Grave of the Hel-Horse – Roskilde, Denmark - Atlas Obscura

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Grave of the Hel-Horse

Roskilde, Denmark

According to legend, this is the burial place of a mythical three-legged death omen horse. 

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The majestic cathedral in Roskilde, Denmark, is a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated as the primary burial ground for Danish monarchs since the 15th century. Yet often overlooked by visitors is a more obscure and mysterious final resting place. Deep inside the cathedral lies a black, unmarked flat gravestone believed to belong to the mythical Hel-horse, or helhest in Danish, the steed of the Nordic death goddess Hel.

First mentioned in literature in 1672, the eerie Hel-horse is said to haunt the narrow streets around the cathedral at night. Danish folklore describes it as emaciated like a skeleton, with glowing eyes and only three legs, heralding imminent death or illness for the observer or someone close to them. For protection, people used to spit on the Hel-horse’s grave when passing by.

The Hel-horse originates from a church-related tradition. To avoid the bad luck of being the first buried in a new cemetery, a gruesome practice involved burying a live animal, usually a horse with one leg cut off, to exist between life and death and guard the souls. This “church warden” was believed to protect the church from harm and symbolize the transition between worlds, with the Hel-horse being one such entity from Nordic mythology.

In the 1970s, archaeologists investigated the supposed grave of the Hel-horse but did not find the remains of a three-legged animal. Instead, they discovered parts of two human skeletons. Despite the absence of any physical traces of the fabled creature, the mystery and chilling legend of the Hel-horse continue to linger over the medieval city of Roskilde. 

Know Before You Go

The final resting place of the Hel-horse lies among other flat gravestones, to the right behind the chancel inside Roskilde Cathedral in the city center. Roskilde is about 22 miles (35 km) west of Copenhagen and easily accessible by car or public transport. Ample parking is available in Stændertorvet Square outside the cathedral. If arriving by train, it's a 10-minute walk from the station. Check the cathedral's website for current opening hours and entrance fees.

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June 10, 2024

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