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What the Hel (Spoiler-Free Version)

A #Norsevember feature + Nameless Queen primer

By Marie SinadjanPublished 3 months ago 10 min read

Tomorrow is a double celebration: it's the end of #Norsevember, which has been so much fun, and the release of Nameless Queen, my prequel short story to The Prophecies of Ragnarok trilogy! What better way to wrap things up than by a 2-for-1 post?

Nameless Queen is a retelling of the myths involving Hel, the Norse goddess of death and the queen of the underworld. But before meeting that version of her, let's talk about...

Hel in Norse Mythology

Hel means hidden in Old Norse. According to the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (who is commonly considered as the author of the Prose Edda, an Old Norse textbook which is a major source for what we today call Norse mythology), she is a giantess and/or goddess who rules over the underworld — also called Hel.

Hel is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, and therefore the sister of the wolf Fenrir and Jormungand the world serpent. Snorri describes her appearance as being half-black, half-white, with a perpetually grim and fierce expression on her face.

In the myths, she's merely mentioned in passing. The only one in which she features prominently is that of Baldur's death, where she is presented as rather greedy, cruel, and indifferent to the concerns of both the living and the dead.

Niflheim, meanwhile, is one of the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology and the homeland of primordial darkness, cold, mist, and ice. It is from the old Norse word Niflheimr meaning world of fog. The word Niflheim itself, however, is only found in the works of Snorri and is often used interchangeably with Niflhel, which is a poetic embellishment of Hel. Hel (the underworld) is said to be located in Niflheim, but some references also state they're one and the same — an abode for those who did not die a heroic or notable death.

And then there's Ragnarok, the cataclysmic destruction of the cosmos and everything in it, even the gods. Hel is not mentioned, but her father and siblings are.

  • Fenrir's chains will break, and he will run across the earth, devouring everything in his path.
  • Jormungand will rise from the depths of the ocean, spilling the seas over all the earth and spitting venom that will poison land, water, and air alike.
  • Jormungand's convulsions will shake the ship Naglfar, which is made from the fingernails and toenails of dead men and women, free from its moorings. This ship will sail easily over the flooded earth. Its crew will be an army of giants, led by none other than Loki, who will have broken free of the chains in which the gods have bound him.

To read more about Hel and Norse mythology, check out Norse Mythology for Smart People, one of my go-to websites for Norse information.

Baldur's Death

As this tale is much better enjoyed in full detail, please allow me to copy/paste from the website above. It goes:

Baldur was one of the most beloved of all the gods. The son of Odin, the chief of the gods, and the benevolent sorceress goddess Frigg, Baldur was a generous, joyful, and courageous character who gladdened the hearts of all who spent time with him. When, therefore, he began to have ominous dreams of some grave misfortune befalling him, the fearful gods appointed Odin to discover their meaning.

Baldur’s father wasted no time in mounting his steed, Sleipnir, and riding to the underworld to consult a dead seeress whom he knew to be especially wise in such matters. When, in one of his countless disguises, he reached the cold and misty underworld, he found the halls arrayed in splendor, as if some magnificent feast were about to occur. Odin woke the seeress and questioned her concerning this festivity, and she responded that the guest of honor was to be none other than Baldur. She merrily recounted how the god would meet his doom, stopping only when she realized, from the desperate nature of Odin’s entreaties, who this disguised wanderer truly was.

And, indeed, all that she prophesied would come to pass.

Odin returned in sorrow to Asgard, the gods’ celestial stronghold, and told his companions what he had been told. Frigg, yearning for any chance of saving her treasured son, however remote, went to every entity in the cosmos, living or nonliving, and obtained oaths to not harm Baldur.

After these oaths were secured, the gods made a sport out of the situation. They threw sticks, rocks, and anything else on hand at Baldur, and everyone laughed as these things bounced off and left the shining god unharmed.

The wily and disloyal Loki sensed an opportunity for mischief.

In disguise, he went to Frigg and asked her, “Did all things swear oaths to spare Baldur from harm?” “Oh, yes,” the goddess replied, “everything except the mistletoe. But the mistletoe is so small and innocent a thing that I felt it superfluous to ask it for an oath. What harm could it do to my son?” Immediately upon hearing this, Loki departed, located the mistletoe, carved a spear out of it, and brought it to where the gods were playing their new favorite game.

He approached the blind god Hodr (Old Norse Höðr, “Slayer”) and said, “You must feel quite left out, having to sit back here away from the merriment, not being given a chance to show Baldur the honor of proving his invincibility.” The blind god concurred. “Here,” said Loki, handing him the shaft of mistletoe. “I will point your hand in the direction where Baldur stands, and you throw this branch at him.” So Hod threw the mistletoe. It pierced the god straight through, and he fell down dead on the spot.

The gods found themselves unable to speak as they trembled with anguish and fear. They knew that this event was the first presage of Ragnarok, the downfall and death, not just of themselves, but of the very cosmos they maintained.

At last, Frigg composed herself enough to ask if there were any among them who were brave, loyal, and compassionate enough to journey to the land of the dead and offer Hel, the death-goddess, a ransom for Baldur’s release. Hermod, an obscure son of Odin, offered to undertake this mission. Odin instructed Sleipnir to bear Hermod to the underworld, and off he went.

The gods arranged a lavish funeral for their fallen friend. They turned Baldur’s ship, Hringhorni (“Ship with a Circle at the Stem”), into a pyre fitting for a great king. When the time came to launch the ship out to sea, however, the gods found the ship stuck in the sand and themselves unable to force it to budge. After many failed attempts they summoned the brawniest being in the cosmos, a certain giantess named Hyrrokkin (“Withered by Fire”). Hyrrokkin arrived in Asgard riding a wolf and using poisonous snakes for reins. She dismounted, walked to the prow of the ship, and gave it such a mighty push that the land quaked as Hringhorni was freed from the strand. As Baldur’s body was carried onto the ship, his wife, Nanna, was overcome with such great grief that she died there on the spot, and was placed on the pyre alongside her husband. The fire was kindled, and Thor hallowed the flames by holding his hammer over them. Odin laid upon the pyre his ring Draupnir, and Baldur’s horse was led into the flames.

All kinds of beings from throughout the Nine Worlds attended this ceremony: gods, giants, elves, dwarves, valkyries, and others. Together they stood and mourned as they watched the burning ship disappear over the ocean.

Meanwhile, Hermod rode nine nights through ever darker and deeper valleys on his quest to rescue the part of Baldur that had been sent to Hel. When he came to the river Gjoll (Gjöll, “Roaring”), Modgud (Old Norse Móðguðr, “Furious Battle”), the giantess who guards the bridge, asked him his name and his purpose, adding that it was strange that his footfalls were as thundering as those of an entire army, especially since his face still had the color of the living. He answered to her satisfaction, and she allowed him to cross over into Hel’s realm. Sleipnir leapt over the wall around that doleful land.

Upon entering and dismounting, Hermod spotted Hel’s throne and Baldur, pale and downcast, sitting in the seat of honor next to her. Hermod spent the night there, and when morning came, he pleaded with Hel to release his brother, telling her of the great sorrow that all living things, and especially the gods, felt for his absence. Hel responded, “If this is so, then let every thing in the cosmos weep for him, and I will send him back to you. But if any refuse, he will remain in my presence.”

Hermod rode back to Asgard and told these tidings to the gods, who straightaway sent messengers throughout the worlds to bear this news to all of their inhabitants. And, indeed, everything did weep for Baldur – everything, that is, save for one giantess: Tokk (Þökk, “Thanks”), who was none other than Loki in another disguise. Tokk coldly told the messengers, “Let Hel hold what she has!”

And so Baldur was condemned to remain in Hel’s darkness, dampness, and cold. Never again would he grace the lands of the living with his gladdening light and exuberance.

Hel in Popular Culture

Perhaps one of the most popular depictions of Hel in modern media is Hela of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who appears in the third Thor film, Thor: Ragnarok. She is depicted as Odin's firstborn child, however, making her the older sister of Thor and Loki (by adoption).

Hel in The Prophecies of Ragnarok

Nameless Queen's blurb states that she was "stripped of her name" and cast out of Asgard, and that she used to be called Geiravor Lokisdottir.

The back of book 2, Monster Ridge, also shows this family tree, which is not much different from the myths save for the spelling choices:

For a taste of what our version of her is like, check out this excerpt!

Excerpt from Nameless Queen

Standing on the bank of the river Gjoll, Hel listened to the names of the Dead in the wind.

A line of longships stretched toward the horizon and disappeared into the mist. In the ships were bodies, and the first one had come alive at Hel’s accidental touch.

The man lurched like he had been holding his breath underwater for far too long. “Where am I?”

For a moment she stared back at him with an equal measure of fear. What just happened? Was it her appearance that scared him?

But it soon became clear that it was not the case. “Who am I?” he asked her, distraught.

His name came to her in the wind. “Egil Hringson,” she repeated.

Her eyes flew wide as the man clung to her and wept like a child. She hadn’t realized how important it was for the Dead to be remembered, not until then. And while she did not have the details of his life, revealing his name seemed to help him find peace.

She did not sleep for three whole days, traversing the bank of the river to bring the newly deceased out of their stupor. There were surely hundreds of them; she’d stopped bothering to count after she reached twenty. Some ships had elaborate carvings on the prow, while others were simple wooden vessels that appeared to have been put together at the last minute. None of that mattered to her, however. It was not her place to judge or choose who awakened in this realm, unlike Odin the Allfather and his band of Valkyries.

At first, only the old woman helped her. But after three days of tireless work by the river, the inhabitants of Niflheim came to see that she was something more than merely a deranged soul who could not embrace the fact that she was dead. One by one, they joined her, seeing those she’d awakened into settlements and communities. Most of them were patterned and named after actual Midgardian locations, which provided a small comfort to the Dead.

“Who is she?” Egil asked the old woman when he returned to the river the day after his awakening.

“Hel,” the old woman answered.

It was not Hel’s real name, but it was all she had.

The one she had been born with had been taken away from her.

Nameless Queen is available for preorder from your favorite ebook retailer, with the paperback edition coming mid-December! For the rest of this series, check out Hotel Fen, Monster Ridge, Mist Gallows, Midnight Son, and Polar Knight.

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About the Creator

Marie Sinadjan

Filipino spec fic author and book reviewer based in the UK. •

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