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The following etymological question has been slumbering in my head for a while, and was woken up by the post on the word "hella."

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary, my faithful vade mecum, tells me that the word "hell" is derived from "hel" or "hell" in Old English, in turn derived from Germanic. Other sources have elaborated that the older Germanic root had a meaning of a thicket or wild, unruly, heath where one might get tangled among the hell of thistles.

I've often wondered, considering the influence of Norse language on English during the Viking settlements, or invasions, if there is any etymological link to the figure Hel (or Hella, or Hela). She was one of the three "strange children" of Loki and the Giantess Angurboda; the other two were Fenris and Jormungand. She also ruled the eponymous realm, Helheim (Hel-Home).

Aside from the possible English/Norse relation, there is, of course, a possible Judeo-Christian relation, with "Hell" and "Sheol," as Hella's realm was an underworld where those who were -not- slain in battle went after death. Of course, all of these elements may very well have been mixed up and juggled about during the centuries.

For all I know, the etymology could have influenced in the other direction, ie., from Old English to Norse. This is why I'm asking! It seems like all of the pieces are there, but I'm not sure how to make them fit.

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Watkins' The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says it comes from the PIE root *kel-²; that's the second of 6 *kel- roots (there are also 2 *kelə- roots).

*kel-² To cover, conceal, save.

I. O-grade form kol-*. **1a. HELL, from OE hell. 1b. HEL, from ON Hel, the underworld, goddess of death. Both a and b from Gmc *haljō, the underworld (< 'concealed place'). 2a. HALL, from OIE heall, hall; 2b VALHALLA, from ON höll, hall. Both a and b from Gmc *hallō , covered place, hall. 3. Suffixed form *kol-eyo-. COLEUS, COLEOPTERAN, COLEOPTILE, COLEORHIZA, from Gk koleon, koleos, sheath.

There are also entries II, III, and IV, respectively representing

  1. Zero-grade *kḷ- (HOLD, HULL, HOLE, HOLSTER, CLANDESTINE,, APOCALYPSE)
  2. E-grade *kel- (HELM, WILLIAM, OCCULT, COLOR, CELLAR, SUPERCILIOUS)
  3. Lengthened grade *kēl-. (CONCEAL)

I wish the OHD of PIE were still on line, as it used to be. This would be a lot easier to look up and point to. As you can see, it makes some interesting connections.

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Very helpful information. Thank you. –  Gavin Emich Dec 9 '11 at 12:22
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I've wondered this before. It sounds as though the experts are not sure either. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us:

The English word may be in part from O.N. Hel (from P.Gmc. *halija "one who covers up or hides something"), in Norse mythology the name of Loki's daughter, who rules over the evil dead in Niflheim, the lowest of all worlds (nifl "mist"). Transfer of a pagan concept and word to a Christian idiom.

(Emphasis mine).

My feeling is that the two words must certainly come from a common ancestor (such as the Proto-Germanic halija attested in the quote above), but it's hard to prove anything beyond that. Of course, speculating on any religious/cultural significance of this is beyond the scope of english.se...

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I have also been thinking about this. Apart from the etymology, isn't it possible that the concept itself came to the Christian tradition after the Norse culture was christened, when the mythology reached the heart of the Christian tradition? Remember, the Norse had no writing before Christianity came (runes weren't really used for writing stories, but for magic). Concepts are very powerful..

By this "concept" I mean the "winners" (warriors) go to Valhalla to feast and fight forever with Valfar (Odin), while the "loosers" (those who die sick and aged) go to Hel's Niflheim. Sort of forever.

The Norse cultures became Christian from around 1000 to 1200, before this, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the Judean, everyone went to the same resting place (Sheol), and only a very few lucky ones went to see only a glimpse of heaven (like Ezekiel) - but not forever. This doesn't fit with the "modern" concept of Heaven and Hell as is known today. Only purgatory really resonates with Sheol, a concept not used much by the Church since the middle ages, when it was a much (mis)used tool by the church.

My theory goes like this: After the Christian tradition became aware of this concept (around 1000 to 1200), it was discovered that it had a powerful effect in both the old cultures and an obvious use in the new ("Follow us in our way, or you will have a bad time somewhere really bad forever"). The oldest version of the common conception of "Hell" in the Christian tradition, as far as I know, originated in the 14th century with Dante's Inferno. Chances are he was well aware of this, as many other learned priests where at the time.

I have a hard time finding any information about this. It doesn't seem like rocket-science, actually it is quite an obvious connection there, not? Especially as you have an etymological connection there as well.

Please tell me if you think I am wrong, or if you have anything to add here.

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Dante's Hell certainly had roots in the Greek/Roman Gehenna, and the Viking view seems to me far less bifurcated than the Judaeo-Christian: drowned sailors went to Ran's halls, virgins to Gefion (I think) and warriors who died sword in hand (not all the virtuous) to Valhalla. But anything beyond the actual etymology is off-topic on this site; might Christianity.SE have room for a question on this? –  TimLymington Jun 4 '13 at 22:36
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