A Comparison-Contrast of Christian
and Pre-Christian Pagan Views of the Underworld
For most people, religious beliefs color virtually the entire concept of the Underworld. This fact is blatantly obvious when comparing the Christian view of the underworld as seen Dante's Inferno with the pre-Christian pagan viewpoint shown in the ancient Sumarian piece, The Descent of Inanna. In both stories, the Underworld is seen as a dark place where formerly important items or parts of a person are sacrificed in order to descend into the underworld itself. However, there are marked differences between these religious versions of the underworld, such as in Dante's Christian tale the underworld is Hell - a bad place to be and the choice of afterlife that a person does not want. On the other hand, in the much earlier pagan piece about Inanna the Underworld is neither the bad nor good place to be after one dies, it is the only place. The underworld is the afterlife, not just one section.
In the Christian view of the underworld that Dante presented in Inferno, being in Hell is the ultimate separation from God. Since, in the Christian mythos, God is light, a separation from God would make the environment one is in very dark indeed. "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." I John 1:5 (KJV)
In the earlier pagan Underworld presented in Inanna, the Underworld is literally under the world, and consequently is hidden from the sun - the major source of light at the time. Without sunlight, any place would be exceedingly dark. Both views of the Underworld are dark, but each for different reasons.
Similarly, in Dante's Inferno, the further one descends into Hell, the more one must give up. In the topmost layer of Hell, Limbo, one has only given up life - no personal comfort has yet been taken. The further down one goes into Hell, the more personal physical comfort is robbed, beginning with such annoyances as being blown about by gale-force winds, and progressing clear down to being frozen in ice and being devoured by Satan himself.
Sacrifice is a big part of the descent into the Underworld in Inanna as well, though it is more emotional and psychological comfort being sacrificed than it is physical. At each of the gates of the Underworld, Inanna must sacrifice some item or symbol of her strength and power, until she is finally left naked and powerless before her sister, the Queen of the Underworld. Each sacrifice of a symbol of power makes Inanna weaker and she knows this, thus stealing away a bit more of her personal psychological comfort.
The largest difference between Dante's Hell and Inanna's Underworld is the fact that the Christian Hell presented in the Inferno is just one of three possible places to spend the entirety of one's afterlife, and is by far the least desirable choice. The Christian Hell is for those with no hope of salvation - those who will never know the light that is God and are thus condemned forever to darkness and suffering. Hell, in Dante's Christian mind, was a place of absolute hopelessness, shown by the inscription above the gates of Hell, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." (Dante, pg. 1318)
In contrast, Inanna's Underworld is not the least desirable place to spend eternity; it is the only place. In the pre-Christian Sumerian culture, good and evil were not separated to the Great Above and the Great Below, but coexisted in both. (Inanna pg. 22 - 23) The Underworld was not a place of no hope, but a place of rest, albeit a somewhat dark and depressing rest.
Pre-Christian pagan views of the Underworld and the afterlife varied greatly from the later Christian visions of Hell, though some similarities remained. While the Christian view of Hell as a place of ultimate torment, suffering, and hopelessness is a stark contrast to the pre-Christian idea of a restful afterlife free from such torments, both visions of the Underworld include elements of darkness and a sacrifice that accompanies the journey downward.
The Bible, [King James Version] 30 February 2001 <http://www.thebible.com>
The Descent of Inanna Trans. Kramer, Samuel Noah. The World of Literature Ed. Westling, Durrant, et al. New Jersey: Prentice Hall; 1999 pg. 22 - 37
Dante, Alighieri: Inferno. Trans. Pinsky, Robert. The World of Literature Ed. Westling, Durrant, et al. New Jersey: Prentice Hall; 1999 pg. 1310 - 1344