The old Old Norse word Hel derives from Proto-Germanic haljō which means one who covers up or hides something, which itself derives from Proto-Indo-European *kel-, meaning “conceal”. The Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, features various poems that mention Hel.
In chapter 34 of Gylfaginning, Hel, the being is introduced. Snorri writes that Hel was cast down into Hel by Odin who “made her ruler over Nine Worlds.”
In stanza 31 of Grímnismál, Hel is listed as living beneath one of three roots growing from the world tree Yggdrasil.
In Fáfnismál, the hero Sigurd stands before the mortally wounded body of the dragon Fáfnir, and states that Fáfnir lies in pieces, where “Hel can take” him.
In Atlamál, the phrases “Hel has half of us” and “sent off to Hel” are used in reference to death, through it could be a reference to the location and not the being.
Niflhel – The Halls of Hel
Niflhel overlaps with the notions of Niflheimr and Hel. In stanza 4 of Baldrs draumar, Odin rides towards the “high hall of Hel.” In the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, Hel’s realm is referred to as the “Halls of Hel.”
In the book Gylfaginning, by Snorri Sturluson, Hel is introduced in chapter 3 as a location where “evil men” go upon death, and into Niflhel (Misty Hel). The chapter further details that Hel is in the ninth of the Nine Worlds. Gylfi, the old king of Scandinavia, receives an education in Norse mythology from Odin himself in the guise of three men. Gylfi learns from Odin (as Þriði) that Odin gave the first man his spirit, and that the spirits of just men will live forever in Gimlé, whereas those of evil men will live forever in Niflhel:
The greatest of all is this: that he made man, and gave him the spirit, which shall live and never perish, though the flesh-frame rot to mould, or burn to ashes; and all men shall live, such as are just in action, and be with himself in the place called Gimlé. But evil men go to Hel and thence down to the Misty Hel; and that is down in the ninth world.
43. “Of the runes of the gods
and the giants’ race
The truth indeed can I tell,
(For to every world have I won;)
To nine worlds came I,
to Niflhel beneath,
The home where
dead men dwell.”
In Egyptian mythology, a god is similarly a duality of deity and mythical place. The counterpart to Hel is Nun, called “Infinity, Nothingness, Nowhere and Darkness.”
At first, there was only Nun. Nun was the dark waters of chaos
As deity representing the primeval waters Nun takes the form of a god, Nun is in rare illustrations is pictured as a bearded man with the head or either a frog, eagle, or serpent, standing waist-deep in water with arms raised to support the solar barque, in which the sun-disk was being raised up by a scarab.
Nun, god of the underworld was described as having no surface for in the primeval period he filled the entire cosmos; it was the belief of Shu, the air, which separated the sky from the earth. The Ancient Egyptians envisaged the oceanic abyss of the Nun as surrounding a bubble in which the sphere of life is encapsulated, representing the deepest mystery of their cosmogony. In Ancient Egyptian creation accounts the original mound of land comes forth from the waters of the Nun.
The Nun is the source of all that appears in a differentiated world, encompassing all aspects of divine and earthly existence. In the Ennead cosmogony Nun is perceived as transcendent at the point of creation alongside Atum the creator god. Within the place of Nun resides another god Heka, the god of magic. Here is where the purification and regeneration of the sleepers takes place in the primeval waters of the underworld, the duat. Like the corn buried within the earth, the dead born again wake to the joys of a new golden day, walking into the golden fields of the promise of tomorrow.
Hieronymus Bosch, The Fall Of The Rebel Angels. Between 1508 and 1516.
Fragment (innerleft wing) of a triptych.