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 IV, The Age of Faith, of The Story of Civilization:
- Al Ghazali claimed that theists considered heaven and hell to be “spiritual conditions only,” rather than actual places.
- The Sufi Moslems held that hell is but temporary and that, ultimately, salvation is universal.
- Arab descriptions served as part of the basis for Dante’s vision of hell in The Divine Comedy.
- For their inspiration for hell, the Hebrews referred to He Hinnom or Sheol, a valley in which rubbish heaps were continuously ablaze to prevent the spread of disease. Sheol, Durant observes, “was conceived of as a subterranean region of darkness that received all the dead.” The Hebrew hell consisted of seven stories , “with graduated degrees of torment.” It was a place of temporary torment for all but adulterers, those who shamed others publicly, and those who slandered or libeled others.
- Irishman Johannes Scotus Eringena believed that heaven and hell were spiritual conditions, not physical locations.
- Pope Gregory the Great held that hell is a physical place, wherein fire eternally burns the damned, tormenting them without destroying them; their suffering is increased, he maintained, by their being made to witness the torment of any of their loved ones who have also been damned and by their despair at ever being liberated or delivered from their suffering.
- Durant says that medieval Catholic men and women “hoped vaguely for heaven, but vividly feared hell.” The Bulgarian king, Boris, was converted, it is said, by seeing a mural of hell that an artist painted upon his palace wall. Mystics claimed to have visions in which they saw the “geography of hell.” Satan, chained upon “a burning gridiron,” was alleged to snatch suffering sinners and crush them in his teeth, swallowing “them down his burning throat,” as “assistant demons with hooks of iron plunged the damned alternately into fire or icy water, or hung them up by the tongue, or sliced them with a saw, or beat them flat on an anvil, or boiled them or strained them through a cloth.” A sumptuous stench permeated the damned and their environs, and the flames gave no light, the darkness adding to the terror and the suffering of the damned. Christ was feared in his aspect of the judge of the living and the dead, for he could send or deliver the souls of the dead to eternal bliss or to everlasting damnation. “The devil,” Durant points out, “was no figure of speech but a life and blood reality, prowling about everywhere, suggesting temptations and creating all kinds of evil.” He was also quite the ladies’ man, fathering monstrous children, one of whom is alleged to have had “a wolf’s head and a scorpion’s tail.” His many assistants also tempted people and liked to lie with women as incubi, or sex demons. Although the people feared the greater demons, “a saving sense of humor saved this demonology, and most healthy males looked upon the little devils rather as poltergeist mischief-makers than as objects of terror,” and one exhausted demon, resting “on a head of lettuce. . . was inadvertently eaten by a nun.” Limbo was introduced as the abode of the unapprised infant, although St. Augustine had believed that they also went to hell. There was debate as to whether more souls would be saved and go to heaven or more souls would be damned and go to hell, and Moslems believed most Christians would go to hell, while Christians believed the opposite. No soul could be saved, the Roman Catholic Church contended, except through itself. Volcanoes were assumed to be “the mouths of hell,” and “their rumbling was a faint echo of the moans of the damned.” According to Pope Gregory, “the crater of Etna was daily widening to receive the enormous number of souls that were fated to be damned.” Pope Gregory IX held as heretical Raymond Lully’s assertion that the greatness of Christ’s love ensured the salvation, rather than the damnation, of the vast majority of souls. “The last moment of life” was considered to be “decisive for all eternity,” which added to the terror of life that many felt. Purgatory offered slight hope to the living. According to a legend, St. Patrick had a great pit dug, into which monks descended; “some returned. . . And described purgatory and hell with discouraging vividness.” Many other travelogues of hell also existed. As Durant notes, “Apocalyptic literature describing tours or visions of heaven or hell abounded in Judaism and Christianity,” and priests, such as Peter Damian, delivered “fiery sermons on the pains of hell.” Nevertheless, some challenged these doctrines of the faith--and, indeed, the faith itself, asking, for example, why God should have created the devil if he’d known in advance that the devil would sin and fall, whether a just and loving God could “punish finite sin with infinite pain,” and whether hell-fire would not at some point render the damned insensitive to its pain.
- The doctrine of original sin was a theological attempt to account for “the biological theory of primitive instincts” and “the preaching of this doctrine” led to a diminishing of the “fear of hell. . . till the Reformation,” when it was “to reappear with fresh terror among the Puritans.”
- St. Anselm said that only the “infinite atonement” of Christ could atone for the “infinite offense” of Adam and Eve, their sin being “infinite” because it had been directed “against an infinite being,” God. Therefore, only “the death of God become man could ransom humanity from Satan and hell. . . . and restore the moral balance of the world.”
- For medieval people, “the earth was the chosen home of Christ, and the shell of hell, and weather was the whim of God.”
- Roger Bacon endorsed the study and use of mathematics because this subject “should aid us in ascertaining the position of paradise and hell.”
- Dante used many Arab sources as inspirations for his descriptions of hell, including the Koran, “the story of Mohammed’s trip to heaven and hell in Abu-l-Ala a;-Ma’arri’s Irisalat al-Ghufran. . . . and Ibn Arabi’s Futubat.
- The hell of Dante’s Inferno is entered through an opening in the earth near a forest. The opening leads to the gates of hell, where an inscription reads, in part, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” In the poem, “hell is a subterranean funnel, reaching down to the center of the earth,” imagined by the poet as featuring “dark and frightening abysses between gigantic murky rocks; steaming, stinking marshes, torrents, lakes, and streams; storms of rain, snow, hail, and brands of fire; howling winds and petrifying cold; tortured bodies, grimacing faces, blood-stilling shrieks and groans.” The funnel leads through nine levels. Nearer the surface, the lesser sinners reside, whereas the greater sinners dwell at the lower levels. At the lowest level, the ninth circle of hell, traitors are housed, and, at the lowest of all points, “Lucifer lies buried to the waist in ice, flapping enormous wings from his shoulders, weeping icy tears of blood from the three faces that divide his head, and chewing a traitors in each of three jaws--Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.” Dante included actual people among the damned, including, in addition to popes. His Divine Comedy also describes purgatory and heaven, or paradise.
What can we learn from this part of the survey of the ideas of the afterlife and the underworlds? Many sources have formed the idea of hell, including mythological, pagan, Jewish, and Christian ones.
For the first time, the idea is formed that hell may signify a spiritual condition, rather than a literal place. Theology seems to be losing out to psychology as an explanation of human behavior.
The idea that hell is permanent and eternal rubs some the wrong way, and the doctrine of universal salvation appears, both in Moslem and Christian faith, only to be condemned in Roman Catholicism as heretical. However, Limbo is allowed for unapprised infants, to spare their innocent souls from hell. For those who maintain faith in the existence of an actual, physical hell, the torment of the damned becomes more extreme, the imagination supplying many details as to the nature and effects of the suffering that the lost souls must endure there, forever, as if the catalogue of horrors somehow ensures their reality and, therefore, the reality of the hell in which they occur.
Many write of their supposed journeys to heaven and hell, as if they are reporting trips to foreign lands. Locating heaven and hell becomes a motive for the study of science and mathematics.
Satan and the lesser demons are believed to be incarnate and to be able, in fact, to have sexual relations with women, as incubi (and with men, as succubi). Lesser demons are considered mischievous rather than malignant.
Churchmen argue whether more souls will be saved or damned, with more supporting the latter over the former view.
Dante’s Inferno, borrowing from many earlier sources, Christian and otherwise, offers the most detailed geography of hell, populating it with both imaginary and actual historical figures, including popes, suggesting that hell is a real place to which anyone, including leaders of the church itself, may be tormented in a variety of real and agonizing ways.
Today, the imagining of hell continues in sermons and in books written by people who claim to have undergone near-death experiences, and the debate continues as well as to whether a literal hell exists or, whether, for that matter, literal demons live and stalk the earth.
Those who appear as damned in literary texts represent the values of the society or the poet or other writer in whose work the damned appear, for the values of the lost souls are the values that are rejected by these creators of hell. Therefore, hell can be thought of, in the Jungian sense, as representing a psychic reservoir, akin to the universal mind, in which humanity’s collective shadow archetype lives, in bits and pieces, disguised as this or that individual or type of person. For example, in Dante’s hell, from least (closest to the surface) to the greatest (farthest down), these are the damned; whose values represent the opposites of those embraced by the poet himself:
- Unbaptized infants
- Greedy and wasteful
- Wrathful and sullen
Plus, did anyone notice the historical references to "mouths of hell"? Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, apparently did, because at least two are mentioned in his television series, one of which was located beneath the Sunnydale High School library (or, in the high school later built on the same site, the principal's office)!