On the His Dark Materials trilogy

A Short History of Hell and the Crabby Old God Who Sends You There

By Herbie Brennan

We discovered Hell 6,000 years ago. At that time it was called kur-nu-gi-a, the Land of No Return, but it was Hell all right. The dead lived in darkness, fed on clay, and were “clothed like birds with wings”–presumably that means feathers–according to the ancient histories of the world’s first civilization (Budge).

The world’s first civilization sprang up in what’s now southern Iraq, an area of the Middle East often referred to as the Fertile Crescent. It was a pleasant place to live: sunny, warm, and (since we’d now invented farming) with enough food for everyone. Dying was a change for the worse that left most people bitter. Those who managed to get out of Hell–fortunately very few by all accounts–expressed their resentment by eating the living.

Once it occurs to you, Hell is one of those ideas that’s very hard to shift. Certainly it hadn’t shifted much by the time the Greek civilization arose. By then we’d decided Hell was a gloomy underworld populated by insubstantial shades with nothing much to do except pine for the good old days. Essentially, the same idea was prevalent in Ancient Rome: Hell was a gloomy shadow-land reached by a one-way crossing of the River Styx.

The old Norsemen were the first to call this miserable realm Hell–or, more accurately, Hel, after its miserable ruler. Same old place (a gloomy, subterranean hall inhabited by shivering, shadowy Specters), but by now we were adding some of the more interesting details. The roof of the hall was made  …

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