Sedlec Ossuary, near Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. It is one of twelve World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have, in many cases, been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.

Thor Goes to Hel

Louis_Huard_-_Giant_Skrymir_and_Thor
[The] Giant Skrymir and Thor (c. 1891), by Louis Huard. The Heroes of Asgard: Tales from Scandinavian Mythology by A & E Keary. MacMillan & Co, London
Many months ago, I told the tale of Thor and Loki’s encounter with the giant Skrymir, a being so large that Thor, Loki, and Thor’s human servants Thjálfi and Röskva slept in a small building that turned out to be Skrymir’s glove. Thor tried to kill the thing but found that even Mjolnir was ineffectual against something so large. In fact, Skrymir hardly noticed Thor’s attack and slept through the whole thing. He saw Thor as an ally, not an enemy, upon awakening the next morning.

When Skrymir departed the company of Thor, Loki, and the children, they agreed to meet in Utgard, the home of more giants like Skrymir. According to Skrymir, it was the home of a chieftain called Utgard-Loki, a similarly named but quite different version of the Loki of the Aesir. Thor’s group set upon their path.

In the original version of this tale, presented by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, Skrymir disappears quickly over the mountains, and within a couple of sentences, Thor, Loki, and the children find their way to a shining castle and head right in, squeezing between the bars in the front gate. Some adventures ensue. I’ll get to them later. Promise.

But I finally had a chance to read through Adam Oehlenschläger’s epic poem Gods of the North, a retelling of the stories of the gods for a modern Danish audience published in 1819, and I was struck by the way he altered this story. Rather than going straight through the mountains, Thor went to Hel.

Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts, pictured here with her hound Garmr.
Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts, pictured here with her hound Garmr.

With Thor’s relationship with Hel, and especially its ruler Hela, in the front of the public imagination due to their meeting in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok this year, it seems only fitting to share this particular meeting with you in its entirety.

At no point in the original Poetic Edda, or in Snorri’s Prose Edda, do Thor and Hela meet. This meeting is entirely created by Oehlenschläger, both to bolster the structure of his lengthy poem (30 cantos, or chapters, of over two dozen stanzas each), and also to help introduce the concept of the land of the dead, Helheim, its ruler, Hela (not referred to by that name in the original Eddas), and to shine some light on the dead themselves, who played an important role in the mythology and in the lives of their descendants.

This is a lengthier bit of poem than what I usually share here, but in exchange, as I did last week, I have taken care to share the third canto in its entirety, with all spelling and punctuation preserved intact. Originally composed in Danish, I have used the English translation of 1845 by William Edward Frye, which captures the imagery well enough for our purposes.

Thor in Helheim [subtitle in original]

The story you’re about to hear
May well incredible appear:
To visit the remotest end
Of Utgard’s realm the chiefs pretend:
Not easy will this project prove
Through wastes of endless frost and snow;
At each third step they onward move
O’er the glazed frost, they fall back two.

The road, on which their course they bent,
Now form’d a deep and dark descent:
They grope along through ice and snow,
And though pitch dark, they hear cocks crow.
Thor ever foremost marches on;
The others follow the faint light
That from his brazen armour shone,
And shudder oft from cold and fright.

Through caverns drear they move on slow,
Which seem to lengthen as they go;
Pale shadows flit along; they hear
The rustling sound of waters near:
Now toads croak harsh, and owlets screech;
Now fogs arise, and vapours damp;
But Thor, intent his goal to reach,
Struggles across the frozen swamp.

At length the gloomy fogs of night
Became dispell’d by sudden light;
Though faint, it fail’d not to impart
Fresh vigour to the Asa’s heart.
Two torches burning blue anon
A lurid flick’ring gleam display;
While through the cloven rock the moon
Sends forth a pale and wizard ray.

At length a massive gate they reach:
Two grisly fantoms there kept watch:
One seem’d a female, one a male;
Their furrow’d cheeks were deadly pale.
Lo! slowly rising from their seat,
They fix the chiefs with earnest gaze;
These halt before the pond’rous gate,
And view those forms in mute amaze.

In shrouds of white the spectres grim,
While ague shakes each gelid limb,
Brandish aloft with angry groan
Their javelins form’d of human bone.
As Thor advanc’d, their shields they clash,
And croak aloud these words of fear:
“Go back! go back! ye strangers rash!
Whence do ye come! what seek ye here?

“Why seek ye in the pride and bloom
Of health and youth these realms of gloom?
Never did such a troop before
Find entrance to this fated shore.
For those who meanly die on straw,
The Nornor have these shades decreed;
But not for those, who Odin’s law
Hold sacred, and in battle bleed.

“Ye may not tread this threshold fell,
Bound fast by adamantine spell:
‘Tis here a pale-blue female reigns,
Here stern her fearful law maintains:
Here captive holds the dastard crew,
Who on the bed of sickness die,
Who wounds and glorious death eschew,
And basely from the combat fly.”

Then Thor: “We’ve reach’d th’ abode, I ween,
Of Hela, unforgiving queen;
O Lok! we now shall soon behold
Thy pale-blue daughter stern and cold.”
Then Lok grew pale, and trembling said:
“Let us return! I bitter rue
My grievous fault: O! how I dread
My frightful offspring’s face to view!”

Then Thor replied with look severe:
“A God should never yield to fear;
Shame! resolution thus to lack!
Rouse all thy nerve, and shrink not back!
A giantess thy heart subdued,
And thou to passion didst succumb,
Too well I know, that nothing good
Can from the blood of giants come.

“’Twas Skulda in her book of fate,
Did this event predestinate;
If she decreed thy amorous flame,
Who shall that prudent Norna blame?
Thy offspring causes fear, ‘tis true,
But never can contempt excite;
Not only men, but Asar too,
All view her features with affright.

Where joy and pleasure flourish most
And nurs’d by strength their empire boast,
Yet still, at the bare sight of fear
Those blessings straight will disappear;
Thus Fenris can embitter all
The glories of Valhalla’s feast;
His very look hath power t’appal,
And freeze with dread great Odin’s breast.

“And say! how should our Asgard then
Differ from the abode of men,
Did not death, misery and disgrace
A line of demarcation trace?
Like Midgard’s snake, misforune fell
Winds round, and gnaws the heart of earth;
And he too, Lok, thou know’st full well,
From thy embrace derived his birth.

“Yet, O thou Asa dear! ‘tis well
Thou hast engender’d the grim Hel!
Due honour she should ever find;
She punishes the Nidding kind,
She my avenger is; ‘tis she
Who best upholds my law and right;
Take courage, therefore! learn from me
Never to think of craven flight!”

This sage discourse now caus’d the fear
Of Asa Lok to disappear;
To him much consolation gave
The prudence of his comrade brave.
Thor rais’d his lance*; the portal vast
He struck with force; it swung around,
Like leaf before the autumnal blast;
The hinges creak’d with jarring sound.

Now Thor his champions onward led,
The vault re-echo’d with their tread;
Now little Roska ‘gan to cower,
And closely grasp’d the hand of Thor.
Through many a winding gall’ry past,
They stumble on, or creep, or glide,
Until a flick’ring flame at last
Serves their ambiguous path to guide.

At length an opening towards the north
They find, and ‘gainst it struggle forth;
To where the roof describes an arch,
And forms a vestibule, the march;
This vestibule to a vast hall
Conducts them, where they now behold
The wretches deaf to honour’s call,
Whom Helheim’s bars imprison’d hold.

Along the wall pale phantoms flit,
Who groan and shake with aguish fit!
Palsies, catarrhs, and fevers grim
Prey on each agonizing limb.
When Thor advanc’d, they wept and whined;
Down their wan cheek a cold sweat flows!
While slimy snakes, around them twined,
Cause by their bite convulsive throes!

Under the vaulted roof, behold!
A throne appears, but not of gold,
Silver, or ivory; this throne
Was built of human sculls alone!
Thereon sat Hela, fell to view;
Her skin a chalky hue reveal’d,
Down from the girdle; livid blue
Above it seem’d from blood congeal’d!

A man’s thigh-bone in moonshine bleach’d
T’ enforce new torments she outstretch’d,
For never her vindictive mind
Allows to rest the Nidding kind:
This bone exhal’d a corpse-like smell;
On high she waved it like a wand;
It made all crouch; it serv’d full well
As sceptre in her clammy hand.

No sound, but moans to make flesh creep,
Here interrupts the silence deep;
No zephyrs thaw the frost severe;
Cadav’rous odours taint the air;
Three torches blue illum’d the scene!
By each a ghastly spectre stood!
Shapes frightfully diseased were seen,
But on their limbs no trace of blood!

Now Thor began to smile; exempt
From fear himself, he with contempt
The crowd of trembling ghosts beheld,
And loud this stern discourse he held:
“O wretched fools! why did ye shun
The dangers of all-glorious war?
Thus may it fare with every one
Who dares not follow Asa-Thor!

“Ye miserable, who eschew’d
Danger and death and scenes of blood!
Weaker than women! Hela now
Grinds ye with never-ending woe;
Ye fear’d to don the warrior’s helm,
And trembled at the bowstring’s twang;
Well, now, in Hel’s accursed realm,
Ye tremble with eternal pang!”

Thus Thor: the ghosts respond with moan:
The chief advanc’d to Hela’s throne,
And though thick fogs his utt’rance choke,
He still, though hoarse, thus suppliant spoke:
“Hela, terrific queen! whose eye
Fills every living breast with fear,
Ah! Not spontaneously do I
Before thy awful throne appear.

“I cannot the desire withstand
To visit Lok of Utgard’s land;
I long that chieftain to behold,
And therefore here have travell’d bold.
Then, O! resolve me, Hela true,
For well thou know’st each distant clime,
Where must I turn? what course pursue,
To reach the realm of Jotunheim?”

Then Hela croak’d out thus with force,
From throat with fogs and vapour hoarse:
“Begone from hence! depart! away!
Ye’ll soon arrive where giants sway;
The rosy hues that stain your cheek
My eyeballs sear to look upon
Of health, and youth, and strength they speak;
Such sights I loathe; avaunt! begone!”

Now Thor a sign impatient made
Behind him, which his troop obey’d
Lok ventur’d not to raise his eye,
As he stern Hela’s throne past by;
He closed his eyes her sight to shun,
And stumbled heavily along;
She look’d at him and breath’d a groan,
Which echoed far the rocks among.

I will not hide the fact that Thor,
However firm and brave in war,
Seem’d anxious much and was not slow
To quit those gloomy realms of woe.
They march into the mountain’s core,
And issuing from the farthest rock,
They soon arrive, and stand before
The palace vast of Utgard-Lok.

* At this point in the poem, Loki hasn’t yet shorn Sif’s hair, or had Thor’s famous hammer Mjolnir forged as a gift to soothe his anger. While I place this poem in the context of Thor’s encounter with Skrymir in Gylfaginning, where Thor has use of Mjolnir, Oehlenschlager’s version of the story differs on this point.

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