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Chapter XIX: Hel

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Loki’s Offspring

Hel, goddess of death, was the daughter of Loki, god of evil, and of the giantess Angurboda, the portender of ill. She came into the world in a dark cave in Jötun-heim together with the serpent Iörmungandr and the terrible Fenris wolf, the trio being considered as the emblems of pain, sin, and death.

“Now Loki comes, cause of all ill!

Men and Æsir curse him still.

Long shall the gods deplore,

Even till Time be o’er,

His base fraud on Asgard’s hill.

While, deep in Jotunheim, most fell,

Are Fenrir, Serpent, and Dread Hel,

Pain, Sin, and Death, his children three,

Brought up and cherished; thro’ them he

Tormentor of the world shall be.”

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).

In due time Odin became aware of the terrible brood which Loki was cherishing, and resolved, as we have already seen, to banish them from the face of the earth. The serpent was therefore cast into the sea, where his writhing was supposed to cause the most terrible tempests; the wolf Fenris was secured in chains, thanks to the dauntless Tyr; and Hel or Hela, the goddess of death, was hurled into the depths of Nifl-heim, where Odin gave her power over nine worlds.

“Hela into Niflheim thou threw’st,

And gav’st her nine unlighted worlds to rule,

A queen, and empire over all the dead.”

Balder Dead (Matthew Arnold).

Hel’s Kingdom in Nifl-heim

This realm, which was supposed to be situated under the earth, could only be entered after a painful journey over the roughest roads in the cold, dark regions of the extreme North. The gate was so far from all human abode that even Hermod the swift, mounted upon Sleipnir, had to journey nine long nights ere he reached the river Giöll. This formed the boundary of Nifl-heim, over which was thrown a bridge of crystal arched with gold, hung on a single hair, and constantly guarded by the grim skeleton Mödgud, who made every spirit pay a toll of blood ere she would allow it to pass.

“The bridge of glass hung on a hair

Thrown o’er the river terrible,—

The Giöll, boundary of Hel.

Now here the maiden Mödgud stood,

Waiting to take the toll of blood,—

A maiden horrible to sight,

Fleshless, with shroud and pall bedight.”

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).

The spirits generally rode or drove across this bridge on the horses or in the waggons which had been burned upon the funeral pyre with the dead to serve that purpose, and the Northern races were very careful to bind upon the feet of the departed a specially strong pair of shoes, called Hel-shoes, that they might not suffer during the long journey over rough roads. Soon after the Giallar bridge was passed, the spirit reached the Ironwood, where stood none but bare and iron-leafed trees, and, passing through it, reached Hel-gate, beside which the fierce, blood-stained dog Garm kept watch, cowering in a dark hole known as the Gnipa cave. This monster’s rage could only be appeased by the offering of a Hel-cake, which never failed those who had ever given bread to the needy.

“Loud bays Garm

Before the Gnipa cave.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Within the gate, amid the intense cold and impenetrable darkness, was heard the seething of the great cauldron Hvergelmir, the rolling of the glaciers in the Elivagar and other streams of Hel, among which were the Leipter, by which solemn oaths were sworn, and the Slid, in whose turbid waters naked swords continually rolled.

Further on in this gruesome place was Elvidner (misery), the hall of the goddess Hel, whose dish was Hunger. Her knife was Greed. “Idleness was the name of her man, Sloth of her maid, Ruin of her threshold, Sorrow of her bed, and Conflagration of her curtains.”

“Elvidner was Hela’s hall.

Iron-barred, with massive wall;

Horrible that palace tall!

Hunger was her table bare;

Waste, her knife; her bed, sharp Care;

Burning Anguish spread her feast;

Bleached bones arrayed each guest;

Plague and Famine sang their runes,

Mingled with Despair’s harsh tunes.

Misery and Agony

E’er in Hel’s abode shall be!”

Valhalla (J. C. Jones).

This goddess had many different abodes for the guests who daily came to her, for she received not only perjurers and criminals of all kinds, but also those who were unfortunate enough to die without shedding blood. To her realm also were consigned those who died of old age or disease—a mode of decease which was contemptuously called “straw death,” as the beds of the people were generally of that material.

“Temper’d hard by frost,

Tempest and toil their nerves, the sons of those

Whose only terror was a bloodless death.”

Thomson.

Ideas of the Future Life

Although the innocent were treated kindly by Hel, and enjoyed a state of negative bliss, it is no wonder that the inhabitants of the North shrank from the thought of visiting her cheerless abode. And while the men preferred to mark themselves with the spear point, to hurl themselves down from a precipice, or to be burned ere life was quite extinct, the women did not shrink from equally heroic measures. In the extremity of their sorrow, they did not hesitate to fling themselves down a mountain side, or fall upon the swords which were given them at their marriage, so that their bodies might be burned with those whom they loved, and their spirits released to join them in the bright home of the gods.

Further horrors, however, awaited those whose lives had been criminal or impure, these spirits being banished to Nastrond, the strand of corpses, where they waded in ice-cold streams of venom, through a cave made of wattled serpents, whose poisonous fangs were turned towards them. After suffering untold agonies there, they were washed down into the cauldron Hvergelmir, where the serpent Nidhug ceased for a moment gnawing the root of the tree Yggdrasil to feed upon their bones.

“A hall standing

Far from the sun

In Nâströnd;

Its doors are northward turned,

Venom-drops fall

In through its apertures;

Entwined is that hall

With serpents’ backs.

She there saw wading

The sluggish streams

Bloodthirsty men

And perjurers,

And him who the ear beguiles

Of another’s wife.

There Nidhog sucks

The corpses of the dead.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

Pestilence and Famine

Hel herself was supposed occasionally to leave her dismal abode to range the earth upon her three-legged white horse, and in times of pestilence or famine, if a part of the inhabitants of a district escaped, she was said to use a rake, and when whole villages and provinces were depopulated, as in the case of the historical epidemic of the Black Death, it was said that she had ridden with a broom.

The Northern races further fancied that the spirits of the dead were sometimes allowed to revisit the earth and appear to their relatives, whose sorrow or joy affected them even after death, as is related in the Danish ballad of Aager and Else, where a dead lover bids his sweetheart smile, so that his coffin may be filled with roses instead of the clotted blood drops produced by her tears.

“‘Listen now, my good Sir Aager!

Dearest bridegroom, all I crave

Is to know how it goes with thee

In that lonely place, the grave.’

“‘Every time that thou rejoicest,

And art happy in thy mind,

Are my lonely grave’s recesses

All with leaves of roses lined.’

“‘Every time that, love, thou grievest,

And dost shed the briny flood,

Are my lonely grave’s recesses

Filled with black and loathsome blood.’”

Ballad of Aager and Else (Longfellow’s tr.).


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