Do your research: Go to hell

NaNoWriMo has started this week and to all you courageous souls participating this year: Good luck and may the muses kiss you, or if the kisses don’t suffice anymore, do depraved but inspiring acts.

In honour of this long and rocky road this month’s entry of ‘Do your research’ will be all about Hell and all it’s inhabitants.

What are the glaring inaccuracies that we unwittingly read through in any supernatural setting? What does Venus have to do with the devil? Why is every demon called Crowley?

The short version:

Much of the lore we have come to associate with the church have their origin in popular culture.
If you want to use it, do so consciously.

The Scenario:

After our spectacular failure of CPR last time, Woodrow’s dead. The unbreakable bond they developed in one paragraph demands from Gustav to come to his friend’s rescue. And so he sets forth into the deepest of the nine circles of hell, where Lucifer reigns from his throne of ice.
Once the brightest of all angels, he has now fallen from God’s grace, still beautiful in his defeat.
Gustav steps before the devil and makes a deal with him, to get his friend’s life back in exchange for his soul. The devil agrees under the condition that Gustav find his friend in hell. Aided by a demon named Crowley, Gustav searches hell up and down. Here, each sinner is punished according to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the crimes God is not willing to forgive. They finally find Woodrow in Purgatory, where the souls undergo purification before being allowed to God’s side. One action packed scene later the two friends have broken out of the place and go on adventures once more.

The Science:

Speaking of the devil. Also called the wicked one, the liar and father of lies, the tempter, the prince and god of this world, the adversary, dragon and ancient serpent. Satan. Lucy. My sixth grade geology teacher. All his names are used as titles, have meanings of their own, seldom complimentray. But what is his real name?

Lucifer (latin for Lightbringer), a latinised version of the Hebrew heylel (Morning Star) is a title, mentioned as such only in Isaiah 14 and not associated with the devil until some time between 530 BC and 70AD and used synonymously with the term devil only in the 4th century. Before the word was a reference to one of the mortal Babylonian kings.

But why use the word Morningstar at all? A popular tale during Isaiah’s time told about a brave warrior (alternatively a god) who sought to overthrow God, but failed and ultimately descended to the underworld, just like the morning star, venus, never fully climbs the sky before falling down again.

Devil is the word that was used to translate the Hebrew word for Satan, deriving from the greek word Diabolos, which means ‘slanderer’.

The closest to the devil’s actual name is Satan, used as name as well as title, which is in fact the phonetic reading of the Hebrew שָּׂטָן, meaning Adversary. This is the name under which all of the stories, the Tempting of Eve, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Job’s fall from fortune, the making of the Nephilim and the whole story of Revelation come together.

Originally all these crimes were committed by various entities, sometimes in defiance of God (like the serpent in Eden), sometimes carrying out His orders as a punisher. The angel associated with the Abraham and Job part was Mastema and he acted on orders of God with his full approval. He even got a tenth of the Nephilim as a sort of task force, so he could be more efficient in the whole human punishing thing.

Angels named Satanael, Samyaza and Satariel (all associated at one point with Satan) were mentioned belonging to the Grigori, the 200 angels that fell from Heaven so they could hook up with human women, which resulted in the Nephilim.

So what of the notion that Lucifer was the brightest and most beautiful of all angels? Crass case of having an Unrealiable Narrator, I’m afraid. The notion that Lucifer was anything but your regular fallen angel comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Lucifer as a protagonist describes himself as the most beautiful. He also uses the now famous phrase „Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven“. In the Bible, specifically in Revelations, the devil was cast into hell by Michael and suffered there just as much as anyone else. There hell has no ruler, only victims.

Since his worst sin is supposed to be Pride, refusing to defer to the clay-made human Adam, I’ll let you decide how accurate this depiction of handsome king of hell is. Satan’s beauty or lack thereof is never mentioned in the Holy Book.

Neither is the idea that the devil is trapped in hell. That comes from primarily Catholic literature and not The Book, where the devil walks the earth to tempt mankind. The idea of seven or nine circles of hell is rooted exclusively in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Bible hell is a lake of fire, with some horny and possibly naked fallen angels chained to it. Oh, did I forget to tell you about what became of the Grigori, of which Satan may or may not have been a part of? Well, since you ask so nicely. After producing the Nephilim and teaching humanity a bit about the creative arts (which back in the day meant ‘War’), God sent his most loyal soldiers and captured the Grigori. He then made them watch their children slaughter each other and bound them to each other in the lake of fire. He also decreed that any sinner going downstairs from that day would be chained to these 200 fallen angels, who had the hots for women so bad, they chose to fall from Heaven for them. I will not make a joke about how being strapped to horny, and possibly naked, angels for eternity is a whole special kind of hell. I could have, but I won’t. Because I’m professional.

Still air left? Don’t worry, the worst is behind you. Reading this much about the devil has no doubt left a stain on you, so how about a bit of Purgatory to freshen things up?

May I see your Catholic Badge? Yeah, sorry, only the Catholics and related churches get to have a purgatory. The Jews’ hell, Gehenna, works similarily, in that people who gain God’s forgiveness are allowed up in Heaven after some time. But all other churches? No purgatory for you.
This stems mostly from the concept of sola scriptura, the Protestant dogma that everything you need for your salvation kit is contained within the Bible. Purgatory was invented by various saints and popes and is not once mentioned in the Holy Book. It is not even a separate place, except in medieval art, where everything is a place full of fire and brimstone. The Catholic churches stance is that it is a process rather than your local dungeon, where you are purified of all sins not bad enough to get you thrown into hell.

Fun fact: The Protestants believe that your actions, good or bad, are merely expressions of your faith that have no bearing on whether or not you go to heaven or hell. Rather it is the intensity of your faith. So if you are a really, really devout Christian you can mutilate and murder as many people as you want, you still get to go upstairs. As a Catholic you have to make a donation to the church first. I’m not being cynical here, mind you. A donation to the church or a related charity is officially a way to repent for your sins and thus a way to save up your Heaven-points.

I mentioned that you go to purgatory if your sins are not bad enough to land you straight in hell. But what sins are bad enough to get you into hell? Am I perhaps speaking of the Seven Deadly Sins?

I sure wish I did, because it would give me a wicked transition to the next part. Alas, a mortal sin is simply a grave sin which has to be enacted in full knowledge of both the sin and its consequences and full consent. Murdering a person with nothing but ill intent, knowing that it will get one out of God’s good graces and without being forced or persuaded to it would count for example. Even a sin like that can be forgiven though if one confesses and repents (also known as a hefty donation to the church).

No, the seven deadly sins are merely a guideline, a holy mnemonic device, written and changed multiple times throughout history. The modern list Wrath, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Pride, Envy and Sloth was written by Pope Gregory I. in the 6th century. These were the ones Dante Alighieri used in his depictions of seven of the nine circles of hell.

A list of especially bad sins occur twice in the bible, the first being

a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that uttereth lies, him that soweth discord among brethren [Proverbs 6:16-19]

The second, far longer one, lists as being especially sinful:

Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings and ‘such like’
[Galatians 5:19-21]

Fun fact: The Seven Deadly Sins are at times associated with specific demons who sort of specialise in them. In this list Satan and Lucifer are mentioned separately, the former being associated with wrath, while Lucifer reigns over pride.

Last but not least, let’s face the Antichrist. Or Antichrists. Holy shit, there are more than one?
According to the Book, yes. There an antichrist is simply a person who does not accept Jesus as their saviour, no more, no less.

What we have instead as a singular person is the ‘Lawless One’ and the ‘False Prophet’, both people who seek to usurp heaven and speak the devil’s word. At least the false prophet would be an antichrist, as he’s playing on team Satan. (The false prophet is sometimes three people, depending on translation and mood of the culture during the time the piece was translated in. Trinity is big with Christianity.)

One last fun fact, before we come to the end. Have you ever wondered why every other demon in literature seems to be named either Aleister or Crowley, sometimes both? It’s a reference to the occultist and Englishman Aleister Crowley, who wrote a book on his occultism and was casually referred to as ‘the wickedest man in the world’ during and after his lifetime.

The Alternative:

The biggest problem with using ‘Bible’ lore in fiction is separating the actual references to the holy texts from the literature that has grown around it. Per se there is nothing wrong with using a depiction of Lucifer from popular culture for your story, as long as you keep the source straight. Even a throwaway phrase along the lines of „This Milton guy? Got it spot on.“ will do. In many supernatural settings it’s explained which urban myths and folklore will be used and which not. Compare for example vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Both establish specific ways to kill a vampire, Buffy keeping closer to to what we have come to expect as the traditional vampire lore – stakes and sunlight – while Supernatural explicitly mentions that the lore of stakes to the heart doesn’t apply in this universe.

Folklore and religion tend to grow with the people. Stories are added, changed or forgotten until there is no one correct way to use the information we have. As such the suspension of disbelief can be stretched almost indefinitely. Almost being the key word. New additions or deliberate deviations from canon (aka using Dante’s nine circles of hell instead of the traditional pit of fire) should always be mentioned as such.


The Bible (No really, I read the important parts for reference) (for the parts described in the Books of Enoch)
Paradise Lost – John Milton (Raphael and Adam have a sex talk. As a fan of Supernatural, that scene was twice as hilarious)
Göttliche Komödie by Dante (yes, a German version. Sue me.)
An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel, and Jesus by Lester Grabbe (I actually bought a book for this entry. Okay, loaned it, in a library)
and, as ever, Wikipedia (because, let’s face it, there’s no way I’d have all those dates memorised)