Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Oh What The Hell

When I was a kid I read a travel journey of a man visiting Europe. It was written in the 1930's and he was there to see all the sites. There was one short chapter on his trip to Hell.  Of course you think of that Hell, the classical pit of fire and brimstone where Satan lives but instead it was pretty little village in Norway -which today makes a great deal of money from tourists that want to take pictures of the local road signs or say they been to hell and back.  It's a lot like what tourist do in Intercourse Pennsylvania.

There are gravesites over 50,000 years old where the occupant was loving buried with personal possessions. A few of the dead were made up with a rouge of red clay to cover over the pallor of death but since these people left no written records it's impossible to say what their thoughts were on an afterlife.  Though it's safe to assume they were loved.

It isn't until you get the written word a little over 5,000 years ago that you find clay tablets in cuneiform.  If you believe that human nature is constant then it comes as no surprise these earliest written records are mostly about death and taxes. There are deeds, wills, tax receipts as well as the roles of gods in this world and in a spiritual other world where the gods live and the dead go.

Somewhere in the human consciousness came the problem of a person's legacy living long after they have died. A hunter gather culture is pretty much a equalitarian society with few material possessions and where the memories of pass members faded away in a couple of generations.  With civilization you have a growing accumulation of property and a hierarchy of administrators to control everything.

When people realized they can amass enough wealth that can last many generations they start building monuments to themselves and thinking about immortality.  We might not know much about the people who built the pyramids but we still fascinated with the Pharaohs they were built for.  The political state would have a state religion and it was ruled by Gods that were very much like the kings and rulers here on Earth.

Civilization magnified the differences between the haves and the have nots.  Power and a life of luxury where available to the ambitious which usually meant whoever was the most brutish nasty bastard around.  The common people cried out for justice and religion accommodated them with the idea of divine justice. That sometime after we are all dead a god will judge us all, so a righteous slave might go to heaven and mean cruel ruler sent straight to hell.  You can see where this kind of thinking is great for social control and makes the average person hesitate before trying kill off the local despot.    

Oddly Hell has become more appearing over time. Maybe because people take it less seriously or maybe because all the people that sure to get into heaven aren't  necessarily the people we really want to spend eternity with.

In Milton's Paradise Lost we get some of Christianity's most enduring images of Hell. Sometimes it is amusing to listen to some people totally confuse and mix up passages from the epic poem and the King James Bible -both were written in that iambic pentameter Shakespearian English.    

Milton suffered the wrath of Puritanical England, they accused Milton of being much too sympathetic to Satan.  Literary scholars will kind of agree because Satan does have all the best lines. Let's face it good is good but evil is can be so complex and interesting.  One reason why the Puritans, sort of the Taliban of Renaissance England, tried to keep the theaters closed and have all books of fiction burned or banned.

Of all the mythological Hells the Greeks had about the best one. It wasn't so much about torment and torture but it was a mildly gloomy place where most souls got to contemplate their wasted lives. Eventually that evolved into a three part underworld where the evil were segregated out, the true heroes of life where given an island of the blessed and the rest of us where sent to the Fields of Asphodel.

Hades was first the name of the god that rules the underworld  but the god was slowly renamed Pluto and Hades became the place. Pluto, from the word for wealth Plouton, was kind of a euphemism because things like gold came from the ground and underworld and was a way of saying he's gone off to a better place.

Greek ideas had tremendous influence in the ancient world around the Mediterranean Sea and into the modern world.  One of the best examples comes from the writings of Philo Judaeus or Philo of Alexandria.  He lived at the same time as Jesus and he was a Jewish scholar that tried to harmonize Greek and Jewish philosophy.  Modern Christian teachers either avoid or discount Philo's influence on the early church. There are at least a few who believe Judus of Iscariot  was the symbolic representation of Philo.

The Jewish community never really accepted the idea of an afterlife which some historians feel was just another thing that set Jews apart from other people and made them an easy targets for attack.  One of my friends mused that it has to be difficult to see your neighbors prosper even though they pray to different god and don't live in fear of a heaven and hell beyond this life. That might be too close the truth for other people to handle. Can you imagine anything worse than living on your hands and knees all your life and finding no reward at the end?  Accept maybe living on your hands and knees -and the only way to quite the doubt in your mind is to kill your ungodly neighbors who are having too much of a good time in the here and now.

Yes that does sound like hell to me.  


No comments:

Post a Comment