The Poetic Edda: A Study Guide
The Speech of the Masked One
Three roots stand on three ways under the ash Yggdrassil:
“...under one dwells Hel”
As we have seen, the lower world is divided into two distinct
portions: the warm, green fields of Hel and the cold, dismal regions of Niflhel. As demonstrated in the general commentary to this stanza, the root extending
to Urd’s well best corresponds to the root “with Hel” in
Grímnismál 31. It is
distinct from the northern root of the world-tree inhabited by giants, ogresses,
dwarves, dark-elves, and the corpses of men (Hrafnagaldur Óðinns 25)
stated, Urd’s well is located in the green
fields of Hel. Urd's thingstead, where the gods meet daily, is located on the
great expanse of the lower world, in its warm southern region.
To the north, across Nidi’s mountains (Nidafjöll) lies Niflhel (Foggy-Hel) in
the ancient wastes of Niflheim, the birthplace of the frost-giants and the home of Hvergelmir. Mimir’s well and realm
occupy the mild, windless space between them, at the very center of Creation. Together, these
three realms realms form the underworld of the Old Norse cosmology. Midgard lies
directly above them.
Urd and her sisters are known collectively (but not exclusively) as “Norns”. They
determine the fate of all living beings. Even the Æsir are subject to their edict, as Baldur’s death
Odin himself is unable to prevent his son's or his own impending fate.
Nor can he escape his own fate.
Yet, despite the Norns' powerful position, we find relatively little information
concerning them in the lore. The origin of the Norns is nowhere narrated. Their
role is never clearly defined either in Snorri's Edda or the poems of
the Poetic Edda. They remain shadowy figures shrouded in mystery.
What we learn of them, we must glean from the various references to
See Karen Bek-Pedersen,
Are the Spinning Norns Just a Yarn?, 13th International Saga
The Wierd Sisters
the Norns is Urd (Wierd) accompanied by her two sisters. Urd and her sisters,
Verdandi and Skuld, are named in Völuspá 20.
Þaðan koma meyjar
þrjár ór þeim sæ,
er und þolli stendr;
Urð hétu eina,
- skáru á skíði, -
Skuld ina þriðju;
þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
|Then came maids
Three out of the sea (or hall)
That stands under the tree;
Urd, one is named,
—scoring on boards—
Skuld is the third;
They lay down laws (lög).
They choose life
for the children of men,
speak destiny (örlög).
The two manuscript copies of this verse vary. In Codex Regius, the Norns are
said to emerge from a sal (“feasting hall”), while in the Hauksbok
manuscript, Urd and her sisters emerge from a sæ (“sea”) which stands
beneath the world-tree. According to this verse, the Norns skáru á skíði, "etch or
score pieces of wood", as a means of divination. They
choose the fates of men, and determine the course of their lives. Snorri
elaborates on this point in Gylfaginning 15, informing us that perform this important function
at the birth of a child:
|Þar stendr salr einn fagr undir
askinum við brunninn, ok ór þeim sal koma þrjár meyjar, þær er svá
heita: Urðr, Verðandi, Skuld. Þessar meyjar skapa mönnum aldr. Þær
köllum vér nornir.
||A hall stands there, fair, under the
ash by the well, and out of that hall come three maids, who are so
called: Urdr, Verdandi, Skuld; these maids determine the period of
men's lives: we call them norns.
The function of the Norns to determine
the fate of men is alluded to several times in the lore. Twice, we find
instances of Norns visiting a child at birth and pronouncing his fate. One
occurs in Helgakvida Hundingsbana I:
Nótt varð í bæ,
þær er öðlingi
aldr of skópu;
þann báðu fylki
|2. It was night,
who would shape
the life of the prince
They decreed him
a prince, most famed to be,
and of leaders
Sneru þær af afli
þá er borgir braut
þær of greiddu
ok und mánasal
|3. With all their might
they spun the fatal threads,
that he should break burghs
They stretched out
the golden cord,
and beneath the moon's hall
fixed it in the middle.
Þær austr ok vestr
þar átti lofðungr
land á milli;
brá nift Nera
ey bað hon halda.
|4. East and west they
hid the ends,
where the prince
had lands between;
towards the north
cast a chain,
which she bade hold forever
The second instance, partially euhemerized, occurs in the
Nornagestr, ch. 11, which describes the Norns as visiting völvas who
bestow gifts on a child at birth and predict his future.
Þáttr of Nornagestr, ch. 11
Þar fóru þá um landit
völur, er kallaðar váru spákonur ok spáðu mönnum aldr. Því buðu
menn þeim ok gerðu þeim veizlur ok gáfu þeim gjafir at skilnaði.
Faðir minn gerði ok svá, ok kómu þær til hans með sveit manna,
ok skyldu þær spá mér örlög. Lá ek þá í vöggu, er þær skyldu
tala um mitt mál. Þá brunnu yfir mér tvau kertisljós. Þær mæltu
þá til mín ok sögðu mik mikinn auðnumann verða mundu ok meira en
aðra mína foreldra eða höfðingja syni þar í landi ok sögðu allt
svá skyldu fara um mitt ráð. In yngsta nornin þóttist of lítils
metin hjá hinum tveimr, er þær spurðu hana eigi eptir slíkum
spám, er svá váru mikils verðar. Var þar ok mikil ribbalda
sveit, er henni hratt ór sæti sínu, ok fell hún til jarðar.
Af þessu varð hún
ákafa stygg. Kallar hún þá hátt ok reiðiliga ok bað hinar hætta
svá góðum ummælum við mik, --"því at ek skapa honum þat, at hann
skal eigi lifa lengr en kerti þat brennr, er upp er tendrat hjá
Eptir þetta tók in
ellri völvan kertit ok slökkti ok biðr móður mína varðveita ok
kveykja eigi fyrr en á síðasta degi lífs míns. Eptir þetta fóru
spákonur í burt ok bundu ina ungu norn ok hafa hana svá í burt,
ok gaf faðir minn þeim góðar gjafir at skilnaði. Þá er ek em
roskinn maðr, fær móðir mín mér kerti þetta til varðveizlu.
At that time wise women (völur) used to go about the country.
They were called 'spae-wives,' and they foretold people's
futures. For this reason people used to invite them to their
houses and gave them hospitality and bestowed gifts on them at
My father did the same, and they came to him with a great
following to foretell my fate. I was lying in my cradle when the
time came for them to prophesy about me, and two candles were
burning above me. Then they foretold that I should be a favorite
of Fortune, and a greater man than any of my kindred or
forbears—greater even than the sons of the chief men in the
land; and they said that all would come to pass just as it has
done. But the youngest Norn thought that she was not receiving
enough attention compared with the other two, since they were
held in high account yet did not consult her about these
prophecies. There was also a great crowd of roughs present, who
pushed her off her seat, so that she fell to the ground. She was
much vexed at this and called out loudly and angrily, telling
them to stop prophesying such good things about me:
'For I ordain that the boy shall live no longer than that candle
burns which is alight beside him.'
Then the eldest spae-wife took the candle and extinguished it
and bade my mother take charge of it and not light it until the
last day of my life. After that the spae-wives went away, and my
father gave them good gifts at parting.
The heathen practice of visiting wise-women bestowing gifts on a
child at birth continued to find expression several hundred years after the
heathen era. A remarkably similar episode occurs at the beginning of the
fairy-tale Dornröschen (Briar-Rose or Sleeping Beauty), first recorded in
“The Queen had a little girl who was so pretty that the King could not
contain himself for joy, and ordered a great feast. He invited not only his
kindred, friends and acquaintance, but also the Wise Women, in order that
they might be kind and well-disposed towards the child. There were thirteen
of them in his kingdom, but, as he had only twelve golden plates for them to
eat out of, one of them had to be left at home. The feast was held with all
manner of splendour and when it came to an end the Wise Women bestowed their
magic gifts upon the baby: one gave virtue, another beauty, a third riches,
and so on with everything in the world that one can wish for. When eleven of
them had made their promises, suddenly the thirteenth came in. She wished to
avenge herself for not having been invited, and without greeting, or even
looking at any one, she cried with a loud voice, "The King's daughter shall
in her fifteenth year prick herself with a spindle, and fall down dead."
And, without saying a word more, she turned round and left the room.”
Throughout the Poetic Edda, we find numerous references to the Norns’
ability to shape the fates of men, instilling them with irresistable
desires to fullfill the destiny laid out for them
Similar sentiments are expressed throughout the eddic poems. In Helgakviða
Hundingsbana II 26, Helgi blames the norns for his desire to kill Sigrún's
father and brother, is that he may marry her (þó kveð ek nökkvi nornir
valda.) In Sigurðarkviða hin skamma 7, the valkyrie Brynhild blames her
prolonged yearning for Sigurd on “malicious norns” (ljótar nornir).
Similarly, in Reginsmál 2 the dwarf Andvari, in the form of a fish, blames his
lot in life on an “evil norn” (aumlig norn). Beginning in Guðrúnarkviða
II 38, Atli recounts a dream in which the Norns inform him that his wife Guðrún
wishes to kill him. No doubt the Norns have instilled that desire within her.
After she has killed Atli and their sons, Guðrún blames the Norns for her
langir eru manna munir,
ef það verður
að þú þinn vilja bíður
og skeikar þá Skuld að sköpum
|“long last the yearnings of men,
if it comes to pass
that your wish be granted,
then Skuld's decree is at fault.”
The decree of the Norns is absolute. One’s fate cannot be avoided. In
Hamðismál, Guðrún incites her sons to avenge the death of their sister Svanhild.
Their expedition to the Gothic king Ermanaric to exact vengeance is doomed. Just
before his death at the hands of the Goths in Guðrúnarhvöt 30, Gudrún’s son
Sörli remarks “none outlives the night when the norns have spoken” (kveld
lifir maðr ekki eftir kvið norna). The same sentiment is expressed in
kveður engi maður
þótt það sé við löst lagið.
|No one can oppose,
even though it incurs blame.
Even suicide is futile for one so fated. In Guðrúnarhvöt 13, Guðrún’s
attempt to drown herself in order to escape the Norns’ wrath fails. She
throws herself in the sea, but “the billows bear her undrowned.”
The Norns alone determine the span of everyone's life.
The Norns, an illustration from a book by Amalia Schoppe, 1832
Torrents of Fate
Besides this important function, the Norns also tend Yggdrasil’s Ash,
laving it with the holy waters from Urd’s well. Elaborating on a passage in
Völuspá 19 (which he quotes), Snorri explains:
Enn er þat sagt, at nornir þær, er byggja við Urðarbrunn,
taka hvern dag vatn í brunninum ok með aurinn þann, er liggr um
brunninn, ok ausa upp yfir askinn, til þess at eigi skuli limar
hans tréna eða fúna. En þat vatn er svá heilagt, at allir
hlutir, þeir er þar koma í brunninn, verða svá hvítir sem hinna
sú, er skjall heitir, er innan liggr við eggskurn, svá sem hér
|It is further said that
these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well
every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and
sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not
wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which
come there into the well become as white as the film which lies
within the egg-shell,--as is here said:
Ask veit ek ausinn,
hárr baðmr, heilagr,
þaðan koma döggvar,
er í dali falla;
stendr hann æ yfir grænn
I know an Ash standing
A high tree sprinkled
with snow-white clay;
Thence come the dews
in the dale that fall--
It stands ever green
above Urdr's Well.
Fjölsvinnsmál gives us additional insights
into the nature of the world-tree. There the young hero Svipdag approaches the
gates of Asgard, asking Fjölviður (Odin, cp. Grímnismál 47) about what he sees
19. Segðu mér það, Fjölsviður,
er eg þig fregna mun
og eg vilja vita:
hvað það barr heitir,
er breiðast um lönd öll limar?
Now tell me, Fjolsvith,
what I will ask you
and what I wish to know:
what is the name of the tree,
whose branches extend
through all the lands?
20. Mímameiður hann heitir,
en það fáir vita,
af hverjum rótum rennur;
við það hann fellur, er fæstan varir;
fellir-at hann eldur né járn.
20. Mimameidur is its name,
and few are they who know
from what roots it grows;
by what it will fall, few know;
neither fire nor iron can fell it.
Stanza 22 informs us about the special qualities of its fruit:
Út af hans aldni
skal á eld bera
fyr kelisjúkar konur;
utar hverfa þess
þær innar skýli;
sá er hann með
|Its fruit is taken
and laid upon a fire
for women in labour;
out then will come
that which they carry inside;
thus it metes out fate among men.
Of interest here, in the last stanza, the tree is said to “mete out fate among men”
(mönnum mjötuður). The word mjötuður is related to Old
English Metod (a name of the Christian God in Beowulf)
and its meaning is undisputed:
"one who metes out, force of destiny, fate". The World-Tree is actually
named mjötviður, ‘the tree of fate”, in
Although stanza 22 is cryptic, it seems to suggest that the fruits of
this tree were seen as forming the embryos of human beings, the seed of
life. They are transported into the wombs of women, and there
transformed into human embryos upon a creative "fire" burning inside the
belly. The womb carries the unborn child (innar skýli) until the time
comes for it to be born (utar hverfa). In light of such an
interpretation, it becomes obvious why the tree “metes out fate among
men.” Human beings are literally born from it, grown upon its branches
as fruit. As weavers of fate, the norns were probably thought to oversee
The notion of apples becoming embryos has been preserved in Chapter 2
of Völsungasaga. Unable to have a child, King Rerir and his pray to the
gods for a child. Frigg hears their prayer and gives one of Odin's
valkyries an apple to bring it to the king. In the guise of a crow, she
drops the apple into the king's lap, while he is sitting atop a
grave-mound. After eating of the apple, his wife becomes pregnant.
In confirmation of this, Mimameidur means “Mimir’s Tree.” There can
be little doubt that Mimameidur is Yggdrasill, the World-Tree, itself.
This identification is supported by the use of a similar formulation in
Hávamál 138 to describe a vindga meiði, “windy tree” that Odin hung
Veit ek, at ek hekk
vindga meiði á
nætr allar níu,
ok gefinn Óðni,
sjalfr sjalfum mér,
á þeim meiði,
er manngi veit
hvers af rótum renn
I know that I
on that windy tree,
nine full nights,
me to myself,
On that tree which no man knows
From what roots it grows
Of Yggdrasill, Snorri says in Gylfaginning 14: "Its branches spread
out over all the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree's
roots support it and extend very, very far."
The same tree is also known as askur
Yggdrasils, Læraður, mjötviður, and hárbaðmur. The tree can be
called Mímir’s Tree because he is the guardian of the well beneath the
tree's central root. As giants, and two of the oldest beings in the
universe, no one, not even the gods, challenges his and Urd’s ownership
of these sacred springs.
According to the present interpretation of the ancient Germanic
world-view (see Grímnismál 29,
30 and 31), all three roots of the
World-Tree are located in the underworld: one in the spring Hvergelmir,
one in Mimir's well, and one in Urd's well. At the apex of the tree, we
find Asgard, the home of the gods. From Grímnismál 25-26, we learn that
the goat Heiðrún and the hart Eikþyrnir stand on the roof of Odin's
residence, Valhöll, grazing on the foliage of the tree. This suggests
that Valhöll was situated at the center of the divine city, and was
built around the tree's bole, which therefore must have penetrated the
roof of the palace. The topmost part of the tree is thus seen as forming
a leafy canopy over the home of the gods. We find evidence of this in
the description of Völsung's palace in Völsunga saga, Chapter 2, where a
great oak grows inside the palace, penetrating its roof, and the tree's
verdant foliage adorned with beautiful blooms, spreads out over it (eik
ein mikil stóð inni í höllinni, ok limar trésins með fögrum blómum stóðu
út um ræfr hallarinnar, en leggurinn stóð niðr í höllina). Both
Völuspa and Fjölsvinnsmál inform us that a golden roster perches in the
uppermost branches. Völuspa calls him Gullinkambi (Gold-comb). The later
poem describes him this way:
23/4-6: Hvað sá hani heitir
er situr í inum háva viði,
allur hann við gull glóir?
|What is the name of the cock
who sits in the lofty tree,
all aglow with gold?
24/1-3: Víðófnir hann heitir,
en hann stendur Veðurglasi á,
meiðs kvistum Míma;
|His name is Vidofnir,
and he stands upon Vedurglasir,
the boughs of Mími's tree;
The stanzas tell us that a golden cock sits on
“Vedurglasir, the boughs of Mimir’s tree.” Its name Víðófnir means “the
wide-open” and appears to be a metaphor for the sky, symbolized as a
cock with outstretched wings. Successive verses expand upon this
conceit. For example, stanza 18 speaks of two pieces of meat in its
wings (i.e. the sun and the moon) which can be thrown to the wolves at
the gate— a reference to the wolves Sköll and Hati who chase the sun and
moon, and which will devour them during Ragnarök.
From the context, Veðurglasir (“Weather-Glasir”)
appears to be another designation for Mimir’s tree. Here it is used as a
proper name. To properly understand its meaning, the word must be
considered in the context of the poem. In verse 28, we are introduced to
a parallel term, Aurglasir (“Mud-Glasir”).
Aftur mun koma,
sá er eftir
fer og vill
þann tein taka,
ef það færir
sem fáir eigu
|He who seeks
the sword and desires
to possess it,
only if he brings
a rare object to
‘Eir of Aurglasir’.
Both are unique terms, found only here, and were likely created by
the poet of this work. The key to unraveling the mystery lies in
Skáldskaparmál 42. There we find that Glasir is the name of a tree
outside of Valhöll’s doors:
"Why is gold called Glasir's
foliage or leaves? In Asgard, in front of the doors of Valhöll, there
stands a tree called Glasir, and all its foliage is red gold, as in this
verse where it says that:
with golden leaves
before Odin's halls'.
"This tree is the most splendid one among gods and men."
The name Glasir means "glittering, glowing, shining" and is most
likely related to
‘the Glittering Plains”, a term
applied to Mímir's realm in the underworld. Veður means “weather,
storm, wind,” Thus, Vedurglasir
is “the wind-tree’, a similar sentiment to that expressed in Hávamál 138
(above). Björn M. Ólsen also concludes that
Veðurglasir (Glasir of the Winds) was a proper name and pointed
out the connection with Glasir:
"This name (Veðurglasir) seems to be a name of that part of
Mímameiður, which rises above the earth, and is afflicted by the weather
and the winds."
Thus the name Veðurglasir is a synonym of the term vindga meiði,
“windy tree” (Hávamál 138). Such
an interpretation might also explain the name Yggdrasill, "Odin's
horse". Of course, Odin’s horse is the eight-legged Sleipnir. As the
central point of the universe, the World-Tree was at the center of the
eight directions, also known as the eight winds. Odin is its rider. As
the great traveler of the lore, Odin was thus seen as riding the eight
winds, symbolized as an eight-legged horse. (See Eiríkr Magnússon,
Odin's Horse Yggdrasill,
1895, pp. 47 ff).
The Eight Winds
Aurglasir is obviously another name for the
World-Tree. In stanza 24 Veðurglasir was used as a name of that part of
the Tree visible above-ground, the part exposed to the winds. Aurglasir
is its opposite. Aur means "mud, soil, clay", thus Aurglasir must be the
portion of Yggdrassil hidden below-ground, the lower half of the Tree.
All the occurrences of the word “aur” in the Eddic
poems can be explained by the meaning "mud, wet clay, wet soil, loam".
It signifies the richness of muddy soil as a source of growth and
fertility. The primeval giant Ymir was known as Aurgelmir among the
giants (Vafþrúðnismál 29, cp. Gylfaginning 5). The soil of the earth was
made from his flesh, and was fertile because he sucked the milk of the
primeval cow Audhumla. In Völuspá 19 we also find aur- intimately
connected with the World-Tree. Here the tree is ausinn hvíta auri,
“drenched with white mud.” Aur- is more accurately understood as "muddy
water, water blended with mud", an interpretation supported by Snorri's
account in Gylfaginning 16.
This mythological aur- was obviously no ordinary
brown mud, but a mud of pristine, white purity, which seems to have
suffused the World-Tree with life. The source of this hvíta auri,
snow-white clay, appears to be Urd’s well, as “these Norns who dwell by
the Well of Urd take water of the well every day, and with it that clay
which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that
its limbs shall not wither nor rot” (at nornir þær, er byggja við
Urðarbrunn, taka hvern dag vatn í brunninum ok með aurinn þann, er liggr
um brunninn, ok ausa upp yfir askinn, til þess at eigi skuli limar hans
tréna eða fúna.) Everything it comes in contact with turns as white as
the inner lining of an eggshell. In confirmation of this, Gylfaginning
16 further informs us that snow-white birds swim in its waters:
“Two fowls are fed in Urd's Well: they are called
Swans, and from those fowls has come the race of birds which is so
We cannot be sure why Snorri chose the term skjall
(the membrane of an egg) to clarify the image, but it should be noted
that this membrane is semi-transparent. The same word was used of a
translucent membrane, stretched over a frame, and used as a window
(instead of glass). Snorri may have meant to imply that the Tree itself
is transparent, effectively explaining why, even though it spreads over
all lands, it remains invisible to the naked eye. According to medieval
legend, shooting stars foretold the birth of a child. As the fruit of
the world-tree, unborn souls that occasionally fell to earth as meteors
(shooting stars). This opens the very real possibility that the stars
were seen as the golden apples growing in the uppermost branches of the
tree, visible as the twinkling stars at night. Glittering as it was, the uppermost part of the
World-Tree was probably considered to be the most beautiful and precious
part of the tree
Voluspa 27 describes that part of
the tree as heið-vönum:
Veit hon Heimdallar
hljóð of folgit
á sér hon ausask
af veði Valföðrs.
Vituð ér enn - eða hvat?
|She knows that Heimdall’s
hearing (his ear?) is hidden
Under that 'brilliant' holy tree
She sees a river surge
with muddy stream
From Val-father’s pledge,
do ye know yet, or what?
LaFarge Glossary to the Poetic Edda defines the term this way:
“heid-vanr: accustomed to brightness, Völuspá 27” from “heiðr, adj. bright, clear— used of days, the
sky, the sun and the stars.”
In The Poetic Edda II (1997), p. 135,
Ursula Dronke says:
“heiðvönum: probably a play on two sense of heið,
‘shining mead’ and ‘shining heaven,’ the tree’s roots being in the mead,
its branches on the heavens."
The sky either shimmers with the light of stars, or is filled with
the glittering rays of the sun. In these visual phenomena, Glasir, the
'glassy' world-tree can be seen.
In Fjölsvinnsmál 28, the phrase ‘Eir Aurglasis’ is
best understood as a kenning for the pale giantess Sinmara (named in
sts. 24, 26, and 30). Eir is the
goddess of healing, the physician of the gods, according to Gylfaginning
35. As such, her name was frequently used as a base in synonyms for women in
skaldic kennings. Sinmara is thus the woman, or perhaps even the 'healer' or
'physician' of Aurglasir.
Since Urd and her sisters lave the tree with mud from her well, keeping
the World-Tree healthy, Sinmara
appears to be another name for Urd.
On the Norns' Seats: The Judgment of the Dead
In the Norse sources,
death is often spoken of as norna dómr, norna sköp, or
norna kviðr —“the judgment of the Norns.” As shown above, their doom
is inescapable. Because Snorri does not mention one, many have assumed that the
Norse religion lacked a judgement seat for the dead. Yet, a careful examination
of the sources reveals just such a process.
describing mál-runar (speech-runes), the Eddaic poem Sigurdrífumál 12
ef þú vilt, at
þær of vindr,
þær of vefr,
þær of setr
á því þingi,
í fulla dóma
Mál-(speech-) runes you must know,
if you would
that no one
for injury with hate.
Those you must
those you must
those you must
in that court
to go into
This heathen verse tells us that
speech-runes are particularly useful in “that court” where people go
into “full judgment.” What is meant by “full judgment” is not stated.
Hávamál 77 also appears to speak of just such a judgment. It informs us
that everyone who dies is “judged” without describing the process. This
judgment, it says, is eternal.
77. Deyr fé
Eg veit einn
one thing I
on each one dead."
This stanza, in
conjuction with Hávamál 76, is typically interpreted to mean that the
fame one wins while alive is undying. A bit of reflection by a person
with a few years under their belt reveals that is not the case. We know
that the deeds of most of those who lived two or three generations
before us are wholley forgotten. Yet, stanza 77 says that the judgment
on "each one dead" never dies, not just the famous. Clearly, something
else is meant.
Where and how this
judgment occurs is of great importance to determining the heathen belief
regarding the dead. Thankfully, the Eddaic poems also contain clues that
illuminate the process.
Fáfnismál 10 informs
því at einu
hverr fara til heljar heðan.
“For there is
when every man
hence to Hel."
Since "every man" must
fare to Hel, even those chosen for Valhöll are no exemption. In several
sources, we find examples of warriors killed in the line of duty who are
said to come “to Hel”. Thus, like all men, warriors too first travel “to
Hel” before ascending to Valhöll.
Hel is its antechamber.
Gisli Surson's Saga (ch. 24) confirms this, when it says that it is
custom to bind Hel-shoes on the feet of the dead; even those of whom
there was no doubt that Valhöll was their final destiny received
Hel-shoes like the rest, það er
tíðska að binda mönnum helskó, sem menn skulu á ganga til Valhallar,
("It is custom to bind hel-shoes to men, so that they shall walk on to
Valhöll"). Since the youngest Norn, Skuld, is also the foremost of the
valkyries (cp. Völuspá 20, 30), we see that Urd and her sisters indeed
have some role to play in the process. Similarly, in Gylfaginning
50, five fylki ('military troops') accompany Baldur to the underworld.
In the poem
Sólarljóð, after traveling the road to Hel, the deceased poet informs us
that after entering the Hel-gates, dead men must sit on “Norns’ seats”
for nine days. What they wait for is not stated.
51. Á norna
Sat ek níu
þaðan var ek á
51. In the
nine day I
thence I was
mounted on a horse:
dripping clouds of heaven.
In Sólarljóð 44, he informs us that his
tongue “became like wood,”
mín var til trés metin), making it impossible to speak.
describes a similar scene:
112. Mál er að
þular stóli á
Sá eg og
sá eg og
hlydda eg á
112. ‘Tis time
sage’s chair. -
By the well of
I saw and
I listened to
113. Of rúnar
heyrða eg dæma,
né um ráðum
Háva höllu að,
Háva höllu í,
113. Of runes
I heard discourse,
nor of sage
counsels were they silent,
at the High
In the High
Thus I heard
This is consistent with several heathen
accounts, where runes are required to loosen the tongue of a dead man
allowing him the power of speech. In Hávamál 157, Odin employs
speech-runes when he carves í rúnum, so that a corpse from the
gallows comes down and mælir (speaks) with him. According to Saxo
(Book 1), Hadding’s companion Hardgrep places a piece of wood carved
with runes under the tongue of a dead man. The corpse recovers
consciousness and the power of speech, and sings a terrible song,
cursing her for it. In Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta, it is told how
Gudrun, mute and almost lifeless (gerðist að deyja), sat near Sigurd's
dead body. One of the kinswomen present lifts the veil from Sigurd's
head. At the sight of her loved one, Gudrun awakens, bursts into tears,
and is able to speak. Brynhild then curses the being (vættur)
which "gave speech-runes to Gudrun" (st. 23), that is to say, freed her
tongue, until then sealed as in death. Thus it follows that the dead
pass silently into Hel. We have additional confirmation of this in
Gyfaginning 50, when Hermod rides to Hel on Sleipnir, seeking Baldur.
Madgud, the watch at the golden bridge over Gjöll says he alone makes more
noise that five fylki, "military troops," who preceded him the
In Hávamál 112-113, the
speaker “sits silently” meditating by Urd’s well, listening to
discourse, just as in Sólarljóð, where the dead man sits with wooden
tongue “on the Norns’ seats.” Since this is the place speech-runes are
most useful, it must be the court where men go into “full judgment”
Without drawing any
conclusions, let’s restate what we have learned according to these
1. All men eventually come to Hel, even
warriors whose final destination is Valhöll (Fafnismál 10, Gisli
Súrsson's Saga, ch. 24, etc).
2. Every dead man is judged. The judgment
is eternal (Hávamál 77).
3. There is a court at “Urd’s well” with a
rostrum where discourse is heard. There, a person sits silently
listening to Odin, “The High One” (Hávamál 111).
4. Dead men “sit in Norn’s seats” for nine
days before moving onto their final fate. Urd and her sisters
are Norns (Sólarljóð 51).
5. Dead men’s tongues are cold and silent,
unless one possesses “mal-runes” which are particularly helpful
in “that court” where men go into “full judgment” (Sigurdrífumál
Based on this, it is
reasonable to conclude that in the genuine heathen conception, the dead
first gather in Hel by Urd’s well, and more specifically at a court
found there, awaiting judgment, their final fate not yet determined. From a wide variety of sources, we know that those who die on the
battlefield will eventually pass over Bifröst to Valhöll (located in the
celestial city of Asgard), while “wicked” people
will “die” again and be sent northward to Niflhel (Vafþrúðnismál 44).
Presumably, the rest will remain in Hel, the warm green fields
surrounding Urd’s thingstead, to dwell with their families. These,
Völuspá speaks of "those on the hel-ways". Saxo (Book 1) tells us this
realm is sunny and fertile.
At this juncture, the
destination of the dead is not certain, apparently even for those killed
on the battlefield. In Njáls Saga, ch. 88, of the heathen Hrapp, who had
burnt a heathen temple and stripped the idols of their riches, Hakon
says: "The gods are in no haste to seek vengeance, the man who did this
shall be driven out of Valhöll forever," (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann
If the purpose of the
journey to Hel is to appear at the court by Urd’s well and wait for
judgment and even warriors chosen for Valhöll must stop here before
passing over Bifröst to Asgard and Valhöll, we might suspect that the
gods have some involvement in the matter, since ultimately it is Odin
and Freyja who decides who enters their halls, Valhöll and Sessrumnir.
Hávamál 113 equates this court with the "High One's", Odin's hall, while
Grímnismál 14 states:
er inn níundi,
en þar Freyja
sessa kostum í
hálfan val hún
kýss hverjan dag,
is the ninth,
in the hall.
half the fallen each day,
but Odin the
Since the gods are in
no hurry to seek vengeance against those who desecrate their shrines,
this suggests they expect there will be a time for certain redress in
the future. Such a view might give comfort to the faithful heathen who
saw such men prosper in life, seemingly unpunished for their
violations of heathen moral laws.
They could take solace in their knowledge that the gods would act
in the due course of time, if not in this lifetime, then the next.
While other Eddaic
poems speak of a judgment on each one dead, place dead men “on
Norn’s seats,” and speak of a court at Urd’s well, the Eddaic poem
Grímnismál, stanzas 29 and 30, inform us that the gods ride over Bifröst
“every day” to sit in judgment by Urd’s well.
It stands to reason
then, that they sit in judgement of the dead there. For as Fafnismál 10
says, all men ultimately come to Hel.
Your Own Personal Hel
Although the Eddic poems most frequently speak of Hel as a place,
Grímnismál 31's expression regarding the root as being
"with Hel" implies a personal being. Skaldic passages found in
Heimskringla also make it clear that the ancient religion knew of a
female being by this name. From the investigations above, it
is clear that the name Hel, when used of an individual entity, must
refer to Urd, as the goddess of fate and death.
Yet, in Snorri's Edda (Gylfaginning 36), we find the name attributed
to one of Loki's children:
|XXXI. Enn átti Loki fleiri börn. Angrboða hét gýgr í
Jötunheimum. Við henni gat Loki þrjú börn. Eitt var Fenrisúlfr,
annat Jörmungandr, þat er Miðgarðsormr, þriðja er Hel. En er
goðin vissu til, at þessi þrjú systkin fæddust upp í
Jötunheimum, ok goðin rökðu til spádóma, at af systkinum þessum
myndi þeim mikit mein ok óhapp standa, ok þótti öllum mikils
ills af væni, fyrst af móðerni ok enn verra af faðerni, þá sendi
Alföðr til goðin at taka börnin ok færa sér. Ok er þau kómu til
hans, þá kastaði hann orminum í inn djúpa sæ, er liggr um öll
lönd, ok óx sá ormr svá, at hann liggr í miðju hafinu of öll
lönd ok bítr í sporð sér.
Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim ok gaf
henni vald yfir níu heimum, at hon skyldi skipta öllum vistum
með þeim, er til hennar váru sendir, en þat eru sóttdauðir menn
ok ellidauðir. Hon á þar mikla bólstaði, ok eru garðar hennar
forkunnarhávir ok grindr stórar. Éljúðnir heitir salr hennar,
Hungr diskr hennar, Sultr knífr hennar, Ganglati þrællinn,
Ganglöt ambátt, Fallandaforað þresköldr hennar, er inn gengr,
Kör sæing, Blíkjandaböl ársali hennar. Hon er blá hálf, en hálf
með hörundarlit. Því er hon auðkennd ok heldr gnúpleit ok
|Yet more children had Loki. Angrboda was the name of a
certain giantess in Jötunheim, with whom Loki gat three
children: one was Fenris-Wolf, the second Jörmungandr--that is
the Midgard Serpent,--the third is Hel. But when the gods
learned that this kindred was nourished in Jötunheim, and when
the gods perceived by prophecy that from this kindred great
misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that
there was great prospect of ill--(first from the mother's blood,
and yet worse from the father's)-then Allfather sent gods
thither to take the children and bring them to him. When they
came to him, straightway he cast the serpent into the deep sea,
where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so
greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all
the land, and bites upon his own tail.
Hel he cast into
Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion
all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead
of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her
walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called
Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her
thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her
threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale,
her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color
(by which she is known), and very glowering and fierce.
"Permit me to
present a brief sketch of how the cosmography and eschatology of
Gylfaginning developed from the assumption that the Aesir were
originally men, and dwelt in the city of Troy which was situated on the
center of the earth, and which was identical with Asgard (Gylfaginning
"The Bifröst bridge is the first mythic tradition which supplies
material for the structure which the author of Gylfaginning builds on
this foundation. The myth had said that this bridge united the celestial
abodes with a part of the universe lying somewhere below. Gylfaginning,
which states that the Aesir originally dwelt in Troy, therefore has the
gods undertake an enterprise of the greatest boldness— that of building
a bridge from Troy to the heavens. But they are extraordinary architects
and succeed (Gylfaginning 13).
"The second mythic tradition employed is Urd's fountain. The myth had
stated that the gods rode on the Bifröst bridge from their celestial
abodes to Urd's (subterranean) fountain daily. Therefore Gylfaginning
draws the correct conclusion that Asgard was situated at one end of the
bridge and Urd's fountain near the other. But from Gylfaginning's
premise, it follows that if Asgard-Troy is situated on the surface of
the earth, Urd's fountain must be situated in the heavens, and that the
Aesir accordingly must ride upward, not downward, when they ride to
Urd's fountain. The conclusion is drawn with absolute consistency (Hvern
dag ríða æsir þangað upp um Bifröst - "Every day the Aesir ride there up
over Bifröst Gylfaginning 15).
"The third mythic tradition used as material is the world-tree, whose
roots extended (down in the lower world) to Urd's well. According to
Völuspá 19, Urd’s well is situated beneath the ash Yggdrasil. The
conclusion drawn by Gylfaginning with the aid of his Trojan premise is
that since Urd's fountain is situated in the heavens, yet still under
one of Yggdrasil's roots, this root must be located still further up in
the heavens. The placing of this root is also done with consistency, so
that we get the following series of wrong localizations:
"Down on the earth, Asgard-Troy; therefore extending up to the heavens,
the bridge Bifröst; above Bifröst, Urd's fountain; high above Urd's
fountain, one of Yggdrasil's three roots (which in the mythology are all
in the lower world).
"Since one of Yggdrasil's roots thus had received its place far up in
the heavens, it became necessary to place a second root on a level with
the earth and the third one was allowed to retain its position in the
lower world. Thus was produced a just distribution of the roots among
the three regions which constituted the universe in the Christian
imagination of the Middle Ages, namely: the heavens, the earth, and
"In this manner, two myths were put to service in regard to one of the
remaining roots of Yggdrasil. The one myth was taken from Völuspá, where
it was learned that Mimir's well is situated below the sacred
world-tree; the other was Grímnismál 31, where we are told that
frost-giants dwell under one of the three roots. At the time when
Gylfaginning was written, and still later, popular traditions told that
Gudmund-Mimir was of giant descent (see
Gudmund of Glæsisvellir). From this, the author of Gylfaginning drew
the conclusion that Mimir was a frost-giant, and identified the root
which extends to the frost-giants with the root that extends to Mimir's
well. Thus this well of creative power, of world-preservation, of
wisdom, and of poetry receives from Gylfaginning its place in the abode
of the powers of frost, hostile to gods and to men, in the land of the
frost-giants, which Gylfaginning regards as being Jötunheim, bordering
on the earth!
"In this way Gylfaginning, with the Trojan hypothesis as its
starting-point, has advanced so far that it has separated Urd's realm
and fountain from the lower world with its three realms and three
fountains, they being transferred to the heavens, and Mimir's realm and
fountain, they being transferred to Jötunheim. In the mythology,
these two realms form the subterranean regions of bliss, and the third,
Niflhel, with the regions subject to it, was the abode of the damned.
"After these separations were made, Gylfaginning, to be logical, had to
assume that the lower world of the heathens was exclusively a realm of
misery and torture, a sort of counterpart of the hell of the Church.
This conclusion is also drawn with due consistency, and Yggdrasil's
third root, which in the mythology descended to the fountain Hvergelmir
and to the lower world of the frost- giants, Niflhel, Niflheim, extends
over the whole lower world, the latter being regarded as identical with
Niflheim and the places of punishment connected with it.
"This result carries with it another. The goddess of the lower world,
and particularly of its domain of bliss, was in the mythology, Urd, the
goddess of fate and death, also called Hel, when named after the country
over which she ruled. In a local sense, the name Hel could be applied
partly to the whole lower world, which rarely happened, partly to Urd's
and Mimir's realms of bliss, which was more common. Hel was then the
opposite of Niflhel, which was solely the home of misery and torture.
"But when the lower world had been changed to a sort of hell by applied
Christian reasoning, the name Hel, both in its local and in its personal
sense, had to undergo a similar transformation. Since Urd (the real Hel)
was transferred to the heavens, there was nothing to hinder Gylfaginning
from substituting Loki's daughter, cast down into Niflhel, for the queen
of the lower world and giving her the name Hel and the scepter over the
whole lower world.
"This method is also pursued by Gylfaginning's author without
hesitation, although he had the best of reasons for suspecting its
correctness. A certain hesitancy might have been in order here.
According to the mythology, the pure and pious god Baldur comes to Hel,
that is to say, to the lower world, and to one of its realms of bliss.
But after the transformation to which the lower world had been subjected
in Gylfaginning's system, the descent of Baldur to Hel had to mean a
descent to and a remaining in the world of misery and torture, and a
relation of subject to the daughter of Loki. This should have awakened
doubts in the mind of the author of Gylfaginning. But even here he had
the courage to be true to his premises, and without even thinking of the
absurdity in which he involved himself, he went on and endowed the
sister of the Midgard-serpent and of the Fenris-wolf with that perfect
power which before belonged to Destiny personified, so that the same
gods who before had cast the horrible child of Loki down into the ninth
region of Niflhel are now compelled to send an envoy to her majesty to
negotiate with her and pray for Baldur's liberation."
(—Undersökningar i Germanisk Mytologi, no.
The tale of Hermod's Hel-Ride is found in Gylfaginning 50. Here, as in
the poem Baldur's Dreams, the palace of Hel has a much different feel.
In the poem Baldur's Dreams, st. 2 and 3, Odin rides through Niflhel,
and upon crossing into Hel, where he is met by a dog, bloody about the
breast, he sees Heljar rann, "Hel's high hall." As described in
stanza 6, the benches are draped with ring-mail and the costly couches
are decked with gold. In stanza 7, golden goblets, covered by shields,
stand filled with 'clear mead' awaiting Baldur's arrival. In
Gylfaginning 50, Baldur and Nanna are allowed to receive a visitor and
send him off with costly objects of gold and linen as gifts for Odin and
|En hon sagði, at Baldr hafði þar riðit um Gjallarbrú, "en
niðr ok norðr liggr helvegr." Þá reið Hermóðr, þar til er hann
kom at helgrindum. Þá sté hann af hestinum ok gyrði hann fast,
steig upp ok keyrði hann sporum, en hestrinn hljóp svá hart ok
yfir grindina, at hann kom hvergi nær. Þá reið Hermóðr heim til
hallarinnar ok steig af hesti, gekk inn í höllina, sá þar sitja
í öndugi, Baldr bróður sinn, ok dvalðist Hermóðr þar um nóttina.
En at morgni þá beiddist Hermóðr af Helju, at Baldr skyldi ríða
heim með honum, ok sagði, hversu mikill grátr var með ásum. En
Hel sagði, at þat skyldi svá reyna, hvárt Baldr var svá ástsæll
- "sem sagt er. Ok ef allir hlutir í heiminum, kykvir ok dauðir,
gráta hann, þá skal hann fara til ása aftr, en haldast með
Helju, ef nakkvarr mælir við eða vill eigi gráta."
Þá stóð Hermóðr upp, en Baldr leiddi hann út ór höllinni ok tók
hringinn Draupni ok sendi Óðni til minja, en Nanna sendi Frigg
rifti ok enn fleiri gjafar. Fullu fingrgull. Þá reið Hermóðr
aftr leið sína ok kom í Ásgarð ok sagði öll tíðendi, þau er hann
hafði séð ok heyrt. Því næst sendu æsir um allan heim erendreka
at biðja, at Baldr væri grátinn ór helju, en allir gerðu þat,
mennirnir ok kykvendin ok jörðin ok steinarnir ok tré ok allr
málmr, svá sem þú munt sét hafa, at þessir hlutir gráta þá, er
þeir koma ór frosti ok í hita. Þá er sendimenn fóru heim ok
höfðu vel rekit sín erendi, finna þeir í helli nökkurum, hvar
gýgr sat. Hon nefndist Þökk. Þeir biðja hana gráta Baldr ór
Helju. Hon segir:
"Þökk mun gráta
kyks né dauðs
nautk-a ek Karls sonar,
haldi Hel því, er hefir."
|'Then Hermódr rode on till he came to Hel-gate; he
dismounted from his steed and made his girths fast, mounted and
pricked him with his spurs; and the steed leaped so hard over
the gate that he came nowise near to it. Then Hermódr rode home
to the hall and dismounted from his steed, went into the hall,
and saw sitting there in the high-seat Baldr, his brother; and
Hermódr tarried there overnight. At morn Hermódr prayed Hel that
Baldr might ride home with him, and told her how great weeping
was among the Æsir. But Hel said that in this wise it should be
put to the test, whether Baldr were so all-beloved as had been
said: 'If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him,
then he shall go back to the Æsir; but he shall remain with Hel
if any gainsay it or will not weep.'
Then Hermódr arose; but Baldr led him out of the hall, and took
the ring Draupnir and sent it to Odin for a remembrance. And
Nanna sent Frigg a linen smock, and yet more gifts, and to Fulla
a golden finger-ring. "Then Hermódr rode his way back, and came
into Ásgard, and told all those tidings which he had seen and
heard. Thereupon the Æsir sent over all the world messengers to
pray that Baldr be wept out of Hel; and all men did this, and
quick things, and the earth, and stones, and trees, and all
metals,--even as thou must have seen that these things weep when
they come out of frost and into the heat. Then, when the
messengers went home, having well wrought their errand, they
found, in a certain cave, where a giantess sat: she called
herself Thökk. They prayed her to weep Baldr out of Hel; she
Thökk will weep
For Baldr's bale-fare;
Living or dead,
I loved not the churl's son;
Let Hel hold to that she hath!
||Christopher Abram, in 'Snorri's
Invention of Hermóðr's helreið', 13th International Saga
Conference, 2006 remarks that "many scholars have accepted the existence
of a lost poetic archetype of this myth." The evidence for this is
"primarily stylistic, and focuses on alliteration in Snorri's prose."
The inclusion of a stanza, found nowhere else, may also indicate a
poetic source lurking in the background. However, that aside, "outside
of Snorri's account, there is no extant version of this or any other
myth that features a personification of pagan Hel," Abrahm concludes
that "it is sufficient to recognize that a personification of the
underworld is an important character in Christian descent narratives
that are typologically cognate with Hermóðr's helreið."
In Gylfaginning 36, Snorri says, Odin give Loki's daughter power over
all who come to her realm, men dead of sickness or of old age. He casts
her into Niflheim. Baldur and Hödur, however, both were killed with
weapons, and come to Hel. As we have seen, Hel and Niflhel are distinct
realms in the eddic poems. Nor does Loki's daughter have the power to
grant life, once it has been taken. That power is reserved exclusively
for Urd (the real Hel). Loki's daughter is most likely one of Urd's
Since the beings for whom Urd determines birth, position in life, and
death, are countless, so too her servants, who perform the tasks
commanded by her as queen, must also be innumerable. They belong to two
classes: the one class is active in her service in regard to life, the
other in regard to death.
intimately associated with her are her two sisters, Verdandi and Skuld.
With her they have authority as judges. They dwell with her under the
world-tree, (Völuspá 20).
maid-servants under Urd, there are also countless
and fylgjur. The hamingjur are
fostered among beings of giant-race
48, 49). There every child of man is to have a
hamingja as a companion and
guardian spirit. The testimony of the Icelandic sagas of the Middle Ages
are confirmed in this regard by phrases and forms of speech which have
their root in heathendom. The
hamingjur belong to that large circle of feminine beings which are
called dises (dísir).
What Urd is on a grand scale as the guardian of the mighty Yggdrasil,
the hamingja is on a smaller
scale when she protects the separate fruit produced on the world-tree
and placed in her care. She does not appear to her favorite excepting
perhaps in dreams or shortly before his death (the latter according to
Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, the
prose at 35; Njal's saga, 62;
Vandræðskálds ch. 11, etc) That the
hamingjur were noble beings
was a belief preserved through the Christian centuries in Iceland, where, according to Vigfusson, the word
hamingja is still used in the
sense of Providence.
If the favorite became an evil man, then his
hamingja might even turn her
benevolence into wrath, and cause his well-deserved ruin.
Úfar eru dísir, "angry at you are the dises!" to King Geirrod (Grímnismál
53), and immediately he stumbles and falls pierced by his own
division of this class of maid-servants under Urd are those who attend
the entrance of a child into the world, and who weave the threads of the
new-born babe's life into the web of its family. Like Urd and her
sisters, they too are called norns. If the child is to be a great and
famous man, Urd herself may be present.
Fáfnismál 12-13 speak of norns
whose task it is to determine and assist the arrival of the child into
this world. They are said "to choose mothers from descendants," to
select a seed from the indefinate crowd of eventual descendants, who at
the threshold of life are waiting for mothers to become born into this
world. These norns are, according to
Fáfnismál 13, of different
birth. Some are Asynjes, others of elf-race, and again others are
daughters of Dvalin.
To the other
class of Urd's maid-servants belong those beings which execute her
death-decrees and conduct the souls of the departed to the lower world.
Foremost among them, are the group of shield-maidens called valkyries.
Since Odin and Freyja have the right of choosing on the battlefield,
valkyries make their home in Asgard. There they serve mead to the Aesir
and einherjes, when they do not ride on Val-father's errands (Völuspá
Skáldskaparmál 9, Jónsson ed.;
Skáldska. 2, Faulkes ed.). As the youngest of the norns, Skuld, is
the foremost of the Valkryies, they forever remain in the most intimate
association with Urd and the lower world.
To those who die of different causes, Urd sends other maid-servants.
Some of them are of a terrible kind. Two kings, who die on a bed of
straw, are mentioned in stanzas by Thjodolf preserved in Ynglingasaga
(ch. 17 and 47). They are visited by a being called in the one instance
Loki's kinswoman (Loka mær), and in the other
Hvedrung's kinswoman (Hveðrungs mær). Hveðrung is a byname of
Loki found in Völuspá 55, where Odin's son Vidar plunges his sword into
the heart of megi Hveðrungs— Loki's son, Fenrir. That this
kinswoman of Loki has no authority to determine life and death, but only
carries out the decree of the norns, is definitely stated in the
Thjodolf-strophe (norna dóms - ch. 47). Her activity, as a
messenger of death, does not imply that the person she invites is to be
counted among the damned, although as Loki's daughter, she surely does
not belong to the regions of bliss.
|Og til þings Þriðja jöfri
Hveðrungs mær úr heimi bauð,
þá er Hálfdan, sá er á Holti
bjó norna dóms um notið hafði.
Invited the king
away from this world
to Þriði's (Odin's) Thing
when Halfdan who dwelt at Holt,
had to suffer the Norn's judgement.
Since all the dead, whether they are destined for Valhöll, for Hel (the
realms of bliss), or for Niflhel, must first report to Urd's thingstead
in Hel, their psychopomps, whether they dwell in Valhöll, Hel, or
Niflhel, must do likewise. This arrangement is necessary so that the
damned who, a second time, "die from Hel into Niflhel" (Vafþrúðnismál
44) must have attendants to conduct them from the realms of bliss to the
Nagrindr ('Corpse-gates) and into the realms of torture. Those dead from
disease, who have the kinswoman of Loki as a guide, may be destined for
the realms of bliss. If so, she delivers them there and departs for her
hom ein Niflhel; or if her charge is destined for Niflhel -- then they
die under her care and are brought by her through the Nagrindr to the
places of torture in Niflhel (Völuspá 36-38).
So if Loki's daughter is not the personal Hel, what is her name?
It may still be possible to recover it from the fragmentary sources,
although not with any degree of certianty.
In our mythical records there is mention made of a giantess whose name,
Leikn, is immediately connected with the power which Loki's kinswoman
exercises when she appears to a dying person. In its strophe about King
Dyggvi, who died from disease, Ynglingatal says (Ynglingingasaga
17) that, as the lower world dis had chosen him, Loki's kinswoman came
and made him leikinn (alvald Yngva þjóðar Loka mær um
leikinn hefir). She deludes (leikinn) him, bringing on
mental or physical disease.
Of this personal Leikn, we get the following information in our ancient
1. Like Loki, she is of giant race (Prose Edda, Nafnaþulur 15).
2. She has once fared badly at Thor's hands. He broke her legs (Leggi
brauzt þú Leiknar - Skáldskaparmál 11, after a song by Veturliði).
3. She is kveldriða, an "evening-rider, a nighthag, a witch."
Akin to kvelja (to torment).
4. The horse which this giantess rides is black, untamed, difficult to
manage (styggr), and ugly-grown (ljótvaxinn). It
drinks human blood, and is accompanied by other horses, black and
bloodthirsty like it. (Hallfreður Vandræðaskáld in Heimskringla, Ólafs
saga Tryggv., ch. 29.)
Popular traditions have preserved the remembrance of a three-legged
horse, which on its appearance brings sickness, epidemics, and plagues.
According to popular belief in Schleswig (Arnkiel, I. 55; cp. J. Grimm,
Deutsche Myth., Vol. II, Ch. 27), Hel rides on a three-legged
horse during the time of plague and kills people. Grimm, DM Vol. II,
Ch. 27 says "In Denmark, one who blunders about clumsily is said to
'gaaer som en helhest,' go about like a hel-horse. According to
folklore, this hel-horse walks around the churchyard on three legs,
fetching the dead." Theile, 137: A custom is mentioned in which a live
horse is buried in a churchyard before the first human body is buried,
so that it may become the walking dead horse. Theile, 138: One who has
survived a serious illness will say "Jeg gav Döden en skiäppe havre," I
gave Death a bushel of oats (for his horse). Ankeil quotes I, 55, that
according to superstition in times of plague "the Hell rides about on a
three-legged horse destroying men," and when the plague is over it is
said "Hell is driven away." Thus the ugly-grown horse is not forgotten
in traditions from the heathen time.
While there is no doubt that the Loki-daughter is a distinct personality
separate from Hel-Urd, evidence for her actual name is weak. The most
compelling evidence for this conclusion is the statement that Thor broke
Leikn's legs, and the statement that Odin cast her into Niflheim,
Hel kastaði hann í Niflheim. (For a similar statement in regard to
Thjazi's eyes cp. Skáldskaparmál 4, and Harbardsljóð 19). For want of a
better name, I can accept Leikn as a name of Loki's daughter, but each
reader must decide how valid this conclusion is.
For additional insights into Urd and her character
see verses 2, 9, 11, 12, 15, 20, and 21 of