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Hell - Unknown Master - Portugal - 1st third of 16th century. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Where on Earth is Hell, Or Is It in Our Minds?

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One of the most common fears shared by most humans at some time in their lives, is what will happen to them after they die? Many parents freeze when their children ask this question and avoiding the finality of the cold truth ‘we don’t know’, they offer one of a range of comforting stories generally pivoting around notions of heavenly family reunions, where people and pets are cleared of ailments and brought back to life to live in an eternal state of bliss. Historian Ashley Cowie looks not at the fate of the lucky ones in heaven, but more so at what our ancestors thought of the destination of sinners’ souls - hell.

The Papyrus of Hunefer fated to 1375 BC shows Hunefer's heart being weighed on the scale of Ma’at by the jackal-headed Anubis. The scribe of the gods, the ibis-headed Thoth, records the results and if the heart is lighter than the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the awaiting Ammit (soul eater). (Public Domain).

The Papyrus of Hunefer fated to 1375 BC shows Hunefer's heart being weighed on the scale of Ma’at by the jackal-headed Anubis. The scribe of the gods, the ibis-headed Thoth, records the results and if the heart is lighter than the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the awaiting Ammit (soul eater). (Public Domain).

Mesolithic hunters and Neolithic farmers had conceptions of an afterlife, evident in the discovery of weapons and sacred artifacts which were buried with the dead, for use in the next stage of the soul’s journey. The idea of hell ‘as a place where the dead suffer’ first appears in the ancient Egyptian  Book of the Dead written about 1550 BC. Duat, the Egyptian underworld was: “filled with dangerous creatures that attacked souls of the deceased while seeking the justice of Osiris”. Weighing the hearts of the dead on the scales of Ma’at, if Osiris found a soul to be just it went on to the paradise of  Aaru; but if unjust, the soul was devoured instantly by a giant soul consuming beast called Ammit, then banished to wander the earth for eternity.

Enter Hades: Ancient Greece’s Notions of Hell

Many scholars maintain that it might have been an Egyptian influence that inspired notions of hell in Greek religion and later in Judaism and Christianity, as a place located somewhere under the earth’s surface. Western afterlife destinations included Heaven, Purgatory, Paradise and Limbo and a core teaching of Christianity is a belief in an afterlife where the virtuous are rewarded in heaven and sinners are punished in hell.


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Hell - Unknown Master - Portugal - 1st third of 16th century. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Ashley Cowie

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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