The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Hella or Hel
The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods
Once upon a time, being sent to Hel (or Hella as she is also known) may have been inevitable but it wasn’t perceived as punishment: Hella, daughter of Angerboda and Loki, rules the Norse realm of the dead. She is the keeper of the souls of the departed and determines the fate of the deceased. Those who died at sea or in battle had other destinations; everyone else went to Hella who welcomed them into her home, Helhaim, regardless of whether they were good, bad, sinful or saintly. It’s just the realm of the dead.
Hella’s realm was not envisioned as a sulfurous fiery torture chamber but as a kind of inn or waystation for the dead, although once checked in, one could never check out. It was a bleak, gray, damp, foggy, misty realm: the concept of heat as punishment was imported from hotter, southern climes alongside Christianity. “Lack of warmth with no hope of Spring” was the Norse equivalent of desolation.
Hella rides a black mare and has a pack of dogs, the original Hell Hounds. She is attended by two servants, named Delay (male) and Slowness (female). Her name derives from the Old German halja, “covering.” Her sacred creatures are horses, dogs, and wolves.
Hella and her brothers, a wolf and a snake, were raised by their mother, the witch Angerboda, in the Iron Wood. Prophecy suggested that the siblings would someday lead a Host of Destruction against the ruling Aesir pantheon of gods, and so Odin had them “brought” to the Aesir’s territory of Asgard, where each would ultimately be entrapped. Odin personally seized Hella and flung her as far as he could: she landed in the Realm of Death and became its Queen.
Unlike Persephone who lives in the Realm of Death, Hella is simultaneously half-dead and half-alive. The upper half of her body is that of a fair, beautiful woman; the other half is necrotized flesh—hence her sacred colors are black and white.
Christianity would borrow Hella’s name for its realm of eternal punishment, although she would be demoted and the male Satan placed in charge. Her associations with death remained: she was re-envisioned as a feared witch/angel of death:
The Black Death was particularly devastating in Norway and throughout Scandinavia. Allegedly Hella traveled the land armed with a rake and a broom. Villages totally wiped out by the plague had been swept with her broom; where some survived, Hella had raked instead.
Hella or a pale, red-headed vampire-witch named in her honor, appears in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Literature.)
See Angerboda, Freya, Hulda, Mania, Odin; ANIMALS: Dogs, Wolves and Werewolves; DICTIONARY: Aesir.