Hel – Norse Goddess.
Hel is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted Goddess aspects in history. She has been greatly perverted through the years by patriarchal domination and ultimately used by the early Christian church as a scare tactic to frighten the masses into “righteous” acts. To get the real story, we have to go back to the early Nordic people and look this death Goddess in the face.
According to Norse tradition, Hel is one of three children born to Loki, the trickster, and Angrboda, the giantess. Her body and face were described as half in light and half in darkness. She was half dead and half alive. Her face was at once beautiful to look upon and horrific in form. Her siblings were Fenrir, the wolf who would destroy Asgard during Ragnarok, and Jormungand, the Midhgard serpent who lies at the bottom of the ocean wrapped around the world with his tail in his mouth (it is he that holds the world together).
Hel is cast into the netherworld and becomes the ruler of that underworld to which souls who have not died in battle will depart. As thanks for making Her ruler of the netherworld, Hel makes a gift to Odin. She gives him two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory). Ravens are messengers between this realm and the next, opening pathways to death’s realm.
Her realm is named for her, Hel or Helheim. Because She accepts all to Helheim, she also becomes the judge to determine the fate of each soul in the afterlife. The evil dead are banished to a realm of icy cold death (a fate that the Nordic people found much worse in telling than a lake of fire) and torture. This particular aspect of Hel’s realm was the basis for the Judeo-Christian “hell” to which sinners are banished and tortured for eternity. Unlike the Judeo-Christian concept, Helheim also served as the shelter and gathering place of souls to be reincarnated. Hel watches over those who died peacefully of old age or illness. She cares for children and women who die in childbirth. She guides those souls who do not choose the path of war and violence through the circle of death to rebirth.
Because of Hel’s special role in the deaths of mothers in childbirth and children of all ages who die, She has become, according to some sources, the special guardian of children. Mother Goose is believed to be based on Frau Holle or Frau Holda who is a kindly and wise, if slightly horrific crone who rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy. The goose aspect is from a legend tradition that says that snow is a result of Frau Holda shaking out her bed linens.
One of the stories involving Hel is the decent of Balder into Helheim. Loki arranged for Balder to die by tricking him into a rigged contest. Because the contest was hosted in Asgard, Balder could not return to that place in death. His relocation sent him to the only other realm for the dead, Hel’s domain. His arrival to Helheim was welcomed with banquet and festival, proof that not all of Hel’s realm was torturous.
Hel governs the world beyond that of the living. In magic, she makes thin the veil between worlds. Seidhr [SAY-theer] or Nordic shamans call upon Her protection and wear the helkappe, a magic mask, to render them invisible (like Hades helm of invisibility) and enable them to pass through the gateway into the realm of death and spirit. In divination, Her special symbol is Hagalaz, hail: The embodiment of the icy realm She rules. Hel stands at the crossroads in judgment of souls who pass into Her realm. In that, She is linked to Osiris and Isis as well as Hecate.
Hel has fallen from her privileged position as guardian and ruler through years of being represented as an evil, ugly entity waiting to devour and torture lost souls. Ignorance as used Her as a means of scaring children and adults into a supposedly righteous path (instead of allowing free will to guide their actions to do what is right). May we learn and dispel the slander of years by seeing Her for the protector, judge, and guide that She originally represented.