What Is the Norse Underworld?

Norse mythology is a fascinating compendium of tales about gods, heroes, and their adventures across many worlds.

It continues to inspire readers and audiences over ten centuries after it was first composed. But what are the worlds of Norse mythology, and how does the Norse underworld fit into them?

The Norse underworld is a cold, dark, subterranean realm shrouded in fog and mist.

The domain of the goddess Hel is one of several possible destinations for the different aspects of a human soul in the Norse afterlife.

In Old Norse, it was referred to as Niflheim, the ‘World of Darkness.’

This article will describe the Norse underworld and explain how it differs significantly from Christian conceptions of hell.

It will also provide a brief overview of Norse cosmology and its worlds. 

Also, see What is Loki and Sigyn’s Relationship? to learn more.

Was There a Hell in Norse Mythology?

Niflheim has many qualities commonly associated with Christian conceptions of hell – it is dark, and underground, and people go there when they die. [1]

Moreover, adulterers, perjurers, and murderers are tortured there.

However, there are also significant differences between the two concepts, and Niflheim cannot be equated with Christian notions of Hell. 

Contrasting Representations of Niflheim and Hell

Hell is usually portrayed as hot and fiery, whereas Niflheim is frigid and misty.

This has not always been the case, and many depictions of hell describe it as cold – Dante’s Satan, for instance, is frozen in ice. [2] 

Despite these contradictions, however, the most widespread image of hell today is diametrically opposed to the depiction of Niflheim as a frozen realm. 

Differing Conceptions of Power in Norse and Christian Cosmology

In the grand scheme of things, the atmospheric temperatures of hell and Niflheim are a relatively superficial point of divergence.

Other distinctions hint at more significant differences in the worldview of Christian and Norse religious beliefs.

One of the most significant is that while Christianity is monotheistic, the Norse religion was polytheistic.

This has important consequences for the conceptions behind hell and Niflheim.

For instance, despite many contemporary depictions to the contrary, Satan does not rule hell; he has merely been interred there along with all the other sinners. [3]

In Christianity, there is only one God who rules over the entire world. 

Niflheim, on the other hand, is the domain of Hel, goddess of death and daughter of Loki. It is part of a grand cosmology that includes many gods and worlds.

The Distinct Dualities of Norse and Christian Cosmology

Another distinction that has profound consequences for the conception of hell and Niflheim is informed by the nature of dualities that underlie Norse and Christian cosmologies. 

In the Norse worldview, the opposing forces of life are order and chaos.

Christian theology, in contrast, conceptualizes life as a moral battle between forces of good and evil. [4]

So while Valhalla and Niflheim seem to mirror the Christian heaven and hell, they do not sort individual souls with the same criteria.

In the Norse conception, Niflheim is not merely a place for sending evil people to be punished.

The hero Baldr ends up there, for instance. And not even the intercession of the gods can save him. [5] 

The view that aspects of nature that Christians term good and evil are both essential is firmly entrenched in the Norse picture of the cosmos.

Accordingly, in Norse cosmology, Niflheim is one of the points that ground the roots of the world tree, Yggdrasill.

Differing Criteria for Entry Into Worlds of the Afterlife

To simplify things, according to Christian doctrine, the good go to heaven and the wicked to hell.

Barring brief stopovers in purgatory and limbo, these are only two possible destinations for a unified and eternal human soul. 

In the Norse conception, on the other hand, most humans cannot go to Valhalla.

Entry to Odin’s great hall is the privilege of only the bravest warriors and excludes farmers, traders, artisans, most women, and all slaves. 

However, in Norse Mythology, there were multiple worlds in the afterlife, and different components of an individual’s soul can have various destinations.

So, the vast majority of Norse believed that some part of them was destined for Niflheim.

Where Did Vikings Go After They Died?

If Valhalla and Niflheim aren’t heaven and hell, and there are many components to a Viking’s soul, where do they go after they die?  

Possible Destinations in the Norse Afterlife

Possible destinations for a Viking’s soul included:

  • Valhalla: The bravest Viking warriors went to Odin’s grand hall. Here they feasted and prepared for war. At Ragnarok, the end of the world, they would battle the forces of chaos alongside Odin’s army and be destroyed along with the rest of the cosmos.
  • Folkvangr: The field of the goddess of love, war, and fertility, Freyja. Many who died in battle and were not accepted into Valhalla went here. 
  • Niflheim: The dominion of Hel. It was a dark and dreary place where wrongdoers were punished. 
  • The Realm of Rán: Ran was a giantess. Her domain was deep underwater. Those who drowned were believed to go there after death.
  • The Earthly Realm: The Norse also believed in ghosts and spirits of various kinds. Viking souls could remain on earth after their deaths and haunt their burial mounds or their lands.

Differences in Norse and Christian Conceptions of the Human Soul

A Viking’s soul was thought to be made up of separate aspects. It was believed that these could change and go to different places after their death. These aspects include:

  • The Hamr: The Hamr was the physical appearance of an individual. It could change after their death, and for shapeshifters, within their lifetime.
  • The Hugr: The Hugr was an individual’s character, which always remained constant, even after their death.
  • The Fylgja: The Fylgja was an individual’s spirit animal.
  • The Hamingja: The Hamingja was a protective spirit that determined the amount of success they would have in life. It could be inherited from the family.

The Worlds of Norse Cosmology

The Norse afterlife fitted into a broader cosmos made up of nine worlds or realms. [6] These included:

  • Asgard – the domain of Æsir gods, such as Thor and Odin.
  • Vanaheim – the realm of Vanir deities like the goddess Freyja.
  • Midgard – the world of humans. 
  • Jotunheim – the land of giants.
  • Niflheim – Hel’s realm.
  • Muspelheim – the fire giants’ world.
  • Alfheim – the land of light elves.
  • Svartalfheim – the home of dark elves.
  • Nidavellir – the dwelling place of the dwarves.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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