I am constantly being told that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, I decided to do some digging just in case I have been misinformed. This is what I found.
Hel in the Eddas was a little bit different to the similar sounding Hell of Christianity. For a start Hel was ruled over by Hel the daughter of Loki. To me that could get mightily confusing on the to day administration of the place. For a start does being told to go to Hel mean person or place? Does the person want us to report to the boss or just go to a place usually reserved for the dead? I guess the only way to find out is to go there. The question is how do we get there?
Not wanting to die, the best way to find out is to look for directions from the Prose Edda, especially concerning the death of Baldur and his time in Hel (the place not the person…). This is not a
ramble blog about Baldur, so I will keep it light and promise to talk about him and his misfortunes at a later date. Right now, it is about going to Hel and the best person for that was Hermóðr who volunteers to ride to Hel (the place, not the being) to get Baldur out.
Riding on Slipnirr, Odin’s 8 legged steed, he rides the Helvegr or hell road. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda, almost certainly got this from earlier poetry, as Hermóðr has to ride through more alliteration than a one eyed Aseir could shake a stick at. He has to ride nine nights through deep and dark valleys which looks something like this in written form: Døkkva dala ok djúpa
Riding through all the alliteration he comes to the river Gjǫll spanned by a bridge Gjallabrú which is covered by a roof of gold. Here he was met by a young woman called Móguðr who asks him why he is riding to Hel. A reasonable question as he was not dead.
She comments that 5 groups of warriors passed that way yesterday which is interesting as it sounds like this was the default destination for people at the time. This is probably based on an earlier belief system where everyone goes to Hel. Being a coward and incredibly lazy this works for me as I have to put no extra effort into the afterlife.
Hermóðr who was not a coward asked Móguðr if she had seen Baldur, to which she says she had. He had ridden there earlier. This ties in with the fact Baldur was cremated with his horse, which is incredibly useful if you are Baldur, not so good if you are his horse. With stories like these it is not so good for any horse. The amount of Danish horse burials is quite staggering…
So, if you want to go to Hel, while avoiding the whole dying thing, head to the river Gjǫll and look out for a bridge with a gold roof. After that go down and north. While this is not quite Google Maps it is a good start for a time when maps were a bit thin on the ground. It is also the start of a phrase that lasted hundreds of years. Being told to go down and north was for hundreds of years like being told to go to hell.
Just like Rome, there appears to be many roads to Hel, just in case there is congestion. It also suggests it is more like a physical place than a conceptual one. In the poem Helreið Brynhildar in the Poetic Edda, Brynhildar rides to Hel after her cremation on a wagon. Again, not so good for the wagon, not so good for the horse.
Instead of finding a bridge of gold she rides through the farm of a giant woman whose name we are not given. Which is not that helpful, but just adds to the idea that this is a place where you journey to and where you can meet fairly normal things (for the Eddas).
The thing with both of these directions is that there is very much a physical road you can ride, which is part of your transitioning across. It also seems mundane compared to other concepts of the dead. Okay, a gold roof is pretty swish, but we are riding on a bridge over a river, or on a road past a farm… Hel itself does not seem to bad either, there are no tortured souls, roasting sinners or other unpleasantness. Baldur even got a feast, which has got to be better than turning up hungry.
My takeaway from the road to Hel is that it is not paved with good intentions, the chances are it is not even paved at all. No matter the state of the road it leads to a place, underground or not, it is a place, not some mystical state. You don’t find Hel at the centre of the earth just by digging and you don’t wake up there after falling badly off your horse. You can (if you are insane or a hero like Hermóðr) go there before you die, but my advice is that Miami is probably nicer this time of year. Should you wait until the end of your life there are no real entry requirements and you are likely to find some interesting people and the occasional Valkyrie, so it’s not all bad.