The Norse mind was not particularly interested in one clear-cut conception of the world beyond the grave. The emphasis was on the journey there, and on the relation between the world of the dead and the world of the living. There are many overlapping and sometimes conflicting picture of the afterlife—Odin’s hall of warriors in Valhalla, elf-mounds and howes within which the dead lived—and then there is Hel.
That’s with one “l”, not two, and she’s a Goddess as well as a place. neither have much connection with the Christian version with the same name.
Born of a giantess and Loki, the Norse God of Mischief and Chaos, Hel was sent early on to Niflheim, the dark and misty world beneath the worlds. The world of death is said to be equal in size to all the worlds of the living, much as the roots of a tree mirrors the plant above the ground. It is circled by a high wall and secured by strong gates, and into it pass those who die of sickness or old age.
Hel herself is rather singular, being half living flesh and half corpse, with a stern and fierce expression. No wonder they stuck her down in Niflheim. According to Snorri Sturluson’s account in the Prose Edda: “Her hall is called Sleet-Cold; her dish, Hunger; Famine is her knife; Idler her thrall; Sloven, her Maidservant; Pit of Stumbling, her threshold, by which one enters; Disease, her bed; Gleaming Bale, her bed hangings.” (1) If all this is beginning to sound like a production of Everyman in the Middle Ages, you have to remember that Snorri was a court poet in a Christian age.
Other passages in Old Norse literature show the halls of Hel decked with gold and rushes, and stocked with mead-vats. Sometimes the Goddess is said to share the favors of her bed with select visitors. There are even references to warriors and others who died of other causes than sickness coming to Hel, which suggests that perhaps the whole concept of Hel and Valhalla were later refinements on the original Norse ideas of an afterworld. In this age, with the remnants of Norse Pagan culture scattered through ages of chaos and persecution, it is impossible to know exactly what Hel really represented, or even if she was an actual Goddess, and not just a personification of Death.
Laden with later Christian ideas of afterlife and the bad press of the name itself, Hel is often pictured as an evil deity. But there is really no record of any real evil done by this Goddess. Hel’s underworld is not a place of damnation, but merely a place where most sorts of people go when they die. Being associated with an unpleasant subject like death doesn’t do much for anyone’s image. Perhaps that is the meaning behind the two-colored face, one side terrible, the other fair. Death can be frightening and awful; it can also be welcome and beautiful, a natural part of the cycle of life. Depends which side of the gate you’re on.
(1) The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by A.B. Brodeur; The American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York, 1916.