Long ago, before our last ice age, Hel was the Great Cosmic Mother here in Scandinavia.
In Völuspá (prophecy of the völva/the seeress), which was written down in Old Norse during the 13th century, creation is described as follows:
Ar var (H)alda
Það er ekki var
var-a sand né sær
né svalar unnir;
jörð fanns æva
gap var ginnunga,
en gras hvergi.
In Hel, den gömda Gudinnan i Nordisk mytologi (Hel, the Hidden Goddess in Nordic Mythology), Gunnel and Göran Liljeroth translate the first line into:
In the beginning was (H) alda.
They say that “(H) alda is synonymous with Hel (El - Al - Hil, etc.). If you consider that this name has existed for maybe 30,000 years, it has undergone vocal slips and changes during this long time.”
Völuspá continues with that there was no sand, lake, earth or sky, and here Liljeroth’s translation corresponds with the more common translations (eg Brate and Collinder). What there was, was ginnungagap. Ginnungagap is by Collinder translated as an immeasurable gap and by Brate as a gaping throat. Literally translated, according to Liljeroth, Ginnungagap means creation-hole. “From Alda’s womb everything that was part of the creation of our world was formed. In two lines, Valan (another expression for Völva) describes what existed before everything else: THE TO BE. … In this above-mentioned stanza, the Völva wants to make it completely clear that in the beginning there was only Hel, and from her womb, Ginnungagap, everything that existed at the time of the song was born. To specify whom or what (H) alda was, was totally unnecessary – she was the original Great Mother. “
An original Great Mother who is the cosmos and who gives birth to herself, the cosmos, is preserved in myths from many different cultures. That we here in the Nordic countries also had that cosmology seems probable and since we did not have the word cosmos, it seems reasonable that she who gives birth to ‘the whole thing’ is called something that contains that meaning.
We can conclude that Hel was an important force in that she did not fall into oblivion and disappeared in ancient time. She was still alive in the minds of the people when Eddan was written down, even though her power and scope had been radically diminished. It was only when Scandinavia became Christian that Hel was hidden, but still not completely forgotten.
Another reason is how her name, Hel, has imprinted the Swedish language concerning certain concepts; hel (whole, complete), helig (holy), hela (heal), helhet (entirety), helg (holiday/holy day), helga (to hallow/sanctify) are a few of the most common words connected to Hel.
The concept of goddess
However, I do not think she was a goddess. There is no indication that the concept of goddesses existed during the Stone Age, but was a concept created when the social organization of humans was stratified and we created a hierarchical culture. Also the goddess/god concept doesn’t seem to exist in indigenous cultures. In Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition, Rasmussen writes that for the Inuit, the notion of a god that was to be worshiped was completely foreign.
Kerstin Eidlitz Kuoljok writes in Moder jord och andra mödrar (Mother Earth and other mothers): “But were there no gods among the peoples in the north that can be compared to eg the Christian and the Jewish god, a kind of Supreme Being who created everything and who determines everything? I have not found any such being but only a multitude of entities, beings or powers. … I also do not think that one should rank them in higher or lower. Sometimes it is said in the literature that it is not possible. ”
In indigenous North American traditions you meet beings like White Buffalo Calf Woman, Changing Woman – sometimes also called White Shell Woman or Turquoise Woman –, Grandmother Spider, Corn Mother etc. I have nowhere, either in any of the rituals I have participated in with Lakota’s and Cherokee’s, or in the literature I read found anything about beings called goddesses or deities. From what I have read and experienced of African religion, the concept of God is something that was developed late and even today you can’t find it at all in, for example the !King San tradition.
What all these cultures have in common is that everything is interwoven, that everything is in constant motion and that death is a part of life. This worldview is the opposite of a world where goddesses and gods are higher beings and sometimes also omnipotent.
Kerstin Eidlitz Kuoljok also writes: “That Mother Earth wasn’t the Great Goddess among the Nganasans, but one of the most important mothers, does not prove that she could not have been that elsewhere and at other times. But I do not think she was in the early history of mankind. The reason for my conclusion depends on my view of early society. I am convinced that notions of reality must have some kind of equivalence in concrete life. In the early history of mankind, there were certainly no almighty kings or queens and therefore no almighty gods and goddesses. They emerged during the course of history. “
In Snäckans sång. En bok om kvinnor och krig (Song of the Seashell. A book about women and war), Anita Goldman discusses professor Thorkild Jacobsen’s research on Sumer. It was a high culture more than 6000 years ago with a developed written language. Although it was a high culture, an older religious view seemed to remain. Goldman writes: “The many preserved mythical texts from this period show that humans were not yet preoccupied with warring gods and heroes, instead the practice of religion focused on natural phenomena that were indispensable for the economical survival. The gods were not perceived as rulers, kings or parents, but as a kind of personified forces of nature. Jacobsen describes how the very earliest myths were centered around the cycle of life and nature, and above all around the Great Mother – the origin of everything. ”
Since they were not what we perceive as goddesses and gods, perhaps the epithet of God simply comes from the modern Western translator/interpreter of the cuneiform writings since to us it has been an obvious epithet for powers and forces. What makes the Sumerian cuneiform writings extra interesting is that a nature-religious view survived for so long in a high culture, which indicates that goddesses and gods are of a late invention. Of course, it varies between different cultures when and if the approach has changed.
Marija Gimbutas, a well-known and controversial researcher, consistently uses the word Goddess, as does Birgitta Onsell and Monica Sjöö. So who am I to question the concept, even if I rely on both research and experience? As I see it, these women were pioneers. Gimbuta’s initial struggle was to be allowed to title her first book Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe – in the first edition it is called Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe because the publisher refused to give the book the title that reflected its content.
The idea of a female god-power and a life without obvious male supremacy is still controversial but not nearly as controversial as it was in the 1980s. They dug where they stood then. Probably, given the innovative work they did, they did not see the results of their work as a definite truth but as the beginning of a paradigm shift. So I dig where I stand today. My digging has led me to the conclusion that it took a long time before people began to call beings, powers and entities for goddesses and gods.
When the Mother Earth Community was registered in 2003, I had only begun to become aware of this. In addition, the law on religious communities has a clear Christian character – to be a registered religious community, it is required that church service is held regularly. So in the writing that forms the basis for the registration, it says that we “work to spread knowledge about the Great Mother, the Goddess Mother Earth, hold goddess services…”. Today I would not write like that. Nor do we in the community have the concept of priestess in our education plan, but we have members who like to use the word goddess and members who call themselves priestesses. This must be the case, if the expression “we guard diversity and the equal value of all beings” has content and is not just a nice wording on the website.
Completeness – Helhet
If Hel wasn’t a goddess, who was she? I believe she was, and is, the Great Cosmic Mother, that is, she was, and is, the cosmos. Often when people talk about the Great Mother, they talk about us as her children. I do not think we are. If she is the whole, the entirety, then we are part of her. Everything that exists – the stars and the moon, the trees, the wolves, the humans and the stones – are, in a figurative sense, her cells. Thus, she can neither be above us nor below us, nor be a higher being. If she was a higher being, something needs to be lower. Since Hel is the whole, there is nothing outside her so nothing can be either higher or lower. There is no superiority and subordination just an intertwined whole. No goddesses and gods who rule over humans and no humans who rule over any other living thing. Since I see the hierarchical world order we have created as the basis for all social problems, this is an important aspect for me. Without a hierarchical view, we would not be able to have animal factories, exploit primeval forests, plunder the land for minerals and oil, or allow slave labor in the ‘developing countries’.
When we in 2004 decided what we wanted to call the lunar holy-days, we wanted to connect them with our Scandinavian tradition instead of, as we did then, using the Gaelic terms imbolg, beltane, lugnasad and samhain. They are the terms most commonly used in various Neo-pagan movements in Sweden. That samhain should be Hels holy day was a given – Hel has even named its Christian version – Alla Helgons dag (All Hallow’s Day). Actually, we can of course celebrate different aspects of Hel during each moon holy-day because Disa, Freja and Omma are all part of her. At the same time, it is easier for us to understand what basic energy we are working with if we differentiate. The whole, just like infinity, is something we can embrace only as an abstract concept. I think that this also is a reason why the celebration of Hel is more difficult than the other holy-days. During Disa we explore what we want to grow within us, it is a celebration of hope. In the ritual of Freja we charge ourselves with her power of growth and in the Omma ritual we start to harvest what has grown in our personal process. Clear and distinct. Although it is not always easy, it is tangible and understandable. Then comes Hel. Death is, to various degrees, difficult for most of us. Letting go of patterns in ourselves, letting them die is also difficult. In addition, we confirm that in order for us to live, other beings must die – the potato, the chicken, the cabbage, the onion and the calf dies in order for me to survive. This is something we distance ourselves from in today’s society, but which once was a matter of course and was handled in various rituals. In these rituals, it becomes clear how totally intertwined life and death are and that Hel also is everything still unborn within ourselves. In her darkness all possibilities rests, a thought that in itself is frightening because it challenges us to see why we do what we do.
“It was Hel who came to me… During that time there was a Samhain Full Moon… In the moonlight I did a drawing of Hel as I ‘saw’ Her in my mind’s eye.” Monica Sjöö
The first time I participated in a Samhain ritual was in 1993. It was the Neo-pagan Mikael Hedlund who led it. The power of interweaving death and life was such a powerful experience that the Samhain ritual became the most important ritual of the solar wheel for me.
It was not until I was initiated a medical woman in 2002 that I led a Helritual/Samhain ritual. The Helritual is part of each year’s healing circle. In the circle there are always women who have participated in previous circles and who have experience of the Hel ritual. Those who are new to the circle have been to two weekend seminars so everyone knows each other. Since we not only work with drums, trance and dance but also with psychodrama, we have had many tools to together transform and expand the ritual. It often gets a little heavy because these are heavy and complicated issues we work with. This year was the first time we not only danced but also created a ritual dance. A group member undertook to surrender to Hel, to wear her mask and dance her dance. The energy of the ritual was completely transformed. The weight disappeared, because even though we celebrated Hel as the mother of death, her life force became significantly present in the ritual and the whole ritual deepened. We moved from the abstract idea that death gives birth to life, to a real experience of life growing out of death, which felt both strong and life-affirming.
From cosmos to goddess of death
That Hel remained in people’s consciousness when the Edda was written down is a truth with modification. Her name remained, but instead of being seen as the Cosmic Mother, she has, in Snorri’s Edda become the daughter of Angerboda and Loke. Because the gods, through divination, are informed that it is “clear that they would get much damage” by Hel, the All-Father threw her “in to Nifelheim and gave her power over nine worlds”. From being the Great Cosmic Mother, that through Ginnungagap gives birth to herself – cosmos, she has been transformed into a powerless daughter who only gets power from the All-Father.
In addition to the stanza where Hel is named (H) Alda, Hel is mentioned in several of the songs in the poetic Edda. That she was then still an important force can be understood:
Three roots stand
in three directions
out of Yggdrasil,
Hel lives under one,
under the second rimthurses,
the third the humans cover.
Yes, she hadn’t disappeared, but from being cosmos she has been reduced to living under one of the roots of the World Tree… Her realm is the realm of death. But not for everyone. Fallen warriors come to Odin or Freja. It is those who die of disease and old age who come to Hel. Here we get a clear picture of the fact that the patriarchal world order has made its entry into the Nordic region. How a world order where warriors and war are glorified emerged in the rest of Europe is described by Adele Änggård in A Humanitarian Past. What Antiquity tried to suppress – and we shouldn’t. With Freja and Odin, the fallen warriors lives feasting in abundance, while in Hel’s hall, Eljudne, where the rest of the dead comes, the food bowl is called Hunger, the knife is called Starvation and the threshold to the hall is called Downfall.
The change in the view of Hel seems to follow the same pattern throughout the patriarchal world – although of course she has other names in other languages and in other cultures. An example of how myths becomes patriarchalized can be found in a creation myth among the Dogon people in present-day Mali:
Image from African Religions
In the beginning, only Amma (now called “supreme god”) existed. He (!) was shaped like an egg. He (!) placed a small seed in himself, in the center of the cosmic egg. Eventually he (!) formed, in himself, a double placenta…
But it also seems as if the spiral is turning in many countries and on several continents. Perhaps what Hel stands for – an intertwined whole – will once again be honored, not only in smaller subcultures but in society at large.
Is it important if you call Hel the Great Cosmic Mother or Goddess? Not really. What is important is that there is movement and that the movement has meant that the obvious patriarchal worldview is crackling. To me, Goddess is a hierarchical concept and, as I described, there is justification for that view. This does not mean that I believe that everyone who works to advance female power must see it that way. Nor does everyone have to think it’s important. We are in the middle of a creation process. If we begin to decide that there is a right and a wrong, we are back in the patriarchal fold and the creative process stops. We need to give each other permission to see with different eyes, listen to each other’s stories and embrace diversity. Only then can the whole become whole, because Hel herself is movement.
During the Hel ritual we sing:
You transform everything you touch
everything you touch is transformed.
move me, change me, feel me –
Hel’s touch is the movement that shapes the entire life cycle of the cosmos…
Anita Goldman Snäckans sång. En bok om kvinnor och krig Natur och kultur, 1998
Benjamin C. Ray African Religions. Symbol, Ritual and Community 1976 Prentice-Hall
Bruce Lincoln Emerging from the Chrysalis. Ritual of Woman’s Initiation Oxford University Press, 1991
Eddan. De nordiska guda- och hjältesångerna, översättning Erik Brate, Bokförlaget Natur och Kultur
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas The Harmless People Secker & Warburg, 1954
Gunnel och Göran Liljeroth Hel, den gömda Gudinnan i Nordisk mytologi Ama förlag
Kerstin Eidlitz Kuoljok Moder jord och andra mödrar. Föreställningar om verkligheten bland folken i norr och vår syn på den Carlssons bokförlag, 1999
Knud Rasmussen Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition G.P. Putnams Sons, 1927
Þóarins Eldjárns Völuspá í sinni fornu gerð og endursögn Mál och mening, 1994
Snorres Edda översättning Björn Collinder, Forum 1958
Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor The Great Cosmic Mother. Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth Harper & Row 1987
Monica Sjöö The Norse Goddess Dor Darma Press Meyn Mamvro Publications, 2000
Translated and adapted by Nauð Vanarot