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.

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Watkins' The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
says it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel-¹.

*kel-¹ 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 the I-E sources of other words.

  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)
  • Very helpful information. Thank you. – Gavin Emich Dec 9 '11 at 12:22

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...

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.

  • 1
    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
  • Dante's cast of characters certainly suggests Greco origin. Historically, he was supporting the Church's movement of criminal blasphemy and heresy which hadn't resulted in capital punishment for centuries. As for the Jews, they don't believe in hell. The nearest thing is a spiritual recovery zone more similar to purgatory. Souls not recovered within 12 months of death are extinguished for all eternity. – Stu W Aug 13 '16 at 23:06

From a historical viewpoint, the association between the Norse realm of (the goddess) Hel, and the Christian realm of Hell is obvious for several reasons.

First of all, in the European Germanic-Celtic territories (and elsewhere), the Roman Catholic Church tended to subsume local religious places and their associated pagan practices, repackaging them in a Christian context.

In general, this is often referred to as "cult-continuity," where associated pagan beliefs and rituals are replaced by Christian simulacrums.

During the early Christian era, this was also the case for religious terms such as Hel, and her realm called Helheim (Hel's home), the underworld of the inglorious, miserable dead. This was the final ending place for those who lived and died by the "wrong" path, something that instantly would make cultural sense (and at the same time give the "right" Christian connotations) to a congregation of recently converted pagans.

Today, the rituals and sacraments of the Catholic Church are performed in Latin. This was not the case during the early Christian phase, where priests and missionaries used the local, vernacular tongue for maximum impact (in addition to an often-abysmal lack of learned skills in Latin).

In my opinion, pagan Germanic religious terms entered the mid-5th century, Post-Roman Britain with the pagan Anglo-Saxon invasion, a process that lasted until the early 7th century, when most of England had turned nominally Christian, and that continued with the renewed pagan onslaught of the Viking age from the late 8th century and onwards.

When the "second" wave of norse (Germanic) pagans slowly turned Christian, both in the British isles and back in their Scandinavian homelands (roughly AD 900 - 1000 and onwards), pagan vernacular was used in a Christian context until the 13th century, when the first hand-written Icelandic - Scandinavian sources appears, still using pagan terms to describe Christian beliefs and values.

For the British Isles and the introduction of the term "Hel" pronounced with a thin l- sound, and its conversion into a Christian name for "Hell" with a thick ll- sound in the English language, we are probably talking about a process lasting for at least five hundred years.

This would also account for the time needed for the associative dispensation of the name for the Goddess Hel, which has no place in the Christian belief system, and the conversion of Helheim, the old place name of her realm, into the more proper Christian place name of Hell, a place easily populated with the denizens of the Roman Catholic version of the Greek Hades.

You should not read too much into the Roman Catholic concept of what we today call Hell. In my opinion, it is not originally pertaining to original Judeo-Christian beliefs, but an insertion of the pre-christian, pagan Roman imperial concept of Hades (the sub-chtonic place of suffering for the souls of those who were (moral) miscreants in life).

As such, the north-alpine Germanic realm of Hel was a perfect analogue for the Mediterranean Hades, lending its name to the place of suffering and torment conscribed by the Mediterranean Church, only in later centuries to be exported throughout the world by its crusaders and missionaries.

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