What kind of hell will we go to? For some people, it is one of the most essential and confounding questions of life.
It’s also the name of an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco, in which the contemporary artist Takayuki Yamamoto asked elementary aged kids to construct dioramas based on what they imagined hell to be. The result was a variety of frightening and fanciful worlds such as, Stabbing, Killing and Burning Hell, in which sinners are stabbed in the chest and thrown into shark-infested waters, Tiger Hell and Invisible Hospital Hell, both reserved for bullies, and Tricksters Hell, where people who play tricks go—they are stabbed with blades if they blink or move even an inch . It’s a ghastly portrayal of the afterlife, but then again, it’s hell, and it’s pretty damned horrible the world over. Below are some of the more unusual and gruesome depictions of hell through the ages..
Ancient Egypt – Upon death a person was examined by a tribunal of 42 divine judges. People who had led lives according to the codes of Maat, the Goddess of truth and right living, were welcomed into an eternal paradise called the Two Fields. Persons found guilty by the tribunal were thrown to a creature called the “devourer”, which devoured the soul, forever annihilating the individual.
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Swahili – Hell is a massive building with seven virtually endless floors. On the uppermost level are sinners of moderate wickedness, like people who drank alcohol but were otherwise good Muslims. After a brief spell in hell they’re forgiven and moved to a purgatory where they’ll suffer thirst and drink discharge. The second highest floor contains misers, who are dragged by their hair into a river made of blood squeezed from their victims—they must drink it or drown. The third floor down is for hypocrites and liars, the fourth for embezzlers and deceivers and the fifth is full of fire and smoke and is for adulterous women, who will have fire in their bellies forever. Also sent to this floor are sahiri, or sorcerers who put spells on their victims, and those who dug up bodies and ate human flesh. The sixth floor down is called Jahimu and reserved for idolaters who worship false gods. Hawiya, the seventh and bottom layer of Swahili hell, is set aside for the worst sinners of all, atheists. They shiver eternally under crushing ice in the never-ending polar night.
Ancient India – People were either sent to a hell called Kalichi, paradise, or another existence on earth. In Kalichi a god named Chandrgupta tallied the soul’s virtues and sins. Justice was administered by Yama, a god who rode a buffalo with a lasso used for snagging souls and was fond of torture. Sinners were punished according to their offenses. Those who married outside their caste were forced to embrace molten human forms. Those who had done crueler deeds were boiled in oil. Those who tormented animals were ripped apart. Evil priests were tossed into a river of impurities and gnawed at by water demons. Even the worst souls were eventually given a chance at salvation through reincarnation.
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Ancient Japan – The dead rot indefinitely in a dark world called Yomi, which lay beneath the earth at a specific triad of locations revealed in the famous ancient Japanese history book, the Kojiki. The dead remained here forever, regardless of their conduct in life. Yomi was ruled by a deity named Izanami no Mikoto, the goddess of both creation and death.
Ancient China – In an underground hell called Diyu dead souls were meant to atone for sins committed during life. Diyu was a maze with various levels and chambers. The exact number differs between Buddhist and Taoist interpretations but many scholars believed there were ten courts of hell, each one ruled by a judge. Each court dealt with a different aspect of atonement and the judges in each meted out their punishments differently. The worst sinners were tortured, only to be restored to their original state and have the torture repeated.
How do these hells compare to those created by Takayuki Yamamoto’s students? Here is a description of one of the kids’ hells, from the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum..
Revenge Hell – The place you will never like to go. First, here comes the flag side. If you go down here, there are all bugs and crawly things crawling on you. Next, here comes the queen. She is the most beautiful queen of ever who pulled pranks. Her dad is right there, and he is about to turn eighty. Next is the bloody dragon. If you touch his nose, he will bite you. So try to stay careful. Next is the bloody pole. They’ve got this knife stuck in there and it sticks up. If it cuts you, try to be safe. You will be stuck here like twenty years.