Norse goddess of death, the keeper of the dead, and a Jötunn of darkness and despair
Hel, the Norse goddess of death
Ruling Niflheim with an icy breath
Where the souls of the dead, she does keep
Until the end of time, in her realm, they’ll sleep.
Hel’s early years were spent in the Ironwood with her mother and brothers. Loki’s offspring by his mistress were all still children when Odin first became aware of their existence and the dread prophecy that surrounded them. Determined to reduce the risk they posed, the gods immediately decided to take them from Jötunheimr and put them in a safer place. To ensure maximum protection, Odin divided each of the three siblings and put them in separate parts of the world.
Back then, Jörmungandr the serpent had not yet reached his full size. His nature was considered irredeemable, and he had no apparent gifts. He was thrown into the sea easily, although he would eventually grow large enough to encircle the world, and spawn legends that persisted across the Ages.
The gods attempted for a time to tame the wolf Fenrir by bringing him to their home in Asgard. When he grew too large and vicious to trust, however, Tyr sacrificed his hand to have him bound with unbreakable chains.
Of the three, Hel at first appeared the most normal. However she was soon feared to be no ordinary child, for she displayed markedly strange abilities. She thrived on the emotions of others, with an ability to drain them, and could twist people to feel exactly what she wanted them to. Though appearing utterly human, she also retained many characteristics one might associate with the Finn realm.
Thus was she banished to the Underworld.
Hel’s prison was carved from Tel’aran’rhiod, and she was placed inside it physically by Odin via the Bifrost before it was sealed. Within her realm she had complete authority, but she was also completely trapped there.
Helheim itself was dreary and joyless; a snowy, severe mansion guarded by high walls and great gates. In her prison Hel was starved, and perhaps caused that gloomy pall herself. The hall in which she resided was known as Ejudnir, which literally translates to “damp with rain.” She was served from a dish called “hunger”, and used a knife called “famine.” The entrance threshold was known as “stumbling-block,” her bed “sick-bed,” and the curtains around it “gleaming-bale.”
Hel herself was often depicted as cold and distant, with a heart of ice. She was also described as “downcast” and “fierce-looking.” How much was natural demeanour, and how much a result of her incarceration, we will never know. However notably, Hel was not unkind to people. Visitors, seldom though they were, were always given a warm and respectful reception in her halls.
In Tel’aran’rhiod, access might be granted to Helheim via a guarded bridge. Visitors who entered this way were not affected by Hel’s emotion pushing abilities.
Hel’s descriptions vary so widely, it is likely she developed some skill for illusion herself. Truly, she was her father’s daughter, and most akin to him in temperament. She is often depicted as a figure of great beauty, with long flowing hair and a pale, ghostly complexion. Sometimes she is described as half-flesh coloured and half-blue, with one side of her pale and the other dark. Other times her beauty is in contrast to a decaying and horrid lower torso, meant to evoke feelings of fear and unease.
She was not imprisoned alone. It is noteworthy that most of the beings described in Helheim are connected in some way to Ragnarök. This is likely the reason they were kept confined there.
- Ganglati and Ganglot: the servants who raised Hel, and who continued to wait upon her in her hall once she was grown. Whether they are living or dead is not made clear. Both their names refer to laziness, suggesting this role was issued as punishment by the Æsir.
- The Cockerel: The seeress who first imparted the prophecy to Odin tells him that three cocks will crow in different worlds when Ragnarök begins. One of them, the only one that is not named, is a “sooty-red” bird from the halls of Hel.
- Garm: One of Hel’s most well-known denizens is its guard dog, an insane wolfkin. He guards Hel’s gate, and howls mournfully when anyone crosses the bridge into her realm. Garm is destined to cause havoc at Ragnarök.
- Modgud: She does not live within Hel’s borders, and is only mentioned in relation to the journey there. She guards the bridge that connects Helheim to the Dreamworld.
- Nidhogg: He is said to chew on both the corpses of the dead and the roots of Yggdrasil, spreading decay into the tree. He is one of the many monsters who will be released at Ragnarök.
Keeper of the Dead
Though she could not leave Helheim and she was not a Dreamer herself, Hel developed unusual abilities within her prison, likely owing to her Finn nature. Unknowing dreamers sometimes became lost in her realm, drawn for reasons unknown. The sustenance Hel received from this was faint but greatly craved by her. Once the dreamer’s body died in the waking world, their souls remained trapped, but the tangibility of their emotions faded to her senses. Usually these people were ill or infirm. Occasionally they were people who died unexpectedly in their sleep. They were never Dreamwalkers, who knew better than to stray to somewhere so dangerous.
When Odin discovered this anomaly, he tasked Hel with care of the souls, thus in myth she is remembered as an underworld goddess.
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.
Hel’s main role in Ragnarök was her possession of Odin’s son Baldr, the god of beauty, light, purity, and joy. After Loki tricked him into physically entering her realm, the gods sought him back desperately, for he was amongst the most beloved of the Æsir. Both understanding and fearing what this act meant, the All-Father Odin sent another of his sons, Hermodr, over the Dreamworld bridge to bargain for Baldr’s return, even allowing him to borrow the legendary steed Sleipnir for the dangerous trip.
Though not lonely in her prison, by now Hel was starving, and Baldr’s joy was something she had never before experienced. In the flesh it was especially potent. He was friendly and gentle and kind, and the first being Hel had encountered who did not naturally shrink away from her in fear, no matter what appearance she wore for him.
She did not want to give him up, yet to bargain is intrinsic to the nature of a Finn. She welcomed Hermodr, treated him graciously to her hospitality, and in the morning when he told her what he had come for, she replied that if every creature in all the realms wept for Baldr, she would release him. Baldr was present for the negotiations, and gifted Hermodr with the ring Draupnir as proof of the bargain made.
When Hermodr returned with the news, the Æsir eagerly spread across the realms to ensure all beings mourned for Baldr.
And all did, but one.
Thus Baldr was condemned to remain in Hel’s darkness, dampness, and cold. Never again would he grace the lands of the living with his gladdening light and exuberance.
It is implied that Hel’s realm is finally sprung open at the coming of Ragnarök, and the monsters and dead imprisoned with her spilled forth to join the battle. Descriptions of their invasion would imply that Loki would be with his daughter’s army at this time. He is said to have arrived at the site of the battle at the prow of Naglfar, a ship made entirely from the finger and toe nails of the dead. His crew are made up of Hel’s people, the dead, and giants.
Of Hel’s fate there is less certainty; it does not appear she took part in the fighting herself, and may not have chosen to leave Helheim at all even once she could. Likely she perished when Surt’s hellfires consumed the Nine Realms. However, it is possible she instead remained, protected by the dimension that had been her prison. If so, she lived the rest of her days with Baldr at her side.
The Aberrated Soul
“She is neither dead nor alive, or in between the two”
As one of Loki’s monstrous children, Hel’s thread is an aberration in the design of the Pattern; a mistake it continually tries to right. She is the quintessential changeling child; a Finn soul in the vessel of a human body. With her Finn connection and Jötunn blood, Hel is born with unusual gifts previously unknown to her Age. She feeds on emotions, can drain those upon which she feeds, and can push and control emotion in others.
In a drastic course correction, her birth spins the Sentient ability into the Pattern, for a Sentient is the only human vessel in which a Finn soul could be contained, and must now be accounted for as a possibility. Hel is the first of her kind, and the most intensely gifted across the Ages, owing to her mixed and monstrous blood and the circumstances of her father’s birth. Later Sentients retain a link to the Finn, but always have human souls. The only exception is when Hel’s own soul is cast back into the Pattern.
It is extremely likely that the creation of Sentients was another payment extracted by the Finn as part of Jaxen Marveet’s deal with them, as in other Ages Sentients provide a connection between this world and the Finn dimension. It would seem they plan a future (or past) feast.
1st Age: Esper