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Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment

by Marq de Villiers


In the movie Event Horizon, the crew of a rescue vessel is dispatched to the far reaches of space to investigate the eponymous ship, which vanished without a trace and has reappeared as mysteriously. It transpires that the Event Horizon made a detour on its intended course, winding up smack in the middle of hell. One set piece is a montage of split-second cuts visualizing a realm of pain and torture; the images are reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting in their baroque grotesqueness and gore. As a mash-up of sci-fi and horror tropes, Event Horizon is an enjoyable – if admittedly over the top and melodramatic – example of its kind, though it is as interesting for its extreme vision of what might lie on the other side of human consciousness and existence. It’s not pretty, to say the least.

Marq de Villiers does not mention Event Horizon in his latest book, which catalogues and describes various conceptualizations of hell throughout history and across cultures, nor does he spend a great deal of time considering other popular renditions of eternal damnation or devilry (William Friedkin’s The Exorcist gets name-checked in the book’s final pages, though not in a critical examination of the film itself but to illustrate a completely different point). De Villiers’s approach is generally more highbrow and largely confines itself to classical figures and sacred texts from antiquity. Modernity and its interpretations of eternal punishment are glossed over, shunted off to a brief and cursory epilogue.

The bulk of the book concerns itself with ancient configurations of hell across cultures, including the Greeks and Romans, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hebrews, whose early idea of hell was not a place of agony or torment but rather one of tedium – according to de Villiers, early Hebrew hell “was dull stuff.” There is perhaps a chime between this nascent Jewish conception of hell and the Norse pantheon, which includes a section called Náströnd: “boring people end up there.” Boredom is a facet of numerous hells, de Villiers writes; the Buddhist hell involves layers of bureaucracy and a “registrar of the underworld” named P’an-fcwan.

The writers most closely associated with the underworld in the western tradition are all present and accounted for: Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton are each given due consideration. It’s a bit surprising in retrospect to realize how little of Paradise Lost is devoted to hell; de Villiers also points out the relatively few times hell is mentioned in the Bible. The fullest description of hell’s geography and makeup is likely Dante’s Inferno, which de Villiers stipulates is also characterized by the poet’s “willingness, even eagerness, to name names and assign blame” regarding the historical figures assumed to reside there.

Hell and Damnation is not so much a cultural examination of different societies’ imaginative renderings and what they teach us about an individual culture’s approach to morality, justice, or social engineering. The most analytical portions are confined to the first part of the book and the epilogue. In between, de Villiers provides an exhaustive catalogue of hell’s appearances in literature, religion, and philosophy. This material is more often than not baldly factual, though some of these facts are unquestionably interesting (the Burmese have “no fewer than 40,040” hells, including one for “low-grade sins” such as noisiness, while Chinese Buddhists reserve a place in hell for “people who keep other people’s books”).

While this approach is undeniably erudite, a straightforward information dump – along with the author’s tendency to quote at length from primary sources with limited exegesis or analysis – does make for turgid reading at times. It also leaves a reader longing for more than just a précis of a given text: anyone with an internet connection who is interested in the story of Gilgamesh or Inanna has ready access to any number of translations and summaries. What is more interesting – and missing from de Villiers’s inventory – is a deep dive into the social and psychological implications of what these myths meant to the societies that created them and how those tales echo through history or influence those that follow.

The early stages of the book make inroads in this direction, for example when de Villiers points to Polybius, the ancient Greek “historian and snob” who felt that stories about hell were most effectively used as a means of social control. Similarly, the church fathers deploy Catholic dogma as a  mechanism for keeping their congregations (if not their clergy) docile and well behaved. The epilogue extends these notions to ask whether hell has any place in a secular age, or whether traditional religious or mythic notions of hell have been supplanted by science and politics. (Though the rise in Christian Evangelism in the U.S. and the persistence of religious fundamentalism around the world tend to indicate that these ideas are less easy to dispense with than avowed secularists might wish to believe.)

As long as human psychology is brought up short by the injustice of a reality in which vice not only goes unpunished but appears in many cases to be rewarded, it is likely that some version of hell will remain with us. This makes a book like de Villiers’s relevant on its face. But Hell and Damnation is arguably more valuable as a jumping-off point for further investigation into the social and cultural imperatives that produced the various iterations of eternal torment collected within it.