The oldest question in human history is “where do we go when we die?” While no one knows for sure, many believe in a good place or heaven and the other, hell, the abode of the damned, or the place of torment for errant souls. The latter is the concept of the afterlife that most people try to avoid all their lives. There is a different version of this scary place in every society on earth, some scarier than others. While most people think of hell only a place of fire and eternal agony, some communities had hells so awful that even those that didn’t believe in them ware shaken at their mention. These ten hells are the last places any believer or nonbeliever would wish to visit.
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Buddhists believe that punishment in hell involves cycles of karma based on the weight of one’s sins and the worst sinners here get the most horrible punishment imaginable. There are seven levels of hell in Buddhism, but Avici is the worst of them all combining the suffering of the seven in a perpetual cycle. To get a clue of the pain, the first hell involves sinners fighting like dogs tearing off each other’s flesh off until only skeletons remain. Others are clubbed by the horrible guards with hot iron bars until their bodies turn to paste before being revived to undergo the same suffering again.
The punishment gets worse by the fourth hell where sinners are forced to drink molten copper that melts their insides before being ground by iron mountains to paste. The suffering worsens as one approaches the seventh hell. It is almost impossible to describe it, but one end is assured, being boiled in melted iron. To enter this hell, one has to commit the five deadliest sins including killing your parents or a priest. It seems not many will go here after all!
The Greeks and the Romans both had a very different definition for hell as opposed to popular belief. Hell, or Hades, though not a nice place to go after death is portrayed in Greco-Roman mythology just as the home of the dead. The real suffering comes in this place Tartarus or Tartaros, the bottomless pit beneath the land of the dead made of three walls with shackles for every sinner. Some accounts mention different versions of suffering including continuous fire supplied from the flaming river Phlegethon and hideous creatures that bite and eat flesh.
The evil-doer is judged by Rhadamanthus, the son of Zeus that judges the evilest people. A nine-headed monster guards the entrance to this hell, and the main punisher of the pit is Tisiphone who stays awake all the time with a whip to lash the sinners. The more sins you commit, the deeper your position will be in the pit, you get closer and closer to the Titans, (rebels who rose against Zeus) depending on how evil you were.
This is the Mongolian version of hell made of seven layers that were created and are ruled by the evil prince Erlik Khan. Erlik has many hideous tormentors that work for him in the form of misshapen goblins, kromos, and witches. Kasyrgan is the lowest level of all the seven reserved for the worst of sinners. The Mongols believed that when a man dies, the soul is dragged before Erlik by his evil kromos and if he has more evil than good, he is cast down into a pot of boiling tar. The sinner then suffers there for years. If the person did some good, he comes to the top of the tar and the people in paradise who received his good deeds may reach down and lift him into paradise. Evil Erlik, however, has no power over people who have done more good deeds than evil deeds.
Unlike other communities who tend to have a burning hell, the Vikings had a freezing hell. Helheim, the first Hell is a cold dark place for the souls of damned Vikings. In other communities you needed to be a sinner to go to hell, however, according to the Vikings, everyone that didn’t die a warrior including those that die of old age or if they are not killed in a battle all come here. Nifleheim is a worse part of Helheim darker and colder just reserved for people who die the most dishonorable deaths.
The hell’s gates are guarded by a monstrous dog Garm and the corpse-eating monster Modgud. Hel, the daughter of the tricky god Loki, is the ruler of this hell and her large scary eagle blows his wings constantly to keep Helneim and Nifleheim cold. No one can escape this hell, not even the gods; even if you escape monsters, you will be held back by the giant river Gjoll that encircles the whole hell. Warriors who die in battle are allowed to enter Valhalla and feast with Odin.
The House of Lies
Zoroastrianism and Hinduism are the oldest religions in the world still practiced today. Zoroastrianism is however believed to have shaped the concept of good and evil in the Abrahamic faiths. However, unlike the belies of God judging souls in Abrahamic religions, Zoroastrians believe that the soul judges itself after death. They believe that after three days of death, the soul proceeds to the “house of Lies,” a special place for all that die. Here the soul meets a maiden whose appearance will depend on how good or how evil the person acted while alive.
To the good, the maiden appears beautiful and leads them to Vahishta Ahu or heaven. To the evil, she seemed like an ugly and horrible woman. In some versions, the ugly woman leads the person to Achista Ahu, their version of hell for more torment in fire and brimstone. Some versions, however, argue that the errant souls were brought back to the Earth to amend their evil deeds.
Duat (The Egyptian Hell)
Ancient Egypt was one of the harshest places to die; there was no guarantee of paradise even for the righteous. Egyptians believed that after death, a soul split into two, one part went to meet the gods to seek reunification while the other half which represented personality remained in the body. Both halves of the soul had to stay alive before reunification, and this was a race against time, gods and the scary monsters of the 12 gates to hell. Both the living and the dead had a role to play in ensuring the soul reaches Duat or the afterlife. The living mummified the body with the heart inside to preserve it until the half that went to the underworld returned. The dead soul, on the other hand, had to fight with many monsters including fire breathing serpents until they reached the gate of Osiris, the god of the dead. Any souls that did not survive the tough journey was killed and damned to eternal oblivion. However, even after reaching Osiris, one still had to be judged.
Their heart was measured on a scale against a feather which judges if the soul had committed a set of 42 evils. If your good deeds were more than the bad and you did not commit the sins, you would be allowed to reunite with the soul in your body and go to paradise. If you had more evil than good, you went straight to oblivion. The gods were however very vicious, sometimes even those that qualified to go to Paradise would be cast by the mean gods to a hideous creature, part crocodile, part lion, and part hippo which in turn threw the soul into oblivion. If you qualified for paradise after your body was rotten, you were still damned. Such a hard place to die!
This was the hell of the ancient Aztecs also one of the scariest ones ever known. Mictlan had nine levels, and just like Helheim, everyone that did not die a violent death went here. The whole journey through the nine levels involved crossing nine rivers and escaping scary demons and beasts. A special dog cremated with the deceased would be their guide through the world of the dead, and the person would ride on the dog’s back across the deadly bloody rivers.
At one point, the person would pass between two mountains which threatened to squeeze the person and the guide dog. While crossing the rivers, you also had to be careful not to meet bloodthirsty fighting demons. However, there seems to be no reward for escaping all these trials because the destination was not any heavenly. The deceased met the lord and lady of death (Mictlantecuhtli) both of whom were bloodthirsty demons that would drink their blood in a skull and chew off their limbs.
Diyu is a common hell for many Chinese people simply derived from an amalgamation of many folk tales. It combines some characters of Buddhism, Confucianism, and other Chinese legends. There are many versions of this hell throughout Chinese history, but one thing is common, there is a punishment for every type of evil. Diyu does not house sinners forever though; it only prepares sinners for reincarnation and a new life. The most famous forms of torture here include being frozen until one shatters, Being forced to drink molten metal to melt you from inside, climbing a mountain of knives or being hanged on a tree of iron. Sins here are however punished according to their severity for example, while liars and gossipers will only have their tongues ripped out, rapists and thieves will be boiled in oil.
This is the ancient Mesopotamian version of hell believed in by the Babylonians. Unlike most hells which had some kind of reprieve or at least have an end, a descend to Irkalla was eternal. Irkalla had nothing to do with how one lived, both the good and the bad went there, and there was no judgment for their deeds. The Babylonians pictured a damned land reached by crossing seven heavily guarded gates. Irkalla was believed to be ruled by Ereshkigal, the elder sister of Ishtar alongside her husband Nergel, the king of death.
The scariest beings here were Lamashtu, a hideous demon that feasts on children, The fearsome wind demon Pazuzu and Gallas the great demon that dragged mortals into Irkalla. After passing the seven gates, Ereshkigal would pronounce them dead, and their names would be recorded in a book. They were all then dressed in feathers and forced to eat only dust in their remaining days which had no end.
This was the inspiration for the modern Christian version of hell. The word came from the Hebrew version Gehinnom, the name for a place south of Jerusalem where children were offered as burnt sacrifices to Moloch, the god o the Ammonites. This practice is believed to have continued from 10BC during the reign of King Solomon to 6BC during the Jewish Babylonian exile. The idea of a fiery hell full of screaming sinners was derived from the practices in this valley.
Today many religions believe in this type of hell. Some people believe that the punishment here will be long enough to cleanse the soul while others believe it will last forever. For however long the punishment in Gehenna takes, the sad fact is that all sinners sent there will be burnt alive.