History & Mythology

Hell in 6 Minutes: The Underworld in Different Mythologies Explained

A dark blazing pit, the constant echoing of horrifying screams, the Devil and his evil companions torturing the condemned for eternity — sound familiar? Then you know we are talking about one of the worst places known to Mankind — Hell. 

Nearly every culture and religion in the world have certain beliefs about the afterlife. “There’s a special place in Hell for those who backed Brexit with no plan,” one politician famously stated. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might have heard a friend utter something along the lines of “this lockdown has become a living hell.” While most of us are very familiar with the version of Hell as a fiery pit, how much do we know about the other versions of Hell that exist?  So let's take a tour through Hell to explore the finest of Underworlds!

The first version of Hell, and probably the one we are all most familiar with, is a place of eternal punishment for the damned. Historically, most Christians have believed in Hell as a fiery pit in which sinners burn for all eternity. In the Bible, Matthew 25:41-43 reads: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ However, the Bible does not actually describe Hell in much detail, unlike one of the most famous representations of Hell, Inferno, written by the Italian poet Dante sometime in the 14th Century. Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell provide a graphic representation of Hell where the torture matches the severity of sin. Thus, according to Dante, the punishment fits the crime in Hell!

In many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, Hell is not all that different. The Chinese envisioned the 10 Courts of Hell. In the Islamic faith, Hell is known as Jahannam and is divided into seven layers. Inhabited by the most nightmarish creatures you could think of, evil-doers are punished with thorny shrubs, extreme cold, and of course — a burning pit of fire. After all, would Hell be complete without a fire pit? 

For the Ancient Egyptians, Hell was something different altogether. Duat was the place of the afterlife for Egyptians. However, the journey through Duat sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. After death, souls had to battle their way through twelve chambers of hell, overcoming demons and monsters, and finding their way past gates guarded by fire-breathing serpents. If they were killed, that was too bad for them, because their souls perished forever. If they could make it to the final stage, the last test awaited them — the weighing of the heart. In this ritual, the heart of the deceased was weighed by Anubis against the feather of Maat, representing truth and justice. Any heart heavier than the feather was eaten by Ammit, the devourer of souls. These unfortunate souls could not reach Osiris and be granted eternal life. Instead, they were damned to wander around aimlessly for eternity. 

The last version of Hell is perhaps the least frightening — because there is no Hell at all! For the Ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Norse cultures, there was no such thing as Hell, only the afterlife. They believed that all souls, regardless of status or sins, went to the afterlife. Their version of this afterlife was far less eventful; it was merely a dark, shadowy version of life. 

For the Ancient Mesopotamians, the underworld of Kur was a dark, dreary cavern located beneath the Earth. The land of Hades for the Ancient Greeks was the same. Souls sent to the underworld simply wandered around with no purpose. There was no happy afterlife. Whether you were a king or a peasant, it didn’t matter; all human lives ended up in the afterlife without their earthly belongings and statuses. In Norse mythology, which made its way into Scandinavian folklore, the world of the dead was thought to be located underground, somewhere north — the direction which is coldest and darkest, like the grave.

Hell is many things to different cultures and communities. While many people feel fear of going to Hell, others don’t believe in it at all, which can help make the afterlife so much more inviting! Regardless of which (if any) version of Hell you believe in, one thing remains true: no one really wants to end up there!
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