Ancient Egyptians feared a realm in the afterlife called Duat. In the Torah, it is sometimes referred to as sheol, the space beneath the earth that swallowed civilizations whole. Greek mythological tales describe a living underworld of dead souls, pulsating with five rivers as its veins, ruled by Hades and his many-headed hound Cerberus. The Serer religious traditions of several African countries describe Jaaniw, the final resting place of the human soul. Unfortunate souls who cannot find Jaaniw are perpetually lost to the ether, though they do not, as in the case of most other religions, burn or suffer.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8
“But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would […] taste the doom of burning.” Quran 22:19
The concept of a righteous, punishment-based afterlife is certainly not unique to Western religions, though the method of escaping the gates of Hell has become more specific and streamlined in the wake of evangelical Christianity. While earlier Christian belief describes access to heaven as based on the deeds of a woman during her lifetime, modern Christianity attributes the salvation of the eternal soul to a relationship with Christ the Redeemer. Similarly, eternal punishment in Islam is enacted on members of other religions, or as the Quran calls them, “those who disbelieve.”
So Christians say hell is for non-Christians, and Muslims believe it’s solely the fate of non-Muslims. Regardless of how we supposedly get there, what is hell, and what has hell been, in cultural imagination since its inception?
Hell as a multi-tiered labyrinth, its levels separated by the type and severity of the eternal prisoners’ transgressions, was introduced in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In this epic poem, the nine realms of hell loosely follow the Catholic seven deadly sins, offering specific discipline for sinners of all kinds. The quote supposedly written on the gates of hell in The Divine Comedy has followed us through contemporary art and fiction, and specific segments have even reached a certain level of cliche.
“Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope — Ye Who Enter Here“
In Christian tradition, hell is not only a resting place and torture chamber for the souls of non-believers, but it also serves as a living realm for Satan (the fallen angel) and his own horde of angels (sometimes referred to as demons, or Legion). Classical and contemporary paintings have attempted to illustrate this horde of creatures with interesting results.
Disney’s animated feature Fantasia depicts an underworld ruled by a single titan in its sequence, Night on Bald Mountain. It goes without saying, perhaps, that this animation scared the daylights out of me when I was a child.