Hel (Hella) is the Norse Goddess of the dead and underworld, ruler of the Land of Mist. Her name is thought to mean ‘hidden’, ‘to conceal’, or ‘to cover up’. To say to “go to Hel” is to die, as described in the ancient Norse manuscripts, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Heimskringla.
Hel is the youngest daughter of the trickster god Loki and the jötunn (giant) Angrboda. Her other siblings were the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr. Because she was born of a God and a Giantess, some say Hel is a half-goddess, who have higher standing then their half-god counterparts.
Hel was sent by Odin to the remote land Niflheimr/Helheimr, the lowest of the Norse Nine Worlds along the world tree Yggdrasil. Those who were killed in battle went to Odin’s hall in Valhalla or Freya’s hall in Fólkvangr, however the rest, including those that died from old age or illness, went to Hel’s court.
The Norse ‘Hel’ is not the same as the Christian concept of ‘Hell’. The lowest of the Norse Nine Worlds is alternately called Niflheimr, Niflhel, or Helheimr, thought to be a land of mist, snow and ice in the far north. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Múspellsheimr in the south was a land of fire and heat. Some divide the lowest worlds into Niflheimr, land of arctic cold and mist, and Helheimr/Niflhel, realm of the dead. Hel’s hall is called Elivdnir, meaning ‘Sleet Cold’, whose gates are guarded by Garnr the watch dog.
In the Christian ‘Hell’, the sins of man are punished. But in Niflheimr/Helheimr, Hel would determine the fate of the souls who entered her realm. The dead would transition through nine different stages of death, and seers and shamans from other worlds would journey there to consult with them.
Hel is described as having a gloomy appearance, being half alive, half dead. Also seen as half black, half white, representing both sides of the life spectrum. She is thought to have brought disease and plague to the world.
Although Hel is Queen of the Underworld and banished from Asgard, other Gods respected her judgement. In one case, the beloved God Baldr was killed by Loki’s treachery. Hel agreed to let Baldr return to the land of the living if all creatures on earth mourned for his death. All the world mourned for Baldr, except the giantess Thokk, who was really Loki in disguise. Due to this, Baldr was not released from the land of the dead.
In several pagan traditions, Hel represents the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess. She is seen as strong, powerful and fierce, full of wisdom and knowledge. However, her loneliness has made her hard and vindictive, unwilling to change and be compassionate towards others.
© A Year And A Day (2013)