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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hel: Person and Place

The children of Loki by Willy Pogany
Hel looks particularly sickly beside her brothers.
One of the monstrous children of Loki, according to Snorri in the Prose Edda, Hel is "half black and half flesh-colored." She was given the rulership of Niflheim and all those who die of sickness or old age -- meaning pretty much everyone who didn't die in battle and land in the promised land, with the possible exception of those who were lost at sea. The ideal death was in battle, to be swept up by the Valkyries, or perhaps Freyja and brought to Asgard to live on drinking and battling for funsies in Valhalla (with Odin) or Folkvangr (with Freyja) until Ragnarok. It was only the second class deaths that went to Hel* which was by most accounts a pretty dismal place, in particular this stanza in the Voluspa describing part of Nifleheim is pretty bleak**:


38. A hall I saw, | far from the sun,
On Nastrond it stands, | and the doors face north,
Venom drops | through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls | do serpents wind.


I don't know about you, but with that as my other option, I'd be running myself into someone else's sword, too. Especially if the woman who greeted and embraced me was only half human flesh. Half-alive, even. But what if her appearance is more than just the indication of her monstrous birth -- the child of Loki and the Giantess, Angrboða -- and potential threat to gods? What if it signifies the grief of loss? Of the women who were left behind when their husbands went out as Vikings and never came home again?

Sure, the men went to Valhalla to be waited on by Valkyries, or got to dance their nights away with the goddess Freyja (by all accounts, very beautiful and some kind of addiction to the frost giants, who are obsessed with marrying her) but those women, who did not or would not die in battle had lost their men and sons for eternity. There was no hope of reunion when the dead were divided so absolutely in the afterlife. What if Hel is the representation of their heartbreak, their suffering, their grief, in knowing they will never embrace their loved ones again? For that matter, it could be the representation of all loss of that nature. The husband's loss of his beloved wife and child in childbirth -- when just hours earlier the world had been full of life and promise, now cruelly stripped away, there is only a half life left, while stumbling through grief.

It seems likely to me that  Hel, responsible for those kinds of deaths, would embody their suffering physically as well. But what a miserable existence, taking charge of so many forsaken spirits. And having been forsaken by the Aesir, to rot with Hel in Niflheim, is it any wonder that they rise up against the gods in Ragnarok? I can't really blame them, personally.

*In those days, a good many of those who would have died of sickness were probably women and children, most especially in childbirth. Norse women could and did go off to plunder and fight as vikings, with new evidence suggesting they were more prevalent in those parties than we previously thought, but childbirth was dangerous then, and there was no telling what was on the other end of a pregnancy -- life or death. The idea of Hel as half alive and half dead, then, is rather fitting. It almost seems to me as though every woman had one foot in the grave in those days, especially if she was married and bearing children. 


** This sounds to me like the place where Loki is bound, what with the venom dripping down into his face and eyes and the presence of the serpents. But there isn't any real specific information on where Loki was imprisoned, and since when he writhes against his bonds he causes earthquakes, it seems to me that implies he's trapped beneath Midgard somewhere. Maybe that's where Nifleheim is, though. It's hard to say how it all maps out.

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