All the dead pass through the lodge of Hel, but only some reside here. If you die a glorious death, such as in battle, you may end up in Valhalla or Fólkvangr instead. If you die at sea resisting the elements, you may end up in the bed of Rán or the Nine Daughters of Ægir. There's also a place called Helgafjell, the "holy mountain", where revered ancestors might end up.2
Going to Hel is not as glorious as dying in battle and going to Valhalla, but neither was Helheim a land of damnation like the Christian Hell. Neither moral judgment nor punishment awaited one in Hel's lodgings, at least not in the earliest myths. All that mattered was the manner of your death. As the influence of Christianity took hold in Scandinavia, Niflheim became more and more colored by the Christian Hell. Prior to the Christian influences, Hel was often depicted as sexy. "Hel's embrace" was a steamy one, and death could be sexy at least for heroes and kings. At the same time, the realm of Hel was cold like a Scandinavian Winter… but then again it being so cold outside is a good excuse to snuggle up next to the fire.
Helheim is a place of stark contrasts. Outside is cold and wet and miserable, but inside has all the amenities of the mansion of a viking Queen. In the passages of the Eddas that discuss the fate of Baldr and Nanna, it's clear that they are treated like visiting royalty, given thrones at Hel's side, and provided with feasts and banquets. But beneath that welcoming surface is another layer of danger, as the old poets gave remarkable names to the furnishings of her abode. The entryway is named "stumbling block", her bed is named "sick-bed", and her plate is named "hunger".
Defenses of Helheim
Hel's personal servants are Ganglati and Ganglöt, whose names translate as "lazy walker". They aren't really described beyond that. Given the name (and that they work for Hel) they could be either giants or zombies.
Game and Story Use
- The PCs might assault Helheim itself to rescue a fallen comrade.
- A terrible blight or famine has fallen upon the kingdom. Eventually, it's discovered that the cause is that Hel visited the royal wedding, and left as a gift either her knife "famine" or her plate "hunger". To save the nation from this Fisher King scenario, the PCs must travel to Niflheim and return the goddess's gift… without offending her.
- The place of women in the Norse afterlife or underworld is rather unclear. They tended to not be involved in battles or sea voyages as often, so they lack obvious alternatives to Helheim.
- This could serve as a character motivation. A woman might take up the sword because she doesn't wish to end up in Niflheim.
- As characterization, a feminist character might rail against the system that only allows men to get into "heaven".
- To eliminate this imbalance, you'd either need to hand wave away sexism and traditional gender roles, or more clearly define how one might progress from Helheim to Helgafjell. This may take some effort in terms of campaign building and cosmology.
- For more ideas see Niflheim and Hel.