“No wealth, no land, no silver no gold
Nothing satisfies me but your soul”
Oh Death, Traditional American Folk Song
Hel and her siblings were taken from their father and mother (Loki and Angrboða), separated, and exiled. I think she was young when it happened. I always see this child or teenager… she’s standing in her halls, a Queen of vast mansions, possessing dread tools of famine and disease. Her body is half glorious black, as dark as the sun is bright, flushed a morbose purple. It is half lily pale, ashen as the snowstorm, too bloodless for life. She has a fell mien, beautiful at the first look, ‘as beautiful as a rotted corpse,’ an epithet that could flatter no one but her, but degrading to a chilling horror the longer one stares.
It is not, as one might expect, a fear of death. After all, you would not see her had that fiend not already passed over you. She is surrounded by the ghosts of those who died, aged, sickened, withered. Their tacit relief and taciturn regret… these are her companions. She is too uncomplicated for their grief, but by it nonetheless burdened.
Simplicity is a luxury of innocence and Hel has neither. That is the fear of nightmares. The quiet rage of a woman who has lost everything. They came for her; she screamed for her father, did not understand why he did not protect her, watched the ocean swallow her sibling, could not find her mother’s arms. She was alone. Utterly, entirely, without ally, alone when they forced the crown on her head and bid her to welcome all sent to her realm.
This she has done: surrounds herself with the newly departed, hears their troubles, offers them rest.
Odin and Freya’s deaths are meritorious, but Hel’s death is just. She cannot be bought; she turns none away. Hel did not die of grief. Isn’t that terrifying? That is not how the stories end, we have been told. Injured women grieve and die or, failing to die, become monsters. They do not live to bring hope and joy and raise an army loyal against their enemies.