Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though. The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself. Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.
Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon. Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence. A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse. Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.
In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet. She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead. Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder. Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism. In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”
Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings. During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death. After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound). The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.