Hel (being)

Hel (being)

In Norse Religion, Hel is a being who presides over a realm of the same name, where she receives a portion of the dead. Hel is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In addition, she is mentioned in poems recorded in Heimskringla and Egils saga that date from the 9th and 10th centuries, respectively. An episode in the Latin work Gesta Danorum, written in the 12th century by Saxo Grammaticus, is generally considered to refer to Hel, and Hel may appear on various Migration Period bracteates.

In the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Heimskringla, Hel is referred to as a daughter of Loki, and to “go to Hel” is to die. In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, Hel is described as having been appointed by the god Odin as ruler of a realm of the same name, located in Niflheim. In the same source, her appearance is described as half blue and half flesh-coloured and further as having a gloomy, downcast appearance. The Prose Edda details that Hel rules over vast mansions with many servants in her underworld realm and plays a key role in the attempted resurrection of the god Baldr.

Scholarly theories have been proposed about Hel’s potential connections to figures appearing in the 11th century Old English Gospel of Nicodemus and Old Norse Bartholomeus saga postola, that she may have been considered a goddess with potential Indo-European parallels in Bhavani, Kali, and Mahakali or that Hel may have become a being only as a late personification of the location of the same name.

Hel (being)
Hel (1889) by Johannes Gehrts, pictured here with her hound Garmr.

Etymology

The Old Norse feminine proper noun Hel is identical to the name of the location over which she rules, Old Norse Hel. The word has cognates in all branches of the Germanic languages, including Old English hell (and thus Modern English hell), Old Frisian helle, Old Saxon hellia, Old High German hella, and Gothic halja. All forms ultimately derive from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic feminine noun *xaljō or *haljō (‘concealed place, the underworld’). In turn, the Proto-Germanic form derives from the o-grade form of the Proto-Indo-European root *kel-, *kol-: ‘to cover, conceal, save’.

The term is etymologically related to Modern English hall and therefore also Valhalla, an afterlife ‘hall of the slain’ in Norse Mythology. Hall and its numerous Germanic cognates derive from Proto-Germanic *hallō ‘covered place, hall’, from Proto-Indo-European *kol-.

Related early Germanic terms and concepts include Proto-Germanic *xalja-rūnō(n), a feminine compound noun, and *xalja-wītjan, a neutral compound noun. This form is reconstructed from the Latinized Gothic plural noun *haliurunnae (attested by Jordanes; according to philologist Vladimir Orel, meaning ‘witches’), Old English helle-rúne (‘sorceress, necromancer’, according to Orel), and Old High German helli-rūna ‘magic’. The compound is composed of two elements: *xaljō (*haljō) and *rūnō, the Proto-Germanic precursor to Modern English rune.

Proto-Germanic *xalja-wītjan (or *halja-wītjan) is reconstructed from Old Norse hel-víti ‘hell’, Old English helle-wíte ‘hell-torment, hell’, Old Saxon helli-wīti ‘hell’, and the Middle High German feminine noun helle-wīze. The compound is a compound of *xaljō (discussed above) and *wītjan (reconstructed from forms such as Old English witt ‘right mind, wits’, Old Saxon gewit ‘understanding’, and Gothic un-witi ‘foolishness, understanding’).

Attestations

Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, features various poems that mention Hel. In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, Hel’s realm is referred to as the “Halls of Hel.” In stanza 31 of Grímnismál, Hel is listed as living beneath one of three roots growing from the world tree Yggdrasil. In Fáfnismál, the hero Sigurd stands before the mortally wounded body of the dragon Fáfnir, and states that Fáfnir lies in pieces, where “Hel can take” him. In Atlamál, the phrases “Hel has half of us” and “sent off to Hel” are used in reference to death, though it could be a reference to the location and not the being, if not both. In stanza 4 of Baldrs draumar, Odin rides towards the “high hall of Hel.”

Hel may also be alluded to in Hamðismál. Death is periphrased as “joy of the troll-woman” (or “ogress”) and ostensibly it is Hel being referred to as the troll-woman or the ogre (flagð), although it may otherwise be some unspecified dís. The Poetic Edda also mentions that travelers to Hel must pass by her guardian hound Garmr.

Hel (being)
A depiction of a young Hel (center) being led to the assignment of her realm, while her brother Fenrir is led forward (left) and Jörmungandr (right) is about to be cast by Odin (1906) by Lorenz Frølich.

Prose Edda

Hel is referenced in the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In chapter 34 of the book Gylfaginning, Hel is listed by High as one of the three children of Loki and Angrboða; the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jörmungandr, and Hel. High continues that, once the gods found that these three children are being brought up in the land of Jötunheimr, and when the gods “traced prophecies that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them” then the gods expected a lot of trouble from the three children, partially due to the nature of the mother of the children, yet worse so due to the nature of their father.

High says that Odin sent the gods to gather the children and bring them to him. Upon their arrival, Odin threw Jörmungandr into “that deep sea that lies round all lands,” Odin threw Hel into Niflheim, and bestowed upon her authority over nine worlds, in that she must “administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age.” High details that in this realm Hel has “great Mansions” with extremely high walls and immense gates, a hall called Éljúðnir, a dish called “Hunger,” a knife called “Famine,” the servant Ganglati (Old Norse “lazy walker”), the serving-maid Ganglöt (also “lazy walker”), the entrance threshold “Stumbling-block,” the bed “Sick-bed,” and the curtains “Gleaming-bale.” High describes Hel as “half black and half flesh-coloured,” adding that this makes her easily recognizable, and furthermore that Hel is “rather downcast and fierce-looking.”

In chapter 49, High describes the events surrounding the death of the god Baldr. The goddess Frigg asks who among the Æsir will earn “all her love and favour” by riding to Hel, the location, to try to find Baldr, and offer Hel herself a ransom. The god Hermóðr volunteers and sets off upon the eight-legged horse Sleipnir to Hel. Hermóðr arrives in Hel’s hall, finds his brother Baldr there, and stays the night. The next morning, Hermóðr begs Hel to allow Baldr to ride home with him, and tells her about the great weeping the Æsir have done upon Baldr’s death. Hel says the love people have for Baldr that Hermóðr has claimed must be tested, stating:

“If all 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.”

Later in the chapter, after the female jötunn Þökk refuses to weep for the dead Baldr, she responds in verse, ending with “let Hel hold what she has.” In chapter 51, High describes the events of Ragnarök, and details that when Loki arrives at the field Vígríðr “all of Hel’s people” will arrive with him.

In chapter 5 of the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, Hel is mentioned in a kenning for Baldr (“Hel’s companion”). In chapter 16, “Hel’s […] relative or father” is given as a kenning for Loki. In chapter 50, Hel is referenced (“to join the company of the quite monstrous wolf’s sister”) in the skaldic poem Ragnarsdrápa.

Hel (being)
“Hermod before Hela” (1909) by John Charles Dollman.

Heimskringla

In the Heimskringla book Ynglinga saga, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Hel is referred to, though never by name. In chapter 17, the king Dyggvi dies of sickness. A poem from the 9th century Ynglingatal that forms the basis of Ynglinga saga is then quoted that describes Hel’s taking of Dyggvi:

I doubt not
but Dyggvi’s corpse
Hel does hold
to whore with him;
for Ulf’s sib
a scion of kings
by right should
caress in death:
to love lured
Loki’s sister
Yngvi‘s heir
o’er all Sweden.

In chapter 45, a section from Ynglingatal is given which refers to Hel as “howes‘-warder” (meaning “guardian of the graves”) and as taking King Halfdan Hvitbeinn from life. In chapter 46, King Eystein Halfdansson dies by being knocked overboard by a sail yard. A section from Ynglingatal follows, describing that Eystein “fared to” Hel (referred to as “Býleistr‘s-brother’s-daughter”). In chapter 47, the deceased Eystein’s son King Halfdan dies of an illness, and the excerpt provided in the chapter describes his fate thereafter, a portion of which references Hel:

Loki’s child
from life summoned
to her thing
the third liege-lord,
when Halfdan
of Holtar farm
left the life
allotted to him.

In a stanza from Ynglingatal recorded in chapter 72 of the Heimskringla book Saga of Harald Sigurdsson, “given to Hel” is again used as a phrase to referring to death.

Hel (being)
“The children of Loki” (1920) by Willy Pogany

Egils saga

The Icelanders’ saga Egils saga contains the poem Sonatorrek. The saga attributes the poem to 10th century skald Egill Skallagrímsson, and writes that it was composed by Egill after the death of his son Gunnar. The final stanza of the poem contains a mention of Hel, though not by name:

Now my course is tough:
Death, close sister
of Odin’s enemy
stands on the ness:
with resolution
and without remorse
I will gladly
await my own.

Gesta Danorum

In the account of Baldr’s death in Saxo Grammaticus‘ early 13th century work Gesta Danorum, the dying Baldr has a dream visitation from Proserpina (here translated as “the goddess of death”):

The following night the goddess of death appeared to him in a dream standing at his side, and declared that in three days time she would clasp him in her arms. It was no idle vision, for after three days the acute pain of his injury brought his end.

Scholars have assumed that Saxo used Proserpina as a goddess equivalent to the Norse Hel.

Hel (being)
“Loki’s Brood” (1905) by Emil Doepler.
Hel (being)
An 18th century Prose Edda manuscript illustration featuring Hermóðr upon Sleipnir (left), Baldr (upper right), and Hel (lower right). Details include but are not limited to Hel’s dish “hunger” and the knife “famine”.
Hel (being)
“Heimdallr desires Iðunn’s return from the Underworld” (1881) by Carl Emil Doepler.

See also