What in Hell…?


DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

Hell is, if you are religious enough, a real place that comes up in conversation to threaten people who don’t believe what you believe. Conservatives often include political beliefs in that threat.

Usually a stint in hell is like an all-inclusive resort with an endless buffet of pain, suffering and torment, day in and day out until the end of time. Or until Judgement Day, if that’s in your belief system (yes for Christians, although Zoroastrians have something similar, no for a lot of other faiths).*

I didn’t peek at the end; it’s right after Agrippa (the magical book, not the William Gibson novel) in the entry on Ahriman, the Zoroastrian equivalent of Lucifer, the “Lord of the Flies.” He’s son of the god Zurvan and twin brother to Ohrmazd, the good-guy god-bro to Ahriman’s bad. But not too good: he’s sort of gone away while Ahriman rules and makes life miserable for us. After 9,000 years, he’s supposed to return, and slay his brother, Ahriman. It’s supposed to be paradise after that, but Ohrmazd ain’t exactly full of brotherly love, so I’d watch your step around him.

Ahriman, Wikipedia tells me, is actually the Middle-Persian name for Angra Mainyu, which is how it’s written in Avestan, Zoroaster’s original language. I suppose it’s somewhat like Old English compared with Chaucer’s Middle English, both of which are close to incomprehensible to most English speakers today. It’s not a name, more a description, and he’s sometimes called aka mainyu, both of which seem to translate to something like “the bad guy.” Or maybe something worse.

Anyway, it all ties in with Ahura Mazda, which is not a Japanese car, but the “uncreated god” of Zoroastrians who was introduced to Zoroaster by Vohu Mana. And at this point my mind begins to turn to mush. I kind of get the dualism in Zoroastrianism, but the very odd language, convoluted tales and the dense explanations makes the theology come across like something from Scientology. You know, that wacky stuff about Prince Xenu. I’ll skip to the next entry before I get in any deeper.

Hell, by the way, is a non-denominational place. Religions tend to make their heavens or paradises into snooty gated communities, which only allow members of the right faith in (and apparently the proper political bent as well). But most hells are like come-as-you-are resorts, open to everyone, especially heretics. Not a pleasant resort, mind you. More like the type that doesn’t have fish on the menu and plays Barry Manilow covers in the lobby. And has lakes of molten lava instead of a sandy beach.

Bile, I read in the EoH, is the ancient Celtic lord of the dead. Somehow this doesn’t resonate with my Celtic genes. Wikipedia gives us some alternate names: Bel, Belenus and Belinu. But online he’s referred to as the Celtic god of the sun. Somehow I think one of these two is confused. Wikipedia lists three Celtic deities, none of which are masters of the afterlife. This site names  Cailleach, but Wikipedia says different. After 20 minutes struggling trying to sort out Celtic and Gaelic names (why couldn’t the Welsh and the Irish agree on a simple name?), I can only thank the Angles and the Jutes for civilizing England and giving us a language we could pronounce.

Country Music is an entry in the EoH. Scott says “Country music has been incorporating images of the grim afterlife into songs for decades.” And making us suffer it for decades, too.

I think of hell as a place where all they play is country music. New country, not Hank Williams or Ian Tyson. Oh yeah, and Justin Bieber. And rap. Hip hop. The new “R&B.” Come on – it’s schmaltz. Aretha Franklin is R&B. Al Greene is R&B. Smoky Robinson, Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sly & the Family Stone, the Supremes – these are R&B.  Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Janet Jackson,  Justin Timberlake – these are not R&B. They’re commercial pap. Dreck. The musical equivalent of Duck Dynasty or Jersey Shore.

Don’t get me started on local radio. Hello, programmers: ever hear of demographics? Later, save it for later.

Ooh! Demons!A few pages later I read about the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the 1980s, I stood on a rock in Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, looking at the cave where this collection of second-century CE scrolls was found in 1947. Scott says it is “near Palestine.” I’m not sure if she means now (making a bizarre political statement) or then (if I recall my history, it was within the borders of the British protectorate of that name, not “near,” but later was part of the West Bank). Scott doesn’t mention the scrolls found there in 1956. She also doesn’t mention that 972 texts have been found to date.

I was working in a Toronto bookstore, 1970s, when the first popular translations of some of the Dead Sea Scroll texts were published. I read them then, just to try and understand what the fuss was all about. A decade or more later, I stood in a museum looking at the 2,000-plus-year-old scroll of Isaiah from that collection, reading this:

Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding with their heart, return, and be healed.

Well, people sure have heavy ears and shut eyes, if we’re talking about local issues. I’m fairly sure Isaiah was prescient about local bloggers when he wrote:

From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been pressed, neither bound up, neither mollified with oil.

I might be over-reacting. Post hoc sort of thing. Back to the book.

Scott doesn’t mention the Nag Hammadi library (I peeked), a collection of mostly Gnostic texts found in Egypt in 1945. Together, these works provide an insight into the formative years of Christianity – and include many works that were considered orthodox by several early Christian schools. The history of how Christianity evolved from an obscure, radical Jewish sect into an entirely different faith in the first four centuries of its existence is pretty fascinating. I have several books about that, but I won’t bore you with the details here. Maybe later. The Gnostics are a particular favourite in my studies in theology.

What’s interesting in several texts in both collections is the image of the afterlife. Really crazy stuff. Makes the Scientologists look almost not-crazy. Almost. I recommend you get recent translations of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scroll texts and see for yourself. And while you’re at it, pick up Bart Ehrmann’s book on lost scriptures. There are many books of the “forgotten books of Eden.”

Why? Because if you want to understand Christianity, you have to know how it got here. Even if you’re not Christian, it’s pretty interesting and explains a lot about how Europe evolved into what it is today. And most of the EoH is about the Christian views of Hell. So it all ties in.

Which leads me to wonder, how did Hell become Heck? Quite Interesting suggests it comes from the Scots “hech” an “interjection of surprise or shock, and is ultimately the same word as hey (or heigh).” Yeah, sure, having a Scot spit at you with that guttural “ch” would certainly come as a surprise. You’d be likely to say “bloody Hell” as you wiped the spittle off your cravat.

But that doesn’t explain how we went from a time when words like Hell, damn, bloody and damnation were too coarse for public discourse, to an age when every 12-year-old and unlettered blogger spouts obscenities. What, verbs and adjectives are passé?

I like saying heck. I like saying drat. That leaves me Hell and damn as powerful invective, words that convey meaning, convey emotion, not just empty utterances. At least to me. For me, “bugger” is strong language. But then I’m an old codger to whom civil speech is still important and who appreciates the value of words. When I use a four-letter invective, you know I’m really passionate.**

I digress. Back up a bit. The EoH has entries for Damn Yankees, a 1955 musical, Damnation of Lovers (a painting more commonly known as “The Dead Lovers,” by late 15th-century artist Matthias Grunewald), The Damned (the name given to souls in Hell), The Damned Consigned to Hell (a triptych by Luca Signorelli, completed in  1502). But no entry for the origin of the word “damn” or any of its cognates. Which, I learn from Etymology Online, comes from…

Old French damner “damn, condemn; convict, blame; injure,” derivative of Latin damnare “to adjudge guilty; to doom; to condemn, blame, reject,” from noun damnum “damage, hurt, harm; loss, injury; a fine, penalty,” possibly from an ancient religious term from PIE *dap- “to apportion in exchange” [see Watkins]. The Latin word evolved a legal meaning of “pronounce judgment upon.” Theological sense is first recorded early 14c.; the optative expletive use likely is as old.

Damn and its derivatives generally were avoided in print from 18c. to c.1930s (the famous line in the film version of “Gone with the Wind” was a breakthrough and required much effort by the studio). The noun is recorded from 1610s; to be not worth a damn is from 1817. The adjective is 1775, short for damned; Damn Yankee, characteristic Southern U.S. term for “Northerner,” is attested from 1812. Related: Damning.

Then on to Doctor Faustus, Marlowe’s play, which should hyperlink to Goethe’s play, Faustus. But that’s not something that happens in print. Maybe I should see if an eBook version has the linkage. And I need to talk to you about Faustus and the whole meme it created in English literature, art and (later) film. That whole sell-your-soul and then find redemption tale. I keep wanting to shout “Door number three! Door number three! Monty! Monty! Monty! Pick me!” when I read it (Scott doesn’t have an entry for Deus ex machina, either).

Anyway, enough for tonight. I’ve made my way in the past few days from Abbadon to Duat (the Egyptian “valley in the sky” where the departed will find ‘rest or retribution” – gotta love the Egyptians. They had such a wild pantheon and afterlife you’d almost mistake them for Scientologists. Well, at least the Egyptians worshipped cats. In our four-cat house, we can understand how that might come about.)

Miriam, Miriam, you so need an update. Let me help you. I have much to add to your otherwise delightful work. You have an entry for Dante’s Inferno, and another lengthier one for the Divine Comedy, The Inferno. What happened to the editor at this point? Let’s collaborate.

Tomorrow I plan to start at E with the 1826 poem, “Eloa ou la soeur des anges” and see how far I get. Stay tuned… I’ll have more to say about Hell soon. Keep these words in mind: Gora Daileng.

 ~~~~~

* But not too real, since it doesn’t exist in the here-and-now or show on any GPS I’ve ever owned. You have to wait until you’re dead to experience it. Like Heaven or Paradise or Purgatory. They only have a geography post-death. Or maybe that should be post-life. Anyway, it’s a place you go to when you die if you haven’t followed a rather limited set of moral, religious and social strictures. A place of punishment. Or for some cultures, simply a gritty place where souls go after death. It’s a fishy place, too – in that, like fishing tales, it has grown over the millennia in the telling. Interesting place, Hell. Most – but not all – religions have a place where souls get their just desserts for the sins of their life, but they’re not all alike.

** I recall being perhaps 10 and making one of those childish comments about a “bloody robin” to my mate. My father, in earshot, came over and cuffed me on the head. “Don’t ever say that word again,” he growled. Bloody was an improper word, in 1960. Not quite swearing, but not at all proper. I don’t recall ever hearing my father swear, not even on his deathbed. Damn, yes, bloody, yes. But none of the crass four-letter words kids use today. He had many, many ways, to express himself without having to revert to puerility. I was taught that swearing meant something strong, something serious, great emotion. Not just causal bad language.