Hela (Hel or Hell) is the Norse goddess of the realm of the dead and the hereafter (Niflhel). Christian missionaries used its name as a symbol of Hell. She is the daughter of Loki with the giantess Angrboda, the younger sister of the wolf Fenrir (a wolf who killed Odin), and the snake Jörmungandr (who lives in the ocean that surrounds Midgard).
Its name means “the one that hides or covers.” And his kingdom was formed by nine circles, where those who died of illness or old age went. Those who died in battle went to Asgard, taken by the Valkyries, and their souls stayed half with Odin and half with Freyja.
She was represented as a beautiful woman in half her body and a decomposing body, black, in the other half. Due to her appearance, Odin banished her to the world of Niflheim (world of mists), which is on the banks of the River Nastronol, which is equivalent to the River Aqueronte in Greek mythology.
Its palace is called Elvidner (misery), with a bridge over a precipice, an immense door, high walls, and a threshold called “ruin.” The gates are guarded by the watchdog named Garm, and she decides the fate of each soul after death. Evil souls went to the frozen realm of eternal torture. But contrary to the Judeo-Christian concept of her, her kingdom also served as support and meeting for souls about to be reincarnated.
Hell was condescending and peaceful with those who died due to old age and illness, especially with children and women who died in childbirth. An impartial goddess, but one that has been demonized over the centuries. Matriarchal people worshiped Hell as the aspect of death present in the great Mother. She is the portal of life (reincarnation) and death. According to Faur (2007):
“Considered the personification of the protective power of the mountains, against glaciers and floods. Believing themselves to be ‘children of the goddess Hell’, they believed in the existence of an ‘other world’ within the mountains, where they would go, after death, to await rebirth, receiving love, healing, food, and warmth. The Swedish words helig and Hell mean ‘sacred’ and ‘full’ and describe attributes of the goddess Hell, but distorted by Christian monks, have become synonymous with ‘hell’ in Christian theology (Hell), despite the numerous names of people and places that have this prefix.”.
She eats a dish called “hunger”, using a fork called “penury”, served by her servants “Senility” and “Decrepitude”. The path that leads to Hell’s home was called “ordeal” and passed through the “Iron Forest,” with metallic trees, whose leaves cut like daggers.
Hell has a dark red bird that will announce the beginning of Ragnarök. In this war, the goddess will assist her father, Loki, destroy the Æsir gods and die in the war with the goddesses Bil and Sun. When visiting the human kingdom (Midgard), the goddess rode on a three-legged mare and spread hunger, misery, and disease.
Hell represents the chthonic world, which the shaman could access through deep trance or with the use of hallucinogenic substances. In other words, the kingdom of Hell is not that of ordinary reality but the unconscious and symbolic images. Hell’s depiction shows aspects of the ancient fertility deities. Death must be part of life for something new to be born. Therefore, the duality in the figure of Hell. It symbolizes the terrible Mother, the dark side of the Great Mother. She is the terrifying grave and - like Mother Earth - the womb from which life is born because it welcomes, protects, and nourishes the seeds (souls) before being born.
At Ragnarök, she safeguards and protects Baldur’s soul, which will be reborn to rebuild and rule the new world.
As an archetypal image, it can be associated with Kore / Persephone. Its dual face presents these two aspects. The beautiful and young face of the virginal Kore and the face of the death of Queen Persephone. She is also the Dark Moon, the devourer, the dark and threatening side of the unconscious. In it, we find our fears, fears, traumas, and the dark side of the maternal complex, which we all have to face. But it is a place where there is a huge potential for new life. It is the place where you can rest for the new awakening.
It represents the whale’s belly on the hero’s journey. In the various mythologies, we find heroes who need to descend to the world of the dead, such as Hercules, Psyche, and Orpheus. At that moment, the hero is faced with his death and gives the impression that he died. According to Campbell (1997), entering the world of the dead is a form of self-annihilation. The hero goes inside to be born again. This is the idea of initiation, and we go through several deaths so that the ego can reach other levels of consciousness.
To reach the Niflhel kingdom, it is necessary to cross a wide bridge paved with golden crystals over the frozen river Gjöll and ask Mordgud for permission to enter. Guardian Mordgud was a tall, thin, and extremely pale woman, who questioned those who wanted to enter Hell’s realm about their motivation, if they were alive, and about their merit, if they were killed, also asking for some gift ( usually the gold coins that were left in the graves with the dead), which goes back to Charon, the boatman who took the dead to the world of Hades and demanded gold coins. The dog Garm is very reminiscent of the dog Cerberus, which guarded the entrance to the kingdom of Hades.
Hell, the dead were received and cared for with patience, compassion, and affection, waiting for their regeneration. She was cruel to criminals. They were exiled in actual Hell and forced to roam icy rivers with toxic fumes or stay in caves populated with snakes.
Finally, the goddess Hell was the recipient and guardian of the secrets of the afterlife. It destroys fears and reminds us of the impermanence of life, with its cycles of life and death, which includes the gods, who were not immune to death.
In Norse Mythology, even the gods undergo renovation. They all died at Ragnarök and were replaced by their children. They remember that everything needs to be destroyed, die, be welcomed in the womb, and germinate for the new life. And Hell reminds us of that moment of death, agony, and waiting.