Hel (“hidden”) is the ruler of the Norse realm, Helheim. Helheim is the Norse underworld, the place where dead souls go. But, unlike the drinking and feasting and good times that the dead enjoy in Odin’s Valhalla, Helheim is a miserable, gloomy place. Helheim is reserved for those who died of old age and sickness or were particularly wicked. In other words, if you didn’t go out fighting, you ended up in Helheim. Unlike the Christian Hell, Helheim is a cold, icy, damp place. No burning flames here. Not to mention no feasting or drinking.
Hel herself is the offspring of the trickster Loki and a giantess, Angrboda. Angrboda means “one who announces misfortune…lovely name. Loki’s other offspring are the wolf Fenrir and the world serpent Jormungand. Let’s just say that Loki begat some pretty awful “children.” All of them will rise up and help cause the destruction of the world during Ragnarok. They will lead the forces of evil. Odin will fight Fenrir and Thor will fight Jormungand.
Odin and the other Aesir gods heard prophecies about the children of Angrboda, that they would cause much mischief and grief, so the gods took Fenrir, Hel, and Jormungand from Angrboda and placed them elsewhere. Odin threw Jormungand into the sea and Hel down into the underworld. There she is to judge the souls that die of old age and sickness.
Hel looks her part as the ruler of the underworld. She is depicted as half dead and half alive. One side of her body looks like a regular woman, but the other is all skeleton and skull. The upper part of her torso remains alive and lovely, while her legs are like those of a decaying corpse.
In the story of Balder’s death, Hel agrees to send Balder back to the land of the living if everything in the world will weep for him. Of course, Loki gets involved and ruins things! But that is a tale for another post…