In Norse mythology, Hel is the goddess of the underworld and the inglorious dead.
Snorri Sturluson, author of the Edda (the most complete source of Nordic myth), describes Hel as half black and half flesh-covered. He also says she is gloomy or downcast, and rarely happy. Other later sources describe Hel as being ugly, a hag, and hideous with gangrene legs. Snorri, being the oldest source we have today, is generally the one to go by in questions of Nordic myth, so Hel probably wasn’t ugly, but not likely pretty, either. Just very down.
The parents of Hel were Loki, the trickster god, and the giantess Angrboda. She is the sibling to the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard/World serpent, and half-sibling to Sleipnir, Odin’s horse.
She rules the Halls of Hel in Niflheim. Odin gave her that realm in the Edda, not necessarily because she was a child of Loki and the underworld was a punishment, but because she was best suited to the realm. Odin did forcefully gather Loki’s children and distribute them because prophecies said great mischief and trouble would come from those children. Likely putting Hel in the underworld was a way to confine her influence. Hel is said to live underneath one of three roots of the world tree Yggdrasil.
In one of the major stories of the Norse gods, Hel plays a key part. When Baldr was killed by his brother, Baldr’s mother Frigga asks who of the gods would be willing to bring Baldr back from Hel (meaning the place, not the goddess) and earn all her favor. Hermodr volunteers and rides to the halls of Hel. There he finds Baldr and begs Hel to allow Baldr to return to the living with him. Hel agrees but on a condition (there’s always a condition, isn’t there): that all the things in the world, whether living or dead, must weep for Baldr in order to test the love the world has for Baldr. But if any spoke against him, he would remain in Hel. Later in the story, there is one person who refuses to weep for Baldr, a giantess named Thanks who was probably Loki in disguise.
Hel reigns over the inglorious dead, those who die of disease or old age. There are huge mansions all over her kingdom, and Snorri says she rules over nine worlds. Also according to Snorri, Hel must give lodging to any who are sent to her and those who die of old age or sickness. She has a hall named Eljudnir (roughly pronounced “el-youd-near” and means in Old Norse “sprays with snowstorms”). Hel owns a dish called Hunger and a knife named Famine. Her threshold is called Stumbling-block and her bed is named Sick-bed. Two servants attend Hel, Ganglati and Ganglot.
Light and Dark Sides
Hel seems to do her job well. She holds what she has and admits and protects the souls of the dead as she is meant to do. Hel is a natural part of the life above her, as her dishes and her hall illustrate. Not all people can die in glorious battle as all Nordic men wanted. They recognized that fact and thus the realm of Hel. Likely she is described is such a negative light not because of her job but because the Nordic men so greatly feared dying from sickness or old age, unsung and without glory. There are no other reasons given to so fear her.
Hel is a depressing figure, but who wouldn’t be given the world she inhabits and the people she has to hang out with? She lives in a cold, wet, apparently snowy place that never feels true warmth. And the people are the dregs of Nordic society, the layabouts and lazy or those who simply suffered the misfortune to die of disease or, Odin forbid, old age.
On her Dark side, Hel is an underworld figure. She lives in the shadows of the Nordic world, the despised area that no one wants to visit. Even so, Hel doesn’t follow in her father’s footsteps to cause trouble or mischief. Not even her testing of the love of Baldr could truthfully be seen as a Dark act, as it seems to be a given that the gods of the dead can’t simply let the dead back into the living so easily. There always has to be some kind of test (think Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek myth). In that sense, Hel was only doing her duty, which is a Light activity. Despite her depressing state, Hel seems to be a fairly good goddess whose only minimal Darkness comes from the nature of her job.