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Welcome to Hell (Inferno, Cantos I and II)


Halfway through my life’s journey, on the evening of the Feast of Barlaam and Josaphat, I lost my way in a darkened wood and departed from the Vāmamārga.

I was low in the shadowed foothills so I thought to climb a rise, there to better see the paths before me. Scarcely had I begun to ascend when, with a commotion, my way was barred and I saw before me three terrible beasts: a sphinx, a hyena, and a viper. I was driven back to the darkness, and lamented in my despair in that lower place. It was then that the morning star broke over the horizon and with it sunrise, the blazing illumination of a new dawn, a new day. The light struck the beasts and, giving vent to savage cries, they fled and cleared the way once more. I ascended the rise with new courage. As the warmth of the morning’s magnificence spread over me and I gazed upon the landscape below, a voice behind me called my name. I turned and was embraced, clasped to the breast of a being radiant in shimmering, ethereal raiment of purest black. “I thought I recognized that voice,” said I, and threw aloft the horns.

“I have such infernal sights to show you,” said Ronnie James Dio. “Let us descend.”

“Um… No offense, but Ozzy wasn’t available?”

Dio cast a sour eye downward at his boots and sighed. “Ozzy is still alive.”

“Ah,” I replied. “Yes. Let us depart.”


The idea of hell gives me a warm feeling, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Not in the sense that I believe in a supernatural realm of the damned – no. I am not enamored of the concept of eternal anything, let alone eternal suffering. Even in my youth and as a believer, I had a hard time squaring Hell with any sort of God other than one who was frightening and incomprehensible and, it seemed to me, rather difficult to please. Contemplating Hell, I conjured the specters of monsters and tyrants and murderers and people who had badly hurt others, but even in such imagined scenarios the punishment seemed ridiculously out of all proportion to their crimes. I have always had a horror of torture and had thought of it as the very omega of human depravity. What could someone – anyone – do to deserve eternal torture? It seemed a system cooked up by a true sadist. Even at that young age, of course, I did not identify that sadist as Satan, but rather the deity who had appointed Satan Head Torturer-in-Chief in the first place.

No, what warms the cockles of my heart about Hell is how damned (ha) interesting a topic it is, when you get below the surface (double ha). Hell has ideological implications, produces insoluble theological riddles, and has a semantic and mythological pedigree that is convoluted and interesting. By peering through the gates of Hell, we can gain a valuable perspective on many questions: what is an afterlife? Where does the idea come from? How has our conception of cosmic justice changed to meet our more terrestrial attempts at same? In short: where did Hell come from, and what does it mean that so many people have come to believe in it? Certainly, it is a topic fit for discussion among fans of horror. Hell is, after all, a mythological and theological (and, I would argue, philosophical) horror story. Inasmuch as Hell has one continuous narrative to offer, it is undoubtedly one of horror.

For the next few weeks, I will be taking a look at the history of Hell, the currents in theology and philosophy that went into the construction of its onyx walls and red-hot iron coffins. I will examine what the modern conception of Hell is in the religions that believe in it, and also at belief systems that don’t. I’ll look at how Hell has influenced popular culture (and how popular culture has influenced Hell) and ask the most important question: what has the widespread belief in Hell done to humanity, and has it immanentized the eschaton?

It’s just me and Charon aboard this spacious ferry, and we’re getting ready to cast off. There’s plenty of room, if you’ve ever wanted a guided tour. We’ve opened the seal, and as a famous beast once said, “Come and see.”

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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