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.


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).


The Cult of the Goddess Leto

Leto is the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe. Her name is probably some variant of unseen or hidden. She is often depicted wearing a veil implying matronly modesty as one of her main attributes. In Greek myth Leto is the goddess of motherhood and modesty and is, along with her divine twins, a protector of young children.

Leto is the mother of Artemis and Apollo, whose father is Zeus.  As with most of Zeus’ affairs outside of his marriage to Hera, Hera was jealous of Leto and chased her from country to country as she tried to rest to give birth to her twins.  She finally found rest on the island of Delos. This is why Delos is sacred to Apollo and Artemis.

Although often pictured among the Olympian gods, playing the lyre, she is not generally considered one of the 12 Olympian gods.

Leto is one of a multiplicity of female moon and fertility goddesses that were adopted by the Greeks as they came in contact with other cultures, particularly those in Asia Minor (now Turkey).  Leto was the primary goddess of Lycia in Anatolia. She is also strongly associated with the island of Kos, which was considered her birthplace.

When being worshipped, Leto is most often associated with her more important children.  Her most important cultic centers seem to be Kos, Lycia and Phaistos on Crete, where she seems to be the goddess of a mystery cult.  But she had temples and altars throughout the Greek world.

Around Athens in Attica; Leto had a temple in which the local sailors had dedicated weapons taken from the Persian during the Persian War.

The Greek travel writer Pausanias in his Description of Greece written in the 2nd Century AD makes many mentions of Leto’s cultic sites.

In Megara was a sanctuary to Apollo with a “noteworthy statue” of Leto “made by Praxiteles.” (Pausanias; 1. 44. 2)

In Argos, “is the sanctuary of Leto; the image is the work of Praxiteles.” Also near Argos was “a sanctuary of Artemis Orthia” with “white-marble images of Apollon, Leto and Artemis, which they say are works of Polykleitos.” (Pausanias; 2. 21. 9 and 2. 34. 5)

In Sparta:  “On their market-place the Spartans have images of Apollon Pythaios, of Artemis and of Leto.” (Pausanias; 3. 11. 9)

At Therai , also in Lacaedaimonia there had “been dedicated [statues of] Leto.” (Pausanias; 5. 17. 3)

At the city of Mantineia in Arcadia: “The Mantineans had a sanctuary of Leto and her children, and their images were made by Praxiteles.” (Pausanias; 8. 9. 1)

At Tanagra in Boeotia: “are images of Artemis and Leto.” And also was a temple to “Apollo joined [by] Artemis and Leto.” (Pausanias; 9.20.1 and 9.22.1)


Pausanias,  Description of Greece at Perseus:text:1999.01.0160&redirect=true

An Overview of Ancient Greek Goddesses

As with all polytheistic peoples the ancient Greeks worshipped a wide variety of gods and goddesses. Each of these multiple gods and goddesses generally had their specific areas of responsibilities.  Most gods would handle “masculine” activities such as war, protection and trade, whereas most goddesses had responsibilities for “feminine” activities such as child birth and the household.

Throughout the long history of the Greek people in ancient times they were perfectly willing to “induct” foreign deities into their pantheon and also as different waves of invaders such as the Doric speakers moved into Greece proper they also simply adopted the gods or goddesses of the locals and blended them into a wide spread pantheon of diverse deities. One cogent theory is that the Doric Greeks worshipped male deities that represented natural elements, like Zeus the lightening thrower or Poseidon the Earth-shaker and also protected the tribe, whereas the earlier inhabitants worshipped fertility and moon goddesses. Thus the Olympian pantheon is a blending of these two traditions; along with deities borrowed from other cultures, such as Leto and Apollo.

Hera is queen of the gods, wife and sister to Zeus. Her main responsibilities seem to be women in general and marriage. This is a bit ironic, as it seems she was reluctant to marry Zeus and of course he was never a faithful husband.  Hera is one of the goddess that was added to the Classical Greek pantheon, originally being the protective city goddess of Argos, Sparta and Mycenae.

Athena is the goddess of wisdom, defensive war, patroness of the city of Athens and goddess of weaving and other home crafts as well. She was said to have sprung fully grown from Zeus’ head.  Her position as Patroness of Athens shows that she like Hera was an incorporated goddess.

Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and is associated with fertility and agriculture.  She is one of the original fertility goddesses and was worshipped long before she was adopted into the Olympians.

Artemis is another of the pre-Greek goddesses adopted by the Greeks. She is the goddess of the hunt and wilderness and also virginity.  She is often portrayed as the twin sister of Apollo, which could mean her original cultic center was in Asia Minor just as Apollo’s was.

Aphrodite is the goddess of love, sex and female beauty. She is a late addition to the pantheon and even the Early Classical Greeks were aware of her foreign origins by making her birth place Cyprus.  There were many other goddesses worshipped by the Greeks, such as Leto and Selene. These goddesses were generally borrowed from Asia and were representatives of fertility or moon goddesses.

Winter Solstice and the Story of the Holly King

The Holly King is one aspect of the Horned God or Green Man, sometimes called Cernunnos.  The Holly King rules the year from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, when he is killed and replaced by the Oak King, who then rules from midwinter to midsummer.  In some traditions the two kings are twin brothers that constantly fight over the “wheel of the year,” with one killing the other, only to be later replaced by his magically resurrected brother. Many neo-pagans have adopted this legend.

Of course, this story reflects the nature worshipping aspects of Celtic religion as each king in turn represents different times of the year.

In some traditions, the Oak King defeats the Holly King and sacrifices him at midwinter, with Yule being the Holly King’s farewell.

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reflects this tradition in the Arthurian cycle.  The Green Knight shows up at Camelot on New Year’s Day. He is dressed all in green, wearing holly in his hair and bearing an axe. The Green Knight challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him one blow. In return, the Green Knight will strike the same blow in one year’s time. Gawain, Arthur’s youngest knight, takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with a single stroke. The Green Knight calmly picks up his head and tells Gawain to meet him in a year.  If the Green Knight and Gawain story were strictly following the legend, they would meet again in six months, not a year.

According to Sir James Frazer in his “The Golden Bough”, the Holly King and Oak King also represent two sides of the divine monarchy archetype, in which the king is actually a god or aspect of a god on earth. As he grows old and weak, he will be killed and replaced by a younger and more powerful divine king.

In many societies this sacrifice was very real and took place annually, at either midwinter or midsummer.  Later, ritual combat took the place of actual combat, without the actual killing of either of the “kings.” Later still, the combat aspects were completely dropped, and the two parts were acted out by men wearing masks to represent either of the two kings.

Some current Christmas traditions have descended from the Holly King legend, like displaying holly sprigs and mistletoe (representing the oak) at the holiday.  Also, in some representations the Holly King appears as a kind of woodland Father Christmas or Santa Clause, driving a sleigh pulled by eight stags, dressed in long robes with a crown of holly on his hair.


Besserman, Lawrence. “The Idea of the Green Knight.” ELH, Vol. 53, No. 2. (Summer, 1986), pp. 219-239. The Johns Hopkins University Press

Frazer, James George,  (1974)  “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion”  Volume 6.  MacMillian Publishing.

Graves, Robert, (1966) “The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux