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?
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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.
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.
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.
Niflheim and the Norse Creation Mythology
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.