Hell is another Old English word. It is attested to in the early ninth century, but the word and the concept is undoubtedly older, dating back to pre-Christian Germanic mythology. In Norse mythology, Hel was the goddess of the underworld. Her name and the English word for the abode of the dead are undoubtedly related, although exactly how is unknown. Based on cognates in the various Germanic languages, historical linguists have proposed a possible root in Old Germanic, *halja, meaning something along the lines of one who covers or conceals.
The first known appearance of hell in English is c.825 in the Vespasian Psalter, a translation of Psalms 55:15:
Cyme deað ofer hie and astigen hie in helle lifgende.
(Death came over them and they went into a living hell.)
This sense is more of the abode of the dead, rather than the Christian concept as a place of punishment in the afterlife. Modern translations of the Bible tend to use the original Hebrew sheol in this passage to emphasize this difference.
The Christian sense of hell as a place of punishment and torment is attested to a few decades later in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, c.888:
Swa byrnende swa þæt fyr on þære helle, seo is on þam munte ðe Ætne hatte.
(As burning as the fire in the hell, it is on the mountain that is called Ætna.)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton