You sometimes hear the curse, “Then go to hell!” But if you wanted to comply with the request, you would have trouble doing so. Where is hell actually?
Fact is – the Bible will not help us, because contrary to all expectations its text does not speak of hell. Even though Luther translated its words ‘Sheol’ (realm of the dead) and ‘Gehenna’ (a valley near Jerusalem, in which one supposedly once sacrificed children to the god Moloch) with ‘hell’, this translation was his invention, which today is replaced in more modern translations by other words. Just as he used the word ‘apple’ for the forbidden fruit, he used ‘hell’ for the realm of the dead, without this term being used in the original script.
This teaches us at least one thing: Luther must have been very familiar with the term ‘hell’, because he intended to ‘look at the mouth’ of the people in his translation and use their words. So where did he get this idea from, that a horse-shoed devil would be firing great cauldrons in the depths?
It seems, from the Germanic and pagan traditions, which had well survived in Luther’s Saxon-Thuringian environment.
The word ‘hell’ goes back to the Germanic language root ‘hel’, ‘hide’, and the Old Norse goddess of death is therefore also called Hel. The Germans know her best today as the ‘Frau Holle’ from the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, who makes it snow in winter. According to Germanic mythology, all those who died peacefully in bed came to Hel, while the warriors entered Walhall. The kingdom of Hel was much less terrible than the Christian hell propagated by Luther, which is already shown by the Grimm brother’s fairy tale in which Frau Holle welcomes good people with hospitality. In this respect Frau Holle is sometimes equated with the goddess Freia or Frigg, who hides in the mountain when winter comes and comes out again in summer.
But where is this hell? Historically there are some hints where, according to the opinion of the ancient Germanic tribes, the entrance to the realm of hell could be and the favourite among the candidates is according to Nordic folklore the volcano Hekla in Iceland. In Swedish there is therefore even the curse ‘Dra åt Häcklefjäll! (“Go to Hekla!”), which is used synonymously to the curse “Go to hell”.
The Hekla is an active volcano in Iceland and the surrounding area is threateningly dark, though spectacular. Full of myths, legends and hot springs. However, whoever sets out to discover hell should better pack sturdy hiking boots and the Edda instead of the Bible.