Who's Who in the Lore: Hel
©2005 Ingeborg S. Nordén
Hel's image and reputation have been badly distorted by pop culture: Marvel Comics and role-playing games have led non-Heathens to think of this goddess as evil. Of course, given Hel's place in the lore (a death goddess who rules the "default destination" for spirits in the underworld), it's easy to see why people would be afraid of her; most of us do feel uncomfortable about death and afraid to face it ourselves.
Does the lore itself ever imply that Hel is evil, though? Only in some passages heavily influenced by Christianity: Snorri Sturluson claims that she is Loki's daughter--though no other source supports that--and that she was cast into the underworld by Odin to rule over the evil souls who went there. In my opinion this sounds like a desperate attempt at "proving" the bad place is underground, and providing the Norse with a devil-figure.
Snorri also describes the furnishings of Hel in rather gruesome terms: a bed named "sick bed", a knife named "hunger", a front doorstep named "precipice" and so on. However, there are three good arguments against Hel being a punisher and her residence being a bad place:
The poem Baldr's Dreams (part of the Poetic Edda) has Baldr himself go to Hel after death--and judging by the usual version of that story, Baldr was hardly wicked. He didn't get tortured, either: Hel had decorated her place as if for a very important guest of honor, and prepared to serve fine drinks to Baldr and his wife.
Even the gruesome descriptions of the underworld in the Prose Edda don't suggest tortures in the afterlife itself--instead, they are poetic descriptions of the ways someone can get to Hel in the first place. (People do sometimes die of disease, starvation, and accidents like falling off a cliff!)
Linguistic evidence implies that Hel's residence was seen only as a land of the dead, without any implication that she tortured them: First, the modern Scandinavian languages still have an adverb ihjel (Danish and Norwegian) or ihjäl (Swedish). The word means "to death" (as in starving, freezing, etc.) and originally derives from a Norse phrase meaning "into Hel". Second, the word for the Christian "hell" in the modern Scandinavian languages is helvede (Danish) or helvete (Norwegian/Swedish). This is originally a compound word "Hel-punishment", created by missionaries who were out to convert the Norsemen. If they had already considered Hel a punisher and her realm a place of torture, the new word would not be necessary.
One more detail I should mention to those of you who grew up Christian: the underworld is not a place of fire in our lore. Dark, yes; quiet to the point of boredom, usually; hot, no. There is a fire-world, called Muspellheim, in our cosmology. But Muspellheim is not part of the afterlife; its only inhabitants, according to the Eddas, are fire giants (elemental spirits). Hel's residence, on the other hand, seems to be in or at least close to Niflheim--the ice-world on the opposite edge of the void. So next time somebody tells you "there's a snowball's chance in Hel of this happening", thank them for giving you such favorable odds! J
Now that we know Hel isn't a Germanic devil-figure and that the underworld isn't necessarily a bad place, what else does the lore say about her? Some of you may already know that the Prose Edda describes Hel as appearing "half living and half dead"; but it never specifies how those halves are divided. We also know that she gets the spirits of those whose deaths don't qualify them for some other place. All who die of disease or old age allegedly go there--which definitely isn't a moral judgment, considering the average man's life even in Norse times. Some passages in the Poetic Edda also imply that those who go to Hel await reincarnation in Midgard; if those are genuine, the lore implies that Norsemen saw the place as more of a holding area than a torture chamber (see above). The image of the goddess as "half alive" also supports a possible connection with rebirth; like the spirits she provides for, Hel herself is in an intermediate state.
Heinously evil souls have a destination of their own, possibly a separate residence within Hel's domain just as Valhalla is one hall in Asgard. This place is called Nastrond, "Dead Man's Beach": the Poetic Edda describes it as a dark place where men are tortured by snakes that spit rivers of poison, and by wolves and dragons tearing at their bodies.