It seems my world is surrounded by death recently, or at least talk of it. This has given me even more time to consider Hel, the Warden-Mother of the Underworld.
Here, an acquaintance of mine details his distinction of Hel and the Christian concept of Hell, which appropriated the name at a later date, but could not be more different. It’s a worthy distinction, and his is a brief entry, so I encourage you to read that first before continuing on, as the rest of this is largely a response.
All too often, former Christians who have joined the pagan ranks bring their baggage with them to their new faith (which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing), and assume that Hel is merely a malevolent force of punishment, analogous to Lucifer or the tormenting devils of Alighieri’s “Inferno”, which is a bit more of a bad thing, on the grounds that is serves the purpose of oversimplifying a necessarily complex figure.
Hel is a fantastically complicated being, and should not be cast as a bad girl despite topical similarities to other villainous beings in other faiths. The world as our ancestors understood it was more than a simple tale of good versus evil. It was a twisting and winding saga of complex characters and clashing ambitions and intertwining motives. There can be no true “villain” in our world, and the same was true of the gods. There are true heroes, but no true evils, with almost every ‘villain’ being given some redeeming points to counter their worst attributes.
Hel is even more true in this than her father, Loki. Loki’s mischief is wild, chaotic, but ultimately serves some manner of purpose. His daughter’s workings are far clearer, her task more defined.
I call her “The Warden-Mother”, because it’s a further example of her dualism, in addition to her “shining” and “dark” faces.
As Warden, she keeps those who were villains in life from escaping again to prevent them from doing further harm, doing the world a great service. She may or may not actively torment or punish, of this I have never received an inkling of information of in my own personal studies (which I know remain far from complete), but I know that it is because of her that that dead do not roam freely; someone keeps the dead that way, and that someone is Hel.
As Mother, she cares for and provides for those who died without glory; those unlucky enough not to have been chosen by Freyja and Odin go to Hel’s domain, where (and this is just my personal poetry) the halls of their fathers wait, and the honorable dead can rest in peace forever in the company of their family and ancestors. Whether we are conscious of this or not will not matter: if we are, then we have an eternity to look forward to spent in good company, and if not, then what’s the problem? You’re simply too asleep to care.
Hel may be a goddess of death, and she may side with Loki against Asgard during Ragnarok (choosing to side with her family over the gods is true loyalty in my book, given what she has to lose if she fails, and is a mark of her own brand of honor), but like her father, is due worship and praise in the here and now. We cannot judge them for things we know will happen later, but have not yet transpired. Worshiping her is not a disgusting or revolting thing, but a respectful thing. Hel holds our afterlife in her hands, and any gatekeeper, be they mother or warden, must be respected.
After all, Hel is the one caring for and watching over the majority of our ancestors, and for that alone, she deserves a hearty thanks.