This word is believed to be from the Teutonic root helan (to
cover), designating a subterranean or hidden place. It is sometimes
used in the form of Hel to mean simply a place of the
dead, with no mention of punishment. Hel or Hela is also
the name of the mythical Teutonic goddess who was guardian
of the dead.
This concept has a somewhat clear train of evolution. The
Christian idea of a place of punishment was directly colored by
the Jewish concept of Sheol, which in turn took shape from
Babylonian sources. When exactly hell began to be perceived
as a place of punishment is not clear, as among the ancient
Semites, Egyptians, and Greeks the underworld was regarded
only as a place of the dead.
In Egypt Amenti is distinctly a place of the dead, one in
which the tasks of life are for the most part duplicated. This was
also the case among primitive people, who merely regarded the
land of the dead as an extension of human existence in which
people led a more or less shadowy life. The primitives did not
generally believe in punishment after death and conceived that
any breach of moral rule was summarily dealt with in this life.
It was usually when a higher moral code emerged from totemic
or similar beliefs that the idea of a place of punishment was invented
by a priesthood.
However, this was not always the case. In Greece, Rome, and
Scandinavia, Hades was merely looked upon as a place of the
dead, where shadowy ghosts flitted to and fro, gibbering and
squeaking as phantoms were believed to do. According to the
Greeks, Hades was only some twelve feet under the surface of
the ground, so Orpheus would not have had a long journey
from the subterranean sphere to reach Earth once more. Hell
was generally regarded as a sovereignty, a place ruled in an ordinary
manner by a monarch set there for that purpose by the
Thus the Greek Hades ruled the Sad Sphere of the Dead,
Osiris was lord and governor of the Egyptian Amenti, while in
Central America there were twin rulers in the Kiche Hades,
Xibalba, whose names were given as Hun-came and Vukubcame.
The latter were malignant, unlike the Mictlán of Mexico,
whose empire was for the generality of the people. These could
only exist for four years, after which they became extinct.
The Mexicans represented Mictlán as a huge monster with
open mouth ready to devour his victims; this was paralleled in
the Babylonian Tiawith. It seems that at a certain stage in all
mythologies the concept of a place of the dead was confounded
with the idea of a place of punishment.
The Greeks generally bewailed the tragedy of humanity,
being condemned to dwell forever in semidarkness after death.
The possibility of the existence of a place of reward seems never
to have appealed to them. To the Greek mind, life was everything;
it was left to the Semitic conscience to evolve in the near
East the concept of a place of punishment. Thus Sheol, a place
of the dead, became a fiery abyss into which the wicked and unjust
were thrust for their sins.
This was foreshadowed by Babylonian and Egyptian ideas,
for Egyptians believed that those unable to pass a test of justification
were simply refused admittance to Amenti. From the
idea of rejection sprang the idea of active punishment. The Semitic
concept of hell was probably reinforced with the introduction
of Christianity into Europe, and colored by concepts of the
underworld belonging to European mythologies.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Hell
Hela (Death) in Teutonic mythology was cast into the underground
realm of Niflheim and given power over nine regions
into which she distributed all who died through sickness
or old age.
The ideas concerning the Celtic otherworld probably played
only a small part in forming the British concept of hell. The
Brythonic Annwyl was certainly subterranean, but it was by
no means a place of punishment; rather, it was merely a microcosm
of the world above, where folk hunted, ate, and drank, as
in early Britain. The Irish otherworld was much the same.
In southern Europe the idea of hell appears to have been
strongly influenced by both classical and Jewish concepts. The
best picture of the medieval idea of the place of punishment is
undoubtedly found in Dantes Inferno. Basing his description
on the teachings of contemporary schoolmen, Dante also acknowledged
Virgil as his master and followed him in many descriptions
of Tartarus. The Semitic idea crops up here and
there, however, such as in the beginning of one of the cantos,
where what looks suspiciously like a Hebrew incantation is recorded.
In later medieval times the ingenuity of the monkish mind
introduced many apparently original concepts. For instance,
hell obtained an annex purgatory. Its inhabitants took on a
form that may be alluded to as European, in contrast to the
more satyrlike shape of the earlier hierarchy of Hades. It featured
grizzly forms of birdlike shape, with exaggerated beaks
and claws, and the animal forms and faces of later medieval
gargoyles could well be what the denizens of Hades seemed like
in the eyes of the superstitious of the sixteenth and seventeenth
A modified version of these ideas was passed to later generations,
and one may suspect that such superstitions were not altogether
disbelieved by our forefathers.
Most Eastern mythological systems possess a hell that does
not differ in any fundamental respect from that of most barbarian
races, except that it is perhaps more specialized and involved.
Many later writers, such as Emanuel Swedenborg,
Jakob Boehme, William Blake, and others (including John
Milton), have given us vivid pictures of the hierarchy and general
condition of hell. For the most part these are based on patristic
writings. In the Middle Ages endless controversy took
place as to the nature and offices of the various inhabitants of
the place of punishment (see Demonology), and the descriptions
of later visionaries are practically mere repetitions of the
conclusions arrived at then.
The locality of hell has also been a question of endless speculation.
Some believed it to be in the sun, because the Greek
name for the luminary is Helios, but such etymologies have
been in disfavor with most writers on the subject, and the popular
idea that hell is subterranean has had no real rival.
Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell Death and Retribution
in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell
University Press, 1993.
Fox, Samuel J. Hell in Jewish Literature. Wheeling, Ill. Whitehall,
Kohler, Kaufmann. Heaven and Hell in Comparative Literature.
Folcroft, Pa., 1923.
Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Problem of Hell. New York Oxford
University Press, 1993.
Lehner, Ernest, and J. Lehner. Picture Book of Devils, Demons,
and Witchcraft. New York Dover Publications, 1972.
MacCullough, John A. The Harrowing of Hell A Comparative
Study of an Early Christian Doctrine. London T. & T. Clark, 1930.
Reprint, New York AMS Press, 1981.
Mew, James. Traditional Aspects of Hell. London Swan, Sonnenschein,
1903. Reprint, Detroit Gale Research, 1971.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. 1758. Reprint, New
York E. P. Dutton, 1931.
Walker, Daniel P. Decline of Hell Seventeenth Century Discussions
of Eternal Torment. London Routledge, 1964.