Hell, in many cultures and religious traditions, is a location where humans who are deemed to have been less than righteous during life are doomed to an eternity of severe punishment, brutal torture, and a far from pleasant time in general. In cyclic religions, hell is regarded as an unbearable intermediate period between lives, rather like regular periodic visits to the DMV. In linear religions, hell is considered to be the ultimate unending finality of a sinful person's existence, rather like working at the DMV. Typically these religions locate hell under the physical surface of the Earth or in New Jersey. Other afterlife destinations include Heaven, Purgatory, Valhalla, and Australia.
Still other traditions refuse to label the afterlife as punishment or reward, and instead describe hell as physical location where the dead can simply hang around and play shuffleboard, waiting for their loved ones to join them. Modern understandings tend to depict hell as an abstract state of loss rather than literal flaming torture, although the flaming torture approach is still practiced in extreme cases such as rowdy teenage hooliganism. Hell is often described as being populated with demons, goblins, imps, and all other manners of beasts who enjoy the scent of singed flesh and the sight of a good pitchfork in the bum. Many are ruled by a death god such as Hades or the Devil, while others practice a more representative government based on democratic elections and human-eating contests.
The modern English word hell is derived from the Old English hello. During medieval times, the standard greeting of "hello" was literally meant to damn the recipient to everlasting suffering, as people back then were just not very friendly. Hello is itself derived from the Proto-Germanic Helga, which is believed to refer to one single 4th-century Scandinavian woman whose intimate company was likened to a thousand lifetimes of agonizing torture.
It has been theorized that the word hell was used to transfer ancient penguin concepts to Christian theology. Historians have focused on the beliefs of the Norse penguins, including a mystical underworld location named Hal ruled over by a gigantic albino penguin (also named Hal). Opponents of such ideas contend that this is a mistranslation of a Norse word for 'pagan' (one of many groups of non-Abrahamic religions) to the incorrect 'penguin' (a comical flightless bird of the Antarctic). While it is far more logical that early Christians would borrow concepts from existing religions rather than tuxedo-clad poultry, so-called Norse penguinist historians remain a vocal minority in the field of ancient theology.
Religion, mythology, and folklore
Hell appears in many mythologies and religions as the permanent residence of demons, fallen angels, the souls of the damned, and a small number of thoroughly evil inanimate objects such as Hitler's car and much of Richard Nixon's wardrobe. While all dogs go to heaven, many of the more sinister animals such as hyenas and crocodiles are kept as pets by today's brand of active go-getter demon. One fable about hell which recurs across several cultures is the Allegory of the Spoons. This narrative involves the residents of both Heaven and Hell eating a meal using long spoons. Those ascended into Heaven gladly feed each other rather than eating food directly off of their own plate, while the denizens of hell predictably craft the spoons into improvised shivs and re-murder each other.
Punishment in hell typically corresponds to sins committed during life. Sometimes these punishments are specific, with damned souls suffering distinct repercussions for each living naughty act, but sometimes they are general and ongoing. The latter is the traditional image of hell with widespread burning sinners in separate chambers or levels and punctual monsters feasting on constantly regenerating organs. The depiction of hell is this graphically fire-ridden and painful in most religions, since milder forms of eternal damnation tend not to discourage rampant sinning. Despite the common theme of an almost comically fiery hell, some cultures portray a punishingly cold afterlife for sinners (a sort of frozen-over hell), particularly after the 2004 victory of the Red Sox in the World Series.
Early Egyptian records show the concept of eternal life arising as early as 3,000 BCE. In this belief system, a human's moral fitness determined their fate at the end of their mortal life. The righteous, such as nobles, looked forward to everlasting paradise under the supervision of the Bird-Man God. The wicked, which unilaterally included pyramid-building slaves, were doomed to eternal suffering (mostly additional pyramid construction) under the Dog-Man God. Other ancient religions continued to improve upon this concept. For example, the ancient Babylonians were the first to envision multiple levels of hell, and the Greeks put an uninteresting back story to their version of Netherworld Superintendent.
Some cultures describe the afterlife as more of a journey undertaken by freshly deceased souls, thus rendering hell a brief transition period rather than a physical place. Since these cultures have been systematically eradicated by other cultures, few of their beliefs are understood or cared about. Other religions involved hell having actual physical gates on Earth leading to fiery pits of torture and damnation. These concepts likely arose when pranksters faked their own deaths in order to come casually strolling out of "The Canyon of the Dead" claiming to have dramatically escaped, often adding their own details concerning horned demons or, in the case of the always-just-a-tad-deranged Mayan culture, rivers of jaguars.
Monotheism and Stereotheism
While early drafts of Judaism do include mention of an afterlife, modern Jewish doctrine does not mention heaven or hell. Instead, the concept of hell is described as an intense feeling of shame both during and following life. Contemporary Jewish texts, such as Woody Allen films, encourage insecurity and fretfulness, among other Jewish traditions such as huge horn-rimmed glasses. By being fully aware of one's own shortcomings by the end of life, Jews can be fully prepared for another potential short afterlife of shame (with brief breaks to change shame-yarmulkes).
Early Christian leaders decided to bring back the everlasting burning fire idea, and have really run with the concept. In fact, some sects of Christianity simply sent everyone to hell, the righteous and the sinners, as dying itself was considered very wicked (another carryover from Jewish tradition). This proved particularly effective as there existed a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where people would burn their refuse as well as the remains of those considered to have died in sin. Thus, when followers of early Christianity would question whether sinning actually had consequences, leaders could point to the nearby pile of flaming human bodies and say, "See the third grotesque corpse from the bottom? That was Carl six hours ago." The additions of specific details, such as having to be judged in front of Jesus himself for all of the naughty things done in one's life, were merely flourishes on an already rich tradition of infinite flaming agony.
Literature and art
Perhaps the two most well-known and accepted classical depictions of hell are Dante Alighieri's Inferno and the 86th episode of Matt Groening's The Simpsons. Dante's 14th century work is a first-person poem detailing a fictional guided tour of hell led by ancient writer Virgil. It is also considered to be the first instance of both fan-fiction and meta-fan-fiction, as within the work Dante's character describes his current project: a gritty re-imagining of the Battle of Troy. Virgil leads Dante through the nine concentric levels of hell, with each level becoming progressively more torturey. The levels are divided by sins. For example, all of those who committed adultery are continually battered by wind on level two, while those who neglected to clean up after their dogs are subject to loud, unpleasant noises on level four. Dante depicts the final central level of hell as the eternal prison of history's most treasonous villains, including Judas Iscariot and Scar from The Lion King. Inferno is widely regarded to be the least humorous of the components of Dante's Divine Comedy.
The most widely referenced modern vision of hell (including the first mention of ironic punishment) occurs in the Fox Network's cartoon series The Simpsons. In the classic episode "Treehouse of Horror IV", Homer Simpson sells his soul to neighbor Ned Flanders (Chief Operating Officer of the Underworld) in exchange for a donut. After consuming the pastry, Homer is transported to hell, where he is subject to torture and ridicule by goatee-bearing demons. Similar to Dante's work, there are separate specific punishments for different categories of sin. Thus, Homer's fatness and gluttony in life earn him the task of eating billions of donuts. This modern incarnation of hell is shown to be imperfect itself and also constantly adapting to a rapidly changing world. Thus, when Homer happily finishes eating all of the donuts, his head is removed and used as a bowling ball in punishment for the wicked act of participating in the most sinful of sports: bowling.
Hell has been a common subject for artists dating back to the very beginnings of culture. While early painters were forbidden from depicting human figures in the nude, religious paintings were an exception. Thus, many works featuring naked women in the throes of "agonizing pain" were passed off as religious in nature by adding a few flames along the bottom or a menacing horned figure in the background. In addition to proto-pornographists, early insane artists took a liking to the subject matter of rivers of burning souls. This resulted in many works such as Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (pictured to the right), which features a large number of perfectly rational things such as human-owl relations, a cornucopia of butts, and what appears to be a rather large pair of ears wielding a knife.
Circles of Hell (Dante)
According to Dante, Hell is composed of the following circles:
- Limbo: this is the part of Hell where people who did almost everything right, except pick the right religion, go to suffer in eternal agony.
- Lust: if you like sex as much as I do, you probably want to shoot for this circle.
- Gluttony: where fat and bulimic people go to be made fun of by exercise-addicted steroid bros. The idea is to make it as much like what they're used to as possible.
- Greed: let's face it, if nowhere else, you are probably going to end up here.
- Wrath: because there is no greater evil than making other people suffer because they did something wrong.
- Heresy: just kidding, you won't end up in Limbo after all!
- Violence: unless you have the blessing of the Pope, of course, or you are the Pope. Also, gay people end up here, too, for some reason.
- Fraud: but you can probably avoid ending up here if you put enough money in the collection plate.
- Treachery: I guess this one kind of makes sense, actually.
- Ronald Reagan: this one was added recently, because they couldn't figure out where else to put him. Margaret Thatcher joined him just a little while later.
Hell in popular culture
In many fantasy role-playing games, hell is a plane of existence from which demonic creatures can be summoned in order to do the summoner's bidding, usually battling other such summoned creatures or occasionally female characters with anatomically incorrect breasts.
Hell was the setting of one of the earliest viral stories on the Internet: that of the Kola Superdeep Borehole, an eight mile deep pit drilled by the Russians in the 1980s in an attempt to revive their slumping economy. The story involves a heat-resistant microphone being lowered to the bottom of the hole which recorded the sounds of the damned being tortured. This has been exposed as a hoax: the microphone was intercepted and destroyed by Morlocks, and never actually reached hell.
In modern English, hell is used as a curse word for added emphasis, as in: "Why the hell did I bother reading this entire article on hell?"
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