The History and Significance of the Norse Goddess Hel

Hel is the Norse goddess of the dead and the underworld. She is the daughter of Loki, the trickster god. Her siblings are the great wolf Fenrir and Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent. She is described as half-black and half-white and having a gloomy, down-cast appearance as befits the goddess of the dead. Odin, the king of the Gods, and All-Father, appointed her to the position of queen of the underworld. Her job is to not only to rule the underworld, but also to judge the souls that come to her.

Hel rules over vast mansions and over the many servants in her realm which is also called Hel. The gates of Hel are massive; they open and close as the dead approach, shutting behind those who pass it and will not open to let them out again. It is also cut off from the world of the living by a fast flowing river, the Gjöll, which is crossed by the bridge, golden Gjallarbrú. Hel is the final destination of those who die of natural causes, such as old age or illness. Hel is a very dark and a very damp place, it is sometime thought of as part of Niflheim, so it is also very cold. It was a far less desirable afterlife than Valhalla, so warriors would cut themselves with weapons before dying in order to trick Hel into thinking that they had died heroic deaths in battle and not take them into Hel.

The goddess Hel’s name is rarely mentioned directly in the sagas. Instead she is spoken about indirectly, as Loki’s daughter or as the daughter of Odin’s enemy or simply as the goddess of death. Also Hel is rarely pictured in any Norse art work or jewelry. This is mostly because of the superstition that anyone that says her name or depicts her could draw the dread goddess’ unwanted attention.

The folklorists the Brothers Grimm stated that Hel was most likely the Norse archetype of the dark, judging goddess similar to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Other mythologists think that Hel is a late development in Norse mythology, maybe as late as the 10th or 11th Centuries, after the Norse pagans came into contact with Christianity. Further, many scholars think that Hel is more of a personification of death and the afterlife than an actual goddess with a distinct, well-developed personality. In these theories, Hel as a both a goddess and as a place of punishment are more or less directly borrowed from the Christian concept of Hell, or Gehenna.

Sources:

Byock, Jesse. Trans. The Prose Edda. (Penguin Classics, 2005).

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, vol. IV. (Courier Dover Publications, 2004).

Simek, Rudolf, Trans. by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. ( D.S. Brewer,2007.)

Scudder, Bernard , Trans. The Sagas of Icelanders. (Penguin Group 2001).

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