The History of Hell
A fiery vault beneath the earth or as Sartre put it, other people - it seems our ideas of hell are inevitably shaped by religious and cultural forces. For Homer and Virgil it’s a place you can visit and return from, often a wiser person for it. With Christianity it’s a one way journey and a just punishment for a sinful, unrepentant life.
Writers and painters like Dante and Hieronymus Bosch gave free rein to their imaginations, depicting a complex hierarchical world filled with the writhing bodies of tormented sinners. In the 20th century hell can be found on earth in portrayals of war and the Holocaust but also in the mind, particularly in the works of TS Eliot and Primo Levi.
So what is the purpose of hell and why is it found mainly in religions concerned with salvation? Why has hell proved so inspirational for artists through the ages, perhaps more so than heaven? And why do some ideas of hell require a Satan figure while others don't?
Martin Palmer, Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture
Margaret Kean, Tutor and Fellow in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum
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