found in the description of the roads leading to it. For example, in Gylfaginning we see Hermóðr ride Sleipnir down into Hel to try and ransom Baldr. For nine nights he rode through “dark and deep valleys” before crossing a raging river via a bridge, and taking a road ‘downward‘ from there until finally encountering a high wall which he must leap over before he can enter Hel.
In Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, the hero Hadingus is pulled under the earth by a strange cunning-woman. There, they travel through mist and darkness, cross a raging river via a bridge, and encounter that same wall. (Though without Sleipnir, the wall proves to be too much for them to scale.) Along the way, we also see several parts of the underworld that lay outside of Hel’s walls, including a battlefield where the cunning woman tells Hadingus that those who fall in battle relive their deaths for eternity.
Of Barrows and Mountains
As was mentioned in my article on Valhöll, several Sagas depict protagonists bravely entering the halls of the fallen, whether to claim the treasures therein or to eliminate the threat of a Draugr. The dead are frequently seen carrying on their existence in their barrows, with multiple descriptions even depicting a lit fireplace and the dead sitting at their tables, occasionally even feasting with others despite the barrow being built for one.
In the story of Gorm and Thorkel, we see the main characters enter a tomb where two parties of dead men sit in tense silence. The dead warriors are unable to harm one another in battle until one of the living comes down to join the fight. Further, in Helgakviða Hundingsbana, we see the deceased ‘Helgi’ get accepted into Valhöll. He then leads a host of men from Óðinn’s hall back out into the world of the living for a battle, using the entrance of his own burial mound as a portal for the entire host of warriors to and from Valhöll. Thus we can see how each grave site was thought to be a kind of a doorway into Hel. What’s more, the dead could apparently travel from one grave to another, and apparently did so regularly.
How Does It All Fit Together?
Most of the known afterlife destinations from the Lore are presented by Snorri as being entirely separate worlds; translocative realms made to fit a binary cultural mold. Before Snorri’s reinterpretation, Hel was a much more all-encompassing term for the Norse ‘underworld’. If Valhöll and Fólkvangr are halls where the fallen can congregate, then Hel would be the land on which they rest. Just as a village would have been made of many smaller homes surrounding communal halls, so to do the barrows and graves of the dead dot the wider landscape of Hel.
Regardless of whether an individual is selected to go to Fólkvangr or Valhöll, it could be said that we ALL must first travel down to Hel. It’s from there that our next journey must begin.
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