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Hel: Norse Goddess of the Dead
Category: Norse Mythology
Hel, also known as Hella, Holle or Hulda, was the Norse and Teutonic Goddess, Queen and Ruler of the Underworld, which was known as Niflheim, or Helheim, the Kingdom of the Dead.
The name Hel, quite literally means "one that hides" or "one who covers up." If you look at it as if it was the actual root of a name, you might discover that there appears to be a great many places which quite possibly may have been named after her, such as Holland, Helsinki, Holstein, Helvetia and Holderness.
The Prose Eddas offer the most frequently used description of the Goddess Hel's origin. There once was a giantess named Angrboda, who lived at a place known as Giantland. At one point in her life, Angraboda entered into a relationship with the Aesir demigod, Loki, and it was from that union that they produced three children. The first child was the devouring Lupine, Fenrir (Fenris)-Wolf, the second child was the wyrm, Iormungard, the Midgard serpent of the ocean that encircled the Earth, while the third child was simply known as Hel. These three children had spent much of their childhood growing up in Giantland.
In the Aesir Kingdom of Asgaard, several prophecies had been handed down to the Gods, warning them that three unique siblings would appear who would bring such terrible disaster, that nothing but evil would come of it.
When the Gods first learned about the children, they realized almost immediately that they might be the same children that they had been warned about. At first, they chose to believe that it was simply because of the terrible nature of their mother. Then, after they had considered it for a while, they came to realize that the children were the same ones mentioned in the prophecies; however, it was not because of who their mother was, that caused them such great concern; it was actually because of who their father was. Their father was Loki, who was known for causing great destruction and evil. Loki also happened to be the brother of Odin, the leader of the Aesir, which was a patriarchal and warlike tribe of Norse Gods and Goddesses.
Since there was no doubt that the children were Loki's, Odin decided that the best thing to do was find the children and then bring them back to Asgaard. That way they would be raised as Aesir. To accomplish that, Odin ordered the Gods to travel to Giantland, find the children, and then bring them back to Asgaard. The Gods did as Odin desired, and when they returned from Giantland the three children were with them.
Sadly, the child whose name was Hel had been born with the bones on one side of her body, fully exposed. That made things extremely difficult for Hel, because her appearance caused the other Gods to feel so uncomfortable that they avoided having anything to do with her. Being seen as an oddity, being avoided, and having no friends was very difficult for Hel to deal with. She was extremely unhappy, and filled with great loneliness and despair. After much deliberation, Hel made an important decision. She went to Odin and explained to him how difficult her life was there, and then she asked for his permission to leave Asgaard. Odin sympathized with Hel, so he granted her wish. Much more importantly, he also gave her the World of Niflheim, one of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology, to rule. He even went so far as to name that place after her, calling it Helheim or Hel. That was how Hel became the Goddess of the Dead.
In return for giving her Niflheim, Odin gave Hel certain responsibilities that she had to carry out in that realm. He charged her with caring for the souls of people who had died from sickness or old age, and for the souls of any other people whose deaths had not occurred through violence or in battle.
When warriors died in battle, their souls were split evenly between the Goddess Freyja and Odin. Freyja had the privilege of taking the first half of the souls of those warriors who had been slain in battle, while the remaining souls of the dead warriors belonged to Odin.
Hel settled into her Realm, and when the souls of the dead arrived there, it was she who judged them. It was also she who decided whether their souls were good or evil, and to what degree. Then, after Hel had made her assessment, she gave each soul it’s just reward. Depending upon how they had been judged, the souls of the dead were settled into one of the nine levels of Helheim, which ranged from what might be seen as a form of heaven, all the way down to the dark horrors of Neostrand (Naströnd), the abode of punishment, where snakes constantly dropped venom upon the wicked, and which appeared, in many ways, to be quite similar to the concept of Hell, that the Christians have always appeared to be so fond of.
Hel was frequently thought of as a Dark Mother Goddess, and she was known by other names and titles including the Goddess of Death and the Afterlife, the Underground Earth Mother, the Ruler of the Realm of the Dead known as Helgardh, and Nefele, the Goddess of Shadows. She was also worshipped in Denmark, as the Hyldemoer, or Elder Mother.
Other stories exist regarding the Goddess Hel. One of them is an Icelandic creation myth, which described how in the beginning, all that existed was a great chasm known as Ginnungagap, which led to Hel's fiery womb of regeneration deep within the Earth. On one side of the chasm were fiery volcanoes, while on the other side there was nothing except for cold water and ice. It was for that reason that Hel became known as the Mountain Mother, who dwelled deep within the Earth where the fire and the ice meet.
While the Prose Eddas describe Hel as having been born with one side of her skeleton showing, a variety of other descriptions exist as well. Hel’s physical description is, to say the least, unique. Some descriptions claim that she was half-black and half-white, half-rotting, similar to that of a corpse, or half dead, and half alive, with a grim expression on her face, and a sinister appearance of gloom.
It is interesting to note that Hel's appearance is believed, by some, to be the origin of the masked harlequin, which has frequently appeared as a standard character in Commedia dell'Arte, with a black side of a face, and a white side. In fact, Hel's physical description, much like that of the harlequin mask, exhibits the duality that exists in the world, which is inherent to both life and death.
Legend tells us that Hel had an eye of fire, which could only see that which was true, thereby making it impossible for anyone to hide anything from her. Looking at this in a different light, Hel may actually have been challenging the world to find the courage necessary to look behind the mask that was her appearance, so they might see her as she truly was inside.
The Vikings, however, refused to do that. Instead, they looked upon Hel's appearance as something to be feared, and they believed that nothing good would come of her. Indeed, the Vikings looked upon Hel's home as a horrible place, similar to the Christians’ idea of Hell. But Niflheim was in no way similar to the Christian's burning place of fire and brimstone. Rather, it was seen as being icy cold and filled with slush, cold mud and snow.
The Prose Eddas described the nine-ringed realm of Hel, as a place where the inhabitants kept up a constant wail. It described her palace as a miserable place known as Damp with Sleet, where the walls had been built with human bones and worms. They also claimed that Hel ate with a knife and fork called Famine, from a plate known as Hunger, and that her two servants were both named Slow-Moving. Her bed was known as a Sickbed, and the stone at the entrance to her hall was referred to as Drop-to-Destruction.
The Prose Eddas continued, by saying that the entryway to Hel's Realm was guarded by the hellhound named Garm, and that before you could reach the threshold, you first had to travel the Helvig, or troublesome road to Hel, past the strange guardian maiden named Modhgudh.
While the Vikings may have feared her, which appears to be quite evident from the Eddas, the Dutch, Gauls and Germanic people who were known, in comparison to the Vikings, as the common people, viewed Hel in a somewhat less frightening manner. They saw her as a gentler and kinder form of death and transformation, and they did not believe that Helheim was a place of punishment at all.
They tended to see Hel as an earth mother deity known as Mother Holle, who consisted of pure nature. It was in that role that Hel was believed to have great maternal aspects, and that she was known to help people in their times of need. Hel, however, also had another side to her, and she was quite capable of becoming vengeful, whenever it became necessary, towards anyone who might attempt to interfere with, or stop, the progression of natural law.
Some myths describe Hel as a Dark Goddess, similar in some ways to the Hindu Goddess Kali, but more frequently than not, she was thought of as the Nehellenia, which means the Nether Moon. Numerous altars and artifacts relating to her worship have been found throughout Germany, and they date as far back as approximately the Second Century, C.E. Evidence also exists that her worship spread from Holland, all the way to New Zealand, as late as the Fourteenth Century, C.E., and it was in that particular aspect that Hel was believed to grant safe passage to seafarers.
When someone died, and entered Hel’s realm, it was almost impossible, for anyone on Earth to get them back. That was the subject of one of the most well known of the Norse myths:
The Story of Baldur
The Goddess Frigg was Odin's second wife. She lived in the Hall known as Fensalir, or Marsh Halls, in Odin's Heavenly Kingdom of Asgaard, and together, she and Odin had two sons. One of their sons was the fair and beautiful Baldur, the God of Light, who Frigg had always been protective of, while their other son was Hoder, the Blind God of Darkness.
One day, Frigg happened to learn that her son, Baldur, had begun to have dreams in which his life was in danger. Frigg knew, through her gift of the "sight," that it was more than just a bad dream so, to be on the safe side, she traveled across the Earth, asking each and every thing in the world to refrain from harming her beloved son.
The other Gods refused to take the threat of danger seriously so they all began to throw weapons at Baldur, and they even shot arrows at him, just for sport. It really didn't matter what they did to him, because everything that they hurled at him was simply deflected away.
When Loki learned what Frigg had done, he dressed himself in the guise of an elderly woman, and then tricked Frigg into confiding in him. From that conversation, Loki learned that Frigg had made one exception to her plea, and that she had allowed a young sprig of mistletoe to refrain from taking the vow, swearing that it would not kill Baldur.
That gave Loki all the ammunition that he needed, in order to do what he did best, which was cause trouble. He immediately went out and gathered up a sprig of mistletoe, and then he returned to where the Gods were still hurling objects at Baldur. It was then that Loki tricked Hoder into using the shaft of mistletoe as an arrow, and when Hoder shot the arrow it hit Baldur, killing him at once.
Frigg desperately wanted to have her beloved son returned to her from the land of the dead, so she asked if there was anyone among the Aesir who would go to Hel for her, find Baldur, and then give Hel a ransom, so that Baldur would be allowed to return home. She also promised that whoever brought Baldur back would remain in her good graces forever.
It was Odin's son, Hermod the Bold, who volunteered to go to Hel and try and convince her that Baldur should be allowed to return home. Hermod traveled down the road that led to Helheim until there, before him, stood its tall and mighty gates. Getting over the gates to Hel was a difficult task, but Hermod knew exactly what had to be done. First, he dismounted from his steed. Then he struck his horse in its stomach, so that he might reduce the horse’s bloating, and then he tightened the saddle’s girth, until it was quite tight. Once that had been accomplished, he re-mounted, and then he spurred the horse so hard, that it simply jumped right over the tall gates.
When Hermod reached Hel's hall he dismounted, and there in front of him was Baldur, seated in the seat of honor. Hermod spent much of that evening visiting with Baldur, and when morning arrived he was granted an audience with Hel. It was then that Hermod begged Hel to allow Baldur to return home with him, telling her that every single one of the Aesir felt great sorrow because of Baldur's death.
Hel, however, was not very easily persuaded, so she told Hermod that she had to learn for herself whether all of the Aesir actually did love Baldur. For that purpose, Hel devised a test that was to be given to every one of the Aesir, to find out if Baldur truly was as beloved as Hermod had claimed him to be. The test was comprised of saying the words to each and every thing in the world, as follows: "And if all things in the world, alive and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Aesir, but be kept with Hel if any objects or refuses to weep."
Hermod quickly returned to Asgaard, and informed the Gods of Hel's decision. The Gods, in turn, immediately sent out messengers to every part of the land, requesting that every living thing in the world weep for Baldur, and they all agreed that they would do so. Then, when the messengers were returning home, they came upon a cave in which a giant woman named Thoekk happened to live, and it was she who refused to weep for Baldur. Because of Thoekk's refusal to weep for him, Baldur was remanded to Helheim until Ragnarok. Little did the Gods know, at that time, that the giantess Thoekk was actually Loki in disguise, and that he had added a few words to those of the messengers, saying "Let Hel keep what she has!"
Sometime later, Loki became so drunk at a feast held by the Gods, that he admitted to having taken on the form of the giantess Thoekk, thereby condemning Baldur to spend eternity in Hel's realm until Ragnarok. Loki's drunken admission began the beginning of the end, which will eventually lead to the final world battle between good and evil known as Ragnarok.
While the Vikings, who considered themselves to be strong and fearless, may have viewed Hel’s realm as a place of punishment and despair, others usually did not see it in that light, nor did they believe the Viking-influenced Eddas, and their dire description of Helheim. Unlike the Christian's Hell, which had been named after her, Hel's Realm was, in reality, nothing more than an Otherworld or Underworld, or a new and different plateau of existence. It was also a place of renewal, rather than a place of punishment and despair. The only ones to fear her were those who had good reason to. It was only they, who referred to her realm as Hell.
Hel has been described in a variety of different ways. There are those who claim that she is a destroyer; which in a way she actually is. However, when she does destroy something, she does so in it own proper time. That is why Hel can be looked upon, much like the Greek God Chronos, as a deity of time. As a Goddess of time, Hel takes on the role of entropy itself, and everything within the universe evolves towards a state of inert uniformity, which is a normal and completely natural event. When it comes right down to it, sooner or later everything will come to an end, which is exactly what should happen, as a part of its own cosmic destiny.
The Norse looked upon Hel as the supreme and inescapable ruler of fate and, much like the weaving Greek Fates, or the spinning and weaving Norns and Disir, not only did the Gods have no control over her, neither were they immune to her. That placed Hel in a very unique position.
Hel was not some form of death deity, who had specifically been created to rule over the Land of the Dead, nor did she gain her decaying visage when she became the ruler of that realm. She had simply been born with the bones on the left side of her body exposed. It had not been created purposely, nor had it been done out of contempt, or as a means of punishment. It simply happened. When Odin brought Hel to Asgaard, its inhabitants found themselves extremely uncomfortable because of her appearance. They were weak when they should have been strong, and they were, quite unfortunately, extremely insensitive to Hel’s feelings; so much so, that they made her feel alone and ostracized, which was, indeed, an extremely great tragedy.
It was for that reason that Odin gave Hel, Niflheim, to be her own and for her to rule over. By Odin giving her Niflheim, Hel finally found a place where she could feel comfortable, just being herself; a place where no one would see her as anything other then what she truly was. That was a very wise decision on Odin’s part, and it also showed, surprisingly enough, that good can occasionally come out of patriarchy, which has been known, all too often, to do the opposite; especially when it comes to placing women in positions of great power.
Hel is a Goddess who was given a home and a job to do, and she did her job exceptionally well. She took her responsibility, that of judging people’s souls, quite seriously and then, after she had judged them, she granted them the type of existence within her realm that she felt they deserved; which might have been anything from a heaven-like Otherworld, all the way down to the horrors of a Christian type of Hell. Hel is a Goddess who should be respected and admired, rather then feared. Unless, of course, you have done something unworthy, which might give you reason to fear her. But that’s not really Hel's problem, is it? It is yours.
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