Friday, 10 June 2016

History Book Review: The History of Hell by Alice Turner

Pros: overview covers pre and post Christian ideas of Hell, several pages of colour illustrations

Cons: overview of some sections is cursory, no endnotes 

This is an interesting look at the development of the idea of an underworld, how it morphed through Christianity into a realm of punishment, and how that idea has evolved into the modern era.

The first few chapters give the barest explanations of mythologies that predate Christianity, but from which Christianity borrowed some ideas, and how they viewed the afterlife.  These chapters help show how ideas developed over time.  In some cases, like Egypt, from whose mythology Christianity borrowed quite heavily, more detailed information would have been appreciated. 

The middle focuses on the Christian development of Hell, which is fascinating.  Several pages of colour photographs help illustrate how the view of Hell changed over the centuries.

The end again covers aspects of history that don’t include Hell but show how other things, like philosophy and horror, began to replace the idea of a place of punishment after death.

Turner mentions several texts that deal with Hell, more influential ones, like Dante’s Inferno, in more detail than others. 

There are no endnotes which makes checking her sources for clarifying information difficult to impossible.  In the chapter on the Roman empire, for example, she states,  “Mithra also gave us… the Chi-Rho sign which Christians appropriated…” (p.36).  Considering that Cho and Rho are the first two letters in the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Kristos), it seems unlikely that it came from an outside source.  Perhaps she meant that the idea of using a symbol that practitioners could use identify each other and their place of worship came from the similarly underground cult of Mithras, but that’s not what her text explicitly states.  And with no endnote, it’s impossible to know which source she took the idea from or, if this was her own idea, why she believes this to be the case.   

While it didn’t go as in depth in some areas as I would have liked, on the whole this is an excellent primer on where the belief in Hell came from and why it had such a prominent place in religion for so long. 

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