‘Ye who enter here’

A month or so ago, Anne Rice- an author, and individual, I have long loved- asked, on her Facebook page, about whether or not people believe in Hell.  I didn’t respond at the time, since I wasn’t sure that stating the obvious was the type of feedback she was looking to find.  I don’t think she was looking to count my ‘no’, but rather that she was after input into the idea(s) about Hell- and if there are people out there who buy into that little nightmare of our mythology.

I sort of forgot about it, to be honest.  Although Anne has examined the ideas of Heaven and Hell, both in her Vampire Chronicles and the her more obviously-searching books about the youth of Jesus, I wasn’t sure where the question was sourced, and didn’t really feel like getting involved in a listing of the reasons why Hell makes me so angry.

If you’ve been following along with my discussion here about the Devil, then you’ll likely already be aware how I feel about his supposed abode.

While I love the richness of the mythology surrounding the concept, in the main it makes me mad as, well, Hell.  To the extent that it woke me up at 4ish this am (there’s that time again) and left me unable to get back to sleep in anything like a timely fashion.

I don’t get it.  I don’t get teaching about it- for the sole purpose of scaring people into ‘goodness’.  Teaching small children that such a place of eternal punishment lies waiting for them if they don’t behave according to particular interpretations of rules and regs that were millennia old before they were even sparkles in their parents’ eyes…

Eesh.

(Almost as bad as that little idea that we are born into this world in a state of sin.  Not quite as bad, but almost.)

And then, on her page a few weeks later, there was this.

Sigh.  Just when I think that there is progress being made in the RCC from the leadership all the way down…

Exorcism.  Seriously!?!?  I have to admit to being a little a little disappointed in Il Papa over his comments on the subject.

Last weekend, while out with some close friends for our annual Victoria Day Brunch (or annual ‘Roofie Breaks his Champagne Glass Brunch’ as was the case two years in a row- he managed to keep all the glassware on the table this year), on the patio of our fave French Bistro, the discussion turned to Frank (can we call you ‘Frank’, Your Holiness?) and the changes he is attempting to implement among the Party Faithful.

I am not Roman Catholic (to re-state that which should be obvious)- but I have studied a great deal about the history of the Institution- both ancient and recent- and Roofie, who was raised RC and teaches in the Catholic School Board, is always interested to hear my thoughts about things that are going down in the development of the doctrine and practices, such as they may be.

After touching on the recent elevations to sainthood (I have to admit that I have a real soft spot for John 23- that guy had some real chutzpah– Vatican II, his work with refugees during the Holocaust, and things like the removal of the word perfidious as a descriptor of the Jews from the Good Friday liturgy and the fact that he made a Confession, on behalf of the whole of the Church, for the centuries of the sin of anti-semitism… THAT’S my kind of Papa…), we talked about Frank and the politics of the role of Pope.

Frank is a demonstrable Voice for change- like those I’ve been prattling on about ’round here for the last while.  Small steps, perhaps.  But small is better than none.

So I was disappointed to hear that he’s still prattling on about the Devil.  And he doesn’t seem to be talking about him as a metaphor.

Again I say ‘Eeesh.’

As something of a counter-balance, I noticed this on the HuffPost religion page today.

S’truth.  Saul o’ Tarsus wouldn’t have had much at all to say about Hell.  As a construct, it didn’t hit high on the Concern-O-Meter of the earliest of them there Christians.

Although there were certainly myths in the Greek and Roman mythological traditions about complex levels and areas of the afterlife- places of pleasant fields and family vs. places you really don’t want to be caught, well, dead- for the Jews, and the belief-systems that influenced and informed the biblical worldview and mythology, Sheol was simply a place of housing ALL the dead- good, bad or middling.

By the period of the Second Temple, some of those Greek ideas started creeping into the mythology, so there were the first hints of divisions in the place of the afterlife- an area for the good, and one for the not-so-good- and suggestions that Sheol was the holding place for the wicked.

Around 200 BCE, as the Hebrew texts were translated into Greek (in Alexandria), the word Hades was used in place of Sheol, precipitating the overlap of the traditions even further.

Add to this the influence of Zoroastrian dualism and the development of apocalypticism and you had an evolving and rapidly-changing presentation of what the ‘life’ to come might offer us after we pass from this world.

There were also extra-canonical (in the Targums, mainly) mentions of Gehenna as the place of punishment of those who did evil while on earth.  Gehenna (remind me to tell you about an incident with a Ouija Board and a ‘spirit’ named ‘Gehe’- crazy teenagers, we were) was a physical, earthly place outside of Jerusalem where non-Israelites (and, sometimes, apostate Israelites) sacrificed children to Canaanite gods- like Ba’al and Moloch- generally in furnaces.

Eventually, this place of earthly sacrifice came to be re-envisioned as a place of punishment and spiritual purification of the dead.  In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus uses Gehenna as description of the opposite of life in the Kingdom.  English translations of the New Testament often don’t distinguish between the three- Sheol, Gehenna and Hell- meaning that interpreters without knowledge of the Greek texts often lump all three together.

As the mythology developed- from its many original sources and the imaginations of writers and visionaries- visual and literary conceptualizations of Hell became more specific.  As Jon M. Sweeney noted in his article, Dante Alighieri bears the primary responsibility for the shaping of our Western impression of the geography and theology of Hell.

How ironic is it that our collective conceptualization of a place that remains in use as a caution against proscribed behaviour was framed by an allegorical poem- however beautiful and rich in its imagery and language- written in the 14th century?

I’ve chatted before about the wonder that can be found when our stories are interpreted when their origins- as metaphor and allegory- are acknowledged and understood.  Dante illustrated the importance of the recognition and rejection of wrongdoing (as defined by his cultural and temporal context) as he traversed the Nine Circles of suffering- located within this planet of ours, echoing the Greek and Roman influences from which he drew his imagery.

The Inferno is one of my favourite works of literature.  Dante used folks familiar to his readers as examples of the misbehaviours he was declaiming- politicians, popes, enemies and friends- alongside characters from myth and history whose stories were well-known by an audience better-read than those these days tend to be.

The allegory retains its validity and poignancy seven centuries later.  Setting aside arguments regarding sin and punishment as dictated by doctrine or cultural mores- and its Christian centred theology (as would be expected from a man of his time), the place in the poem that most resonates with me, today anyway (since each reading brings new insight and appreciation to light), isn’t actually part of Hell-Proper at all.

After entering the Gate, but before traversing Acheron and meeting Charon, Dante encounters the Uncommitted- those who chose to do nothing– whether good or evil- in life and suffer eternal stagnation as a result.

I’m thinking that, were Dante’s vision an actual place, that vestibule would be pretty full up these days.

Those who pursue the banner of self-interest and apathy don’t even make it into HELL.  That’s a pretty potent statement.  And a lesson that has demonstrably not been learned, 700+ years later.

Although I enjoyed his article and his assertions that our Medieval conceptualizations of Hell as ‘useful in promoting crusades, colonizing and “conversions”‘ are well past their sell-by date,  I have to disagree with Sweeney’s last thought.

Re-imagining the afterlife isn’t the point.

As creative and mysterious and fantastical as our human imaginings about ‘afterlives’ might be, it’s long past time we stop being concerned with and focused on the rewards/punishments of a mythical next world and acknowledge that our lack of engagement in this one is a slippery slope that is contributing to the proliferation of wrongdoing in this world.  The one that we live in NOW.  The one that we will leave to the next generations.

If we’re on a highway to Hell- whether in this world or the next- it is most certainly one of our own making.  Expecting that ‘someone else’ is going to fix it abrogates responsibility to a treacherous degree.  And traitors, whose acts in life betrayed their human relationships- relationships with family and with community-  were housed in the 9th circle.

With Satan himself.

Since the Vestibule of the Uncommitted must have long ago become Standing Room Only, I vote for Circle #9 for the new home of those who remain stagnant and unwilling to participate in making this world a better place.

Allegorically speaking, of course.

Season ticket on a one way ride
Askin’ nothin’
Leave me be
Takin’ everythin’ in my stride
Don’t need reason
Don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothin’ that I’d rather do

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23 comments on “‘Ye who enter here’

  1. Rick says:

    I like how most people’s vision of Hell does not come from the Bible. It comes from Renaissance art. As Waylon Jennings said, “Sometimes it’s heaven. Sometimes it’s hell. Sometimes I don’t even know.”

    • colemining says:

      Rick! Yes- Medieval and Renaissance imagery tends to dominate our imaginations when it comes Hell’s landscape. Astonishing how many people are unaware of that.
      Thanks for the visit!

  2. DyingNote says:

    I’ll bring this up again (I’m quite fond of it). I rather like Neil Gaiman’s portrayal of Lucifer and his references to the ‘downfall’.

    And since no one has done it yet, I’ll remind you to tell us about “the incident with the Ouija board and the spirit named ‘Gehe'” 🙂

    • colemining says:

      You can always talk about Neil ’round these parts. Love that guy. Truly one of my fave authors AND people in general. And yes- his characterization of my pal the Devil Dude are quite wonderful.

      Lol. I will have to set aside some time to write about that little incident. Ah- to be young and impressionable again… I have already started a draft so I will def get it done at some point. Thanks for the visit!

  3. I love your reflections, Cole. They make me ponder from another perspective. Your knowledge of religious history and mythology fascinate.
    It does make me wonder whether, in all the stories and fictional prose/poetry that have flooded past and present days, the message has become lost to the metaphor. It does seem that we lose sight of what the devil and hell may mean in terms of malignancy in the here and now in the hearts and minds of all of us. To abrogate social responsibility and make choices born of selfish ends may very well create hell for others as their present life while our actions dictate whether or not we choose to be part of the malignancy.
    I do think there is a spiritual element to humanity that must make choices to benefit humanity and fight the intrinsic desire to be selfish to the exclusion of all other considerations.
    Conversions of heart/mind/spirit almost always seem to be when someone sees more clearly their role here on earth and embraces an alternative, hopefully more enlightened, way of living.
    I wonder, when reading of the exorcisms, whether they may reflect a recognition of that loss of any shared humanity. Might it be that, for some/many, no faith of any kind allows for a freefall into total self-absorption and a loss of all purpose and direction, embracing only self-interest and all encompassing negativity for mankind; attributes that might be equated with any sense of the devil or evil.
    We are surely lost to mythology if we lose the ability to be reflective on purpose and goals that benefit life for all and dismiss our own inaction as meaningless. Someone once said, and I can’t remember who, that the devil doesn’t need to do much himslef when he has so many willing hands.
    So much to think about here. I’ll be pondering all day now. Must make sure my hands are never idle while I do so.
    Fab post as always, Cole.x

    • colemining says:

      Anne-Marie- wonderful and insightful reflections, as always. I think you’ve hit on a lot of truths here. Balance is key- we do need to be true to ourselves, but we can certainly do so while looking at the wider community (and world) and acknowledging our place within it and responsibility to the larger picture.

      I agree- that conversions of all kinds (whether religious or ideological) are often driven by such clarity of vision (although there are those who turn to faith as a ‘last resort’ or in desperation)- and those eye-opening experiences can create the desire for positive change- in this here world.

      Very astute observation re. the exorcisms- I really think you have something there. The loss of our shared humanity can drive all kinds of societal malaise- and the symptoms can manifest in myriad ways. It’s distressing that the ‘solution’- in this case, anyway- is to hold fast to an outdated metaphor that validates the personified externalization of ‘evil’.

      While you’re pondering (with your busy hands fully occupied)… was checking out the website for Rosslyn Chapel this morning. How big a trip is that from Glasgow? The plans for September are beginning in earnest…

      Thanks for reading! I’m off out into this gorgeous summer-y day. The season has finally caught up with itself! xo

      • Oh, I checked. It’s about an hour to two depending on which transport method you opt for. Edinburgh’s not far by motorway. If you’re heading to Edinburgh there’ll be loads to see there too. Not long at all now.
        Hope you enjoyed you’re summer-y day. We’re still guessing back and forth. 🙂 x

      • colemining says:

        Hmmm. Might be adding that to the agenda. Thanks for checking- that’s what it looked like on the map. Still working out details and have yet to purchase tickets, but thinking this is going to happen!

        It’s full-on summer here suddenly! LOVING it! It might be Monday, but it feels like an evening on a patio would be the right place to be…

  4. bethbyrnes says:

    Yes, of course, is my first reaction to this.

    But, I think the reason these allegorical/metaphorical/ancient concepts/archetypes still persist is explained by the various levels of consciousness/awareness/intelligence — that wide range of human understanding.

    I think Christ was quoted as saying, I am giving you parables because you are not ready for the more complex and raw truth. Osho used to say, the food has to be cooked for you because you are so, well, simple and cannot digest it raw.

    I think frightening a child in any way, deliberately, is child abuse and worse. The Catholic church had no qualms about it and from what I can see, the Protestant strains are known to do the same. It was and is primitive and unconscionable, always.

    As for adults, well, horses for courses, right? For example, I am very clear that consuming animals is no longer necessary and is barbaric. How many people think I am wrong? Is it possible I am more awakened about this than others. So, when I see El Pollo Loco or the like advertising what is essentially the slow torture and slaughter of innocent animals, by using an anthropomorphised chicken or hen to sell their products in cartoon form to young and old alike, I see it as vestigial, antediluvian, ignorant and cruel. Not only to the animals in factory farms who are suffering around the clock, their entire lives, needlessly so over-weight, unhealthy human adults and children can eat fast, cheap, fried food and the like, but also to the children raised with a blatant disconnect between caring for the creatures of the earth and murdering them and putting them on a plate disguised with flavorings and mythified with symbols of happiness and the willingness of the animal to assist in this perfidy.

    If the average person just accepts all that de facto, then what makes us think they are enlightened enough to interiorise the true meaning of “devil”, “angel”, “God” and the like? We are light years from the average, let alone all human beings being willing and able to wake up.

    • colemining says:

      Beth- so much wisdom here. You are right, of course. While our stories can- and do- hold timeless lessons that offer potential paths for those with the ears to hear (to borrow a phrase), they can also be used as dangerous propaganda, targeting those who have been taught that they don’t need to delve past surface messages to look into the origins and metaphorical intentions of the myths.

      There are a whole lot of poorly taught people out there. And a whole lot of people in positions in power who benefit from keeping those same people poorly taught.

      I realize that, in sharing posts like this in a forum in which most of the people who are kind enough to stop by are enlightened thinking types, I am, in the main, preaching to the choir yet again.

      But… I do feel the need to talk about these things. My years of teaching demonstrated that even a small piece of information that was previously unknown can open the door to whole new ways of looking at the world, so I’ll keep tilting at the windmills.

      Thank you for reading- and taking such time and care to reflect and comment. xo

      • bethbyrnes says:

        Oh, and forgive me if I sounded overly serious or didactic, who am I to take any righteous position on anything. You are right to bring these things up. Look at all the damage being done in the US right now, in the name of religion and Christianity. It sickens me and the more voices that speak up, as you are doing, so eloquently and publicly, the better. Imagine all the people stopping by your blog and reading, who may not be the Greek chorus after all and need to see a sequence of intelligently laid out and reasoned arguments. Imagine if you raise the awareness of all of us, me included, by just one word, repeated often enough to penetrate the thick fog of endarkenment? I am never tired of reading your thoughts. ❤

      • colemining says:

        Beth- I know you were certainly not being righteous in any way, and I feel your pain, I really, truly do. Sometimes the willful ignorance and just plain apathy wears me right down- and it can be really really hard to find any optimism at all.

        Our provincial election is turning into a slanging match. That ‘mayor’ is still making the news- even from ‘rehab’, and the federal leaders of our country (among their many other crimes) are in the process of slashing funding ($29/citizen/year) to our public broadcasting system- media (television and radio) that does a pretty damn good job of attempting to keep the public educated AND entertained.

        It’s exhausting.

        I do try to draw upon instances in which I have, personally, witnessed minds being opened and the beginnings of realizations that ‘it’ isn’t going to take care of itself. We all share responsibility for this mess that we’re in- and have to contribute to get ourselves out of it.

        I realized- reading back over the post- that I was, perhaps, a little harsh with the RCC. Protestant (especially Evangelical Protestant) groups are certainly as culpable of over-emphasizing the threat of the horrors of Hell as the Romans. And the fact that we are becoming ‘lost in our myths’, as Anne-Marie so beautifully described it, is certainly part of the reason why there is so much strife in the world that can fairly be laid at the feet of religion(s).

        Doing my best to keep the optimism- and sharing what insights I might have on the chance that it may make a difference to someone, somewhere, but I’m also trying to put all my ‘preaching’ into practice through action in my community.

        As I do so, I never underestimate or take for granted the fact that there are people who are engaged and concerned enough to give my words a read-through as they form their own opinions about this important stuff. Thank you, again, for being one of them. xo

  5. Ste J says:

    Ah, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno was definitely the most fascinating and tightly written of the three books. I never considered how much we derive from that book our version of hell. I believe they did find Hades somewhere in Italy though back in the day but nobody much got to hear of it because of a certain president Kennedy met his demise…fascinating post as always.

    • colemining says:

      Ste J- I can read that thing over and over and find new greatness with each opportunity. It’s more than a little staggering that so many people who believe in that vision of Hell have no idea that the images aren’t drawn from the bible at all. Thanks for the visit!

      • Ste J says:

        People never tend to think much, they just assume and are happy with that…which is a shame. We will put this particular fallacy right though.

        I was a little overwhelmed the first time I read The Inferno, having little (no) knowledge of Italian politics of the time I was flipping back and forward a lot…I knew pretty much all of the mythological references which helped. It was only on reflection that it hit me how good it actually was…a true and glorious insight as well as imagination.

      • colemining says:

        Too true, Ste J. People don’t tend to want to strain the brain overmuch. Trying to change that…

        I was too. It’s so very rich- and I certainly remember having to look all kinds of stuff up the first time I encountered its wonder. And I was taking Medieval history at the time! Dante had so very much to teach- and the lessons still stand today.

  6. bethbyrnes says:

    One last thought: the RCC has earned its infamy. Other than Pope Francis, it is an archaic, mysoginist, pedophile-sheltering beast, imho. If the Pope hadn’t come along, I would have no hope for Catholicism at all. Spirituality yes, “Religion” of any stripe, a resounding no!

    • colemining says:

      Oh boy, do I EVER agree with that. But there have been strides- too few and far between- that suggest attempts at change. I hold out some hope that Frank might mark a turning point for the Institution, but I’m also not holding my breath.

      Historically ‘religion’- once it is institutionalized and used to drive social control- does tend to mess with progressive movement. Sigh. Again, I have to agree with you, Beth. Believing in the underlying message(s)? No issue with that. Remaining tied to anachronistic worldviews sourced in culturally relative myths? Not so much. As much as I love our stories- and very much feel that they contain timeless and important wisdom- buying them whole cloth regardless of their contextual origins and purpose just isn’t something I’ll ever be able to comprehend.

      At least there seem to be Voices that agree with us…

  7. I’m late to the game here, but I have a slightly different take on hell. I see it, in its simplest iteration, as a place where the truly wicked receive their just desserts. There is no punishment in this world that is appropriate for those, say, who have committed genocide, oppressed millions through totalitarianism or committed repeated acts of child abuse. Even if we execute the perpetrators of the first two crimes and sentence the third to life without parole, it hardly begins to cover the breadth and depth of their crimes. The concept of hell, when applied to these individuals (rather than using it to scare children, scare people into going to church, etc.) would seem to invoke some sort of cosmic justice that would otherwise be impossible to obtain.

    • colemining says:

      CBC- good to see you!

      I agree that there is certainly that element to all our stories of Hell. There doesn’t seem to be anything like justice for the truly wicked here on earth, so the mythology allows us to hope for a place where real justice may be enacted. It’s just one of the many problems I have with any number of theodicies- none of them address the reality that bad people do really really bad things. While the god(s) let it happen. And human punishment- assuming that they are actually held accountable- just doesn’t cut it. Not for crimes like those you describe.

      Since I find the lack of justice- in the theologies I have studied- deeply unsatisfying, I’d prefer that we work together for a world in which such atrocities don’t happen. It means overcoming our human propensity toward greed and self-serving desires that destroy that which is good- a pretty daunting task, I acknowledge. But it still strikes me as a more noble goal than waiting around to see if the bad dudes get it in the end- from a deity who didn’t see fit to act to prevent the atrocity to begin with.

      If it’s going to be all about that whole ‘free will’ thing, then it’s past time we used our free will to fix the problems of this world- rather than waiting for justice in a mythological next realm.

      The idea of Hell, in situations that beggar the imagination with their inhumanity and evil (for lack of a better word), is yet another soporific that leads to complacency and the attitude that we can’t do anything to change things. While I understand the impulse- some punishments will never fit the crimes- I can’t support the passivity it promotes.

      But man, can I ever appreciate the wonder of Dante’s description (and those of other visionaries, of course- but Dante remains the winner-and-still-champ). Our stories have beauty and meaning- even if buying them whole cloth isn’t something I can get behind.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. […] beloved Dante spoke well of her: But, since I am yours, O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here […]

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