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Beautiful Yet Feared: Hela, the Norse Goddess of Death

Find out about the goddess of death, half alive and half dead, ruling the Underworld of Norse mythology

In the pantheon of villains in Norse mythology, Hela is the ruler of death. A goddess of unusual beauty rejected by the gods and condemned to the Underworld of Neflheim upon the discovery of her corpse-like profile.

Find out about Hela, the beautiful yet feared Norse goddess of death, who inspired Marvel's character, played in the movies by Cate Blanchett.


Hela: Daughter of Loki and ruler of the Underworld

According to Norse mythology, Hela is one of the three children who came out of the relationship between Loki, the giant welcomed into the bosom of god Odin, and the witch giantess Angerboda, who brought on the sibling war between gods.

From that bonding came two terrifying creatures who were crucial for the battle between giants and gods, Ragnarök: one was Fenrir the wolf, who killed Odin with his terrible jaws, and the other was Jördmungand, the giant snake who fought and eventually killed Thor.

Hela was their sister. She is a fascinating woman whom Norse mythology books describe as half-beauty, half-corpse. Such is the case that the gods, led by Odin, upon the discovery of such a horrid, malodorous character, sentenced Hela to live in the netherworld, where all men go to die when they don't die in the battlefield.

That was how Norse mythology created a typically dual universe where good is represented by Valhalla, the valley where the souls of battlefield-dead warriors go, ruled by Odin; and the Neflheim, a kingdom ruled by goddess Hela, who was appointed queen of the dead.

Also, Norse mythology describes in full detail Hela's fearsome kingdom, surrounded by thick walls within which, among mud and swords, flow several dark rivers through which poison runs freely. The dog Garm watches the entrance, which can be reached from Gjallarbru, a golden bridge hanging from a thin thread, protected by Modgud, a skeleton-like virgin giant.

In the kingdom ruled by the beautiful yet feared Hela, dying men are tied to indestructible chains they can't escape, while they watch the nasty, dark world of Niflheim unfold before them, and Hela's maidens come every night to seduce them as a punishment from the gods.

What's Hela like: the goddess of death in Norse mythology

Although unlike her brothers, Hela doesn't have a crucial role in Ragnarök, she is the main character in other episodes from the Poetic Age of Norse mythology. The most remarkable one is her mediation in the resurrection of Balder, son of Odin and Thor's brother, whose death is attributed to Loki, Hela's father.

According to legend, Balder's mother predicted her son's death after he had several strange dreams. Odin rode his horse Sleipnir to Hela's kingdom, where he summoned her to read Balder's premonition dreams, although she told everything in a dark, ambiguous way, without making anything clear at all.

Loki had been planning Balder's death for some time as a revenge against the gods for taking away his sons. Loki himself gave Hodr, Balder's blind brother, the poisoned arrow through which Balder died by accident. Upon hearing the news, Balder's desperate mother offered her services to whoever would come down into Hela's kingdom to take Balder back.

Hela offered the chance of allowing Balder back on Earth if all the things of the world cried his death. However, giantess Thok refused to shed a single tear, so Hela sentenced him to remain in the Underworld until the Ragnarök was finished, and that's when Balder came back with his brother Hodr to rule over the world with Thor's children.

According to the scriptures, Hela is a stunningly beautiful goddess on one half of her body, yet in the other, she is a nasty, malodorous corpse. She is a good hostess for her new guests, but she is the most feared goddess to Vikings; they say they would rather stab themselves with their own spears to avoid ending up in Hela's kingdom.

Occasionally, Hela abandoned her kingdom to fly over the world with her three-legged white horse. When there were famine and illness, and all the inhabitants of a town died, it was usually said that Hela had swept the place, although this changed to a mere raking if only a section of the population died.

Hela in fiction: Marvel's character and Cate Blanchett

The Norse goddess of death, with her fascinating half-woman, half-corpse appearance, was also the target of Norse myth transformation to create comic superheroes. In issue 102 of Journey into Mystery published in March 1964, goddess Hela makes her first appearance as a fictional character.

Hela comes along as a slim woman hidden under a green-shaded suit, wearing a helmet with snake-like details. "You know that I am Hela, goddess of death! At my touch, even a god must perish!", she says to Thor, who tries to save the beautiful maiden Sif from the goddess' clutches.

Since then, Hela has been the target of several appearances in Marvel's fictional stories, especially as the main rival of Odin in her attempt to increase the number of souls who land on her kingdom. In every story, she comes across other deities, although Thor is her most frequent encounter. 

In Marvel's Asgard, when a man dies his soul remains within his body until it is reclaimed by Hela, who rules over the life and death of Asgardians. As a comic book character, Hela is represented with extreme longevity and resistance to illnesses and physical damage, yet not fully immortal. Although she has the power to steal the souls of the living, she is not interested in mortals, but in gods.

In the movie Thor: Ragnarök, Hela is played by Cate Blanchett and has a crucial role. In this case, the goddess of death creates a plan to destroy Asgard and its civilisation. This is a clear attempt to portray her beauty and evil in equal parts.