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Gylfaginning 4: Muspelheim and Niflheim

Gylfaginning 4 opens with Gylfi asking how the world began. High responds with a quote from Völuspá, establishing that there was nothing in the beginning. It then goes on to describe how, before Miðgarð, there was only Muspelheim, land of fire, in the South and Niflheim, land of ice, in the North. Interestingly enough, neither of these names are present outside of the Prose Edda, and it is even debated whether Snorri made them up out of whole cloth.

Muspelheim ('world of Muspell' (Simek 1984, 223)) is probably derived from the Old High German poem Muspilli, currently known from a 9th century Bavarian manuscript, describing the torments after the last judgment. The term appears again in the Heliand, an Old Saxon poem from the same century which describes the life of Jesus. In it, the Mutspelli are an inimical force. The Muspells again appear in Völuspá 51 (Surtr) and Lokasenna 42 ('Muspell's sons'). This family of giants is among the invaders at Ragnarok. Whether Snorri knew of an existing location that is not otherwise recorded, or if he inferred one based on all of this evidence is unknown. Regarding this chapter of Gylfaginning, Lindow comments:

"Although it has been argued that this passage suggests that Muspell is a place, the notion seems hardly credible. Rather, it seems that Muspell presides over a fiery region outside the realm of the gods, and from there some chaos beings will come when Ragnarok is at hand; after all, the world is to be consumed by flames" (Lindow 2001, 234).

Thanks to the Prose Edda however, it is now considered a given that a realm called Muspelheim existed in the south before all else, and is ruled by Surtr, who may also be called Muspell.

Niflheim ('the dark world' (Simek 1984, 232) or 'fog-world' (Lindow 2001, 240) is even more complex. Some consider it to be the realm that Hel rules, as opposed to the realm of her same name. This view is espoused by Lindow, who discusses the difference between Niflheim and Niflhel by stating, "Niflheim is the ancient underworld, where Hel has her domain, and Niflhel is the ninth underworld of the dead" (Lindow 2001, 240). Apparently there were some manuscript variances that caused this confusion, and this designation of Niflheim as the underworld:

"The confusion between Niflheim and Niflhel is neatly summed up by variation in the manuscripts of Snorri's Edda. In describing the fate of the giant master builder of the wall around Asgard, two of the four main manuscripts say that Thor bashed the giant's head and sent him to Niflheim, and the other two say that Thor sent him to Niflhel" (Lindow 2001, 241).

The other view holds Hel as a completely separate realm, of which Niflhel is simply one of its territories. To this possibly more familiar view, Niflheim is simply the world of fog and frost that is home to the spring Hvergelmir, which is the source of the Élivágar rivers, and a root of Yggdrasil.

Hvergelmir is attested in Grímnismál 26, where it is said that "from thence all waters make their way" (Larrington 2014, 52). It is one of three Wells (Urdarbrunnr and Mimisbrunnr) in the lore which certain scholars theorize were originally one well. Much later in Gylfaginning 52, Snorri also mentions that the dragon Niðhogg lives in Hvergelmir where he torments the bodies of the Dead, often translated as sucking on corpses. The waters that spring from Hvergelmir are known as the Élivágar ('hailstorm-waves' (Lindow 2001, 108)), and are attested in Vafþruðnismál 31. When Odin asked how the first giant was formed, Vafþrúðnir replied,

"Out of Élivágar sprayed poison drops,

[from there arose all our clan,

thus they are all always terrifying]" (Larrington 2014, 42).

The Élivágar is also attested in Hymiskviða 5, where Hymir's home is described as to the east of Élivágar. This implies that the rivers are towards the exterior of the mythical world. Simek notes:

"The interpretation of Élivágar as eleven rivers is obviously an invention of Snorri's and probably results from the plural form of the name… however, in Skáldskaparmál 17, no doubt following Hymiskviða 5, Snorri himself says that Élivágar is only one river which forms the border to Jötunheim… Halvorsen has pointed out that in Hymiskviða the name Élivágar probably relates to él 'bad weather, storm', vágr 'sea', and can be understood to be a name for the proto-sea surrounding the world" (Simek 1984, 73).

In Gylfaginning 4, Snorri names 11 of the 40 rivers (one of which is twinned) in the catalog given in Grímnismál 27-29, as those of the Élivágar. These are:

  • Fimbulþul ('mighty wind' or 'mighty speaker', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 83))

  • Fjörm ('the one in a hurry', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 86))

  • Gjöll ('loud noise', Grímnismál 28. (Simek 1984, 111)) In Gylfaginning 28, Snorri describes this river as bounding Hel.

  • Gunnþró ("Gunn-þró 'battle-groove'? is more likely than Snorri's version Gunnþrá 'thirst for blood'", Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 125))

  • Hríð ('stormy weather, tempest', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 159))

  • Leiptr ('lightning', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 187))

  • Slíðr ('dangerously sharp'), Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 294) In Völuspá 26, it is described: "from the East there flows, through poison valleys,| a river with knives and swords, Fearful it is called" (Larrington 2014, 8). This quotation includes an additional translation of the river's name. Simek comments, "Weapon-bearing rivers such as this are also found in Saxo, Gesta Danorum I, 31 and in the river name Geirvimull ('river bubbling with spears': Grímnismál 27) and come from the influence of Christian visionary literature where such rivers belong to the standard inventory of descriptions of the Other World" (Simek 1984, 294).

  • Svöl ('the cool one', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 308))

  • Sylgr ('devourer', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 309))

  • Við ('the broad one', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 359))

  • Ylg ('she-wolf', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 377))

Later in Gylfaginning 39, Snorri gives a different list :

  • Böll ("most likely a form of the adjective ballr, which means 'harsh, dire'" (Sheffield 2023)) Faulkes notes that it is only called this in Codex Regius; in the other manuscripts it is Höll (Faulkes 2005, 265), ('slippery' or 'guileful', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 156)). It might be telling that Simek doesn't even include Böll in his rather exhaustive dictionary.

  • Eikin ('the furious one', Grímnismál 27 and the Þulur (Simek 1984, 70))

  • Fimbulþul ('mighty wind' or 'mighty speaker', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 83))

  • Fjörm ('the one in a hurry', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 86))

  • Geirvimull ('river bubbling with spears', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 104))

  • Gipul ('the gaping one', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 110))

  • Gömul ('the old one', Grímnismál 27 and the Þulur (Simek 1984, 115))

  • Göpul ('the gaping one', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 115))

  • Gráð ('the greedy one' or 'evil', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 116))

  • Gunnþorin ('the one eager for battle' Grímnismál 27 (Simek 125))

  • Gunnþró ("Gunn-þró 'battle-groove'? is more likely than Snorri's version Gunnþrá 'thirst for blood'", Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 125))

  • Hrönn ('wave', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 160))

  • Nönn ('the strong one', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 235))

  • Nöt ('the stinging one', Grímnismál 28 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 235))

  • Nyt ('use', Grímnismál 28 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 238))

  • Sœkin ('the one who pushes forward', Gylfaginning 27 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 296))

  • Sið ('the slow one', Grímnismál 27 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 282))

  • Svöl ('the cool one', Grímnismál 27 (Simek 1984, 308))

  • Þjóðnuma ('the man-eating', Grímnismál 28 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 315)

  • Þöll ("the etymology of the River name has not yet been satisfactorily explained", Grímnismál 27 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 316))

  • Þyn ('the roaring one', Grímnismál 27, Þulur, and Njáls Saga (Simek 1984, 334))

  • Vegsvinn ('the traveler', Grímnismál 28 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 356))

  • Við ('the broad one', Grímnismál 28 (Simek 1984, 359))

  • Vín ('wine', Grímnismál 27; possibly identical with Vína (Simek 1984, 362))

  • Vína (possibly the Dwina River in Russia? Grímnismál 28 and Þulur (Simek 1984, 362))

In the next segment, we will continue with Gylfaginning 4, and what happened at the beginning of time.


Faulkes, Anthony. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. London: Víking Society for Northern Research, 2005.

Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sheffield, Ann. Personal communication November 1 2023.

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1984.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Translated by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

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