Although 2020 was a hellish year for many of us, I look back to 2004 as the year I literally went through Hell.
Not figuratively, but LITERALLY.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, it wasn’t even that hot. Given the fact that Hell’s latitude is about 63.5 degrees north of the equator puts its location only 3 degrees away from the Arctic Circle. At that latitude, it does freeze over occasionally, at least on a seasonal basis. And that got me to thinking….how do places get their names and how do those names affect those same places?
Hell is a little town in northern Norway. It’s about halfway between Oslo and Bodo, but about 2/3 of the way to Heaven (Lofoten).
The Lofoten Islands are heavenly….this picture near Reine, Lofoten, is in the same country of Norway, but still a long way from Hell.
But let’s go back to Hell. After all, this is what this story is about.
Nynorsk is the language that is spoken in Norway. Although it has Germanic roots, as does English, Hell means something different in their language. When putting the word Hell into an online translator, it comes out as “pour” in Norwegian. Although it does rain there quite a bit, due to the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift current taking “relatively” warmer water to a high latitude, and the westerly winds bumping marine air up against the Kjolen Mountains, Hell did not get its name from the amount of rain there. Hell also means “luck” in Norwegian. More likely, the town’s name came from some overhanging cliffs in the area (Hellir, in old Norse).
It is interesting to see the attachment that English speakers have to a place named “Hell”. Although the town is only a small bedroom community of the larger city of Trondheim, many English speakers go out of their way to visit Hell and have a picture taken there. I myself am guilty. Even Trip Advisor has a web page titled “Best things to do in Hell”. Monica Grudt, who was Miss Norway and Miss Universe in 1990, came from this area. She advertised herself as “A Beauty Queen from Hell”, which got her a lot of notoriety.
Next to the downtown Train station is a building that houses a business that handles Freight. The sign reads Gods Expedition, which translates as “Goods Handling” or “Cargo Service”. Again, many English speakers read this sign through their own cultural lens and think it has something to do with good versus evil in this locale.
We passed through Hell in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t see any children around, even though pop star Pat Benetar had a hit song titled, “Hell is for Children”.
Hell is not confined to the country of Norway. There is a Hell, Netherlands and a Hell, Michigan. Hell, Netherlands is in southern Holland. It is only 12 miles from Baarle-Nassau, where I visited the strangest international border configuration back in 2014. Had I known at the time that I was so close to Hell, I would have gone out of my way to visit there. It is located at 51.5 degrees North latitude, so I expect is does freeze over there too, at least on a seasonal basis.
While the word Hell in foreign countries may have an etymology based on their own languages, the one in Michigan certainly exploits that name as an invitation to tourists for economic benefit. I’ve never physically been there, but I recently traveled through the town via Google Earth. It’s only 16 miles west of Ann Arbor. Patterson Lake Road is the main drag through “town”, which consists of only a few buildings. It is an asphalt road. Dirt roads, such as Silver Lake Road intersect the main road. I guess you can say that since Patterson Lake Road is the only way into town from somewhere else, then the road to Hell was paved with good intentions.
The three main businesses I saw were the Hell Hole bar and Grill, the Screams from Hell souvenir shop, and the Hell saloon, which looked like a biker bar due to the amount of Harley-Davidsons parked outside. The souvenir shop also has an ice cream bar, which they call the “Creamatory”.
There is further evidence that Hell, Michigan is milking its name for all it’s worth. The post office there will burn and singe your postcards mailed from there. The motto of the unincorporated community is that “more people tell you to go to our town than anywhere else on earth”. You can even get a certificate for purchasing a piece of Hell by investing in a 1 inch square plot of real estate. A Canoe and Kayak rental business in a nearby town advertises that you can rent one of their boats and “Paddle through Hell” on a chain of nearby lakes. Somehow, that image doesn’t appeal to me.
Why the fascination with places called Hell? Many religions have the same concept of the afterlife which includes a Heaven and a Hell. In a 1982 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, authors Skog and Stuart outlined a couple of reasons that the Church reinforced these concepts. One was to encourage members to engage in valuable social behavior….the social contract. The other possible reason was for the expropriation of rents for the Church. Those who gave were rewarded and those who didn’t were punished.
I’m sure there are more people who go out of their way to visit “devilish” places than Angelic ones. Look at the many other “devilish’ place names that attract tourists. In Oregon we have the Devil’s Punch Bowl on the Coast. California has Devil’s Postpile National Monument and the Devil’s Golf Course among many others. I paddled through the “Devil’s Elbow” on the Chestatee River in North Georgia several years ago. Also, one of the more famous landforms of the West is Devil’s Tower in Northeast Wyoming.
Other morbid place names include Hell for Certain, Kentucky and Satan’s Kingdom State Recreation Area in Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, the road signs for the Connecticut Park are often stolen. Then, there’s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. Arizona has Tombstone and Skull Valley. If you look at any map of the Western United States you would see dozens of places named for the Devil. According to Wallace Stegner, “the Devil had a good deal to do with the making of the West” if you were to take the evidence of Place Names on the map into account. This probably had to do with the dry and harsh environment that settlers had to navigate through. I’m sure that some of these places didn’t freeze over very often.
Go look at some maps and study like Hell to find as many places as you can!