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The Borders of Hell (Inferno, Canto IV)


“…and that,” finished Ronnie James Dio, “is why I would have made a kickass professional basketball player.”

“Uh huh,” I responded. For lo, though I had dozed my patchy way through Dio’s ramblings, our boat had crossed the flaming river Phlegethon and bumped up on the rocky beach of Sai no Kawara. There we trudged past the souls of countless children, all clad in rags. As we watched, they stacked upon themselves small stones in paltry piles. “What are they doing?” I asked. “They are trying to build towers to climb to Heaven,” answered Dio. “The poor fools. They brought their parents grief in life, and thus they are excluded here upon the shores of Hell. Much like myself.” He paused. “I’m keeping a spot all warmed up for Meat Loaf,” he added. As we left the beach, the terrible Datsue-ba, a dreadful, haglike creature, flew at child after child. Each one in turn endured the iron club of Datsue-ba, who perpetually beat them and tore at their rags. “This seems,” I said, “unfair, to say the least.”

Dio shrugged. “Take it up with Kṣitigarbha. He has dominion over this desolate place. But before you do, look yonder.” He pointed an immaculately-manicured finger at the gloom where, from the smoke and ruin of Hell’s outskirts, emerged an ebon Cyclopean wall, split by a tall and wicked-looking iron gate. “Here we begin our descent in earnest,” said he. “But worry not. The powers of the Prince of Darkness will protect us on our journey. Let us approach the threshold.” And so, with trepidatious step, I did.


Where in the hell did Hell come from?

The tricky thing about human history – particularly ancient human history – is that for something to be remembered, it must leave something behind that endures. In the case of an extinct species, this memento may be a shell, or a skeleton, or even a footprint. For humans of bygone eras, it is most often artifacts and stories that endure, the former somewhat more unchanging than the latter over time. In the best-case scenario, we find objects that qualify as both: artifacts that, in one way or another, preserve a story and fix it in time and cultural space. If we want to know what a culture thought about, say, death and an afterlife, then the best troves of evidence we have at our disposal are burial sites with large troves of grave goods and even, occasionally, a story explicitly spelled out.

Between 3000 and 2000 BCE, we find a variety of very early written works in Babylonian and Assyrian artifacts that refer more-or-less consistently to Kur, best understood as the “world of the grave.” In these ancient references, Kur hardly qualifies as an afterlife at all. It is more of a shadow or echo of life, a mindless, ghostly existence in which the dead eat and drink dry dust. This gloomy abode (not dissimilar to the Ancient Greek concept of Hades) was ruled over by Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Great Earth. There was no moral judgment of one’s sins in Kur: the conditions of one’s shadow-life were established by funerary rites and burial conditions, if by anything.

The Ancient Egyptians would, in time, develop a complicated and morality-based myth of the afterlife, but early (1000 BCE) Egyptian culture only considered an afterlife at all for a very select few: primarily, the Pharaohs, although their vision of the hereafter would slowly democratize until the relatively late period when the Egyptian Book of the Dead originated. Similarly, the Ancient Greeks’ vision of the afterlife (which began to gel around 900 BCE) was a vision of a realm inhabited by shadows cursed to eternal speechlessness, a condition which could, fortunately, be remedied by a clever bit of necromancy. From the Greeks we also get Tartarus, the realm of punishment reserved for the most dangerous and rebellious souls, and the primordial plane where Cronus imprisoned the race of the Cyclops and the terrifying hundred-armed Hecatoncheires (I knew I’d get Virgil in there somehow!). Later, after Zeus’ rebellion, Tartarus became the prison of the Titans, a realm consistently portrayed as “below” Hades, which was itself deep, deep beneath the Earth. Tartarus was a realm of fire, and – along with our old friend Prometheus (“Forethought”), champion of humanity, bearer of forbidden knowledge, and eternally chained to a rock and punished for same – obviously deeply influenced the later apocalyptic conceptions of Hell and Satan.

Like any excellent artifice of horror, Hell took some work. We see above the elements that would go into the conception of Hell, the raw materials that would be borrowed, repurposed, and recontextualized to craft a rich, original vision of theological, philosophical, and eschatological horror.

In fact, we’ve arrived. The black gates swing wide and offer us a panoramic view of the damnable scene before us. But don’t let your courage fail, and remember! The mighty Dio, wise and powerful, is our guide and shall offer us his protection. Let’s step over the threshold and continue our journey next week, when we cross the borders of the concept widely recognized as “Hell.” We’ll pick back up in 225 BCE, with an ancient Hebrew text known as the Book of Enoch.

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For this series of blog posts, I turned to a resource that I consider indispensable, and one which anyone interested in studying the history of Hell, Satan, Ancient Mesopotamian religions, etc. should check out immediately: namely, the brilliant work of Dr. Philip A. Harland, and in particular the lecture series “A Cultural History of Satan” in his podcast/course Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.)

It is important to note that the content created for this blog is the work of disparate, brilliant authors and contributors. But that said, content does not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Madness Heart Press. — John Baltisberger

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