Daughter of Loki and Angrboda
Hel was the Norse goddess of the dead, daughter of the trickster god Loki (pronounced LOH-kee) and the giantess Angrboda (pronounced AHNG-gur-boh-duh). She is recognized as the goddess of all the dead who do not die with glory—in other words, those who die from illness or old age. The realm she presides over is also referred to as Hel, and is a cold, cheerless place.
Shortly after her birth, Hel was cast out of Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), home of the gods, by Odin (pronounced OH-din). He sent her to Niflheim (pronounced NIV-uhl-heym), the underworld or land of the dead, and made her queen of all who died without glory. Warriors who fell in combat did not become her subjects but went instead to the hall called Valhalla to live with Odin.
Sources describe the goddess as a monster who is half flesh-colored and half bluish-black. She lived in a castle called Eljudnir (pronounced el-YOOD-neer) and ate her meals with a dish named Hunger and a knife called Famine. She was attended by two servants, Ganglati and Ganglot, who moved so slowly that they appeared to be standing still.
Hel was the keeper of the soul of the god Balder (pronounced BAWL-der) after he was killed by mistletoe through Loki's trickery. When Balder's mother Frigg (pronounced FRIG) asked for his soul to be returned, Hel agreed, but only if every living thing in the world cried in mourning over his death. Frigg got all living things to cry except one—a giantess that may have been Loki in disguise. Balder had to remain in the underworld.
Hel in Context
In Norse culture, much emphasis was placed on dying with honor. The most honorable deaths were achieved on battlefields in foreign lands. Those who died in such a way were guaranteed to spend eternity with Odin in the paradise of Valhalla. Those who died defending their homes or local lands were also honored, though not as greatly. To die of old age or illness was considered to be a death without honor, and therefore those who died in this way were destined to spend eternity in the dismal underworld of Hel.
Key Themes and Symbols
To the Norse people, Hel represented death without honor. She symbolized the denial of everything enjoyable in the world, as shown by her plate, Hunger, and her knife, Famine. Hel may also be seen as a victim of circumstance, since she is banished from Asgard simply because her father is Loki. Her refusal to release Odin's son Balder from the underworld may be seen as revenge against Odin.
Hel in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Hel is not as well known or well regarded as many other Norse deities. When depicted, she is often shown accompanied by Garmr (pronounced GARM), her watchdog and guardian of the gates to her realm. Hel appears as a villain in the Everworld series of novels by K. A. Applegate, as well as the Thor comic series by Marvel and numerous video games. Hell, the English word for the underworld reserved for the damned, is taken from the name of the goddess.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The idea of what makes a “good death” varies from culture to culture. Norse mythology included several different possible fates after death, all of which depended upon the way in which one died. Dying on batdefields in foreign lands led a person to the highest level of the afterlife. This seems to suggest foreign conquest was very important to the Norse. By contrast, many modern Americans believe that the best way to die is of old age, in one's bed. What cultural values does such a death represent? How are they different from the cultural values of the ancient Norse society?
Hel was the Norse* goddess of the dead, daughter of the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Shortly after her birth, Hel was cast out of Asgard, home of the gods, by Odin*. He sent her to Niflheim, the underworld, and made her queen of all who died from old age or sickness. Warriors who fell in combat did not become her subjects but went instead to the hall called Valhalla to live with Odin. In early Norse mythology, Hel was also the name of the world of the dead.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples underworld land of the dead
Sources describe the goddess as a half-flesh-colored and half-black monster. She lived in a castle called Eljudner and ate her meals with a dish named Hunger and a knife called Famine. She was attended by two servants, Ganglati and Ganglot, who moved so slowly that they appeared to be standing still. Hell, the English word for the underworld, comes from the Norse word Hel.
See also Loki; Norse Mythology; Odin; Valhalla.
Hel (or Hela)
Hel (or Hela)
In Teutonic mythology, the goddess of death, one of the off-spring of Loki and the giantess Angurbodi. The gods became alarmed at her and the other monsters that were coming to life in Jotunheim, so All-father advised that they be brought before him. Hel was cast into Niflheim, the realm beneath the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil, reserved for all those who die of sickness or old age. According to the myth, Hel governs this world, which is composed of nine regions into which she distributes those who come to her and in which she inhabits a strongly protected abode.
Niflheim is said to be "a dark abode far from the sun," its gates open to the "cutting north;" its walls "are formed of wreathed snakes and their venom is ever falling like rain," and it is surrounded by dark and poisonous streams. "Nidhog, the great dragon, who dwells beneath the central root of Yggdrasil, torments and gnaws the dead."
It is said that one-half of Hel's body is livid and the other half flesh-colored. Hunger is her table, starvation her knife, delay her man, slowness her maid, precipice her threshold, care her bed, and burning anguish forms the hangings of her apartments.