All this the world well knowes though none knowes well
To shun the heauen that leads men to this hell

William Shakespeare 1564-1616


Part Two

From Hel to Hell and Back

eorþan sceatas --- jordens sköte

In German hell means "clear, bright, luminous". The influence of the temple of Ra/Re, the sun-god, at Heliopolis, lasted throughout Egyptian history, says Christine Hobson, p.136. Could there conceivably be some dark link between helios, the sun, and hel, the earth? If Hel was the all-encompassing earth-goddess of the North at the ending of the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, and for the duration of the Stone Age, it would seem that by the dawning of the Bronze Age, say about 2,000 BC in Scandinavia, much of her authority had been dispersed and usurped by a family of fertility gods called the Vanir. Some dispute this, and say the Vanir were imported to Scandinavia by Odin in about the first century AD, along with the Aesir. Perhaps only their names were changed. In any case, prominent among the Vanir were a couple of (probably incestuous) siblings called Frey and Freya. The roles and relationships of deities in northern mythology, more than in the Greek, impress me as multifunctional, sometimes contradictory, generally confusing, and open to wide interpretation; which inspires me to skate over deep waters and essay a few unfettered pirouettes on thin etymological ice.

Frey and Freya personify, it may be thought, a male/female split in the procreativity formerly centred exclusively in the indivisibility of Mother Hel, surely identifiable with Hulda, Holda, or Frau Holle, as described by Grimm, p.267. Frey, says Hellquist, means "Lord", and Freya is merely a feminisation of the same word, ie "Lady"; hence Ger Frau, Fräulein, and Sw fru, "Mrs", and fröken, formerly "Miss", both titles now almost obsolete. Frey is also called Frö, "seed", so fröken means "seedling", otherwise "nymphet", the term lately popularised by VN.¹

But Hellquist hasn't finished. Frö, believe it or not, is also cognate with "frog", Sw groda, a word apparently obscurely related to Sw gröda, not a million miles from English "growth". For the divinity of frogs and toads see Marija Gimbutas: illustrations below. Prehistoric biologists, embryologists and natural scientists would have observed that frogspawn and toadspawn rapidly convert into tadpoles, eggs with tails and sprouting legs, all of which can be seen, without the aid of a microscope, as growth from various sorts of seed. Frö survives in English as "fry", as in "small fry", little fishes, especially those fresh from the spawn, or little children.

    Old European Toad Goddess
      Anatolia, 6th millenium BC




Birth-giving Goddess            
Central Balkans, 6th millenium BC    

from The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe; Gimbutas, p 176

see here for more on frog as girl


In combination, Hel, Freya and Frey appear to present that formidable trinity, vigorously denounced for centuries by the Christian Church, of the World (wholeness of Hel), the Flesh (patently obvious) and the Devil (a familiar face). In fact, Freya and Frey might be thought of as the spawn of Hel.

"Freya"                         "Hel"                         "Freya"




The figurine (loosely?) named "Freya" appears to incorporate two distinct types of ring. At first I assumed the large one framing her person (sometimes taken for a garland of flowers) to be the legendary necklace Brisingamen, but then noticed that she is wearing another, more appropriately round her neck, although this is rather difficult to see in this image. An article by Ingemar Nordgren, entitled Nordic Ring-names, and their background, which analyses the incidence of place-names incorporating "Ring", has illustrations of the two types of ring shown here, above and below the trinket. The term "ring" might have qualified as one of Empson's complex words, with a myriad varied meanings in usage from Wallace² to Tolkien. The pictures are after M.Rundqvist .

Freya's spindly arms support what looks like a pregnancy bump. Her spread legs invite comparison with those of the Kilpeck church Sheela, and the gap between the edge of her kirtle, and the lower arc of the outer ring, hints at the medieval vagina dentata, mentioned by, eg, Winifred M.Lubell, pp 113, 131.

Brisingamen is a name for the sun, the solitary god substituted by the Pharaoh Akhenaton, reigned 1353-1335 BC, for the multiple deities administered by the priests of Egypt. In the collage below, a Bronze Age northern goddess looks out through one of Rundqvist's rings, and sunders the icon devised by Akhenaton. His sundisc subtended sunrays ending in hands. There are nine sunrays to each half of the emblem, matching the nine equidistant ribs, grouped in threes, on the Iron Age ring.

The coincidence is accidental: other depictions of Akhenaton's device show more than 18 hands.
Could Brisingamen = Brizein (to enchant) + Amun (king of the gods)?

The Degradation of Hel

This process, expressed in visual imagery, is indicated briefly here, from the birth-giving frog-type goddess of Çatal Hüyük, via en passant the Gotlandic snake-witch-goddess, apparently of partly Minoan descent, to the Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and England. The figure from Çatal Hüyük comes from an article by Sonny Berntsson, who sees the abdominal concentric circles as centred on the omphalos, with the lozenges above them symbolic of the tree of life. But, to me, it also looks like an X-ray of an embryo in the uterus. Hel grows truly ugly only with the advance of Christianity.


Çatal Hüyük
6500 BC

500 AD

1200 AD

Hel might give, but also takes away. In the words of Grimm: " ... she takes the souls of the departed and holds them with inexorable grip." Whatever the enthusiastic rediscoverers of the Sheelas may have to say, it is difficult to see anything very appealing in these carvings which appear on churches and other buildings in various parts of the British Isles. Their function remains enigmatic.

Gotland & Minoa

The Restoration of Hel

Sonny Berntsson points out that the loss of a goddess figure was keenly felt by child-bearing women when Christianity gained ground, and that in Ephesus, 431 AD, a Christian substitute was created, in the form of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was recognised as the mother of a god, and Queen of Heaven. After another thousand years, she seems to have advanced even further, to become Empress of Hell.

Thomas Duncan's recently published edition of C15th English carols and lyrics contains the following rather strange, surprising verse (lyric 56):

Now man is brighter than the sonne;
Now man in heven an hye shal wone;           cf Seafarer, line 14, wunian - to dwell
Blessed be God this game is begonne,
And his moder, empresse of Helle.
Nowel !

In further comment on the Virgin Mary's title of "Empress of Hell", Duncan cites a passage from a sermon given by one, Mirk (note to lyric 53), for the Feast of the Assumption. A two stanza lyric is incorporated into the sermon, written as prose. At the Virgin's death Christ took her soul to heaven. Three days later Christ returned, with St Michael carrying the soul, which he replaces in the Virgin's body. Christ addresses the first of the two stanzas to Mary, his mother:

Com, my swetë, com my flour,
Com my culver, myn owne boure
Com my modyr, now wyth me,
For hevyn qwene I makë the!

"Culver" means "dove; "boure" means "bower". Duncan points out that Christ's "bower" was Mary's womb, and that "my dove" and "my sweet" echo the endearments used in the Song of Solomon. Mary sits up and responds with the second stanza:

My swetë sonne, with al my love
I com with the to thyn above;
Wher thou art now let me be,
For al my love ys layde on the.

Christ in Majesty, 1097 AD

The boat-shaped oval which frames Christ in Majesty, above right, and from which he is issuing, is Mary's bower. This design, which recurs frequently in medieval Christian art, comes from the Stavelot Bible. BL.

Mirk then relates: "…with great myrth and melody thay beren our lady ynto hevyn, bothe body and soule, and soo Crist set hur ther by hym yn his trone, and crowned hur qwene of heven, and emperice of hell, and lady of all the worlde." Duncan again notes that the "lytel space" in the lines below (lyric 46) was, similarly, Mary's womb. Mary, now Empress of Hell, has reassumed the role of her immemorially ancient predecessor, Hel, and rules the world, or, in another word, Hell.

Ther is no rose of swych vertù                   For in this rose conteynëd was
As is the rose that bar Jhesù;                     Heven and erthe in lytel space,
Alleluya.                                                   Res Miranda.


back to part 1
waist of shame
goddess gallimaufry

¹ "Nymphet, f, a little Nymph", definition in An English Dictionary, by E.Coles, printed for Peter Parker, London 1685.
² "I haif brocht ye to the Ring --- hop gif ye can." Speech of William Wallace before the Battle of Falkirk, 1298 AD.

bird   divide  man   other   sea   ship   sun
previous gods       next goddesses

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index of picture collages
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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; Vol I 1883; Dover republication 1966.
Hellquist, Elof; Etymologisk Ordbok; Lund 1922
Hobson Christine; Exploring the World of the Pharaohs; Thames & Hudson 1987
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

Freja             Anders Zorn             1901
Private collection. Exhibited at Lund's Konsthall, 1975-76

Click here for Iman Wilkens' new map of hell.


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