In their exhaustive survey of human civilization, historian Will Durant and his wife Ariel introduce many topics, including some that touch upon matters of interest to the writer of horror fiction, such as hell. This post provides a brief summary of the points that Will Durant (not yet joined in his venture by his wife) makes concerning this rather otherworldly theme in Volume II, The Life of Greece, of The Story of Civilization.
- According to Greek myth, once they’d died and taken up residence in Hades, kings became judges of the dead.
- Tantalus was damned to Hades by Zeus for a series of offenses which includes having stolen the drink and the food of the gods, nectar and ambrosia , respectively, and attempting to serve his own son, Pelops, boiled and sliced, to the gods. His punishments fit his crimes. Forced to stand forever in a lake, the water drew back from him whenever he tried to slake his thirst and the fruits growing from the vines over his head retreated from his grasp. Moreover, a boulder, suspended above him, threatened at any moment to fall upon him.
- One of Hercules’ twelve labors was to descend into Hades and rescue Theseus and Ascalaphus from the torment that these heroes suffered there. In some ways, Hercules is a forerunner to Christ, for he “is the beloved son of a god who suffers for mankind, raises the dead to life, descends into Hades, and then ascends into heaven.”
- Men can enter Hades through a land of eternal darkness that forms a sort of vestibule to the underworld. Using this gateway, Odysseus entered Hades, where he conversed with the shades of Agamemnon, Achilles, and his mother. Hades, or “Hell,” could be also be reached “through southern Epirus,” by way of “the river Acheron,” which “flowed. . . amid ravines so dark and deep that Greek poets spoke of it as the portal or very scene of Hell.”
- Zeus’ brother Pluto ruled Hades. He once complained to his brother that the god Asclepius cured so many of the sick that the underworld wasn’t being populated as well as it once had been, whereupon, lest the gods be inconvenienced by a population explosion among mortals, Zeus slew Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
- According to the Durants, Pythagoras taught that, following the death of the body, “the soul undergoes a period of purgation in Hades; then it returns to earth and enters a new body in a chain of transmigration that can be ended only by a completely virtuous life.”
- Pluto’s kidnapping of Persephone and his later agreement to allow her to split her time between Hades and earth is understood to represent “the annual death and rebirth of the soil.”
- The gods of the underworld were “the most terrible” and were not so much worshiped as appeased.
- According to the hymns and rituals associated with the hero Orpheus, after death, the soul, as a shade, is judged in Hades, after which, depending upon the tradition consulted, the shade undergoes eternal punishment; the transmigrated soul of the dead is reborn repeatedly until it attains moral perfection, whereupon it is admitted to the Isles of the Blessed; or the dead or his friends may gain his release from punishment by performing acts of penance.
- Although notions of an abode for the blessed dead appeared in Greek myth, mention of such places--the Isle of the Blessed Dead or the Elysian Fields--were relatively rare and those who enjoyed their existence in them were few; the bast majority of the departed lived a shadowy existence as wanderers within the gloomy subterranean world of Hades, where the guilty suffered and the others merely existed as shadows of their former, earthly selves.
- Socrates planned to continue his earthly mission as a gadfly in Hades, questioning the dead to see which, if any, of the shades had attained wisdom and helping to enlighten those who, even in death, remained foolish and ignorant.
What can we learn from this part of the survey of the ideas of the afterlife and the underworlds? We see that the ancient Greek idea of Hades, as the abode of the dead, included both judgment and punishment. The themes of purgation and reincarnation are part of the Greek concept of the hereafter. The deities of the underworld may have been the precursors to Jewish and Christian demons, the fierce, feared denizens of the pit. Atonement as a means of righting a wrong is seen in Zeus’ transformation of Orpheus’ lyre into a constellation to expiate the wrong done to Orpheus. In Orphic hymns and rituals, ideas such as eternal punishment, or hell, reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul, and purgatory and the selling of indulgences all have predecessors or parallels to similar doctrines of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It seems that, in Greek myth, people, in death, are pretty much the same way as they were in life. Socrates, a gadfly during his living days, intends to be one in Hades as well, testing the wisdom of the shades therein. Jewish, Christian, Norse, and perhaps even Eastern religious concepts of the afterlife, of posthumous judgment, of hell as a place of torment, of purgatory, of atonement, of resurrection, of heaven, and the afterlife seem to stem, in part, from the Greek conceptions of these states and places.