Whether we call it the underworld, Hades, Hell, or some other name, fiction is full of the idea that there are other dimensions out there, and that they’re bad. At the very least, they’re the sort of places we avoid for as long as we can, unless we need to make a tragic journey there to retrieve a loved one. This week, we explore this concept in more detail. Why are storytellers so interested in the infernal realms? What rules do they operate under? How can they best be used? Plus, a discussion of why the morality of underworlds is often so arbitrary.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Intro: You’re listening to The Mythcreant Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Content Notice: this episode includes a discussion of suicide.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to another episode of The Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Wes, and with me today is Chris and Oren. And get ready because we are going down under, literally and metaphorically, to explore the infernal realms.
Oren: OK. So, I have my ticket for Australia. That’s what we’re talking about right.
Wes: I mean it’s hot. It’s hot and everything there is trying to hurt you. So … I think it totally qualifies.
Oren: Yes that’s definitely what I assumed you meant. Alright, Sydney, here we come.
Wes: So yeah today is about all things infernal. These realms full of devils, demons, shades, fiends, thedevil, fallen angels, ghosts, spirits, and mortals on occasion.
Oren: I mean sometimes you’ve gotta get in there, and like, you know, get your get your get your partner out. It’s just, you know – don’t look back. I turn I’m told you’re not supposed to do that.
Wes: You never look back ever.
Oren: Except apparently you always do, even though you were told not to. I feel like maybe whoever was telling the story had some kind of a moral agenda they were trying to get across.
Wes: Yeah. And I like that idea of like they’re being an infertile realm or of being able to go there has existed since we started telling stories probably. I mean, we go back to the Greeks, and you know, Homer has Odysseus go down into the realm of the dead, and then that happens again in the Inead, and they have to go down into the realm of the dead, and there’s a Roman version of The Odyssey, and then Dante’s Inferno happens.And then there were the stories that you alluded to as well, so – what’s up why do we like coming into these infernal realms?
Oren: Well, I mean I can’t help but feel like part of it is, it’s just that it’s very attractive to imagine a story where you try to go and rescue your dead loved ones, like it’s like: “hell yeah, death sucks” and especially when you’re in the classical world and people die for no reason and you don’t know what germs are. And modern medicine basically doesn’t exist. So, yeah, what if you imagined like a cool fantasy where you could like save someone from dying because you were real good at climbing down into the underworld? But also you can’t like make people think they could actually do that. ‘Cos like that’s going to upset people when they find out it’s not real. So, you’ve got put a moral in there about how like “Well, yeah you could but you shouldn’t.”
Wes: Do you think that that is the possibility that maybe, like, there’s still a connection to somebody that you lost is comforting in those kind of stories, even if you know you can’t or you shouldn’t? It’s like, there you know people. People go there. So you know you haven’t really lost anybody.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I don’t I think some of the really old mythological stories about the underworld almost kind of revere it less, it feels like, than we do? It feels like modern stories – I would think that it would be a more popular location because it’s just full of conflict, right? The idea of this realm full of demons, but I think that in modern stories there’s always an insistence that everything there is way more powerful than a person, right? Which actually makes it hard to tell stories. But it feels like back when, you know, a lot of these old stories come from, it’s more like cheating the system was actually okay. And I don’t know if the, you know, with Orpheus and Euridice, if the moral there was really that you shouldn’t go back to get your loved one, but more that the whole “succumbing to temptation” problem which there was a lot of, like, morality tales that had the, like, “don’t do this –oh, he couldn’t help himself! He did it anyway!” … you know. And then everything is the tragedy, right?
Oren: Yeah. I mean it’s hard to say, because so much of the way that we view the underworld is colored by, you know, Christianity, and the idea of Hell. Even if you’re not Christian, if you live in America, it’s probably colored your perception of what the underworld is. And so, as someone who is not an expert on classical scholarship, it isa little bit difficult for me to say how ancient Greeks would have viewed the underworld.
Wes: But there definitely seems like there’s less judgment in my opinion. You know, like, for example if we’re taught if we broadcast out our infernal realms to include like the multiverse the planar multiverse from like Dungeons and Dragons. There are infernal realms of evil, right, and they are full of like demons and fire. Right? A total, like, Dante Hell scape that if you even go there, they start like making you evil. Right? It’s like it’s like a pervasive atmosphere that seeps into your very being and makes you evil. But like in the older Greek stuff, you know, it’s just it’s kind of much more like a neutral zone. The old Christian good/evil binary that we got suddenly polarizes realms and raises like the power scale and the effects and everything and then suddenly it’s just – I don’t know. Kind of less cool
Chris: Yeah, I think because of the sort of Christian-influenced idea that there’s a specific Hell that’s run by the Devil and the Devil is super, super powerful. Now, it’s hard to write a character who goes in there and managed to get somebody out, partly because it just feels implausible that anybody could get the better of the Devil in his own domain, partly. I think Oren’s right, though, about the whole, you know, “Ooh, you’re cheating death!” We have so many stories where cheating death is bad.
Oren: Well, I mean, the idea that cheating death is bad is very comforting for a species that cannot cheat death. But also, just beyond the metaphorical and, like, moral ideas simply into practicality, if you’re designing a world if someone cancheat death and bring someone back from the dead, it should probably be really hard. Otherwise everyone would do it, right? It’s a pretty high incentive to try to do that.
Chris: We just built an escalator coming out of Hell so that it’s a revolving door.You know, you commit a crime you go to hell you come back, commit another crime …
Oren: Right. So like, you know you probably don’t want to make Hell or your whatever your infernal realm is easy to escape, assuming you want one. I always get really weirded out by the inclusion of a definitive life after death in any setting, because like so much of the way that we view the world is based on the implicit assumption that when we die our consciousness ceases to exist. Whether or not people admit that, that’s how we act. And that completely changes once you have this, like, “We know that there’s an afterlife, whether it’s good or bad” … it just changes the whole dynamic of everything.
Chris: Yeah. Another way to do this is kind of the Buffy version of the universe, where we have a whole bunch of different realms, and some of them are more demonic and some of them are more angelic. Like, Buffy has, like, this huge demon ecosystem. We’re, like, vampires are types of demons. But then we see more demon-ish demons. And then like eventually in season three they clarify: “Oh no. All those demons that we’re running around are not truedemons. There’s this big bad of this season. He’s a truedemon. You really see one those before.” And, honestly, it actually sounds funny, but I didn’t actually find it that bad because the idea that something like a fairy form could then exist on Earth, without disrupting a thing, might not be true. And if you have kind of these half-humans, half-demons running around, to humans they would just be demons, right? So, not so bad but that’s not a bad way to go. It helps distinguish your infernal realm from just like a Christian Hell.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, it was also important because that was what allowed us to get Lorne, which is definitely the best part of the Angel series. It was this idea that not all of these people that we were calling demons are actually evil. Some of them are just, you know, people who look different from other dimensions. So that’s a pretty good way to go if you want to have supernatural creatures or non-humans or whatever in your fantasy setting that are notjust evil. It’s like, “Yeah I just live like two dimensions down and like, humans callme demon because I got, like, red skin and whatever. But, like, I’m just here to make some money, man. I just want a job. I’m not I’m not going to drag you to Hell or whatever. Like, the guy from, you know, fivedimensions over – he might, but not me.”
Wes: I guess we talked about aliens the other week, and I think it’s the inscrutableness of things in different realms and planes, and as much as I like the idea of – well, I don’t know if I like it. That might just be a bad segue. But, if I go to an infernal plane and I start becoming evil because things that live there don’t possess notions of morality, they just areevil. And this is probably much more like the D&D world. I like the idea that if, and I guess this is kind of Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, right? – that if demons and angels hang out on Earth, they start like acquiring more nuance and understanding of things, right? Like, Crawley really likes Earth and he’s completely different from the other demons that you encounter in that book because he knows that like there’re more interesting things going on than just pure evil. I like that Earth as a realm maybe also has that – not a corrupting influence, but an influence on these types of creatures.
Oren: Yeah. I mean ,the idea that going to a place like can change who you are over time is certainly very interesting. Yeah, I mean that happens normally just depending on the people you hang out with, and what you do when you go to a new place, but you can add a whole other dimension to it in fantasy by having it actually affect your mind. So, you know, that has some interest to it. It also can be kind of fun if you’re trying to do a “Retrieve your friend from the afterlife or whatever because you gotta.” Like a ticking clock, right? You got to get them back before you don’t recognize who they are anymore.
Wes: That sort of thing. Yeah, it’s just that I see a lot with the different types infernal realms that their – mentality is a good word, Oren – like, that the things there like are kind of a homogenous. Because I’m trying to think, like, “Oh, what unites most infernal realms?” It’s like, well, maybe it’s just super hot, and there’s some kind of torture going on, and the things doing the torturing maybe enjoy it, and then that’s it, you know?
Oren: Like, well, I mean there’s that question of like, “OK, so is this realm that you’ve created. Is it supposed to be its own world? Like, is it self-sustaining, like demons live here? How are they part of an ecosystem?What – do they eat things? Or is this place purposely built to cater to humans either positively or negatively?” So that’s an important decision to make, and that will factor into whether or not this feels like a Christian Hell or more of an alternate dimension, even if it’s a scary alternate dimension. It’s very different if you can imagine a demon having to go to work and buy a house or whatever their equivalent of that is. Whereas, in a dimension that’s clearly just designed to either reward or torture humans, none of that needs to be there. It’s all just us. It’s essentially all just a store front, right?
Chris: Although, as the Good Place shows us, it can be.
Oren: Yeah, it certainly can be! The Good Place is definitely an exception in many parts.
Wes: Yes, it is. Ugh! So good. You’re right that if your infernal realm relies on some kind of simple binary between there being a good afterlife then you’re just, I don’t know. I was trying to think that, like, infernal realms also maybe like have some kind of internal logic. But I think that might just be Dante messing with me again from that Christian viewpoint where, like, “Oh, well, people are bad. And so we punish them in the way that they were bad,” you know? And so, it’s like, “Oh that’s perfectly logical. There’s definitely a system in place!” which – it is what it is. But I don’t think it’s that interesting.
Oren: I mean, Dante is definitely a big influence on the way we think about Hell or any kind of negative afterlife. The whole concept of the ironic punishment is like, yeah, sure, that’s a thing that storytellers really like. It has some thematic weight to it. And it does feel like it matters on some level, whereas having an afterlife where everyone is just dumped into a pit of acid is like … that’s a little arbitrary, don’t you think? But it’s like, no, this is great, because in this world you were a bad politician, so you get, like, drowned by liquefied constitutions every week. It’s like, sure, why not? There is certainly a level of satisfaction in imagining that bad people who we cannot do anything about in real life will suffer for it after they die in the hands of some greater power. That’s definitely an idea that has appeal to it. I can certainly understand that appeal, and, I mean, you could do worse if you’re designing your afterlife. I mean, I think in most cases you’re still going to run into the problem that, like, if your afterlife is at all inspired by the Christianity model, it’s just going to feel like, “OK, maybe the things that he did weren’t great, but really? Is thatwhat he deserves?” And I mean, again because the Good Place. Amazing. That’s the entire concept of the Good Place. It really is that what we’re doing seems a little out of proportion.
Chris: Yeah, well, it’s interesting that basically the stories I know of that have a protagonist or character that’s sympathetic go to Hell, they have a tendency to always use suicide as the reason.
Wes: Hmm, yeah. Constantine, right?
Chris: Yeah, well, Constantine also. There’s another movie, starring Robin Williams, actually, called What Dreams May Come.
Wes: I’ve seen that. Yeah. Oh, you’re right.
Chris: It also uses suicide. It’s a very strange thing because on one hand, we’ve got to believe in a in a universe that decides that people who commit suicide should go to Hell. On the other hand, it uses suicide because it knows that actually, nobody really judges or dislikes somebody for doing it. But I think people accept it because at least some sects of Christianity consider that a mortal sin or what have you.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, it’s a very specific context where we’ve been told that that’s bad. But enough of us understand that that’s actually not a thing that makes you a bad person that it can be exploited for that type of storytelling. When in reality if I found out that I lived in a world where anyone who took their own life was going to Hell, I would be like, “This is the worst world. Why does this world exist? Why would you even tell me that?”
Chris: But because of the Christian framework, I mean, What Dreams May Come is just generically Christian. I think it’s not very explicit or detailed. It’s trying to be universally palatable. But if I think that Christian framework kind of allows them to get away with something that would otherwise come under a lot more scrutiny.
Oren: Even the good place is generically Christian. Like, they make a point of having it not be, and they’re like, “You know, every religion gets it about 5 percent right.” But it’s … guys. You guys. You are definitely more Christian than you are anything else. I’m willing to let that go because I love you. But you’re not tricking anyone is what I’m saying. I mean, maybe you are, but not me.
Wes: Are there any stories that take place in infernal realms that you guys really like?
Oren: Of all of the grief that I give His Dark Materials, for all the terrible things that happened in the second and third book, I actually did like its take on the underworld.
Wes: It’s very Greek.
Oren: Yeah. It was very Greek, and the story was about recognizing that and being like, “OK, we need to do something about this.”And something about a world where you have to choose between an eternally awful afterlife and oblivion … I just find that kind of neat. Like, the rest the story doesn’t do a very good job of supporting it, because it’s bad. But I think that concept is cool. I really loved how even in Supernatural the Winchester boys come back from the dead like every season. And there’s even a fun reference that they die a lot more than we see and they keep getting sent back because Heaven doesn’t want them. But they’re too good to go to Hell. It’s kind of interesting.
Chris: It’s kind of a funny loophole, like, everybody on Earth tries to get in with that exact gray period. Have you been to good? You need to be a little worse so that you can stay alive.
Oren: Yeah, well, Supernatural is definitely doing the thing that – and I see a lot of stories do this – just because storytellers realize that the concept of an all-good afterlife with an all-powerful God is just not very compatible with storytelling. And so they still want that framework. They still want that Heaven/Hell dynamic that is very familiar to Americans, even if they’re not Christian. And so they go with this idea that, like, “Yeah, Hell’s real bad and full of awful people, but, like, Heaven is also bad, just in a different way that it takes you a few episodes to figure out ‘cause every time they do that they’re like ‘Oh man, it will be very clever when I reveal that Heaven is actually bad!’” And it’s like, OK, good job, yes. We can add you to the many stories that have done this reveal.
Chris: Xena has an episode or two where she goes to Hell and she fights really bad special effects.
Oren: But also a fog machine – her real nemesis! It’s just, like, spewing fog everywhere. It’s like, this looks suspiciously like our cave set, but with lots of fog.
Chris: I feel like a lot of the really old stories about the underworld like to do it again … the issue with Hell is that it’s hard. It’s so powerful, it’s like once you get in, how do you get out? How do you realistically get out? So I think a lot of these older stories have very specific rules about navigating the underworld that are set up in advance and then the hero’s job is to follow those rules. Right? Like Orpheus just had to not look back, if Persephone hadn’t eaten those three pomegranate seeds. Maybe it’s sometimes arbitrary but they say exactly what it is. And that’s kind of how they get around a lot of the other things. And I think with the Xena episode there was a very like specific thing that she was there to do that she had to do.
Oren: Right. Also, if I remember correctly, Xena gets the underworld by, like, she doesn’t actually die. It’s one of those, like, “You go to the underworld where you die but you can also like get there by walking.” You know, that sort of thing. But it also helps that whenever you doing anything Greek-Pantheon-ish you can excuse a lot by the idea that the Greek gods are just kind of dicks. Like Hadescanlet you out of Hell. He probably won’t, but if you can like give him a real good reason, like you know show him what’s in it for him, like he might like if you steal his helmet, he might out to get power back. Like he probably shouldn’t, but like he doesn’t care.
Chris: But that’s a good point that you made earlier. In these old mythology stories, it’s always somebody who’s still alive who makes it down into the infernal realm usually to talk to or rescue something or somebody who’s dead. And that’s what allows them to leave, it’s because they’re not actually dead.
Wes: Yeah and it seems like they have careful instructions on how to leave or they pay a tax to go in, like in the Inead. In the Inead, Ineus is told to take a branch of the Golden Bough and give it to Persephone, and presumably like that’s the tax he has to pay, because she doesn’t have that nice tree down there in the underworld and then he’s like fine. But, yeah. Still a mortal going in and coming out and following very clear, specific rules. Maybe that’s the lesson. Just follow the rules, everyone. Jeez.
Oren: Well I mean, the underworld has to be real thematic. So, like, it’s always very common for the underworld to have like a thing where you have to face the deeds you did in life and learn a lesson and it’s almost not even worth doing if you’re not going to have that. That’s just what the underworld has to have.
Wes: I like in the Sandman series when Lucifer just quits. Like, “I’m done. You know what. Like, Hell it can run itself or not. I don’t care. I’m out of here.” I mean, it definitely wasn’t a main part of the plot. But it did crop up throughout the series of just, like, “What do we do? No one’s running Hell.” And then like different like godly beings and stuff came to vy for why they should control it and stuff, and like, the Asgardians are hanging out down there because it might be a sweet battleground and make this look like what do we do. And then it was just added I liked all the conspiring with the demons and the gods, but then ultimately like two angels show up and they’re like, “Well the big man upstairs says we have to have this. So we’re running it now.” And I was like “Oh, all right, fine, but I’m glad at least like Lucifer got a break.”
Oren: So, like, in Sandman the various aspects of the supernatural are all kind of treated like parts of a machine that need to be managed. And if one of them isn’t working right the whole machine kind of starts to go off kilter – like most of the time. That’s how you know. That’s why when Dream is captured by that one jerk-ass sorcerer in the first comic for, like, quite some time, people start to develop sleep disorders. And you know, this kind of illness spreads because Dream’s not there managing sleep, which is his whole deal. And same thing is sort of implied what happened with Hell. Someone needs to manage it. Hell does something in this setting. We don’t know exactly what. Maybe it’s like the universe’s equivalent of an exhaust manifold. Who knows. But someone needs to do it, and that’s kind of an interesting way to look at it at your various pocket dimensions and subrealms.
Wes: Have you ever read The Screwtape Letters? It’s C.S. Lewis and it’s basically a low-level demon functionary writing letters to his uncle, Screwtape. I think it’s just basically like … you are a demon and you are a low on the bureaucracy chain in Hell and you’re trying to corrupt a soul so you’re writing your uncle for advice. That’s basically that’s basically the book. I mean, it’s like, it certainly wasn’t the first story to imagine Hell as a wild bureaucracy, but I like that it’s kind of a fun idea too.
Chris: Adventure Time had an episode where they basically went to Hell. It was like, Marceline’s home dimension, actually, I think? And of course, her dad is basically Satan, and it’s just most of Hell. I mean there’s lots of creatures there that I think eat you. But a lot of it is just one long line that moves really slowly. And so they’re trying to get into like – I don’t know whether it was, like, show some paperwork to try to get out again or see Marceline’s dad, or whatever – and it’s just like this enormous line that takes forever that everybody’s just standing still, packed really tight, in this crevice where the line runs.
Oren: Well, the idea of Hell being full of, like, thematic and ironic punishments – sort of back to that. And part of the reason for that, honestly, is just that those things are easier to show and describe because a lot of the more classical torture is just kind of gross. It’s like, “No, thanks, I don’t want to watch that, but like, I definitely want to watch a dimension that’s just a giant line you have to stand in forever” because on the one hand, I can appreciate how horrific that is. But on the other hand, it’s I don’t have to watch someone get disemboweled so I’m into it.
Wes: I like how conceptions like the punishments in Hell have changed over time. Like waiting in line forever is Hell. I like that there was a book I read in college called No Exit by I think a Frenchman. I think his last name was Sartre and I think it might be like John Paul Sartre. I can’t remember, but basically, it was an afterlife where these three people are like stuck in a hotel room, and kind of the point is that it’s one man and two women and both the man and one of the women love the third woman, but they hate each other. And the third woman is indecisive. And basically, it was just this French conception of like a psychological Hell between three people where they torture each other.
Chris: Sounds like Being John Malkovich.
Oren: Yeah, that does sound very French.
Chris: Speaking of watching people get disemboweled, have you seen Event Horizon? Oh my gosh. This movie is about a spaceship that – it’s basically Hell, but it’s supposed to be like that, because they had faster-than-light travel technology that basically went through Hell as a shortcut. So you’d go to Hell, then you’d go to your target destination. And the moral of that movie for me is, if you get home and you discover a videotape that your older sister rented that’s sitting around, you might not want to just put it in the VCR and play it.
Oren: What’s the worst that could happen? I mean it’s funny because going through Hell to get where you need to go in a spaceship is basically the entire premise of Warhammer 40K. Yeah, it’s like 40K is basically the Event Horizon universe except after the whole horrible first attempt to go through Hell, they were like, “Okay. So that was bad, but we can like put some insulation on the ship that’ll mostly keep the demons out, and then it’s still a viable form of transport.”
Wes: I know. I would love to know where that idea spawned from. I remember reading a comic series about the X-Man Nightcrawler where it was revealed that his teleport ability is that he goes through Hell. And he has to, like, pull Wolverine in there one time to slay demons or something like that. What is it with, like, travelling fast and having to go through Hell to do it.
Chris: Maybe it’s just a convenient way to place a check on a transport ability, because transport abilities get out of hand really fast, but if you have to go through a very dangerous place in order to transport, you’re less likely to do the transport all the time. For instance, to jump behind your opponent and attack them from behind. And it adds some possible conflict and complications that can happen. So it might just be that they’re a really convenient combo.
Oren: I mean, also, I think it just comes from the fact that the moment scientists started talking about the possibility of alternate dimensions and multiple timelines and whatever, we immediately mapped that onto the closest conceptual idea that we had, which were these other worlds that you go to after you die. Those certainly sound like alternate dimensions. And then we heard some nerds talking about how maybe you could go faster than light by going through another dimension and you’re like, “Yeah, definitely that other dimension is how” and I think that’s so that’s how we got here. Also, Nightcrawler kind of looks like a demon. So even if that wasn’t his initial conception, they definitely came to that later.
Oren: So, we are definitely out of time. So, before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons. First is Cathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. If any of that piqued your interests, you can leave comment on our website at mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will see you in Hell, by which I mean, next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?