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A Brief History of Hell


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In order that the happiness of the saints [in heaven] may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned [in hell].

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

The invisibility of the ground beneath our feet has led to many wild speculations about its nature, including ancient myths of a subterranean realm where you went when you died. The oldest of these have everyone ending up down there after death, while later beliefs limit inhabitants of the underground world to those who had led wicked lives. Today, most Americans are in no doubt: a survey taken by Baylor University in 2007 reports 53 percent of their respondents "absolutely" believe in hell, while another 20 percent rate its existence "probable."

Starting with what is arguably the oldest surviving work of literature, the 5,000-year-old Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it's pretty obvious that those who dwell in the underworld are not happy campers. For instance, Gilgamesh's BFF Enkidu has a terrifying dream portending his own death and subsequent journey down to "... the house of darkness ... the house where one who goes in never comes out again; the road that, if one takes it, one never comes back; the house that, if one lives there, one never sees light; the place where they live on dust, their food is mud." No cable, either.

Hades, predecessor of the Christian Hell, was originally the name given to the god who ruled the "infernal regions." That god later became Pluto, a tougher character, one suspects, than Disney's canine goofball. Hades was a real place for the ancients. Two thousand years ago, the Roman writer Virgil assured his readers that its entrance was near Mount Vesuvius, where "the whole country is cleft with chasms, from which sulfurous flames arise, while the ground is shaken with pent-up vapors, and mysterious sounds issue from the bowels of the earth."

Hades was a place of perpetual torment and frustration. Crafty Sisyphus, for instance, was forced to eternally push a huge boulder up a hill (it kept rolling back down) as punishment for trying to outsmart Zeus. Meanwhile Tantalus (whence our word tantalize) was damned to eternal thirst and hunger: Every time he bent down to drink, the water in which he stood receded, and when he reached for fruit above him it pulled away.

Where Hades was cold and dark, Hell was hot and bright with flaming brimstone, that is, sulfur. As portrayed in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, it's the final dwelling place of the dead after they've been condemned at the Last Judgment. The traditional Christian notion of Hell stems from the Jewish myth in which ancient Jerusalem's city dump, Ge (valley) Hinnom, is transformed into the fiery Gehenna. From there it was but a short step to the blazing domain of Satan and his evil angels, portrayed vividly by such artists as Hieronymus Bosch, William Blake and Gustav Doré, in which it looks like one hell of a place.

Barry Evans ( still prefers hell to heaven -- those damn harps, you know.


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