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October 22, 2023 6 min read

Hel - Goddess of Death | The Nordic Shadow !

Hel, Goddess of Death | The Dark Viking Legend

The history of Viking civilization is full of fabulous and heroic legends. However, like any story, there is a dark and obscure side. Of all the Nordic characters, only one truly embodied these shadows: the goddess of death, Hel.

Although Norse mythology is full of very detailed myths, the story of Hel is one of the most mysterious. Reflecting the nature of this character, the story of the goddess of death is situated between shadow and light.

Why is Hel's story so little known? What are the origins of this goddess? In this article, you will discover the hidden side of Viking mythology. We decrypt the origin and story of Hel, as well as the major role this goddess played.

The Dark Story of Hel, Goddess of Death

Hel - Goddess of Death | The Nordic Shadow Side


Too often described as a sinister character in Norse mythology, the legend of Hel that we know today is far from reality. A goddess on the border of light and darkness, her story is as complex as her personality.

To complicate matters further, her representation in Marvel comics, and more recently in the Thor movie, does not improve her reputation in the eyes of the general public. Indeed, Hel is portrayed as being the disowned daughter of god Odin, and a great conqueror of many Nordic worlds.

It may surprise many, but these two facts about Hel have no historical veracity. Do not be seduced by this representation in the Marvel world, nor repelled by certain stories painting her cruelty. The real story of Hel is quite different from what you think you know about the goddess of death.

As you have understood, the legend of Hel seems very ambiguous at first glance. In this article, we will demystify all these accounts and show you the true face of the Viking goddess of death!

Origin of the Unique Daughter of the God Loki

Hel - Goddess of Death | The Nordic Shadow Side


To fully understand why Hel inherited such a bad reputation, you first need to know the origin of the goddess of death. Indeed, she was doomed against her will to belong to the camp of antagonists in Viking mythology.

Her destiny was traced at the moment of her birth, and she could only fully live it. That is what she will do by becoming the Viking goddess of death!

The Cursed Union of Loki: The Birth of Hel

Originally a giant, Loki, the god of mischief is a main character in Norse mythology. Fluctuating between good and evil, he has played both the role of protagonist and antagonist in Norse mythological stories.

He eventually becomes the incarnation of destruction, when he marries the giantess Angrboda. This ice jötunn bears the title of "bringer of sorrow". It is in an old Norse poem, the Lay of Hyndla, that this title takes on its full meaning. We discover that she is the mother of the three scourges of Norse mythology:

      • The giant wolf Fenrir;
      • The serpent of destruction; Jörmungand;
      • And the one who will become the goddess of death, Hel.

Their only daughter, Hel, was born with a horrific deformity: half of her body was skinless. On this half, all her bones were exposed, while the other was completely normal. From her birth, she had already acquired the reputation of a vile creature on the border between darkness and light, all because of this imperfection.

The Sister of the Enemies of the Viking Aesir Gods

Hel grew up in Jotunheim, the land of ice of the giants. Loki, having been raised to the rank of Aesir god, he and his three children were subsequently brought to live in Asgard. This decision by the god Odin, which seems benevolent, actually hides a terrible secret: the Aesir gods were terribly afraid of their power.

Indeed, a prophecy from the "Gylfaginning of the Edda of Snorri" stipulates that Hel and her two brothers will cause misfortune and the fall of the kingdom of the Aesir gods. In a last attempt to stop this fate, Odin and the rest of the gods banished Loki's children:

      • Jörmungand was thrown by Odin into the oceans of Midgard, the realm of men. Believing he could kill it, the serpent survives as best as it can. It grows to become a gigantic creature, a titan, encircling the entire earth;
      • Fenrir, the most powerful of Loki's children, is going to be imprisoned in a cave. Deceived, he does not give up so easily! Before being chained with magical bonds, he takes with him the arm of the god Týr;
      • The daughter of the god Loki, on the other hand, is too powerful to be imprisoned or banished. Odin deceives her by giving her the Nordic kingdom "Helheim" as an offering, allowing her to reign there. It is a cold and lifeless world, where Hel will welcome the dead Vikings, judged as not noble, and not having the honor to go to Valhalla.

Thus, the legend of Hel, the goddess of death, was born. Reflecting the kingdom over which she reigns, she is described as a cold and merciless character. However, this myth surrounding Hel may not have always been true!

A Goddess Demonized by Christian Historians

Hel Online store

Indeed, ancient texts from Norse mythology tell a very different story from what we know today about the goddess Hel. The Odinist beliefs and Asatru, existing before the Norse sagas written during the Christian period, describe Hel as a gentle and benevolent goddess.

Contrary to the story transmitted by the sagas about her birth, Hel had no deformity. Only her face was divided into two parts:

      • One half is submerged in the darkness of death,
      • While the other half shines with the light of life.

Hel is the goddess of death, but she is also a merciful being, whose primary role is to assist the Vikings in the passage from life to death.

Indeed, when a Viking does not die on a battlefield, it is said that he has a straw death. A death that is not noble enough to be welcomed into Valhalla. These deceased will take one of the 12 original rivers to the different destinations awaiting them.

Hel's role was to help these spirits find their boats and follow the current of one of the twelve rivers, called the Élivágar. For example, virtuous and noble men arrive in the Viking paradise, Gimlé.

Tradition stipulates that, to have a vessel in the afterlife, the Vikings had to be buried in real boats. Unfortunately, many Scandinavians were humble and could not afford to do so.

Hel, being a loving and benevolent goddess, transformed the Viking graves and burials into boats. She allowed all spirits to reach their destination and live their second life in peace.

What did the goddess Hel, or Hela, really represent?

Hel - Goddess of Death | The Nordic Shadow Part

Over the ages and epochs, the role and meaning of Hel, the goddess of death, will change to become what we know today.

Besides her role as a guide for Viking spirits, some historians claim that she is just one of the many names given to the goddess Freya. She herself is a goddess of death, and this theory is reinforced by the resemblance of their names. Indeed, the name Hel could derive from the Old Norse "Helja" meaning she who protects, welcomes, or conceals.

Furthermore, Hel bears the same name as the world over which she reigns, also known as Helheim. This name directly derives from the Proto-Germanic "Haljo," the original language of all Scandinavians, implying underworld or dark world.

It was only centuries later that the modern legend of Hel was born, concurrently with the appearance of the Norse sagas. It was the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, in the 13th century, that significantly demonized all beings in Norse mythology.

From that time on, the story of Hel took a radical turn:

      • Half of her face is no longer in darkness, but hideous and entirely rotten and eaten by worms. While the luminous half loses its ancient blessing, and is degraded to the level of mortals;
      • Hel is banished to Helheim, where she remains imprisoned for all eternity. Forced to live in this icy world, she becomes malevolent and bears a grudge against Odin and all the other gods of Asgard;
      • Thus, Helheim loses its ancestral Nordic essence and becomes the equivalent of the Christian hell in Norse mythology;
      • During Ragnarok, she will send the dead who have passed through her realm to strengthen the army of her father, Loki, against the Aesir gods.

Thus, Hel, the goddess of death, becomes the malevolent being we know, reigning over the nine worlds of hell. She is driven only by Treachery, and she spreads Disease, Famine, and Despair.

The legend of Hel or Hela, the cursed Viking goddess, is another example of the complexity and richness of Norse mythology. A character oscillating between light and darkness, just like her story, over the ages!

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