Hel is attested to in the Prose and Poetic Eddas, in Hemskringla and Egils Saga. She is mentioned in the Gesta Denorum, and her name appears on bracteates (metal disc jewelry) from the Viking period, in Skaldic poetry, and on the Setre Comb, a 6th century artifact. She is well-known by her anglicised name Hela.
Like Greek Hades, her name is the same as the place she rules, and the name itself means “to hide”, “to cover” or “hidden place” (Hades’ name means “the hidden one”). Like Hades, both she and her realm were co-opted, corrupted and perverted by Christian colonists. Hel is both a mythical and literal place, the latter referring to grave burials. The mythic location is said to be furthest north of Miðgarðr and at the same time beneath it, the Underworld. It is separated, like Hades, from the land of the living by rivers that are challenging to cross.
Snorri writes that Hel is in Niflheim, the primordial realm of snow, mists and ice, possibly a reference to one of the more recent Little Ice Ages, and denoting Hel as a pre-Viking age deity. The bridge to Hel is described as beautiful and golden, and is guarded by the formidable hound Garmr, who keeps the dead in and the living out. The comparisons to Greek Cerberus here are undeniable. Although “Helheim” is a popular name, it is a modern invention, and is still helpful in conceptualising Hel’s realm as distinct from that of Christian “Hell.”
In the Eddas, her brothers are Fenrir and Jörmungandr, the children of Loki and the jötunn Angrboða. She is tasked by Óðin to give lodging to all who die of sickness and old age – what is called a “straw death.” She is depicted as half beautiful and alive, and half blue, the colour of cold, dead flesh. Modern artistic portrayals go further, and depict her as part corpse, an image popular in both modern paganism and pop culture.
In Norse Paganism (as in all religions) there are numerous unsettled theories regarding life after death. Modern paganism makes it clear that Hel is as it was in the pre-Christian Germanic world: not a place of universal torment or unending suffering for the sinful dead. It is far more rich and complex, and far less sinister. Nowhere in the lore does it say that Hel is a universal place of suffering, rather it has been misinterpreted as such, just like Hades in Greek myth often is.
This original concept of Hel shines through the cracks in Snorri, as honoured guests Baldr and Nanna, along with their entourage are hosted with a lavish welcoming party, and there is no indication that they are anything but comfortable and free to move about. Hel is even warm towards them – a gracious hostess, as is Norse tradition. In Saxo, Hel is a lover-like presence and spiritual guide towards Balderus, strikingly similar to Persephone’s relationship with Adonis.
Like Tartarus in Hades, Hel does have a spot reserved for evil doers, Náströnd, where the dragon Níðhöggr devours the corpses of the honourless dead, effectively destroying them entirely. The lore says that this place is for murderers and oath-breakers. Surely a place for Monsanto, Nestlé, fossil fuel companies, and lying political leaders. It is later Christian influence that portrays Náströnd as an acid lake of ongoing suffering, similar to Christian Hell.
With the Christianization of Europe, Hel became Hell, and Loki, her father, became Lucifer. She was co-opted by Dante to inform the description of his Inferno. His co-opting of Niflhel became a literary reference point that would animate the religious ideas of Christian Hell into the modern era, the mythology of which which was strikingly un-detailed prior to Dante’s artistry.
Danish lore depicts Hel as riding a three-legged steed called Helhest. Like Óðin, she rode above and about the land, sweeping up dead souls to join her. While Óðin swept over the battlefield, riding the waves of war, Hel rode on the waves of sickness and famine. Like her fellow death-collector, Hel was associated with and heralded by ravens, similar to the Celtic Morrigan.
Thoughts on Hel
Hel’s name was co-opted by Medieval Christians as part of the Christian colonization of Europe. Associating the old religion’s afterlife with evil and damnation was part of the very deliberate program to stamp out pagan belief. This colonization was especially brutal in Germanic and Nordic Europe.
Hel represents the reprieve that death brings to those who suffer in the end, and in going to her roots in the most elderly lore she comes out divine, not demonic. She happily hosts Baldr the Beautiful, and his entourage, and provides them a safe haven during Ragnarök, ensuring the triumphant return of new life. Death is a necessary part of life, and Hel represents respect and appreciation of this cycle, and the peace that comes from accepting it as such. This story brings to mind compose and rot, which is fruitful for new life.
She is both receiver and fetcher of the dead, and is thought to be present in illness and the effects of old age. During the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, Hel travelled the countryside with her broom and her rake, collecting souls. This poetic depiction of her has survived today, through the folkloric icon of the witch astride her broom, and as the figure Baba Yaga in Slavic cultures. As uncomfortable as illness and old age make us, they are necessary parts of the continuation of life. Plague and illness are Mother Nature’s way of dealing with over-population and weakness.
Saxo calls Hel Proserpine (Persephone, the name of what the Greco-Roman culture called their goddess of the Underworld). These cultures were more alike than different, and both Hel and Persephone clearly share an origin in Proto-Indo-European culture, if they are not in fact the exact same goddess serving different peoples.
Many modern pop-mythologists uncritically conflate Hel (the place) with Christian Hell, in the same way they do with Greco-Roman Hades (the place). The construction of Christian Hell is ongoing (still, like all mythic and literary places) and is built on top of earlier lore, much like old churches are built on top of old pagan temple sites. “Helheim” is a modern naming practice that helps avoid unpleasant associations with Christian Hell. If saying “Helheim” helps you do less mental gymnastics, go for it! New words are invented all the time. Other “heims” also exist, e.g. Vanaheim, Alfheim. The naming convention has precedence.
Both Hel and Hades, in their earlier, pre-Christian depictions boast a broad and diverse topography. While parts of them are gloomy, the Greek Fields of Asphodel and Germanic Nifelhel, it is not even a little bit accurate to speak of these realms as wholly dreary. Her realm, like the goddess, is both bright and beautiful and dark at the same time, as is most of the living world we experience. In Alvíssmál in the Poetic Edda, various names for weather conditions, like clouds as well as the moon are given for Hel. Non-cloudy days and sunlight are implied, telling us that in Germanic pagan Hel there was changing weather, and celestial light.
Suggested Signs and Symbols
Dark horses, ravens, graveyards, corpses. Tombs and burials. Brooms and rakes. Witches on brooms. Plague. Death by natural causes. The colours black and dark blue. Hoods, body bags, and coverings. All things funerary. Photographs of those who have died and all things in memorial. Celebrations of life. Halloween. Rotting things, mold and fungi. Disease. The rune Hagall.
Helja, Hella, Hela, Hell, Haljia, Haljon, Proserpine (by Saxo Grammaticus), and yes, Persephone (the pink elephant in the room).