Hel was the Norse goddess of the dead, daughter of the trickster god Loki (pronounced LOH-kee) and the giantess Angrboda (pronounced AHNG-gur-boh-duh). She is recognized as the goddess of all the dead who do not die with glory-in other words, those who die from illness or old age. The realm she presides over is also referred to as Hel, and is a cold, cheerless place.
Shortly after her birth, Hel was cast out of Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), home of the gods, by Odin (pronounced OH-din). He sent her to Niflheim (pronounced NIV-uhl-heym), the underworld or land of the dead, and made her queen of all who died without glory. Warriors who fell in combat did not become her subjects but went instead to the hall called Valhalla to live with Odin.
Sources describe the goddess as a monster who is half fleshcolored and half bluish-black. She lived in a castle called Eljudnir (pronounced el-YOOD-neer) and ate her meals with a dish named Hunger and a knife called Famine. She was attended by two servants, Ganglati and Ganglot, who moved so slowly that they appeared to be standing still.
Hel was the keeper of the soul of the god Balder (pronounced BAWLder) after he was killed by mistletoe through Loki's trickery. When Balder's mother Frigg (pronounced FRIG) asked for his soul to be returned, Hel agreed, but only if every living thing in the world cried in mourning over his death. Frigg got all living things to cry except one-a giantess that may have been Loki in disguise. Balder had to remain in the underworld.
In Norse culture, much emphasis was placed on dying with honor. The most honorable deaths were achieved on battlefields in foreign lands. Those who died in such a way were guaranteed to spend eternity with Odin in the paradise of Valhalla. Those who died defending their homes or local lands were also honored, though not as greatly. To die of old age or illness was considered to be a death without honor, and therefore those who died in this way were destined to spend eternity in the dismal underworld of Hel.
To the Norse people, Hel represented death without honor. She symbolized the denial of everything enjoyable in the world, as shown by her plate, Hunger, and her knife, Famine. Hel may also be seen as a victim of circumstance, since she is banished from Asgard simply because her father is Loki. Her refusal to release Odin's son Balder from the underworld may be seen as revenge against Odin.
Hel is not as well known or well regarded as many other Norse deities. When depicted, she is often shown accompanied by Garmr (pronounced GARM), her watchdog and guardian of the gates to her realm. Hel appears as a villain in the Everworld series of novels by K. A. Applegate, as well as the Thor comic series by Marvel and numerous video games. Hell, the English word for the underworld reserved for the damned, is taken from the name of the goddess.