So You’re Going to Hell: An Olympian’s Guide to the Afterlife (Part 1)

(Originally Posted 4/18/2014)

There has been a bit of a misunderstanding where the afterlife is concerned, and unfortunately, all modern faiths fall prey to it in some way or another. The truth of the matter is pretty simple: when you die, you’re going to Hell.

Huh, this one turned out to be *really* short. Well, since there’s absolutely no way you misunderstood that, I’m going to spend all of this newfound free time down at the bar. See you guys next time!

Wow, you’re still here.

There’s no way that was too complicated. I explained it as clearly as I could: you’re going to Hell.

Yes, I know you’re a good person. And yes, I know that I’ve already absolved you of your sins. I’m not dumb enough to forget a thing like that. Your moral slate has been wiped clean, amigo. Since I’ve already gone ahead and absolved you of everything back to and including original sin, your soul is even more sinless now than the day you were born.

(Shameless self-plug: if I haven’t absolved you already, it’s not too late! You can get a free and legitimate absolution just by “like”-ing the Church’s facebook page! So go click the link on the side of the page, then come back and finish reading! -Rev. Jack)

And, when you die, you and everyone you’ve ever known are going straight to Hell.

“Why?” What do you mean, “Why?” That’s just how it goes! You don’t ask why the sun revolves around the Earth, do you? No! Everyone knows the truth: that Apollo is dragging Helios around in his magical flying chariot. So no more stupid or otherwise difficult questions, okay?

You’re really not going to let this go, are you? Ugh, just… fine. Get comfortable, because this might take a little while.

First things first: we can’t very well talk about the afterlife without introducing the gods involved.

For our purposes here, the most important one to know is Hades, the god of the dead, who lords over the realm that shares his name (he has a bit of an ego problem). Initially, Hades was quite irritated that he was granted control of what he considered to be the least prestigious domain – Zeus, his youngest brother, controls the glorious sky while Poseidon, the middle brother, was granted the ocean – but after an early (and unsuccessful) attempt to force his youngest brother to switch, he seemed to settle into the position quite nicely. While Hades can be downright cruel and greedy when it comes to the acquisition of souls, he is widely regarded by the dead as a just ruler. Mortals regard him with fear and the other gods despise him for his asocial and inflexible nature, but when you get right down to it, Hades is no more evil than his divine brothers and sisters.

From what Dionysus tells me, Hades initially found his characterization in the Judeo-Christian lore as the sadistic fallen angel Lucifer/Satan to be humorous, but he’s finding it increasingly tiresome. Sure he’s a bit of an uptight stick-in-the-mud, but he’s doing a thankless job and damn it if he isn’t doing a darn fine job of it, thank you very much. Besides, if he was actually evil himself, why would he punish those souls who were wicked in life? Seriously, that makes no sense at all.

Anyway, as I mentioned before, Hades is a bit of a loner: he rarely ventures out of the underworld and he almost completely avoids the company of his fellow gods. Because of this we don’t have a great many myths that prominently feature him, and so the finer details of his personality remain a mystery. Of the myths he is featured in, he best known for the “Rape of Persephone”, which details how he violently abducted his wife Persephone. Their relationship began traumatically, but it was a total misunderstanding: first he ambushed her, then he stole her away against her will, and now they’re husband and wife and she isn’t allowed to leave the house Underworld except for like three months or so out of the year, and that’s why we have seasons. See? It’s a totally different tale when you hear it from Hades’ perspective, isn’t it?

It’s worth noting that, after their marriage, Hades was actually one of the more faithful of the divine husbands: in stark contrast to the epic philandering of fellow serial rapists Zeus and Poseidon (sigh… it was a different time), Hades had a mere two extramarital affairs that were worthy of remembrance. So sure, he’s a bit of a jerk, but at least he’s a faithful jerk!

Next, we need to discuss Thanatos (and by extension, Hermes). While Hades is known to be the god of the dead, Thanatos is the god of *death* (and in fact, “Thanatos” translates literally to “death”). This is a subtle, but insanely important, difference. Where Hades is regarded as cruel for keeping each and every soul that he receives, Thanatos is the literal cause and embodiment of death. Or, put another way: Thanatos is literally the Grim Reaper with a cooler name.

He’s no one trick pony, though! After removing a person’s soul from their body, it’s also his responsibility to guide them to the underworld. (Would be kind of shitty if he just left them there, right?) This secondary duty is one that he sometimes relinquishes to Hermes, but only in the event that a particular soul is either so important or so troublesome that they warrant the attention of a god. When so employed, Hermes is known as “Hermes Psychopompos”. (Descriptors like these will be explained in a later sermon.) These cases are extremely rare, however, and in fact, Thanatos has only failed to collect and deliver a soul on three separate occasions: twice when outwitted by the sly Sisyphus, who we will discuss later, and once more when overpowered by mighty Heracles.

You’d think that the guy responsible for the death of every human ever would have to be a colossal dick, and it should come as no surprise at all that you’d be exactly right! Humans and gods both hate him with a passion, and he’s more than happy to return the sentiment. Specifically *why* he hates the living so much is a secret he’s keeping to himself, but the reason he hates the gods is that they are the only beings he can’t kill.

So… I guess what I’m trying to say is that he’s a total sociopath. But, the world as we know it simply couldn’t function without him. No matter how much the gods might bless our crop harvests worldwide, we can’t even feed all of the people who are alive today. Imagine if everyone who was ever born had never died. The entire world would live in perpetual starvation! As unfortunate as it is that we need him, we’re forced to admit that Thanatos provides a valuable (if morbid and unpleasant) service.

The next figure I need to introduce is Charon, the ferryman who receives souls from Thanatos (or Hermes) and takes them across the river known as the Acheron (in some stories, it’s the Styx) and delivers them into the realm of Hades. He charges for the privilege, which led to the funerary tradition of placing a coin under the deceased person’s tongue so that they can pay the fare. If a soul is unable to pay, they will be forced to wait on the bank of the Acheron (or Styx) for one hundred years before being granted their entry to the afterlife. To me, this is like charging someone to get into a bathroom. The only explanation is that the guy has managed to rack up some massive gambling debts… that or he spends way too much time shopping online when he’s drunk. Will those Amazon drones fly into the Underworld? I don’t know, but if Charon can’t get that new Nicholas Sparks book delivered in a timely fashion, he’s going to be, like, super pissed.

Much like his younger brother Hermes, Ares is not a god of death but is nonetheless worthy of a mention here. The bloodthirsty god of warfare and berserker rage takes great pride in his ability to provide Thanatos with an endless supply of souls to deliver to his master. His twisted, single-minded commitment to causing death and destruction has left him so hated by his fellow Olympians (not to mention men) that it’s a wonder Zeus doesn’t force him to sleep on Hades’ couch.

There are a number of other gods of the underworld, and without their inclusion, no guide to the afterlife can truly ever be complete. No disrespect is meant by their exclusion from this list! A learned eye will notice the absence of such powerful primordial deities as Erebus and Nyx, before whose power even mighty Zeus is given pause. However, the Muses are singing that this is the right time to move the narrative along, and to their wisdom I must adhere.

Now that we’ve been introduced to the most prominent of the underworld gods, this seems like the right time to tell you all about how you’re going to spend your eternity. Are you excited? I know I am.

So here’s what happens: you die, and Thanatos rips your soul from your body and plops you down on the mortal side of the Acheron. You pay your fare (or wait a hundred years) and then, at long last, you’re in the afterlife. Welcome to Hell!

I can hear the shouts of protest starting up again. Relax, guys! You were following me through my description of the surly bastards in charge of your shade, but you want in the worst way to reject the idea of your soul burning in hellfire. However, there are two things wrong with that mental image of yours. Just to get it out of the way, I’m going to drop the bomb first. Here goes:

All mortal souls are going to end up in Hell. This is because, when you die, the gods no longer care about you. (To be fair, unless you were a famous hero or you actively tried to piss them off, they didn’t particularly care about you to begin with… but I digress.) Whether you were good, bad, or so blasted neutral that your piss came out beige, it doesn’t matter: you’re still going to Hell.

Does that mean that you’re going to be forced to tolerate the presence of murderers, rapists, and thieves in your midst?

Fuck no! One of the first stops you’ll make after Charon unceremoniously dumps you on the timeless bank of the Acheron is before the three judges of the dead. Your geography determined which one of them would judge you: Rhadamanthus judged the souls of Asians, Aeacus judged Europeans, and Minos was the judge of Greeks. If you were deemed sufficiently wicked, your soul was sent to the Fields of Punishment. The gods might not care whether you get your comeuppance or not, but you better believe Hades would be dealing with a lot of angry souls if he just let them mingle in with the rest of us. Plus, thinking up creative punishments gives him something to do when he needs a break from his brooding.

Let me interrupt myself in order to explain the second reason why you were wrong, because things are going to get *really* confusing if I don’t. It’s confusing as fuck to call a place by the same name as the guy running the place. Vanity aside, it just doesn’t make any sense! If you don’t know which Hades you’re supposed to go to, then you run the risk of bothering the guy unnecessarily. Conversely, you do NOT want a god to think you’re ignoring him. If you were sent for by the god and simply spend your time skipping rocks across the flaming Phlegethon, saying he’ll be “less than pleased” is like saying sulfuric acid “tingles”. So, we need some way to distinguish between the two.

“Heaven” is the modern name for an actual place. Even though it was originally called something different (Elysium), the word has such a positive connotation that it wouldn’t possibly be appropriate to use it to refer to Hades’ dark kingdom. There’s no nice way to say it: being dead is altogether unpleasant, even for good people. Fortunately, “Hell” fits the bill nicely. Not only does the region you were picturing already have a name (Tartarus), but the word “Hell” has a built-in negative connotation, and since it’s already a synonym for “Hades” (the place) anyway, it seems logical to call Tartarus, “Tartarus” while calling the realm formerly known as Hades, “Hell”. We’ll get into this later, but since Tartarus is a place for the punishment of gods, you’ve got no chance of going there.

See? Good news already. Unfortunately, while Heaven/Elysium is in fact a place of eternal rewards, it’s also exclusively for gods. So, I’m afraid you won’t be going there, either. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there’s no use in getting your hopes up.

Anyway, back to the Fields of Punishment.

“Saw” fans, eat your hearts out: this place is filled with all the torture porn you could ever hope for. If you’ll remember how you originally conceived of Hell (which you will have already started calling Tartarus, because you’re pretty quick on the draw), this would probably match up with most of it. Think of it like Tartarus Light: still awful, but not quite as soul-crushingly so as the stuff devised to punish immortals. Anywho, after Minos, Rhadamanthus, or Aeacus proclaims that a soul was a “total fucking tool” while they were alive, this is where they’re sent to suffer their cruel (and usually ironic) punishments.

Again, it’s nowhere near as bad as Tartarus, but it’s definitely not a pleasant place to be. So, how do you avoid going there? It’s actually pretty simple: don’t be a dick.

I’m not going to go into specifics because morality is extremely subjective. Circumstances vary widely from one situation to another – if your parents beat you, why the hell would anyone say you’re wrong to not respect them? If you’re starving to death on the street, why would you choose to die over stealing a loaf of bread? If you were a character in Game of Thrones, would you *not* stab Joffrey repeatedly if given half a chance?

(Don't lie; we all know the answer to that one.)

(Don’t lie; we all know the answer to that one.)

There are simply too many variables in play to write a definitive moral code. So, don’t be a dick; it’s a dick thing to do.

So, you managed to live your life without being too much of a cockbag. That sounds like most of us, right? Congratulations on not being horrible people! You’re still in Hell. Specifically, the Asphodel Meadows, where you’ll be blissfully separated from the child molesters who are getting their genitals flayed over in the Fields of Punishment. You get to hang out with practically everyone who ever existed in the history of ever!

And unfortunately, even though you’re surrounded by deathly beautiful flowers, you’re still in for a miserable-ish time.

Let’s be clear here – being dead sucks for everyone, even if you were a decent person. You really do not want to die. In fact, Homer asserted that death sucked so hard that it would be preferable to have never have been conceived in the first place, or barring that, to die in infancy so that you can never come to know how crappy death is when compared to life. You’re not being actively tortured, which I admit is one positive thing about being sent to the Asphodel Meadows, but the downsides are many.

For instance, unless you’re one of Hades’ children, you will not retain your memory. Whoever you were no longer matters. Plus your spirit won’t be able to influence things in the physical world; according to most myths, you’ll just sort of wander about without noticing your surroundings, unable to speak or focus unless fed the blood of a living creature. And however you looked when you died, that’s how your shade will look forever – so if your head was cut off, you’re carrying it around with you. If you were old when you died, you’re still old in death.

However, many sources would claim that the dead carry on much like they did when they were alive – they would feast on ghost food, have ghost weddings, and even engage in near-constant ghost orgies. There’s no chance of pregnancy or diseases raising their ugly little heads in the afterlife, and without any memory of your past life’s insecurities, what the hell would stop you from banging everyone in sight?

Also, any gifts people leave at your grave are going to carry over to the afterlife. It’s a shame that we leave flowers when we should be leaving laser tag equipment, but hey… if you don’t want grandpa to have something fun, don’t leave a new Playstation at his grave. Actually on second thought, he’ll be having too much sex to ever play it anyway, so flowers are probably fine.

And as another bonus, you essentially become omniscient when you die. That’s right! Time doesn’t mean anything to you. Everything that happens in the living world appears to happen all at once, which means you can just look over and see everything that ever has happened or will happen. It’s pretty cool, except that you’re constantly getting bothered by heroes and oracles who want to know stuff.

And this is where the misconception that the dead are all a bunch of miserable sad sacks originated from. Doesn’t it piss you off when you’re in the middle of something and people just won’t leave you alone? Now pretend it happens when you’re in the middle of getting laid. Congratulations, Heracles is back and he wants to know where he can find someone to darn his mighty socks.

You know that you’d be mad too if some asshole interrupted your orgy and demanded to know where he left the goddamn TV remote, or how to progress on his heroic mission, or how to disable a nuclear warhead before it detonates over a populated area. Admit it, after the first hundred interruptions or so, you’d get pissed no matter how important it was! An eternity of blue balls? Homer was right, this whole dying thing sucks ass! Let’s avoid it at all costs.

Oh, and one more teensy thing… remember how I said that Hell was the only possible destination for our mortal souls? I may have been lying…

(Continued in Part 2)

-Jack

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