In the beginning of February of this year, I went down to Berlin to visit a friend for the weekend and as both of us are witches, we decided to make a small excursion to Hel’s Pond. Tucked away on the side streets of Tempelhof, surrounded by mid 20th century flat buildings, you find a small park called Alboinplatz. In the middle of this very inconspicuous little urban green space filled with beech, birch, elder and yew trees; you will find Hel’s Pond or Blanke Helle as it is known in German. There isn’t much information on Hel’s Pond (what I can find anyway) and most of what I know is hearsay, but I will share what I know. You can find a bit of information in German on Wikipedia.
Hel’s Pond: The Legend
According to legend, the pond was the site of offerings to the Norse/Germanic Goddess Hel. She is the ruler of Helheim, the realm of the dead in Norse/Germanic Mythology and is the daughter of Loki.
So the story goes, that in pre-Christian times there was a sacred altar to Hel on the shores of the pond. The altar was tended by an old priest, who regularly performed Blód (offerings) to Hel there. Twice a year, as thanks for the sacrifices made to her, Hel would send a black bull to help the priest plough his fields.
After the people of the area converted to christianity and the pagan priest himself died and made the final journey over Gjallarbrú (the bridge over the River Gjöl that divides Midgard from Helheim), a christian monk took over the farmland previously belonging to the pagan priest. For obvious reasons he did not carry on the tradition of making sacrifices to Hel. As the months passed Hel noticed that no more offerings were being made to her and she became very angry.
The following spring she sent her bull forth from Helheim. This time he was not sent to help plough the fields but had a more sinister mission. Once the bull arrived he impaled the monk on his horns and dragged him into the pond and back to Hel as punishment for farming her sacred land without performing Blòd to her.
The pond became synonymous with strange disappearances and the legend of Hel’s bull lived on in the folklore of the area. Up until the early 20th century it was still rumoured that the pool would take a victim once a year.
Hel as giver and taker of life
In this legend Hel is not only portrayed as a goddess of death but also as a life giving goddess. She sends forth the magical power of life, in the form of a bull that helps the farmer-priest to plough his fields and bring forth life from the earth. Through death new life can be brought forth and Hel is not just a chthonic death goddess but also a chthonic mother goddess and giver of life. She takes the dead into her realm and transforms death into new life. Bulls also symbolise fertility and virility as well as strength. In return for this life giving force, the priest makes sacrifices back to Hel, keeping the cycle of life and death going and perfectly balanced.
The addition of the monk in the tale is a classic example of how the old and new beliefs fused into a new legend with a whole new moral. Large bodies of water are dangerous, especially ones that freeze over and I am sure there has been some accidents over the years that fed the legend of the bull
dragging unsuspecting people to their deaths in the cold dark waters of the pond. The once sacred site now became a cautionary tale for children to be careful around steep and slippery slopes around the pond.
European folklore is full of similar myths and legends. This brings to mind a German fairy tale by the Borthers Grimm, The Nixie in the Mill Pond. I am not going to go into too much detail and I would encourage you to give it a read. Robin Artisson does a wonderful analysis of the fairy tale in his book “The Horn of Evenwood” (pages 138-155).
To sum it up in as simply as possible. He extrapolates that bodies of water are commonly associated with gateways to the spirit world or liminal spaces where the energies lie in balance. Life and death in the case of Hel’s Pond. He also goes on to theorise that in many cases ancient deities and genii lo
ci are transformed into fairy creatures etc. He also loosely lays the foundation for the reader to approach fairy tales and folklore out of an analytical perspective with t
he goal of being able gleam hidden witch-lore from these stories. The book itself raises some interesting points and gives some good practical advice to those who are i
terested in pursuing traditional witchcraft. His writing can get a bit much at times but I leave this up to you to decide for yourself.
Places like Hel’s Pond, which is steeped in local mythology, make wonderful places to tap into the energy of the land. Large bodies of water are commonly associated with doorways into the realm of the dead or as entry points into the land of the fair folk. We see many examples of this throughout world mythology and folklore. For modern witches dams,lakes and ponds create a focal point for ritual work involving chthonic energies or as an entry point into other realms. Just think of the High Priestess card in the Rider-Wait-Smith Tarot. Look behind the pomegranate veil what do you see but still waters that run deep.
I visited Hel’s Pond on a foggy and very cold winter’s morning. The fog was quite heavy and the pond was frozen. The feeling around the pond was that of quiet reverence and with a hint of otherworldliness. After walking around the pond a bit and looking at the amazing bull sculpture by Paul Mersmann (ca.1934), I made my way down to the water and made a small offering to Hel or the Dark Mother, she has many faces, Kali, Hecate, Persephone, the Morríghan etc. I left with a feeling of well being and connectedness to the place. It is well worth a visit for those who pass through Berlin. It is a bit off the beaten track but it is definitely worth visiting one of the few ancient pagan sites in Berlin.