Hel is attested in the Prose and Poetic Edda, 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.
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 Hel is in the realm of Niflheim. Regardless of its physical location, the bridge to Hel is always guarded by a vicious, bloody 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 confused as to whether she is a divine or demonic figure, for she is both beautiful and harrowing all at once.
The expression “go to Hel” originally 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 rather than 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.
Hel is the daughter of Loki and Angrboða, and is assigned dominion of the Underworld. 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 being alive and sanguinous and the other blue and cold. Some portray her as part damsel, part skeletal corpse, and the colours black and blue are a poetic reference from the era meaning dead.
In Northern Tradition the immortal soul lives on in a spiritual abode dependent on the quality of the life lived, with multiple afterlife possibilities. Like a hotel rating system, there are different levels of accommodation. Helheim as a whole is the destination of lives of no noteworthy achievement: a “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 – get to stay in Hel’s hall, Éljúðnir, where they can feast with her. If you more than wasted your life, actively fucked up the lives of others, took not only more than your share, but other’s too, you could be denied entrance to Hel’s halls, and be left outside in a frozen waste called Niflhel.
Beyond that is the realm of Náströnd, where the dragon Níðhöggr chews on the corpses of the honourless dead: murderers, oath-breakers, Monsanto, and Nestlé. Alternatively, the honourless dead bob around an eternal bath in an acid lake. Both seem fairly appropriate and unpleasant.
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 describe 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.
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 – her realm seen as a repository of lost traditional wisdom. Many see Hel as a goddess who is a helpful spiritual ally in resurrecting Northern paganism.
She is 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 in Greco-Roman tradition as Persephone, queen of the underworld, who is at once both light and dark, glowing maiden and dark queen, and whose realm is also guarded by a dread hound. Saxo uses Persephone’s Latin name, Proserpine, for Hel in his writings. Modern Heathens seem to see Hel in a very similar light to how many seem to see her Hindu counterpart Kali: a goddess who confronts humans with the realities of death, and in so doing, offers freedom from fear, and a renewed joy in living. These three goddesses seem to share an obvious origin point in Proto-Indo European culture.
Hel is a hard goddess. Although she is divine, and far from evil, she is uncompromising and unconcerned with feelings. She has a detached, impersonal compassion. Helheim is described as a somewhat dreary, grey place, like the Greco-Roman Fields of Asphodel, or Catholic Purgatory. It is neither a place to be feared, nor really a place where a lot of awesome fun happens. 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. 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.
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, Hell, Haljia, Haljon, and Proserpine (by Saxo Grammaticus).