The Norse sagas, myths, and legends are fantastic works of creative literature and art that help us encapsulate some of the Viking spirit centuries after the last Viking ship ever sailed. 

Though they may be amazing works of art, they should not be used as geographic or cosmological textbooks. A case in point is one of the nine Norse universes, the frosty realm of Niflheim (Old Norse for Home of the Mist).

This realm was created at the northern end of the great void Ginnungagap, which existed before the creation of time and space. 

Centuries before the "Big Bang Theory" of the creation of our universe emerged, people in Viking societies had their own beliefs about what happened during the creation of their universes – there were, of course, nine universes in Norse cosmology. 

Their theory was written down in the first part of the Prose Edda, a section referred to as the Gylfaginning.

In it, Niflheim was said to be created when "Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void... which faced toward the northern quarter, became filled with heaviness, and masses of ice and rime, and from within, drizzling rain and gusts..."

Quenching an eternal tree

Niflheim is certainly unique due to its interconnectedness with other elements of the Norse mythological environment. It is connected to Yggdrasil, the giant eternal tree said to be at the very center of all nine universes through its giant root system. 

Here, the roots extend far and wide into Nifelheim, where they can draw water from a sacred well to quench the eternal tree's thirst. This well, Hvergelmir, not only sustains Yggdrasil but is said to be the source of as many as eleven (yes, eleven!) magical rivers. 

The most important of these many river systems is Élivágar which flows out of Niflheim and into the void to help bring life to the universe. 

Given the importance of rivers to people in Viking societies – for transport, sustenance, commerce, and conquest – it should be no surprise that Élivágar, a magical river, helped bring life to their cosmos, much as the river systems dotted throughout Northern and Eastern Europe did the same for them every day.

The mystical river Élivágar, coursing through the heart of the frosty realm Niflheim, acts as the vital artery of this Norse mythological landscape. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Going straight to Hel

One of the more interesting aspects of Niflheim is a region that should send shudders down most people's spines: Hel. No, this is not the fiery place where you get little devils poking pitchforks into you; this is – according to the Norse sagas anyway – an actual place. 

Hel is said to be in a region of Nifelheim and is what the Norse believed was one of the final resting places for dead souls. Here, the Norse goddess Hel resides over all those souls who have died due to extreme old age or illness. 

She is also responsible for bringing these souls to this dark underworld and, in later Norse texts (probably due to the increasing presence of Christianity in the Viking homeland, particularly from the 10th century CE onwards), judging them.

Whilst that doesn't sound like the worst place for your soul to reside, to us moderns, you must remember that people from Viking societies lived in a culture dripping with martial and warrior lore. To die on the battlefield was considered the most significant achievement that your average Viking could do. 

Hel was, therefore, a somber and desolate place as the people whose souls ended up there had not showered themself with glory on a battlefield.

Ragnarök and environmental harmony

We couldn't discuss a mythical element of Norse mythology without mentioning the Norse apocalypse: Ragnarök. Niflheim was said to feature in the chaotic sequence of events that led to a fiery rebirth of Midgard (the realm of humans). 

During this battle that involves a ship constructed of fingernails ferrying giants hellbent on destroying most of the Norse gods, the realm of Niflheim was said to clash with its opposite, Muspelheim, the realm of fire. 

This would only lead to the cataclysmic destruction of the Norse cosmos and its eventual rebirth. These two extreme climatic realms, one of fire and one of ice, also helped to explain the concept of opposing elemental forces and balance. 

Without the modern science and technology we are blessed with, the Norse knew a thing or two about environmental balance, harmony, and the vital role that climate extremes played in their natural habitat. 

The eventual end-of-time conflict between these two realms also symbolizes the ongoing conflict between heat and cold and the harmony that arises from their union. In this way, it was a sort of Norse environmental version of Goldilocks and her neither too-hot nor too-cold porridge.

The stark, desolate, and barren frozen landscape of Niflheim represented the elements of primordial darkness and cold that were referenced in as many Norse sagas and myths as there were cold winter nights. 

Despite being seemingly full of darkness and death, it played a significant role in the creation of the cosmos and the sustenance of Yggdrasil, the eternal tree of life.

For more information on the nine realms of Norse mythology, visit the Sky History website here.

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