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Deities & Heros >> Nordic & Germanic
prose edda, fenris wolf, goddess hel, teutonic goddess

Hel, Hela

Author: The Troth

Copyright © 1994 by The Troth.

Norse Goddess of Death, Ruler of the underworld. Teutonic Goddess of the kingdom of the dead, not considered as a place of punishment. Daughter of Loki and Angurboda, and sister of the Midgard serpent of the ocean encircling the Earth, and of the devouring Fenris-wolf. Half her face was totally black. Hel-Ruler of the kingdom of death, the Prose Edda describes her as half-black, half-white (she is sometimes seen as half-rotting, half alive) and of grim and unmistakable appearance. Her name may originally derive from the buried slab-rock grave-chambers of the Stone Age. The Hel-word is known to all branches of the Germanic speech, and clearly very old, but there is some question as to whether the goddess was recognized as an independent person before the Viking Age.

The Prose Edda, probably suffering from semantic contamination (the use of the English word Hell for the frightful Christian afterworld), describes her hall as full of horrors, but older sources make it rather pleasant, and indeed a close reflection of the idealized god-house seen in descriptions of Valhall (Hel and Odin have much in common, in fact). The specialization of the Germanic afterlife into the glorious Valhall where the chosen battle-dead go and the hideous Hel where everyone else ends up is probably a product of Christian influence on the retelling of Norse god-lore; our earlier sources offer far more options (going to the hall of the deity to whom one is closest, dying into a hill or rock where the other ghosts of one's family dwell, remaining as the guardian of a stead, being reborn in a child who bears one's name and/or lineage), and the name Valhall does not become specialized for Odin's hall until the middle of the tenth century, when it was probably a description rather than a proper name. There is no evidence for the worship of the goddess Hel in elder times, but there are several folk who work with her today. Also called Hella.

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