Guest Blog: Gates of Hel: The Norse Cosmology Behind Tomb Raider: Underworld

In Tomb Raider: Underworld (2009), we follow Lara as she visits a number of Norse ‘underworlds’, scattered across locations including Mexico, the Mediterranean, and Thailand. Here she finds a series of artefacts allowing her to wield Thor’s legendary hammer Mjölnir, the key to opening the gates of Helheim, where she discovers the truth of her mother’s disappearance (following on from Legend’s plot).

Unsurprisingly, the mythological and historical background of the game has been heavily adapted by the developers at Crystal Dynamics. While the Vikings of Scandinavia were certainly capable of travelling great distances (having reached the Mediterranean, Baghdad, and even mainland North America), Mexico and Thailand would have been out of the question! But, it will probably not surprise you to know that the game is full of interesting references to ‘real’ mythology.

The underwater ruins of Helheim. (Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Site)
The underwater ruins of Helheim. (Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Site)

The Viking Age in Scandinavia is generally considered to have begun in the late 8th century (when the first Norsemen attacked and raided Lindisfarne in North-East England), and ended in the 11th century when the Norse converted from their pagan religion to Catholicism. The key sources we have regarding these pagan beliefs are the Icelandic Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, the former being written in the 13th century by the chief and mythographer Snorri Sturluson, and the latter being a compilation of myths gathered at the same time… two centuries after the end of the Viking Age! This makes it likely that there is some medieval Christian influence in the myths that we know today. In fact, we don’t really know what people would have believed prior to these sources.

In Norse cosmology, there are nine worlds, or homeworlds, which are joined together or supported by the ‘world tree’ Yggdrasil. The worlds are:

  • Asgard: the home of the Aesir gods and goddesses (such as Odin, Thor, and Loki)
  • Vanaheim: the home of the Vanir gods and goddesses (such as Freya and Freyr)
  • Alfheim: the home of the Light Elves, beautiful elves who were more radiant than the sun
  • Midgard: or ‘middle earth’, the home of humans
  • Svartalfheim: the home of Dark Elves, nasty creatures that cause nightmares and turn to stone when touched by the sun
  • Jotunheim: the home of the Giants
  • Niflheim: or ‘mist home’, a dark and cold world to the north
  • Muspelheim: a fiery world to the south
  • Helheim: an underworld ruled by the goddess Hel.

Lara finds Niflheim beneath Mediterranean, Valhalla (a hall in Asgard) on Jan Mayen Island, and Helheim in the Arctic Sea. Though these locations don’t match the mythology well (Niflheim being to the north, for instance), it does seem likely that the Norse believed the locations were geographically related. In the Eddas, gods and goddesses sometimes travel between the worlds just by crossing rivers. On other occasions they have to climb down Yggdrasil from the heavens to the earth. Whether or not the people of Midgard (us!) could travel between them while living is not so clear*, although the parallel between Niflheim and northern Scandinavia (dark, icy, desolate), and Muspelheim and Africa (hot, dry, volcanic) are relatively evident. The Vikings certainly reached North Africa in their travels, so it’s no surprise that they would have passed down legends of this amazing place to their children!

As for underworlds, most will be familiar with the concept of Valhalla, the great hall in Asgard where Odin takes half of those who have died in battle. The other half are taken by the goddess Freya to Fólkvangr (presumably also in Asgard). There, the dead drink mead and eat great feasts. Those who died of old age, illness or other non-battle went to Helheim.

Not much is known about Helheim, though it is not a realm of punishment like the Christian hell. Our only description is from Sturluson’s writings. It is described as ‘misty’ or ‘dreary’. However, according to the antiquarian and expert in Norse mythology Hilda Ellis Davidson, this is likely Sturluson’s own Christianity-inspired opinion rather than the traditional mythology. What we do know is that like the Ancient Egyptians, the Norse were typically buried with possessions and gifts (and even unfortunate slaves) that they would need in the afterlife, suggesting that life would continue with some degree of normalcy. No wonder the designers of Underworld took some artistic liberty with the locations!

As mentioned above, Helheim is watched over by the goddess Hel. Hel is described as half woman, half blackened or rotting corpse. Those who have joined Lara on her Helheim adventure may recognise this image as none other than Amelia Croft, Lara’s long-lost mother! Of course, in the game she appears not as the goddess ruling over the underworld, but rather as a thrall. In the game, these are bodies that are reanimated by eitr (a poisonous fluid) to serve as guardians, but in the real world, thralls were the slave caste of Norse society. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting reference to the beliefs inspiring the Underworld story.

Amelia Croft as a Hel-inspired thrall. (Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Site)
Amelia Croft as a Hel-inspired thrall. (Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Site)

Norse mythology is a complex and difficult subject to study, especially because of the limited range of resources and the very frequent contradictions and instances of vagueness. Even this introductory article has had to skirt around a number of discrepancies and debates in the sources. However, this complexity can make the process of learning far more interesting and varied. Perhaps even Lara would agree that a little historic mystery never goes amiss when it comes to inspiring people!

* It is worth noting that in the Gylfaginning (the first part of the Prose Edda), a king named Gylfi is said to have travelled to Asgard. The location is said to be in Asia, and the story tells of how the people there tricked the Norse into thinking they were gods. However, it is likely that the author Snorri Sturluson invented this story himself in the 13th century in order to prevent accusations of heresy while he was recording the pagan myths.


If you have any comments or feedback on this article, you’re welcome to leave your comments below or contact Anya directly. Her email address is anya.martin8_at_gmail_dot_com.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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8 Comments on “Guest Blog: Gates of Hel: The Norse Cosmology Behind Tomb Raider: Underworld”

  1. A very interesting overview. TRU was/is a great game. Having done TR2013 twice now, that’s just as good, but in a different way. Maybe the mythology in that is worth a look too (I lived in Japan for less than a year (much too short).

  2. Reblogged this on Anya's Blog and commented:
    My first piece for the Archaeology of Tomb Raider. Combining my loves for video games and Norse mythology into one; so glad I found this blog!

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