The Mythological Insignificance of Hel(le)…

Medieval illustration of Hell in the Hortus deliciarum manuscript of Herrad of Landsberg (about 1180)

My long-time interest in mythology as a subject, has brought me to notice certain similarities between the various types of stories that the ancient peoples of various cultures put so much thought and imagination into.  What should be noted is that while the stories of the Norse and Celtic people have been laid aside as stories to live our lives but but remain an important part of our heritage, there remains one set of stories that we are not only supposed to believe as the unerring word of God, but take incredibly seriously.  Many still hold that modern laws and morals are based on these ‘lessons’ and that they should be taught to our children as truth.

“In the Christian view of the underworld that Dante presented in Inferno, being in Hell is the ultimate separation from God. Since, in the Christian mythos, God is light, a separation from God would make the environment one is in very dark indeed. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” I John 1:5 (KJV)”A Comparison-Contrast of Christian and Pre-Christian Pagan Views of the Underworld.

It would strike me as a peculiar coincidence that others would not have noticed that these religious stories bare a more than striking resemblance to the old Pagan myths.   I speak of course of the stories and characters in the Old and New Testaments, the Torah and the Koran.  These three are so closely related that it should be noted that both the Christian Bible and Koran are simply literary derivatives of the Torah. Considering this, I do not believe it is any more of coincidence that their versions of hell bare so much resemblance to other mythologies.  This is not to say that the old myths are any more believable or less ridiculous, but in comparing these stories, I hope to highlight these similarities and cultural cross-overs and to show why the scriptures that people so readily set their lives by are no more than a re-fabrication of pre-existing mythology and should be laid aside with them.  For now I shall examine Christianity against Norse, Greek and Egyptian Mythology.

Norse Mythology

Modern interpretation of Hel

The most obvious place for me to begin was, of course, Hel.  Hel was the Norse Goddess of the underworld known by the same name.  In legend it was third level of the underworld located under Asgard and Midgard beneath the World-Tree, Ygggrasil, in the mythical Norse realm of Nilfheim.  As the stories have it, the upper portion of Hel’s body appeared alive and healthy while the lower half was blackened decaying. She was told to have been one of three children (Fenrir, the wolf; and Jormangand, the serpent) of Loki and the Giantess, Angrboda, and condemned by Odin to rule over the underworld on the basis of their parentage.  Loki was considered a malign influence among the Norse gods and they feared that he and his brood would bring the destruction of Asgard.   The Aesirs were unable to destroy Children of Loki in battle so Odin cast the serpent into Midgard and sent the wolf to be raised by the Aesir.  Garm, the Norse hound of hell inhabited of the Cavern of Gripa at the gates of Nilfheim where he stood guard.  He is the direct equivalent of Cerberus from the Greek myths.    It was said to have been a monstrous beast with four eyes and spattered with blood.  What should also be noted is that the hound would snarl at those who had been miserly in life and been ungenerous to the poor.

Norse myths tell of several aspects to her realm;

  • The Hall, Eliudnir (damp)
  • The Treshhold, Fallanda Forad (stumbling block)
  • The Dish, Hungr (Hunger)
  • The Knife, Sultr (famine)
  • Hel’s bed, Kor (Sick-bed)

Rather than a place of torment and punishment, the Hel of Norse mythology seems more of a holding area for the lives that were ended by accident, sickness or old age.  Those who were slain in battle stayed in Valhalla in Asgard.  The Norse believed that those souls had to pass through fortified gates to get to her and were doomed to wait there until the arrival of Loki to call his daughter to combat in the battle of Ragnarok; the great battle  that was to bring the world to an end.

“In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, Hel is described as having been appointed by the god Odin as ruler of a realm of the same name, located in Niflheim. In the same source, her appearance is described as half-black and half-flesh coloured”

In this respect, the Norse perception of the Underworld also has much in common with that of the Greek and Egyptian mythologies which I will deal with next. Is it just me, or does this also ring a huge Christianity shaped bell? I have noticed several other similarities in this brief description.  The most obvious would be the name.  Hel, in this case is not only the destination but the ‘deity’.  The second likeness is the emphasis on charity and the general disapproval of ‘miserly’ behaviour.  Also in the mix are references to inherited sin and a serpent. I am all for giving in respect of making contribution toward our own cost to society, but when additional generosity ceases to be voluntary and is expected or made compulsory then it becomes slavery.   The Egyptian myths make reference to a series of gates rather than a single set.   These stories not only suggest there was a belief in a the afterlife prior to Christian influences but that they have been adapted to fit into the bible.

“the first kennings using the goddess Hel are found at the end of the 10th and in the 11th centuries.”

Greek Mythology

Hades & Cerberus

“Greek myths also fail to mention a “lake of fire,” but they do mention a “fiery river” of the underworld, evidently a branch of the river Styx. This river is called  Pyriphlegthon meaning “flaming with fire,” sometimes shortened to Phlegethon meaning “the flaming.” – Hell’s Pre-Christian Origins: Hell-fire, Dragons, Serpents, and Resurrections – Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

Following on from the Norse mythology, the Greek Underworld was believed to be the destination for all the souls of the dead and entered via a cave. Though judgement was made buy Hades the ruler of the underworld it was not the singular means of punishment.  The Byzantine period brought with it the notion of possession by ‘female’ demons and this has persisted as an explanation for otherwise strange behaviour but the Greeks never had a good versus evil duality within their mythology.  It was the popularist moralising of Christianity that equated malevolence with a devil figure and benevolence with God.  Greek belief lacked any concept of a devil figure. Ancient Greek culture was not generally focused on the next world but more on the present one as indicated by a relative lack of emphasis expressed in the surivving texts of the era.  This is in stark contrast to the ideas of the Norse, Christian, Egyptian and Muslim cultures.  There was a variation in the practices of cult and mythologies where attention was paid to posthumous differentiation between the specially favoured and the wicked and this trend seems to have been mirrored in the mythology.  Though there was no specific devil figure, they did believe in a place for those people who had distinguished themselves in some form but this was not Olympus.  Very few were granted entrance to Olympus and even then they had achieved incredible feats and were taken before they had died in reward for their deeds.

“Lambert has pointed out that his studies have indicated that the Mesopotamians were of a mind to re-interpret and transform older myths into newer religious concepts. It would appear that the Hebrews, Jews and Christians weren’t doing anything new in their transformation of the earlier ancient myths:…” – Hell’s Pre-Christian Origins: Hell-fire, Dragons, Serpents, and Resurrections – Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

Tartarus was the realm of the underworld reserved to trap the troublesome Titans who remained undefeated in the clashes between gods and the Titans.   Hades was not depicted by Greek artists but he was shown as one of the judges of the dead alongside Triptolemos, and Rhadamanthus on 4th century south Italian vase.  There are a vast number of myths involving the Underworld involving many characters and circumstances; best known is probably Heracles’ task to capture Cerberus.  Legend describes Hades as an invisible being which invoked such dread that many refused to even say his name and it was thought that this character heeded no prayers. The ancient Greeks humanised him by allowing him emotions and gave him a bride; Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (at this point it may be prudent to add that Demeter was believed to be one of the three sisters of Zesus, Hades and Posiedon).  Yes, you worked it out;  Persephone was his own niece and a product of another incestuous relationship.  (One wonders why he was seen as a fit judge of the dead.)

“The advent and growing influence of Christianity within the Roman Empire meant that preservation of the great classics of the pagan world could by no means be guaranteed.”  – Richard Buxton

The mythical Olympian Gods were notoriously capricious and the and the ancient Greeks in worshipping one they ran a great risk of displeasing another.  It is not surprising then, that Christianity was so successful in repressing the polytheistic beliefs or indeed undermining them as ‘merely stories’.  Where the church was able to suppress these beliefs they replaced the stories with their own similar versions.  Again we have the otherwise unbeatable adversary sentenced to eternal imprisonment in an underworld for the dead.  Where the Greek Underworld differs from the Norse is that rather being judged and condemned, Hades was entrusted with a task by his brother, Zeus; ruling the earthly places.  The character also crosses into the Roman traditional myths due to the Roman emulation of ancient Greek culture (Pluto is the Roman equivalent).

“‘The Christian convert, Clement of Alexandria issued a clarion call in his Exhortation to the Heathen, when he ridiculed the absurd and immoral myths of the pagans.” – Richard Buxton

The moral implications of following the example of the Greek gods  and changing patterns of what was and was not considered acceptable behaviour meant that it eventually lost  its followers.  The Greek myths have, however, survived in both art and literature and it’s part of the richness of their storytelling that has aided their survival.  Neither fixed nor dominated by orthodoxy, the writers were not above adapting it to suit a particular agenda which is is why so many versions of popular Greek stories have been discovered and passed down.  There are many examples of written myths that begun as oral performances while others originated as texts-to-be read as forms of public entertainment.

“In English usage the word “Hades” first appears around 1600, as a term used to explain the article in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell”, where the place of waiting (the place of “the spirits in prison” 1 Peter 3:19) into which Jesus is there affirmed to have gone after the Crucifixion needed to be distinguished from what had come to be more usually called “hell”, i.e. the place or state of those finally damned. [1]

One North African Christian (Lactantius 240-320AD) mocked the Greek myths as irrational and dismissed them as the salacious and absurd works of poets.  It does appear that Christianity has now fallen victim the same form ridicule it once subjected paganism to. ‘Zeus is said to have carried away Catamitus on an eagle.  This is poetical elaboration. In fact he either had him carried away by a legion which had an eagle for it’s standard; or else the ship on which he was placed had an eagle as its tutelary deity,…’ Considering the time frame, the writer can be forgiven for failing to replace or explain away Zeus in his examination. Christianity was in its infancy and a highly controversial position to take but 21st century free-thinkers must also be granted the same freedom to subject these mad ideas to the same scrutiny.

Eygptian Mythology

Eye of Ra

The Egyptians referred to the underworld as Duat.  As in Greek Mythology all souls went to Duat for judgement by Osiris, Ma’at, and Anubis.  The Egyptians also believed that while Re ruled the skies during the day, by night he descended to the Duat in the west and passed through the Underworld to be reborn the next morning in the east.  So far from being a place exclusively for the damned among other things, it represented renewal to the Egyptians and Osiris was also associated with the annual flooding of the Nile.  Hathor’s role as a funerary Goddess links her with the underworld.  She was said to welcome souls to the underworld with refreshments.  The dying hoped that in the after life they would receive her protection.  Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians spent a great deal of time preparing the dead for the afterlife with burial rites.

“Here in my kingdom of the dead, there are many powerful demons: should I send them into the land of the living, to return with the stolen hearts of evil-doers?  For I am much stronger than you: sooner or later, even the gods must come to sleep in my Beautiful West.” – Osiris over the conflict between Horus and Seth

The Graco-Roman period heralded many writers who kept meticulous records.  Once such was Plutarch, a writer and historian who lived between AD46 and AD120.  From Egyptian records and Greek legends which vastly pre-date Christianity -and probably some ideas of his ow- he constructed the tale of Seth and Osiris.  In his version Seth had constructed a chest to the exact measurements of his brother.  Seth then threw a banquet at which he presented the chest as a prize to whomsoever it fitted and tricked his brother into climbing inside.  Once he was inside, Seth and his fellow plotters sealed the chest and cast it into the Nile.  The story goes on to more and more elaborate events; the chest was washed up on the banks of Byblos in Lebanon, magically gave root and grew into a tree large enough to contain Osiris in his coffin.  The myth ends with th King of Lebanon cutting down the tree with Osiris still inside, and using the trunk as a pillar for his palace.  No myth would be complete without the end coincidence.  Isis was able to locate the coffin and released her husband.  To add credibility to his story, Plutarch claimed that the tree at Byblos was preserved for many years and worshipped there.

“Bernstein’s scholarly work on the origins of Hell, notes that the Egyptian damned are placed in fiery pits, hacked up, burnt by fiery serpents, or placed in a lake of fire, but, this is NOT an eternal punishment, each day brings a new round of destruction for the newly dead, quite contrary to the Christian notion of the damned enduring Hell fire for all eternity.” Hell’s Pre-Christian Origins: Hell-fire, Dragons, Serpents, and Resurrections – Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

The Egytiptian burial rites included a number of measures designed to protect the dead in the underworld: mummification to preserve the corpse, involving the removal of organs and dehydration with salt, anointing with scented oils and resin, and the final stage of wrapping the body with bandages.  The oldest mummy on recorde was located in situ was discovered in the tomb of a court singer, Nefer who died in approximately 247BC; well before the advent of Christianity.  The process is thought to have taken a minimum of seventy days.  Great score was also set in protection of dead with charms and amulets and one of the most common was a scarab.  The heart of the deceased was believed to be the seat of intelligence and weighed in front of Osiris and if it was found to be heavy the deceased was condemned.  The scarab was believed to prevent the heart from confessing it’s secrets.  Clearly they saw no problem with attempts to deceive the gods they worshipped.  Three books were used in the preparation of the dead; The Book of the Dead contained the defensive spells for the judgement; The Book of Gates, narrates the passage of a newly deceased soul into the next world; and The Book of Caverns, was written on the inside of the tomb for reference by the deceased. It describes the journey of the sun god Ra through the six caverns of the underworld, focusing on the rewards and punishments in afterlife.  The tomb traditionally was equipped with everything they believed they would need in the afterlife including personal keepsakes, clothing, food and furniture.

In Conclusion?

The various similarities in these three mythologies lead me to agree with the author of the Origins of Hell web page.  The Hell of the old testament has clearly been built from the stories of much older mythologies from around the Mediterranean, Middle East and areas of North Africa.  It is already known that the New testament is simply a watered down version of the Old which itself is based on the bronze-aged Mesopotamian Hammurabi code.  Christianity in Egypt dates back to the 1st century when Saint Mark preached there and Egyptians first began to embrace Christianity. Christianity became the dominant religion in Egypt in the 4th century and remained so until the Islamic invasion in the 7th century.  The Egyptians before Christianity had always been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion, having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the Roman Empire.  Satan is a Hebrew word meaning adversary and the character of the devil and hell as a place of torment and punishment is a culmination of various cultural imaginations.

“Many of the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the idea of the judgement of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful. The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the Coptic cross, seen at right), itself also a symbol for eternal life.” – A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IN EGYPT



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