In Norse mythology, Hel, which means “hidden” in Old Norse, is a being who presides over a realm with the same name. This realm receives a portion of the dead, with the phrase “to go to Hel” meaning to die. Hel is both a giantess and a goddess, and like many others, is featured in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda was made up of early, unclaimed Nordic stories, whereas the Prose Edda was written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. More information on both texts can be found here. Hel is also featured in the earlier 9th century text Heimskringla and the 10th century Eglis saga.
In the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda and the Heimskringla, Hel is referred to as a daughter of Loki and his giantess wife Angrboda. The “Gylfaginning” book of the Prose Edda details her appointment from Odin as the ruler of Hel in Niflheim. In Nordic mythology, this is the final area of the nine worlds. The Prose Edda tells of the Norse Pantheon discovering that Hel and her two siblings were prophesised to bring great disaster to the world, so Odin ordered them brought to him. These siblings were the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jormungand. While Hel was sent to govern Hel, Jormungand was sent to dwell in the ocean and Fenrir was chained. It was believed that the breaking of these chains would be one of the signs of Ragnarok.
Hel is commonly described as being half black and half white, with a permanently downcast appearance. As the leader of Hel, she has many servants and a form of authority over all nine worlds. Her many mansions must provide a place for all souls who are sent to her; commonly thought of as those of evil men. This realm is believed to be of great importance during the coming of Ragnarok.
One of the most prominent stories of Hel is again in the text “Gylfaginning.” This passage tells of the death and potential resurrection of a beloved god Baldr, who had been killed by Loki. Hermod, a son of Odin and Frigg, volunteered to negotiate with Hel for his release. Hel agrees to resurrect Baldr on the condition that “if all the things in the world, alive or dead, weep for him, then he will be allowed to return to the Æsir. If anyone speaks against him or refuses to cry, then he will remain with Hel.” A being, who is implied to be Loki dressed as a giantess, refuses to weep for Baldr and so he remains in her realm.
Jacob Grimm was particularly interested in Hel, or “Halja” as she is translated. He believed she was the personification of a self-absorbed and “un-restoring” female deity. From his research, Grimm believed that the “Helhest‚” a three-legged horse that roamed the Danish countryside bringing both plague and pestilence, was originally the horse of Hel. On Helhest, she was believed to have roamed the land collecting the souls she felt she was due.
Several 1st century CE medallions have been discovered and feature depictions of Hel. One of these shows a ride travelling down a slope and finding a female holding a sceptre. It’s been assumed that the downward angle indicates that the ride was travelling to Hel, being the final of the nine worlds. If this is the case, then the mythology of Hel dates to far before the Poetic and Prose Edda.
Hel has recently been the inspiration behind the character “Hela” portrayed by Cate Blanchett, in the Marvel film Thor Ragnarok.
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