Hel | Norse Mythology


In Norse mythology, Hel is the ruler of the underworld also called Helheim.

Hel as goddess of the dead is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, but is not attributed to the deity of the Aesir, but to the giants. Her skin is half of ordinary color, half bluish-black, which shows that she is half dead and half alive (sometimes she is also described as half old and half young).

Along with her siblings, the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent Jormungandr, she was brought to Asgard by the Aesir because the gods were afraid of Loki's children. While Fenrir was bound to the chain Gleipnir and the Midgard Serpent was thrown into the sea by Odin.

Hel was banished from Asgard, whereupon she founded her own kingdom in the north. There she fetches all those who have died of old age and illness. The warriors who died in battle reach Valhalla with the help of the Valkyries to Odin's table. The drowned belong to the sea goddess Rán. Even the gods are not immune to the fate of death, as the death of Baldr shows.

Etymology of Hel

In the Christian Bible, the word "hell" is found as Old High German hellia and Gothic halja as a direct translation of the Greek God Hades. The Old Norse name Hel is related to the German word Hölle (hell) and traces back to an Ur-Germanic *haljō ("hell, subterranean world of the dead") from the Germanic word root *hel, *hal (to conceal).

The term is also found in other Germanic languages: Gothic halja; Old English hell; Old High German hell(i)a, Middle High German and Old Frisian helle, Old Saxon hellja. The word is related to the New High German verb verhehlen ("to conceal") and thus denotes "that which is hidden."

In contrast to the Christian idea of hell as a place of punishment, the expression denoted the world of the dead without negative or positive connotation. The personification of Hel as the mistress of this world of the dead obviously took place only in the north.

Hel's Underworld 

After Hel's banishment from Asgard, she founded a realm in the north, where she takes to herself all people and beings who have died the "death of straw", i.e. found their death on the deathbed.

Her world Helheim is one of the worlds of Utgard and is located under the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. This world can only be reached via the death river Gjöll and the golden bridge Gjallarbrú, which is guarded by Móðguðr (Modgud).

The hellhound Garm guards the entrance to her realm. A return from this dark underworld is hardly possible. Hel's abode is called Eljudnir (misery) and her table is Hungr (hunger), her knife Sultr (disgrace) and her doorstep Fallandaforad (falling danger).

Her bed is Kor (coffin) and her bed curtain Blikjandabol (flashing doom). She is served by the maid Ganglot (carrying step) and the servant Ganglati (slow step).

The description of Helheim is contradictory: on the one hand it is a desolate and gloomy place, on the other hand it is a lively and warming one. Criminals such as murderers and thieves, as well as liars, will suffer eternal cold, pain and hunger there.

These people sometimes experience even greater torment of the dragon Nidhögg, which feeds on the flesh of the dead. Possibly approximations to or influences from the Christian view of hell already play a role here.

Hel is not only a "hidden" goddess, but also a just one. To some she is kind and loving, to others she is merciless and cruel. She unites apparent opposites, this is also reflected in her external appearance.

The goddess Hel in literature

Outside of the Edda, there are only a few old traditions of Hel as a goddess among the northern Germanic tribes, and none at all from other Germanic cultures. At the time of the medieval plague there are visions of Hel as a witch on a three-legged horse, who sweeps up the souls of the deceased with Grim Reaper.

Among the southern and western Germanic peoples, the realm of the dead is more commonly associated with Frau Holle. It is clear from her behavior that she was not a fearsome goddess, but is described as a just and kind woman despite frightening pranks and punishments.

The winter world of Frau Holle establishes references to the realm of the dead Helheim in the north. In addition to old legends, puns with Holle and hell also play a role.

These are, however, only from modern times, since Hel and Holle have the same Indo-Germanic root, but in Germanic times were *Helja and *Hulda and therefore had nothing to do with each other.

In the novel Odhins Trost by Felix Dahn from 1880, the goddess Hel is frequently referred to.

The path across the golden bridge into the realm of Hel is a central motif in Alexander Lernet-Holenia's novella The Baron Bagge (1936).