Hel is attested in the Prose and Poetic Eddas, in Hemskringla and Egils saga. She is mentioned in the Gesta Denorum, and her name appears on bracteates (thin metal discs worn as jewelry) from the migration period, in Skaldic poetry, and on the Setre Comb, a 6th century archaeological artifact. She is well-known by her anglicised name Hela.
Her name is one and the same with the domain over which she rules, which means “to hide” or “hidden place.” The location of Hel, also known as Helheim, is sometimes in the furthest, farthest north, or sometimes described as located beneath one of the three roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. Snorri writes that Helheim is in the realm of Niflheim. Regardless of its location, the bridge to Helheim is always guarded by a vicious hound called Garmr, who even Óðin steers clear of.
Although her brothers are the monstrous agents of the end of the world, Fenrir and Jörmungandr, Hel herself is a welcoming, if somewhat startling figure. Heathen lore, which comes to us through a filter of Christian perspectives, seems to approach her with caution, as a being both beautiful and harrowing all at once.
Hel is the daughter of Loki and Angrboða. She is required by Óðin to give lodging to all who die of sickness and old age – any who die a “straw death.” She is depicted in mythology as being half alive and half dead, with one side of her face sanguine, and the other blue and cold. Some portray her as part damsel, part corpse, and the colours black and blue are a poetic reference from the era meaning dead.
In Northern Tradition, there are numerous unsettled theories regarding life after death. One idea seems to be that Helheim functions as a sort of hotel rating system, with different levels of accommodation. Helheim as a whole is the destination of lives of no noteworthy achievement, a sort of “copper level” economy package. Not fabulous, but also not a shit hole either.
Honoured guests – souls who gave a little bit more than they took from life – may get to stay in Hel’s hall, Éljúðnir, where they can feast with her. Those who more than wasted their lives, who actively fucked up the lives of others, could be denied entrance to Hel’s halls, and be left outside in a frozen waste called Niflhel.
Beyond her realm is said to lie the realm of Náströnd, where the dragon Níðhöggr chews on the corpses of the honourless dead: murderers, oath-breakers, Monsanto, Nestlé, and fossil fuel companies. Alternatively, the honourless dead are said to bob around an eternal bath in an acid lake.
Hel is described as implacable and unmoved. With the Christianization of Europe, Hel became Hell, and Loki, her father, became Lucifer. Her character, and the metaphoric descriptions of her realm were used by Dante to inform his description of his netherworld in Inferno. The icy portion of it in particular was animated by the Norse conception of Niflhel. This literary depiction has ironically become absorbed by Christianity and is the reference point for descriptions of Hell today, which was previously un-detailed prior to Dante’s artistry.
Hel may have had a steed called Helhest in modern Danish. Although there is a tradition of giving named steeds to gods, this portion of the lore – if it ever existed – is lost to us, and Helhest survives solely in Danish folklore.
Thoughts on Hel
Although Hel is something of a shady lady in the lore, with uncertain motives, she is an important goddess to many modern Heathens. She is seen as a goddess of the collective Norse pagan ancestors, and is called upon today to connect with and reconstruct the Heathen past at large – her realm seen as a sort of repository of lost traditional wisdom. Many see Hel as a goddess who is a helpful spiritual ally in resurrecting Northern paganism.
Her name was co-opted by Medieval Christians as the name for the Christian mythical place Hell, as part of the Christian colonization of pagan Europe. In associating the pagan afterlife with their place of damnation, the new religion hoped to stamp out pagan belief systems. The expression “go to Hel” originally seems to have meant simply “go to death.” While her brothers represent chaos and pain, Hel represents the reprieve that death brings to those who suffer in the end, and in the most elderly lore she comes out divine, not demonic. She hosts the god of light, Baldr and his entourage, and provides them a safe place to hide during the ravages of Ragnarök, ensuring their triumphant return to the new world that arises after.
She is regarded as both receiver and fetcher of the dead, and she is thought to be present in illness and the effects of old age. During the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, Hel was said to travel about 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.
Cross-culturally, Hel appears related to Greco-Roman Persephone, queen of the underworld, who is at once both glowing maiden and dark queen, and whose realm is also guarded by a dread hound. Saxo names Hel Latin Proserpine. Modern Heathens and Norse myth scholars alike have compared Hel with Hindu Kali: a goddess who confronts humans with the realities of death, and in so doing, offers freedom from fear, and renewed joy in living. These three goddesses may share an origin point in Proto-Indo-European culture.
Helheim is described as a somewhat dreary, grey place, like the Greco-Roman Fields of Asphodel. Neither a place to be feared, nor really a place of Elysium bliss. With the arrival of Baldr, Nanna, and Höðr however, Helheim becomes filled with laughter and joy. Hel herself hosts a magnificent feast for her guests of honour.
Some see her as a villain in league with her father, Loki by preventing Baldr from leaving Hel to rejoin the gods in Ásgard. She rides out of Hel with an army of the dead to fight with her father – which under the Norse kinship system she would have been obligated to do. Others note that Helheim provided a protective bunker from Ragnarök, allowing Baldr’s return, and ensuring the ultimate triumph of the gods. Many modern Heathens thus see Hel as a friend of Ásgard, despite her blood ties and kinship obligations to the trickster god, because she found a way to circumvent the rules of kinship to ensure the survival of a future world.
Signs and Symbols
Dark horses, graveyards, and corpses. The colours black and dark blue. Hoods, photographs of those who have died, rotting things. The rune Hagall.
Hella, Hela, Hell, Haljia, Haljon, and Proserpine (by Saxo Grammaticus).