Someone on tumblr requested a rundown on Hel based on the scholarly sources I had and the direct lore. I meant to post it here and link there but did not. Putting the post here for my own records.
So, first the very basics.
Hel is stated to be the daughter of Loki and Angrboda along with her siblings Jormungandr and Fenrir. Her parentage makes her a jotun. According to Snorri’s Prose Edda in Gylfaginning Odin is foretold of the danger Loki’s offspring will cause and he places them all in locations that will minimize their damage. Hel is thrown into Niflheim (Fog-Home/World) to take charge of the dead who don’t die in battle and go to Valhalla aka the old and sick. Hel the being is difficult to distinguish from Hel the realm at times.
According to Snorri, “Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.” In many sources, you see mention of the Helveg (Hel-road) and her hall is commonly described as being surrounded by a wall sometimes called Helgrind (Hell-gate), Nágrind(Corpse-gate), and Valgrind (Carrion-gate).
Also according to Gylfaginning, once Baldr is killed Frigga sends Hermodr on Sleipnir to traverse the Helroad and ask Hel is she would release Baldr. Hel refuses unless “all things in the world weep for him.” Frigga goes around asking all things to weep and is successful until she encounters a gygr (giantess) named Thakk who refuses to weep saying let Hel keep what she has. Many believe this to be Loki in disguise.
So that’s the basic rundown. I’ll examine these points for further information to be gleaned about Hel:
Hel is the only one of her siblings stated to be a woman. This is likely due to the fact that death is strongly hinted at as being a feminine realm of power. Afterall, it is feminine entities (the Norns and valkrjur who weave the fate of humanity), women who can sway the strings of fate, and Odin and Freyja who take in the slain dead (with Odin as a practitioner of seidr being firmly in the “feminine” category by Old norse views.
Gender isn’t the only thing that makes her standout among them. Unlike her brothers, Hel does not take an active role at Ragnarok. Her role is passive. In this vein, unlike her brothers Hel is not a big Monstrous Other Who Will Destroy. Rather, she is a keeper of balance. Her role is to take care of the dead and to keep them from roaming the earth. In this way, she is of two worlds like her father. This liminality and precarious balance is visually represented in her appearance of being half foul, half fair. She embodies both world of life and death in not just function but also physicality.
It’s notable that the realm that Hel is placed in charge of is is the fog-laden land of Niflheim. You see, both have strong connections to plague and sickness. This Danish legend says:
Her var en flok unge mennesker samlet i en lade, hvor de forn0jede sig hele natten med spil og dans. Da kom der pludselig et ildhjul ind i laden, og da man sa nxmere til, var det en buk pa tre ben, der hoppede omkring, og de kaldte den Hel. Men den naeste morgen var en del afgaesterne syge og herfra bredte sygdommen sig videre over hele landet, og da denne dod ogsa lod sig se i skikkelse afen hvid hest, kunne man folge dens vej fra den ene by til den anden. [Thiele 1968:II, 50]
Here a group of young people were gathered in a barn, where they enjoyed themselves the whole night with game and dance. Suddenly, a fire wheel came into the barn, and when one looked closer at it, it was a three-legged goat which hopped around, and they called it Hel. But the next morning, a number of the guests were ill and from here the disease spread over the entire country, and as this death also let itself be seen in the shape of a white horse, one could follow its path from one town to another.
(The horse noted is the helhest of Danish legend.)
While there isn’t a specific legend provided, Tangherlin provides a table of data showing that a common way that the plague was believed to travel was by fog or mist. It’s likely not coincidence then that Hel, being the entity who takes in those who die of sickness, lives in and rules a realm full of the substance that spreads disease. It’s also highly notable then that sickness was unable to travel over water and that in many beliefs about the realm of death, it too lay over the water.
You see, Norse beliefs about the dead were not consistent in the slightest. Without even getting into the whole “Valhalla maybe didn’t really exist or likely at least not in the way we think of it” discourse, there’s a huge amount of diversity in the way that the afterlife was conceived of. This is made clear in the variety and inconsistency of Old Norse burial practices.The variety is truly astounding but that’s another topic. What’s relevant to this one is the huge popularity of ships in burials. Now this didn’t just include being buried in a ship but also having ships engraved upon headstones. Additionally, the kings in Yngling saga were frequently buried next to a river as if to make their departure to the afterlife via water more feasible. Also, according to Snorri, the ashes of the deceased were commonly thrown to sea. Even Baldr was sent off to Hel’s realm in a ship. Clearly, ships were likely at least one way for one to traverse to the realm of the dead.
Thus, going back to Hel ruling over the land of plague like the dead she kept she possibly was to control the plagues and keep them away from mankind like she kept the dead away as well. This is speculation but it would make sense, making her a further liminal figure bridging life and death in one being.
Ships were clearly not the only way to get to Hel’s realm as Hermodr was able to get there on the back of Sleipnir. I have written prior here and here on how horses were liminal animals able to traverse boundaries other beings couldn’t. Considering that Hel is a liminal being herself and the horse can access her realm , it’s not shocking to see then that the helhest (hel-horse) was a symbol of hers. And as the legend above showed, it was a spreader of plague.
Last, I want to examine Snorri’s portrayal of Hel. He portrays her realm and by association Hel the being as merciless and cold-hearted. This seems to be definitively at odds with how she was actually viewed. In the
eleventh-century poem lausavísa by Þórbjörn Brúnason, the line is stated that a woman “wishes the apples of Hel” for the poet. While this is a deathwish, in order for it to make sense Larrington notes, it is dependent upon Hel being viewed as a gracious hostess. Additionally, in Baldrs draumar, it is noted that Odin asks the seeress “For whom are the benches bright with rings, and the platforms gay bedecked with gold?“ This portrays Hel’s hall as a bright and welcoming place starkly in contrast with Snorri’s foreboding almost certainly Christian Hell-inspired depiction. Therefore, it is almost certainly more correct to see Hel as a welcoming and kindly figure with a warm hall as opposed to a cruel goddess.
Norse Mythology by John Lindow
Ships, Fogs, and Traveling Pairs: Plague Legend Migration in Scandinavia by Timothy R. Tangherlin
The Road to Hel by Hilda Ellis Davidson
HOLY ISLANDS AND THE OTHERWORLD: PLACES BEYOND WATER by Eldar Heide
Loki’s Children by Carolyne Larrington
Sleipnir and his Siblings: Some Thoughts on Loki’s Monstrous Offspring by Anne Monikander
The Gendering of Death in Eddic Cosmology Judy Quinn
Mythic Acts: Material Narratives of the Dead in Viking Age Scandinavia by Neil Price