Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Oh Hell

Oh, go to Heaven!”

(Witch Hazel [Mama Cass Elliot], Pufnstuf)

It is an altogether remarkable fact that the language of Christianity should so faithfully have preserved the name of the ancient Indo-European Underworld, and (just possibly) of its goddess.


Both Old English hell and its Norse cognate hel derive from Common Germanic *haljô. This in turn comes from a verbal root meaning “cover, conceal.” (The same root gives us hall, hull, hold, helmet, and Valhalla.) Apparently Hell has been the “concealed [place]” for a long, long time: when Ulifilas translated the Bible into Gothic, he used the word halja to translate Greek Hades and Hebrew She'ol.

Like its Greek counterpart Hades, the Old Norse name does double duty, naming both the Underworld and its mistress, the goddess of death. Whether this was also the case among speakers of Old English, we do not know. It's certainly possible: the Old English noun is feminine in gender. It must be admitted, though, that the Hel of Norse literature has a pronouncedly “literary” feel to her; she strikes one as more a personification than as an actual personality.

So we can say for sure that the Hwicce, the Old English Tribe of Witches, knew of Hell as the Underworld. Whether they also knew of Hell as Lady of the Underworld we simply do not know.

Its impeccably pagan roots notwithstanding, it is likewise remarkable, considering the infamy of Hell in Christian mythology, that some modern pagans should have attempted to reclaim the name.


Some contemporary heathen writers use the Norse form, Hel. (I call this “one-L Hel.”) This distinguishes pagan Hel from Christian Hell but, since the difference is effective only in print, my own feeling here is that (as with magic and magick), the distinction is one of limited utility. 

Some pagan writers—Starhawk among them—have taken up the form Hella. (“Any friend of Hella is a friend of mine,” writes novelist Richard Grant.) This intentionally feminizing form, so far as I can tell, was created to name the Underworld goddess of the Marvel comics “Mighty Thor” universe. (You can't have comic book-reading kids spouting bad words now, can you?) Well, whatever floats your coracle.


As in English, Dutch (hel), and Gothic, German Hell is Hell tout court, Hölle. (Yes, folks, the Mother Holle of Brothers Grimm fame is actually Mother Hell.) But it's instructive to look at the names for Christian Hell in the Northwest Germanic languages: Icelandic helvíti, Norwegian helvete, Swedish helvíti, and Danish helvede. Interestingly, Scandinavians—the last Germanic-speaking heathens to undergo conversion—have continued to distinguish between pagan and Christian Hells.

The same form existed in Old English as well: hellwíte. (If this word had survived into Modern English, it would be Hellwite.) Wíte means “punishment, torture, injury.”

So if we need a name for the Christian Underworld (certainly increasing numbers of Christians seem to be willing to do without it), Hellwite would be it.

As for me, I'll stick with plain old two-L Hell, thank you very much. It's a good old ancestral name, ours by eldright, and I'm simply not willing to give it up.

Queen of Heaven, Queen of Hell, Doreen Valiente wrote in 1954, the Moon being Lady both of the Great Above and the Great Below.

So, Posch, are you saying that "Hell" is one of the names of the witches' Goddess?


Hell, yes.


If it should seem strange to the reader that I should be treating with a subject such as the Underworld mere days before the Northern Bealtaine, I'll ask your indulgence and quote my old HPS from back East:

There's a little bit of Samhain in every Bealtaine, a little bit of Bealtaine in every Samhain.




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Tagged in: hell Hwicce Underworld
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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