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Hel or Hela is considered a Goddess of Death and she is the eldest daughter of the giant Angrboda and the Trickster God, Loki. Sister of Fenrir and Jörmungandr (the serpent who holds the world), she is seen by many people as a divinity indifferent to the concerns of the living and of the dead. Her myth says that that she is the one who judges all the souls that pass through Helheim (Kingdom of Hel), the Norse underworld where the Goddess dwells. The place is seen as a beautiful but dark land with lots of ice.
Her nature is much debated and she is seen by many as “wicked”, lacking of feelings. Hel is neither good nor bad, she has a role to play, and she does it with great care and justice.
- Attributes: Queen and Ruler of the Realm of the Dead (Helheim)
- Symbols: Hagalaz Rune, Skulls, Crows
- Place: Scandinavia
|Illustration of Hel by WintersKnight|
In Norse mythology, death is seen as something natural and not scary. It is part of the natural cycle of life. Hel is responsible for receiving and judging the spirits of all who have not perished in battle, and according to their deeds in life, she guides them to one of the nine levels of Helheim, which can be some kind of paradise or a torment.
The name of the Goddess Hel means “hidden” in Old Norse, and that name refers to her appearance. She is described as having half body as a beautiful woman with long hair, and the other half being a skeleton. She is sometimes described as being half alive and half dead. Due to her appearance, she was sent to rule Helheim. The other Gods claimed discomfort as they looked at her.
One of the few surviving legends where the Goddess plays a major role is the death of Baldr (or Baldur), the Norse God of Light and son of the Goddess Frigga.
The legend says that Loki, Hel’s father, tricked to blind God Hodr, Baldr’s brother, and had Baldr killed by and arrow (or a spear in some versions) made of mistletoe, Baldr’s only weakness. His spirit went to Helheim. Hermodr (messenger of the Gods) volunteered to go talk to the Hel in the underworld and bring Baldr back. Odin lent him his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, and the God rode towards the gates of Helheim.
When he met Hel, he begged her to return Baldr’s life. The Goddess agreed to do so, but for this all living creatures should mourn his death. Baldr went out into the cosmos to lament the death of his brother, but a giantess named Thokk did not mourn, preventing Baldr from being resurrected. Thokk is presumably Loki in disguise.
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Beyond the grave
Hel rules the world beyond life, another plane of existence. Her role and appearance gave her a reputation for being a cruel entity and ignorance turned her into a way to frighten children and to make adults “walk a more virtuous way” instead of following their free will. In her essence, as we already said, she is neither good nor bad, just like the Goddess Nyx, for example. Sometimes she can be compared to the Goddess Kali.
Hel is in a privileged position as a guardian and housekeeper of all spirits who did not fall into battle. A role similar to Goddess Nephthys‘s role.
Because of her role, it is not uncommon for practitioners of shamanism or other magic practices to ask for her help in contacting the spirits of the dead through dreams or astral projection.
Reports say that if she is willing to help, she will appear in a dream or in a vision and she will extend her skeleton hand to be kissed. This is a test to judge those who are worthy of assistance, once accepting the deformities of others is a synonym of friendship and respect.
The word hell in English is derived from the name of the Goddess.
Hel in pop culture
Hel is a playable character in the online game Smite. The character is very faithful to the myth of the Goddess. She is described like guardian and judge of the dead, who decides who will be reborn or not. She has two forms, the first one is a blond woman with healing abilities and second one a more perverse representation, being a woman with long black hair and offensive abilities.
The Goddess is also a recurring demon in the Shin Megami Tensei series, being the only one capable of taming the dragon Nidhoggr.