Hell – a visitor’s guide

Archaeological discoveries around the world seem to prove an abiding human obsession about death and the afterlife. From Stone Age burial tombs to the intricate Egyptian funerary text ‘the Book of the Dead’, thinking about what happens when we die is a universal societal trait. The emergence of the Christian concept of Hell builds on earlier ideas and, over the centuries, writers, thinkers and theologians have built up an impressive picture of an imagined land.   

The Economist’s Christmas Special is an annual tour de force of unusual and dependably fascinating articles. This year included a human and spiritual history and travel guide to Hell which proved to be no exception to the newspaper’s tradition of quirky yet entertaining festive pieces.

One of the most interesting quotes describes the geography of the infernal regions:

“The four rivers of Hell — Phlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron and Styx — are made of human tears, flowing all the faster because God in his fury will never notice them.”

Wikipedia goes one further, suggesting that there are five rivers, adding the river Lethe to the list above. Each watercourse has its own attributes, rooted in Greek mythology. The river Styx, the most famous of the five, is the river of hate and forms the usually impassable boundary between the living and the dead.

Some accounts have this as the river plied by the ferryman, Charon, transporting the souls of the newly deceased across the water into the underworld beyond. Other accounts have the river simply separating the underworld from the land of the living – in some versions wrapping around Hell nine times.

The Acheron is the river of pain and was, in many Greek and Roman accounts, more deserving of primary attention than the River Styx. It was, according to Virgil and Dante, upon the Acheron that Charon operated his infernal ferry service and carryied souls into the underworld.

The river Phlegethon is described by Plato as a ‘stream of fire’, coiling around the earth and flowing into the depths of Tartarus (or Hell). Dante gives a more disturbing description as a river of blood that boils souls: “the river of blood, within which boiling is; Whoe’er by violence doth injure others.” Dante spots a host of warlords, including Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, submerged to their eyebrows in the blistering course.

The Cocytus (or Kokytos) is the river of wailing or lamentations. In ‘Paradise Lost’, John Milton refers to: “Cocytus, named of lamentation loud / Heard on the rueful stream”. Those who had not been properly buried were consigned to the banks of the Cocytus to bemoan their fate. According to Dante, the Cocytus is the home of the most terrible traitors and fraudsters. At its heart, Satan is found, buried waist-high in ice, or, as described by Dante, by the ‘Cocytus wholly was congealed’. The Beast has three faces and is gnawing the most notorious of traitors – Judas, Brutus and Cassius.

“That soul up there which has the greatest pain,

The Master said, “is Judas Iscariot;

With head inside, he plies his legs without.

Of the two others, who head downward are,

The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;

See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.

And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.”

All four of these rivers of Hell were believed to converge at the centre of the underworld to form a great marsh, also referred to as the Styx. Styx provides the etymological root for the adjective ‘stygian’, meaning dark, gloomy or hellish.

The Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and offered complete forgetfulness to all who drank from her waters, deriving from the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. The Economist article was not incorrect in omitting the Lethe, as, although it flowed in the underworld, it bordered Elysium rather than traversing Hell. The souls lucky enough to enter the fields of paradise had to have their memories erased by consuming the waters of the Lethe.

John Milton succinctly describes these five rivers of Hell in ‘Paradise Lost’:

Of four infernal rivers, that disgorge

Into the burning lake their baleful streams;

Abhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate;

Sad Acheron, of sorrow, black and deep;

Cocytus, named of lamentation loud

Heard on the rueful stream; fierce Phlegethon,

Whose waves of torrent inflame with rage.

Far off from these, a slow and silent stream,

Lethe, the river of oblivion rolls.”

Although the rivers of the underworld were given their particular characteristics by the Greeks, the idea of a waterway of the dead is a much older notion. As the Economist article notes: “The Egyptian “Book of the Dead”, from around 1500BC, introduces the boat, the river, the tests of the human soul and the scales in which its deeds are weighed: all notions borrowed by the Greeks and, later, by Christianity.”

Dante’s Inferno provides some of the most vivid imagery of Hell, but he is not the only writer to have depicted its torments. John Milton’s Paradise Lost pictures the high capital of Hell, Pandæmonium, which translates as ‘All Demons’ and is, of course, the etymological root of the word ‘pandemonium’. Here, Satan rules over the other fallen angels, holding that it is “better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

Soon after the defeat of their failed uprising against God, the demons build a great temple at the heart of Pandæmonium, digging up gold and minerals from the bowels of the earth:

“Built like a Temple, where Pilasters round

Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid

With Golden Architrave; nor did there want

Cornice or Freeze, with bossy Sculptures grav’n,

The Roof was fretted Gold. Not Babilon,

Nor great Alcairo such magnificence

Equal’d in all thir glories, to inshrine

Belus or Serapis thir Gods, or seat

Thir Kings, when Ægypt with Assyria strove

In wealth and luxurie. Th’ ascending pile

Stood fixt her stately highth, and strait the dores

Op’ning thir brazen foulds discover wide

Within, her ample spaces, o’re the smooth

And level pavement: from the arched roof

Pendant by suttle Magic many a row

Of Starry Lamps and blazing Cressets fed

With Naphtha and Asphaltus yeilded light

As from a sky. The hasty multitude

Admiring enter’d, and the work some praise

And some the Architect: his hand was known

In Heav’n by many a Towred structure high,

Where Scepter’d Angels held thir residence”