In January 1991, the Icelandic government set up the Mannanafnanefnd (Personal Names Committee) to help determine if new non-traditional names would be suitable for integration into the country's largely homogeneous population and culture. 

This rather bureaucratic committee, which maintains an official register of "approved" names, did not cause a stir until almost three decades later, when, in January 2017, they refused a request for a girl to be named after the Norse mythological being and ruler of the dead, Hel. 

In their ruling, the committee agreed that although the name did not pose a grammatical or linguistic breach of the Icelandic language system, as it took the "possessive case" and followed the rule that a female should be given a "female name," it did, in fact, breach Article 5 of the Human Names Act. 

This article states that "a name should not be a nuisance to the bearer of the name." The committee then ruled that "based on this provision of the law, the petitioner's request must therefore be rejected." 

For those who, like we at The Viking Herald, are a little rusty on our Icelandic legal skills, what this ruling meant is that essentially, the girl could not be named after the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hel. 

Quite why you would want to name your child after a morbid figure associated with death is unclear, but it does prove the popularity of Norse mythology more than a millennium after figures like Hel were worshipped and revered. 

Hel, the daughter of Loki, rules her own realm in the icy Nifelheim, where Helheim, her domain, is accessed through a shadowy cave. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Famous family, given her own realm 

When studying the people who lived in Viking societies, it is often hard to separate fact from fiction and history from mythology. 

Our first stop should always be to dive into the rich tapestry of Norse mythology. Here we can see the figure of Hel, the ruler of the Norse underworld. 

According to the sagas, she was the daughter of Loki, sometimes wrongly referred to as a mere trickster but who was one of the most complex figures in Norse mythology, and a giantess, Angrboða. 

Hel was not an only child; she was the sister of two mythological creatures, the giant wolf Fenrir and the great world serpent, Jörmungandr.

Both her siblings had crucial roles to play in Ragnarök, the apocalyptic end times of the Norse cosmos.

According to the Prose Edda (p. 64), expertly translated by Jesse Byock in his 2006 Penguin Classics edition (available for purchase on Amazon here), it was the mighty Norse All-Father, Odin, who specifically appointed Hel to rule over the Norse underworld, becoming a de facto Queen of the Dead."

The realm she ruled over took her name, which is the origin of the English word "hell." 

However, unlike its modern Christian version, the realm of Hel was a cold and barren place situated in Niflheim, one of the nine realms in Norse cosmology. 

The epicenter of this barren place was a great hall, Éljúðnir (sometimes Anglicized as Eljudnir). 

Unlike the great feasting hall in Valhalla, which was full of warmth and cheer, Éljúðnir was described as stark, imposing, and vast. 

Ruling over a dark and damp place situated in a frozen realm must have had a chilling effect on Hel, as she was said to have a blue hue, with half of her body vibrant and alive and the other half cold and dead. 

In this 1905 artwork, "Loki's Brood," the painter illustrates Loki's children - Hel, Fenrir, and Jörmungandr - along with a presumed depiction of their mother, Angrboða, in the background. Illustration: Emil Doepler (1855–1922), Public domain

Where non-Vikings went to die 

Despite being gifted this realm to rule by Odin, Hel also played a key role in the Norse understanding of the afterlife. 

Whilst the Valkyries selected the best and bravest warriors who fell on the battlefield to join Odin in Valhalla, what happened to the remainder of those in Viking societies who died? 

Well, those who did not die a glorious death were sent to Hel, including the sick, the elderly, and those who simply died of natural causes. Hel ensures that these souls are taken care of for eternity. 

Whilst those brave warriors in Valhalla receive much of the glory and attention in Norse mythology and contemporary popular imagination, it should be noted that most people's deaths in Viking societies throughout the early medieval period did not occur on a battlefield. 

Only a small minority of young, fit men (and it was almost certainly only men, despite popular depictions of shieldmaidens and female warriors) ever died in battle, and from this, perhaps only a tiny fraction died in what people in Viking societies would deem as "glorious." 

This meant that Odin must have had only a few drinking buddies, whilst Hel accommodated most of the dead. 

It is foretold that during Ragnarök, Hel will release the dishonored dead from Helheim, who will then join the chaotic forces in the final apocalyptic battle against the gods. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Possible archeological evidence? 

Whilst Hel is very much rooted in the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), it has been argued that she may very well, like other Norse gods, have been worshipped in earlier times. 

The discovery of several medallions in Northern Germany may have uncovered the very origins of this female Norse mythological being.

The medallions depict a man riding a horse in a downward direction, with a female in front of the horse holding a staff. 

Some modern historians believe that this is one of the earliest depictions of Hel, with the staff symbolizing her authority and rule, and the horse's downward direction suggesting that the man has died, as mentioned by Rudolf Simek in his 1996 work, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (p. 149). 

Hel is there to meet this deceased soul and shepherd him to her realm. 

These medallions are believed to have been produced in the very early stages of the Migration Period (c. 0 – 500). 

This was an age when Germanic tribes were "wandering" all over Europe. Much of Norse mythology and the Old Norse religion evolved from earlier Germanic beliefs and practices. 

As the Norse goddess of the dead, Hel plays a crucial role in the mythological understanding of life and death. 

Ruling over those who die of natural causes, her dual appearance reflects the Norse acceptance of mortality's inevitability. 

Hel embodies the balance between life and death, underscoring her significance and reverence in Norse mythology. 

Her importance has obviously been passed down through the ages, long after the Old Norse gods were last worshipped, as evident in that Icelandic court ruling back in 2017. 

For more information on the Icelandic Naming Committee, visit the Iceland Review here

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