Who is Hela?

This one is no stranger to most of us. It is our dear Loki’s daughter Hela, or Hel. (I call her Hela because of a promise I made to her when I first dedicated to her father, so I must stick to that here except where directly quoting others). Hela is one of the three children of Loki and Angroboda that the lore tells us were taken from their home in an effort to essentially stop, or at least stall, Ragnarok. And of course, we know that put them all three precisely where they needed to be in order to fulfill the very prophecy the Aesir were trying to prevent. She is said to be “half black (or dead), and half flesh-covered” and according to the Prose Edda, “rather downcast and fierce-looking“. Other translations and variations say she is half death and half beautiful maiden. Either way, though some claim she is fierce and looks at people fiercely and even menacing, in the lore these descriptions are used in conjunction with her appearance as half living and half dead. So, it is also just as likely that they meant her appearance itself is frightening as opposed to her looking at people and being that way on purpose. You have to remember this was before we had horror movies and media where living dead and rotting flesh were commonly seen moving around.  To them, her appearance itself would have been frightening. That’s not to say she can’t be frightening by herself when needed, just like any deity. They are what they need to be at the moment. But, that gets more into UPG and personal experience. As for the lore, this is the most we get for description, and we aren’t told much about her actual personality at all. So aside from experiences in working with her, we have to make guesses based on what little we are told.

What we do know is that she rules over the dead in Helheim, which is located somewhere in, or under, Niflheim. Snorri’s Prose Edda says “Hel he threw into Niflheim and gave her authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age“. We are then told that she has multiple great mansions there and high gates. “Her hall is called Eliudnir, her dish Hunger, her knife Famine”..”the threshold where you enter Stumbling-block, her bed Sick-bed, her curtains Gleaming-bale“. From this description, it is easy to see why many say that Hela, and/or at least Helheim, are personifications of death itself. Yet, it isn’t as dreadful as it may seem. In the tale of Baldr’s death, we see that there was actually a place of honor set for him in her hall by the time Hermod arrived to beg for his release. In the Poetic Edda, we see them actually having the hall set up and made ready for Baldr’s arrival when he was still only dreaming about his death and not yet killed. This, combined with the myths telling us that the Norns choose everyone’s fate and death, and how Hela was made to provide lodging to all those “sent to her”, seems to fall in line with the idea of Hela “preparing a place” for those who pass on. Much like the nice way many refer to death and the afterlife in christianity and other faiths. Which is yet another example of proof that Helheim is not “Hell”.

As for personality, as mentioned before, there is not really any information on Hela in that regard. Like most of the myths, we have to put the pieces together and build our thoughts from there.  From the lore we can see a couple of aspects. We have the preparation and caring for the dead in her hall as seen in the Baldr story. Next, when Hermod asked about releasing Baldr, she doesn’t respond cruelly. She just says matter of factly, that he must prove the whole of creation actually did mourn him like he had said. Then, consider how she got to be in charge of the dead to begin with. Odin saw through prophecies that Loki and Angroboda’s three “monster” children would likely bring trouble for them. So he had them all three taken from their home while still young. Fenrir and Jormungandr we know both have major roles in Ragnarok. But Hela isn’t actually mentioned directly in reference to Ragnarok.We know those who are in Helheim will join in the battle. But they are lead by Loki and/or Hyrm. It doesn’t mention Hela herself. So, in a way, she was kidnapped and cast out for something she wasn’t shown to be involved with. For most people, that would make one a bit resentful. Yet, it is still good she is there to tend to everyone. And what she does actually helps the restart afterward by keeping Baldr safe until its over. From these instances, I personally can see a light and dark side (joy/life and gloom/death) just like her body itself is both. So for me, she is not so much “fearsome” as she is stern and to the point. Somewhat like a mother; she can be nurturing and loving and even comforting. But then she can also be firm, and strong, and correcting. And though I would not say she IS frightening, I definitely know she can be at times. I have been gotten on to a time or two by her, myself. Despite that, she is a great comfort too. Especially when faced with death and dying, or for those of us who often work with the dead and last rites sort of work. That work is both solem, and yet needed. At times it is even peaceful and relief. And I personally believe that is a big part of who she is. Like death itself, she is a sad but natural part of existence. Sometimes its harsh and painful. Sometimes it is just peace. So, even if I believed the idea of gods being merely personified aspects of life rather than actual gods, I would probably still cling to her in times of death and sadness. Even if for no other reason than she helps balance it and makes it easier to cope with. That’s all for this entry. What are your thoughts and feelings on Hela? What ways do you honor her? How do you picture her? Feel free to discuss. See you soon.

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