Fascinating lists!

Friday, January 11, 2008

A History of Hell, Part I

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


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.

1 comment:

GraceHead said...

NO SUCH HELL
proof
http://gracehead.com/index.php/2007/10/28/p287
the myth
http://gracehead.com/index.php/2006/03/01/p258
God, hates "hell"
http://trumpetcallofgodonline.com/index.php5?title=Proclaim_NOT_the_Hell_of_the_Church_of_Men...In_Their_Word_is_No_Mercy_Found%2C_Only_the_Makings_of_Satan

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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