Hel - the Early Hell

By Barbara Walker




From The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

Norse Queen of the Underworld, whose name became the English "hell." Dead heroes who went to the house of Hel were known as Helleder, "Hel's men,"' Sometimes they were ancestral ghosts known as Hella cunni, "kinsmen of Hel," corrupted in the medieval mystery play to Harlequin, lover of Columbine the Dove-maiden, who was another version of the Goddess.4 The Celtic Lord of Death, wearer of the apex or pointed tiara of divinity, bore the title of Helman.'

The early "hell" seems to have been a uterine shrine or sacred cave of rebirth, denoted by the Norse hellir.6 The notion of Hel as a cauldron-womb filled with purgative fire may have been related to the [undecipherable]. In the Pacific, Mother Hell or Mother Death was often a fire-mountain entered by way of a sacred cave. The Hawaiian volcano-goddess Pele, like Hel, kept souls of the dead in regenerative fire. Pele and Hel may have had linguistic connections, as p and h may be interchanged in Indo-European languages. In Malekula, the dead live in a volcano under the Goddess's rule: "Abiding in that fire is bliss; there is no fear of being consumed." Japan's sacred volcano was named for the fire-goddess Fuji, "Grandmother" or "Ancestress."7 Similarly, Hel was a fire-mountain according to German legend; the emperor Theodoric became immortal by entering her womb through a volcano.8

The Infernus of classical paganism contributed to the Christian amalgam of images of Hel's land. Infernus [cf furnace] meant an oven in the earth; an old Roman proverb said "the oven is the mother." Roman ovens and bakeries were associated with temples of the Goddess, whose harlot-priestesses were often called Ladies of Bread. Their orgies were called Fornacalia, "oven-feasts," from fornix, the "oven" which gave us both "furnace" and "fornicate."9 Naturally, Christian authorities maintained that tasting the sacred fire of eternity through "fornication" was a sin.

Medieval legends spoke of Hel as Brunnhilde, "Burning Hel," also the name of a leader of the Valkyries, otherwise known as Hild the Avenger.10 Another of her names was Matabrune, "Burning Mother," who gave birth to King Oriant [cf orient, the place where the sun rises], a version of the Oriental sun god born at dawn from the bowels of the earth.''

Magic fire surrounding the Valkyrie's castle was an allegory of cremation fire, through which a hero passed enroute to Hel. Cremation of the dead was later forbidden by the Christian church, on the theory that cremation destroyed the body and prevented "resurrection of the flesh" according to the orthodox dogma. The more practical reason for outlawing cremation was that, as a pagan ceremony, it brought no revenue to the church.'2 It was profitable, however, to cremate witches while they still lived; inflated charges were made for every rope, nail, and stick of wood.13

Some myths suggest that Hel was originally envisioned as not fiery but dark: a Crone-goddess like Black Kali, eater of the dead. As the Nether Moon, she was called Nehellenia. Her ancient altars were found in Holland at the mouths of the Rhine.14 Vases and statues from her shrines were discovered in Zealand in 1646.15 Sometimes, her underworld was not hot but ice cold, as if serving as a model for Dante's innermost circle of the Inferno. The cold, dark Queen of Shades was Nef-Hel or Nifl.

Hel was supreme and inescapable, seizing even gods in her embrace. The Swedes said Odin the Heavenly Father was buried in a barrow known as Hel's Mount.16 Because she was associated with mountains, Hel sometimes merged with Mother Freya. A fate-spinning Goddess called Hel of the Air was worshipped on the [undecipherable].17 She was simultaneously diabolized as feminine counterpart of the Prince of the Power of the Air (Odin-Satan) who led the Wild Hunt. Tenth-century witchcraft texts said the heathen women rode forth under the leadership of "the witch Holda."18

Like her Greek twin Hecate, Hel sometimes wore all three faces of the Triple Goddess. The German poem Gudrun represented her as the ruler of Holland, incarnate in three virgins living in a mystic cave: Hild, princess of Isenland, Hilde, princess of India, and Hildburg, princess of Portugal. All three resembled mermaids or wood nymphs. The legendary Prince Hagen married all three Hels, after the usual ritual combat with an elder king.19

Ballads and sagas depicting such encounters between mortal men and supernatural women were collectively described as "hellish" -- that is, hellig, medieval Danish for "holy."20

Pliny said all the inhabitants of "Scatinavia" (Scandinavia) were children of Mother Hel, thus they were called Helleviones.21 They considered their Goddess incarnate especially in elder trees, which were still called Hel-trees or elven-trees in the Middle Ages. Danish peasants prayed at elder trees to the Hyldemoer, that is, Hel-mother, or Elder-mother.22

Hel's ancient connection with fertility was still evident in her medieval titles, Lady Abundia or Satia (abundance, satiety). In this guise she led the "ladies of the night" called Hellequins, who rode forth to receive offerings of food and drink from common folk, promising in return to bring prosperity on the house.2' Apparently these were not mere legends but real women, carrying on the Goddess's nocturnal festivals. Hel was despised by the church, but the common people seem to have thought her more benevolent than otherwise. Her underworld was reached by crossing a river, like the Greek Styx; the river was Gjoll, "Wailing." On the bridge that crossed it stood the Goddess's emanation", Modgudr (Good Mother), ready like the Orphic Persephone to greet the deceased and see him safely into eternity.24

Northern shamans believed they could put on the Helkappe, a magic mask or Hel-met, which would render them invisible like ghosts, and enable them to visit the underworld and return to earth again without dying. The Helkappe seems to have represented the shamanic trance, in which death and resurrection were experienced as a vision.

l.Turvillc-Petre, 55. 2. Rank, 73. 3. Steenstrup, 149. 4. Potter & Sargent, 52,73. 5.Knight, D.W.P., 78. 6. Wainwright, 113. 7. Campbell, P.M., 336,450. 8. Borchardt, 242. 9. Neumann, G.M.. 286. 10. Oxenstierna, 191. 11. Baring-Gould, C.M.M.A., 579. 12. Pepper & Wilcock, 226. B.Robbins, 111-13. 14. Reinach, 138. 15. Johnson, 211-12; Hays, 145. 16. Johnson. 165. 17.Guerber, L.R..99. 18. J.B.Russell, 81. 19.Guerber, L.M.A., 23-25. 20. Steenstrup, 186. 21. Ramsay, 23. 22. Keightley,93. 23. J.B. Russell, 146. 24. Branston,91.


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