I originally posted this on Medium back when that was the thing to do, but I think it should be here.
I’m transcribing a series of FB comments I made when someone asked me to elaborate on why I disagree with Gaiman’s portrayal of Hel in his book Norse Mythology. I’m recalling a lot of details of my primary sources off the top of my head, so if there are errors in my recollection that’s where they came in.
Content Warning: Gaslighting, kidnapping, separation of siblings, gaslighting, child abandonment, gaslighting, psychological torture, physical torture, GASLIGHTING, Odin is even more awful than he gets credit for and I want to fite him
So, anyway. Gaiman wrote a book about Norse mythology and one thing he got right is that Freya would have plenty of reason to have a perpetual long-simmering hatred of Loki in particular but also EVERYONE more generally. This is because people keep showing up and making wagers with the Aesir and demanding her hand in marriage if they win, and the Aesir keep AGREEING and assuming that it’ll be fine because it’ll all surely work out fine. He got it right that she would be furious a lot and that the Aesir — despite their dudely ability to constantly forget how pissed she’ll be — quickly backpedal in Oh Shit Mode when active Freya anger is starting to happen.
This was good. So. Credit where credit is due: good ol’ Uncle Neil has demonstrated a base-level understanding of the fact that women are allowed to be angry when their autonomy is disregarded.
So we come to his telling of what goes down with Loki’s kids by Angrbodha. See, he’s got his Good Wife Sigyn (the one everyone knows about, who ends up crouched by his side catching snake venom in a bowl to keep it from falling on his face, and having to occasionally run and dump it out, and earthquakes are him writhing in pain during those brief periods when she can’t be there to protect her husband). But he’s also got a secret ice giant wife on the side.
Nobody finds out about her until Odin starts having bad dreams about getting eaten to death by a wolf, and his investigation leads him to consult the Norns (a community of event-makers, many of whom are explicitly just going to ruin lives, and that’s why bad things happen to good people! some Norns are just mean) and the well of knowledge where he left his eye and his friend’s head and in general pulls out all the stops to figure out just how big a deal this is going to be. The answer is: THE WORST OF ALL BIG DEALS. THE END OF DEALS. And of course, like all problems they aren’t depending on Loki to solve (and many that they still are), it’s his fucking fault somehow. So they get the Aesir surveillance state (also known as Odin and his fuckin birds) to watch him and he goes to visit his other wife. Tada! Loki is happy! That can’t be good. Something must be done.
Some of the Aesir go to visit Angrbodha to see what he’s been up to, and there are these kids playing there, all together because they’re siblings and they’re cool with each other. There’s a puppy, a snake, and a girl or half a girl or possibly a half-corpse, but at any rate, these are evidently Loki’s children with Angrbodha. The Aesir take the kids back with them like that isn’t FUCKING HORRIBLE and here is where I start getting upset with Neil Gaiman for downplaying this as merely some Grecian-style self-fulfilling prophecy shenanigans and not the destruction of a family and the deliberate gaslighting and abuse of children, up to and including straight-up psychologically destroying one of them. Because lemme tell ya, Neil’s version reads like what an adult would have seen happening, not what I saw reading it.
So the Aesir are traveling with the kids. The girl’s name is Hel, and nobody knows her deal except that she’s a totally decayed corpse on one side and apparently normal on the other. Disconcerting, but okay. Dealable. The wolf pup Fenrir is definitely just a puppy, but he gets harder and harder to feed because of how fast he’s growing. I think at some point he’s something outrageous like moose-sized, but he and Tyr are still hanging out because the god of victory is not going to worry about giant-sized pupper and pupper doesn’t have any reason to suspect any of this could ever go wrong because that is pupper nature. The snake Jormundgandr is also growing unmanageably fast, and its face is just so perpetually venomous and snappy and Danger that they end up tying it to a tree and like… binding its head down so that they can avoid the corrosive acid venom? Keep in mind, Jormundgandr was not causing any problems to Hel or Fenrir, so why the issue now unless it didn’t want to go with them? Yeah. Exactly.
They arrive to present these kids for Odin’s judgment that as everybody’s distant patriarch he’s decided he’s allowed to hand down. He just… throws Jormundgandr in the fucking ocean. Fuck your family, fuck your siblings, go do the rest of your growing up in total isolation you weird dangerous snake. And that’s how Jormundgandr ends up out there so big and long it encircles the world!
So Odin turns to Hel. In Gaiman’s version Odin straight up asks if she is dead. They have a little conversation about how she isn’t dead, but she likes dead people better because they’re respectful to her, whereas the living always treat her with revulsion because of how she looks and her manner. But dead people just interact with her like she’s a person, so they’re easier. Having now gotten to know Hel a little bit, what kind of environment makes her happy and would allow her to thrive, Odin appoints her the ruler of the underworld so that she can be in charge of all those who died Normal People Deaths. This makes her happy enough that we get our first smile out of her! (Albeit only on the living side of her face.)
Except I read a translation of this scene, and Gaiman added in this ENTIRE conversation to make this seem like some kind of agreement they came to as though out of all three children, Hel is the one that Odin decided to single out for paternal concern and favor. WHAT? Out of all the generations of people who have died, Odin selects only a few that are worthy to kill each other forever while he watches and the rest are literally his fucking discard pile. If they didn’t die in a fight, they died “dishonorably.” Their deaths are “shameful.” We have no reason to assume that he would consider responsibility for his dead people trash pile to be some kind of favor. IMO he threw her away just like Jormundgandr: a throwaway girl slogging through the responsibilities for throwaway ghosts he never gave a shit about from the start. Because lol she looks dead, get it? GET IT? lololololol
And Fenrir. Oh god. Fenrir still doesn’t realize anything is wrong because puppies are just so fucking naive.
He is still hanging out with the Aesir, because obviously! People! They feed him! Yeah!
They keep challenging him with “feats of strength” and being soooo impressed! when he keeps succeeding! every time! These feats of strength? All of them are testing himself against heavier and heavier chains. By this point my heart was already sinking. He’d break out of one and they’d all pretend to be so proud of him, so he’d be proud of himself and proud that they were proud. And they’d go behind his back and freak out that he was so strong, and try to forge something even more powerful that would be able to bind him forever.
Eventually they went to the dwarves, who make all of the totally awesome artifacts everybody has, and the dwarves produce what looks like a delicate ribbon because when you are making magical shit it doesn’t have to be physically imposing anymore. They take it back to Fenrir. They make their usual big deal about how they found him another test to see how big and strong he’s gotten now.
He takes one look at that ribbon and starts to realize. He tells them, essentially, “Nah, that looks kinda artifacty to me.” But they hit him with that heavy peer pressure. “Are you scared of a little ribbon? Look how little it is.” “No! But seriously, guys, what is this.”
Eventually he agrees that he’ll try the ribbon, but only if someone will reassure him that they’re definitely going to be pals and let him out if he’s finally hit his limit this time. He wants someone to put their hand in his mouth and trust him like he’s trusting them. Tyr volunteers.
You can guess what happens. He’s stuck. The other gods cheer. Tyr gets his hand chomped off when Fenrir realizes that his new friends and family have been fucking with his head this whole time. He knows this is some Odin-scented fuckery and promises that he’s going to eat the almighty fuck out of the Allfather and you know what? Then he’s going to eat the fucking MOON and the SUN and Fenrir is just really upset at the world in general. The Aesir have enough of this and use a spear or a sword, I don’t remember which, to stab his mouth propped open so that he can never bite down and close his mouth. And the saliva from his mouth is where some river or other comes from! Yay.
At this point I was pretty much ready to eat the moon myself because these gods are shitlords. The only one I have any sympathy for is Tyr, because while he behaved horribly, the injury he’s carrying around sort of puts me in mind of the huge part moral injury plays in combat soldiers’ PTSD; what messes soldiers up the most isn’t being shot at, it’s knowing they’re doing hideous shit and knowing no matter what else they could ever be, they will always be the person who did it. Tyr has the tiny scrap of bare decency to be injured by this. Someone should be.
I felt a little better because of how Hel interacts with them the next times we see her. Here’s the other reason I think Gaiman is wrong about her interactions with Odin when she was exiled. She doesn’t ACT LIKE someone who appreciated her assignment. She acts like someone who kept her mouth shut to bide her time.
When I was a kid, small acts of resistance were all I really had to keep me remembering who the real enemy was and that I hated them and I was right to hate them. They kept me focused, kept me from blaming myself or getting lost. I learned later that this is actually an interrogation resistance technique: continue resisting in small ways, regardless of how effectual it is, to remind your brain that you’re supposed to be resisting. Otherwise it really is possible to forget.
I think about this a lot when I think about Hel.
She has a small role in another story about Loki totally ruining someone else’s life, and actually managing to kill them. If you know the story of Baldr, this is that one. The broad strokes are that everybody loves him so much they tried to make him effectively unharmable, which upset Loki just on principle. So he managed to get Baldr killed just BECAUSE.
The gods (not just the Aesir, as I think Baldr is Freya’s son, and therefore his parents are Vanir, and not as garbage) send an emissary down to Hel’s realm. Now, she has fully gothed this place out. I mean, COMMITTED to this theme. She named her knife and bowl Famine and Hunger respectively, and named her bed Sickbed. And in Helheim they are all set up for a huge party because Baldr is coming! What a great stroke of luck to have someone so famously great come to live with them! The emissary asks Hel to please please please give him back. Everybody misses him, everybody is crying.
Her response? “Prove it.” Gaiman adds some dialogue about how he’s the greatest thing that’s happened to her realm, probably ever, and it’d just break their hearts to lose him. But in my opinion it is probably riiiiiight about here that the gods are about to realize they actually HAVE NOT been on perfect terms with Hel this whole time. There’s just been no need for them to know it.
But the emissary isn’t the boss of this realm; she is. *sad trombone* Who made that rule! Oh, it was Odin, when he shipped her down there. *SAAAD TROMBOOONE*
The gods decide to give it a go, though, since honestly their odds are actually quite good. They manage to get every single thing, living and unliving, to cry for Baldr by explaining the situation. Except one. Some bitter old giantess refuses. “Let Hel keep what she has,” is all she says. Even KNOWING that this has to be Loki, the emissary can’t do anything. Because even if it’s Loki, it still means the conditions weren’t satisfied.
And if Hel and Loki had coordinated this, we’d probably be told so at the end. Norse tales are heavy-handed like that. So my reading is that Hel saved up her time until the whole world’s hearts were breaking and only she — with the power she’d mustered by the unfair rules of someone else’s game — could fix it all. And then she dangled a tiny bit of hope, because of all Loki’s kids, I think she inherited the scheming. She had to know Loki wasn’t going to cry for this dude.
Hel was a good little underworld goddess until they wanted something badly enough. Then the gods realized they’d given her power. And according to one source, at Ragnarok they’ll realize they gave her an army. According to the Prose Edda, she’ll bring it up behind Loki, and that’s when she’ll see her brothers again, when they all end the world.
I have never been so ready for any religion’s end of days in my fucking life.