According to Norse mythology, there are 9 worlds which are the original habitats of the different types of beings, such as giants, dwarves, Vikings, elves, and gods, who existed back then. The 9 realms are held in the roots and branches of Yggdrasil (the world tree). In this write-up, we will be exploring the world of Niflheim. To be more specific, we will be looking at its creation and the creatures that lived there.
According to Norse mythology, Niflheim is defined as the world of Niflheim is the world of primordial ice, snow, and mist and was the first realm to emanate from Ginnungagap when the Yggdrasil tree branched out to form the different worlds. It is also known as the realm of mist or the Mist-World. According to Snorri Sturulson and the Hrafnagaldr Odins, the world of Niflheim was the coldest and the darkest realm out of the nine. He further identifies that the Mist-World is also considered the world of the dead where all the dishonorable people will go when they die.
Niflheim is considered one of the oldest realms of the Norse worlds, along with Muselpheim, which is the world of fire. It is located towards the northern part of Ginnungagap and features the eldest spring in the world – Hvergelmor, which is a bubbling boiling spring. The spring is the primary source of the Elivagar (the 11 rivers) and the Norse people believe that all the cold rivers on their land came from the bubbling boiling spring in Niflheim. In addition to that, Norse mythology depicts that the Hvergelmore spring found in Niflheim is the origin of all living things, and they would all return there when the world ends. The spring is guarded by a malicious dragon known as Nidhung, who lived and gnaws at the world tree (Yggdrasil). The dragon was a horrific monster that regularly chewed on the corpses of the dishonorable dead that were sent to Niflheim.
Helfheim/Hel, the underworld which is ruled by Loki’s daughter-Hel, is located in Niflheim, and it is considered the world of the unworthy dead, such as criminals, law breakers, and anyone who wasn’t noble. The Norse people believed that those who died in battle would go to Valhalla (Odin’s hall) and other nobles would go to a place known as Helgafejl. However, Niflheim was specifically reserved for anyone guilty of crimes such as murder, oath-breaking, rape, and adultery, among others. Supposedly, the Vikings believed that they needed to bury tools and other material possessions with the dead to make their life much easier when they go to Niflheim.
Inside of Hel, there is another realm known as Nilfhel, which was where the wicked dead would go. Also located in Niflheim, there is a place where some frost giants lived. These ice giants were set to join Loki in the final battle of the Raganarok against the gods.
The world of Nelfheim cannot accommodate persons who aren’t intended to live there. However, a tale is told about an ambitious alchemist dwarf known as Ivaldi, who decided to settle a workshop in the world of mist and found an effective way of harnessing all the frosty power found in Niflheim. By doing this, he was able to successfully create works of marvel that shocked the inhabitants of Midgard and the gods living in Asgard.
Unfortunately, Odin – the supreme god and the leader of Asgard, did not like the idea of dwarves challenging his power through their works. To stop the dwarves from overdoing it, he interceded with Ivaldi’s creations and the dwarves immediately retaliated. They were too furious and the situation escalated even further. In the process, Ivaldi started meddling with forces that were beyond his power and ended up cursing the world of Niflheim. He revamped the mist to poison any race of beings that breathed it, a curse to which he was the first to succumb to.
Eventually, it was difficult to spot the snow and ice that was initially found in Niflheim. The wind stopped blowing away and the mist started to produce a pungent smell that was fatal. Kratos, the demigod of Zeus, and Atreus had to collect all the Niflheim ciphers in the world of the humans to access the mist world and travel across the abandoned workshop to retrieve exclusive materials such as Niflheim Alloy (which was greatly valued) and Mist Echoes. Additionally, the maiden Hildr – who had the power to revive the dead in battlefields, was imprisoned in one of the chambers in Ivaldi’s workshop.
According to the Norse creation myth recorded by Snorri Sturluson, there are two primordial worlds – Niflheim, which is the world of ice and mist and Muspelheim, which is the world of fire. According to the creation myth by Snorri, the two primordial worlds sprung up from Ginnungagap, the gapping abyss. Ginnungagap, the void in which the world was created, was also known as the yawning void. As it opened up, the two worlds were separated with Niflheim moving northwards, which to the Vikings meant moving downwards, and Muspelheim moved southwards, which meant upwards to the Vikings.
We understand that the directions may be slightly confusing, considering that we interpret north as upwards and south as downwards. However, the ancient directions of travel as interpreted by the Vikings makes a lot of sense in terms of the Yggdrasil, which was the immense and sacred central world tree that harbored all the 9 realms.
Niflheim and the bubbling boiling spring (Hvergelmir) were part of the roots of the trees. As we mentioned earlier, the spring was the source of the numerous rivers found in Nordic regions. At the bottom of the spring and Niflheim was the dragon Nidhung that gnawed on the roots of the world tree.
During the separation, the frost and ice from Niflheim and the immense heat from Mulspelheim met in the middle of Ginnungagap (the void). The two elements then mixed together to form a primordial goop, out which further life emerged.
The first life that came out of this primordial goop was Ymir, who in Norse mythology is described as a primordial giant. All the other Norse giants then sprung from Ymir’s armpits and began to inhabit the world. Odin, the Aesir god, and his two brothers started to notice that there were too many giants emerging from Ymir’s armpits. As time went by, they felt that the giants would somewhat outnumber the gods if they are not too careful. For this reason, Odin and his brothers killed Ymir and used his body to create more worlds that could occupy the space of the void found in the middle of Yggdrasil.
In the process, they created Midgard, which is considered the middle world. Once the void was filled, they needed it to be occupied so they created mankind. Also, they created Jotunheim to contain the already existing giants. However, they realized that the giants were malicious and could easily threaten the lives of man. They therefore, decided to protect Midgard from Jotunheim using sturdy fortifications that they made from Ymir’s eyebrows. Midgard also had a body of water, known as the Midgard Sea where the Midgard Serpent, Jormungandr resided.
As Snorri Sturluson describes the cold and mist found in the world of Niflheim during creation, he also emphasizes that all the terrible things in the world came from Niflheim. Based on his account, we can deduce that Niflheim was not just a world of primordial snow, ice, and mist, but it was also a world of evil, which explains why it was home to the dishonorable dead.
Muspelheim, on the other hand, harbored so many evil things. It was occupied by Fire giants, who were the greatly feared enemies of the Aesir gods. These giants formed Loki’s army that rose against the Aesir gods during the Raganrok (the battle at the end of the world). While there isn’t much information about the exact location of the fire giants in Muspelheim, several accounts have stated that the fire giants sprung up from Muspelheim to destroy the Aesir.
Something else you may learn about the primordial world is that Helheim and Niflheim are described in very similar terms. Most accounts describe them as a world of cold found at the base of the universe. The two were said to be located in the north, meaning that they were at the roots of the Yggdrasil tree and are both dark, dreary and filled with ice-cold winds.
Helheim was the world of the dead and was the place that any Viking that did not go to Folkvangr or Valhalla went to. Helheim strictly accommodated this category of Vikings but not the wicked. As mentioned earlier, there was another place in Helheim known as Nilfhel, which was the lowest level of Helheim that was specifically created to accommodate the wicked after they die.
Many scholars have found it difficult to work around the similarity in names and descriptions of Niflheim, Helheim, and Nilfhel. Snori is the only one who has been able to use the names interchangeably. He mentions that because Odin was uncomfortable with the cunning and mischievous nature of Loki’s children, he chose to send the giantess Hel (Loki’s daughter) to Niflheim to rule over the dishonorable dead.
There is another story that claims that Odin asked the wise giant in Norse mythology, Vafthrundir, to tell him all the secrets of the giants and the Aesir/Vanir gods. The giant said that he would only tell Odin these secrets after he has travelled to all the realms, including Nilfhem. Based on this account, it becomes difficult to interpret whether the giant was referring to Helheim or Niflheim.
There is also another story that claims that Odin once travelled on his 8-legged horse known as Sleipnir and went to Nilfhel to discover the causes of his son’s bad dreams. Based on this account, Niflheim was located within Helheim because this is where Odin met Hel’s guard dog known as Garm.
The main reason why we talk about the primordial world in unison is to clearly show the potential relationship between them and their overall significance in Norse culture.
The Creation of Niflheim
According to Norse mythology, Niflheim is an important part of the cosmos for two reasons. First, the cold and icy world is seen as one of the primordial sources of creation because its bitterly cold mist combined with the hot flames and wind from Muspelheim to form the first living beings. Second, the world of Niflheim provides an anchoring site for the roots of Yggdrasil (the world tree).
The first world to exist was Muspelheim, which was so full of light but its flames were so hot that anyone who wasn’t meant to be there cannot endure the flame. Surt (a primordial fire giant who would battle at the Ragnarok) is described as the guard of Muspelheim and he always held a flaming sword in his hand. At the end of the world, during the Ragnarok, Surt will conquer the world and burn the whole world with fire.
Beyond Muspelheim, there was the yawning and gapping void known as Ginnungagap, which faced towards the north. Beyond Ginnungagap there was the dark, cold, and scary realm of Niflheim, which was ruled over by giantess Hel – Loki’s daughter. Frost, ice, wind, rain, and cold emerged from Niflheim. Soft air, light, and heat, came from Muspelheim.
There was a time when Ginnungagap was filled with heaviness, lumps of ice, drizzling rain, gusts, and rime towards the north where Niflheim was. The southern part of Ginnungagap, on the other hand, was lit by the sparks and glowing matter flowing out Muspelheim. As the matter accumulated, heavy cold and all other terrible things emanated from Niflheim and Muspelheim became even hotter. Ginnungagap, on the other hand, was mild and baseless. When the heat and the cold air aggressively met at the middle of the Ginnungagap void, life slowly emanated from the matter and the primordial giant came into existence. From the giant came so many other beings and all the other Norse worlds.