Before I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.
Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.
Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…
Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.
Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*
Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.
Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:
It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.
That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
Succubi come to men in dreams to tempt them into sex, which explains medieval wet dreams. Succubi seem to have a wider range in old myths and cultures than incubi, which plays into the cultural-religious fear of woman as a seductress. Sex has always made male-dominated cultures weak at the knees and frightened.
Sex, in most parochial cultures like Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, is dirty, nasty, evil, and leads to damnation. And that’s just missionary-position hetero sex. Patriarchal cultures don’t have a lot of fun in the bedroom. Well, the Hindus did write the Kama Sutra, and carve those lewd sculptures on the temple at Khajuraho, but that speaks to the diversity of Indian culture. A lot of it was more straight-laced and repressive.**
So it seems anyone who might actually enjoy sex, might like something not in the ‘missionary position,’ must have fallen prey to a demon. If it’s a woman, damn her as a witch or possessed. Then light the fire…
Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee
Their keen enjoyment hid behind
A Gothic mask of duty
Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau
Couldn’t be an angel that tempted you, because angels aren’t sexy. Well, they weren’t for a couple of millennia. In fact, they were often scary. Carried blazing swords and scowled.
A lot of Renaissance painters showed those cute cherubim (but not seraphim as I gather – neither of which Scott discusses) naked. So you’re supposed to look at these naked little angels flying around and think of chastity and devotion. Not sex. Got it.
Today, anything goes and angels are often painted and drawn naked. Or semi-nude. Somehow, I think these artists are missing the point. Can’t see much distinction between these angels and the incubi and succubi classified as demons.
A small sidebar here. Succubus is pronounced suk-u-bus. Double c’s are usually pronounced as a ‘k-s: success, access and accident, but not succubus. But why do so many people pronounce flaccid as “flass-id’? It should be “flak-sid.” It seems an American thing, like pronouncing it “zee-bra” instead of the correct “zeh-bra.” I blame it on TV.
Anyway, the whole incubus-succubus thing is clearly something Freud would understand in terms of sexuality and the subconscious.
The letter I leaves off with the bizarre Shinto story of Izanagi and his wife, Izanami, which is a bit like a Japanese version of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s one of the entries where Scott’s description is more compelling and entertaining than Wikipedia’s, but the whole thing is so odd that I know I won’t remember it a few letters on, so I’ll leave it for you to read on your own.
J is pretty short. Jahannam is identified as the Islamic Hell, derived from Gehenna, which we already covered. What’s interesting in Islam is that the dead get judged by Allah directly, not by some intermediary. Aside from that, it’s pretty much the same place of eternal torment.
If I ever become religious, I’m going to join a faith that thinks Hell is a little more fun. Maybe a Hell with ukuleles. However, Hawaiian Hell doesn’t seem very musical.
Back to Miriam’s book. In Jain Hell, Scott says Jainism is a “2,500-year-old outgrowth of Buddhism.” That stopped me cold. I’d never hear that before, and I’m sure she’s wrong.
Jainism is about the same age as Buddhism, from that fascinating period of spiritual growth circa 600 BCE that Karen Armstrong in her book, the Great Transformation, called the “Axial Age”. As I understand it (admittedly a weak area), Jainism was contemporary with Buddhism, and both owe their ancestry to Hinduism. They share many ideas and philosophies in common, but one did not come from the other.
Scott tells us a lot about Jain Hell, but it’s not all congruent with what Wikipedia tells me. For one, she doesn’t mention it by its name: Naraka. I think she flubbed Jain Hell. Not that it matters, since I won’t ever visit it, even if I had the airmiles.
A following entry is about jokes. Hell, damnation, the Devil, demons, the afterlife, death – they’ve been in comedy skits ever since Gilgamesh. Remember The Frogs, the play by the Greek playwright Aristophanes I wrote about in a previous post? No? Then look it up.
We also refer to Hell in conversation with such lines as “a cold day in Hell” and “when Hell freezes over” (apparently referring to the day to come when the Leafs win the Stanley Cup again). While Hell is often presented as hot – volcanically so – in some faiths it is also cold (Tibetan Buddhists have both hot and cold regions in their Hell). Early Christian writers even imagined Hell as cold. Milton had some cold spots in his Hell. But generally, it’s been imagined as hot, so “when Hell freezes over” is a metaphor for a long time from now.
Dante’s Satan lives in an icy abode in the 9th Circle of Hell. And curiously running against the popular grain of his day, Dante’s Satan is not the popular overlord of Hell, but rather another prisoner of it. We’ll get to Satan later. But that reminds me of a joke: Did you hear about the dyslexic devil worshipper? He ended up worshipping Santa. Ka-boom.
Anyway, humour gets stale fast, especially if it contains contemporary references. An entry that refers to the Mary Tyler Moore Show is not merely dated, it has become archeology. That’s why this book needs an update. Am I angling for the job as editor? Maybe.
A small segue. Paul Carus, in his 1900 book The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil, says in his introduction that Devil worship came first:
FROM A SURVEYAL of the accounts gleaned from Waitz, Lubbock, and Tylor, on the Primitive state of religion, the conviction impresses itself upon the student of demonology that Devil-worship naturally precedes the worship of a benign and morally good Deity. There are at least many instances in which we can observe a transition from the lower stage of Devil-worship to the higher stage of God-worship, and there seems to be no exception to the rule that fear is always the first incentive to religious worship. This is the reason why the dark figure of the Devil, that is to say, of a powerful evil deity, looms up as the most important personage in the remotest past of almost every faith. Demonolatry, or Devil-worship, is the first stage in the evolution of religion, for we fear the bad, not the good.
From what I’ve read in his book, I don’t think he makes his case convincingly (and his book is, from an editorial and logical point of view, full of supposition and conjecture presented as fact). But although dated and rather florid in style, it’s still interesting to read (assuming you can overlook his cultural imperialism and his overt, almost imperialistic Monism). Carus doesn’t get a mention in Scott’s book, not even in the bibliography. Nor does Fraser’s The Golden Bough.
Under K, we learn that Kanaloa is the “Hawaiian squid god of death.” He gives off a “putrid odor.” You gotta love any religion with a “squid god of death.” It reminds me suspiciously of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and I wonder if His Noodliness wasn’t somehow inspired by Kanaloa. Or maybe the other way around. But the eerie similarity – coincidence? Nah…
Karma, Scott tells us, “refers to the sum of a person’s actions during the phases of his or her life and the corresponding consequences.” It’s a very existential concept but with religious overtones. Basically, you do good, you get out of the reincarnation cycle sooner. Otherwise, do bad things and you come back as a cockroach. Or a blogger. Or both (like Archy)***
Karma, though, isn’t that simple. First of all, the Hindus, Jains and Buddhists all have a different take on what it means. And different Buddhist schools define it differently, too (although not so widely separated as to be distinctly unalike). Add into that mix the Falun Gong definition and it’s a tough word to generalize upon. That hasn’t stopped New Agers, however.
I never really cottoned onto the whole reincarnation thing. Just seemed too desperate; people trying to stay around in the face of their mortality. I fell away from Buddhism in part because the whole karma-reincarnation thing felt so contrived. I was pleased to read Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which attempts to strip Buddhism of its supernatural elements – like reincarnation – and makes it an ethical philosophy and moral practice – back to its roots, so to speak.
I’m much cooler with that notion.
But that leads to another problem: karma. Without reincarnation, karma is either a supernatural force or just wishful thinking.
Which brings us to existentialism, again, because Batchelor’s Buddhism is basically Sartre with more stringent rules for behaviour. But that’s weighty stuff for this post, so lets skip ahead to Mary Faustina Kowalska. Faustina – there’s that Faust thing again. She was known by that name instead of Mary (or Maria as it was actually written).
Scott clearly has some sympathy for Christians who have visions, even when they are either the result of some illness (as most appear to be) or just bad dreams. Faith is one of those things we disagree on. Scott gives credence to a lot of these visions – in this case calling them “mystical experiences” rather than hallucinations. Or at least putting that phrase in quotation marks as I just did.
I have not run across any non-Christian visions of the afterlife in her book yet, but so far Scott seems to have a very pro-Christian and orthodox bias towards these things. Anyway, Kowalska was a nun and had numerous visits from Jesus during her time in the convent. She doesn’t sound like the typical religious wingnut, and rather sincere in her beliefs. But her visions seem tied in with her deteriorating health, as they often are with other so-called “mystics.” Maybe it was just oxygen deprivation. As Wikipedia tells us:
As her health deteriorated at the end of 1937, Faustina’s reported visions intensified, and she was said to be looking forward to an end to her life… In September 1938, Father Sopocko visited her at the sanatorium and found her very ill but in ecstasy as she was praying.
The story should have ended with her death in 1938, but folks never want to let their dead ones go gentle into that good night, as Dylan Thomas wrote.
Faustina was canonized in 2000. I don’t have any truck with that whole beatification-canonization thing. I think the whole argument for sainthood is like Oolon Colluphida’s argument: a load of dingo’s kidneys, theologically speaking.
Which wraps up the letter K and this post. Next up: L and Lake Avernus.
* Ben Jonson (1572-1637) writing in homage of his contemporary and rival playwright, William Shakespeare:
“And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek’
For names : but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread
And shake a stage : or when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.”
** I’m reading the Powys Mathers translation of the Thousand and One Nights (1928, my edition, revised 1951) and I am surprised at how misogynist it is, at least at the start, given it’s actually a pretty sexy collection of tales otherwise. Not everyone likes his translation, but I do.
*** We had at least one Archy and Mehitabel book at home, or maybe at my grandparents. I found others in the local library. I loved them and read them over and over when I was around 10 or 12. I have several volumes in my own library, from the mid-late 1930s. I think Archy’s witty, caustic, literate poems were one of the inspirations that got me writing myself.
“expression is the need of my soul,” declares Archy, who labored as a free-verse poet in an earlier incarnation. At night, alone, he dives furiously on the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter to describe a cockroach’s view of the world, rich with cynicism and humor.
I still have a soft spot for him and for Mehitabel who sang: “there’s dance in the old dame yet.”