Hel: The Goddess of Death

Short Facts Tribe: Aesir Goddess of: death, the underworld and the condemned Daughter of: Loki and Angrboda Sister of: Fenrir …

Short Facts

Tribe: Aesir

Goddess of: death, the underworld and the condemned

Daughter of: Loki and Angrboda

Sister of: Fenrir and Jormungand

Other names: Hela

Hel responsibilities

Death and the Afterlife, holding the damned, passing judgment, revenge and ruling over her realm

Hel spirit animal

Garm, her black hound

Hel, the female being, holding a staff, and flanked by the hound Garmr.
Johannes Gehrts, via Wikimedia Commons

Hel weapon/domain of power

Accept and have power over the coward and dishonorable dead, decide who lives and dies, aid from her horrifying siblings – Fenrir and Jormungand – her dark realm Helheim, her servants Ganglati and Ganglot, and her snow-beaten hall Eljudnir

The Queen of the Dead

Hel is a powerful female being in the Norse mythology that commands the disgraceful dead. Her name means hidden or concealed in Old Norse, and she is the ruler of the underworld, which is named after her; Helheim. The old texts say nothing about Hel’s tribe therefore it is not sure if she is an Aesir goddess or a Jotunn. She is the daughter of Loki, the god of mischief, and the Jotunn Angrboda. Her fearsome siblings are the giant wolf, Fenrir, and the world serpent, Jormungand.

One day, Odin Allfather hurled Hel from the edge of the sky into the very depths of the earth. There, Hel took control of the underworld, named it after herself, Hel or Helheim, and proclaimed herself Queen of the Dead. Those who died of old age, illness, accidents, or were deemed cowards and generally dishonorable ended up in Helheim, where Hel would hold sway over them till Ragnarok.

Hel’s appearance is a really appalling one. Her face and body are half-colored; one half is black or blue just like the dead, and the other half is white as the living. She has a cruel and greedy personality, and a ferocious and harsh expression is always on her face.

Hel’s illustrious dweller

The only story involving Hel is the one about the death of the shining god, Baldur. When Loki armed the hand of Hodr and caused the tragic death of the god Baldur, the Aesir sent Hermod, the messenger of the gods, to Hel to plead with her to release the beloved god of light. Hel, her heart made of ice, wouldn’t let her most notable resident to leave so easily. So, she told Hermod that if everything in the Nine Realms wept for Baldur then she would let him go back to the world of the living.

In the end, everything did weep and mourn for the dearly loved god except for one giantess named Thokk, who was no other than Loki in disguise. Because of that, Baldur was destined to remain in the underworld. Absolutely no one could persuade Hel to think otherwise and release Baldur, hence the lady of the dead would keep the dear god in her hands until the coming of Ragnarok.

In her realm, shrouded in perpetual gloom, where no one, not even the king of the gods, Odin Allfather, can stay under her hand, Hel reigns from the beginning and she shall rule until the Twilight of the Gods.

Mentions

In the Poetic Edda, in the poem Voluspa, Helheim is called Hel’s halls.

In the poem Grimnismal, Hel is mentioned living under one of the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil.

In the poems Fafnismal and Atlamal, Hel is referred to as a place of damnation.

An illustration of Hermóðr riding to Baldr in Hel, from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.
Ólafur Brynjúlfsson, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Prose Edda, in the book Gylfaginning, there are many attestations of Hel. As one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, Hel (and her siblings) is cast out of heaven and thrown to the blackest pits of Niflheim – later to become Helheim. There, Odin decrees Hel to remain forever, rule, and accept those who die of sickness and old age. There is also a detailed description of Hel’s domain and appearance; her great mansions, her snow-beaten hall Eljudnir and her servants Ganglati and Ganglot. Later on, the account of Baldur’s death is given in full with Hel’s active part in it.

Hel is also mentioned in the books Skaldskaparmal, Ynglinga Saga and Egils saga.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Why was Hel thrown into the underworld?

A. Prophesies suggested that Loki’s offspring would bring great mischief and disaster to the gods, so Odin decided to get rid of them. While he bound Fenrir at the expense of a good arm for Tyr, and hurled Jormungand into the sea that encircles the Nine Realms, he chose to make Hel the ruler of the underworld.

Q. What is the difference between Niflheim and Helheim?

A. There is truly no difference. Before Odin sent Hel down there the underworld was called Niflheim; the World of Mist. When Hel appeared face down in the dirt, she named it Helheim, her realm, and in truth, it became darker and much more dangerous.

Q. Is Hel an Aesir goddess or a Jotunn?

A. Hel was born and raised in Jotunheim. Her father is half god and her mother is a Jotunn. She also has a giant wolf and a massive serpent for siblings. Does that make her a goddess? Maybe not, but it doesn’t make her a Jotunn either. The old texts don’t say anything about her identity. Yet, it is easy to think of Hel as a goddess since she rules the underworld just like Odin rules Asgard.