In Norse mythology, the goddess of death was known as Hel, and her name means “hidden.” She controls over the realm of named similarly, receiving a portion of those that die. Hel is an old Germanic word that means “to conceal” or “to cover.” In Old Norse, it was referencing the Scandinavian queen of the underworld, Hel. The English language took it up, referencing it as ‘hell.’ The word hell does get used in other contexts, but it brings about different connotations depending on the culture.
According to exiting Norse literature, Hel is said to be a daughter of the god Loki and giantess Angrboda. She was appointed by Odin to be the ruler of the realm that she shared a name with. As per a prophecy, she and her sibling would bring havoc to the world. As a result, they were taken from their parents. Her siblings, Jörmungandr and Fenrir, were also dished out a similar fate. Jörmungandr was thrown into the water that surrounded the earth, becoming such a great serpent that his tail was in his mouth. Fenrir, on the other hand, was a monstrous wolf who would later kill Odin during Ragnarök.
Hel is described to have been half flesh-colored and half black, and always appeared to have a grim countenance but was also fierce-looking at the same time. Given the family that she’s from, Hel was harsh, cruel, and greedy. She was also indifferent when it came to anything to do with both the living and the dead.
As per Prose Edda, Hel in her underground kingdom had many mansions with high walls and gates with a multitude of servants that looked after them. Odin charged her to offer residence to those sent to Hel, particularly those who were dying of sickness or old age. The world in which Hel, the location, existed was Niflheim, the World of Darkness. It was divided into several sections; Odin charged Hel the goddess of death to look after six worlds.
Different things happened in the various parts of Hel. There was an area called Náströnd, which was the shore of corpses. There was also a castle filled with serpent venom where perjurers, adulterers, and murderers where put to suffer torment all the while a dragon sucked blood from their bodies. However, not everyone who died went to Hel. It is said that those who died in battle would go to the hall of the slain Valhalla, where Odin was.
The only place where Hel gets predominantly mentioned is in the story about the death of god Baldur, the god of purity, light, and joy. Hel’s father, Loki, killed Baldur, and the other gods sent a representative to retrieve him because the world was in mourning. Hel’s condition for his release was that everything living thing should mourn for his death. The gods managed to get everyone on board, apart from a woman (Loki in disguise). Her refusal to cry for Baldur meant that he had to remain in Hel.
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