The Nine Realms
9 months, 22 poets and writers, 22 Artists, 3 composers, 1 Viking boat= a magical reworking of Norse Mythology for contemporary audiences
(the realm through which men pass in order to die in Nifelheim)
Here we are in the middle of March, with the deadline for the poetry and writing for the 6th realm Nifelheim today! I shall be posting out more Nidavellir poems this week and next week, and then we’ll be onto the Nifelheim poems. This month we are outlining the realm of Helheim. The deadline for all writing, poetry and mp3s for this realm is Thursday 16th April 2015.
These monthly posts will draw from a range of primary and secondary source materials and focus on selected gods, themes and stories that circle around the highlighted realm. They will not attempt to cover everything, and writers can embrace any other stories and characters within their writing which is not covered. Month by month we will be building our own magical, contemporary norse world whilst exploring the themes of POWER, NATURE and RELIGION. The project’s overall intention is to embrace orality, translation, storytelling and rhythm all of which are inspired by the origins of the oral tradition of the Norse Sagas.
I may well put out little mini-posts intermittently focusing on orality and poetic form as necessary.
What is presented below is designed to inspire, present basic information and offer a starting point for individual creativity within the project inspired by the themes, characters and spirit of the myths and stories.
1. A brief Overview of Helheim
Helheim is the lowest realm of all ruled by Hel (see Nifelheim overview). In Grímnismál stanza 31, Hel is listed as existing beneath one of three roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. One of the other two roots leads to the frost jötnar and the third to Mankind. In the poem Völuspá in The Poetic Edda a völva (sybil) states that Hel will play an important role in Ragnarök. As mentioned in the Nifelheim overview there is some greyness in terms of differentiation between Nifelheim and Helheim, but in the Vafþrúðnismál (the third poem in The Poetic Edda) it is the place that evil men pass through to die again in Nifelheim
It is also the place where all men, who were not warriors and did not end up in Valhalla (the feasting hall of the dead), were decreed to go and condemned to a grim death by Hel. The myths connected to Hel and Helheim spread into cultural traditions, and loved people were buried near to their homes to keep a connection, and those who were cruel were buried far away. Their families fearing they might become the walking dead. In relation to the life/death dynamic there is even some evidence that some thinkers believed there was no life after death. In the Hávamál, for instance it states:
Wealth dies, kinsmen die, a man must like-wise die: but fame never dies, for him who achieves it well (Allan: 135)
You can find the full Hávamál text here
Odin’s Ride to Hel
1. Odin’s Consultation with the Völva
Baldrs draumar is annother Eddic poem from within The Poetic Edda which tells the story of Odin’s ride to Hel investigating Baldr’s nightmares. (Baldr is the son of Odin and Frigg and is married to Nanna with a child Forseti. Baldr is responsible for the construction of the most wonderful ship known to man called the Hringhorni. You can find out more about Baldr in the Nidavellir overview. )
The story goes that Odin, travels to Hel to find the grave of a Völva (sybil) so that he can resurrect her and questions her about Baldr’s future. She reveals Baldr’s fate: that Höðr (his brother) will kill him, but Vali (one of his other brothers) will avenge him.
Apart from this description Baldr is known primarily for the story of his death. His death is seen as the first in the chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök. Baldr will be reborn in the new world, according to Völuspá.
In Gylfaginning, Baldur is described as follows:
- Annar sonur Óðins er Baldur, og er frá honum gott að segja. Hann er svá fagr álitum ok bjartr svá at lýsir af honum, ok eitt gras er svá hvítt at jafnat er til Baldrs brár. Þat er allra grasa hvítast, ok þar eptir máttu marka fegrð hans bæði á hár og á líki. Hann er vitrastr ása ok fegrst talaðr ok líknsamastr. En sú náttúra fylgir honum at engi má haldask dómr hans. Hann býr þar sem heita Breiðablik, þat er á himni. Í þeim stað má ekki vera óhreint
- The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr’s brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be
- Brodeur’s translation
In Baldrs Draumar, the sybil replies:
Here stands brewed the mead for Balder,
shining cups with shields for cover,
but the Sons of the Gods must suffer anguish….
(Ellis Davison: 185)
You can find the whole of the Gylfaginning here
Odin’s Last words to Baldr
2. Odin’s Ride to Ransom Baldr
Baldr dies (see Nidavellir overview. ) and Frigg once again asks Odin to go to Helheim and entreat Hel to let him come back. He travels through ice and wind, crossing the Gjoll torrent (which separates the living from the dead) via a golden- roofed bridge. Hel agrees that Baldr can come back only if everyone and everything agrees to weep for him. All things do weep for him: trees, stones, animals all except Thokk/ Þökk (who is thought to be Loki in disguise) ensuring that Baldr cannot return. In so doing Baldr has to remain in Hel; not to be released until after Ragnarök. Baldr and Höðr would then be reconciled and rule the new earth together with Thor’s sons.
4. Ragnarök and Helheim
As Ragnarök unfolds an axe age, a sword age, a wind age and a wolf age reek havoc over the world. Midgard is ridden with wars for three winters and fathers kill sons. A most ferocious winter (Fimbulvetr) covers Midgard. Three winters in succession will manifest with no summers in between. The children of the giantess in the Iron Wood declaim themselves and the wolf Sköll swallows the sun whole in his jaws, splattering Asgard with blood. His brother Hati mangles the moon within his mouth, and the stars disappear.
The earth begins to shudder, mountains shake, and rocks roll, and Fenrir runs free. Eggther, the watchman of the giants, strums his harp. A red cock called Fjalar crows waking the warriors in Vallhala every day. A golden-combed cock crows to the gods, and a red rust cock raises the dead in Hel. The Midgard serpent writhes in anger, and high seas come in. Loki, free from his fetters sails the high seas towards Vigrid from the North with a deathly crew from Hel. The world is in uproar, and the Yggdrasil Tree trembles , and the gods take arms within Valhalla and March toward Vigrid/Vígríðr, (a large field which hosted a battle between the gods and the forces of Surt).
Odin rides upfront, and in the end Fenrir swallows Odin and he dies. Vidar/Víðarr (Odin’s son) kills Fenrir in return. Surt lets flames fly and Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim and Nifelheim become furnaces burning to ashes. The nine realms burn and the gods die, men and women die, and elves and dwarves, monsters and animals die. The earth sinks into the sea.
BUT out of the dying earth a new one is born out of ‘water, fair and green’. (Crossley-Holland: 173-175).
Themes, Relevance and Questions:
Life, Death and Transition: It could be said that Nifelheim and Helheim in combination represent a very powerful symbol of transition (from life to death and vice versa). Viewed in conjunction with Ragnarök, this makes for a very strong articulation of the force of life and rebirth. Where through a conflict and a realignment of moralities life comes forth again ‘fair and green’, with dark forces in hand once again.
Through the creation of the figure of Hel we can see a centre and symbol of moral judgement has been created: one that allows us to question what is right or wrong, and who is condemned and who is not ( exactly as Hel does). The sifting through that Hel undertakes as men pass through Nifelheim (judging their morality and position in life) could be seen as a parallel to the sorts of judgements many people and leaders and figures in power make today. To look at the role of transition and rebirth within the realms of Helheim and Nifelheim , I think can well serve anybody wishing to understand the nature of moral judgement and freedom.
Exploration Point: What transitions of power can you see in play within these realms and their stories, and how could they be used to reflect upon modern contemporary life?
Things of Interest:
1. The Relevance of Norse Myths in the School Curriculum:
A filmpoem by Alastair Cook of John Glenday’s ‘The Lost Boy’, a poem after Egill Skallagrímsson’s Sonatorrek *.
* Egill Skallagrímsson/ Egil Skallagrimsson(c. 904 – c. 995) was a Viking-Age poet, warrior and farmer.
3. ‘In Old Norse mythology, poetry is a slippery substance….’
4. Sculptor: Asmunder Sveinsson
Who was born in 1893, and drew inspiration from The Prose Edda for some of his work.
Reykjavik Art Museum, of which one part is dedicated to Sveinsson
Optional Poetry and Writing Prompts:
The rubai (plural rubaiyat) is a Persian verse form. Each rubai stanza is a quatrain, in which lines 1, 2 and 4 all rhyme.
See here for more details.
Writing Word Prompts: Light, Thousand, Knowledge, Capital, Fingers, Stars, Deep, Hate, Forest, Broken
To confirm, the deadline for all writing, poetry and mp3s for the Helheim realm is Thursday 16th April 2015.
Thank you so much for your interest.
Allan, T (2010) Vikings, The Battle at the End of Time, London: Watkins Publishing
Crossley-Holland, K (1993) The Penguin Book of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings, London, Penguin Books
Ellis Davidson, H.R. (1990) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin Books
Hollander, L.M. (1996) tr. The Poetic Edda, Austin: University of Texas Press
Larrington, C. (1996) tr. The Poetic Edda, Oxford University Press
Sturluson, S. (2005) The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics, tr. Jesse L. Byock