Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

Last post, I mentioned the 1826 poem about Hell and Satan by Alfred de Vigny, an accomplished 19th century French poet and writer who has since been almost utterly forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world. Sic friat crustulum (which should be my family motto, but it’s actually “In Candore Decus”).

Since I can’t find a translation of Vigny’s poem online to comment on, I leave him to read about Elucidarium, a book by the 12th century Honorious of Autun (aka Honorious Augustodunensis). Wikipedia says it was complete by 1098 CE, a minor, but annoying difference in dating.

Boy, am I glad my parents didn’t call me that. Honorious wrote a rather comprehensive geography of Hell that became the equivalent of a bestseller in the days when every book was laboriously copied by a flunky’s hand in some dim, candle-lit room. Apparently the Elucidarium was very influential in developing later Christian notions of Hell. It actually covers much more than the eschatological stuff, and sounds positively dreary.

What surprises me about the book is that Honorious doesn’t seem to have gotten his vision of Hell from some dream or near-death experience like Drithelm and so many others did, but rather just dragged it from his imagination. I bet today he’d be writing scripts for David Cronenberg or Wes Craven. Or maybe Roger Corman. Some of the descriptions are a bit cheesy.

In quick succession we find four Sumerian-Babylonian references: Enkidu, GIlgamesh’s companion; Enlil, the god who was banished to the underworld for raping the goddess Ninlil; Ennuki, chthonic Babylonian deities, and Ereshkigal, Sumerian mistress of death and rulers of the land, Aralu, or the “place of no return.” Curious how the earliest civilizations still have an impact on our thinking, millennia later. Yet I wonder how many people say “Damn you to Aralu,” today.

Don’t you love the word “chthonic”? How often do you get to use that word in a sentence? It’s not like you can be sitting on the couch watching the hockey game and say to your buddies, “Boy that was some chthonic save!” Or go out for a beer after work and complain about what a “chthonic day” you had at the office. Or complain about those chthonic bloggers whining about council again.

Chthonic, as Turner tells us in a previous chapter, means “relating to the gods of the underworld.” Well, more specifically it actually means “subterranean” and has particular reference to Ancient Greek deities and practices. But for anyone who has ever read H. P. Lovecraft, it’s sure a lot like his Old Ones, the Cthulhu mythos. Turner doesn’t mention Cthulhu, so back to the letter E.

Eurydice, we’re told, was the wife of Orpheus and the pair of them are the protagonists in a dark morality tale about how you have to obey the gods no matter what your mortal suspicions are, because they’re sleazy, tricky and vengeful. Pretty much the same lesson most religions have, but seldom in such a tragic tale that could be made into an opera a couple of millennia later. In fact the Greek story has inspired hundreds of poems, plays and musicals since its first telling.

Orpheus’s wife dies when fleeing a would-be rapist. The heartbroken hero travels to the underworld to try to get her back. He faces all sorts of challenges and threats before he reaches the throne room of Pluto, king of the underworld. His story, and a sad song he composes for Pluto and Persephone, convince them to let him have Eurydice back. Just one condition (Cue the Annie Lennox song, Who’s That Girl…). Orpheus can’t turn around as he leaves Hades. If he does, Eurydice will be trapped there forever.

You can guess what happens next. On their way out, he keeps calling her name, but only hears his own voice echoing. So he turns around to see if she’s really following him. And all he sees is her fading to black. Gods are such meanies. They knew this was going to happen. Orpheus returns to the world a broken and bitter man.

At which point I segue to the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come. This has elements of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale (the descent in search of a lost love), although it was actually based on a New-Age novel by Richard Matheson, and allegedly on bits of Dante’s Inferno (although I don’t see them). It has some interesting imagery about the afterlife. The best part of the film is the song, Beside You, written by the late Michael Kamen and originally issued on a 1971 New York Rock & Roll Ensemble album, Roll Over, that had demons on the cover. See how things come full circle here at Scripturient?*

The penultimate entry under E is “Everyman.” Everyman was a morality play, the sort of popular entertainment that was the most commonly performed play before Shakespeare’s day, although they continue even today.

It’s an allegorical play, as subtle as a brick, about Everyman’s judgment after his death. It just drips with lessons about how easy living, riches, beauty and worldly goods abandon you when you’re called to account for your life. Only “Goodly Deeds” will speak up for you, and it’s a tired, wan character having been mostly forgotten while you partied hearty.

Morality plays tended to bludgeon their audiences with the message, but they were also often the only sort of theatrical performance allowed by the church, so they didn’t have a wide scope for plot or style. As Wikipedia tells us,

The main theme of the morality play is this: Man begins in innocence, man falls into temptation, Man repents and is saved.

Not exactly Andrew Lloyd Webber. But they did set the stage, so to speak, for later dramatists like Shakespeare, many of whose plays feature the temptation-redemption motif.

Everyman has inspired as many offshoots as Orpheus in literature and the arts. However, my first connection to it came through the book line published by J. M. Dent, the Everyman’s Library, now part of the Random House company. Discovered the series when I worked in bookstores, in the 1970s.

I still have books from the Dent series – originally launched in 1906, although my oldest copies date to the 1950s or 60s. I seem to recall a small description of the name from the morality play on a dust jacket or interior leaf, and that led me to read about morality plays and Everyman. All things connect, you see.

F starts with entries on Fairieland and Fairies. What I didn’t know until I read them was that fairies originally were demonic imps who inhabited Hell and were generally malevolent. Somehow over the years they became Disneyfied into happy, benevolent little characters, although the transformation began years before Walt. I always imagined fairies like happy, flying chorus girls singing to Cinderella. My mistake.

Fairies were part of the early 20th century superstition renaissance, when all sorts of mystical and magical claptrap gained traction. Even author Conan Doyle was a believer in them, writing about them in a magazine article in 1917. By that time, he was a wingnut of the first water: he had given up writing his famous fiction and dedicated himself to promoting “spiritualism.” That included a bunch of clearly faked photos known as the Cottingley Fairies he thought were real. Don’t get me started on today’s “psychics” and other con artists.

Goethe's Faust posterI better jump ahead or I won’t get to the end of the chapter. F is also for Faustus, one of the great tales of western literature. It’s really an extension of the Morality play mentioned earlier, about hubris, ambition and greed. It first surfaced in print in 1507 (although it had roots in 13th century tales) and very quickly became the subject of plays, novels, poems and opera. And, of course, film.

The Faust story is so rich it’s been used in many forms. The basic idea is that Faust is smart and arrogant. He’s tired of all the hard work of study, so decides to jump the intellectual queue by making a deal with the devil for knowledge and power. The trade-off is his soul.

In some versions, Faust is a real keener for godliness, and like in Job, God and Satan have a wager whether he can be corrupted by offering him power, wealth and knowledge if he’ll turn his back on God. And trade in his soul. Humans as playthings for the gods is an old theme in many religions.

I know, I know. You’re thinking so what, every politician, Tory newspaper columnist and lawyer makes that deal, even today. What’s a soul worth today, anyway? Not what it once was, I suspect. Can’t even get a winning lottery ticket for one, these days. Folks out there would sell theirs for a pack of smokes and a 2-4 or Blue, I bet. I tried to sell mine for a degree in paleontology and all I got offered was a bottle of tequila and a box of old sheet music. At least it had some Fats Waller tunes in it.

Anyway, the Faust story has many endings. In all of the versions, Faust has a chance at redemption, by begging God’s forgiveness. In the original, Faust decides, nah, who needs it? And he gets dragged down to hell at the end. Later versions give him a chance to redeem himself and get saved.

The older versions make a statement about intellectualism and learning. The medieval era was, not unlike today, very anti-intellectual. Anyone who could spell egregious or admit to reading was classified as a “pompous ass” and burned at the stake. So the moral of the old tale was: don’t be too smart. Or read. You’ll go to Hell.

In later versions, like Goethe’s tale, Faust is devout rather than snobbishly intellectual, but frustrated at his failure to achieve enlightenment, which is where the devil, Mephistopheles, finds his weakness and tempts him. Goethe tosses in sex, too, which wasn’t in the older tale.

Christopher Marlowe’s play, Dr. Faustus, is different, in that Faust is from the lower classes, trying to better himself and takes a shortcut by summoning the devil. He gets dragged into Hell at the end, by the way. Sorry to spoil it for you.

You can see the threads of the old morality play, described above, running through all of the versions.

You might note Christians seem to be confused about the names of the devil. Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub… these and other names get used interchangeably. In some stories they’re clearly the same character, in others they are different. I’ll have to post about that later, and offer some suggestions for dictionaries of demons.

Anyway Faust’s tale is a lesson to us all, but what the lesson is depends on which version you read. And at that, I have to leave you, halfway through F, but not halfway through hell. I’ll continue in a subsequent post, maybe starting with the entry on Food which explores hot sauces with demonic themes. I love hot sauces, and I’m already warming up to the subject.
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* On the same album was the only hard-rock song about the game of chess I know of (The King is Dead), as well as a oddly moving song about nuclear war (Fields of Joy, covered by Lenny Kravitz many years later). But Beside You (covered by Simply Red for the movie) is easily the most romantic song I’ve ever heard.