Object lesson No 54

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
It's a shame hell is not regarded like any other destination in life's journey. Friendly travel agents could help anxious travellers make their booking, sending them away with armfuls of brochures detailing the options. And there are many on offer. It just depends in whom you choose to believe.

For early tour operators hell was simply where you went when you were dead. There was a distant Greek island called Hades, admittedly a little gloomy and unfashionable these days. Pueblo Indians preferred to wing it, delighting in the prospect of becoming clouds. And there were worse places than Valhalla, a palace whose guests were fed fresh boar and a liquor that flowed from goats' udders. Unfortunately this was an exclusive resort reserved for Norse warriors slain in battle and unsuitable for vegetarians.

Things started to get complicated when the Hebrews came up with Sheol. According to Job, this was "a place of gloom and deep darkness". More spookily, absolutely nothing happened there. Sheol did not remain a top destination for long - people who felt they had led blameless lives started wanting their own resort.

For the rest of us, tour operators found inspiration in the Valley of Hinnom, where early Israelites sacrficed their children to the idol Moloch. They came up with Gehenna, a huge camp designed for torturing the wicked by fire. The concept of eternal damnation took hold and ultimately Christianity, Judaism and Islam were to insist that all travellers be judged in the departure lounge of life. Muslims, for example, must traverse a bridge as narrow as a razor's edge above concentric rings of fire. The damned don't make it.

Clearly, Hinduism is the first choice for anyone who wants a return ticket to this life. Thanks to a management policy of reincarnation, travellers are guaranteed that visits to any one of 21 hells will not be permanent.

Buddhists also have a policy of rebirth, one that found favour with the Taoists in China. For them, the dead are conducted by reps to the god of walls and moats who gives them a preliminary hearing, sending the baddies off to one of several underworlds. The length of their punishment is fixed, and when they have served out their term they drink the broth of oblivion and prepare for their next existence.

It may sound not a million miles away from waking up with a bad hangover on a Club 18-30 holiday, but it would be deeply disrespectful to say so.

Stephanie Northen


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