A podcast for new atheists, lifetime atheists, ex-evangelicals, truth-seekers, and free-thinkers
Episode 82: The Underworld
Rivers, walls, realms and halls, every last version is crazy as balls. Sometimes it's happy sometimes it's sad, but most of the time it's just plain mad. I'm talking, of course, about the underworld and you may or may not be surprised to learn that there are a LOT of similarities across a lot of cultures and religions regarding what's waiting in the Great Beyond.
And before you ask, “Why on earth are you guys talking about this?” let me answer plainly: as evangelicals we are taught to believe a lot of things about a lot of things and precious little of what we're told to believe about anything is true. We're also taught to think in very concrete and black and white terms about everything. The underworld is a huge grey area, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively and understanding this concept and just what kind of cluster fuck it really is should help you see just a little better how silly religious beliefs – all religious beliefs actually are.
The name Hell in mythology
The root of the word for hell is found in the Proto-Germanic language and is transliterated “haljo” which translates to “concealed (or hidden) place. Nearly all western iterations of the underworld share that commonality. Hades, Hel, and Sheol all have the same root and other languages also use “hidden place” as at least a loose descriptor. Note that it's just hidden. It's not specifically a place of torment, just a place to tuck away the dead so they don't mingle with the living (there are loopholes to this rule too). Christian missionaries hijacked the word and gave it its reputation for being the home of Satan himself and a place of agonizing torment for any who don't believe in Christ as lord.
This is where we actually get the term “Hell.” Because Hel (with one L) is the name of the Norse underworld. It is sometimes referred to as Hel-heim (or the “realm of Hel”) since it is literally presided over by a goddess of the same name. And the goddess Hel, according to myth, is one bad bitch. She's tasked with keeping the dead in their place. And she has help – a cute cuddly pooch named Garm (or Garmr). He is described as a blood-stained wolf-like dog who guards the gates of the underworld. Obviously, he takes his job seriously. He protects from intruders from breaching the gate and also stops people from escaping. Incidentally, his name means “the growler.”
There is said to be a journeying aspect to Hel just like in Greek and Egyptian mythologies. You have to WORK to get there AND get in. Some accounts involve bribing or distracting Garmr by throwing chickens over the gate and either being granted passage or sneaking by while others just sorta put you there. You die, you wake up in Hel, get your bearings, and get on with your afterlife.
Of course the name of the place is the only similarity between Hel (one L) and Hell (two Ls) is the only similarity between the Norse underworld and the Christian Hell.
No clear reason why some go to Hel and some to Valhalla or any other of the plethora of apparent post-mortem destinations – this is far from black and white
Some believed that dying in battle was a ticket to Valhalla but there are differences of opinion as to what goes on there
Freya hand-picks some of the dead to reside in her hall, Folkvang (The “field of the people” - possibly the Summerlands)
The vast majority go to Hel
There are also tellings of entire families residing just beneath the places where they lived or inhabiting places like underneath mountains and other tough-to-access locations.
So the answers to where people go after they die in Norse traditions are about as varied as the number of people there are to ask about it. It took a CHRISTIAN – Snorri Sturlson – to whittle it down to the signature black and white concept of Valhalla vs. Hel. No actual Norse tradition breaks down the afterlife in this way.
Just look at it this way: unless there's something super special about you, you wind up in Hel – the least special and least luxurious of the afterlifes. Their eternities basically mirror the lives they had and they tend to do a lot of the same things they did in life:
“what do the dead do in Hel or the local variations thereof? They typically eat, drink, carouse, fight, sleep, practice magic, and generally do all of the things that living Viking Age men and women did.”
“Furthermore, while the underworld isn’t described often in the sources, when it is, it’s generally cast in neutral or even positive terms. As a place where the dead live on in some capacity, it’s sometimes portrayed as a land of startlingly abundant life on the other side of death.”
The only catch is that you can't leave. But it isn't awful and it certainly isn't a punishment. Think of Hel as the low-income to middle-middle class society of the afterlife. You have section 8 over here, suburbia over there and a smattering of off-grid pagany types just casting spells and minding their own business over there a ways. Doesn't sound half bad, really...
But apart from the fact that Hel and Hell are both realms of the dead located beneath the ground, the two concepts have nothing in common. While the Old Norse sources are far from clear on exactly how one ended up in one of the Norse afterlife realms rather than another (there were several), what is clear is that where one goes after death isn’t any kind of reward for moral behavior or pious belief, or punishment for immoral behavior or impious belief. (See the article on Death and the Afterlife for more on this point.)
Is it all Hel?
What we know about the Norse afterlife:
There is no established criteria for who goes where
The places themselves share A LOT of similarities
Valhalla is framed as the warrior's afterlife and as a place to do what they do best: engage in continuous battle, but other sources also depict Valhalla as a place to rest from battle until Ragnarok – the Norse apocalypse that culminates with the defeat of the gods, a new earth, and a reboot of the earth and the human race.
Valhalla has also been described as existing underground
Early sources put warriors in the Underworld along with everybody else
Earliest sources don't use the name Valhalla
Valhalla literally means “hall of the fallen”
Valhalla and Valahallr are the same place and the latter is located under big rocks and hills (mountains again)
Some think it's part of Asgard
It seems to just be another description of the same place
Verdict: It's all quite individual and “your party” in both concept and execution. You get the afterlife that most closely mirrors your mortal life. And it really does start to sound like the same concept tweaked for a more mass appeal. If you're too self-absorbed to think about yourself going to Hel, there are other options for you to believe in. But you'll still go to the underworld and you'll have whatever afterlife your mortal life dictates.
There is exactly one late Old Norse poem that speaks of a place of punishment in the afterlife: Nastrond (or “shore of corpses”). “Its gate faces north, poison drips from its ceiling, and snakes coil on its floor.” Snorri Sturlson cites this poem in his works and it is clearly overflowing with Christian afterlife propaganda. It's out there but good luck finding anyone who believes in it or even knows about it. Still, wouldn't that be fun? Just telling people you don't like to go to Nastrond?
So what have we learned here? Basically, Norse myth concerning the afterlife is very Life of Pi in nature: choose the best story and run with it.
“Much of what we know about how the Ancient Greeks and Romans imagined the Underworld we know from Homer’s “Odyssey” and Virgil’s “Aeneid.” However, even these two visions are somewhat conflicting, so, sometimes, we have to resort to assumptions to reconstruct the Greek Underworld in its entirety.”
in the “bowels of the earth”
Ruled by Hades and Persephone
Sunless place where literally everyone goes when they die
Five rivers: Styx, Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, and Lethe
A cavern near the ancient town of Tenarus. Situated at the tip of the middle promontory of Peloponnese (known back then as Cape Tanaerum, and called Cape Matapan today), the cave exists to this very day; it was through this cave that Heracles dragged Cerberus out of Hades and Orpheus tried to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living.
The bottomless Alcyonian Lake at Lerna. Guarded by the fearsome Hydra, the Alcyonian Lake was supposedly used by Dionysus to enter the Underworld and search for his mother Semele; some even say that Hades abducted Persephone in its very vicinity.
• The volcanic Lake Avernus. Located in southern Italy near the city of Naples, Avernus was sometimes used as a synonym for the Underworld in Roman times; it is through a cave found near this lake that Aeneas descends to the Underworld in Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Circles the underworld 7 times
River of “hatred and unbreakable oaths”
Acheron – the river of sorrow and pain. It is described as being black and deep
Cocytus – the river of lamentation and wailing
Phlegathon - a river of fire that is believed to lead to Tartarus
The Lethe - The river of oblivion and forgetfulness, out of which the dead souls are obliged to drink so that they can forget their earthly lives in preparation for a possible reincarnation.
Nothing about this place is positive. The greeks taught of an afterlife but it is both miserable and not much of a respecter of persons.
Maybe it was because it had such an air of hopelessness, maybe it was to give some people comfort and instill a “be good for goodness' sake” mentality in people, but at some point, the mythos of the afterlife in Greek mythology skewed into a more balanced structure that rewarded the good, punished the bad, and, basically discarded (or recycled) anyone in the middle of the road.
Tartarus – a place of punishment where all the bad people wind up.
In “The Iliad” Zeus claims that Tartarus is “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth” and that it “is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze.” Tartarus eventually ended up housing the worst of perpetrators, destined here to eternally endure punishments fitting their earthly crimes.
Elysian Fields – a place where all the BEST people go (based on various criteria)
Ruled by either Rhadamanthus or Cronus (or both), Elysium was a land of eternal sunlight and rosy meadows
Fields of mourning – for those who have been “hurt by love”
As we read in the “Aeneid,” the Fields of Mourning are reserved for the souls of those “whom ruthless love did waste away;” here, they “wander in paths unseen, or in the gloom of dark myrtle grove: not even in death have they forgot their griefs of long ago.” Curiously enough, almost all of the fields’ inhabitants mentioned by Virgil are women. Think of it like Fantine in Les Miserables dying and still pining for Cosette's deadbeat father. For eternity. Makes a person – well, a woman specifically – never want to fall in love.
Asphodel Meadows – The most populated part of the underworld reserved for the “regular people”
Ruled by Achilles who reportedly hates his job. In the Odyssey he is reported to have this to say to Odysseus about his job: “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” People entering Asphodel Meadows are said to have to drink from the river Lethe to make them forget their mortal lives and identities and prepare their souls for reincarnation. “Go back and do better. Or worse. Whatever. We need to make space here,” seems to be the sentiment about this particular scenario.
Well, apparently there were some who didn't like this structure of things either. So if you don't like the idea of a sunless, dismal, eternally unpleasant Hades or the more judicious regional structure of the Underworld pieced together from a couple fictitious epic poems, just set your sites on Hesperides or the “Isle of the Blessed” which is alleged to exist over the horizon in the Atlantic (which the ancient Greeks believed to go on and on into infinity). This is a sort of dreamy “spirited away” kind of afterlife experience. How sweet...
One last little fun fact here. The Greek underworld is my personal favorite not just because it's the subject of so many great stories (Achilles, Persephone and Demeter, etc.), but because of this one silly, laugh-worthy detail of the mythology. Hades, the fearsome ruler of the underworld has at his control a three-headed dog named Cerberus who allowed one-way traffic into the underworld. You could get in, but he wouldn't let you out. The name Cerberus is interesting here because of what it means.
The name Cerberus is the Proto-Indo-European word k̑érberos, meaning "spotted".
That's right, ladies and gentlemen... the ferocious, two-headed dog that guards the Greek underworld is literally named Spot.
The Egyptian underworld was more of a weigh station enroute to the afterlife. It involved a series of tests culminating in a final judgment that would determine whether or not a soul would be allowed to live on for eternity or simply be devoured and die. So there's no real heaven/hell dichotomy here. It's either “heaven” or lights out. And yes, there is tell of demons that inhabit the underworld but they were painted more as observers or they were in charge of various tests that the soul had to pass to make it a step closer to judgment.
The Egyptian underworld is known as the Duat. Sometimes spelled with a T but the pronunciation at that point is questionable...
The Duat then. Yes, it is considered an underworld myth with the god Osiris as lord of the realm. But other gods live there too. Gods like Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Hathor, and Maat all of whose stories are very interesting reads. Management of the Greek and Norse underworlds seem very shoestring budget when weighed against the management team of the Duat.
But it's getting late and my snark levels are starting to peak, so, real quick...
After passing a series of trials and making its negative confession (spell 125 in the Book of the Dead or as the Hebrews referred to it, the TEN COMMANDMENTS), the soul faced the final judgment. So after defeating all the minor bosses, you get to face to final challenge: the heart vs. Maat.
From the Wikipedia entry about the Duat:
“If the deceased was successfully able to pass various demons and challenges, then he or she would reach the weighing of the heart. In this ritual, the heart of the deceased was weighed by Anubis against the feather of Maat, which represents truth and justice.
Any heart that is heavier than the feather failed the test, and was rejected and eaten by Ammit, the devourer of souls, as these people were denied existence after death in the Duat.
The souls that were lighter than the feather would pass this most important test, and would be allowed to travel toward Aaru, the "Field of Rushes", an ideal version of the world they knew of, in which they would plough, sow, and harvest abundant crops.”
Field of Rushes, Elysian Fields, Field of the People...
Also from the wikipedia entry: “The geography of Duat is similar in outline to the world the Egyptians knew: There are realistic features like rivers, islands, fields, lakes, mounds and caverns, but there were also fantastic lakes of fire, walls of iron, and trees of turquoise. In the Book of Two Ways (a Coffin Text) there is even a map-like image of the Duat.”
All I can think of with any of this is maps of places like Middle Earth or Westeros or a D&D module. Why is it easy to see these things as fiction but people take stuff like THIS seriously? Manipulating the weak minded was a thing long before evangelicalism and people have been buying all sorts of cons about life after death since our species was new.
The Mesopotamian Underworld
I took a quick look at the Sumerian (Mesopotamian) underworld as part of my research too but there is so much there that mirrors other traditions I don't want to take more time than I need to poring over them. Sumer is the earliest-known human civilization so it stands to reason that they would have laid the framework for many or all of the other underworld myths. I'll give you just a taste of the similarities:
Other attendant gods with various duties
Dark and dreary like Hades
Gods inhabiting the realm for only parts of the year (Hades and Demeter)
Fully mapped out geography
Same afterlife destination for everyone
There is even precedent for the concept of indulgences where wealthy families would make offerings to the gods to bribe them into giving their departed loved one special treatment in the afterlife.
Now I'm going to hand things over to Shelle to talk a little bit about a couple guys named Dante and Milton. Note how most of these underworld scenarios have a degree of dread but very few involve perpetual, endless punishment. The ancients at least had enough of a humanistic view of things to not split people into concrete factions of good and evil. For that, you need a religion rooted on tenets like love and forgiveness. Shelle, tell us what an underworld designed by Yahweh looks like.
Even the worst comeuppance in any of the ancient mythologies pales in comparison to what Jesus is gonna do to you if you don't start fucking worshipping him.
Even looking back literal millennia in history, the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9 are quite true: there is nothing new under the sun. Even then different traditions borrowed and plagiarized their way to their own “better story.” And that's all any of it was – ever changing, evolving, expanding, embellished and generally fantastical. Sorry to break up the alliteration. But the point is that people have always had vivid imaginations as well as a fascination with death and those two things together culminate to produce everything we talked about tonight.
But let's try to keep this one important detail in mind: there were people out there who believed all of this. Every iteration, variation, and deviation from previously-held beliefs had followers who believed them as literally true.
So how did people deal with all this lunacy and disparity? Simple. They did then what we do now: they believed what they wanted. It really is that simple. And if someone didn't like the structure of things, they simply rewrote it and promoted their own versions. And anyone who liked that version simply adopted it. With no proof or evidence of any one story having validity over another, it was easy to just sell a new story or amend the one(s) that already existed.
And since all religion is rooted in myth, this same concept is alive and well today. The biblical description of Heaven is not pleasant either. It's all about subservience to a narcissistic god, leaving your identity and any sense of purpose behind and simply being a mindless automaton that exists to do nothing but stroke Yahweh's ego for all eternity. Well, that's not very fun so let's tell people tall tales about reuniting with loved ones and a heaven that includes various experiences and indulgences that the Bible never mentions.
As I've said many times before, people everywhere are very similar and very predictable. We will always opt for the best story when it comes to our own comfort and need for peace and reassurance. For Christians, that even extends to making all manner of excuses that let their clearly unsaved loved ones escape Hell. Modern pastors tend to just play along, almost never affirming that anyone goes to hell even if he knows that person wasn't “saved.”. The Catholic church took it a step further in the middle ages, selling indulgences to make people's afterlives more palatable.
In all these cases, though, the message is the same: believe what you want. It's all horseshit. And once you get OK with that, you start getting more OK with the notion that death is just death, that it won't bother you when it happens, and that the finality of death is the best case scenario given all the options out there. When you get to that point, you stop being afraid of dying and get to the task of living. It's also a clear sign that you're at least on your way to getting and staying unbound.