Hel is the Norse goddess of the underworld, also called Hel. She’s also known as the goddess of the inglorious dead, as those that live in her realm are those who died of sickness or old age.

In Norse culture, dying with honor was a priority. The most common way this was achieved was on the battlefield in a foreign land, though those who died defending their land were honored as well to a lesser extent. Those who died in honorable combat went to live with Odin in the warrior paradise of Valhalla. To die of old age or disease was the least desirable way to die, as it would mean spending an eternity with Hel in her dark kingdom.

Her name means “hidden,” which could refer to the dead being hidden (buried) in the ground. Daughter to Loki and a giantess named Angrboda, she is also sister to the wolf Fenrir and Jormungand, the world serpent. She was banished to her realm by Odin for being the daughter of Loki and for her ghastly physical appearance. She ruled over the realm with her guardian hellhound, Garmr, and two servants, Ganglot and Ganglati, whose movements were so slow that they appeared to be stationary. Unlike the traditional view of hell (which Hel gives her name to), filled with fire and brimstone, her home is one of damp coldness.

She is generally described as being, at best, indifferent to the concerns of others, and at worst, harsh, greedy, and cruel. In her castle of Eljudner, she ate meals with a knife named Famine and a dish called Hunger. Some accounts describe her as being half-dead and haggardly in appearance, with rotting legs and a hideous face, perpetually looking fierce and grim. One half of her face is attractive, like that of her father, while the other half is dominated by the traits of her hideous mother. The top half of her body resembles that of a normal female human, while her bottom half is always decaying and rotting. Her unpleasant appearance is due to the differences between her father, a god, and her mother, a giantess.

While not featured in literature as prominently as other Norse gods, one story tells of her taking revenge on Odin for her banishment to Hel. Her father, perhaps angry because of his daughter’s banishment, devises a scheme that ends with Odin’s son, Balder, dying a death without honor (slain by a blind giant and a dart of mistletoe). This lands Balder in Hel’s domain. An emissary from Odin begs Hel to release Balder, and Hel agreed to release him on one condition: every living thing must cry for his release. The other gods agreed to this and attempted to make all life rally and cry for Balder. All living things answered this call, save for one old hag named Thokk, who was Loki in disguise.

By the terms of their agreement, Hel was able to retain control of Balder’s soul forever in her realm, striking back at Odin for banishing her. However, the involvement of her father would be detected, with Loki ending up chained and punished by Odin, and eventually leading to the events of Ragnarok, the Norse Apocalypse.