How can I describe my vision, the air of Hell is too thick for hymns!
“And now I’m gonna get medieval on yo’ ass,” says Morgana, my guide in Hell. She laughs uproariously at my look of alarm. “Not really, things have moved on a lot since the Dark Ages, when nobody cracked jokes about the Spanish Inquisition because you did expect them to come knocking at your door. Such excesses helped cause a backlash of unbelief that has frankly lifted a great burden from the hearts and souls of suffering humanity. At one stage we were almost closed down as numbers were diminishing so rapidly. Indeed, your compatriots ‘dismissed hell with costs’ two centuries ago in earthly time.
Belief in eternal hell-fire was an essential item of Christian belief until pretty recent times. In this country, as you know, it ceased to be an essential item because of a decision of the Privy Council, and from that decision the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York dissented; but in this country our religion is settled by Act of Parliament, and therefore the Privy Council was able to override their Graces and hell was no longer necessary to a Christian. (Bertrand Russell)
“Our own liberal wing campaigned to formally ratify this decision, but the diehards voted against the motion. Then, most fortunately, Britannia was put in charge of the Underworld. Her first move was to send the entire staff off for retraining. Our realm has been overhauled and so must your understanding be. Along with the rest of the afterlife realms, we have had a complete regime change.”
“A new regime? But Satan’s still in charge, right?”
“Oh no! The Prince of Darkness, his right hand man Beelzebub and the rest of their horrid crew had done too much harm for too long. Some of this was down to misplaced enthusiasm for the job of correction, aided and abetted by zealous, superstitious younger soul priests and theologians who by installing fear rather than love in their victims had effectively become recruiting agents for the Devil’s party. People thought they had it bad under Hades’s rule, but that was a vicar’s tea party compared to the Satanic yoke.
“All this changed once Britannia took up the reins of government. In a rare get-together of upstairs and downstairs administrations, we achieved a majority agreement that Old Hell was an outmoded, primitive and cruel concept that had long outlived any usefulness as a deterrent. Britannia proposed the feminization of the workplace… I forget the exact wording, but basically the male gang had ballsed it up and it was time for the women to take over, yeah!”
“Did they go quietly?”
“That’s not their style, but one look at Britannia’s determined face, a warning growl from her lion, and they surrendered. Our leaders were relieved of their command and persuaded to apologise for the errors of their ways. They now embrace our new equality and diversity policy, which applies throughout the bardo realms.”
“Sorry to be a bit slow, but I can’t keep up with all these regime changes. How did the mighty King Hades lose control of his empire?”
““What, you don’t know about the Harrowing of Hell?” I shake my head apologetically.
“The Harrowing of Hell was only the single most dramatic event in the whole history of the Underworld. On that glorious day Jesus Christ himself marched down here in triumph with his angelic stormtroopers. Demons barred the gates but he blasted through, shattering them with one blow. Everyone gathered for the big fight – single combat between two great Gods! Fearsome and ferocious in battle, the Boss was the favourite, but the Challenger had form. Jesus had raised people from the dead, and had arisen himself from a cruel and violent death just the day before this showdown. Some people remembered too how his puny shepherd ancestor David had defeated the giant Goliath with a simple sling.
“The arena was packed to the rafters but deadly silent as the two champions faced each other. Hades opened by letting loose the Hound of Hell, but Cerberus just jumped up and licked Jesus’s face. Then Hades hurled a few thunderbolts, which instantly fizzled out. Before he could move again, Jesus simply raised his hand in the peace sign and Hades crumpled to the floor. Jesus trampled his defeated rival underfoot while the crowd cheered, then chained him to his own throne (what a dude!) and banished him to limbo with his queen and all his entourage. For his final act Jesus liberated all the prophets and philosophers who were languishing in the shade and bore them off in triumph to his new celestial kingdom.
“Before leaving Hell, Jesus installed his own officers, headed by Satan and Beelzebub as the new overlords. Unfortunately they exceeded their brief and turned what was intended as an internment camp pending trial and judgement – strict but civilized – into a concentration camp of eternal punishment comprising the vilest tortures imaginable. Well, you know the story too well… ”
I frown in confusion. “I don’t understand. Jesus is the God of Love, so how could such horror happen in his name?”
“Hey, all you need is love for sure, but law and order come first, doncha know. The Devil, as he became known, betrayed a sacred trust. He has now been demoted to the clean-up crew; the mess they left behind was not a pretty sight. To be fair they’ve done a good job of converting the old arena into the bar we’re sitting in, renamed Club Hellzapoppin’.” Looking around, I acknowledge it’s dark but cleaner than the average nightclub, the air thick but not foul.
“Now Hella is reinstated in her old job with a pardon.”
“Yes. Originally Hella was an earth goddess, pre-eminent among the chthonic deities. In the early days of Old Hell her domain was restricted to the earthly underground. Yet you must remember that your ancestors sheltered in caves which were home and sanctuary, and you carry traces of these memories. When Old Hell was developed as the afterlife destination for sinners, Hella was the obvious choice to run it. She is one tough cookie, who won her spurs at the Battle of Ragnarok, where she commanded the Army of the Dead from a ship built out of the fingernails of corpses. #badbitchgoddess
Hella’s job was to judge the new arrivals and assign them to one of the nine hells that then existed. Nowadays we’ve simplified and redesigned the system, but at the time it was quite complicated and of course essential to get it right.
“Unfortunately she blotted her copybook with over-enthusiastic participation in the reign of terror. Her supporters blame the trolls – her elemental helpers who stoked the flames – but as their leader the buck must stop with her. She became corrupted, along with the evil overlords whose twisted will she obeyed. Sometimes her own dark side led her to overly vengeful decisions, and so her downfall was in some measure deserved.
“Hella never condoned the evil empire that arose in her name. But eventually she became marginalized and vanished, dwindling to a grey shade in the twilight of forgotten gods. Then, phoenix-like, she arose from retirement during the reorganization and retrained along with the rest of us. Her original qualities were rediscovered.
“Hella is now a good policewoman, firm but fair. She keeps an eye on the Dives, ably assisted by Hekate, ensuring the revelry does not get out of hand. Her northern manners are a bit abrasive in contrast with the Mediterranean charm of Persephone, but she has a brave heart. If there were still any doubts hanging over her, she reports to Britannia, and believe me you don’t want to mess with an old school Matron, especially one armed with a Trident and guarded by a Lion! So you can relax and know that you’re in safe hands with Hella…”