This is a continuation of the story just before this one called “A walk through Hel… Heim”. If you have not read that one yet, I recommend reading that before this one. Here you will get an inside view of my first meeting with Hel and possibly the dumbest thing I have ever done on my spiritual path. I will go out on a limb here and tell you that 90% of what I share in this story is actually what happened. And that I got very lucky. I hope you enjoy.
I stood at the bottom of the steps that lead up to the long house at the top of the hill for what seemed like forever. Nervous energy fluttered around me like those little bugs on a warm summers’ eve. What was I doing? She doesn’t even know me. How could I justify barging in on the Queen of the underworld? What would I even say? Oh crap, I don’t have anything to offer her. I wonder if I could pick some of these flowers for her. No, that seems wrong. You can’t pick her flowers to give to her. That’s dumb, you’re dumb. This is dumb.
It took a moment, but I realized that I had been ascending the steps before me while I had been berating myself over this decision. The large Oaken doors stood looming over me like some sort of end goal to a very poorly hobbled together plan. Here I was, in the underworld, land of the ancestors, brazenly walking up to the hall of Hel, no offerings, no idea what to say, and no plan of action should everything fall to shit. Well planned. Heh. I’m in danger. It was highly likely that she wouldn’t even see me. Hopefully my luck would prevail and she wouldn’t be home so I could spare myself this embarrassment and try to come back later with a better plan.
Modi’s words came back to me then. She’s expecting you. The words hung over me like a dead weight and seemed to press down on me, making my climb that much more difficult. She was expecting me. But why?! I am a nobody. I have no destination or divine purpose or calling, I just venerate my ancestors and asked anyone who knew a thing or two endless amounts of questions. The only thing I could possibly be was annoying and/or a fucking burden on the elders in my community.
The larger than life Oaken doors suddenly appeared before me and jostled me out of my racing mind that was hell bent on turning me away from what I had set out to do. The intricate carvings on the doors pulled my attention from my self-mutilation to a sort of awed silence. The design was expertly done and depicted a life of plenty. From fields bursting with crops, to people bringing in the harvest, to the preparation and sharing of the feast and back around again to the beginning. The whole scene was topped with a wooden sun that was somehow emitting a light so bright it was impossible to look upon. I reached my hand out slowly to inspect the craftsmanship when the doors popped open at my touch, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin.
The room beyond the doors was warmly lit and covered in a flickering light from the fire burning in the center of the hall, framed on either side with tables laden and groaning with a feast so large it could have fed an army. The pyre in the center of the hall cast long shadows that stretched deep within the corners of the large room, more inviting then anything I had ever experienced before in my life.
The hall seemed to be… empty. While the tables were busting with food, all the chairs were void of life. Maybe I did luck out. Maybe she wasn’t home, maybe Modi was wrong. Heart pounding in my chest, I slowly and carefully entered the hall just to take a peek. Word to the wise, if you are banking on a Goddess to “not be home”, don’t enter their hall. They will show up, sometimes just to check out whoever it is that wandered into their domain, sometimes to kick you out on your ass.
The doors slowly creaked closed behind me, and I paused trying to take in everything I could before I was eviscerated to a pile of dust. The large room was decorated with all manor of dead things, but not in a grotesque trophy way, but a way that showed adoration and reverence for everything that was displayed. Each item had been given a place of honor within the hall. As I forced myself to walk forward and inspect what was here, I was able to identify many of the skulls and furs that were hung up, but there were far more that I couldn’t put a name to or could only guess at what they once were. All the empty eye sockets seemed to follow my very slow progression into the hall, seeming to hold their breath while they waited to see what I was going to do.
I stopped to observe foxes, lynx, reindeer, elks, wolves, and even what appeared to be a mammoth skull before I felt a new pair of eyes watching me intently. The sensation sent shivers over me and I knew she was here. Insecurity rose up in my throat and threatened to choke me, but I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and turned to find the most beautiful woman I had ever seen sitting in a chair covered in furs at the front of the hall. I took a moment to bow deeply to her while I frantically tried to remember what Odin had taught me about how to approach the Gods of this pantheon. His gentle deep voice came to me from across the worlds. Shoulders back, but relaxed, arms and hands down by your sides, step forward with confidence and avoid arrogance, maintain eye contact with respect, but avoid being dominant.
There was more. I know there was more, but looking up at her forced all other thoughts out of my head. She appeared relaxed, lounging back in her wooden chair, half of her illuminated by the gentle light of the pyre and the other half completely shrouded in shadow. The half of her that the fire showed seemed to dance with the light and a small smile appeared on her face, almost saying I know you’re afraid of me. I could sense sadness and a resolve behind that smile, one that told me this is how many, if not all, who saw her reacted. I immediately softened and my fear washed away like waves against a shore. Sure, her presence was powerfully overwhelming, but a knowing rose up in me that told me I was perfectly safe with her.
I carefully approached her and marveled at the beautiful braid work woven gently through her hair, the color of freshly fallen snow, that cascaded down over her shoulders covered in a mantle of thick black fur. From one corner of the mantle stretched two strings of beads that ranged from the colors of the darkest forest to the bluest of oceans and back again to the color of the richest soils. Her dress was red with black trim that accentuated the pale skin of her neck and face. The one eye that I could see was the purest of blues I had ever seen, reminding me of when the winters got so cold that the ice on the lake turned blue, and within them was the strongest, yet most calm storm I had ever seen.
As I tried to remember everything Odin had taught me, I awkwardly stepped forward and immediately tripped over my own two feet, sending myself crashing to the ground. Hoping to cover up my embarrassment, I quickly got up only to find her standing fully in the light of the fire and I suddenly understood not only the smile, but also the storm raging behind her eyes.
The half that had been covered by shadow was rotting and falling away from her. Bones bleached white by the sun shone brightly through the tight tendons that held them together under blue soggy skin. Her cheek drooped and pulled at the corner of her mouth and eye that was fogged over with cataracts, giving her a permanently sorrowful expression. She was different then all the rest. More different then I ever was, but I understood her pain in that short moment of exposure. I could feel the ridicule, the judgement, the loneliness behind her eyes and a single tear fell from mine.
But that wasn’t all I saw. Behind all that, there was strength, purpose, and acceptance of who and what she was, but none of that replaced the pain imposed upon her by others. I knew that sort of pain all to well, having experienced much the same throughout my life. My heart began to pound in my chest for a very different reason then it did in the beginning. I slowly got to my feet, heeding Modi’s advice, and kept my gaze soft and as loving as I could. By now she had returned to her set, hiding that side of her from me completely.
I made a decision then, in that moment, to abandon the how’s and why’s of approaching the Gods and instead came forward as true to myself as I possibly could. Speaking to the pain in her eyes, wishing to banish it and replace it with care, I looked at her and softly said “You are so beautiful.”
The pain and mockery in her laugh cut me like a knife. It reached into me and pulled my own pain that mirrored hers to the forefront and I crossed my arms over my torso, trying not to throw up. My heart pulled in my chest as I heard her voice, full of distain and anger.
“What do you want?” She demanded; anger so forceful that it nearly brought me to my knees.
“Nothing.” My words were quiet and difficult to say as though I had sludge in my throat. Grief so raw and painful coursed through my veins and tears streamed from my eyes. I could feel the love and kindness behind the veil of pain she put forward and wanted to curse those that had hurt her so badly. “I just wanted to say thank you for watching over my family. I thought I had come here empty handed, but I actually do have something for you.” The idea struck me as I spoke, and I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the thought, but before I could reason with myself, I felt my body moving forward all on its own.
I finally looked up at her when I had reached the top of the platform and saw the surprise on her face. The one blue eye narrowed at me, and she seemed to be making a decision quickly in her mind. I knew that I was done for, but that didn’t matter anymore. If the last thing I did on this earth was show someone kindness, then I had lived a good life and I was resolved to accept my fate. Carefully, and slowly, I reached out my hand and gently stroked her cheek with my fingertips.
Her skin was cold to the touch and her hair was softer than I had imagined. The muscles beneath her face pulled back in surprise as her eye widened and brought forth a look of such innocence and openness, I had to wonder if anyone had ever touched her in kindness before.
I caught her eye and let the love I felt for her flow into my words as I spoke them.
“You are beautiful.”
I closed my eyes then and waited for the end. Dying here wouldn’t be so bad, since this is likely where I will end up anyway. Maybe she will give me my own corner to tend with the betrayers. I could get used to the yellow skies eventually and maybe even make a kite out of the tattered banners at the front. At least I would have this moment to sustain me. Forever seemed to pass in an instant and I felt her hand gently take mine away from her face.
“Will you return to Eljudnir some time soon?” Her voice was quiet and unsure, but there was a softness that wasn’t there before.
“Forgive my ignorance, but what is Eljudnir?”
Her soft laugh was like music to my soul and I found myself sitting beside her chair, my hand still in hers. “Eljudnir is the name of my hall. Will you return and visit me?”
“I would very much like to, if you will have me.” I kissed the back of her hand and got shakily to my feet. She followed suit and began to escort me back towards the entrance.
“I look forward to getting to know you.” She seemed uneasy having exposed the other side of herself, but I gently reached out a hand and tucked the dark black hair that was on her shadowed side back behind her ear so I could see her face properly.
“And I you.” I gently touched the rotted flesh, being careful, not wanting to cause her harm, before turning away and exiting the hall and returning home.
I didn’t know it then, but Hel was going to become my patron Goddess, my greatest teacher, and one of my closest friends. Looking back, I can see how people are afraid of her and how absolutely bat shit crazy I was approaching her the way I did, but by being able to show her my vulnerability coupled with genuine kindness and compassion, opened up the doors for us to begin to trust one another. Also, showing up on her doorstep everyday for months following this introduction holding flowers helped to cement the trust we had started to build.
We taught each other that day that some of the strongest relationships are forged by facing your fear and showing that love, compassion, and understanding can overcome any barrier. I want to note here, please do not do what I did. While what I did worked out in my favor, walking into the realm of a God is ill-advised. It’s always best to have a guide who knows where they are going and are CERTAIN that is who you are visiting. Before I made this journey, I had been working with my ancestors for quite some time and asked my strongest and most helpful ancestor to take me there and to “vet” whoever I came in contact with. They followed through on their end and allowed me to have one of the most beautiful interactions of my life time.