The lowest of the Nine Worlds is Hel, ruled by the goddess Hel, mistress of the chthonic mysteries. As Asgard is at the crown of Yggdrasil, Hel is at its base. Like Asgardh, Hel cannot be reached directly from Midgardh – one must “ride over a bridge”, or travel between worlds with the aid of ones fylgia (usually a totem or sacred animal or Soul Companion and Guide). The bridge to Hel crosses the river Gjoll and its guarded by the giant Maiden Modgudh. As Bifrost is fiery and narrow, the bridge to Hel is icy and wide.
Hel is also called Niflhel, meaning Misty Hel or Dark Hel, which refers to the Goddesses primary aspect of concealment. Hel borders very closely on the world Nifheimr; it is located down and to the North, and it is the implied location of the venom-filled halls, on Na Strand, and home of the dragon Niddhogg, embodiment of the concealed powers of destruction/transformation. Hel is the hidden root to which all things sink, as allthe waters wend their way to Hvergelmir, and from which all things rise again.
Although the realm of Hel is described as horrible in parts – the lifeless, lightless, joyless dwelling of the dead – it is written elsewhere that Hel is brightly bedecked to welcome Balder after his death. This dual nature can be seen in the figure of the goddess Hel hersefl: She is half a beautiful woman and half a corpse, her concealment both that of the womb and that of the tomb. Hel receives those souls who cannot struggle through to Valhalla, but in time, as her name Mother Holle suggests, she bears them forth again.
Niflheim & Muspellheim
Niflheim and Muspellheim, the worlds of primal ice and primal fire, are set respectively in the Northern and Southern parts of the utangardhs (limits outside human reality) through which their mights are filtered and mixed to bring about the forces working through Midgard. Both worlds and their inhabitants, beings of pure forces of fire and ice, would be endlessly destructive if released onto the worlds of the innangardhs. As the High One (an Odhinnic hypostasis) says in Gylfagynning, “there is nothing in the world that can be relied upon when the sons of Muspell are on the warpth” (Prose Edda, page 40). Muspellheim is ruled by Surtr, who will meet Freyr in battle at Ragnarok.
Jotunheim is blanced by Vanaheim, which is characterized by peace and plenty. The Vanir are gods of fertility, riches and joy. Vanaheim represents the world of water, its nature being shown by the life-bringing and gentle winds from the West. As well as ruling over fertility, the Vanir are also described as the Wise Vanir, and are noted for their powers of foresight. Seidh magick is the power used and taught by the Vanic Freya. It is characterized by the journeying of the spirit and the power of prophecy. While the Vanir are not without their warlike aspects, they are not generally considered gods of war, but of peace, prosperity and harvest. The Vanir are also gods of death and Vanaheim, the watery world of the West, may be associated with the final far-faring, the ship voyage of death.
The most characteristic world of utangardhs (wild/unordered space, outside of human society) is Jotunheim. This land is the dwelling of the thursar, rises and etins (various types of giants), the children of Ymir. It is frosty and rocky, lashed by violent winds and storms. Jotunheimr is located in the East, the direction (rougly) from which the Teutonic peoples have migrated; the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem describes the ancestor-hero Ing faring forth from the East. Jotunheim is the land of primeval ancestry.
It is inhabited by beings of great wisdom, such as the etin Vafthrudhnir, from whom even Odhinn can learn, by the giants and by the semi-sapient brimthursargar or ice-giants who continually seek to break and destroy the walls of the ordered world. It is these beings specifically against whom Midgard has been walled off and against whom Thor wards us; they characterize one aspect of the foes dwelling outside the gardh.
Jotunheim is the turbulent world of the elemental Air which, through its endless seething and struggling, both breaks down and fertilizes. Its nature is seen in the shattering, icy might of the wind from the east.
As Alfheim, the dwelling of the Light Elves, overlaps the highest reaches of Midgard, so Svartalfheim, the dwelling of Black Alfar, interpenetrates the subterranean regions of the earth. In this realm are found the mysteries of earthly manifestations, represented by the matchless smithcraft of the dwarves. Svartalfheim contains the lowest frequencies of Midgard and the highest of Hel, the Underworld, standing in the same relationship to Hel that Alfheimr does to Asgard. This realm can be reached with ease from Midgard often inadvertently, as described in a number of tales.
The central world of all is the Earth as we know it, our Physical Plane. This world brings together and melds the might of all the other worlds and is connected to them by the roots, branches and trunk of the tree Yggdrasil. This world represents the element Earth, which in Teutonic thought, encompasses all the other elements. The Earth of Teutonic Tradition also incorporates the workings of spirit as received directly from Asgard by way of Bifrost (the Rainbow Bridge) through Alfheim.
Alfheim is the dwelling of the Light Elves. A frequent refrain in Eddic poetry is “How fare the Aesir? How fare the alfs?” (Voluspa 47). Alfheim is ruled by Frey and characterized by the higher aspect of light and air. It is the realm through which the flows of energy from Asgard are often transmitted to Midgard. In this world, the highest energies of the realm of humans mingle with the lower energies of the realms of the gods.
The highest of the Nine Worlds is called Asgard “enclosure of the gods”. It requires either the aid of a valkyrija in crossing the bridge Bifrost, or exceptional strength of purpose and will to reach Asgard by any other means. Bifrost is warded by the god Heimdall. The crossing of this bridge is only for the initiated: its fire guards Asgard against the thurses.
Within Asgardhr are the halls belonging to the various gods; these halls are Thrudheimr, the dwelling of Thor, Ydal (Yew-dale) plains for Ullr, Valaskjalf for Odhinn, Sokvabekk for Saga (possibly a hypostasis of Frigg) and Odhinn, Gladhome where Valhalla is built, Thrymheimr for Skadhi, Beidhablik for Baldr, Himinbjorg for Heimdall, Folkvangr where Freya keeps her half of the battle-slain, Glitnir for Forseti, Noatun for Njord and Vithi, where Vidar dwells.