There is no other goddess in Norse mythology that fascinates me more than the ruler of Helheim. Hel Goddess of the Dead, daughter of Loki, is much more than a mysterious name and looming, shadowy presence. She is a deity of immense complexity, but one that is worth learning from, if indeed she calls to you from beneath the roots of Yggdrasil. Here we introduce you to Hel and provide ways to work with her in your pagan practice.

First, Helheim vs. Hell

First, let’s address any confusion that might come up or already be present when talking about Hel and her realm of the dead. You might have noticed her name Hel sounds exactly like the Christian concept of Satan’s realm Hell. There is some speculation (and I’m a believer) that the Christian concept of Hell is derived fully from the Norse belief in the goddess Hel and Helheim. In fact, it was likely a way to deter the un-converted pagans from their Heathen beliefs. Scaring folks into believing that Hel and Helheim were actually Satan’s fiery realm of torture is an easy way to convert and control. And because the Norse were so strong in their belief system, it would take fear in order to change their minds and traditions.

So, is Hel and Helheim the same place as Satan’s Hell? No. It is not the same place. First, the belief in Helheim existed before the Christian concept of Hell. Second, Helheim is the realm of the ancestors…a place where people who die of old age or natural causes are welcome to rest after life. Interestingly, Helheim is often described or portrayed as being a cold place, NOT fiery and hot like Hell. And no one is being tortured in Helheim, in opposition to the misery of the Christian Hell-scape. Many modern pagans actually believe that Helheim is a temporary place where we can rent a room and party with our ancestors before being reincarnated or going elsewhere in the afterlife. There’s supposedly large hearths, drinks, and maybe even wi-fi, if we’re lucky. LOL.

Me: “Helheim is actually a place where we can rest, sit by the fireside, and have a beer with our ancestors.”
My teen daughter: “Sweet! Do they have wi-fi?”

~ Kitty Fields

Hel, Goddess in Norse Mythology

Hel, also called Hella and Hela, is the daughter of the trickster god Loki and the witch-giantess Angrboda in Norse mythology. Along with her brothers, the wolf Fenrir and the snake Jörmungandr, she was raised by her mother in a place called Járnviðr, the Iron Wood. This is a forest east of Midgard (earth, where humans dwell), which makes it a liminal space that is parallel to our own. And, as witches love to live in liminal places, this makes sense why Hel’s mother resided there for some time. (There are other reasons which we will discuss in this article dedicated to Angrboda).

“The crow went flying towards the North, croaking as she flew, ‘Let Hel keep what she holds. Let Hel keep what she holds.’ That crow was the hag Thokk transformed, and the hag Thokk was Loki.”

Loki’s Punishment, Orpheus: Myths of the World by Padraic Colum

Unfortunately, we don’t have many Norse myths that feature Hel, and the ones that do don’t feature her as a main character. Or put much emphasis on her qualities or origin story. However, the story of The Death of Baldur details a little more. The tale tells of the beloved son of Odin, Baldur, who was killed by Loki (Hel’s father). Hermod, an emissary sent by the gods, travels to Hel to plead with her to return Baldur to the Aesir. When Hermod found her in Helheim, he begged her to release Baldur saying that the entire world was mourning his death. This is what she said:

“If, therefore,” she added, “all things in the world, both living and lifeless, weep for him, then shall he return to life; but if any one thing speak against him or refuse to weep, he shall be kept in Hel.”

Prose Edda, The Death of Baldur, by Snorri Sturluson

Some sources speculate she said this in a snide, sarcastic light…knowing that this was nearly impossible. I believe it can be interpreted in different ways. Nevertheless, the gods sought to prove that every being wept for Baldur. But unfortunately, one giantess did not…of which was likely Loki in shifted form. Therefore, Hel kept Baldur in her realm.

Hel with Fenrir and Jormungandr

What does Hel look like?

Hel, Goddess of the Dead, appears as a woman who is half-dead and half-alive. Her face is halved, vertically down the middle, with one side being a beautiful woman and the other side a decomposing corpse. Sometimes she has a white and dark side, while other times she’s said to be a deathly blue color. She always has a sad, forlorn and serious look on her face. In some depictions, she wears a crown to represent her rulership over Helheim and the dead. In other depictions, she wears horns. Though I believe the horns are a relatively modern addition and may be attributed to the Marvel franchise.

Hel’s Spiritual Powers

Being that Hel is the Goddess of the Dead and an afterlife realm, wouldn’t that mean she is also a psychopomp or a type of Grim Reaper? Not according to the Norse mythos. It seems that she stays in her realm, on her throne, and sometimes appears to people in dreams warning them of their impending death.

Hel’s spiritual powers include death (physical and metaphorical), the afterlife, protection, transformation, omens, wisdom, mystery and ancestral connection.

And while we don’t know a lot about Hel’s persona in the myths, we can deduce that she also has domain over rune-casting and sorcery. Why? Because her name is Hel or Hella, which is a word that was used to label a witch or seeress in ancient times – a helle-rune. I suspect much of the knowledge we had of Hel was lost post-Christianization of the Northern European peoples. And some of what we do have was distorted by Sturluson or prior to his recordings.

How to Know Hel Goddess of the Dead is Calling You

  • You hear/see her name on the TV, radio, online, in books, etc.
  • You recently had a family member pass away
  • You’re currently working on healing from religious trauma, specifically fears of death and Hell
  • The Death card continually pops up in a reading
  • Hagalaz rune is calling to you and showing up everywhere
  • Hel’s animals are coming to you as a sign: dog, wolf, horse
Éljúðnir
Éljúðnir, the Great Hall of Hel in Helheim

When Hel calls, it might be alarming at first. But don’t fear her. Here’s why…

If Hel is calling you, does that mean you’re about to die? No, not necessarily. I liken this spiritual experience to the Death card in the Tarot. If you receive the Death card in a reading, does that automatically mean physical death? No! It typically means death in a spiritual or metaphorical sense – an end to a phase in your life, to a relationship, or habit of some kind. Often this card, and Hel’s presence in one’s life, indicates a need for abrupt change. For transformation. And, while we fear change, often it is just what we need to create a better life for ourselves.

There are many pagans and witches who work with Hel the goddess of the dead in order to understand death and the afterlife better. She may come around when one of your loved one’s is about to die or has just passed. Her presence may be a reminder that there is life after death and that your loved one has a place to go afterward. Remember, the Norse concept of Helheim is not the same as the Christian concept of Hell that most of us have come to know. There are also death doulas and midwives who look to Hel as their matron goddess.

Hel’s Symbols

Hel has quite a few attributes and symbols. The broom is one of her tools, so to speak. During the plague, if an entire village was wiped out, it was said that Hel had used her broom to sweep away the souls. If there were survivors, she had used her rake…another of Hel’s attributes. Her servants are personified concepts named Delay (male) and Slowness (female). I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the dead that enter her realm have died of older age and natural causes rather than the death of a warrior or viking. Obviously, if you live to an older age, your death has been delayed.

Hel’s Magical Correspondences: Herbs, Animals, Etc.

AnimalsHerbsOfferingsSymbols
Black mareElderDried flowersBroom & Rake
HellhoundHellebore (!)Ancestral mealsSpiral
WolfWormwoodTea and wineHagalaz Rune

Ways to Work with the Goddess Hel

We’ve said it before. We’ll say it again. Your connection and relationship with deity will be unique and personal. How I connect to Hel might be completely different from how you do. But here are a few ways you might try to work with the goddess Hel in your pagan practice:

1. Study and Record

The first thing I recommend in working with Hel is to study the myths and lore in which she’s featured. There aren’t many, but the Eddas and Sagas will give you at least a good understanding of our Norse ancestors’ belief system overall. And you’ll run into a few stanzas talking about Hel and/or her realm Helheim. Record what you learn in your grimoire. Dedicate a section or an entire book to working with her.

2. Create Sacred Space

Build an altar for Hel, or carve out a section of your ancestral altar for her. I don’t recommend placing her on the same altar as Odin, or most of the Aesir for that matter, but she can be kept comfortably on an ancestral altar. She could also be placed on an altar with Loki, Skadi, Angrboda, and other Jotunn. Add items in her colors: black, white, and blue. Figurines representing her animals would go nicely as well including dogs, wolves, and black horses.

3. Provide Offerings to Hella

Like other deities, Hel accepts and enjoys offerings from her devotees. Consider giving Hel offerings of wine, tea, beer, mead, and water. She also accepts ancestral meals on feast-days like Alfablot, Disablot, and the Solstices. Incense, dried flowers, and artwork are appreciated. Acts of service in the realm of passage, aiding people during transitions such as birth and death. This could be as simple as providing relief to a caregiver of a dying family member for a few hours. Or sending gifts for a newborn baby. All these are offerings in Hel’s name.

4. Explore Your Beliefs Around Death and the Afterlife

Many of us come from backgrounds of religious trauma and come to the pagan path in need of healing. Personally, my religious trauma had a lot to do with my fear around dying and the afterlife. I was told as a child and teen that if I sinned and died that I would go to Hell and burn for an eternity. So, when I came to this path, I had to address those fears. If you have fears or confusion around death and the afterlife, Hel will sometimes smack you upside the head and push you to face those fears. Truly, it took me a long time to heal these shadows, but once I did…I felt so free!

5. Ancestral Work

Because Hel is the ruler of Helheim and watches over the dead, she can also provide you with a channel of ancestral communication. If you’ve never worked with your ancestors, now is a good time with Hel’s help. Odd that her name can be found in the word help, which means “to serve”. If you don’t know where to start with ancestor work, we have an entire archive of articles here on Otherworldly Oracle. Find them here.

6. Study and Practice with Hel’s Symbols

Start working with the runes, in particular the Hagalaz rune, which symbolizes Hail, abrupt change, and death to old ways of life. In addition, spirals seem to be another of Hel’s symbols that you can work with in your practice. Draw them, meditate on them, trace them in the air, and carve them into candles. Let Hel’s symbols become a part of your consciousness in order to connect with her.

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How to work with Hel Goddess of the Dead.

2 thoughts on “Hel Goddess of the Dead: 6 Ways to Work With Her

  1. I feel an extreme connection and fascination with Hel. From the first time I heard of her, her appearance and her compassionate connection with the dead who don’t go to Valhalla. She cares for the old, very young, infirm and what struck me most – those with mental illness and suicide. I see her duality in me, pretty on the outside, but dark and decaying on the inside (due to mental abuse as a child, which convinced me that I am tainted, and should have killed myself for the sake of my family). There are many aspects of her that I feel this connection with, but most of all, her compassion for people like me. I haven’t heard mention lately in my research of that aspect of her, the caring for the mentally ill, and I’m worried that I heard wrong. Can someone please confirm to me that her purview includes the mentally ill?

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