Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Stephanie Faul is director of public relations for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A long-time writer and editor, she has been a frequent contributor to on-line and old-line media.

Locus is a series about words about places and how language, culture and society have created and used these words down through the ages.

» Previous Issues

Links Relating
to this edition

» "Map of the Underworld" Showing the descents of Odysseus and Aeneas

» The Descent into Hades

» The Biblical Doctrine of Hell From "The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment" By Thomas B. Thayer

» "The Land of the Dead" (Duat)

» Map of Dante's Hell

» Norse Mythology "In the beginning there was cold and heat".

» Encyclopedia Mythica

» Odin's Castle of Dreams & Legends; the Vikings, the Mongols and other Barbarians.

» Ancient History Sourcebook Ancient Near East

» Classical Mythology Online

» Research Edition of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

» Jean-Paul Sartre Biography

» Julian Barnes Web
By Stephanie Faul, Locus Archives »

The Country of the Dead

      Where do people go when they die? This oldest of human questions has been answered in many ways and remains the greatest mystery of human existence. Anyone who has seen a death recognizes that something has gone from the body, that the corpse is not the person it once contained. It is as though something, some individual force, has moved out and gone elsewhere, leaving a recognizable but obviously incomplete shell behind.

      Some cultures hold that the spirit is immediately re-used to infuse the body of a newborn infant, or that spirits continue to hover around where they once lived. But another theory, common in Western cultures, is that the life force has moved house and now lives in the land of the dead. And as also might be reasonably assumed, the way the Land of the Dead is organized bears a strong resemblance to social structures in the Land of the Living, complete with separation of classes and government by an autarch.

      The Egyptians postulated that a person's "ka," or soul, went on an elaborate journey after death. On the chance that one might need one's physical self in the afterlife, they buried the body with food and other items that might be needed. For the richest of the dead, they developed elaborate systems of preserving the body and buried the corpse not only with food but with furniture, clothing, and even games.

Weighing the Soul
Weighing the Soul on the scales of truth before the gods of the dead. Egyptian relief; after Maspero.

from the book
Ancient World
by Willis Mason West

      The Greeks believed the dead voyaged to Hades, an underworld ruled by the god Pluto. This was a gray land where the dead roamed aimlessly, surrounded by the river Styx and guarded by Cerberus, a three-headed dog. Souls reached Hades by crossing the river courtesy of the ferryman Charon; thus a soul would need a few coins to pay for its passage and these were often buried with the corpse. The truly bad guys went to Tartarus, a special section of Hades for evildoers. There they performed the same meaningless tasks endlessly. For example, Sisyphus was condemned to pushing a stone up a hill, but as he neared the crest the stone slipped from his hands and rolled back down. Similarly, Tantalus tried to drink from a river whose level dropped away as he dipped his head, leaving him eternally thirsty.

      Certain heroes were said to have gone to Hades and returned alive. Odysseus visited Hades in his travels, as did Hercules, who kidnapped (and later returned) Cerberus the dog. Orpheus the musician went to fetch his dead love Euridyce, but turned to look at her as they were leaving and lost her forever.

      The Norse dead in chilly, dark Scandinavia went to Hel, a cold and dreary place. (Heroes who died in battle went to Valhalla, where they could feast through eternity.) Conversely the Islamic hell is blazing hot and waterless, as one might expect from a desert-dwelling people. Their Paradise has trees, gardens, and plentiful gushing water.

      One reason Christianity was so appealing was that it offered a Paradise to ordinary people, even slaves, who accepted the religion's beliefs. The concept of Hell as a hot place came from the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), near Jerusalem, where pagans worshipped Moloch and others burned their trash; the nights were lit by garish fires and the valley was continually shrouded in nasty smoke, creating the image we have in Western culture today.

Dante Aleghieri
Dante Aleghieri from a portrait by S. Tofanelli

from the book
Mediaeval and
Modern History
by Philip Van Ness Myers

      The poet Dante Aleghieri described a highly stratified hell - the outer, least unpleasant ring held those who had merely been pagans, which Dante considered to be an involuntary and not particularly vile sin. Next come the circles of those who lacked self control and had simply allowed their desires to run away with them -- the lustful, the proud, the intemperate. The lowest circles were reserved for sinners who had acted with intended malice, such as murderers, cheats, and thieves. The inmost, frozen core held Judas Iscariot and Brutus, the great betrayers.

      Writers have often invented intriguing variations on heaven and hell. Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" ("Huis Clos") equates hell with being thrown into close contact with fellow sinners. In his play a man and two women, each an unpleasant and contentious personality, are locked together in a room forever. In the final scene they all realize the situation's horror.

      Julian Barnes depicts an engaging version of heaven in "History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters." Heaven, he explains, is a place where one can have whatever one wants - breakfast, sex, a perfect golf score, conversations with famous people. (His protagonist chooses to meet a number of sports heroes.) But after several eons the charm wears off; heaven is, when all is said and done, boring. As a result, Barnes makes it clear that most souls eventually choose to leave it for the calm nothingness of oblivion.

 Available at Amazon.Com

 Copyright © 1999, 2000

contact | about | site map | home T-O