Going to Hel: the Goddess and the Place

In Norse myth Hel is a place and a person, like the Greek Hades. The word hel means “hidden,” linked to hylja, “to cover”. Lindow speculates it may have referred to the grave at first, since that is where the dead live (171). Both he and Rudolf Simek (138) seem to think Hel was just a personification of the place, perhaps because unlike Hades, she has very little myth attached to her.

If she was a personification only, she is a vivid one. One side of her body resembles a beautiful maiden, but the other resembles a rotting corpse, and her two brothers are the World-Serpent and the Fenris Wolf. The World-Serpent lies in the sea, encircling the earth. (The Norse saw the earth as a flat disk with the ocean around it.) The Fenris Wolf will swallow the sun at Ragnarök, and was bound by the Aesir to keep him from devouring everything now.

All three, in other words, put limits on creation: the world-serpent makes the boundary in space, the wolf limits time, since when he breaks free the world will end, and Hel awaits us after death.

All three belong to the giants, since their parents are the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. (Her name means “the one who brings grief”, so we know what to expect.) As a trickster god, Loki specializes in crossing or breaking boundaries, but his three children set firm limits.

“The children of Loki” (1920) by Willy Pogany. Wikimedia.

Place or Person?

The Greek word Aides, “all-receiver” or “hidden”, referred to both the gods and his realm. In the same way, Hel was both the place and the person. In a paper called “Hel in Early Skaldic Poetry,” Christopher Abrams bravely tried to distinguish which was which.

He came up with only two uses of the name Hel to mean the goddess in Eddic poetry, and only one unambiguous one, from Grimnismal:

31. Three roots grow in three directions
Under the ash of Yggdrasill;
Hel lives under one, under the second, the frost giants,
the third, humankind.

There is also a reference in Völuspá which seems like it could read either way, except it seems to be setting up a contrast between Odin’s realm above and Hel’s beneath:

43. Golden-combed crowed for the Aesir,
he wakens the warriors at the the Lord of Hosts’;
and another crows down below the earth,
a sooty-red cock in the halls of Hel.

On the other hand, Vsp. 47, mentioning to the “roads to Hel”, seems to refer to the place, and Grim. 28 names the rivers that flow into Hel. Vafthrudnismal (43) also mentions Hel as the destination of the dead. So it seems like both meanings existed side by side. (The idea of a road to Hel also occurs in Baldr’s Dream, Brynhild’s Hel-Ride, and the story of Hermod’s journey to Hel.)

You could read two more references to Hel either way:

Atlamal:

55. There were four of us brothers when we lost Budli,
now Hel has half of us, two lie cut down here.

Fafnismal:

21. “Thy counsel is given, | but go I shall
To the gold in the heather hidden;
And, Fafnir, thou | with death dost fight,
Lying where Hel shall have thee.”

Valkyrie of the inglorious dead

I mentioned already how Völuspá 43 sets Hel’s hall against Odin’s. The idea seems to have appealed to other writers as well, notably Snorri Sturluson. In her book The Road to Hel Davidson observes in passing that:

certain supernatural women seem to have been closely connected with the world of death, and were pictured as welcoming dead warriors, so that Snorri’s picture of Hel as a goddess might well owe something to these. (84)

Snorri Sturluson, who wrote the Prose Edda, depicts Hel as an inversion of Valhalla, the place where warriors went after death. Unlike Valhalla, a hall in heavenly Asgard, Hel lies “downward and northward” (Gylfaginning, ch. 49) and it is a miserable place:

Hel he [Odin] threw into Nifhelheim and gave her authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to all who come to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age. She has great mansions and her walls are exceptionally high and the gates great. Her hall is called Eliundnir, her dish Hunger, her knife Famine, the servant Ganglati, serving-maid Ganglot, her threshold where you enter Stumbling-block, her bed Sick-bed, her curtains Gleaming-bale. She is half black and half flesh-coloured – thus she is easily recognizable – and rather downcast and fierce-looking.
(Gylf. ch. 34)

Valhalla, on the other hand, is beautiful and gleaming, with beautiful valkyries serving ever-flowing drink while the food renews itself endlessly.

Was Death Sexy?

Lindow bases his argument that Hel was originally a place on the fact that in older poetry people are said to be “in” Hel rather than with Hel. Both he and Simek point out that Snorri’s version of Hel is heavily influenced by Christian ideas, and I would trace the Valhalla-Hel contrast to the same set of ideas. (The idea of casting Hel into well, Hel, has an obvious Christian parallel with Lucifer.)

But the idea of Valhalla came before Christianity, and it would have resonated with warriors and raiders – free food and drink, combat without consequences, attractive women who don’t interfere in one’s pleasures. The downgrading of Hel probably started with these men’s contempt for those who died a “straw death” (in their beds).

But Hel goes further than the valkyries in one poem, the Ynglingatal, which lays out the history of the Swedish kings of the Yngling dynasty. It mainly records how each one dies, which if we believe the poet was in anywhere but their beds. (You get the impression that dying in an ordinary way, as opposed to drowning in a vat, or being taken into a mountain by an evil dwarf, was their version of a shameful death.)

The poet, Thjodolf of Hvin, puts an erotic spin on their deaths:

Hel has Dyggvi’s dead body at gamni ‘for her pleasure’ (Ynglingatal 7,4), and as Loka mær ‘daughter of Loki’ she has of leikinn (both ‘destroyed’ and ‘sported with’) allvald Yngva þjóðar ‘the sole ruler of Yngvi’s nation’ (Ynglingatal 7, 9-12)
(McKinnell: 72)

McKinnell seems to see this as part of a sacred king myth, but it could just as easily be a case of warrior bravado in the face of the uncertainty and fear surrounding death. Other skalds, notably Bragi Boddason and Egil Skallagrimsson also talk about joining the company of the wolf’s sister, or awaiting Hel, but without any sexual implication. (Abram: 13) It seems more likely that this was Thjodolf’s personal take, not shared by other poets.

“The Dises” (1909) by Dorothy Hardy. Wikimedia.

Hel and the Disir

The disir, like the valkyries, were a collective of feminine powers, in this case usually linked to a family or person. They are difficult to define, but they seem to have been connected with fertility and the ancestor cult.

Two goddesses, Skadi and Freyja, are known by the title dis: Skadi is the ski-dis, while Freyja is the dis of the Vanir. One of the kennings in Ynglingatal seems to call Hel Jódís, which Abram translates as “horse-goddess” (jór, horse, and dÍs, goddess).

(The disir appear on horseback in the saga Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls, where the ones on black horses try to kill Þiðrandi, while ones dressed in white, on white horses, save him.)

The verse in Ynglingatal goes like this (translation by Abram):

I speak no deceit, but Glitnir’s goddess has Dyggvi’s corpse for pleasure; the ?sister [jódís] of the wolf and Narfi had to choose a king-man. Loki’s daughter has taken the ruler of Yngvi’s people.
(Yng 7)

The kennings Loki’s daughter and sister of the wolf [Fenris] and Narfi [another of Loki’s sons] are pretty straightforward, but Glitnir’s goddess is puzzling. Glitnir is a place in Asgard, owned by Forseti. However, Abram notes that a list of horse-names in the Prose Edda includes the name Glitnir, so presumably that is what Thjodof meant. (Most of the others refer to her by mentioning her name alone, or in a kenning involving her father or brothers.)

There is no other record of Hel being associated with horses, but given the other reference to horses in the verse, it seems to be what Thjodolf intended.

Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about Hel and her realm. We have very little on even the most important goddesses, and a pre-Christian death goddess would have been even more dicey as a subject than the rest of them. Perhaps we should just be grateful for what we have, however ambiguous or hard to understand some of it may be.


References and Links
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.

Abram, Christopher 2006: “Hel in Early Norse Poetry,” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 2: 1-29. (Brepols)
Clunies Ross, Margaret 1994: Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse myths in medieval Northern society, vol. 1, The Viking Society Vol. 7, Odense UP.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
McKinnell, John 2005: Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend, DS Brewer.
Quinn, Judy 2006: “‘The gendering of death in eddic cosmology’, in Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions, ed. Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert and Catharina Raudvere, Vägar til Midgård 8, Nordic Academic Press: 54-57. (academica.edu)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Grumpy Lokean Elder (links to more sources on Hel)
Women and Death in the Norse World (thesis, pdf here)

If you like the image at the top, click here.

14 thoughts on “Going to Hel: the Goddess and the Place

  1. Pingback: Going to Hel: the Goddess and the Place — We Are Star Stuff | Dances with Tricksters

    1. Svipdagr

      I never thought about that, but it makes some sense. The word “huldra” comes from “hylja” cover, hide. And “hylja” comes from the same root as “Hel”.

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      Reply
  2. modifiedlizard

    Tracing the name Hela as a kenning for “coverer” back to Indo-European sources is useful for confirmation. Reconstructed as *Kolyo the name has been postulated as the the source for Cailech, Calypso, and Kali, and possibly other goddesses. Keep in mind, should you ever discuss the matter with her, that Hela, being a hard polytheist, identifies with family lineage rather than some scholars diachronic hypothesis and she can get pissed off pretty quickly about it.
    Given the amount of emphasis in other Norse sources on the dead continuing to reside in the burial mound it would seem the idea of her underground kingdom is a later development. Not that she is going to complain. Her previous role would have been closer to a pure psycho-pomp, leading souls to their grave sites

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    1. solsdottir Post author

      I was going to deal with the dead’s tendency to stick around in another post, but it certainly does suggest that Hel (the place) was a later development, possibly intended as a contrast to Valhalla.

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  3. lornasmithers

    I find it interesting that there are a couple of traditions wherein the ruler of the underworld and their name are the same – Hel and Hades and Gwynfa ‘Paradise’ echoes Gwyn ruler of the Brythonic underworld. It’s my intuition that these deities ‘are’ also the underworld just like a goddess of the land is both that landscape and a person. I think this is what is meant in Culhwch and Olwen it states ‘God has put the fury of the devils of Annwn in him’ (Gwyn). He contains them within him because he is Annwn/Gwynfa. Maybe it’s the same with Hel.

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    1. solsdottir Post author

      You may very well be right. The idea must have been a widespread one to pop up in so many places. It also makes the argument over whether Hel is “just” a personfication moot – she and the place are the same in a profound way. (And makes me want to take another look at earth goddesses, who sometimes get dismissed the same way.)

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  4. Pingback: The Powerful Dead | We Are Star Stuff

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