Hel was the Norse ruler of the underworld, the daughter of the fire god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. This made her a sister to the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jormungand. When Odin learned of her and her monstrous siblings’ existence, he knew that he needed to take action, and he banished Hel to the under world. This realm, called Helheim, Niflhel (as distinct from Niflheim, the realm of darkness) or simply Hel, became Hel’s domain and the seat of her power.

Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts
Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts

She was sometimes portrayed as a living woman with a corpse’s legs and thighs, symbolizing her place as ruler of the realm of the dead without being dead herself. Alternatively, it was said that her body was half black or rotten and half pales kin-coloured, which made her easy to recognize.

Anyone who died from sickness or old age went to Hel, which was a cold, gloomy place, much like its mistress, who always looked downcast and grim. Hel herself lived in a hall called Eliudnor and sat on a throne called “Sick Bed”. She possessed a dish called “Hunger” and a knife called “Famine”, and was attended by two servants, Ganglati and Ganglot. Her realm was guarded by the hound Garm, who prevented the dead from leaving. The way into Hel was over a bridge called the Gjallarbrú which spanned the river Gjöll and was guarded by the maiden Módgrudr.

The alternative to Hel was Valhalla, a much more pleasant place of drinking and celebrating, which could only be reached via a glorious death in battle. This was the reason why fighting and dying well was so important in Norse culture: it was the only way into the better afterlife, the only means of avoiding Hel.

Hel was not technically a goddess, but she fulfilled the role of goddess of the dead. Like her counterpart in Greek culture, Hades, she was not particularly cruel. She was a grim, unpleasant figure, but she did not cause trouble for the gods or humans or inflict pain or punishment. The Christian“hell” is derived from Hel etymologically, but the concept is different. Hel was not a place of punishment for the wicked, it was simply the underworld, the place where people went after they died. Hel’s name implies that she might be linked to the German “Frau Holle”, a figure in a morality tale about an innocent, helpful girl and her spoiled, wicked stepsister;the German word for hell is “Hölle” and also derives from “Hel”.

Although she was no match for Odin initially, once he cast her into the underworld and she found her place there, Hel’s power over the dead was stronger than Odin’s. This was made clear when Balder was killed and Frigg tried to bring him back from the dead. Hel was in a position to set conditions and make demands, telling Frigg that if every living thing grieved for Balder, she would let him go, and refusing to do so when this condition was not met.



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