Why the Hell We Are Obsessed with Hell

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Why the Hell We Are Obsessed with Hell

Why are we obsessed with the reimagining of hell? And what influences our notions of the landscapes, geography, and bodies within the fiery inferno? A new book takes readers to the origins of hell and back.

This year numerous reflections on the work of Dante Alighieri have marked the 700th anniversary of the author’s death, on September 14, 1321. Hell was already a hot topic within the zeitgeist. From shows like The Good Place and Lucifer to Kanye West’s new track “Heaven and Hell” and Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” popular media is just as fixated on hellscapes as Dante’s 14th-century audiences. But where did the visual and visceral design of hell that is embedded in the Western imagination even come from?

Its origins are the focus of a new work by religion scholar Meghan Henning. The book, Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability, and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christian Literature, dissects the genesis of the early Christian idea of hell within the period of the late Roman Empire and then traces its impact over centuries to arrive at how we visualize it today.  

It is not as if the underworld were a novel invention of Christianity. Ancient Near Eastern cultures developed ideas of heroic trips to the underworld glimpsed at in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, the bard describes Odysseus’s descent into the underworld. And descriptions of the underworld were not just available via oral poetry. Ancient visualizations are mentioned in the form of a mid-5th-century BCE painter named Polygnotus. The artist took it upon himself to mix variant mythical traditions of the space in his commission to envision Hades on the wall of a building at the sacred Greek site of Delphi in a work called the “Nekyia.” Virgil — who later served as the guide to Dante — famously has Aeneas travel to the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid. Mythic journeys by Orpheus, Heracles, and others to the underworld were a favorite motif among Greek and Etruscan ceramicists and later could be found in Roman mosaics.

Carl Robert and Hermann Schenck reconstruction of the “Nekyia” at Delphi by Polygnotus (1892) (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Henning is our Virgil on this tour to discover how hell went from the Greek underworld to a space for punishment pursuant to the Christian notion of sin. As she directs us to, we must inspect early Christian writings in order to trace intellectual and religious models for the Inferno, many of which would go on to influence perceptions today. “The Apocalypse of Paul,” a Greek text written for a Christian audience between 388 to 416 CE, is noted by Dante. Later translated into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Slavonic, it was a source of inspiration for many of the basic components later incorporated into the Divine Comedy. It is a part of a genre of literary apocalypses, like the “Book of Daniel” or the “Book of Revelation”. Apocalyptic literature was popular within earlier Jewish writing as well. In the short work, the apostle Paul is a tourist led by a young angel through the levels of heaven. The particular sinners and their punishments distributed throughout the variant levels are explained in didactic detail to the apostle — to chilling effect for the reader.  

Apocalypses like that of Paul and of another called the “Apocalypse of Peter” were often read aloud in early Christian churches within the late Roman Empire, as on Good Friday. While these texts were outside the biblical canon, they were still read and spoken about, in large part because they addressed a gaping void within the New Testament. They created a literary and didactic hellscape not provided by the likes of Matthew, Luke, or any of the other writings in the gospels. In filling in these lacunae, Henning notes, it is possible to see how these apocalypses were influenced by and sometimes justified legal punishments used in the Roman Mediterranean. Laws such as the Roman lex talionis — a law of retribution akin to an eye-for-an-eye —or punishments such as being punished by being thrown “ad bestias” (toward the beasts) in the amphitheater. Early Christians existed within a particular Roman socio-legal structure of slavery, misogyny, and retributive justice they often projected or mapped onto their notions of treatment in the afterlife.

Sandro Botticelli, “Map of Hell” (1480–1490) painted parchment, illustration for an edition of The Divine Comedy, Vatican Library, Vatican City, Italy  (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The most potent parts of Hell Hath No Fury address ancient prejudices tied to the body and to gender. Henning points to how imagined bodies within hell connect directly to perceptions of real bodies in the present world — and their marginalization. Roman law and society were often cruel to non-normative bodies. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus notes that from Rome’s founding by Romulus in 753 BCE, all priests were required to be “without any bodily defects,” and other Roman authors noted the Vestal virgins similarly had to be physically pristine, in particular they could not have a speech impediment, be hearing impaired, or unable to speak. Those with mental health issues, called furiosi, and many other disabled persons in antiquity had limited legal redress and were often assigned legal guardians. The origins of the conservatorship imposed on Britney Spears, for instance, goes back to the misogyny and ableism of Roman law.

In early Christian visions of hell, the binary of righteous versus unrighteous persons is demonstrated through treatment of the body. Corporal treatment also reveals cultural constructions of masculinity and the ways in which bodies were policed in the Roman Mediterranean. It is from this cultural context that early Christian communities emerged:  

The punishments themselves rely upon ancient notions of bodily difference in order to negatively mark the bodies of the unrighteous. The bodies of the damned are blind, mute, bloody, lacerated, or spewing forth worms …. In the tours of hell, I argue, the damned inhabit disabled, female, imprisoned bodies for all of eternity. Using bodily normativity as a way to depict eternal torment relies upon familiar imagery of the body to depict the afterlife.

Scholars of early Christian martyrdom texts and saintly hagiographies have long seen the body as a central site for crafting identity. In early Christian visions of hell, the body is again the location for revealing the ostensibly “true” nature of an individual — but in the process lays bare the systems of slavery, patriarchy, and ableism that provided the scaffolding for early Christian doctrine.

Diebold Martin, “Last Judgment” (late 15th century) oil paint on wood, St. George’s Church, Haguenau, Alsace, France (image by Ralph Hammann via Wikimedia Commons)

Hell Hath No Fury provides fundamental clues as to why it seems that we cannot escape reincarnations of hell in either Dante or on Netflix. “We have a propensity to make hell on earth,” Henning notes. “Imaginary spaces and otherworldly beings are precisely what gives apocalyptic literature the ability to critique and transform real social spaces and figures in the contemporary world.” Early Christian descriptors of hell have cast a long shadow from antiquity to today. Henning retraces how the shades of this oft-overlooked literature pervade our contemporary notion of the afterlife. She also underscores how it has permeated our sensibilities surrounding notions of retribution and justice.

Scholars of the early 20th century largely ignored early Christian apocalyptic literature, writing it off as banal pop culture from the ancient world. Generations from now, scholars may want to reflect on this sidelining of apocalyptic texts when contextualizing the backlash surrounding Lil Nas X’s Montero album or seeking to explain people binge watching American Horror Story in the midst of a global pandemic. The present tension between the traditional, early Christian vision of hell and the inversion of this deeply flawed model in recent popular media is a product of a polarized society. But this questioning of the historical casting of “deviant bodies” within constructions of hell is an important way to interrogate how and why we continue to marginalize non-normative bodies today. Studies of hellscapes can be a valuable tool for recognizing and critiquing the inequity, ableism, and misogyny of the past and the present.

While only 56% of Americans now believe in hell, it remains a threat still invoked by preachers and adherents to Christianity. Recently there has been an uptick in those fundamentalists who believe even small sins deserve eternal damnation and who invoke early Christian hellscapes as a way of justifying and legitimizing their homophobia or attitudes towards premarital sex. This struggle over conceptions of hell unveils what studies of early Christian apocalyptic literature have long demonstrated: Our imagined hellscapes say more about the biases of the culture that constructs them than the actuality of an eternal inferno.

Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability, and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christian Literature by Meghan Henning is published by Yale University Press and is available via Bookshop.

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