The wallpaper on my work PC is a stunning 1905 painting by the German artist Emil Doepler. Entitled “Loki’s Brood,” I find throughout the course of any given workday that I completely lose myself in reverie as I look at Hel. It’s almost as if Her distant gaze, surely focused as it is on Other/Inner Worlds, mirrors my own as I gaze at Her and think on Her glorious Being. Is it possible to truly love—with all the inner reserves of affection and devotion that your heart is capable of squeezing out—a Goddess of Death?
I know I do, and I’m not the only Pagan who does. Northern Tradition Pagan and shamanic practitioner Raven Kaldera maintains a lovely devotional website to Hel, complete with a digital shrine where you can light a cyber candle! An increasing number of Pagans who honor the Old Norse Deities and even “official” Heathens are also claiming the freedom to unshackle themselves from the “taboo” of invoking the Old Norse/Teutonic Giants (variously also called in the lore, depending on the particular Teutonic language’s lexicology, as Rokknar, Jotuns, Etins, Thurzes) so depending on where and with whom you Circle, it may not be so uncommon to hear ritual invocations to Hel and to Her great, oft-maligned Brothers (Who, needless to say, are also both very dear to me, just as the god Set is dear to me by virtue of being the oft-maligned husband of my Matron Goddess, Nebet-Het): Jormungand the World Serpent, and the Fenris Wolf. One of the reasons why I love Doepler’s painting so much is that it evokes the sense of sibling love between Hel and Her Brothers so deeply:
Look at that meditative, penetrative gaze of sweet young Hela, clad in white for purity and white for her bony Death Goddess-in-the-making stature. Jormungand and the Fenris Wolf surround her with, as I sense it, loving protective energies, like good Brothers would, and Their Mother, the Giantess Angrboda, watches with what I read as apprehension from the fiery mouth of the cave on the left.
It’s not long after this scene of family tranquility in the Iron Wood that Odin separates them all, banishing Jormungand to become the World-Encircler in the ocean, confiscating the Fenris Wolf in the hopes that Tyr can domesticate his might and main and avert the Völva’s dread prophecy of Ragnarök, and sending creepy little Hel in exile to the Lands Below, never to set foot in Asgard. Karma’s a bitch, as Hel knows, and it’s fitting that Odin’s bright son, Baldr, becomes Hel’s first guest—as well as being something of a war trophy—in Her vast feasting hall for the dead. It is in Ch. 34 of the Gylfaginning section of the 13th century Prose Edda compiled by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturlson that we learn of this mythos:
“Angrboda was the name of a certain giantess in Jötunheim, with whom Loki gat three children: one was Fenris-Wolf, the second Jörmungandr—that is the Midgard Serpent—the third is Hel. But when the gods learned that this kindred was nourished in Jötunheim, and when the gods perceived by prophecy that from this kindred great misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that there was great prospect of ill (first from the mother’s blood, and yet worse from the father’s) then Allfather sent gods thither to take the children and bring them to him. When they came to him, straightway he cast the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail. Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age…The Wolf the Æsir brought up at home, and Týr alone dared go to him to give him meat. But when the gods saw how much he grew every day, and when all prophecies declared that he was fated to be their destruction, then the Æsir seized upon this way of escape: they made a very strong fetter, which they called Lædingr, and brought it before the Wolf…” (Source: The Poetic Edda on Sacred-Texts.com, pp.42-43, available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm)
Sympathy for the Fenris Wolf
Speaking of the Fenris Wolf, lately I’ve been having profound experiences of His torment as He writhes in His Otherworldly chains. The sense of empathy is so strong that I’ve been weeping in public, mostly during my commute to and from work (careful to not let my mascara run!). My heart chakra was contracting something fierce the weekend of September 20, giving me chest pains and a wall of oppressiveness that felt like a leaden weight. Grief, absolute grief. (Not surprisingly, part of my remedy was to relocate my shrine to Hel in my living room, where it commands so much of my attention.) I tried reaching out in etheric form to Hel’s other brother, Jormungand, the World Serpent, but His mystery is almost too great for human comprehension. I was immediately repelled from Him during my shamanic journey—literally blasted out of the ocean. But the Fenris Wolf’s torment—as well as ease in accessing Him—has been palpable. In another flash of UPG, I’ve been informed that His torment keeps Hel in agony but strangely feeds Her too, just as Her tears at His plight and Her Shepherdessing of the Dead sustain Him and give Him the strength to endure His bonds…until the Ragnarök, and will all Hel break loose then?
The presence of the Fenris Wolf in the forefront of my consciousness now also reminds me of a shamanic journey into the depths of the Arctic Ocean I had in late January of 2013 as my Archpriestess-Hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis, Deena Butta, lay dying of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. In my journey, the sea morphed into outer space. Approaching me from its bowels was the Fenris Wolf, enraged, cosmically terrible to behold (his snout was mutated almost like a boar’s—jagged fangs poked out everywhere). I calmly stood my ground and asked what He would show me from inside His esophagus if I agreed to let Him swallow me. He didn’t “speak”—I was swiftly devoured—but I had profound visions of the end of the world/cosmic dissolution from within His gullet. I look forward to working with Him more, especially since, in the past week, when I go to my local cemetery to sit below the Hel-Tree, the large dogs from the house next door run into the backyard, sensing my presence as a stranger so close to their territory. They viciously bark at me. I’m sure Fenris is silently approving and He just might have much more to impart to me, especially since my fondness for His bony sister grows greater by the day.
On the Outs with the All-Father?
It’s said that Hel is the only being to ever fill Odin with absolute dread and utter revulsion, and I have to wonder: Odin was the God to whom I first felt called to take up the Runes (the magico-religious development of the Elder Futhark nearly became my Master’s Degree in English thesis) and learn more about the Old Norse Gods, but given His antipathy to Hel and my deepening bond with Her, I have to wonder if this is the reason why I feel He no longer concerns Himself with my magico-spiritual development as I once felt He did.
Though, given Odin’s many chthonic aspects, as reflected in some of his epithets like hangagud (god of the hanged), bolverk (evil one), and grímnir (the hooded wanderer betwixt worlds), I don’t think He’s shunned me in utter distaste just yet. After all, Loki isn’t the only Trickster traipsing about Valhalla! Still, as with the common sense in Ifá of not housing shrines of orisha who don’t like each other next to each other (it’s a good idea to keep Ogun far away from Shango, for example, as they’re enemies), I don’t have my höf for Odin or Thor (the latter is a Giant-slayer, remember; and it’s Hel’s Brother of the World-Serpent Whom Thor is destined to slay and be slain by during the Ragnarök) anywhere near where I venerate Hela.
Mirror, Mirror: Through a Glass Darkly
At any rate, I find myself gazing at Doepler’s masterful and wondrous depiction of young Hela often because She bears a striking resemblance to how I looked when I was 12 years old, when an artist on the Croatian island of Korčula (where Marco Polo kept a residence) painted my portrait in 1986 during a family summer vacation. At the time, my mother objected to the artist’s otherworldly depiction of my energies: “This is a happy girl! Why did you draw her that way?” My mom inspected the oil pastel drawing with her civil engineer’s shrewd eyes. My dad was also sorely disappointed in the execution and even balked at paying the artist. The latter, though, was completely unruffled.
“Madame, this child of yours is a very old soul,” he said between long drags on his cigarette. “She sees and will come to know great sorrow. I draw what I see; not what you like.” His words hung in the air like a death knell, and of course I knew he was right; I felt it in my gut. My mom eyed him with wide-eyed terror, as if he’d issued a curse. (Curses are taken quite seriously by all ethnic groups living in the lands comprising the former Yugoslavia.)
A little over four years later, during my last week of being 16 years old, my 20-year-old brother, Mark, was killed horribly in a motorcycle accident in San Diego. He didn’t die right away; he lingered for a few hours, despite having his neck broken. Moments after receiving the most horrible phone call a parent could ever receive—“This is Sharp Memorial Hospital; we’re sorry to inform you that your son has been in a severe accident. May we have your permission to harvest his organs?”—my mother and I booked the first flight out of O’Hare to San Diego. At least my father was literally at Mark’s side, having just helped him move into his new off-campus house at SDSU earlier that week. A priest from St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in San Diego was summoned to perform Last Rites. “Hang on, Mark,” my dad said, pleading with my brother and squeezing his hand. “Mama and Ana are on their way.” And though my brother was comatose and supposedly incapable of hearing, just after my father said those words, he reported that tears began streaming out of Mark’s closed eyes. And then he died. It was 1:31 a.m. PST the morning of August 31, 1990.
Prophecy. Death. Unendurable grief. A betrayal of expectations, of the course of life—no parent should ever have to bury her or his child, certainly not the first-born (and only) son. In an instant, I lost my only sibling, and have often felt rudderless in my life ever since. And a lifelong hole tore into the hearts of my parents and me—a hole that can never be plugged up.
Welcome to Hel.
Having your heart ripped asunder by grief is one sure way to be introduced to Her mysteries. Yet I have found She is not without mercy. I often feel that I need to evangelize among Heathens, informing them, based on my ongoing ritual experiences of Hel’s energies since that Fate-ful September 4, 2013, Dark Moon women’s-only ritual, how wrong they are about Her. In the weeks leading up to that ritual, some Heathens in local Chicago kindreds told me, when they saw my Facebook invite marketing the ritual to my women’s group, that it was a flat-out bad idea, number one. And number two: if I did make contact with Hel in a group shamanic ritual, I would find Her to be grim, even heartless—certainly mirthless. Not to mention inhospitable. She doesn’t give a shit about humankind, they told me. Your prayers would be better directed elsewhere.
To be sure, Hel’s force, to me, is best described like a black hole, not a light-filled being like other Deities I revere, but there’s grandeur in Her mien. She is a gracious hostess, after all, per Teutonic custom. The slain Baldr partakes of Her hospitality, as all our dead do, so the assertion She lacks hospitality (how do people come up with such things?) is baseless. And I have found Her to be capable of playfulness due to Her innocence (She’s a Virgin Death Goddess, I believe, not unlike La Santa Muerte or the Yoruban death maiden, Yewa); at any rate I sense She not only “likes” me and finds me amusing at times, but that Her watchfulness and unmistakable presence denote an interest in me, especially given the keen attunement to death energies that have characterized my personality since childhood—an attunement greatly sharpened by both my ongoing grieving of my brother’s death and the fact that my new home is situated in such a congested necropolis of the Nameless Dead. Plus there’s the fact that a good chunk of my daily devotional practice has always centered on ancestor worship—it’s actually a part of Serbian culture that I’m very proud to continue even though I’ve long since abandoned the Orthodox Christian context in which that worship takes place.
“A Gift Demands a Gift”
Well, within a week of that seminal ritual last September, I bought Her a wooden spoon at a local craft store and I decorated it with wood-burned and painted bind-runes. I wanted to leave the spoon as an offering at the base of the Hel-Tree in my local cemetery. While many Heathens denigrate Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) as a credible source of information about a Deity, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hel received my offering of the rune-engraved wooden spoon I left in the cemetery; I “saw” Her admiring it before She tied it to Her belt, where She keeps keys, blades, and other items necessary to the efficient running of Her realm.
Assured of a grateful receipt of my gift, I felt my desire grow to continue to bring Her more expressions of devotion and tribute. She’ll get more works fashioned from my petite priestess hands. And more bloody shanks of meat (though they turn my stomach, as I recently marked my 23-year anniversary of being a vegetarian) and more dark ales (now those I can dig!). I painted Her portrait this past Spring—and want to paint Her again. A shrine dedicated to Her, featuring an amazing statue made by a local Witch sculptor friend of mine, Jeff Cullen (www.vodoustore.com), currently occupies a place of honor in my home, standing in the North, with my large, Eihwaz-engraved mead horn (as any woman can tell you, size DOES matter…when it comes to mead horns!) ready to serve Her libations. My friend Kathy, who regularly attended my “Dark Moon, Dark Goddess” rituals last year and this year, gifted me with a pewter set of runes that belonged to a friend of hers who had died. Not being into the runes herself, Kathy gave the set to me, knowing I work with them. But since I’m not into ritually absorbing the death energies of someone I didn’t know when she was alive, I gave the rune set as an offering to Hela in turn. She loves them. She loves her rose quartz and snowflake obsidian skulls I use as shrine décor too, not to mention the bone-beaded mala I’ve wrapped around the base of Her statue.
Goddess and Guide for the Encroaching Darkness AND Amor et Mortem
Now that we’ve passed the threshold past the Autumnal Equinox into the Dark tail end of the year, Hel’s voice grows louder, more insistent. And not just in my ears, either. Hel seems eager to reach out to my loved ones too—meaning those who are of a Pagan persuasion. The chief blessing of my life is the incredibly loving, soulful, deeply connective and mutually supportive relationship I have with my bodacious beau, Dan—my cherished companion and helpmeet (I love that word!), by turns my initiator and my initiate, my scintillating lover, my Muse of Fire (he’s an Aries—haaaaayyy!), and true partner in both the long-term relationship sense and the magickal/ritual sense of the term. No stranger to Dark Goddess energies himself, he and I honestly believe that the Goddess Hekate, to Whom we are both devoted, brought us together for the purposes of transforming ourselves, each other, and our ailing planet.
Yet Hel has been caressing Dan’s handsome face with Her bony fingers ever since exactly a year ago yesterday. The day after Dan arrived to spend a magical month with me here in Chicago, he had a sorrowful family obligation to meet: he went to visit his paternal grandmother, Lillian, on her hospital deathbed. Fortunately, he did have the opportunity to connect with her before she passed. Not long after her funeral, I suggested we do a Helblòt in my condo’s temple space to honor Lillian’s memory the Viking way, flowing mead horn and all. Hel’s presence in my temple was unmistakably palpable; I felt Her long before I even did the Hammer Rite to ward the space, and I told Dan as much. Afterwards, he revealed to me that Hel had approached him towards the blòt’s conclusion in a moment of UPG; She informed him that She “wasn’t done” with him “yet.” I imagine She smiled slyly when She said that to Dan—I find Her to be sly at times.
On Saturday, May 17 of this year, Dan and I rescued a kitten that had been thrown out of a vehicle in the far south Chicago suburb of Midlothian. He and I traveled a great distance to go to a metaphysical shop in that suburb, incidentally, so I could pick up custom-made Sekhmet candles I had ordered from the proprietor, of all things. A young couple came into the store just as my purchases were being rung up by the cashier; they had a kitten with them. They explained how they had just witnessed it being tossed from a vehicle at a nearby intersection. It was young, barely a month old. Blind in its right eye. They couldn’t keep the kitten, and thought the store’s owners could. Being the custodians of no less than 10 cats themselves, the weary witches couldn’t. All eyes fell on me. I’m an ordained Priestess of Bast; how could I have declined, even though I already have four cats in my haunted condo?
I was sensing the kitten’s energy field to try to give the beast a name. If it could be confirmed as male by a veterinarian, surely I would name this one-eyed, gray baby tabby Odin! Dan and I had to bolt for an animal 911-emergency vet clinic I knew that was open 24/7. The problem was, it was in the completely opposite direction of where we happened to be—the far northern suburb of Skokie. Mercifully, and this was a hot day that had us transporting a dehydrated, crabby kitten that had infectious gunk oozing from its blind eye, traffic wasn’t severely congested and we whizzed our way to Skokie in a little over an hour.
The attending veterinarian informed us that the wee beast was actually female, and that’s when I cried out: “Hela!”
An Aries like her human daddy Dan, Hela the kitten, I’m proud to say, is a feisty addition to my home. She is athletic, funny, fast, and fierce. She stands her ground against much bigger cats. She is playful, exuberant, highly intelligent, and affectionate. She is spiritually attuned and loves being in my temple room; many a friend has rightly called her my “proper familiar.” And she and I bonded emotionally off the bat and it is her wont to sleep directly above my head on my own pillow at night when I’m asleep.
My role of being a good momma to Hela the kitten not only fulfills my devotional practice to Bast and Sekhmet, the Eyes of Ra Who are most certainly revered in my home, but to Hel also. In fact, had Dan not been with me that day—our sojourn to the metaphysical store was meant to be a brief detour from our main activity of the day, which he suggested: a visit to the infamous Bachelors Grove Cemetery in nearby Bremen Township!—Hela would more than likely have wound up being euthanized. Instead, I am happy to report, Hela is the Alpha Female in my home and Thor, Urda, Grendel, and Beowulf have all accepted her as family (Grendel is the most gentle with her). And Dan and I love being her human daddy and mommy.
All kittens aside (I’m a punny gal, tee hee), Hela the Goddess has been tapping on the threshold of Dan’s awareness again. Just this past Monday, he felt compelled to draw a rune and he got, to his displeasure, Hagalaz (along with the Thoth Tarot Death card), and is bracing himself for some noteworthy changes all six of his senses inform him are coming. Last night, Dan and I did a Helblòt together to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Dan’s grandmother’s passing—and our libations and other offerings found themselves getting poured upon the fabulously gnarled roots of the Hel-Tree in my local cemetery. That place has become hallowed ground for Dan and me—very much a locus of amor et mortem—and we’ve communed with both Hel and Hekate there and a plethora of spirits. It’s also the serene and lovely place where we walk, romantically, hand in hand and draw close together as lovers, partners, co-ritualists, and dreamers. I cannot sever the currents of love that emanate from that ground any more than I could disinter the tens of thousands of dead buried there.
As this Season of the Witch has always been my favorite time of year, I look forward to discovering what ritual and other workings my dearest love and I will partake of together, as he and I harness the wisdom that only confrontation with the Shadow can bring. The autumn leaves have already begun changing color on the trees’ branches and soon they will be falling, and then they get swept onto the asphalt, coated in frost, and when my feet make contact with them, and I hear that unmistakable crunch-squish sound, I’ll think of Hel’s cleaved body—the dark and the bright, the decomposing and horrible juxtaposed with the vibrant and alluring beauty of the Life Force—and how it inexorably shows us the fullness of Her being. And so I raise my Eihwaz-engraved mead horn in honor of Loki’s Daughter:
Daughter of Laufey’s Son,
Sister to the World-Encircling Serpent
And the Wolf bound in invisible chains,
Goddess of face both fair and foul,
Lady of duality and liminality,
You show us both the beauty and the horror of the gaping grave.
I open my ears to Your voice in the silence,
I open my heart to Your ice-encrusted touch.
Keeper of Baldr the Bright,
Ward us well in the encroaching darkness.
Thank you for the reminder that rot is as holy as birth!
Truly grasping that, then,
We need never fear death.
- Bachelors Grove Cemetery
- Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease
- Dark Goddess
- Deena Butta
- Emil Doepler
- Fellowship of Isis
- Fenris Wolf
- feral rescue
- German art
- Jeff Cullen
- loss of a sibling
- mead horn
- Norse Paganism
- Northern Tradition Paganism
- Old Norse
- Prose Edda
- Raven Kaldera
- Santa Muerte
- shamanic journey
- Snorri Sturlson
- the Aesir
- the Shadow
- The Vodou Store
- the World Tree
- Virgin Death Goddess
- World Serpent