3/30 Aulis to Shangri-La: Myth & Folklore Challenge
Gods and Spirits = Northern Europe
Hel, also known as Hella, Holle or Hulda, was the Norse and Teutonic Goddess, Queen and Ruler of the Underworld, which was known as Niflheim, or Helheim, the Kingdom of the Dead.
The name Hel, quite literally means "one that hides" or "one who covers up." If you look at it as if it was the actual root of a name, you might discover that there appears to be a great many places which quite possibly may have been named after her, such as Holland, Helsinki, Holstein, Helvetia and Holderness.
The Prose Eddas offer the most frequently used description of the Goddess Hel's origin. There once was a giantess named Angrboda, who lived at a place known as Giantland. At one point in her life, Angraboda entered into a relationship with the Aesir demigod, Loki, and it was from that union that they produced three children. The first child was the devouring Lupine, Fenrir (Fenris)-Wolf, the second child was the wyrm, Iormungard, the Midgard serpent of the ocean that encircled the Earth, while the third child was simply known as Hel. These three children had spent much of their childhood growing up in Giantland.
In the Aesir Kingdom of Asgaard, several prophecies had been handed down to the Gods, warning them that three unique siblings would appear who would bring such terrible disaster, that nothing but evil would come of it.
When the Gods first learned about the children, they realized almost immediately that they might be the same children that they had been warned about. At first, they chose to believe that it was simply because of the terrible nature of their mother. Then, after they had considered it for a while, they came to realize that the children were the same ones mentioned in the prophecies; however, it was not because of who their mother was, that caused them such great concern; it was actually because of who their father was. Their father was Loki, who was known for causing great destruction and evil. Loki also happened to be the brother of Odin, the leader of the Aesir, which was a patriarchal and warlike tribe of Norse Gods and Goddesses.
Since there was no doubt that the children were Loki's, Odin decided that the best thing to do was find the children and then bring them back to Asgaard. That way they would be raised as Aesir. To accomplish that, Odin ordered the Gods to travel to Giantland, find the children, and then bring them back to Asgaard. The Gods did as Odin desired, and when they returned from Giantland the three children were with them.
Sadly, the child whose name was Hel had been born with the bones on one side of her body, fully exposed. That made things extremely difficult for Hel, because her appearance caused the other Gods to feel so uncomfortable that they avoided having anything to do with her. Being seen as an oddity, being avoided, and having no friends was very difficult for Hel to deal with. She was extremely unhappy, and filled with great loneliness and despair. After much deliberation, Hel made an important decision. She went to Odin and explained to him how difficult her life was there, and then she asked for his permission to leave Asgaard. Odin sympathized with Hel, so he granted her wish. Much more importantly, he also gave her the World of Niflheim, one of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology, to rule. He even went so far as to name that place after her, calling it Helheim or Hel. That was how Hel became the Goddess of the Dead.
In return for giving her Niflheim, Odin gave Hel certain responsibilities that she had to carry out in that realm. He charged her with caring for the souls of people who had died from sickness or old age, and for the souls of any other people whose deaths had not occurred through violence or in battle.
When warriors died in battle, their souls were split evenly between the Goddess Freyja and Odin. Freyja had the privilege of taking the first half of the souls of those warriors who had been slain in battle, while the remaining souls of the dead warriors belonged to Odin.
Hel settled into her Realm, and when the souls of the dead arrived there, it was she who judged them. It was also she who decided whether their souls were good or evil, and to what degree. Then, after Hel had made had her assessment, she gave each soul its just reward. Depending upon how they had been judged, the souls of the dead were settled into one of the nine levels of Helheim, which ranged from what might be seen as a form of heaven, all the way down to the dark horrors of Neostrand (Naströnd), the abode of punishment, where snakes constantly dropped venom upon the wicked, and which appeared, in many ways, to be quite similar to the concept of Hell, that the Christians have always appeared to be so fond of.
Hel was frequently thought of as a Dark Mother Goddess, and she was known by other names and titles including the Goddess of Death and the Afterlife, the Underground Earth Mother, the Ruler of the Realm of the Dead known as Helgardh, and Nefele, the Goddess of Shadows. She was also worshipped in Denmark, as the Hyldemoer, or Elder Mother.
Other stories exist regarding the Goddess Hel. One of them is an Icelandic creation myth, which described how in the beginning, all that existed was a great chasm known as Ginnungagap, which led to Hel's fiery womb of regeneration deep within the Earth. On one side of the chasm were fiery volcanoes, while on the other side there was nothing except for cold water and ice. It was for that reason that Hel became known as the Mountain Mother, who dwelled deep within the Earth where the fire and the ice meet.
While the Prose Eddas describe Hel as having been born with one side of her skeleton showing, a variety of other descriptions exist as well. Hel’s physical description is, to say the least, unique. Some descriptions claim that she was half-black and half-white, half-rotting, similar to that of a corpse, or half dead, and half alive, with a grim expression on her face, and a sinister appearance of gloom.
It is interesting to note that Hel's appearance is believed, by some, to be the origin of the masked harlequin, which has frequently appeared as a standard character in Commedia dell'Arte, with a black side of a face, and a white side. In fact, Hel's physical description, much like that of the harlequin mask, exhibits the duality that exists in the world, which is inherent to both life and death.
Legend tells us that Hel had an eye of fire, which could only see that which was true, thereby making it impossible for anyone to hide anything from her. Looking at this in a different light, Hel may actually have been challenging the world to find the courage necessary to look behind the mask that was her appearance, so they might see her as she truly was inside.
The Vikings, however, refused to do that. Instead, they looked upon Hel's appearance as something to be feared, and they believed that nothing good would come of her. Indeed, the Vikings looked upon Hel's home as a horrible place, similar to the Christians’ idea of Hell. But Niflheim was in no way similar to the Christian's burning place of fire and brimstone. Rather, it was seen as being icy cold and filled with slush, cold mud and snow.
The Prose Eddas described the nine-ringed realm of Hel, as a place where the inhabitants kept up a constant wail. It described her palace as a miserable place known as Damp with Sleet, where the walls had been built with human bones and worms. They also claimed that Hel ate with a knife and fork called Famine, from a plate known as Hunger, and that her two servants were both named Slow-Moving. Her bed was known as a Sickbed, and the stone at the entrance to her hall was referred to as Drop-to-Destruction.
The Prose Eddas continued, by saying that the entryway to Hel's Realm was guarded by the hellhound named Garm, and that before you could reach the threshold, you first had to travel the Helvig, or troublesome road to Hel, past the strange guardian maiden named Modhgudh.
While the Vikings may have feared her, which appears to be quite evident from the Eddas, the Dutch, Gauls and Germanic people who were known, in comparison to the Vikings, as the common people, viewed Hel in a somewhat less frightening manner. They saw her as a gentler and kinder form of death and transformation, and they did not believe that Helheim was a place of punishment at all.
They tended to see Hel as an earth mother deity known as Mother Holle, who consisted of pure nature. It was in that role that Hel was believed to have great maternal aspects, and that she was known to help people in their times of need. Hel, however, also had another side to her, and she was quite capable of becoming vengeful, whenever it became necessary, towards anyone who might attempt to interfere with, or stop, the progression of natural law.
When someone died, and entered Hel’s realm, it was almost impossible, for anyone on Earth to get them back.