One of the Nine Realms in Norse cosmology, Hel was the subterranean dwelling place of the dead. Located in the cold, dark north, Hel was surrounded by sturdy walls and a river that gave off the sound of clanging swords. Some sources have claimed that Hel was located within the realm of Niflhel or Niflheim (“the place of mists”). However, this appears to be a later addition to the mythos. The realm of Hel was ruled by the goddess Hel, a fierce giantess indifferent to the fates of men.
There is some debate as to whether Hel was a place of suffering. While most accounts depicted the realm as a place where the dead carried on as they had in life, others suggested it was a bleak, horrifying place. In the Norse imagination, Hel was located on the lowest branch (or possibly beneath the roots) of the world tree Yggdrasil. Despite its remote location, Hel was frequently visited by gods and mortals alike.
Hel’s name was taken directly from the Old Norse “Hel,” meaning “hidden.” Its name may have been a reference to its remote, subterranean location. The realm was sometimes referred to as “Helheim,” meaning “place of Hel,” or perhaps “hidden place.”
The word “Hel” was derived from the proto-Germanic root, haljo-, meaning “concealed place.” This same root was the basis for the word “Hell,” the Christian place of suffering for the wicked and the damned. The word was incorporated into the Christian lexicon after missionaries tried to describe the concept to the Germanic people. Lacking the vocabulary to properly explain the idea, the missionaries used the local term “Hel” to get their point across. The word stuck in the vocabularies of most Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons), and would eventually make its way into the English language.
Early on in Norse tradition, Hel was described as both the underworld and the final destination of the dead. Though later traditions described Odin’s Hall Valhalla and Freya’s field of Fólkvangr as the resting places of fallen warriors, Hel was consistently presented as the final destination for the vast majority of souls, including those who died violently.
Three roots there are that three ways run ’Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil; ’Neath the first lives Hel, ’neath the second the frost-giants, ’Neath the last are the lands of men.
Hel was often visited by gods and mortals. Indeed, it was frequented so regularly that the Norse created the term Helvegr, or “Hel road,” to refer to a route leading directly to the subterranean world. Odin took this road in Baldr’s Draumar, of the Poetic Edda. The tale began when Baldur’s mother Frigg dreamt of her son’s death. Concerned, Odin rode to Hel to find a völva, a soothsayer who could explain Frigg’s disturbing vision. Upon being ressurected by Odin, the völva began to speak of his son’s impending death. Her prophecy revealed much about the chthonic realm:
Then Othin rose, the enchanter old, And the saddle he laid on Sleipnir’s back; Thence rode he down to Niflhel deep, And the hound he met that came from hell. Bloody he was on his breast before, At the father of magic he howled from afar; Forward rode Othin, the earth resounded. Till the house so high of Hel he reached.
This passage refers to Hel as being located in Niflheim, a realm guarded by a beast (similar to Greek mythology’s Cerebus), and containing a high hall. Note that this passage never describes Hel as a place of horrors, but instead focuses on its status as the realm of the dead.
Hel in the Gylfaginning
Snorri Sturluson added (and probably invented) much about Hel in the Gylfaginning, a section of his Prose Edda. Heavily influenced by Christianity, Sturluson presented Hel as an inherently bleak place and a destination for the wicked. Speaking through the character of Thridi, he wrote:
’But evil men go to Hel and thence down to the Misty Hel; and that is down in the ninth world.’
In another passage, Sturlson described the realm and its ruler, Hel, who was appointed by Odin:
Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great.
In emphasizing the goddess Hel’s cold and uncaring qualities, Sturluson used them to cast her realm as a place of suffering:
Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler, her thrall; Sloven, her maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed-hangings. She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce.
Hel and Ragnarök
Hel would play a conspicuous role in Ragnarök, the series of events that would lead to the death and rebirth of all creation. According to the völva narrator of the Völuspá, a section of the Poetic Edda, Hel would open its doors and unleash the dead upon the worlds of the living. In hints and whispers, the völva offered brief, tantalizing visions of a world turned upside down. She told of Hel’s mighty hall on the Nastrond or “Corpse-Strand,” home to murderers, thieves, and terrible monsters:
A hall I saw, far from the sun, On Nastrond it stands, and the doors face north, Venom drops through the smoke-vent down, For around the walls do serpents wind. I saw there wading through rivers wild Treacherous men and murderers too, And workers of ill with the wives of men; There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain, And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?
In the end, it was a newly-freed Loki who would lead the hosts of the dead against the living and the divine:
O’er the sea from the north there sails a ship. With the people of Hel, at the helm stands Loki; After the wolf do wild men follow, And with them the brother of Byleist goes.
Hel lived on in the popular imagination as Hell, a place of demons and fork-tailed devils, where fire, sulphur, and red-hot pincers tortured the souls of unrepentant sinners.
Elsewhere, Hel has been imagined as a dark and desolate place. In Thor: Ragnarok, the evil goddess Hela—first-born child of Odin and older sister of Thor—escaped from Hel and attempted to overthrow Thor as rightful heir of Asgard. While the film did not depict Hel directly, it did suggest the realm to be a dim and dreadful place.