UNDERWORLD . The term underworld refers to the subterranean region inhabited by the dead. It is often the place of punishment of the wicked, the unrighteous, the unredeemed, the unbelieving, or the lost. The concept of an underworld is an ingredient in most belief systems in the history of religions, but there is no definite evidence indicating that the idea was present in the earliest stages of human culture. In the oldest strata of Egyptian and pre-Vedic Indian cultures, however, there exists a rich store of archaeological material suggesting that the aristocratic segments of society, at least, believed in some kind of an afterlife. But even in these early records of postmortem existence, there does not seem to have been a distinction between heaven, the realm of the blessed, and hell, the realm of the damned.
Later, when the two realms came to be differentiated, each religion appealed to its own set of criteria when determining the fate of an individual after death, whether blessed or damned. These criteria could be defined by birth, by ritual initiation into the community, by the performance of prescribed sacramental rites, by belief in a deity or in a set of teachings, and so on. Such standards were commensurate with the way the religion defined the proper relationship to the sacred.
Primitive and Archaic Religions
Tales of heroic journeys to the underworld, often undertaken on behalf of the entire community, are extremely widespread among tribal peoples throughout the world. Particularly notable for such lore are the Maori of New Zealand; the Algonquin, the Ojibwa, and various Plains tribes of North America; the Zulu, the Ashanti, and the Dogon of Africa; and numerous other societies in North Asia (especially Siberia and Mongolia), Central America, and South America.
If one disregards for the moment the detailed differences among the various accounts of the postmortem journey to the underworld, one can observe a common theme among many such stories. A heroic figure undertakes a descent into the belly of a chthonic or marine monster, a creature often identified as Mother Earth, the Mother of Death, or the Queen of the Night. He pursues a strenuous journey through her body, during which he encounters numerous obstacles and dangers. He finally reemerges into the world of the living, either through a natural orifice in the monster's body or through an opening that he himself creates. As numerous scholars have convincingly demonstrated, the ordeal of being ingested by a theriomorphic creature and of passing through the various channels of its body is symbolic of an initiatory ordeal whereby the hero conquers death or the fear of death and, in some cases, wins the prize of immortality.
The hero is submitted to a test or an ordeal in which he must either prove himself capable of overcoming the obstacles that lie in his path or prove himself capable of defeating the enemy that blocks his passage. The descent into the underworld is also a quest for special, esoteric knowledge or wisdom that is denied all other living beings who have not undertaken such a journey. As the possessor of this secret knowledge, the hero often serves as a mediator between the living and the dead or as a psychopomp who personally conducts the souls of the deceased to the underworld.
The typical shamanistic story of the descent into the underworld is exemplified in a tale of the Goldi peoples of Siberia. A shaman traps the soul of the deceased in a sacred pillow by beating his sacred drum. After mounting a notched tree in order to get a preview of the journey to follow, he summons two tutelary spirits to assist along the way and then, with the deceased and his ghostly companions, sets off on a specially prepared dogsled, furnished with a basket of food for nourishment. After encountering numerous obstacles along the way, the travelers arrive in the underworld. Using a fictitious name to protect his identity, the shaman deposits the deceased with his relatives in the underworld. He then returns immediately, armed with warm greetings and small gifts for the living from their subterranean kinsmen.
A prototypical example of the story in which the descent into the underworld is symbolically identified with the return to the mother's womb is found in the religious lore of the Maori of New Zealand. Maui, the heroic representative of the Maori, returned at the end of his life to the hut of his ancestress, Hine-nui-te-po, the Great Mistress (of the Night). He leapt into her body as she slept, made his way without difficulty through the various channels within her body, and had just emerged halfway from her open mouth when the birds that had accompanied him burst into laughter. Aroused by the screech of the birds' laughter, the ancestress abruptly clamped her mouth shut and cut the hero in two with her sharp teeth. Because of this misfortune, humans ever since have been mortal; had Maui successfully escaped his ancestress's body, they would have become immortal.
Many tribal peoples situate the land of the dead in the west, on the western side of the world, or simply at some distance west of the village. Many scholars (most notably E. B. Tylor and F. Max Müller) have argued that this practice is confirmation that most myths and rituals pertaining to the journey to the underworld are elaborations of a core solar myth.
While there no doubt is a kernel of truth in this view, there are other equally significant layers of meaning invested in these stories and practices. One important theme concerns the descent of a hero into the belly of a ferocious marine creature and his reemergence through the mouth or anus of the beast in an effort to conquer death and gain immortality. A second theme is of an arduous journey through wild and monster-infested areas in search of a precious object (magical ring, sacred fruit, golden vessel, elixir of immortality, etc.) that will benefit the hero or his people. In a third theme, a tribesman submits himself to a deadly ordeal in order to pass from a lower to a higher stage of existence and thereby achieves a superhuman or heroic state of being. In yet another theme, a hero shoulders the onerous task of traveling to the subterranean regions where the Mother of Death or the Queen of the Night reigns supreme, thereby gaining knowledge of the route to the shadowy realm and of the fate of those who reside there.
The afterlife of the Egyptian nobility is described in the Pyramid Texts. Royalty were believed to ascend at death to the Blessed Lands, or Fields of the Blessed, in the heavens. According to the Pyramid Texts, members of the aristocracy traveled to the celestial spheres to dwell there like gods, often traveling on the ship belonging to Re, the sun god. Highly elaborate and expensive mortuary rites, charms, and incantations were offered for the nobility to guarantee that the soul of the deceased would enjoy a blissful existence in the world beyond. The life in that world is largely similar to this one but is free of the difficulties and misfortunes that plague the lives of even the powerful and wealthy. The afterlife of the common people is outlined in the Coffin Texts. Commoners were believed either to remain near the tomb after death or to travel to the netherworld.
The dead traveled to many different realms, some to the east but most to the west. It is now believed that the dead went in different directions because the disembodied spirits were thought to move about with the sun and the stars. The west was the primary destination of the souls (ka ) of the dead. Darkness and night were identified symbolically with death and postmortem existence. The realm of the dead was located sometimes in the sky and sometimes beneath the earth. This region was ruled by Osiris, the king of the dead. While still a mortal, Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth and then resurrected by his sister-wife Isis. He subsequently became the chief ruler of the nether realm.
Assyria and Babylonia
In the views of the ancient Akkadians and Babylonians, the underworld is a dreadful place. To get there one has to pass through seven gates and remove a piece of clothing at each. The realm is organized on the order of a political state under the tyrannical rule of a king and a queen, Nergal and Ereshkigal. In the text entitled "Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World" (Pritchard, 1969, p. 107), this realm of the dead is described as
the Land of no Return … the dark house … which none leave who have entered it … the road from which there is no way back, the house wherein the entrants are bereft of light, where dust is their fare and clay their food. Where they see no light, residing in darkness, where they are clothed like birds, with wings for garments, and where over the door and bolt is spread dust.
Once in the underworld, the fate of the deceased is improved or worsened depending on whether the body is buried according to the prescribed funeral rites and is provided by the living with food, clothing, and other accoutrements required for the journey to the other realm.
One name for the netherworld is Kigal ("the great subterranean realm"). Kigal is an element in the name of Ereshkigal, the "queen of the underworld" and sister of Ishtar. This domain was also known as Kutu, the sacred city of Nergal, a chthonic deity who was lord of the netherworld. The gateway through which each soul is required to pass is situated in the west, where the Babylonians watched the descent of the sun. All graves provide entrance to this shadowy realm. Having entered the main gate, the dead are then ferried across the river Hubur by a four-handed, fierce-faced ferryman to "the Great City." This city is a gigantic metropolis, encircled by seven walls, each wall surmounted by a gate and each gate guarded by a demon. At the very center of the complex is the lapis lazuli of Ereshkigal. Befitting her position as queen of the realm, she is surrounded by numerous attendants: a plague god who executes her orders, a scribe who announces the names of the new arrivals, and seven fierce, iron-willed judges called the Anunnaki. There are a host of demons who spread pestilence and suffering throughout humanity and keep the queen plentifully supplied with new residents.
Greece and Rome
In ancient Greece the belief in the postmortem survival of the soul stretches back to earliest times, as is suggested by evidence of food, drink, clothing, and entertainment provided in the grave. Already in Homer a clear distinction between the corpse and the ghost was made. The Iliad (3.278-279, 19.259) contains the belief that the gods punished or rewarded souls at death. It was thought that the souls of the living are supplied from the stock of souls in Hades.
Despite the rich stock of ideas native to the Greek islands regarding the dead and the underworld, from the time of Homer Greek writers showed no hesitation in drawing freely from other religious traditions and in synthesizing these foreign elements with indigenous material. Most of the borrowed elements were derived from Egypt (particularly the Osiris cult and the Book of Going Forth by Day ) and from Mycenae. From Crete they adopted the idea of elusion ("paradise") and the figure of Rhadamanthys (one of the three infernal judges). From Mycenae they received the idea of weighing the soul in the balance.
The earliest Greek accounts of the postmortem journey of the soul to the underworld are to be found in the Iliad (1.595, 3.279, 5.395–396, 15.187–188) and in the Odyssey (11). At the moment of death, the soul (psuche ) is separated from the body, transformed into a ghostly double of the person (eidōlon ), and transported down to Hades, an enormous cavern below the surface of the earth (Odyssey 11.204–222). Here the souls of the dead are capable only of "flitting around as shadows while exuding shrill chirping sounds." This dismal domain is the very antithesis of the realm of the "blazing sun"; it is a place where one sees only "the cold dead" and is an altogether "joyless region." The shades of the dead are unconscious and incommunicative until they have imbibed a quantity of blood, the essence of life. So morally neutral is the life of the dead that all distinctions pertaining to social station, political position, and religious latitude are obliterated, thus rendering even a mean and destitute existence in the world highly preferable (Odyssey 11.487–491) to the office of rulership over Hades.
In ancient Greek cosmology, Hades lies within the ocean, perpetually shrouded in clouds and mist. Here there is no sunlight, only eternal darkness. The shades are depicted as being weak and extremely melancholy, always in search of escape from their sufferings and finding none. Especially painful are the sufferings of those who were either not properly buried on earth or not suitably nourished with sacrificial food offerings. The dire nature of the torments suffered by the inmates is graphically depicted in the story of Tantalos. Standing in water up to his chin, he found to his chagrin that the water mysteriously evaporated each time he sought to quench his thirst; surrounded by flowering fruit trees, he found that the wind blew the fruit away as he reached out to grasp it (Odyssey 11.582–592). Hades is separated from the realm of the living by a treacherous body of water, made up of five rivers (Lethe, Styx, Phlegethon, Acheron, and Cocytus). The entrance is guarded by Kerberos, a ferocious dog with three (earlier poets said fifty or one hundred) heads whose necks are encircled by venomous serpents. Here Minos judges the deeds of the deceased and provides the laws that govern them in the underworld. But the evidence seems to indicate that none of the laws meted out justice in the form of rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.
According to Vergil, Rhadamanthys presides over a court of justice in which a variety of corporeal, mental, and spiritual retributions are distributed according to the nature of sins committed in the upper world. Nowhere in all of world literature is the drastic distinction between the two destinies after death presented in more painfully dramatic terms than in his Aeneid:
This is the place where the road divides and leads in two directions: one way is to the right and extends under the ramparts of Dis [i.e., Pluto] to Elysium [i.e., Paradise], but the left path leads to the evil realms of Tartarus, where the penalties for sin are exacted. To his left Aeneas spots a deep cave enclosed by a triple fortification around which flows Phlegethon, seething with flames and tossing rocks about in its tumultous torrents. (6.540–579)
Aeneas encounters a gargantuan door that even the gods are powerless to penetrate, guarded by the ever-wakeful Tisiphone (one of the Furies). From inside, he hears horrifying groans and wailings from victims being lashed with whips and chains. Within this dismal kingdom of darkness and death reside a host of personifications of abstract entities: Grief and Cares, Diseases, Senility, Fear, Hunger, Toil, War, Discord, and countless other forces that afflict the life of every creature with misfortune and distress.
Not until the time of Plato does one encounter the notion that the righteous will be feted with sumptuous banquets "with garlands on their heads," or that the wicked will be plunged into a pit filled with mud, "where they will be forced to carry water in a sieve" (Republic 2.373c–d). Plato may have believed that the earthly experience of the fear of Hades is equivalent to being there already and that the suffering inflicted by a guilty conscience is sufficient punishment for the wicked act committed. This view coincides with the theory that Plato adopted many primitive beliefs about the fate of the soul and gave moral and psychological interpretations to allegorical tales (see Gorgias 493a–c). Similarly, for the poet and philosopher Empedocles the psuche ("soul") is the bearer of guilt, and the world of the senses is the Hades where the individual suffers for that guilt (frags. 118, 121). Also, Plato, who perhaps more than any other ancient thinker shows a genuine concern for the immortality of the soul and the judgment it undergoes after death, presents divine rewards and punishments in terms of reincarnation into a better or worse earthly life, rather than in terms of heaven and hell. In the Laws (904d) he suggests that Hades is not a place but a state of mind and adds that popular beliefs regarding Hades should be invested with symbolic value only.
References to the underworld in the Hebrew scriptures are vague and derive largely from beliefs common throughout the ancient Near East (especially Egypt and Babylonia). Numerous terms are used to designate this shadowy realm, the two most popular names being Sheʾol (a word that seems peculiar to Hebrew) and Geiʾ Hinnom (Gr., Geenna; Eng., Gehenna ). Some euphemistic substitutes for the latter are erets ("earth" or "underworld," 1 Sm. 28:13, Jb. 10:21–22), qever ("grave," Ps. 88:12), ʿafar ("dust," Is. 26:5), bor ("pit," Is. 14:15), and shaḥat ("pit," Ps. 7:16; "the land of darkness," Jb. 10:21).
The historical Gehenna, or Geiʾ Hinnom—"Valley of ben Hinnom," or "Valley [of the son(s) of] Hinnom"—was located near the city of Jerusalem at the site of a cult in which children were sacrificed (2 Kgs. 23:10, Jer. 7:31); it was known popularly as the "Valley of Slaughter" (Jer. 19:5–6). Even before this time, the valley was used as a site for human sacrifices to the god Moloch (2 Chr. 33:8), and afterward, as a place where the city's rubbish was burned. In mythology, Gehenna was located beneath the earth or at the base of a mountain range (Jon. 2:7) or beneath the waters of the cosmic ocean (Jb. 26:5). This realm is sometimes pictured as a horrifying monster with mouth agape (Is. 5:14), a realm where persons of all classes are treated as equals (Ez. 32:18–32).
Sheʾol is another term used to designate the realm of the dead or the subterranean spirit world, where the destinies of the righteous and the wicked are the same. Heaven and Sheʾol are thought to be the two farthest extremities of the universe (Am. 9:2). Sheʾol is positioned at the nadir of a dark pit at the very base of the universe, into which the blasphemer who aspires to be equal with God will fall. But the term also refers simply to the state of death or to the grave (see Prv. 23:13–14, Ps. 89:49). The viability of this interpretation of the term is further confirmed by the fact that the Septaugint frequently translates sheʾol as thanatos ("death").
The Hebrew scriptures place the domain of the dead at the center of the earth, below the floor of the sea (Is. 14:13–15, Jb. 26:5). Some passages locate the gates that mark the boundary of Sheʾol in the west. This realm has been depicted as a place pervaded by dust and darkness (Jb. 10:21–22), as it was in Mesopotamian thought. In contrast to the Babylonian netherworld, which boasted a large company of demonic creatures, both the Hebraic underworld and heaven are ruled over by one and the same God whose sovereignty extends throughout the universe (Ps. 139:7–8, Prv. 15:11, Am. 9:2). There is a strong suggestion in Psalm 73 that God will manifest his grace to the righteous by taking them to heaven, where they will exist eternally with him. The people of God will, therefore, be saved from Sheʾol to live with God forever, but the unrighteous will face a deprived existence in the chambers of the subterranean regions (Ps. 49).
According to the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch (22:9–13), Sheʾol is not an abode of all the dead, where the souls merely exist as vague shadowy figures devoid of individual characteristics, but is a spacious realm with three subdivisions: One realm is allotted to the righteous who have been vindicated in life, one to sinners who were not submitted to divine judgment before death, and one to those whose deeds were judged during life and found wanting. in time, Sheʾol came to be identified with Gehenna, the pit of torment, an idea that, in turn, informed the Christian concept of Hell (Hb. 2:5).
In the postbiblical Jewish apocalyptic tradition, among the seven heavens that extend above the earth, sinners are confined to the second heaven to await final judgment. North of Eden lies Gehenna, where dark fires perpetually smolder and a river of flames flows through a land of biting cold and ice. Here the wicked suffer numerous tortures (2 En. 3–9).
Elsewhere within the same book, the Angel of Death inquires of Jehoshua whether there are any gentiles (or "descendants of Esau") in Paradise or any Children of Israel in Hell. Included in the reply is the observation that those descendants of Esau who performed righteous deeds on earth are rewarded here but sent to Hell after death; Israelites on the other hand receive punishment while living and inherit the joys of Paradise after death. According to Josephus Flavius (37–100 ce), historian of the Jewish War of 66–70, the Essenes of the Dead Sea area believed that the righteous retire to the western region, where their lives are undisturbed by rain, cold, or heat and where they enjoy cooling breezes continuously. The wicked, however, are condemned to a dark, chilly hell where they suffer eternal torments.
New Testament writers drew upon the postexilic Hebraic picture of Gehenna in formulating their understanding of the destination of the damned. Gehenna was imagined to be an enormous, deep pit that perpetually ejects clouds of putrid-smelling smoke from burning garbage, a pit where bodies of criminals and lepers are disposed of. Two significant alterations in the Hebraic concept of hell deserve mention: (1) there is a much sharper distinction between the realm of the blessed and the realm of the damned, and (2) the standard applied at the Last Judgment is defined by a person's attitude toward the person of Jesus and his teachings. In the Gospels the prevailing concept of the underworld is epitomized in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19–31). It would appear that the rich man is sent to Hell merely on account of his great wealth in this realm, whereas Lazarus is transported to "the bosom of Abraham" (Heaven, Paradise) in recompense for his sufferings and poverty. Hell is imagined as an invisible world, situated beneath the realm of the living, a blazing inferno of such intensity that even a drop of water applied to the tip of the tongue could bring welcome relief. It is also a distant land beyond a great gulf across which no movement is possible in either direction.
Whereas Hades remains at a great remove from the realm of the living, Paradise is situated in the immediate presence of God. The wicked in Hades and the righteous dead "at home with the Lord" await the final resurrection.
According to the eschatology of the Book of Revelation, a millennial reign is followed by the resurrection of the saints, and then by a period of universal conflict at the end of which Satan will be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone, preparatory to the resurrection of the remaining dead and the Last Judgment. Both Death and Hades are hypostatized as subterranean vaults that surrender the dead to be judged, after which Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire, thus actualizing "the second death," that is, condemnation to the eternal fires of Hell (Rv. 20:11–15, 21:8). The remarkable feature of this account of "final events" is that Hell is homologized with the lake of fire to which the wicked are condemned, and it is itself punished by being cast into the same lake of torment. Supposedly the cosmic cataclysm that signals the termination of the current world order, the final defeat of Death and Satan and the Last Judgment, is a preview of the fate of the wicked in Hell. The nature of Hades can be inferred from the depiction of the realm of the blessed as a perpetually sunlit land in which the righteous are never discomfited by the blazing sun. There they are faithfully fed by the divine shepherd, refreshed by ever-flowing fountains, and relieved of their tears of grief.
Augustine (354–430 ce), the father of early medieval theology, perpetuated the concept of Hell as a bottomless pit containing a lake of fire and brimstone where both the bodies and the souls of humans and the ethereal bodies of devils are tormented (City of God 21.10). Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) laid much of the foundation for the philosophical concept of Hell that shaped and informed the idea of Hell in the minds of poets, painters, sculptors, and novelists for centuries to come. For him, Hell never lacks space to accommodate the damned. it is a place where unhappiness infinitely exceeds all unhappiness of this world, a place of eternal damnation and torment where the suffering of the damned is intensified by recalling the glory of the blessed while no longer able to perceive the glory firsthand.
Dante (1265–1321) derived the theological framework for his notion of the underworld from the Old and New Testaments and Thomas. In the third chapter of the Inferno he describes the descent into Hell. Accompanied by his guide Vergil, Dante approaches the Inferno and sees the gate of Hell, the entrance to the city whose inhabitants live in suffering and eternal pain. Dante is conducted along a circular pathway leading from the gateway to the bottommost zone of Hell. He passes in succession through nine separate circular zones, each of which contains smaller cells where individuals or groups of the damned live. Charon waits on the near bank of the river Styx, ready to ferry his miserable passengers across the waters. As Dante and his guide move from circle to circle they encounter a variety of types of sinners sorted into groups according to their chief vices. On reaching the fourth ring of the ninth circle, the two travelers are confronted by Dis (Lucifer), who with his three mouths devours Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. The arduous journey of Dante and Vergil through the Inferno is completed with a horrifying descent into the interior of the body of Lucifer. Finally they arrive at a spot situated directly beneath the place of Christ's crucifixion on Mount Golgotha from where they once more see the stars.
The history of Christianity is dotted with periodic expressions of heretical dissent concerning the existence of Hell, notably by Origen, Erigena, Voltaire, and Nietzsche. But it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when rationalism began to find its voice, that a widespread decline of belief in Hell developed in Western culture. The concept of Hell as an actual spatial domain has virtually disappeared or been reduced to the level of allegorical interpretation. This transformation of the idea is exemplified in The Fall in Camus's warning "Don't wait for the Final Judgment. It takes place every day" and in Sartre's declaration in his play No Exit that "hell is other people."
Cosmology appears to have been a matter of interest in early Islam not for its own sake but "only as a doctrinal framework for understanding the cosmic field of divine providence and human accountability" (Smith, 1981, p. 9). Muhammad himself does not seem to have held to a clearly defined and detailed picture of a realm of the dead.
According to the Qurʾān, there are seven layers of heaven extending above the earth toward the celestial abode of God. Corresponding to the layers of heaven are seven descending depths of a vast funnel-shaped fire (alnār ). The topmost level of the netherworlds is Gehenna. This realm of death and torment is connected to the world of the living by a bridge that all the souls of the dead must traverse on the day of judgment. The varieties of punishment meted out to the damned become more painful and severe with each level of descent.
At the partition between Paradise and the Fire stands Zaqqum, a tree that exudes a stifling odor and has blossoms composed of demons' heads. Eating the fruit of Zaqqum burns the stomach like molten metal (surah 7:46–50). The tree separates the two worlds, yet provides a point from which a person can see both realms simultaneously. Beside it is a wall or barrier that divides humanity into separate classes according to the moral quality of their deeds in the temporal world.
Each of the seven fiery realms is assigned a specific name. An inventory of these names reflects the Muslim attitude toward nonbelievers: hāwiyah (abyss for hypocrites), jaḥīm (fierce fire for idolators), saʿīr (blazing fire for Sabaeans), jahannam (purgatorial fire for Muslims), lazā (flaming fire for Christians), saqar (scorching fire for the Magi), and ḥuṭamah (raging fire for Jews).
The Qurʾān depicts Gehenna in highly pictorial and terrifying terms. It is referred to as the "Fire of Hell" (89:23) and is depicted as a kind of four-legged beast. Each leg is composed of seventy thousand demons; each demon has thirty thousand mouths. Each of the seven layers of the Fire is punctuated by a gate manned by a guardian who torments the damned. The term Gehenna refers both to the topmost sphere and to the entire realm of seven spheres. Whenever this beast of hell is transported to the place of final judgment, it sends forth a buzzing, groaning, and rattling noise, along with sparks and smoke that shrouds the entire horizon in total darkness (15:43–44, 39:71).
The realms of the blessed and the damned are separated by a towering wall. Those who inhabit the heights of this partition can view the inhabitants of both worlds and recognize each group by their distinguishing marks. The blessed are recognizable by their smiling countenances; the damned, by their black faces and blue eyes (57:13). There is also a hint of the existence of a purgatory or limbo for beings whose deeds are neither extremely good nor extremely bad.
Both the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth present a wide variety of reasons why a person may be condemned to a life of torment. The fundamental cause is lack of belief in God and in the message of his prophet, Muḥammad. Other reasons include the following: lying, corruption, lack of faith, blasphemy, denial of the advent of the judgment day and of the reality of the Fire, and lack of charity. Leading a life of luxury and believing that wealth brings immortality also lead to condemnation.
The postmortem journey of the soul of the redeemed or the blessed through the various layers of Heaven in the company of the archangel Gabriel is contrasted with the difficult and painful journey of the souls of the damned downward through the many spheres of Fire. The victims of the torments of Gehenna are represented as sighing and wailing in their wretched condition (11:106). Their skins are alternately scorched to a black crisp and then renewed so that they can suffer the torments of Fire over and over again. They are compelled to wear garments made of fire or scalding pitch, and boiling water is poured onto their heads, melting their insides and skins. Iron hooks are used to retrieve them every time they try to escape (22:19–22).
In time, Muslim theologians began to emphasize God's grace and mercy and to downplay his anger and wrath. The belief arose that after a certain period of purgation the angel Gabriel would intercede on the sinner's behalf and release him from the Fire. It was later believed that in time the Fire would be extinguished and all sinners pardoned.
Vedic references to an underworld are so few in number and so vaguely conceived that many scholars have argued that Vedic religion lacked a concept of hell. More recent studies (see Brown, 1941) have demonstrated that references to a realm of postmortem suffering do signal a genuine, if relatively undeveloped, conception of hell in the Vedic literature.
According to Ṛgveda 7.104 and Atharvaveda 8.4, the Vedic Hell is situated beneath the three earths, below the created order. It is characterized as a gigantic, bottomless chasm or abyss, a place of no return. In this infinitely deep pit, there is no light, only deep darkness (cf. Ṛgveda 2.29.6). In the very deepest realm lies the cosmic serpent, the archdemon Vrtra (Ṛgveda 1.32.10), who fell there after Indra slew him.
Some texts describe the Vedic Hell as insufferably hot or unbearably cold. It is a realm of absolute silence (Ṛgveda 7.104.5) and of total annihilation, a state that is depicted semi-anthropomorphically as lying in the lap of Nirṛti, the destroyer. This region of eternal torment is populated not by those who committed wrongs inadvertently but by those who consciously and intentionally pursued unrighteous ends: Vṛtra, antidivine forces (asuras and dasyus ), demonic powers (rākṣasas ), and sorceresses (yoginīs ) dwell here. The inhabitants of Hell are those who live at cross-purposes with the universal law (ṛta ).
Hell stands in an antithetical relation to the ordered universe, based not on ṛta but anṛta. Here there is no order, no gods, no sun, no warmth, no fecundating waters, nor any of the elements vital to the creation and maintenance of creaturely existence. Here in the lap of destruction (nirṛti ), there is only death and nonexistence (asat ). It is the opposite of the created, ordered, and illuminated realm.
Later, in the Vedānta, hell came to be conceived in more strictly philosophical terms as the realm of pure nonbeing. Contrasted with this was the realm of being (sat ), the realm of living beings and of life itself that came to be referred to as brahman, the limitless and indefinable fulcrum of being.
In the Upaniṣads, the paths leading to the realms of the blessed and the wretched are envisioned as the way of the ancestors and the way of the gods, respectively. Little importance is accorded to the idea of hell as the destiny of the unrighteous. The emphasis is rather on rebirth as the consequence of an unrighteous past life. In the Yama-Naciketas episode in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, the young man Naciketas receives instruction on the postmortem state from Yama, the lord of the dead. Rather than directly addressing a matter so subtle that not even the gods understand it, Yama informs Naciketas of two paths leading to different ends: the way of pleasure and the way of goodness. Yama recommends that Naciketas choose the latter, thereby avoiding rebirth.
But in the Purāṇas (collections of classical Hindu mythologies), hells are depicted in terrifyingly graphic terms as places of extreme suffering and deprivation. In the Rāmāyaṇa (7.21.10–20), Rāvaṇa, the ten-headed demon, witnesses a scene of indescribable wretchedness on entering Yama's abode. He hears the agonizing cries of the wicked being gnawed by dogs and devoured by worms. Pitiful screams shoot across the Vaitarani River from parched people on hot sand who are being sawed in half. The thirsty cry out for water; the hungry, for food. Pale, emaciated specters run to and fro. The righteous, on the other hand, inhabit grand palaces and dine on sumptuous meals, surrounded by beautiful, sweet-smelling maidens dressed in exquisite garments. In the Mahābhārata (12.2.25) Yudhiṣṭhira is ushered into an enormous dark chamber that is cluttered with foul-smelling hair, heaps of raw flesh, and countless pools of blood, corpses, worms, deformed animals, hideous monsters of incomparable ugliness, and ghosts of terrifying presence. As will become standard in the later Purāṇas, a specific form of punishment is assigned to each of the subterranean chambers. In the underworld called Kumbhīpāka ("cooked victuals") the wicked are boiled alive in giant vats of boiling oil; in Śalmali, thorns from a silk-cotton tree are used to torture the wicked.
The Agni Purāṇa (chaps. 340 and 342), one of the eighteen major collections of classical mythology, perpetuate a theme that blossomed in the Upaniṣads. This is the idea that the course of a person's life in this world is governed by the ritual and moral quality of his deeds. One's experience in the next world is governed by the fruits of those deeds. Yama determines the infernal region to which each wicked soul repairs or the womb into which it is to be born, according to the deeds of the previous existence. The terrifying members of Yama's retinue usher the soul to a place where they prepare an account of its good and evil deeds. The soul initially reaps the benefits of its good deeds in the form of physical and spiritual delights, after which it is returned to hell for a period of suffering in order to purge the residual effects of its evil deeds. If the number of merits outweighs the demerits, the person is reborn into a pure and prosperous family; if the obverse is the case, he may be committed to a lengthy life of suffering in one of the hells or be reborn as an animal, insect, or other base form of life.
The pathways connecting this world with the various hells are dreadful to behold and extend for a total of 164,000 human miles. According to most classical cosmologies, there are a total of 28 major infernal regions situated below the lowest stratum of another 7 netherworlds. Each region lies along a vertical line of descent and is subdivided into 144 smaller chambers, to each of which is assigned an appellation describing its definitive characteristics, for example: Ghora ("horrifying"), Taralatara ("trembling"), Bhayanaka ("terrifying"), Kālarātri ("dark night of devouring time"), and Dīpta ("the blazing realm").
Each chamber is presided over by five guards with the terrifying faces of carnivorous animals and birds, who administer the form of punishment appropriate to the place. The guards cast their condemned wards into dreadful places of punishment. Some souls are cast into gigantic frying skillets or into caldrons filled with boiling oil, molten copper, or iron, while others are tossed onto the upturned tips of sharp pointed lances. Others are submitted to severe lashings with leather straps or heavy bastinados or are forced to drink beverages of boiling metals or noxious solutions of animal urine and human excreta. Still others are broken physically on the rack, dismembered, and then parceled out to vultures, hyenas, and other avaricious creatures of the infernal regions. Each of these dreadful realms is filled with the sounds of screaming, wailing, and moaning.
Among a growing number of religious intelligentsia the world over, both heaven and hell are gradually being sublimated or transmuted into psychological entities or realms, with the personal and collective unconscious serving as the source of both positive and negative feelings, images, and attitudes. Even the general mass of people in industrialized countries who claim to retain a belief in an underworld of some description have, in practice, largely transposed many of the ideas and themes previously associated with the underworld (e.g., divine judgment, suffering, torment, disease, death, and mental and physical anguish) into the arena of contemporary human affairs.
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Ancient Near Eastern Religions
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Greek and Roman Religions
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Carey, John. "The Irish Other-World: Hiberno-Latin Perspectives." Éigse. A Journal of Irish Studies 25 (1991): 154–159.
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Cumont, Franz. Lux Perpetua. Paris, 1949.
Eilen, Gardiner, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. New York, 1989.
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Gowan, Donald E. Eschatology in the Old Testament. Philadelphia, 1986.
Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Divine Verdict: A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. Leiden, 1991.
Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York, 1979.
Himmelfarb, Martha. Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature. Philadelphia, 1983.
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Hughes, Robert. Heaven and Hell in Western Art. New York, 1968.
Iverson, Kenneth W. Death to Dust: What happens to Dead Bodies. Tucson, 1994.
Klostermaier, Klaus. Mythologies and Philosophies of Salvation in the Theistic Traditions of India. Waterloo, 1984.
Lang, Bernhard. "Afterlife: Ancient Israel's Changing Vision of the World Beyond." Bible Review 4 (1988): 12–23.
Le Goff, Jacques. La naissance du Purgatoire. Paris, 1981 (English ed. The Birth of Purgatory, transl. by Arthur Goldhammer. London, 1984).
Moraldi, Luigi. L'aldilà dell'uomo, nelle civiltà babilonese, egizia, greca, latina, ebraica, cristiana e musulmana, con il testo dell'Apocalissi di Paolo. Milano, 1985.
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Park, Joseph S. Conceptions of Afterlife in Jewish Inscriptions. Tübingen, 2000.
Rohde, Erwin. Psyche. Seelenkult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen. Tübingen 18982.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton, 1997.
Spronk, Klaas. Beatific Afterlife in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East. Kevelaer, 1986.
Toon, Peter. Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview. Nashville, 1986.
Whaley, Joachim, ed. Mirrors of mortality. Studies in the Social History of Death. London, 1981.
Xella, Paolo, ed. Archeologia dell'inferno: l'aldilà nel mondo antico vicino-orientale e classico. Verona, 1987.
J. Bruce Long (1987)
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