24 June, 2009

Old English gods and myths: Hell

First of an occasional series. Very little is known of the pre-Christian religion of the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’), because all the surviving Old English texts were written down after the conversion to Christianity and no written account of the previous religious beliefs survives. There are some snippets in Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, some place names, bits of word etymology, fragments in poetry that might be echoes of an older tradition, occasional archaeological finds, and extrapolation from accounts of related cultures such as Tacitus’ Germania and the Norse myths. I need hardly say that this is not as firm a basis as one would like for trying to reconstruct a lost religion (!). Nevertheless, it’s better than nothing, so with that caveat in mind let’s see where we get.

Origin of the word “hell”

The modern English word “hell”, meaning the dwelling-place of the dead, the underworld and/or a place of punishment after death, derives directly from its Old English counterpart “helle”. This occurs in early sources:

In King Alfred’s translation of Boethius (ninth century), Cerberus, the dog who guards the gates of Hades in Greek and Roman mythology, is called “helle hund".

In the Old English poem Beowulf, the monster Grendel is described as “feond on helle”, “an enemy from hell”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “helle” is cognate with Old Frisian (helle), Old Saxon (hellia, hel), Old High German (hella), Old Icelandic (hel), and Gothic (halja), probably originally meaning a hole or place of concealment. So the word is widespread in the Germanic languages, and was in use by at least the ninth century. It was probably in use much earlier, since it occurs in several languages and may therefore derive from a time before the languages became differentiated, though it’s always possible that the languages borrowed it from each other.

Descriptions of hell

Since “helle hund” was used in relation to Cerberus, “hell” was presumably considered to be roughly equivalent to Hades and was not confined to the Christian concept of hell. No description of the pagan English concept of hell has come down to us, but since the word was cognate with the Old Icelandic Hel, it’s a reasonable inference that the concept attached to the word was also similar to the Norse concept. Luckily, we have an idea what that was.

In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, Hel referred both to the goddess of the underworld and to her realm. (This is similar to Greek and Roman mythology, in which Hades referred both to the god of the underworld and to the underworld itself). Snorri gives a vivid description of Hel and her realm:

But evil men go to Hel and thence down to Niflhel [Dark Hel]; and that is down in the ninth world.
--Gylfaginning chapter 3. Prose Edda.

Hel he threw down into Niflheim, and made her ruler over nine worlds. She has the power to dole out lodgings and provisions to those who are sent to her, and they are the people who have died of disease or old age. She has there an enormous dwelling with walls of immense height and huge gates. Her hall is called Eljudnir (Sprayed with Snowstorms), her dish is Hunger, her knife is Famine, her slave is Lazy, and her woman servant is Slothful. The threshold over which people enter is called Fallandaforad (Falling to Peril), her bed is named Kor (Sick-bed) and her bed curtains are called Blikjandabol (Gleaming Disaster). She is half black and half a lighter flesh-colour and is easily recognised). Mostly she is gloomy and cruel.
--Gylfaginning, chapter 34. Prose Edda.

When the Norse god Odin journeys to the realm of Hel to ask questions of a long-dead seeress, she tells him:

I was snowed on with snow, and smitten with rain,
And drenched with dew; long was I dead.
--Balder’s Dream

So the Norse Hel was thought of as a miserable place of cold and wet and hunger, presided over by a hideous monster. This is consistent with the description of Grendel’s bleak abode in Beowulf:

The fell and fen his fastness was
The march his haunt
--Beowulf, lines 102-103

…. walked nightlong
The misty moorland
--Beowulf, lines 161-162

…up steep screes, by scant tracks
Where only one might walk, by wall-faced cliffs,
Through haunted fens – uninhabitable country
--Beowulf, lines 1410-1411

Grendel, together with giants, ogres, elves and evil spirits, is described in the poem as the descendant of Cain, banished to the wastelands by God. Leaving aside the Christian gloss, the picture of a cold, wet, bleak and thoroughly miserable wilderness inhabited by monsters (one of whom, Grendel’s mother, is female), is entirely consistent with the Norse description of Hel in the Prose Edda.


So, it seems reasonable to infer that before they converted to Christianity the pagan English had a concept of a cold and miserable place called hell. As the word continued in use after conversion to Christianity as the name for a place of punishment after death, it seems likely that the original concept also included the idea that hell was the afterlife for people who weren’t favoured. Whether everyone who died a natural death went there, as Snorri says in Gylfaginning chapter 34, or whether evil people went there, as Snorri says in Gylfaginning chapter 3, is not clear. Quite possibly there were different traditions among different groups of people. If the word originated from a root meaning “hole” as the Oxford English Dictionary says (and I would take their word for most things on word origins), it seems likely that it derived from a description of the grave – a cold, wet, miserable hole in the ground where one went after death in the literal as well as metaphorical sense. This may tie in to the variable funeral customs observed in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cemeteries, and I’ll come back to this in a later post.

Was “hell” in Old English also used in its other common modern sense, as an expletive and an intensifier in colloquial phrases (What the hell, how the hell, go to hell, hell of a… etc)? I have no idea. Formal court poetry doesn’t generally use colloquialisms, and Old English poetry is more formal than most because of the demands of the alliterative measure. If there was an Old English dictionary of slang and swearing it certainly hasn’t come down to us. Since the word was in use and represented a place that you wouldn’t look forward to going to, as in its modern sense, it seems not unreasonable that it might also have been in use as an imprecation, and I use it in this sense in Paths of Exile. However, I think we can safely say that phrases that rely on hell being a hot place (when hell freezes over, snowball’s chance in hell, a cold day in hell, hell-fire) probably came into use later, after the shift to the Christian concept of hell as a fiery place.

ReferencesBeowulf. Translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973. ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Oxford English Dictionary. Available online by subscription at www.oed.com
Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse Byock. Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN 978-0-14-044755-2.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! Learned a lot here.

Annis said...

Interesting post, Carla. Early Christianity had a habit of adopting and adapting existing pagan celebrations and concepts, so I guess it's not too much of a surprise that "hell" became added to Christian terminology. In the Bible the nearest equivalents would be - "sheol" (used in the Old Testament) and "hades" (used in the New Testament) which mean something like "the grave/the underworld".

I wonder if the use of the word "Gehenna" in Judiasm (having a metaphysical meaning similar to the concept of purgatory) may be responsible for "hell' becoming a place of ongoing torment and associated in the Christian tradition with heat rather than the original cold.
Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnon, which was a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was where people burned their garbage and thus there always a fire burning there.

Rick said...

A hell of a topic! :-)

That prechristian hell would be miserably cold makes sense in regions where 'too cold' is more common than 'too hot.' Just as naturally people in Middle East semidesert pictured Sheol as miserably hot. And the biblical hell is too specifically described for Christianity to have developed regional conceptions of hell, so to speak.

'Ninth world' is oddly evocative of Dante's hell. Did he make up the nine levels, or did it have older roots? If the latter, I wonder if it slipped across into the sagas?

Carla said...

Susan - glad you found it interesting.

Annis - 'Heaven' is of Old English derivation as well, so they took a job lot :-)

Gehenna looks a likely candidate for the fiery concept of hell in the Christian tradition, doesn't it? Hell as a place of fiery torment became established in English Christianity from an early date. Bede in 731 tells a story of a man who had what we'd now call a near-death experience and came back with a vivid description of hell as a pit full of flames and demons tormenting the souls of the damned (Historia Ecclesiastica Book V Ch 12). Interestingly, the approach to this hell was a road between a land of ice on one side and a land of fire on the other, which immediately calls to my mind the Icelandic myth of Muspellheim (fire) and Niflheim (ice) and the world(s) being created at the interface between them. I do wonder if that bit of the vision was a nod to the older pagan concept of a cold Hel that hadn't been entirely supplanted yet.

Rick - Yes, a miserably cold place is a likely concept to develop at northern latitudes where dying of cold, hunger and/or exposure was a real possibility in a bad winter. The Greek Hades was misty, dark and gloomy as well, so it wasn't just a concept developed in cold countries - though to be fair Greek and Italian winters can be pretty harsh, especially in the mountains.

The Norse myths specify nine worlds (described in the Prose Edda; I'll post on the various worlds and their number and type in due course), and nine was a 'magical' number in Norse legends. It's probably not a coincidence that Macbeth's three witches say "thrice to mine and thrice to thine and thrice again to make up nine" when casting their spells. Whether Dante got his nine circles direct from the Norse myths, or whether nine was just floating around in the European consciousness of his time as a suitably mystical number, I wouldn't care to guess. A surviving Anglo-Saxon charm refers to seven worlds, so whether that means the Norse invented two extra or whether it's another regional variation is a moot point. I incline to regional variation (partly because I like the phrase 'the nine worlds'), but I don't insist on it.

Steven Till said...

Very interesting. I wonder if the word "Niflheim" has any connection to the Hebrew word נְפִילִים (nephilim), a race of giants mentioned in the book of Genesis. The Hebrew word may possibly mean "those causing others to fall," which makes me think of people falling into Hell after they've died.

The enormous dwelling place with walls of immense height and huge gates conjures up images of giants, as does the Norse Hel being a miserable place of cold and wet and hunger presided over by a hideous monster (a giant).

Rick said...

Maybe I got the Dante connection backwards! The levels of hell is such a familiar conception now that I just took for granted that it had Christian theological roots.

Greek Hades, like the prechristian hell, seems to have been rather a dismal place than a, well, hellish one, Christian theology adding the specifically punitive element.

Carla said...

Steven - You'd need to ask a linguist that question! I'd have thought it's more likely to be a coincidence than a connection, since Hebrew and Old Norse are from different language groups, but I'm no expert on linguistics. Niflheim is a straightforward compound, translating as Mist (nifl) Home or Land (heim). Hel was a giantess of sorts, offspring of Loki and a giantess called Angrboda.

Rick - the Norse nine worlds weren't all in the underworld - one of them was the world of the gods and one was the world of men, for example - and they weren't a strict nine-level hierarchy, so they don't correspond to Dante's levels in much other than the number. In which case I guess the likeliest explanation is the prosaic one that 'nine' was just considered a suitably mystic sort of number. Or possibly the even more prosaic one that it was a convenient number for narrative purposes - one or two would be over too quickly, but 42 would get a bit repetitive :-)

Some of the Greek/Roman descriptions of Hades have a sort of system of 'levels' and a sort of committee of judges. Tartarus is the place of punishment (with all the ingenious methods), then there's another place that's a sort of dismal purgatory (can't remember its name), then there's the Champs Elysees (sorry, the Elysian Fields) where the great and good get to have a party til the end of time. I can see how that could be expanded into Dante's nine levels. Anyway, the Greeks had the idea of a punitive place, Tartarus, as well as a dismal Hades. Maybe the early Christians picked it up from there and developed it.

Norse mythology has the feasting afterlife for the favoured heroes (our friend Valhalla), but that isn't in the underworld, it's in the world of the gods, so that's different from the Greco-Roman Hades and from Dante.

kevin said...

Let's not forget that the centre of Dante's Inferno is icy! Satan is trapped in it gnawing forever on the bodies of Judas and I think, Brutus if I remember correctly. So the Christian Dante from sunny Florence was certainly capable of seeing hell as a cold place.

As you say though the word merely means a hole or nasty place of some kind.

The comparison you draw between the underwater cave of Grendel's mum and the later Norse mythology is imaginative. I don't think that it is coincidental but I do think that the Norsemen were well awareof the earlier story. That they should then use it as a template for the enlargement of an underworld mythology on the Greek model is perhaps not surprising.

Whether the pagan Anglo-Saxons thought about it that way... well I don't know. It seems pretty certain that the word was associated with a nasty place full of demons of one kind or another.

Annis said...

Given that the New Testament was written in Greek, I'm sure that your thought about the punitive place, Tartarus, being picked up by the early Christians and developed as an aspect of the Christian "hell" is the most probable one, Carla.

Mention of fire associated with place of punishment does appear here and there in the Bible, and I am curious about the origin of that idea. Most famous of course is the classic heavy duty "fire and brimstone" text from Revelations:
"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death."

Personally. as I hate being cold, I tend to find the Norse vision of a place of everlasting cold much more like my idea of hell :)

Carla said...

Kevin - Wasn't one of the outer circles of hell also cold and snowy and watched over by Cerberus? I imagine Dante drew on all sorts of stories and traditions for his poem. The bit where the avaricious have to labour to haul huge bags of money uphill for eternity reminds me of Sisyphus (sp?) in Tartarus, for example.

Annis - I think I've read somewhere that some Greek versions of the NT use Tartarus as well as Gehenna, but don't quote me on that. If true, that would fit quite well.

For what it's worth, I think people have probably been afraid of fire since the year dot - it wouldn't take long to find out that bad burns hurt dreadfully and leave you disfigured and/or crippled - so the idea of fire as a terrible torment has probably been around a long while in many cultures. Brimstone would be a natural addition for anyone who'd seen a volcanic crater crusted with sulphur and bubbling with poisonous gases.

Meghan said...

Interesting that Hell was thought of as cold in some places and hot in others (or both as in the case of Dante).

Katherine Christensen said...

What a great topic. What interests me is how it was ingrained into Christian Doctrine.

I have never heard the hell-hole connection. Fascinating!

Carla said...

Meghan - Yes, isn't it? "Horrible" is probably the common theme, and the details probably depended on what people in a particular society were most afraid of or most disliked (see Annis's comment about being cold!).

Katherine - Hello and welcome! I am absolutely not an expert on the development of Christian theology, so take my thoughts with a pinch of salt. See Annis's first comment in the thread for the terms used in the Bible. My guess is that when priests first preached Christianity to the English they needed an Old English word to translate "gehenna" or "hades", asked the interpreter what his people called the bad place you go to after you die, and were told it was called "helle", after which the word became the standard term.

Katherine Christensen said...

Thanks for the warm welcome.
It is no wonder our ancestors had such a confusing time during the early Christian era. I can imagine peasants practicing their traditions referenced in a colloquial manner by the clergy, and then getting in trouble when the translated behaviors did not match what was expected from a Christian point of view. :)

Carla said...

Katherine - There's a scene exactly matching your scenario in the Life of St Cuthbert. I forget the exact context, but St Cuthbert is telling off a group of peasants for something and they reply "Huh, we're not allowed any of our old traditions any more, and how the new ones are to be attended to nobody knows", or words to approximately that effect. It must have been dreadfully confusing, especially when a village might only see a travelling priest once in a blue moon. Schisms over doctrine can't have helped, either. How must it have felt to be a British Christian in 425 when St Germanus turns up from Auxerre to tell you you're all heretics for following the teachings of Pelagius? Or if you had an Irish priest tell you one date for Easter and then a Roman one contradict him, and both insist that they're right?

Rex Icelingas said...

Lovely article Carla

Im a follower of the Heathen religion,though I do find much of todays attempts to recreate it very `Ritualistic`.There are quite a few books dealing with such but the sources for the vast majority of there ideas/Rituals are lacking.Perhaps a future talking point of interest?

Carla said...

Rex Icelingas - thank you. Have you read Ronald Hutton's book The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles? It has a lengthy chapter about modern paganism/heathenism and the sources for its ideas and rituals. I gather he's covered this in more detail in some of his other books, e.g Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, and The Druids, though I haven't read those. The line he takes seems to me fair and balanced - very broadly, he argues that the claims of continuity from a hidden pagan religion of great antiquity are unproven (and probably can never be proved or disproved, given the lack of evidence), but that modern paganism/heathenism is a genuine religious movement in its own right.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Just catching up here.
Not a lot to add, but thanks for an interesting and informative post Carla.
Grace Ingram's hero in Red Adam's Lady (mid 12thC) was always saying 'Hell's Teeth.' I'm sure I've seen it somewhere else, but I wouldn't venture to say it was a primary source!

Carla said...

If I remember rightly, the OED has the first record of "hell's teeth!" as somewhere around 1900, so it probably wasn't in a mid-12th-C primary source :-) That said, there would surely have been expletives in use, and a comparatively modern one might as well stand in for whatever its unknown medieval equivalent would have been.

Doug said...

Snorri Sturluson's statement that those who go to hell have died of disease or old age suggests strongly that the way to avoid it was to die in battle, so there was probably a Valhalla-type concept as well.

Carla said...

Doug - that's certainly the case for the Norse, and Snorri has quite a lot to say about the marvels of Odin's hall Valhalla, where all those who have fallen in battle go to feast and fight. We don't have any direct evidence that the English had a similar concept, though it seems likely to me that they did.

Unknown said...

Hi Carla, many thanks for your excellent blog.
I am an artist beginning my research for a series of paintings I want to create of old English gods. Have you got any recommendations on the best books/websites on the topic as a starting point? I don't really want to rely on Wikipedia and the like for my information. I've seen a couple of books on amazon but it's hard to tell how relevant they may be.
Many thanks
Sally Fryer
p.s you can see my latest painting Herne the Hunter on my blog if interested

Carla said...

Sally - Hello and welcome! The Lost Gods of England, by Bryan Branston, Constable 1993, ISBN 0-09-472740-6 is a good overview of the main gods (Thunor, Woden, Tiw, Frey, Freyja/Frigg). It's a bit old now, first published in 1957, and may be out of print; if it is, you could try libraries or second-hand. Perhaps reflecting its date, there are few illustrations. A more recent and very comprehensive survey is The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, by Stephen Pollington, Anglo-Saxon Books 2011, ISBN 978-1898-281641. This covers the full range of early English supernatural beliefs including obscure gods, supernatural beings that aren't gods (e.g. elves, dwarfs), supernatural creatures (e.g. dragons), magic, and magical symbolism in art. It has about 70 illustrations, mostly black and white with some colour plates. A much smaller and inexpensive (about £5) publication is Looking for the Lost Gods of England, by Kathleen Herbert, Anglo-Saxon Books 1994, ISBN 1-898281-04-1. This concentrates mainly on the mother goddess (Nerthus), Frey/Ing, and Freyja/Frigg. No illustrations to speak of.

There's also a recent book specifically on Anglo-Saxon art (including the Staffordshire Hoard), which may be of particular interest to you as an artist: Anglo-Saxon Art, by Leslie Webster. It was the subject of an extended review/feature in Current Archaeology Issue 268 in June 2012, which may help you tell whether the book is likely to be helpful to you. You probably already know about the British Museum's photographs of the Sutton Hoo treasures and the Staffordshire Hoard flickr site .

Hope this helps!