There is in God (some say)   A deep but dazzling darkness
Henry Vaughan 1622-1695

  

 EMPRESS OF HEL

Part One

eorþan sceatas --- jordens sköte


 
"Freya"
from
The Viking World
Jacqueline Simpson
Helios is Greek for "sun". In German, hell means "bright", and Hölle means "hell". Swedish hel means "hale" or "whole", which was originally spelt "hoole" or "hole". The ancient Hel of northern myth is both a place and a goddess, also called Hela. Ayto and Partridge both say hell is a "hidden place". The word is cognate with cul.

HELL
&
HÖLLE


 
 
"Sheela-na-Gig"
from
Celtic Mysteries
John Sharkey

These notes arise from the perception, discussed elsewhere [SSAS], that eorþan sceatas in line 61 of The Seafarer, despite its plural number, does not mean "the surfaces of the world" [Hieatt, 1967], "earth's far reaches" [Wain, 1980], "surface, region, expanse" (Seven Old English Poems; J.C.Pope, 1981), but is a near equivalent of modern Swedish jordens sköte, ie the "lap" of Mother Nature, a blandly benign personification. The reading of "lap" is adopted by Neville Denny, 1960; and Clair McPherson, 1987, another careful translator, has "corners of the earth", although a sense of the deep, romantic chasm, located in Coleridge's Xanadu and reduced by Kane to a rosebud, is missing from these corners. For German Schoss, Professor Breul gives "sprig", "shoot", "lap", "womb", "flap" and "tax" (of course: there is a persistent association of the "lap" with "treasure", even if it's only a ha'penny, as the music hall song put it); and cites the word in combinations such as (im) Schosse seiner Familie, Schosse der Kirche, Schosse der Götter. The connotations of generation, church and heathendom are self-evident, but nobody, to my knowledge, has yet connected German Schoss with Anglo-Saxon sceat. The word's relationship to Schatz is obvious.

Mother Nature, under many different names, is otherwise the Great Goddess of prehistoric myth. Goddess literature (some titles below, or see this website: here) is familiar enough to need little comment, but it's worth noting that much of it mourns the supposed shift of authority, in the course of the last thirty-odd thousand years of humanity's sex wars, from Mother to Father. Perhaps this conjectural pendulum is now starting to swing back; or perhaps sexual reproduction, as we have known it, is about to give way to cloning and genetic engineering. These comments aim only to draw attention to a few points of passing interest. A comprehensively edifying site on these matters is posted by Chris Witcombe; see his views on the Venus of Willendorf, here.

The earliest known human artefacts (a discovery in 1981 at Golan Heights, Israel, is alleged to be at least 230,000 and perhaps up to 800,000 years old --- a likely story? Check discussion here or here) of purely aesthetic, non-practical character seem to be representations of the female body. It is not clear to me why these figurines should automatically be described as "goddesses", and I would have thought that up to, say, about 20,000 BC they are better thought of as manifestations of mankind's (or womankind's) slowly evolving sense of self-knowledge --- the consequence of apple-eating. Since Eve tasted the fruit before Adam, woman's awareness preceded that of man, and she retains a greater self-perception of her body and its functions. Doesn't she? Current opinion, in some quarters, holds that the "Venus" figurines were self-images created by women.

A few millenia further on, the self-knowing Mensch becomes increasingly conscious that it is subject to external forces over which it has no control. It is kicked out of Eden and perplexity sets in. Who, or what, directs these forces? What is the origin and purpose of its existence?

Why does it age and eventually depart, and where does it go? The search for survival begins, and curiosity engenders science, pure and applied. Intellectual necessity begets invention. He, more probably than she, lifts his head --- are wolves the only other animals to notice the sky? Dogs will also bark at the full moon --- and sees the sun, moon and stars. A vengeful deity is conceived. Man is reborn from woman, but powers exerted by more distant bodies direct life's daily round. The sun and rain impregnate the earth, the moon regulates ovulation, there are patterns in the stars. Is there some veiled link between the vaults of heaven and the lap of nature?

Such a micro-macrocosmic marriage has been adduced by most societies. The earth is usually female and the sky male, except in Egypt, where, above a prone but ithyphallic god, a sky-goddess spanned the welkin, ingested the sun at evening and gave birth to it at dawn. Further east, the yin-yang cosmic circle symbolises the division between two opposite but equal forces in harmonious stasis and androgynous unity. The upper section is the yang and the lower is the yin. Everything in the universe is shaped by their interaction. They represent the riddle of creation, and symbolise the dualities experienced by mankind: heaven and earth, male and female, light and dark.

There is no evil, and no infernal medieval hell in this concept. The original meaning of the word would seem simply to be "earth": simultaneously the grave and the lap of creation.The 'hidden place' that is "hell" is explained etymologically by John Ayto. The term "goes back ultimately to Indo-European *kel- 'cover, hide', which has contributed an extraordinary number of words to English, including apocalypse, cell, cellar, conceal, helmet, hull ('pod'), occult, and possibly colour and holster. Its Germanic descendant was *khel-, *khal-, (any etymological connection with the Indian goddess Kali?) whose derivatives included *khallo and *khaljo. The first became modern English hall, the second modern English hell --- so both hall and hell were originally 'concealed or covered places', although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth. Related Germanic forms include German Hölle, Dutch hel and Swedish helvete (in which vete means 'punishment')." Coincidentally or not, Sw veta means "to know". Swedish helvete, according to Elof Hellquist, is virtually the same word as Icelandic helvíti, Old Saxon helliwîti and Anglo-Saxon hellewîte. Anglo-Saxon wîte, according to Bosworth-Toller, means "punishment, pain that is inflicted as punishment, torment". Wîtedom, says the same authority, is "knowledge derived from a superhuman source", ie revelation; from which it is a small step for an Anglo-Saxon to understand that wisdom, knowledge, and awareness of humanity's nakedness, are forms of mental torment, hell on earth, and the consequence of forbidden apple-eating. Wîte is also cognate with "witness", and the implication is that observation, to be observant and observed, underlies the concept of punishment. Self-consciousness is the painful price of knowledge. Ayenbite of Inwit --- remorse of conscience, an affliction suffered by those sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.

Sartre, in Huis Clos (almost French for cul-de-sac), noted that "hell is other people". He had 20th century hells in mind. "Scholars have argued, based on surviving texts, that Hel was not considered an evil deity until Norse beliefs began to be influenced by Christianity ... There was no stigma of cruelty attached to her; rather, she appeared to be sad or depressed. Her palace was as imposing as the halls of the gods, and she met the dead souls who came to her with courtesy. They seemed to dwell peacefully in Hel; they were not tortured or mistreated in any way. Nevertheless, by the Viking age, emphasis was placed on Hel's subjects as criminals -- murderers, thieves, adulterers -- and others who had not died in battle, and thus had not been carried off by Odin's Valkyries to the heavenly palace of Valhalla." These comments from Compton's Encyclopedia Online echo Jacob Grimm: "Originally Hellia is not death nor any evil being, she neither kills nor torments; she takes the souls of the departed and holds them with inexorable grip. The idea of a place evolved ... the converted heathen without any ado applied it to the Christian underworld, the abode of the damned; all Teutonic nations have done this ... because that local notion already existed under heathenism, perhaps also because the church was not sorry to associate lost spirits with a heathen and fiendish divinity." [p.312]. In her Woman's Encyclopedia Barbara Walker remarks that "Though Christian theology gave its underworld the name of the Goddess Hel, it was quite a different place from her womb of regeneration. The ancients didn't view the underworld as primarily a place of punishment. It was dark, mysterious and awesome, but not the vast torture chamber Christians made of it."

In a more recent work, Hel, the Hidden Goddess of Northern Mythology, two Swedish authors, Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth, have put forward their theory, based partly on a close analysis of the many northern, mainly Scandinavian, place-names which incorporate the element (h)el- or (h)al-, that about 10,000 years ago the land was named for the goddess Hel, whose devotees settled those parts of the continent which are now submerged. The presence of these Ice Age peoples, they maintain, can be traced in numerous existing place-names, of which the most familiar to English speakers will be Helsinki and Elsinore. (Hamlet's royal seat is an anglicization of Danish Helsingør, across the Sound from what is now the Swedish city of Helsingborg.) There are Swedish provinces called Halland and Helsingland, and countries with similar names are Heligoland and Holland; though Holland may mean holt-land, ie woodland. But more hollows than holts in Holland today. Any significance that Hull, near Wetwang, on England's east coast, faces Scandinavia?

Click here for Iman Wilkens' new map of hell.

What song the sirens sang, or what language was spoken in northern Europe during neolithic times, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.¹ If G. and G. Liljenroth may be believed, the word for the world in those days was hel, not a land outside a lost and vanished Eden but fruitfulness identified, a "goddess" called Hel.

We know what she looked like, since her portrait has been left us, carved on stone in a grave passage at Trinity-on-Sea, Brittany, France. This likeness, right, redrawn by Lully Aldworth, appears on p.7 of Hilda Ellis Davidson's latest study, Roles of the Northern Goddess, 1998. In her introductory overview she is gently critical of Marija Gimbutas, and mentions Robert Graves's "nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature, on which he was no authority".

       





go to part 2

Why does Venus often lack arms?
Magritte's Natural Knowledge, no date, flanks the Venus of Lespugue, France; 21,000 BC.
click for more on the Lespugue Venus.



Figurine carved in mammoth ivory. Restored.
from The Metamorphosis of Baubo
Winifred Milius Lubell, Vanderbilt UP 1994

bird   divide   man   other   sea   ship   sun

previous goddess and gods

theme index
index of picture collages
main index

¹ "Archaeologists, geneticists and others are ... trying to understand ... linguistic behaviour and the prototypes of the languages we all speak ... the day may yet come when ... we may have some idea of the language the builders of Stonehenge spoke." Stonehenge; D.Souden, English Heritage 1997, p.60.

General Reading List

Ayto, John; Dictionary of Word Origins; Bloomsbury 1990
Baring, Anne and Cashford, Jules; The Myth of the Goddess; BCA 1991
Berntsson, Sonny; Holy Trees in the History of Mankind; article in Liljestenar; published by Historieforum Västra Götaland 2001
Bosworth & Toller; An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; OUP 1898
Branston, Brian; Gods of the North; Thames & Hudson 1955
Branston, Brian; The Lost Gods of England; Thames & Hudson 1957
Breul, Karl; German and English Dictionary; Cassell 10th ed. 1952
Briard, Jacques; The Bronze Age in Barbarian Europe; RKP, 1979
Duncan, Thomas G; Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols 1400-1530; Penguin 2000
Ellis [Davidson], Hilda; The Road to Hel; CUP 1943
Ellis Davidson, Hilda; The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe; Routledge 1993
Ellis Davidson, Hilda; Roles of the Northern Goddess; Routledge 1998
Gimbutas, Marija; The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe; Thames and Hudson 1982
Graves, Robert; The White Goddess; Faber 1952
Grimm, Jacob; Teutonic Mythology; 1883, J.S.Stallybrass trans.; Dover reprint 1966.
Hellquist, Elof; Etymologisk Ordbok; Lund 1922
Liljenroth, G & G; Hel: den gömda gudinnan i nordisk mytologi; AMA Förlag 1995
Lubell, Winifred Milius; The Metamorphosis of Baubo; Vanderbilt UP 1994
Nordgren, Ingemar; Nordic Ring-names; Migracijske Teme 1-2, Zagreb 2000
Paquet, Marcel; Magritte; Taschen 2000
Partridge, Eric; Dictionary of Catch Phrases; "keep your hand on your halfpenny (till the right man turns up)". Late 19th century? With thanks to Nigel Rees. But not in RKP 1977 edition.
Partridge, Eric; Origins; RKP 1958
Partridge, Eric; Shakespeare's Bawdy; RKP 1956
Riding, Laura and Graves, Robert; A Survey of Modernist Poetry; Heinemann 1927
Rundkvist, M; Järnålderns ringamuletter med knoppar eller vulster (Knobbed or ribbed ring amulets of the Iron Age); Fornvännen 91. Stockholm 1996
Rydberg, Viktor; Teutonic Mythology; Swan Sonnenschein 1889
Turner, Alice K; The History of Hell; Harcourt Brace 1993
Walker, Barbara G; The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets; Harper & Row 1983

cycladic
Four little "goddesses" with neckrings 700-500 BC       Statens Historiska Musem, Sthlm
click on picture for comparison with Cycladic intruder

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