Long ago, before the dismemberment of Ymir and the creation of Midgard and Asgard, the underworld was named Jormungrund. It was populated by the dead souls of Jotnar, and some live ones as well - Jotnar are particularly good at traveling to the Deathlands. As far as we can tell, it was looked after by a goddess named Hel, but she was not the Hel who lives there today. Both the name and the job title seem to be something that is passed on. Apparently someone needs to take on the important (and fairly powerful) job of looking after the Dead, and someone is chosen from one of the races when the last Hel retires.
Jotun legend has it that when the old Hel died, the Dead roamed the Nine Worlds for seven years, as there was no one to keep them in check. Every race hoped to have one of its members chosen for this crucial task, which would create an unlimited power-base for whoever was allied with Death, if Death could be persuaded to side with its native race. Mimir, the consort of the last Hel, did what he could to hold things together while everyone waited. Collective breaths were held across the Nine Worlds....and then Angrboda, the Hagia of the Iron Wood, had a daughter by her consort, the infamous Loki. When the girl-etin was barely walking, it is said, she took on her shapeshifting form, and it was that of a rotting corpse. This was the signal that she was the inheritor of the name and the title, and she was immediately named Hel, or Hela in the Jotun-tongue (the Alfar call her Leikin), and raised to claim the rulership of the Land of the Dead.
Various rumors went around that Loki and Angrboda had done dark magic to make sure that their child would be the Death Goddess; other rumors said that they had merely foreseen that it would be so, and married in order to bring it about. Whether it came about by chance or planning, it was a great disappointment to the other races, who had hoped to pull the Deathlands out of the control of Jotun hands. Odin promptly put a "banishing-spell" on the tiny Hela, which basically banned her from ever entering Asgard, and indeed she has never set foot there.
When Hela came of age, she took over Jormundgrund and entirely recreated it, renaming it Helheim. Mimir handed the care of the place to her and left, going to Asgard to live with the Aesir who had promised him an honored place for his wisdom. Instead of caves and dankness, she opened it to the black sky and planted orchards, and grass grew over the stony burial mounds. She built the castle Elvidnir and swore that no matter how many the Dead, she would find a way to feed them all, if only sparingly. She redesigned Helheim in such a way as to bring maximum peacefulness to those who reside in it; instead of dank caves, it is a subtly ever-changing tapestry of hills and fields and colorful autumn woods.
It is not enough to say that Helheim is ruled by Hela. Her touch is stamped on every part of it. There is no place in that world that she is not aware of, and that world is huge. Most people don't get beyond the "tourist" area past the Gate, so they have no idea of the scale of the place. Helheim is the biggest of all the Nine Worlds. It has to be, to hold the legions of the Dead. Its enormous area is held by the cosmic "rootball" of Yggdrasil, like a great disc around its base.
Hela is extremely protective of her dead folk, and She does not appreciate people bothering them unduly. As such, Helheim is strictly guarded. No one sneaks in, any more than they could sneak in to Asgard. (Odin managed it once in order to forcibly conjure up the Volva and compel her to answer questions, but never since.) If you have an appointment to speak with them, She will send whichever dead souls are willing to talk into the area that, for lack of a better term, I refer to as the "tourist area". The rest of Helheim is off limits except to those who live there, and those who work for Hela and have some sort of mark on them to prove it, or those who have been invited there by Her.
Even with this in mind, people constantly try to get into Helheim. Some go to get wisdom
or information from the Dead, some go to find lost loved ones, some go to harass the more
famous denizens, such as Baldur, Nanna, and the Volva. Some go because they feel the need for
an Underworld ordeal; while this can be an honorable quest, be prepared for a real ordeal in
every sense. Just because you come for spiritual rather than emotional purposes doesn't mean that
they are going to make it easy for you. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Time and Seasons: There are no seasons in Helheim except at Hela's whim. She seems to like it to be autumn most of the time, so that the apples will be ready to eat. Some folk have reported it as being other seasons, but more often than not it's autumn.
Day or night varies depending not on when you are, but where. Some places, such as
Dead Man's Shore, never get any daylight and the stars are crisp and clear against the night sky.
Other places have subdued late-afternoon sunlight, or twilight. It is never morning anywhere in
Geography: The border of Niflheim and Helheim, except for Hel's Gate, is separated by a mountain chain and a stretch of narrow inland ocean protruding from the seas north of Helheim. Unlike the borders between other worlds, which are set, for some reason the Niflheim/Helheim border is fuzzy and moves around, perhaps as much as half a mile in any direction. The frost-etins of Niflheim are aware of this, and avoid the area. The river Gjoll forms as much of a boundary as anything can; at least it never seems to move regardless of what world is overlapping it at the moment. It is wide and fast and quite impassable.
Most of Helheim will likely never be seen by anyone living, including most of the spirit-workers who might read this book. And anyway, most of it is unremarkable - quiet, peaceful,
rolling hills, generally covered in autumn leaves - it seems to be autumn most of the time in
Helheim - and wide meadows of grass. There are small houses among the trees, but they can
vanish and reappear as you turn your head. The Dead live everywhere, but you won't see most of
them even if you were to walk through. However, we will cover the areas that you might actually
get a chance to see, as well as some famous legendary places within its boundaries.
Hel's Gates And Their Guardians
There are several gates into Helheim; it's a big place and has many doors. Each of them will generally have a guard on it, although if you have an appointment (or are accompanied by a deity who has a free pass into and out of Helheim) you may not see them. With the exception of Mordgud, the guardians rotate gates, so you can never be sure which one of them will be at any particular entrance except for the main Gate.
The Helgrind is the main Gate, set into a wall of solid, smooth black rock. You approach it on a bridge over the great rushing river Gjoll, which is impassable in every other place. The bridge is thatched with gleaming gold, and as you start towards it, you will see that it is made of knives, blade-edge upwards. If you don't look down, but keep walking bravely, they will not cut you; in fact the bridge will feel smooth. From the bridge, the Helvegr slopes downwards and northwards.
Next to the other end of the bridge is Mordgud's Tower, made of the shiny black stone which is common in Helheim and Muspellheim. The bridge is guarded by a tall etin-woman named Mordgud. Sometimes she appears as a skeletal figure (one of her illusions), or a tall Amazon-like etin-woman (her real figure), or just a forboding dark shape with a loud voice. Don't try to slip past her; she has had millennia of experience in discerning the dead from the living, and you won't be able to fool her for a second. She will stop you, and you must state your business. If you have no specific appointment, she might turn you away. At that point, you'd best go home and try to get through to Hela, her boss, and beg for an appointment. If you get no answer, you're probably out of luck and Her Ladyship doesn't want you visiting.
If Mordgud does let you by, she may demand that you leave something behind as a token of your good behavior. If she asks for this, you should immediately give her the most valuable thing that you are carrying, unless it is something to be delivered to Helheim. She is honorable and will give it back when you return past her watch, unless you misbehave yourself and incur Hela's wrath. Other reports say that she requires people to recite their ancestry, or at least their families, so be ready in case this comes up. If you don't know your ancestors, say so; don't make them up.
Some reports claim that Mordgud extracts a toll of blood from living people wishing to enter Helheim. At any rate, it is good common knowledge that one ought to give a token of blood whenever dealing with the deities of death - some won't even look at you unless blood is involved - and it's not surprising that Mordgud might demand some. Have a lancet on you just in case. Understand that leaving your blood with her is more than just an offering; it's leaving a bit of your energy behind so that you can be controlled should you act up.
Then, when you reach the massive Helgrind in the black rock, you will find yet more Guardians that you must pass. (The name of the stone door leading into Helheim, by the way, is Drop-To-Destruction.) The Helgrind will slowly open and someone else will show up to check you out. This is a high-security area, so be prepared.
Garm, Hela's enormous dog-guard, lives in the cave Gnipahellir. He is an eight-foot-tall black hound with glowing eyes. It is important not to underestimate Garm. While he may act like a big dog - vicious and dangerous or friendly depending on who you are - it's an act. There is as much intelligence in Garm as in any other of Helheim's guards. He is a Jotun who is always in dog-form, but he is no dumb beast. Garm seems to be on a general patrol around the borders of Helheim, meaning that he could be anywhere at any point. More often than not, however, he will be lending support to Mordgud at the main Gate. Garm will probably decide if you should enter based on a sniff or two. Don't ask us what he's sniffing for; we don't know.
Bigvoer and Listvoer are a pair of etin-women who are often placed on guard to one or more of the Gates, especially the inner Gate. Sometimes they appear with Mordgud; sometimes she may send visitors on to their Gate. Like her, they may require a token left with them until you return. If you leave clothing, they may wear it until you return. They appear as a pair of elderly, cackling hags, but do not underestimate their strength. They are sorceresses and can deal with you quickly. Be polite and even a bit obsequious to them; this will make them laugh and make them better disposed to you.
Another gate-guard is Ari, a giant whose favorite form is that of a great shrieking eagle. He loves to frighten the approaching rows of Dead by swooping down on them, but unless they stray from the road he does not actually harm anyone. Yet another gate-entrance is guarded by Hrimgrimnir, a very tall frost-giant. He tends to blend into the stonework and only come out if he thinks that you don't belong.
The other doors into Helheim don't need to be documented here, as they are mostly
hidden and the random traveler is unlikely to find them. However, there is a second bridge
further south on the river Gjoll, called Gjallarbru. It was crossed by Hermod on his way to
Helheim, and it does lead to another door. However, this Gate is only open if they know that
someone is coming, and that they approve of their errand, so if you come without an
appointment, you may cross the Gjallarbru only to find yourself staring at sheer black rock wall
with no visible openings.
The Tourist Area
Directly inside the Gates you will find an area of Helheim that consists of grassy hills and small streams, with delicate bridges set over them. Apple orchards line the walls; whether or not to eat the fruit is something of a mixed review. Some report that eating Hel's apples will give you strange prophetic dreams; others claim that it will prevent you from leaving, like the pomegranates of Hades. Since the jury is mixed, I would say that unless Hela herself invites you to do so, or unless you work for Her, stay away from them.
There is a great lake visible from the edge of the orchards; mists curl up from its surface and nearly obscure the island in the center. This island is where the dead people come who would actually like to speak to you. The lake can be walked across as if it were solid; one's feet sink in a little, but it bears you up. The water is filled with the faces of the dead, as are the mists that swirl there; don't let it freak you out. If it bothers you that much, don't look down. The more "solid' Dead will be waiting for you on the island, and you can speak to them there, although you must remember that just because someone is dead doesn't mean that they know all the secrets to the Universe.
From the edge of the lake, you can see rows and rows of great humped shapes. These are
the barrow-mounds, which stretch on for miles; yes, Dead people actually do live in them. While
you can go a short ways into the barrow-mound area, penetrating too far will trigger some kind of
magic that will simply get you turned around and dumped out again near the lake, facing the
pathway Out. The barrow-mounds mark the edge of the tourist area. Beyond this, few mortal feet
Dead Man's Shore
If one were to walk all the way through the country of the barrows, which would take hours and perhaps days unless one had a speed spell, one would reach an area where the dark sea of Helheim dips in a kind of jagged bay. This is Dead Man's Shore, an area of seashore where the underworld sun, for some reason, never shines. It is directly across the water/world barrier from Muspellheim above it; if you were to take a boat and sail away from the shore, you would eventually begin to see a red glow on the horizon.
Corpses and the shed skins of serpents litter the shore. Nidhogg comes down periodically
in her task as carrion-remover and eats the corpses. She is sometimes followed by her brood of
serpent-children, whose names include Goin, Moin, Grabak, Grafvollud, Ofnir, and Svafnir.
While you will sometimes see the serpents outside Helheim in the wastes of Niflheim, the cold
makes them slow and they are not much danger there. In the (somewhat) warmer climate of
Helheim, they are faster and more lively. They cluster around Nastrond, the Hall of Serpents, but
will not attack anyone outside of that hall, on Hela's orders. They might come at you and try to
knock you off your feet, however, or squirm around your ankles in an attempt to disconcert you.
Do not show fear; address them individually in a polite and conversational voice, as if they were
human beings offering to shake your hand rather than great serpents coiling around your ankles.
They will respect your courage and courtesy (especially the latter) and may even speak to you.
The Hel-serpents talk in hissing whispers; human speech is not easy for them and they rarely
bother with it, so if they talk to you, you can consider yourself honored.
The Hall of Serpents is probably the most horrifying place in Helheim. It is a large hall, nearly the size of a football field, with two great doors on the end carved with the forms of writhing snakes. Inside, a huge domed roof of many rafters arches overhead, through which poisonous serpents crawl. Venom drips down from their fangs and falls onto the Dead souls below, burning them and eating away at their astral bodies. The floor is packed with them, and they writhe in agony. The screaming and moaning can be heard half a mile away, and the sight of all the tormented people writhing in pools of acidic venom is macabre and disturbing to even the least squeamish.
The reality of Nastrond is that everyone there has chosen to be there on some level. Hela
is not a malicious goddess who tosses people into torment for no reason, or even if she feels that
they have done wrong. Those who choose Nastrond do it because they have done wrong in their
life, and they feel that they need to be punished in order to learn something, as a beginning step
to their eventual atonement. After one gets over the horror of the sight of Nastrond, one realizes
that the doors are not locked, and that one can walk in and out if one chooses. However, there is
no use attempting to convince the sufferers to leave; they will be convinced that they cannot
leave, until they have worked out whatever it was that they needed to work out on a soul level.
This is Hela's castle in the depths of Helheim. It is enormous and rambling, one of the largest structures in the Nine Worlds. Half of it is elegant and beautiful, and half is a falling-down ruin. Not going into the ruined half goes without saying. The other side contains lovely halls and rooms, including a great library, an orrery, and a gleaming mirror which can show various sights. One wall of one hall has a great map of the Nine Worlds that is constantly changing. There are feast-halls with seatings for thousands, as Hela regularly feeds her Dead charges.
Ganglati is the serving maid of Hela. She is tall, dark, and ponderous. In spite of the fact that she moves very slowly, she somehow manages to get a great many things done. She is rarely seen outside of Elvidnir. While she may seem cold to you, be polite and helpful and she may come to like you, although she won't show it.
There is much talk in the Christianized stories of Helheim that speak of it being a place full of misery and hunger, but none of the spirit-workers that I have interviewed have found it to be this way. Scary, yes, in places, but all the Dead seem to be well taken care of. The feasts held in Elvidnir are quiet, almost like eating in a monastery, when contrasted to the loud revelry of Valhalla, but they are filling and peaceful. There is something strongly maternal about Hela's care for her charges, even though she is no mother goddess. Her love is impersonal, but constant, and visitors are also considered under her care and will not go hungry unless they offend her.
Hela may well be staying at Elvidnir, or She may be out elsewhere in Her land on business. Like all wights of Jotun blood, she is a shapechanger, although her shapeshifting is almost always worked on several variations of her half-rotted form. Hela is probably one of the most physically grotesque of the Death Goddesses; it seems important to Her to push the literality of Death into people's faces. She has been seen as half beautiful woman and half rotting corpse, or half skeleton. Sometimes that division is above and below the waist; more often it is bilateral down the middle. Occasionally she has appeared as a young pale girl with white hair and skin, smelling of rot. (In fact, the rot smell is always present with her, and it is a good way to know that you are actually speaking with Hela. The general coldness of the atmosphere around her is another tip-off.) If She holds out a hand for you to take, it will probably be Her skeletal one. This is a test. Remember that She was born in the Iron Wood, where showing your acceptance of the physical deformities of others is part of how you show respect and friendship. Take Her rotting, skeletal hand (which, as some people have reported, feels exactly like a dead limb except that it moves) and kiss it. If you can't bear to do such a thing, you have no business being in Her country.
Hela is tall, generally clad only in a long, simple robe of black or grey, and does not stand on ceremony. She has been described by several people as having a low, quiet "whiskey-and-cigarettes" voice, and She moves slowly and sometimes with a limp (that skeletal foot!) Her great stillness is one of the things that people notice about Her. When She sits, She may move her hands some to gesture, but very little else; psychically She is like a great pool of black stillness. Every move is made with graceful, ghostly slowness. It is said that She moves fast only when she is angry, and then you're in too much trouble to notice.
In the northern tradition, it is often possible to bargain with one's deities, or to tease or cajole them, or otherwise play with rules-lawyering and trying to talk around them. Sometimes it even works. Odin and Loki are notable for being open to this kind of activity. On the other end of the spectrum, Hela is totally implacable. When She gives an order to you, nothing you can say will make Her change Her mind. If you persist in defying her, she will hurt you in some way that is perfectly designed with your personal misery in mind, and will be impossible for you to resist. She shows no sadism or glee in your pain; She just does it as coldly and impersonally as She does so many other things. No one says No like a death deity, and Hela's No seems to have actual weight to it; you feel crushed by it. There is no fighting Her and no bargaining; She will continue to coldly say No long after you have no more fight left in you. This is a goddess who can make all the Aesir back down; remember this before you face off with Her.
Generally, however, her coldly implacable side is only brought out when someone either A) clearly and knowingly breaks her rules, or B) asks for her aid and advice and then refuses to do what she tells them must be done. If you can avoid these two errors, you won't see it, but it is always there, just beneath the surface of her serene and compassionate demeanor. Many of the folk who have worked with Hela speak admirably of that detached, noninvasive compassion, telling of how it gave them a safe space in which to heal themselves. Hela has a deep wisdom and a great deal of objective perspective; She sees far and wide and studies the threads of Wyrd with an intense focus. She is capable of far-seeing planning on a long-range scale that leaves other, more self-focused deities (not to mention humans) in the dust. If you ask her for advice, you can guarantee that it will be designed with the greatest amount of long-term good in mind, although it may require a good deal of short-term pain and sacrifice.
Some folk have felt themselves called to her Underworld and, once there, were informed
that She had invited them down as a way to begin a death-and-rebirth period in their lives. If this
is the case for you, forget trying to get out of it. This is not Hela's malice or even whimsy; She
has neither. Consider it a heads-up that your life is going to fall apart and need to be rebuilt from
scratch, and humbly accept whatever advice She may have as to how you can best survive this.
Offerings: Hela likes dried, well-preserved flowers, especially dried roses. She also likes blood, as do all the Death deities. Garm likes meat and so does Nidhogg; bread baked with animal blood in it also works. Mordgud likes you to share food with her, or some small lovely gift. Don't give her jewelry; she's not that sort of woman. A knife might be more appropriate.
What the Dead seem to like more than anything else is music - instrumental and/or
singing, and perhaps poetry read aloud to them. Second to entertainment, offerings of food and
drink are traditional.
Cautions: The most important thing to remember in visiting the Underworld is that You Have No Power Here. Nothing. Nada. When you pass the Gate, you are at the mercy of Hela and her servants. If you visit other worlds and need to leave quickly, you have a good chance of slipping back to your body simply by the strength of the tie to your flesh. If they inflict wounds on you, it may hurt your physical body as well, but there's much less of a chance of death. Helheim is different, and it shares this characteristic with every other Realm of the Dead. Once even part of your soul passes into Hela's territory, She is perfectly capable of keeping it there. She is also perfectly capable of yanking it entirely out of your physical body, leaving it to die.
This doesn't mean that She is necessarily likely to do this. Hela does not kill people on a whim; She hates waste. However, it is a possibility, and it is something that you should be aware of every minute that you are there. The Land of the Dead can kill you. Death is not metaphorical here, and you must not forget that.
Even if you are not in mortal danger, Helheim has a peaceful aura about it that can make you terribly sleepy. People who have spent days there have noted that they spent much of the time unconscious, and the urge to just lay down and pass out can be overwhelming. Leave before you can't resist the urge any longer.
Be aware, also, that no one is allowed to fly, or even wear a winged form, in Helheim. For some reason Hela has decreed that everyone is to walk when visiting Her world. Attempting to fly, in any form, will simply get you dragged down from Her sky (and don't think that She can't do that) and kicked out, or worse.
Another thing to remember is that the Underworld is full of what I call "shadow-places". These are areas that are filled with strange psychic reflection-shadows. They aren't ghosts, although they may seem like that at first, but when you walk through these areas, the "shadows" will catch your internal shadows, the fears that you keep in your dark places, and they will suddenly manifest in some way before you, if only visually. Sometimes the manifestation doesn't even have visuals, but is just a powerful reliving of the emotion of a painful time in the past. I suspect that these areas are designed just for this purpose, but they can drive someone mad if the individual can't get a handle on themselves.
Due to the current popularity of guided meditations "to the Underworld" (which, by the way, I believe are a good thing), people tend to forget that actual visits to the actual Underworld were traditionally believed to be very dangerous, and with good reason. Although you can get into trouble in the rest of the Nine, Helheim is subtly the most dangerous place of all. You can go mad there, you can lose pieces of your soul there, and you can die. Walk with extreme respect, don't bother the Dead unless you have an approved mission, and have someone staying with your body who can retrieve you if necessary.