Heimdall Desires the Return of Idun from the Underworld” by Emil Doepler (1881)


Translated by William P. Reaves © 2003 Chapter 38. Part 2 / 3


In the underworld, the common path of the dead first winds in a westerly direction through deep and dark dales. At one point, a mile-wide thorny heath with no path must be crossed. Then it is best to have Hel-shoes to protect the feet. Therefore, one must not neglect to strap Hel-shoes on the feet of a relative or a friend who has passed way, before they are buried. Admittedly, it is true that these shoes, like everything else the corpse carries to the grave -- such as clothes, weapons and jewelry-- remain in the grave; but everything in creation, including things made by man, have an inner material and an inner form, and it is the grave goods’ inner form that accompanies the dead to the underworld. The survivors’ care for the dead counts in their favor, and those who have Hel-shoes come through the thorn-heath with well-protected feet. If they do not have them, and if in their lifetime they were merciless to others who walked the thorny paths of mortal life, they do not come through without torn and bloody feet. But to the merciful who lack Hel-shoes, a pair is extended to them from a tree, growing at the beginning of the thorny-way.

Thereafter, the dead reach a river with rushing waters, whose eddies are full of sharp-edged iron. Foot-wide strips of wood float on top, but no bridge is found there. The strips remain steady under the feet of the merciful and convey them safely across the river. But under the feet of the merciless, the strips slip away, causing them to fall into the river and forcing them to wade across it in anguish. But even though they are mangled terribly by the iron, no wounds are visible when they reach the shore.

On the other side of this river, light begins to shine and in the dawning daylight lie green meadows through which the river Gjöllflows. Gjallarbru, a gold-covered bridge, spans it and on the other side, there is a fork in the road. One path leads north to Mimir’skingdom, one south to Urd’s well. The dead continue their journey on the latter, since their destination is the district around Urd’s well. The thingstead where judgment is pronounced over all the dead is found there.

The whole of this journey takes place in unbroken silence. The tongues of the dead are cold and stiff and produce no sound. Their steps cannot be heard. Their horses, if they come with them, set their hooves noiselessly on the ground of the kingdom of death. The golden bridge over Gjöll only resounds beneath the hooves of the valkyries’ horses.

When the dead arrive at the thingstead, they sit on long rows of benches before the holy circle of judgment-stones. Here, they are expected by their fylgjas, who have preceded them to the kingdom of death and who now sit, each alongside their wards.  Unlucky is he who has no fylgja at the thingstead by Urd’s well when the judgment that has eternal validity is pronounced!

Here, the Aesir are the judges. They have two thingsteads: one in Asgard, where matters that concern the world of the gods are decided; and one by Urd’s well, where they judge the dead. Each day, the gods ride across Bifröst, pass through the southern Hel-gate into Urd’s realm, and over a number of rivers to reach their destination. The horses they ride are Sleipnir, Glad, Gyllir, Glær, Skeidbrimir, Silfrtopp, Sinir, Gisl, Falhofnir, Gulltopp and Lettfeti. Thor never rides a horse, nor can he drive on this journey, because his thundering chariot would damage Bifröst. Thus he walks, and on his way has to wade across four rivers: Körmt, Örmt, and two named Kerlaug. When the other gods dismount from their horses, he is already there. The members of the court have never been late to this thingstead.

Odin sits in the high seat, with the other Aesir in judgment-seats on each side. In front of them, the dead sit upon long rows of benches, pale and with the marks of the death they have suffered.  They listen to the proceedings of the court and receive their sentences in silence, unless they possess speech-runes that give them the power to talk and defend themselves against allegations. It is extremely rare that someone possesses these runes, but should someone, he may step up to the podium built for this purpose and lend what he can to his own defense. No one else does this except those whose fylgjas have abandoned them and thus have no advocate at the Thing. The others need not talk, as little as they are capable, because every fylgja defends her ward; she is a witness favorable to him and, moreover, the most reliable one before the judges, since she knows all his thoughts, motives, and actions. She is rarely called upon to speak, since her presence alone is proof that he was not guilty of some unforgivable sin.  

Outside of the Thing-circle, hordes of spirits of punishment wait upon the resolution of the court proceedings, for they accompany the damned and surrender them to their ultimate destiny. Among these spirits are heiptor, who are armed with thorn-scourges.

The dead should come well dressed and well adorned to the Thing by Urd’s well. The warriors bring their weapons of attack and defense; women and children, the adornments they were fond of.

Images of the things that relatives and friends place in the grave mounds provide the dead with testimony for the judges that they received the respect and devotion of their survivors. The appearance they present to those gathered at the Thing demonstrates to what degree the living respect the law, which bids reverence for the dead and care for the remains of the departed.

Many die in circumstances that make it impossible for relatives to perform these duties. Then strangers should step in and take their place. The condition in which these dead reach the Thing shows best if piety prevails in Midgard, since the noble mind takes to heart the advice: “Show the corpses you find on the ground this final service, whether they died of sickness, were drowned, or killed by weapons! You should prepare a bath for the dead, wash their hands and head, and dry them before you lay them into the coffin and bid them blessed sleep”

Their nails ought to be clipped. Attending spirits at the Thing investigate whether they are, and, if not, they clip them. The spirits of punishment gather the discarded clippings, and transport them to the island of Lyngvi in the Amsvartnir sea, where unseen hands work on a ship named Naglfar, constructed of dead men’s nails gathered at the thingstead. When the ship is finished, the end of the world will be imminent. Then, when the fetters of Loki, Fenrir, and the other sons of world-ruin burst, they will climb aboard Naglfar and sail in this ship to battle the gods. Thus, everyone who neglects the duties of the living toward the dead hastens the ruin of the world and aids the cause of evil in the battle against the gods.

The gods judge human error and weakness leniently. According to their own teachings, they too have erred. The thing-goers may expect a favorable sentence if they went through life honestly, honorably, helpfully, and without fear of death – if they observed reverence for the gods and their temples, for family duties, and for the dead. But lies, if they were intended to harm another, receive a lasting punishment; perjury, clandestine murder, violations of marriage, desecration of temples, grave robbing, treachery, and nithing deeds are punished with unspeakable horrors.

Before they leave the thingstead, those who are declared worthy of bliss from the judgment-seats receive a drink that obliterates all traces of their corporal death, replaces their warmth of life, loosens their tongue, enhances their life force, increases their strength, and enables them to forget their sorrows, without erasing beloved memories or making them forget those they can remember without regret or anxiety. The drink is referred to as “the drink of strengths” and is a mixture of the liquids from the three wells that maintain the life of Yggdrasil: the wells of Urd and Mimir, as well as Hvergelmir. Therefore, it is said of this drink that it consists of “Urd’s power, the cold-cool sea, and Son’s fluid”. (The cold-cool sea is Hvergelmir, while  Son is one of the names for Mimir’s well).

This drink is handed to them in a gold forged aurochs horn, around whose edge the image of a serpent is engraved. If an unauthorized hand touches the horn, the serpent comes to life and kills the culprit. Various other engravings decorate the horn: images of dragons that guard the gates of the underworld, images of herbs that grow in the evergreen meadows of the kingdom of bliss, and blessing-bringing runes.

.....it continues in part 3