An excerpt from
Margaret Clunies Ross
Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society,
Vol. I, 1994
From Chapter 7: Fate and Death
Notwithstanding the probable influence of the Christian homiletic tradition on Snorri’s presentation, Old Norse poetry confirms the existence of the world of the dead downwards on the spatial map and in darkness (cf. Baldrs draumar 2, 5- 6) and in a place whose location stands in opposition to that of the world of gods and men (cf. Skirnismál 27,1-4). Grímnismál 31 places hel beneath one of the three roots of the World Ash, with frost giants under the second and humans beneath the third.
Advocates of the binary spatial model of Norse cosmogony with its horizontal and vertical axes have tended to place the dead in the lowest compartment of a tripartite vertical dimension, with the gods living in the heavens above, humans on middle earth, and the dead below, all connected through the World Tree, Yggdrasill, which mediates between life and death (Hastrup 1985, 149; Meletinskij 1973,48). This binary analysis is largely dependent on Snorri's Edda rather than on eddic and skaldic poetry for the clarity of the distinction between these three worlds and their inhabitants. Schjødt (1990, 39-43) has remarked how little evidence there is for placing Asgarðr and Valholl in the heavens aside from Snorri's Edda and, at the same time, how, in matters concerned with fate, death and Ragnarök there is little distinction made between gods and humans. Both groups are equally subject to these forces, even though a few individuals among the gods may escape annihilation at Ragnarök. At the same time, it is impossible to deny the primary location of the world of death beneath that of the living and clearly separated from it, as we might expect from what we have reviewed of early Scandinavian mortuary ritual.
The question then arises of whether the underworld is exclusively the world of the dead or whether other beings, with multiple associations and functions, share that location. There is reason to consider that other classes of supernatural beings, like elves, dwarves and even the Vanir, considered as a group, have close connections with the world beneath Yggdrasill (Schjødt 1984; 1990,46; 1991). Some, like elves and dwarves, are often represented as inhabiting rocks and underground homes while accusations of necrophagy are levelled at some dwarves (cf. Alvíssmál l-3) and giants (cf. Vafþruðnismál 37; Skirnismál 35,1-3). We may say that these beings have functions that bring them within the same large semantic field as the dead, but they cannot be identified with the latter group, as has sometimes been suggested, particularly in relation to the giants."
Structuralist analyses of Old Norse myth have expressed a similar view, though they argue it differently. Their argument is that the giants' position at the periphery of the horizontal spatial dimension is a transformation of the position of the dead and demonic forces on the vertical spatial model, thus indicating an equivalence of meaning between the realm of the giants, Jötunheimar, and hel, the underworld of the dead. Schjødt (1990, 48-9) has expressed several reservations about this neat equivalence, noting that apart from the possible exception of Mímir (if indeed he is to be classified as a giant), there are no giants who unequivocally inhabit the underworld, though they may travel there for particular purposes. Giants, as much as gods and humans, are subject to death. We have seen, furthermore, in Chapter 2, that the social organisation of the giants, which is without parallel among demons like Surtr and the sons of Muspell, sets them off from the latter group and also from the dead. In her exposition of the relationship between the vertical and horizontal models, Hastrup (1985, 149) proposed another contrasting pair of oppositions between 'above' and 'below' on the vertical axis. This is between Asgarðr and Valhöll, "the upper kingdom of the dead ruled over by Óðinn, ... into which only glorious warriors were admitted", both located in the realms above the earth, and "Hel, the lower kingdom of the dead ... the place where ordinary people went." As Óðinn ruled Valhöll, so Hel ruled the underworld, thus establishing a further opposition between male and female. Here the category 'above' is connected with the male gender and the warrior function, while the category 'below' is associated with female gender and non-warrior function. The last-mentioned information, and Hastrup's inference that 'ordinary people' went to hel after death is based upon the information in Gylfaginning 27, 14-16 that All-father threw Hel into Niflheim and gave her "authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age."!' Here Gylfaginning gives Hel jurisdiction over those who we would say died of natural causes.