Jan 1, 2016

Posted by in Gods and Godesses, Occult Studies | 0 Comments

Hell: Agony Across Cultures

English: 19th century Burmese temple painting....

While the 9 circles of Hell described in Dante’s Divine Comedy is probably the most famous description of Hell in history, almost every culture around the world has their own depiction of Hell. In most folklores and mythologies, Hell is traditionally a place of torment where souls face retribution for their sins in the afterlife. In some traditions Hell is located in another dimension, while some describe it as being just beneath the Earth’s surface. Hell is often thought to be inhabited by demons that torture souls and in most cases is overseen by a death deity or ruler, such as the Devil, Hades, Hel, or Yama.

Described by the Roman Catholic Church as “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed”, the Western idea of Hell is also often associated with fire and brimstone. In most Abrahamic traditions, Hell is seen as a “lake of fire” where punishment is doled out eternally in the form of pain and guilt. Although in some belief systems the punishments are custom fitted to the sins, in others Hell is just an overall place of despair and misery that is the destination for all sinners.

In Greek mythology, dying was seen as the natural continuation of life and every person was destined to wind up in Hades, the afterlife, at some point. The realm of the dead was divided into three sections where souls would eventually end up after being judged. Tartarus is the closest equivalent to the Western concept of Hell and is where evil souls meet their reckoning. Also a prison for the Titans, Tartarus is described as a deep abyss where endless suffering is bestowed upon the souls of the wicked. Tartarus is one depiction of Hell where the punishments are fitted to the crimes, as is the case with a few of its most famous inhabitants. King Sisyphus, whose sin was claiming to be wiser than Zeus, was damned to the eternal frustration of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it slide back down right before reaching the summit, and King Ixion was strapped to a flaming wheel that continuously spun around to represent his flaming lust for Zeus’ wife, Hera. Additionally, Tartarus was said to be guarded by a nine-headed monster to prevent the souls from escaping and surrounded by the inflamed river Phlegethon.

While fire is a common theme for many descriptions of Hell, Norse mythology describes a very different environment for Niflheim, home to its wicked souls. Niflheim is thought to be the deepest, darkest of the nine worlds, and is known for its freezing landscape. Ruled by Hel, the death goddess and daughter of Loki, Niflheim is located next to the Shore of Corpses and inhabited by the great snake, Nidhogg, who feeds on the dead. Souls delivered to Niflheim by Hel’s messenger, Hermodr, are believed to be kept in constant pain.

Unlike the previous, more permanent portrayals of Hell, in some versions of Hinduism and Buddhism souls are sent to Naraka for only the amount of time it takes to repair their karma. Although in some cases that can be billions of years, once they have paid their debt the souls can be reborn. Naraka has been described as having as many as a thousand different levels and a soul’s placement depends on the sins that were committed during life. For example, sinners who kill animals are boiled in hot oil in one realm, while in another realm those who gain from others’ expense have their flesh eaten by a serpent demon. In Hindu religion, Naraka is ruled over by Yama, the God of Justice, who delves out the punishments. However, according to Buddhism, Naraka has no ruler and is visited by every soul in order to balance their karma and pay for their sins.

Similar to and believed to be derived from Naraka, the Chinese mythological version of Hell is called Diyu. Diyu is a place where souls pay for their sins and are prepared for reincarnation. Diyu is described as a subterranean labyrinth with anywhere from 4 to 18 levels that are each ruled by an accompanying deity. Some of the punishments that are bestowed include boiling in oil, burning, dismemberment, and drowning in blood, among many more. In some Chinese folklore, it is said that new hells and punishments are developed along with the changing world and there is even a realm where souls who have committed new grievances await the creation of an appropriate punishment.

These are just a few of the several fascinating depictions of Hell imagined by different cultures. Each description of Hell is unique in its own way, but the common theme of torment, despair, and pain are present in every version. Across cultures people seem to be adamant that the only way to repay for sin or to cleanse the soul is through torture, therefore Hell is a place designated for the allotting of agony. As long as there is a need for a place to punish the wicked, a realm to repay for our wrongs, or a domain to induce fear and encourage deterrence, then Hell will continue to maintain its this nightmarish status as a kingdom of suffering and affliction.

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