After the absolutely bonkers awesome finished portrait of Hel came out last week (and if you haven't seen it yet, you really should!), we got more than a few requests to talk about her this week. So let's discuss the lady of the underworld!
Hel is in a unique position in Norse mythology; she's the goddess of the underworld Helheim, which bears her name and which is home to all the unfortunate dead who don't qualify for the paradisaical afterlives of Valhalla or Folkvangr, and appears as a major character in the stories of Ragnarok, as well as being invoked in various religious texts and stories as the quintessential face of the afterlife. But at the same time, she is considered one of the three monsters that threaten the Norse gods, and plays a key part in their downfall at the end of all things.
Hel is a classic example of the sins of the father being passed down to the child. Initially, in Norse mythology, she hasn't actually done anything wrong at all; she's described as fearful-looking and grim, but there are no myths of her childhood or any stories of her doings before she becomes queen of the underworld. Rather, she is exiled from among the gods for the simple fact of her parentage - she's the daughter of Loki, trickster god and frenemy of the Norse deities, and Angrboda, a giantess of the race that the gods often fight. Of course, there are other gods among the Norse pantheon who are born of giants, and gods who are born of Loki, but not both at once. And maybe even that could have been overlooked by the other gods, if it weren't for Hel's siblings - the world serpent Jormungandr, who encircles the entire planet beneath the oceans, and the monster wolf Fenrir, who consumes flesh and blood endlessly. Together, the three children are too much of a threat for the gods to tolerate.
So Hel is banished by Odin to the underworld, where he gives her the symbols of rulership and charges her with the responsibility to oversee all the hordes of the dead and administer to their needs. And there she stays, effectively silent in Norse mythology, until the world begins to unravel and we discover that she is at the heart of that unravelment.
Hel's exile to her underground domain may have been involuntary, but once she is there she is an unquestioned and absolute authority, one who trumps even the efforts and desires of the other gods. Hel's tale begins when the god Baldr is accidentally murdered by his brother Hod and sent down to her halls of death, where he is subject to her laws like any other dead person in spite of his divinity. The other gods attempt to convince Hel to release Baldr and allow him to return to the land of the living, sending her bribes and pleas via messenger all the way in the underworld, but she refuses to let him out unless her condition - that all living things in the world weep for him - is met. And when that condition isn't met, she keeps Baldr, permanently and without appeal, and literally no one, from the warriors of the Norse gods to the Allfather himself, can stop her or force her hand.
It's ironic that the very power Odin gave to Hel, making her the authority over death, is what allows her to completely shut him off from his own son and assert her powers in a way that no one can question or override. And, as is often the case with the Norse prophecies, it's a matter of discussion whether or not this is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy - the gods believed that Hel would be dangerous to them, so they banished her, but it might be that very banishment that caused her to want to turn against them in the first place, which she does with terrible finality in eventually sending forth the countless hordes of the dead to aid her father Loki in the final battle. Hel herself is enigmatic, her feelings and motivations hardly hinted at, and so we can't really know for sure what she thinks about all this. All we know is that in the realm of death, even the other gods of the afterlife cannot oppose her. Hel is a queen who cannot be overcome and who recognizes no authority over her whatsoever.
In fact, Hel's great power and sovereignty over her domain is such that even Christianity in the Norse lands included her in their tales in early centuries, considering her a power equal to or even greater than their own Devil. In the Bartholomeus Saga, a captured demon menaced by a saint says that Christ had to do battle with Hel in order to resurrect himself in the Bible, making her seem to be the sole ruler of the Christian Hell with no mention anywhere of the Devil more commonly considered the lord of the place elsewhere in Europe. Possibly most interesting as a collison between religions is the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, in which Satan goes before Hel and tells her that Christ is coming to her hall, apparently to ask her to fight his enemy on his behalf; Hel responds by saying that this Christ guy sounds like bad news and is probably a god if Satan can't handle him, and isn't sure she wants to deal with that mess. She points out that Jesus resurrected Lazarus, which she considers a personal insult since the man was stolen from her halls, and tells Satan to get lost because she's not taking the chance that this guy might come ruin her day by releasing all the other dead she so carefully stewards in her realm. Then she kicks his ass out, bars the doors, and tells him he can fight Christ his own damn self if he's so set on it.
These Christianized stories are of course always under debate; because the Christian underworld is also called Hell and probably draws its etymological origins from the same source, it's sometimes hard to tell whether or not these writers are talking about Hel or Hell, or any combination of the two places and/or people.
Regardless of where you fall on the interpretation of extra sources, however, there's no denying that Hel is a goddess of frightening and awesome power. The gods attempted to contain her via banishment, the universe tried to defy her via attempted resurrection, and still she asserted her power and denied all attempts to control her or change her mind with nothing but her own raw, monarchial authority. In matters of death, Hel is law, and only a fool tries to challenge her.