Ever since Thor: Ragnarok came out last year, people have been interested in the Norse goddess, Hel. Or, as Marvel comics calls her, Hela.
And no, Marvel fans. She isn’t the sister of Loki and Thor. She’s the daughter of Loki. Picture her as Loki’s super goth daughter: she’s half blue and half flesh colored (the idea that could be inspired by Celtic warriors), and she dresses and looks super gloomy and fierce. She is sometimes referred to as a troll-woman or an ogress, but not always.
When Odin finds out that Hel (and two of her brothers, Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr the serpent), he’s deffo freaking. Because anything that Loki has conceived (or conceived on others) is bad news. He throws Jörmungandr into the ocean and keeps Fenrir to be raised ‘at home,’ for Tyr to look after. But Hel, he puts in Nifeheim and gives her authority over the nine worlds, allowing that she must,
administer board and lodging to those sent to her and that is those who die of sickness or old age.
In other words, while Loki’s other kids are spooky-scary and need to be monitored, Hel actually looks kind of responsible to Odin, so he lets her take care of those who die in famine, from hunger, or from non-war-related injuries and sicknesses.
So, Hel kind of operates on her own. She might be Loki’s kid, but she’s not loyal to him, and she doesn’t get bossed around by the other gods, either. When beautiful baby Baldr dies, his brother, Hermóðr, rides the eight-legged horse (and Hel’s half-brother) Sleipnir down to Hel (the place) to seek Baldr and ask Hel (the girl) for her permission to send him home. He even tries to tell her that all of creation weeps for Baldr, but she needs a true show of sadness before she’s swayed:
“If all things in the world, alive or dead, weep for him, then he will be allowed to return to the Æsir. If anyone speaks against him or refuses to cry, then he will remain with Hel.”
Unfortunately, the female giant Þökk doesn’t weep:
Thǫkk will weep
For Baldr’s bale-fare;
Living or dead,
I loved not the churl’s son;
Let Hel hold to that she hath!
Sound like a dick move? Probably because Þökk is actually Loki, who planned Baldr’s death in the first place.
Hel is often compared to similar goddesses of death in the Indo-European canon: Kali of India, the Morrigan of Ireland, Peresephone of Proserpina of Greece and Rome. Of these three, she’s more like the latter, as the first two also represent death in battle, which just isn’t what Hel is about.
Do we get our word Hell from Hel? Maybe just a little. That word also has roots coming from the Old Norse word hellir, which means cave or cavern, and Proto Indo-European word kel, which means to cover or conceal. And although it fits pretty well, telling someone to go to Hell wasn’t really a thing until Shakespeare’s day– the early 1600’s.