Or, A Heck of a Place!
Ask enough people, and one or more will eventually tell you you're going to languish in some version of it for some amount of time, ranging from a few weeks to all of eternity.
So you'd better bring something to read.
Notions of "Hell" are global; almost every faith and culture has somewhere to send its malcontents and sinners in the afterlife, such as it is. Images of Hell abound in literature, film, every storytelling medium ever devised by anyone who thought there was a cosmic force to get on the wrong side of--indicating the awesome presence that divine or spiritual correction maintains in the human consciousness.
What will follow here is an attempt to go over (quite briefly) the most prevalent of the varieties of Hell, with references to other very excellent writeups, and a heavy leaning on western culture (typical!), as it is Christianity which has really popularized Hell in its current manifestation. There will also be some hopefully entertaining miscellanies.
*Warning* I am not a particularly religious person, so you may find my tone somewhat flip given the subject matter. I mean no offense. Nor am I necessarily culturally aware--if any of the information that follows is grossly inaccurate or incomplete, please let me know.
And whatever you make of it, don't worry--it'll all get sorted out in the end.
There Was the Word
"Hell" came down through the Old English, hel, which had the same origin and retained much of the meaning of the Old Norse hel (more on that later). The Indo-European root is kel-, meaning "to cover" or "conceal," creating Hell a covered or hidden place, as well it should be.
First Things First
Historians--for what those types are worth--claim that one of the first faiths to include eternal damnation, an evil overlord, etc., was Daena Vanuhi, adjusted in the 18th Century to Zoroastrianism. A monotheistic religion (refer all prayers to Ahura Mazda), its main proponent spoke of bad souls failing to make it across the Chinvato Peretu, the Bridge of Swords, and plummeting to the dominion of the Evil One. There would be a day of judgment at the end, followed by a planet-wide bath of molten metal.
Thus spake Zarathustra, about 4000 years ago in what is now Iran.
The Polytheistic Mythologies
Your famous old civilizations all had their own particular explanations of where the soul went post mortem. Take a look at the writings of Dem Bones; he's gone above and beyond. I'm only going to cover some of the better known.
The commonly held concept of either up or down has been around for some time, as has the idea of a journey. Always keep your eyes open for similarities between myths, and with modern concepts as well. Chances are, your radical ideas about Hell have already occurred to others.
Egyptian: The Egyptians were all about the Underworld, known variously as:
Your ka's appointment with Osiris would take place at what was occasionally known as Abtu, the seat from where he rendered judgement and sent you on your hopefully merry way. In order to get there, however, you had to pass through a horrible area full of poisonous snakes, demons, boiling lakes and burning fires. Those last bits should sound familiar. These were intended as trials to test the virtue of your soul, and were capped off by the weighing of the heart against all its sins on a scale Osiris may or may not have had his thumb on.
Pass the test, you went on to rejoin your friends. Fail, and the Devourer--part crocodile, part hippo, part lion--had your heart for a snack, and your essence vanished forever.
- Aztec: Nine underworlds in the Aztec construction, the lowest being Mictlan, under the jurisdiction of Mictalntechupi and Mictlancihuntl. No suffering here, per se, for those who didn't merit greater rewards in the afterlife, but a rather long and boring wait before rebirth.
One of the "try again" doctrines.
Greek: The Greeks had an Underworld system of their own, but instead of fighting its way to it, your soul had to pay the ferryman, Charon, to take it across the river Styx. Judgement there was undertaken by Aeacus, Rhadamanthus, and Minos, who if they so deemed might send you to Tartarus--the area of the Underworld set aside for the condemned and run by the god Hades. He was no pleasant figure by any stretch, and set upon damned souls with little mercy.
This is a "true" hell in the modern context in as much as the spheres of good and evil are separated following judgment, with the understanding of eternal suffering thrown in to boot. Your soul didn't just get to bow out if it received low marks.
Roman: Cut and Paste Afterlives WILL DIE. The Romans played the same game as the Greeks with a few different names and characters, and only slight reorganization. Pluto (or Dis) reigned over both sections of Underworld, assisted by the infamous Cerberus of three heads. Charon, Styx, the judges, these were the same folks.
Damnation here was not necessarily eternal--you served your sentence in Tartarus according to the severity of your crimes, then went on to greener pastures.
Norse: Didn't die in battle? An oath breaker or murderer? Check out this brochure for Helheim, the "House of Hel," Hel being the exceedingly unpleasant daughter of Loki and Angrboda. Located in Niflheim, lowest of the Norse levels of the universe, at its gates you will be greeted by Garm, a hound, and invited to visit Helheim's beautiful water feature, the impassable river Gjoll encircling the grounds. You will be staying in Nastrand, the Shore of Corpses, with ceilings and doors of hissing, spitting snakes.
Don't expect visitors; no one who went in came out again, gods included. Did I mention it's absolutely freezing down here?
And that's just a few of them, there are countless others. Extremes of temperature, snakes, rivers, and dogs seems to be fairly common elements in Hell, along with judgement, wonderful, wonderful judgement.
Oh, For God's Sake
Precisely. Now a breakdown of Hell by some of the world's currently best-known religions. Why divide 'religion' from the ancient civilizations listed above? Because nowadays you're more likely to meet someone taking orders from Allah or Buddha than Zeus or Xtoepelopochaetl.
Buddhism: Check out Cornelius Scarecrow's writeup, first of all--I'll just say there are levels of punishment depending on sin, and terms of sentence doled out accordingly. As CS tells it, murderers get off with only 500 years, whereas liars get hit with 8000. The Lotus Sutra describes an "Avici hell," and the Sutta Nipata indicates that nefarious characters face boiling in worm-infested water, jungles of swords, streams of water that cut like razors, and being chewed upon by all manner of nasty animals.
Committing any one of the Five Violations (parricide, matricide, murder of an arhant, disturbing the peace in monastic community, and drawing blood from a Buddha) get you a non-stop ticket, as will disparaging comments against Buddha's teachings. This last gets you a double dose of uninterrupted torment.
Happily, this suffering is not eternal, though it can go on as long as the soul fails to break out of the cycle, traveling from one Hell to another. Buddhists believe in multiple planes and manifestations of it.
Most of you will be familiar with the notion of reincarnation. All beings will eventually be enlightened, it's just going to take some longer than others. Karma, man. Karma.
- Hinduism: Again, punishment isn't eternal, but there are some interesting ways to land in Hindu hell, known as Yamalok, outlined by the Bhagavad Gita. Lord Yama is your host and judge--the figure with the notebook is Chitragupt, who will be reading off a list of your earthly deeds for purposes of judgment. Sins can be inherited father to son--that bit may ring a bell--but women, in some versions, are washed clean of their sins by the menstrual cycle. Finally, a plus side.
This doesn't have be the only plane you exist on in the afterlife--the goal isn't punishment, it's education. The syllabus for this course, found in the Garuda Purana, includes: being chopped into pieces by axes, burnt with torches, buried in pits, boiled in butter and oil, thrown into the path of trampling elephants, thrown off of cliffs, thrown into wells, with extra credit in being worm-eaten and having your head pierced with arrows.
*Note* Rules may vary depending on practice. There are over three million gods in the Hindu religion--hopefully they don't all go to same parties.
- Islam: We are now approaching a much more familiar version of Hell. Interpretations vary somewhat, as they do. One version of hell is known as Jahannum, which almost all Muslims are obliged to trek through regardless of lifestyle. Death on the battlefield--again, according to interpretation--gets you out of this leg of the trip. It's more purgatory than permanent--check out sura 19:72.
The real nastiness is for unbelievers. This bit is eternal, no escape, and unsavory descriptions abound. The word Gehenna appears, an ancient Hebrew term for hell in the Jewish faith--wait for it--but there the similarity ends. The Islamic hell for infidels is a lot closer to the Christian regimen. Beneath the gates to hell, from which it would take a rock thrown over the side over seventy days to hit bottom, the Qu'ran (Quran, Koran...) speaks of a toasty fire reffered to as al-nar, laza, al-hutamah, sair, or saquar. The area comes complete with the expected tortures: scorpions, snakes, boiling, head-crushing, and so on.
True Muslims will all eventually get to Paradise.
- Judaism: Right. The common conception is that Judaism contains no provision at all for any kind of Hell. Not so. It really depends on which rabbi you ask. The Torah isn't specific; it leaves plenty of room for interpretation, hence, as with many other religions, its fractious elements. But some sort of afterlife is generally agreed upon, and more often than not the ugly end of it is called Gehenna, or Gehinnom.
It is also called She'ol, though this is less an actual place than state of being, in death.
As thecarp writes above, Hell (the word) may have originated with a pit of burning rubbish outside Jerusalem. The pit may actually have been a valley to the south of the Temple, the Valley of Hinnom, where perpetual fires burned and idols were built to honor Molech, a Canaanite god. The area naturally became associated with godly judgment and all things hellish--flames and a thoroughly unrighteous stench.
The more metaphysical counterpart can include your basic fire and brimstone, but is typically thought of as kareit, being "cut off" from "your people." This in turn is perceived as cut off from God, cut off from The World to Come, or cut off from the memories of those you left behind, who choose to forget you, rotten bastard that you were.
"Hell" here is Satan-free, though some of Judaism's mystic elements maintain that each sin committed in life creates a demon for you to deal with later. Failing that, Gehenna is a gray room where your soul is sent to think about what it's done. Remorse of conscience is the worst of it, which is probably more than enough.
The Talmud puts a twelve-month limit on your stay, after which you go on to Olam Ha-Ba, a not-as-cloudy nor as angel-filled kind of heaven. But if you're particularly undeserving, your soul remains permanently grounded, or is destroyed outright.
- Christianity: Why break from alphabetical order now? Because the Christians have over the years really come up with some marvelously horrific things for your soul should it fail to merit heaven. Most of you will be very familiar with the basic concepts here--though the Catholic v. Protestant disputes have made some things rather confusing. A thorough explication of the Christian Hell calls for a sturdier will than mine--I'll do what I can.
Catholic? These are your options:
- Limbus Parvulorum: Limbo of the Infants. For those who died with nothing but Original Sin on their shoulders.
- Limbus Patrum: Limbo of the Fathers. Heaven's green room for those who died before Christ came along. Does not apply to you.
- Purgatory: Have some outstanding spiritual debt? A few venial sins here and there? You'll get cleansed of them here, but not in a lavendar and chamomile kind of way. Then a change of clothes and entrance to heaven.
- Damnation: The right old thing proper. Damnation is total, infinite, and brought down upon your soul through your unrepentance. The pitchforks, the tattered clothing, and the heat, my god, the heat! Pretty much the worst you can imagine, only infinitely moreso, as you are just a tiny-minded mortal.
You Protest? Lots of different churches believe lots of different things. For example:
- Hell as eternal punishment, or not
- Hell as torture and pain, or "just" the painful separation from God
- Hell as a physical locality, or a state of being, or both
This much is for certain--there's no purgatory and no limbo. And for your more stringent Protestants, the way you live your life has bugger all to do with your shot at eternal bliss. It all comes down to belief. Justification by faith alone. Haven't accepted Jesus as your savior and repented of your sins? Haven't been saved by belief? Down you go.
Looking to the Bible for descriptions of the Christian Hell won't yield much, or at least, not much that's very well told. We owe the best part of our ideas about the place to other works of literature. Top two for your lesson in geography:
- Paradise Lost, by John Milton. His lasting and pervasive vision of perdition comes complete with an infamous lake of fire, and the now oft-forgotten demonic dormitory, Pandaemonium. The structure housed the fallen Lucifer and his cronies only after they put it up--hell, created especially for his vanquished army, was only unimproved real estate when they plummeted to it. One would say it is a place of shadows, but there isn't any light to cast them--the flames (oh, there are flames) give off terrible heat, but no light, light being a comfort and hence a no-no. You can't see your hand being chopped off in front of your face. Not that you would--his story is before the doors opened for humans.
- The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. Nine levels of hell, ordered as a downward-pointing cone, every circle a different category of sinner. Bottom floor is Satan, flapping his wings in an ice-world, hell frozen over. Have a gander at Gustav Dore's illustrations: plenty of beasties, melty people, and figures holding out their heads to have a better look at you. Where Milton gives the traditional layout of the grounds, Dante has designed the activities centers.
A few other views I've come across worth reading are:
There are thousands of others; these are just my personal favorites.
Now for a bit of fun. If you've become bored by this--can't say I blame you--stop reading. It gets silly after this.
Such Things We Say!:
- The Journalistic Six-Who the Hell? What the Hell? When the Hell? Where the Hell? How the Hell? and Why the Hell?--all used frequently.
- Go to Hell
- Shut the hell up
- Bloody hell!
- Burn in hell
- HELL yes!
- A hell of a thing
- HELL no!
- Not a chance in hell
- Not a snowball's chance in hell (non-Dante, presumably)
- Hotter than hell
- Cold as hell
- Come hell or high water
- Catch hell
- Give'em hell
- War is Hell
- Hell on earth
- Helluva (dutchess)
- Hell's bells
- For the hell of it
- Bat out of Hell
- Hell to pay (dutchess)
- A living hell
- A cold day in hell
- When hell freezes over
- Going to hell in a handbasket (exceptinsects)
- Eat a bag of Hell (Walter)
- Hell if I know (MALTP)
- To hell and back (MALTP)
- hella (Cletus_the_Foetus)
- Like hell it is! (Cletus_the_Foetus)
- Aw, hell (imagined with Southern Drawl, according to Andrew Aguecheek)
Et cetera, et cetera. /msg me your contributions, if you have any.
And That'll Do, Really
This is by no means a definitive writeup, plenty remains to be said on the subject of Hell. It's a very complicated subject with deliciously intricate details and interesting cross-cultural implications. This has been intended merely as a brief reference guide.
See you there. Maybe.
The King James Bible