Might be time to recap my reasons for writing this series. New readers could get confused about the content in the Hell posts, of which this is the fourth.
They’re all the result of a convergence of several recent themes and activities in my life; a lot of which have to do with recent reading and research.
I started reading several books, more or less simultaneously this summer, some of which I’ve blogged about. One of them is Dante’s Inferno (I’m currently reading Mark Musa’s translation in the Penguin edition, but also have Pinsky’s and a few others). Another is AJ Jacobs’s book about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Know-It-All.
That latter book (which I’m still reading, by the way), intrigued me, as has Jacobs’s goal to become smarter by reading.
Wisdom comes from knowledge, and is the result of making connections between all the information, the data, the accumulated and seemingly unrelated content. It doesn’t make you smarter (which is a measure of your ability to reason and conjecture, not simply accumulated data), but it can make you wiser to know more (if you use your intelligence to make those quantum leaps across nonlinear data).
Lacking access to the Britannica, I decide to experiment in a similar fashion, albeit with something smaller, something related directly to my current reading regimen and to my own library (and my access to Wikipedia). And something I had easily available: Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell.
It’s really a stream-of-consciousness writing experiment, albeit not at the Joycean level. As I read through this book (one related to some research I’m doing for a novel I’ve been working on the past year), I use the entries as a springboard to other areas of interest, to personal memories, to other content I’m reading or exploring.
And what I comment on in the posts is hit-and-miss rather than entry-after-entry commentary. This isn’t the Talmud, after all; I am neither as educated nor as analytical as that. I appreciate the layered commentary in the Talmud, the intellectual forum for debate and discussion it represents. But it was complied in more civil times, it seems.
Yes, this is an intellectual indulgence rather than a more meaningful analysis, and thus self-indulgent and arrogant of me. But I hope that you, dear reader, is not offended by intellectualism, or consider it elitism. This is, after all, an increasingly anti-intellectual culture. Where one being an autodidact was once respected, it seems to have fallen prey to the combined forces of ideology, willful ignorance, and mindless pop entertainment
Which leads me to the nattering nabobs of negativitism – not a local reference, but rather a great line by former VP Spiro Agnew, but actually written for him by the late William Saffire (whose later columns on language, vocabulary and style have always delighted me, even after I learned of his disreputable Republican ties).
That comes from (here’s the stream of consciousness stuff, where one thought leads to another, like a dance to unheard music, without necessarily following the Arthur Murray outlines on the floor…) reading Perlstein’s book, Nixonland. Hubert Humphrey – whom I disliked – said of Agnew that, “I personally doubt that our country has seen in twenty years such a calculated appeal to our nastier interests.”
You’d think he was commenting on the Scylla and Charybdis of local bloggers, wouldn’t you? But no, he was writing about the pettiness and nastiness of Republican politics in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Things tie together like that; the past reflected in the present. Agnew lambasted his critics and opponents as “ideological eunuchs,” “parasites of passions” and warned that “their interest is personal, not moral.” He said they “prey upon the good intentions of gullible men everywhere” and “pervert honest concern into something sick and rancid.”
Saffire had a swell way with words. He put into Agnew’s speech that wonderfully pointed statement that these “nabobs” have “formed their own 4-H club – the hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.” You have to admire that sort of alliterative writing. I can’t think of a better description of today’s local situation. Of course, I disliked Agnew intensely, but his speechwriters were magnificent.
This experiment in writing isn’t about local politics, not intentionally. It’s really about some areas that interest, even fascinate me: cultural visions of the afterlife, the history of religion, the early Christian church, the question of evil (a curiously theological question for a non-religious person), the shaping of Western civilization, the Gnostics, and how cultural memes grow and spread. And of course, it’s about my unquenchable need to write. *
Hell and the afterlife, as we conceive it today in our Western society, is mostly memetic, rather than strictly scriptural. Like the “Harrowing of Hell,” where I left off last column; stories outside the canon have still managed to infiltrate popular culture and affect the way we see the world.
Scott’s book explores much more than the scriptural: she perambulates through a delightfully eclectic range of subjects, all with some reference to the afterlife – or rather to the negative aspect of our bipolar view of it. It’s also a very personal approach, since her choice of subjects to explain, and the relative length of each, seems highly personal, if not sometimes downright eccentric.
Why, for example, does she dedicate two-and-a-half pages of description to C.S. Lewis’s work, The Great Divorce? Does it deserve that much attention? His Screwtape Letters gets barely a page and a half.
But before we reach that, we read about the tragic life of Isobel Gowdie, a “beautiful, witty and intelligent Scottish farm wife” who seems to have found 17th century rural life so boring that she confessed – even boasted – without torture to being the bedmate of the devil, and to practicing witchcraft with a coven. It ended badly with her execution (conjectured, since no official record of her execution remains, but given the superstitious nature of the times, it seems likely). Her trial on charges of witchcraft took place in 1662.
What’s really intriguing about Gowdie is that she eagerly confessed – publicly, without coercion – to all sorts of nefarious activities with the devil (mostly sexual, which has a Freudian overtone that speaks to her own life and needs), and her alleged coven.
It’s not unlike modern UFO-abduction stories, albeit without the little grey men (although it does have objects inserted into orifices…). Her confessions were remarkably detailled and extensive, including meetings with the Queen of Elphame (Queen of the Fairies) and plots to kill Christians. Yet she must have known it meant death for her, and generally a gruesome, brutal end. As this site about a musical piece inspired by her tale notes,
…in the years between 1560 and 1707 as many as 4,500 Scots perished because their contemporaries thought they were witches. The persecution of witches was a phenomenon known to Catholic and Protestant Europe at this time but the Reformation in Scotland gave an impetus to the attack on ‘witches’ which became a popular and powerful crusade… Many of the victims were women whose sex alone seems to have been the inspiration for their persecutors’ zeal. Mass hysteria surrounded the suspicion of theses women from whom confessions were extorted through torture of the severest kind.
Good Hollywood stuff, you’d think. Was she mad? Bored? Carried away with her fantasies? Was it all madness or just a sham? Would, if she lived now, she be among today’s writers like Clive Barker and Steven King? Or just another trite blogger posting her fantasies about local political shenanigans?
Gowdie’s story – hitherto-fore unbeknownst to me – is complex stuff that should have been dramatized before this. It speaks to the nature of her times, to the common perception of the world, the supernatural and to the nature of belief.
This was 1662, after all – in the time of the Restoration, the era of Samuel Pepys, Robert Boyle, John Locke. Baruch Spinoza and the young Isaac Newton. This was supposed to be the Enlightenment, not the Middle Ages. Yet witchcraft trials were still taking place.
Right before Gowdie comes Gottschalk, a 12th century German peasant who had – like so many peasants seem to have had – a vision of Hell (but apparently no surname). Unlike Isobel Gowdie, however, his vision was treated as explicatory, rather than a confession of wrongdoing, so he was praised afterwards. Gowdie was executed, Gottschalk respected and his story recorded for posterity. Hypocrisy?
Was it because he was male in a patriarchal society? Women more often got the short end of the stick in those days, when men were judges over accusations of witchcraft (sexually motivated?). Sometimes it seems if a woman wasn’t subservient, was witty, or simply wanted some basic equality or respect was sufficient for a woman to be burned alive (today, religious superstition has been replaced by political superstition, and all it takes to enrage some frightened folks is to be on a municipal council and to try to do your best for the greater good… politicians have become the witches at the stake, today…).
But I digress. Gottschalk fell ill for five days and during his coma-like state, had his vision, which was recorded in Latin. Scott’s book has several entries for similar visions over the centuries (George Godkin is mentioned in this section; his vision of Hell took place in the 1940s after a near-death experience).
The letter H begins with Hades, which is where this series of posts began. Hades, as I wrote then, is the name of the ancient Greek god who oversees the underworld, but somehow it became another name for Hell itself. The Greek image of the afterlife had significant impact on the later Christian and Western vision. This is a big area of influence: the Greeks controlled the lands of Judea and Israel for 300 years, and their beliefs, philosophy, culture, drama and arts played a major role in both Jewish and Roman cultural development, as it did in later Christian culture and theology.
Many Jewish texts were translated into Greek, and the earliest Christian texts were often written in Greek – the lingua franca of the day – and Greek terms and ideas saturate them. Hades is one – the name of the god became synonymous with the name of his realm.
The Greek influence isn’t limited to the past. as Michael Macrone points out in his fun book, It’s Greek to Me!, we still have references to Greek concepts, culture and arts in today’s language. A Pyrrhic victory, the Golden Mean, the Hippocratic Oath, a swan song, a marathon… Macrone identifies hundreds of references in common use (although not simply Greek, but also Roman sources, so you get a little education in both classics).
The Greek influence spread through everything: religion, philosophy, civics, debate, culture, arts… but not necessarily for the greater good. A blind subservience to Aristotle held Western civilization’s intellectual development back by a millennium. But we got past it, thanks in great part to Galileo. A Greek current still runs deep within our language (see this list for Greek roots); we’ll never lose their influence.
(How much of the classics are still taught through high school, I don’t know. We still had Latin classes when I was in grade 10… which I barely managed to pass. Too bad; I enjoy learning a little Latin these days, but my attempt to translate it usually have limited success. Maybe I need to take a course.)
Shortly after Hades comes the Harrowing of Hell, a subject I briefly broached last post. The story goes like this: Jesus dies on the cross, on “Good Friday” (clearly not good for him, of course). He rises on Easter Sunday. In between, Jesus descends into Hell, argues with Lucifer (or battles him in some accounts), then rounds up the souls of all the allegedly worthy folks (Old Testament prophets and protagonists like Adam and Moses, as well as some Greeks like Aristotle) and takes them to heaven.
This act does several things: it sorts out the logical conundrum of having heaven only open to Christians and putting good people into limbo or boiling pits. It also gives theological weight to the notion of redemption through Jesus, in that Jesus “redeems” Adam, who (along with Eve) created the whole “original sin” thing.
The Haunting of Hill House has an entry. While Scott mentions the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, she doesn’t mention the excellent 1963 B&W British film made from it. It has been released with two titles, one from the book, and the shorter version, The Haunting. It’s one of the best ghost tales and movies, and the movie is remarkable in its camera work and special effects done with stark simplicity. It was remade in 1999 and was dismally predictable and overly dependent on special effects instead of drama and character. Scott has many entries for movies, which tends to date the book (my edition says 1998).
If you haven’t seen the 63 film, by the way, you really should. It’s very powerful. But the story is not really about Hell, so why it’s included int he book is beyond me.
I’ll skip Scott’s lengthy admonishment about the relationship between heavy metal music and Hell or associated demons. Frankly she sounds too school-marmy for even my tastes, and I don’t like heavy metal (although I do like Led Zeppelin, and once interviewed the band for the Ottawa Citizen when they were touring Canada in 69 or 70).
Curiously, Scott doesn’t have an entry for Hell itself, although she does refer to the single-l Hel, the “Germanic goddess of the dead and ruler of Niflheim, a brutal underworld.” Brutal, underworld and Germanic seem to go well together. Jumping ahead (or back), we learn that the entrance to Niflheim is Gnipahelli. I suspect the reason this Germanic mythology never took off in public imagination is that no one could pronounce the names, at least not without sniggering.
Hellfire clubs were an idea before its time. Basically they were 18th century private clubs where people (okay, men) could go to criticize and ridicule religion and politics, and engage in various types of bad behaviour, most of which would be considered pretty tame by today’s standards. But some of the clubs wanted to make a point of their naughtiness, and included various pagan rites, from Bacchus and Dionysus to Venus and Priapus, as well as some vaguely Satanic stuff. reading it today makes it seem comical and somewhat stuffy. These guys wouldn’t make Paris Hilton even blush.
Then after the rituals, they’d all get famously drunk together. Scott mentions “drunken orgies” and Wikipedia suggests prostitutes were involved. I suspect that there was less orgy and more drunken, but in order to keep up their reputation (and attract newcomers to help pay the bar bill), the members told tall tales that grew in the telling. Nothing succeeds like excess.
Like hellfire sermons, another of Scott’s entries, Hellfire Clubs died away without needing anyone to legislate them out of existence. Basically, as Scott tells us, the members got too old to party, and after the initial shock, society found them puerile and pusillanimous, rather than bravely iconclastic and rebellious.
As for hellfire sermons, Scott says they died out because priests and preachers realized they had better luck trying to entire followers with images of Heaven’s glories than frighten them with images of Hell. I don’t know. Looking online at the fundamentalist sermon sites or at the YouTube videos of sermons, I think she’s missed something. Hellfire sermons seems to have made a comeback among the religious right.
And for the last entry today, Hindu Hell: not the final resting place, but a place where you burn off bad karma in order to get back into the game through reincarnation. It’s a nasty place, but there’s no eternal damnation. Scott says there are as many as “136 separate underworld realms” in Hindu theology, but fails to mention even one. Thank the gods for Wikipedia, eh? Miriam, please contact me before you release a revised edition. I can help, honest.
Naraka is the Hindu Hell. It; is overseen by Yama, the Hindu god of death, reaping the souls of the dead, although he sometimes plays the role of Lucifer/Satan, handing out punishments. Wikipedia lists 28 hells, which although a far cry from Scott’s 136, includes some real delights like: Asipatravana/Asipatrakanana (forest of sword leaves), Shukaramukha (hog’s mouth), Sandansa/Sandamsa (hell of pincers), Puyoda (water of pus), Ksarakardama (acidic/saline mud/filth), and Shwabhojana (food of dogs).
And at that, I realize I have to quite writing, get up off my backside and walk my dogs. I’ll continue this series later with the letter I.
* Frankly, while I appreciate your interest, I write this blog for myself, not for an audience. For the audience, I write books and articles. This is what I write to keep my mind and my muse active when I’m not working on either. Being active online makes me the target of some local pettiness and jealousy, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to indulge my muse. Hence the name change of this blog (the first such change in 20 months of writing it, but who’s counting?).