top of page
  • Writer's pictureNorse Norn

Hel: Norse Goddess of Death and the Underworld

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Hel is one of the Jotunn (giants) of Norse mythology. She has dominion over Helheim, a realm of the dead in the Norse belief system.

Hel is described as half living and half dead and one of the few beings that can cross between the worlds of the living and the dead. Hel also has absolute control over who can pass in and out of her underworld realm, even being able to overrule the great god Odin in these matters.

Hel is associated with necromancy, both when it comes to communicating with the dead and accessing the collective power of the ancestors. The goddess of death can act as an important guide at the end of life.

Artistic representation of Norse goddess Hel
Artistic representation of Norse goddess Hel

Gods vs Giants

Hel is not a Norse goddess in the same way as Odin and Thor, who number among the Aesir gods. The goddess Hel is rather a Jotunn, a giant, a race of beings generally considered enemies of the gods. While the Aesir represent order and balance within the universe in Norse mythology, the Jotunn represent chaos.

However, the Aesir gods and the Jotunn generally seem to have been considered superhuman beings of the same order, with similar powers. The amount of interbreeding between the two races also suggests compatibility. Even Odin, the father of the Aesir gods, has a Jotunn mother. His son Thor is born from another giantess.

Jotunn are associated with the element of earth, and this is the most appropriate cardinal point for Hel on any altar. They are also often represented by the Jera rune, which is also associated with the yearly cycle of harvest, as well as death and rebirth.

Rune for Hel
Rune for Hel

Daughter of Loki

According to Norse mythology, Hel is one of the children of the Jotunn Loki. While he is one of the giants, he had some kind of blood brotherhood oath with Odin which allowed him to live among the Aesir gods. Loki often worked with the Norse gods to solve problems and defeat Jotunn, even though Loki himself was the author of most of those problems.

Together with the fearsome giantess Angrboda, Loki had three children, the mighty wolf Fenrir, the World Serpent Jormungandr, and the giantess Hel.

The Aesir gods had a great deal of fear for these offspring of what they considered a “monstrous union”. They decided to put each of the children somewhere that they could cause the least harm. They tricked Fenrir and chained him up on a deserted island with enchanted chains. They threw Jormungandr into the waters surrounding Midgard, where he has grown to an enormous size that he can encircle the whole world. Hel was sent to the underworld.

The symbol of Loki is two snakes whose bodies are twisted around one another to form an S shape. Elongating the bodies of animals and twisting them to create elaborate geometric patterns is a common theme in Norse art and can be incorporated into altarpieces. Snakes and wolves are the most common animal motifs.

Symbol of Loki
Symbol of Loki

Banished to the Underworld

The Aesir gods seemed not only to fear Hel but considered her gruesome to look upon. Hel is attested as being half black and half white, which is probably meant to indicate that she is half living (half flesh) and half dead. Hel's appearance is described as having a sombre and heavy disposition.

The gods sent He; to Niflheim, a land of cold dark and mist at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil. There they created a land for the dead and gave Hel jurisdiction over it, making Hel goddess of this underworld. She is responsible for hosting the souls that find themselves there. Hel is also the only one able to allow souls to pass in and out of this realm.

Even when the Aesir god Baldr, one of the sons of Odin, died and found himself in this realm, Odin could not retrieve his soul. Only Hel could grant this. According to an Old Norse poem recorded in the 13th century Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, Hel agreed to let Baldr return to Asgard as long as everything in the world alive or dead weep for the god to prove that he is universally loved. Loki prevented this from happening by disguising himself as an old witch, who refuses to cry. So Baldr’s soul is destined to be trapped there until Ragnarok.

Hel is considered a gatekeeper between the realms of the living and the dead, and her permission must be sought to gain access to the dead. Hel will often require justification for the request and proof that it is pure.

Hel and Garm at the gates of Helheim
Hel and Garm at the gates of Helheim


Niflheim was also known as Helheim due to the close association between the goddess and the realm. It is located at the base of Yggdrasil, the tree of life that holds the Norse cosmos together, under one of the roots of the great tree.

According to various old Norse poems, the road to Helheim is known as Helvegr. Hermodr travelled this road on Odin’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir to ask for the return of Baldr. Incidentally, Sleipnir is another child of Loki.

According to the old Norse story, Loki convinced the Aesir gods to enlist the help of a builder to constructe the walls of Asgard, but in payment he wanted the hand of the goddess Freyja in marraige, the sun, and the moon. The gods were unwilling to pay such a steep price, but Loki convinced them to give the builder an impossible deadline, so that they could get their wall without paying anything at all.

It soon became apparent that the builder would meet his deadline thanks to the help of his might horse Svadilfari. The angry gods demanded that Loki do something so that they would not have to pay. So, Loki shapeshifted into a beautiful mare and distracted the horse. In the end, the builder was unable to complete the wall, and was not only not paid, but also killed by the gods. Loki found himself pregnant, and when he gave birth to an eight-legged horse, he gave it to his friend Odin as a present.

Hermodr rode for nine nights through dark valleys until he reached the river Gjoll, which means loud noise. He traversed the bridge Gjallarbru and encountered the giantess Modgudr, whose name means ferocious battle, who acted as a sort of gatekeeper and let the god pass. He then arrived at a fence that was guarded by a mighty dog Garm and had to jump the fence to enter the realm of the Hel goddess.

Similarly, the Danish hero Hadding was led down to Helheim by a mysterious woman, probably Hel herself, who takes him through a dark and misty land, and then a sunny and fertile lane where herbs grow year-round. They eventually reach a raging torrent that is flowing with weapons. As they cross the bridge over the water, they see armies of the dead engaged in eternal battle. They then come to the same wall, which is variously called Helgrindr, fence of Hel, Nagrindr, corpse fence, and Valgrindr, fence of the fallen.

As for Helheim itself, the only descriptions survive from the Christian period and seem to be based on Christian ideas of Hell.

According to the 13th-century Icelandic Christian historian Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, in the halls of Helheim, Hel eats from a dish called hunger with a knife called famine. This suggests that no amount of nourishment can fill the stomachs of the dead. He also refers to her bed as being called sickbed, again suggesting that no amount of sleep can restore the dead.

While it is unclear what exactly Helheim is supposed to be like, what is clear is that it is remote and inaccessible and can only be reached with the permission of Hel. Anyone wishing to gain access to the world of the dead must be prepared to walk a long and treacherous path.

Hermodr riding Sleipnir to Helheim
Hermodr riding Sleipnir to Helheim

Norse Afterlives

Helheim is only one of the various underworlds described in old Norse mythology. The most famous is Valhalla, which means hall of the slain, and is Odin’s great hall in Asgard. With the help of his Valkyrie, semi-divine shieldmaidens, Odin chooses the bravest fallen warriors to live there in the afterlife, where they will fight and feast until they are called on again to fight alongside the gods at Ragnarok.

The goddess Freyja has a similar arrangement, and she takes brave fallen warriors to Folkvangr, which would have been a more open and natural space. There again they feast and fight until the goddess needs their help. Freyja may also have numbered among the Valkyrie.

Men that drown at sea might find themselves in Ran, an afterlife at the bottom of the sea ruled over by a sea giantess of the same name. There is also a place called Helgafjell, which seems to be a holy mountain where some of the dead will pass their days pretty much doing the same things that they did when they were alive.

It is unclear where Helheim fits in alongside these other afterlives. There is no indication in contemporary sources that it was a place for the wicked. This insinuation belongs to later Christian texts. But while people coveted a place in Valhalla, this does not seem to be true of Helheim. It was not uncommon for Vikings to stab warriors dying of old age or who die of sickness to try and trick the gods into believing that they had died in battle and take them to Valhalla.

The dead giant Hrungnir was believed to come and take the souls of some dead, stopping them from ascending to Valhalla. A symbol known as Hrungnir's heart was sometimes used to repel this spirit of death.

But that said, if the dead pass eternity fighting in the fields around Helheim, just as they do in Valhalla and Falkvangr, perhaps the places were not viewed as being all the different.

There is also evidence that Hel chooses who will enter her realm. According to Egils Saga, Hel can appear to some people to let them know that their death is imminent and guide them on the path to the next life.

Hel can be called on for guidance when it comes to understanding death and preparing oneself for the transformation that it represents.

Artistic representation of Hel
Artistic representation of Hel


According to old Norse mythology, Ragnarok, the apocalypse, is inevitable. Events are already in motion, it is just a matter of time. It is unclear whether the world will still exist after Ragnarok or sink into the waters of chaos and never be seen again. But what is clear is that the reign of the Aesir gods, that brings order to the universe, will be over.

According to the prophecy made by a Volva (witch) and recorded in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, Hel’s brothers Fenrir and Jormungandr will kill Odin and Thor respectively, although both will also die in the conflict. This marks the end of the world as we know it.

Ragnarok is destined to happen because Loki and his children want vengeance on the Aesir gods for their mistreatment of them. The Aesir also imprisoned Loki, hanging a venomous serpent over his dead to constantly drip painful poison into his face, for his role in Baldr's death. He is helped in his punishment by his Aesir wife Sigyn, who catches the poison in a bowl. She is the goddess of victory in battle, and her torn allegiances at Ragnarok, between her husband and the rest of the Aesir, may be why no side can win.

Ragnarok will happen when Loki and Fenrir break their chains and lead a charge against the gods. They will be joined by Jormungandr, who will leave his waters, and by Hel, who will call on her dead to join the battle against the gods. She will be joined by her father Loki and together they will sail from Helheim to Asgard in boats made of the toenails and fingernails of the dead.

While the fates of many of the gods and their enemies are recorded in the Ragnarok prophecy, and even the fate of Hel’s dog Garm, the surviving sources do not tell us what is destined to happen to Hel. But perhaps Hel survives since death cannot be defeated.

Toenail and fingernail clippings can be used as offerings to Hel. But we are generally warned to be careful with these items as they can be used to work magic against us.

Hel sailing to Asgard at Ragnarok
Hel sailing to Asgard at Ragnarok

53 views0 comments
bottom of page