Helheim, pronounced HELL-hame, is the world of the goddess Hel and is the second of the lower world in Norse cosmology that we are going to visit. Helheim is also known as “Hel” and is the general name for the underworld where the dead dwell. The modern tendency to think of Valhalla and Hel as radically different places is unwarranted when one turns to the older and more reliable sources. It appears that this distinction may be due to the writing of the Icelandic Christian scholar Snorri Sturluson (13th Century) who wrote about Norse mythology long after Iceland had been christianized.
The word “Hel” means hidden or concealed and thus refers to the invisible nature of the realm and also the feeling of absence or longing felt by the living for those who have died. Unlike the christian hell, a place of punishment for sinner, the Norse Hel is a place for all. Everyone goes to Hel when they die. It is not a place where one is sent for punishment after judgment. Consequently one’s actions in life have little to nothing to do with one’s lot thereafter.
The story of the god Hermod's journey to Hel is reminiscent of a prototypical shamanic journey into the lower world. Hermond departed from Asgard on Odin's horse Sleipnir. He descended down the trunk of Yggdrasil, the world tree, into the lower worlds. This is one of the most common ways in core shamanism to descend into the lower worlds. He rode through deep valleys, so pitch-black he could not see the way, for nine nights. Finally, he came to a river, Gjöll, Loud Noise, which was spanned by a bridge named Gjallarbrú, Bridge over Gjöll, The giantess, Móðguðr, Furious Battle, stood watch on the bridge. She wanted to know why Hermod wanted to cross. It must have been obvious from his appearance that he was not one of the dead. He answered that he was going to look after Baldr who had died. This response must have been satisfactory because the guardian of the bridge let him cross. She even told him that he would find Hel downwards and northwards from the bridge. When Hermod arrived at Hel he jumped over the fence that surrounds it, I guess he was too excited to look for the gate, and made his way toward the hall of Hel (the goddess), where he found Baldr sitting in the seat of honor.
Some Norse scholars believe that the goddess Hel is a literary invention. She is generally presented as being rather greedy and indifferent to the concerns of both the living and the dead, her personality is little-developed in what survives of Old Norse literature, and she is mentioned only in passing. According to the Icelandic scholar Sturluson (13th Century), she’s the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboða, Anguish-boding. Some scholars feel that he invented her genealogy because it is not found in the surviving Old Norse literature.
I worry less about genealogy and personalities and more about the world Hel than the goddess with the same name. That because Hel is the place that I visit on shamanic journeys when I want to converse with my ancestors. Every morning when I do my shamanic invocation and call upon my ancestors I envision them in Hel (not the christian hell) enjoying the camaraderie and telling stores of their experiences, probably greatly embellished, in Midgard. I have found Hel to be a happy place and one that I enjoy visiting. I heartily recommend it for shamanic journeys if you want to visit with ancestors.
Find peace in Hel,
I'm Dr. Dave, a modern druid. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice Druidcraft and contemporary shamanism.