- Aug 24, 2020
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What is it Niflheim?
Niflheim ("Land of Mists") is the realm of ice and cold in Norse mythology, whose frigid environs provide a final resting place for the dishonored dead. Hel, the grim giantess whose rules over the deceased, also makes her home here. This dreary description can be fruitfully contrasted with the glorious atmosphere of camaraderie and revelry awaiting warriors in Valhalla.
In a cosmological context, Niflheim is important for two reasons: first, it provides a site for one of the world tree's roots (Yggdrasill) to be anchored; second, the icy realm is seen as one of the primordial sources of creation, as its frigid mists were thought to have combined with fiery gusts from nearby Muspellheim to congeal into the first living beings.
Niflheim in a Norse Context
As one of the major realms in the Norse cosmology, Midgard belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates a universe divided into nine interrelated realms, some of which attracted considerably greater mythological attention. Of primary importance was the threefold separation of the universe into the realms of the gods (Asgard and Vanaheim, homes of the Aesir and Vanir, respectively), the realm of mortals (Midgard) and the frigid underworld (Niflheim), the realm of the dead. These three realms were supported by an enormous tree (Yggdrasil), with the realm of the gods ensconced among the upper branches, the realm of mortals approximately halfway up the tree (and surrounded by an impassable sea), and the underworld nestled among its roots. The other realms included Alfheim, world of the elves; Svartálfheim, home of the dark elves; Nidavellir, world of the dwarves (tiny men who were incomparable miners and goldsmiths), Jotunheim, world of the Jotun (giants), and Muspelheim, the hellish fire-realm that was home to Surt, a flame giant who would fight against the Aesir at Ragnarök.
Before venturing into an exploration of the Norse underworld (as attested to in various mythic sources), it is necessary to acknowledge that these sources are not entirely consistent in their usage of terms. More specifically, the terms Niflheim ("dark world" / "fog world") and Niflhel ("dark hell" / "fog hell") are used interchangeably in various sources, and both are occasionally used to describe the abode of Hel, the queen of the underworld and ruler over the spirits of the dead. As Lindow suggests, "the confusion between Niflheim and Nifhel is neated summed up by variation in the manuscript of Snorri's Edda. In describing the fate of the giant master builder of the wall around Asgard, two of the four main sources say that Thor bashed the giant's head and sent him to Niflheim, and the other two say that Thor sent him to Niflhel." Given this uncertainty, the following analysis will examine mythic source materials related to both Niflheim and Niflhel (noting that the first term is only explicitly utilized in Snorri's Edda).