Niflheim in Norse Mythology: Land of the Dead and Home to Lady Hel
In Norse cosmology, the universe was made up of nine distinct realms. Each had its unique inhabitants and mythology, but some played bigger parts in the Norse mythology than others. One of the most popular in western pop culture is Niflheim, making its way into the Marvel movies and video games like God of War. But how accurate are these depictions and how much do we actually know about Niflheim in Norse mythology on the whole?
What was Niflheim?
Of the nine realms in Norse mythology, we know more about some than others. For example, we know substantially more about Midgard (Earth) and Asgard (home of Aesir gods like Odin and Thor) compared to Svartalfheim (home to the dark elves).
Niflheim is one of the realms which we know more about, although sources tend to contradict each other. It was usually portrayed as being a dark, unforgiving realm characterized by brutal cold. Whilst this is largely true, the actual mythology isn’t that simple. Niflheim was made up of more than one area, each with its own environment.
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Niflheim was one of the more important realms in Norse mythology, so it is unsurprising it was one of the more thoroughly recorded. The realm’s importance was threefold.
Niflheim, Land of the Dishonored Dead
Broadly speaking Norse mythology divided death into two categories, honorable and dishonorable. How a person died decided which kind of death they had, which in turn decided where they ended up after they died.
If a Viking died in battle, with his weapon in his hand, it was considered to be an honorable death and he went to Valhalla. Valhalla is usually represented as residing in the heavens, a great hall surrounded by beautiful fields. Within this hall mortal souls could feast with the gods and help prepare them for the final battle, Ragnarok. Some cultists also believed if they sacrificed themselves to their god or died in service of their god but outside of battle, they would also go to Valhalla.
If a Viking had a dishonorable death, they ended up in Niflheim. Which part of Niflheim depended on how bad a Viking they had been. Most people would end up in Helheim, which was ruled over by one of Loki’s children, Hel. Helheim as a place was most likely not all that bad, more analogous in Norse writing to the Christian idea of purgatory rather than Christian hell.
The worst was saved for the souls of oath breakers, murderers, and adulterers. These souls were sent to Nastrond which was situated next to Helheim but still within Niflheim. Nastrond was a dark, nightmarish place, described as a hall made up of the spines of snakes. If Helheim was purgatory, then Nastrond would be the Norse version of hell.
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Nastrond as depicted by Lorentz Frölich, 1895 (Public Domain)
However, being in the land of the dead came with one major perk. It was sometimes referred to as the repository of all knowledge as it held the vast majority of mortal souls. When the gods, especially Odin, sought advice or help it was often the souls in Niflheim they contacted. This positive take on Niflheim has largely been lost in modern interpretations.
The cosmos in the Norse mythology included a number of realms with Neflheim near the bottom as depicted here in an image from “Histoire des peuples du nord, et des Danois et des Normands” by Henry Wheaton. The original and its digitized versions belong to the British Library. . (Henry Wheaton / British Library / Public domain)
Niflheim and the Norse Creation Myth
The second reason for Niflheim’s importance is that it played a key role in the Norse creation myth. As Norse religion was largely an oral tradition there is no definitive version of the Norse creation myth. Instead, scholars have had to take surviving snippets of stories and poems and try to weave them together to get as close as they can to one version of the story.
Broadly speaking at the beginning of time there was only the Ginnungagap, the great empty void. Without warning (and for reasons unbeknownst to us), two worlds began to form, one to the north of the Void and one to the south. The northern world was Niflheim, a land of ice, cold, and darkness. To the south was Muspelheim, a world of raging fires.
It took the two planets eons to fully form. Eventually, once they were fully formed, the ice of Niflheim and the fire of Muspelheim clashed. The flames melted the ice, and the first pool of water was formed. From this pool rose Ymir, the first living being in Norse Mythology.
Ymir would later be killed and dismembered by Odin and his brothers. These body parts would then be used to create Midgard, the realm of mankind. As such, Niflheim does not just play an important role in the Norse creation myth in general but is also directly linked to the creation of Midgard.
If we know one thing about Niflheim in Norse mythology, then it’s the utter cold of the place that isn’t that different from purgatory in the Christian tradition. SW Greenland Fjord and Mountain On April 8, 2011, taken by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / CC BY 2.0)
Niflheim and Yggdrasil
In Norse Mythology the nine realms are held together by Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil was usually portrayed as a giant ever-green ash tree. If Yggdrasil were ever to fall, all of creation would fall too, making it Yggdrasil, the tree of life.
Whilst all the realms had a strong connection to the tree, some had stronger connections than others. Niflheim had a particularly strong bond with Yggdrasil as the great tree’s roots were set in Niflheim. Then, Yggdrasail’s base was said to be in Midgard and its upper branches flowered in Asgard and Vanaheimi, the realms of the gods.
An important aspect of Norse religion was the cycle of life, death, and rebirth which Yggdrasil represented. In this cycle death was represented by Niflheim, making it a keystone of the Norse religion.
Today Niflheim is most closely associated with freezing cold and as being home to the dead. Whilst this depiction is broadly true it isn’t 100% accurate. The Nordic people likely had a much more positive view of Niflheim.
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Niflheim and Helheim’s confusing etymology is likely largely to blame for the realm's negative representation. When Christian scholars began trying to record the history of Norse traditions it is likely that Niflheim and Helheim were conflated with Christian ideas of hell.
In fact, Niflheim was key to the Norse cycle of life, death, and rebirth. They understood better than most that without Niflheim there could be no Ymir and no world tree. In short, they believed that death was not something to be feared, there could be no life without death and no death without life.
Top image: Niflheim, here viewed as the land of the dead who died without honor. Source: Zaleman / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Bycock. J. 2005. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. Penguin Books
Lindow. J. 2002. Norse Mythology. Oxford University Press
Orchard. A. 1997. A Dictionary of Norse Mythology and Legend. Hachette UK