Cross-posted from the CU Women’s Resource Center Blog
“Eljudnir [Rain-damp] is the name of her hall, Hunger her plate, Starving her knife, Ganglati her serving boy, Ganglöt her serving woman, Stumbling-Block the threshold that leads in, Kör [Sick-bed] her bed, her curtains Blíkjandaböl [Pale-misforune] her bedhangings. She is half dark blue and half flesh-colored. For this reason she is easily recognized and rather stooping but fierce” John Lindow, “Norse Mythology,” 172). Goddess of the Norse underworld, Hel reigns over the associates of death – disease, starvation – and has been interpreted by some to exist in a physical duality, one side of her dark with death, similar to a corpse whose skin has become purple or black with the release of gas from intestinal bacteria during putrefaction, the other half of her still alive and healthy.
Hel is one of Loki’s children, born of the giantess Angrboda. As I detailed in the post on Skadi giants were the acceptable target in Norse mythology, almost universally depicted as evil, vile, or mischievous, a stand-in for the Other or the foreigner. Hel is then from birth painted as a monstrous figure, born of a giantess and the god of mischief. Hel is also one of three monstrous siblings descended from Loki, her brothers being Fenrir, the wolf who will kill Odin at the end of time, and Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent, who bites his own tail, and upon releasing it will end the world, and who will kill and be killed by Thor. These three siblings have prophecies foretelling the mischief and woe the will cause, and when discovered by the Æsir, each are imprisoned in an attempt to mitigate the damage they will cause. Fenrir is fettered to an island, the Midgard serpent is cast into the sea by Odin, who also throws Hel into the underworld (also called Hel). However, Hel is also made guardian of the underworld, “given authority over the nine worlds.” She “has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age” (Snorri Sturluson, “Gylfaginning,” 27). Hel’s role is essential, in a mythos where only the best warriors who are killed in battle are chosen by the Valkyries to reside in Midgard in the afterlife at Odin’s side, preparing for the final Battle at Ragnarok. She is then in charge of everyone else: those who die due to accidents, sickness, old age, acts of nature, and presumably warriors who aren’t deemed to be great upon their death.
Within her own mythos Hel is lumped in with her terrible siblings, but among existing literature she causes no harm to the Æsir. After the beloved god Baldr is killed by a trick of Loki’s, an emissary is sent to get him back from Hel. Upon hearing how well loved Baldr was, Hel agrees to release him from death, but only if that love can be proven. If anyone speaks ill of Baldr or does not weep for him, he has to remain in Hel. The messenger goes to every being, and has them weep for Baldr, only to come upon the giantess Thanks (actually Loki in disguise) who refuses to weep, trapping Baldr in Hel. While this could potentially be read as Loki and Hel working together to placate the Æsir while still keeping Baldr dead, the texts never corroborate. Instead it reads more as if Hel became a benevolent ruler of the dead, willing to grant mercy -albeit to a god and not mortals – only to be checked by her father.
There are many gaps in what we know about the Norse mythos today, and most of what we do know has been filtered through Christian historians writing about the Norse pantheon as it was being pitted against Christianity and waning. Hel’s appearances are fairly limited in the existing texts and her character is not afforded a lot of depth, meaning she can be read multiple different ways. The Germanist Rudolf Simek holds that Hel existed only as a place in the Norse mythos, and not as a deity, but was later personified in Christian re-tellings. I like her as a deity. She could have been wholly one of the monstrous children of Loki, destructive and malevolent, in partnership with her father to deprive the Æsir of their must beloved son. Perhaps she was birthed fully-grown and autonomous, or she existed at one point as a young child, as in Frølich’s piece, scared but rebellious as Odin threw her into the realm that shared her name. She grew up among the pale hordes of the unglorious dead, coming into her own as the monarch of Hel, enraged at both Odin for casting her out, and Loki for doing nothing, abandoning his mischievous heritage to benevolently guard over the dead, cast aside by Odin just as she was. The widow dead of starvation and the boy too weak to heft his shield against a sword blow, brushed over by one-eyed Odin and his gleaming Valkyries, were gathered under Hel’s watch and within her hall. When Loki called upon her aid in trapping Baldr, she did not comply, but neither would she wholesale help the Æsir when they called, issuing her ultimatum with limited grace, while still pitting the two forces once more against one another. As Ragnaork came, she may have held back from the battle, joining neither her father and brothers nor the vainglorious Æsir, but instead ushering to her realm the multitudes that died as the nine worlds were destroyed, and protecting them as long as her hall stood against the earthshaking battle.