[ Charting the origins of the Christian idea of a vast underground
realm where the souls of sinners were hauled to suffer eternal
punishments by fiends, the author walks readers through a panoply of
sadistic fantasies long considered revealed truths.]




 Stephen Greenblatt 
 December 20, 2018
New York Review of Books

	* [https://portside.org/node/19084/printable/print]

 _ Charting the origins of the Christian idea of a vast underground
realm where the souls of sinners were hauled to suffer eternal
punishments by fiends, the author walks readers through a panoply of
sadistic fantasies long considered revealed truths. _ 

 Herri met de Bles: Hell, mid-sixteenth century, credit: Palazzo
Ducale, Venice // New York Review of Books 


“I think hell’s a fable,” the famous professor proclaimed—a
surprising declaration not only because it was made in the late
sixteenth century, when very few people would have dared to say such a
thing, but also because he was at that moment in conversation with a
devil to whom he was offering to sell his soul. The professor in
question was Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s great
Elizabethan tragedy. Bored with his mastery of philosophy, medicine,
and law, Faustus longs for forbidden knowledge. “Where are you
damned?” he asks Mephastophilis, the devil whom he has conjured up.
“In hell,” comes the prompt reply, but Faustus remains skeptical:
“How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The devil’s
answer is quietly devastating: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of

Did Marlowe, a notorious freethinker who declared (according to a
police report) that “the first beginning of Religioun was only to
keep men in awe,” actually believe in the literal existence of hell?
Did he imagine that humans would pay for their misdeeds (or be
rewarded for their virtues) in the afterlife? Did he think that there
was a vast underground realm to which the souls of sinners were hauled
off to suffer eternal punishments meted out by fiends? It is difficult
to say, but it is clear that hell was good for the theater business in
his time, as exorcism has been good for the film industry in our own.
In his diary, the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe inventoried
the props that were in storage in the Rose Theater. They included one
rock, one cage, one tomb, and one hellmouth, the latter perfect for
receiving a sinner like Faustus at the end of act 5.

There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on
his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s
first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic
in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they
thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple
rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill”
unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In _Doctor
Faustus_, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment;
audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the
performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared
instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all
too true. This is a familiar story. We humans have a way of turning
our wildest imaginations into unquestionable beliefs, the foundations
on which we construct some of our most elaborate and enduring
institutions. In matters of faith, the boundary between make-believe
and reality is porous.


The Penguin Book of Hell
Scott G Bruce, ed., 
Penguin/Random House; 304 pages
Paperback:  $17.00; E-book:  $12.99
September 4, 2018


_The Penguin Book of Hell_, edited by the Fordham history professor
Scott Bruce, is an anthology of sadistic fantasies that for millions
of people over many centuries laid a claim to sober truth. Not all
people in all cultures have embraced such fantasies. Though the
ancient Egyptians were obsessively focused on the afterlife, it was
not suffering in the Kingdom of the Dead that most frightened them but
rather ceasing altogether to exist. At the other extreme, in ancient
Greece the Epicureans positively welcomed the idea that when it was
over it was over: after death, the atoms that make up body and soul
simply come apart, and there is nothing further either to fear or to
crave. Epicurus was not alone in thinking that ethical behavior should
not have to depend on threats and promises: Aristotle’s
great _Nicomachean Ethics_ investigates the sources of moral virtue,
happiness, and justice without for a moment invoking the support of
postmortem punishments or rewards.

The Hebrews wrote their entire Bible without mentioning hell. They had
a realm they called _sheol_, but it was merely the place of darkness
and silence where all the dead—the just as well as the
wicked—wound up. For the ancient rabbis, heaven was a place where
you could study the Torah all the time. Its opposite was not a place
of torture; it was more like a state of depression so deep that you
could not even open a book.

In the _Odyssey_, Homer bequeathed to the world a much more elaborate
vision of the afterlife than the Hebrews ever imagined, one in which
Sisyphus ceaselessly attempts to roll an immense boulder up a hill,
only to have it roll down again, and Tantalus, standing in a pool,
reaches for fruit that forever eludes his grasp and thirsts for water
that he can never drink. Yet notwithstanding these isolated examples
of exemplary punishment, the land of the dead visited by Odysseus is
notable not for the meting out of just deserts, whether pleasure or
pain, but for a general sadness, more akin to _sheol_than to the
Christian hell. “There’s not a man in the world more blest than
you,” Odysseus congratulates the ghost of the great Achilles.
“Time was, when you were alive, we Argives/honored you as a god, and
now down here, I see,/you lord it over the dead in all your power.”
But Achilles contemptuously dismisses the facile compliment:    

_No winning words about death to_ me_, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead._

Though life, as Homer’s great poem shows, can be excruciatingly
difficult, it is still preferable to even the most honored place in
the underworld.

_The Penguin Book of Hell_ does not offer any explanation of how
Christianity, from a contradictory jumble of ancient notions
(Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman), arrived at
the full-fledged nightmare that the editor calls “the most powerful
and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western
tradition.” Plato made an important contribution by imagining graded
punishments for sinners, as did Virgil, by giving the underworld a
more graphically convincing topography and by urging anyone with a
secret crime to atone for it before it’s too late.

But neither of these pagan master builders of Western culture can
account for something the anthology lightly skims over: Jesus’s
striking insistence on Gehenna, the sinister valley in Jerusalem where
in archaic times the followers of Moloch were said to have sacrificed
their children. “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to
the hell [_Gehenna_] of fire,” he declared in the Sermon on the
Mount (Matt. 5:22), and the synoptic gospels attribute this warning to
the Savior at least ten more times: “It is better for you to lose
one of your members, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell
[_Gehenna_]” (Matt. 5:29); “If your eye causes you to stumble,
tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with
one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell
[_Gehenna_] of fire” (Matt. 18:9); “If your hand causes you to
stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to
have two hands and to go to hell [_Gehenna_], to the unquenchable
fire” (Mark 9:43); “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him
who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast into hell
[_Gehenna_]” (Luke 12:5); etc., etc. The gospels’ good news is
closely conjoined, on the authority of God’s own son, with repeated
dire warnings about a place where the worm dies not, and the fire is
not quenched, and there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whether it derived from the Pharisees or the Essenes or some entirely
personal vision, Jesus’s emphasis on a fiery place of torment for
sinners seems to have licensed the outpouring of texts, many of them
translated here by the editor, that constitute most of a volume that
would, given the absence of Buddhist and other traditions, have been
more accurately titled _The Penguin Book of Christian Hell._

The earliest of these texts is a brief excerpt from the third-century
apocryphal _Apocalypse of Paul_, which already contains many of the
features so beloved by hell-mongers. The account, as is typical of the
genre, professes to be an eyewitness testimony; it is a kind of
ghastly travelogue. There are the rivers of fire, insatiable worms,
swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail
on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung
up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth;
girls who lost their virginity without their parents’ knowledge
shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming
spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not
recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed
forever in a deep pit.

Demons—here called the “angels of Tartarus”—carry out special
tortures designed for particular types of sinners. Hence, for example,
a “lector”—a reader of the lessons in church services—who did
not follow God’s commandments: “And an angel in charge of his
torments arrived with a long flaming knife, with which he sliced the
lips of this man and his tongue as well.” The eyewitness’s
expressions of horror are answered by the reassurance from his
guardian angel that it is all part of God’s plan: “I mourned and
groaned for the human race. In response, the angel said to me, ‘Why
do you mourn? Are you more merciful than God?’”

That question, though it was meant to be rhetorical, haunts the pages
of _The Penguin Book of Hell_ and carries other disturbing questions
in its wake. What kind of God inflicts hideous tortures on those whom
he does not like? Why did he not prevent the worst from happening? Or
why, after some suitable term, doesn’t he at least bring the whole
ghastly business of punishment to an end? What good is a penal
sentence for all eternity? Does God enjoy the spectacle of so much
suffering? If so, are we meant to join in the enjoyment?

I force myself to think of the worst monsters in world
history—Hitler immediately comes to mind—and try to consign them
to this imaginary penal colony, but I cannot do it. The problem is not
tenderness on my part—an impulse to forgive and forget or a hope for
the criminal’s repentance and rehabilitation—but an inability to
enter into a metaphysical system ruled by an omnipotent creator whose
endless love is shadowed by an endless rage. That system is precisely
what swept the field for millennia and continues, if the current
polling figures are correct, to be an article of faith for a majority
of my fellow Americans, 58 percent of whom profess to believe in hell.

Dante Alighieri; drawing by David Levine / New York Review of Books
In very early Christian conceptions of the afterlife, the most
horrendous punishments were reserved for errors of faith. “Who are
these ones, Lord, who are thrown into the pit?” the apostle, looking
down into the deepest abyss, asks in _The Apocalypse of Paul_, and
his guide, the angel_,_ replies that “they are people who did not
confess that Christ had come in the flesh and that the Virgin Mary
bore him and whoever says that the bread and the cup of the blessing
of the Eucharist is not the body and blood of Christ.” The policing
of doctrinal orthodoxy in this way extended effortlessly to interfaith
differences. In the widely circulated apocryphal _Gospel of
Nicodemus_, probably composed in Greek in the fourth century, Satan
boasts that he “stirred up my ancient people the Jews with jealousy
and anger” toward the Savior. Jews always had a prominent place in
Christian hell; in the celebrated twelfth-century mosaics on the wall
of the basilica in Torcello, they boil in a special pot of their own.

They were often joined, of course, by Muslims. “No barrel
staved-in/And missing its end-piece,” Dante reports in
the _Inferno_, “ever gaped as wide/As the man I saw split open from
his chin//Down to the farting-place.” Dante stares at the grotesque
sight—“from the splayed/Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between
his thighs”—but in this case he does not have to ask his companion
Virgil to name the figure, for the sufferer identifies himself: “He
pulled open his chest/With both hands, saying, ‘Look how Mohammed
claws/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!/Look how I tear

In the sixteenth century, Catholics eagerly prayed for the day when
Martin Luther would join this dubious company, along with other
Reformers who were rebelling against the Holy Mother Church. For their
part, Protestants consigned the pope and his bishops to the flames.
But there was nothing particularly new in doing that: ecclesiastics
had long featured prominently in medieval depictions of hell. In
the _Inferno_, Dante sees Pope Nicholas III wriggling upside down in
a fiery hole. The pope, roasting in the flames, was guilty of
simony—the selling of church offices—an accusation frequently
brought against high-ranking churchmen, along with pride, gluttony,
and hypocrisy.

Still more often, the charges against the clergy were sexual in
nature: for well more than a thousand years, the rule of strict and
perfect celibacy, promulgated in the Roman Catholic Church and still
officially mandated, has proved to be almost impossible to sustain in
practice. Violations were sometimes treated, as in Boccaccio or
Chaucer, with a certain wry humor, but they very often provoked
disgust and outrage. Hence the visitor to hell in the influential
twelfth-century _Vision of Tundale_ stares at a large group of souls
who are undergoing a particularly horrific torture: “The genitals of
the men and the women were like serpents, which eagerly mangled the
lower parts of their stomachs and pulled out their guts.” The
angelic guide tells the appalled visitor that these are all monks,
nuns, and other clerics who have been guilty of fornication.

Thomas Aquinas, who never shied away from the hardest questions, asked
whether the blessed souls in heaven would see the torments or hear the
agonized screams of the damned. He understood why such an idea might
make some people queasy and seem logically inconsistent with perfect
bliss. After all, to pity someone’s suffering is in some sense to
participate in it, and in heaven surely there should be no suffering
at all. But Thomas concluded that, yes, the blessed would see the
miseries of those in hell and that, no, they would feel no pity for
those miseries. On the contrary, they would derive satisfaction from
what they were witnessing down below: “Therefore, in order that the
happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they
may render greater thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see
perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

Something of the satisfaction that the belief in hell evidently
offers, helping to explain its continued appeal, is glimpsed in the
punishment visited upon the unfortunate lector who gets his tongue cut
off or upon the fornicating priests who are attacked by their own
genitals. Everywhere in hell, the angel tells Tundale, sinners get
exactly what they deserve: “You will see the torment that fits your
deeds.” The principle is known as _contrapasso_—counterpoise, as
Longfellow translated it—and Dante was its supreme master. This form
of justice can consist in the sinner having to suffer the opposite of
whatever it was that led to damnation: hence soothsayers who in life
tried to peer into the future are condemned to walk forever with their
heads twisted backwards. But the punishment can also be a kind of
demonic continuation: the wrathful are condemned for eternity to tear
each other limb from limb, usurers crouch in agony with purses around
their necks, lovers who were swept away in adulterous passion are now
swept away in a ceaseless infernal wind.

Dante’s stupendous poetic achievement is too rich and complex to fit
comfortably into _The Penguin Book of Hell._ In its deep human
sympathy, the _Inferno_ resists functioning as a piece of doctrine
or grim pedagogy, and the few excerpts that the editor includes seem
out of place among the cruder fantasies and dire warnings that
dominate the anthology. Though after the Reformation both Catholics
and Protestants continued to preach about hell, they pulled, Bruce’s
selections indicate, in somewhat different directions. Catholics
continued to highlight the physical horrors of the afterlife—think
of the stench, wrote the particularly repellent seventeenth-century
Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti, “that shall be exhaled in that
dungeon, where all the whole crowd of tormenting devils and all the
bodies of the tormented will be penned up together”—while
Protestants tended to emphasize the psychological miseries.

The early-eighteenth-century Anglican William Dawes suggested that, in
order to intensify their pain, the damned would be given a brief
glimpse of the joys of heaven. How it will gall and wound them to
consider that they had such happiness within their reach only to lose
it in the pursuit of “mere “gugaws” and trifles.” To make
matters worse, he continued, the lust for “gugaws” would not
simply disappear. In hell, to their unspeakable torment, the fallen
“continually burn with the most raging and vehement desires and
longings after these things, which yet at the same time they shall be
infallibly assur’d, it shall never in the least be in their power to

Archbishop Dawes professed to believe in the literal existence of the
subterranean penal colony, but it is clear from his twisted prose that
this formal declaration of faith made him uneasy: “Here I must
freely confess that I cannot see any manner of reason, why we should
suppose that the fire of Hell will not be a real and material, but
only a metaphorical and figurative, fire.” No reason at all except
reason itself. He quickly retreats to a more civilized, or at least
more social, vision of punishment. Think, he writes, of the devilish
company you will have to keep in hell:

Nothing can be expected from such company, but continual jangling,
hatred, anger, snarling, and biting at one another, nothing but the
most terrible Fears and jealousies of, the most malicious and spiteful
bickerings against, each other. And good God! If it be thought so very
irksome a thing here, to be oblig’d to spend only a few hours in
Company that is disagreeable, how shall we ever be able to bear the
thoughts of taking our dwelling among that Hellish Crew, who study
nothing else, day and night, than how they may be best able to provoke
and exasperate each other to the highest degree possible.

We are less in the world of Dante than of Jane Austen, an eternity
spent in the company of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

“Little child,” wrote the English Catholic priest John Furniss,
“if you go to Hell, there will be a devil at your side to strike
you. He will go on striking you every minute forever and ever, without
ever stopping.” Why would anyone want to infect a child’s mind
with such a terrible fantasy? The answer, at least in part, has to do
with the dream of regulating behavior through fear. Even when they are
not being policed, the idea goes, people are more likely to behave
themselves if they believe that they will be punished in the

But already in the sixth century, one of the first great writers about
hell, Pope Gregory the Great, ruefully acknowledged that the warning
is not very effective. And the long history of human behavior bears
witness to the truth of this acknowledgment. The strictly instrumental
use of hell finally boils down to a remark quoted by Voltaire: “My
good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself;
but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant,
your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.”

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Father Furniss may have been
afraid that the spirit of Voltaire had eroded robust belief in the
horrors to come. “Perhaps at this moment, seven o’clock in the
evening,” he told his young readers, “a child is just going into
Hell. Tomorrow evening at seven o’clock, go and knock at the gates
of Hell and ask what the child is doing. The devils will go and look.
Then they will come back again and say, _the child is burning!_”
But notwithstanding the hell-monger’s intentions, the burning child
leads us away from theology and toward Freud: the words “Father,
don’t you see I’m burning?” lie at the center of one of his most
famous dream interpretations.*

Freud argued that the words, terrible though they are, allowed the
dreamer to continue to sleep. We can perhaps suggest something similar
about the texts collected in _The Penguin Book of Hell._ One of the
prime motives of these texts is rage, rage against people occupying
positions of exceptional trust and power who lie and cheat and trample
on the most basic values and yet who escape the punishment they so
manifestly deserve. History is an unending chronicle of such knaves,
and it is a chronicle too of frustration and impotence, certainly
among the mass of ordinary people but even among those who feel that
they are stakeholders in the system. Hell is the last recourse of
political impotence. You console yourself—you manage to stay asleep,
as Freud might say—by imagining that the loathsome characters you
detest will meet their comeuppance in the afterlife.

But Voltaire and the Enlightenment carried a different message: wake
up. Throw out the whole hopelessly impotent fantasy; it is, in any
case, the tool not only of the victims but also of the victimizers. We
must fight the criminals here and now, in the only world where we can
hope to see justice.

* _The Interpretation of Dreams_, Chapter 7. The dream lies at the
center of a remarkable recent film by Joseph Koerner, _The Burning
Child_ (2017)

_Book author Scott G. Bruce is a professor of medieval history and the
director of the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the
University of Colorado, Boulder. An expert on medieval monasticism, he
has written two books about the monks of the abbey of Cluny. He worked
his way through college as a gravedigger._

_[Essayist Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the
­Humanities at Harvard. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Adam
and Eve: The Story That Created Us and Tyrant: Shakespeare on
Politics, which was published in December 2018]_

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