Hel is the daughter of the shapeshifting trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. As a small child, the gods locked her away in Niflheim, because of a prophecy that she and her siblings would take part in the end of the world. By locking her away in the land of deathly cold, they made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hel appears parti-color, that is to say one half of her is of a different color or appearance than the other. Exactly what these two tones are, and which half they apply to, varies from source to source. Generally either her top half or her right half appears normal for a human of nordic descent. The other half (whether bottom or left) is either black (color, not race), dark blue, featureless, aged, rotting and green, or skeletal. In a few rare descriptions, both sides are inhuman or unusually colored, but generally the two sides are still different from one-another. From time to time, artists depict her as purely human, forgetting (perhaps on purpose) that she's half-monster.
Hel is armed with a knife called "Famine".
Hel's a tricky one to summarize, a very complicated character. Her temperament and motives are as contradictory as her appearance.
- As death, she is cold and unforgiving. Cold as a winter in the frozen north. She's thrown into Niflheim for prophecied crimes she had not yet committed, and thus sets her heart to slow cold vengeance.
- But to a culture of warrior poets, death could also have it's steamy side. Death rites for Kings and Heroes had erotic sexual aspects. This fits with Hel being half-beautiful, half-disgusting.
- She treats Baldr like visiting royalty instead of a prisoner, providing feasts and thrones for him and his wife Nanna.
- When Hermod comes to bargain for Baldr's release, she welcomes him and treats him kindly as well.
- She tells Hermod no bribe or ransom is necessary, that she will release Baldr if all the world shed tears for for him.
- Meanwhile her father Loki plots to make sure not all the world cries, and who's to say his daughter Hel isn't complicit in this scheme?
- She leads an army of the dead to overthrow the gods.
- There's a silver lining, though. She leaves Baldr intact, despite him being her prisoner and under her power, to rebuild the world after the war.
Hel as Place
Going to Hel is not as glorious as dying in battle and going to Valhalla or Fólkvangr, but neither was Hel a land of damnation like the Christian Hell. Neither moral judgment nor punishment awaited one in Hel's lodgings, at least not in the earliest myths. As the influence of Christianity took hold in Scandinavia, Hel (the location) became more and more colored by the Christian Hell. Prior to the Christian influences, Hel was often depicted as sexy. "Hel's embrace" was a steamy one, and death could be sexy at least for heroes and kings. At the same time, the realm of Hel was cold like a Scandinavian Winter… but it being so cold outside is a good excuse to snuggle up next to the fire.
Go to Hel
To the vikings, this phrase was a euphemism for death. It could be said without the implication of a curse or insult, as just a poetic way to say someone was dying or dead. Variations of the phrase are common as well, such as riding or sailing to Hel, "sent off to Hel", "Hel has half of us", "in Hel's embrace", etc. Let's not forget the vikings were poets.
Servants of Hel
Other characters who may be found in close proximity to hell include:
- Ganglati and Ganglöt, whose names translate as "lazy walker", are the servants of her household.
- Modgud, the giantess bridgeward of the bridge into Niflheim
- Garmr, the blood-stained watchdog of Hel
- Possibly Níðhöggr, the dragon that gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasill.
- Possibly Helhest, the three-legged death horse of Danish folklore.
- Possibly Helreggin. In the Prose Edda there is one passing reference to this jötunn whose name means "ruler over hell". Given Hel's half-giant ancestry, it may just be a title she uses. Or it could just as easily be another giant, a consort of hers, perhaps?
- Possibly Baldr (and his wife Nanna), who is a prisoner in her realm from the time of his death until Ragnarok. Though prisoner, he is well-treated and seated upon a throne next to Hel's, as though he were merely visiting nobility.
- Possibly The Devil, see "Hel and the Devil", below.
- The dead, and the undead legions she will lead into battle on Ragnarok, possibly including the Blue Men.1
Officially she provides for and rules over souls of those whose death is caused by old age or disease. However, there's places in the myth that strongly suggest that other sorts of deaths can land you in Hel's hall. For example, the god Baldr dies of an accident / murder / poisoning / pride, depending on how you care to view his demise, and yet he ends up in Hel's grasp.
Hel and the Devil
A few sources from the middle ages, specifically the Old English Gospel of Nicodemus and Bartholomes saga postola, depict Hel and The Devil as having interactions. In these cases, Hel holds the superior position, being Queen of the Dead. In these sources, it's not just the nordic underworld she rules over, but also the Christian Hell. There's an odd part in Nicodemus where Hel and the Devil play The Dozens.
Game and Story Use
- To accomplish a resurrection, the PCs may have to travel to Helheim and pay a bribe or ransom to Hel.
- No need to let that unfortunate TPK spell an end to your campaign. The dead PCs wake up in Helheim, and the Queen of the Dead offers them a job. They can refuse to go to work for her and set out on their own, but it's mighty cold outside.
- A campaign set in the time just before Ragnarok might see Hel and Loki in a very active role, sending out scouts and agents, arranging for the war that must be. It's easy to imagine ways the PCs could get tangled up in the "bad guys" schemes.
- A short insert-scene to throw in to any RPG: One of the Norse gods shows up, and asks the PCs to shed tears for Balder. If they do, they get some minor blessing or benefit from the gods. If they refuse, Hel and Loki take an interest in them, and the rest of the Aesir hold a grudge.
- Hel might also show up in (Christian) Hell. Those medieval writers seemed to think she was The Devil's boss. This opens the door to some interesting cross-mythology pollination. Syncretism ahoy! Mix-and-match-mythology awaits you.
- For ideas on how to use Hel's homeland in your campaign, see Niflheim and Helheim.