Evolution of Neolithic Hells

It is hard to know what our correspondents at the Economist were thinking when they published this coal lump journey through all kinds of Hells on December 22, but it sure was cheeky. I’ve always been a bit partial to Jean-Paul Sartre’s rendering of hell as an exitless room filled with other people, but that’s just misanthropic me. Hells come in all shapes and sizes so there is a bit of something for everyone.

Despite all this variety, one thing is clear: hells have histories and are imagined only in food producing (Neolithic and post-Neolithic) societies. Hells don’t exist in hunter-gatherer and similar small-scale societies. There is obviously something about settling down to live in ever larger groups that drives people to hellish distraction. It’s an ingenious displacement whereby threats of actual punishment get an assist from fears of potential punishment. Hells are of course useful constructs for getting people to internalize the disciplines required for life in larger-scale societies, but they are not indicia of intellectual progress or symbolic sophistication.

“Happy Hunting Ground” by Sophie Iremonger

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4 thoughts on “Evolution of Neolithic Hells

  1. Jayarava

    You might find Gananath Obeyesekere’s tome Imagining Karma interesting. He points out that as soon as you posit a right and a wrong way to live, then your afterlife tends to also bifurcate into a place of reward and a place of punishment – and this seems to be independent of whether one’s afterlife is terminal or cyclic.

    In small groups everyone knows whether the others are keeping group norms or not, and the response to infractions is immediate and personal. Larger groups mean that there is the possibility of private acts, that are not observed by other group members and deception to keep infraction hidden. I suspect the limits are related to the Dunbar numbers, but that requires more investigation.

    In larger groups, where personal surveillance breaks down, the job of overseer tends to be outsourced to a supernatural entity or process. Thus even though there are now private acts, these are still observed and appropriate rewards and punishments accrue. In polytheistic environments it can the the role of other figures, e.g. Mitra and Varuṇa in Indo-Iranian myth. Once you get the idea of monotheism (or the Swiss-army-knife deity as I call it) then the overseer role goes to the One God and becomes their central function.

    That this plays out in the afterlife seems perfectly logical given these starting premises. And of course it is often only in the afterlife that we meet the gods face to face, so that becomes the obvious place of reckoning. This also helps to balance out the fact that some people seem to get away with murder, and others are punished for the slightest infraction. Comprehensive review in the afterlife evens things out. We all like to think that people get what’s coming to them.

    The knowledge that even if we aren’t observed that we’ll still get what’s coming to us is what keeps us on the straight and narrow (or used to). Just look at what happens when there is no surveillance and no apparent consequences – we get the finance system of the first world, full of corruption and actions which cause harm to the community. So it’s important that group members have a vested interest in sticking to group norms and motivation to repair breaches, which usually minimally involve confession and re-commitment (though atonement is also pretty basic). See my paper on King Ajātasattu.

    I’m interested in the emergence of Hell in India – somewhere around 1000 BC. Up to that point they were quite happy to cycle around between this world and the other world. Then suddenly new ideas sprang up related to an afterlife with suffering and also the notion of escaping from the cycle. altogether. I suspect it was due to an influx of new ethical ideas from Zoroastrian Iran. I have just published part of the story in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

    All of what I am saying means that I disagree with your conclusion. I think that the emergence of hell is correlated to sophisticated ethical thinking in pre-scientific societies. The level of sophistication required to deal with the complexity of large groups and the more sophisticated rules required to order such societies – because living in close proximity with large numbers of people who may be unrelated or even strangers is stressful for a social primate like us and requires regulation in order to be manageable.

  2. Cris Post author

    I agree with almost everything you just said. My peremptory conclusion, which was admittedly crytpic, really was just a way to signal my disagreement with the Karen Armstrong approach to these hellish/afterlife metaphysical imaginings. I also had in mind those whose approach to these matters is progressive, ahistorical, celebratory, and teleological.

    I was also probably signaling my sense that large bodies of texts can give us what I think is the false impression that post-Neolithic or Axial cosmologies and metaphysics are somehow more subtle and sophisticated than animist worldviews, ontologies, and metaphysics. I don’t think the mere existence of a textual corpus and exegetical or hermeneutic tradition supports this claim.

    Comparatively speaking, I don’t see much difference in complexity or sophistication between animist worldviews and Axial cosmologies — in fact, I think the latter are in some day to day ways less complex. Hence my assertion that extended hell ruminations are not a sign of symbolic sophistication or intellectual progress. The latter may be associated with larger societies and texts, but this doesn’t make them more progressive (other than in a chronological sense).

    Thanks also for the Obeyesekere recommendation. My past exposure to him as a young grad student in anthropology revolved mostly around his seemingly endless dispute with Marshall Sahlins over Captain Cook. While there were some interesting issues played out in that debate, it was weirdly personal and became quite tedious. That soured me on him; perhaps it shouldn’t have. I’ll get the Karma book.

  3. Larry Stout

    “Hell” as the Christian god’s purported punishment for misuse of “free will” by “sinning” is not compatible with the Christian god’s purported love of man and omniscience. If “God” is omniscient, “He” knows the ultimate fate of a given “soul” before He deposits it in a new (you tell me how-many-cellular) human being. If the soul is ultimately hell-bound, it is not a loving act to deploy it in the first place. If God is not omniscient and does not know the future, then in deposition of a soul He indulges in a crap-shoot; if He is capable at least of hindsight, He sees that hell is full of the eternally suffering, and what He has been doing just ain’t workin’!

    The notion of free will seems to have been installed in Christian doctrine by (reformed Manichaean) Augustine of Hippo, to explain “evil”. Our predecessors in what’s termed “Western Civilization”, the Greeks and Romans, apparently did not entertain such a concept, attributing all to the intercessions of multifarious fickle and not omnibenevolent gods.

    In our modern discernment of evil, we rely heavily on experts. Ronald Reagan, for example.

  4. Larry Stout

    Neglected to add Mark Twain’s sage advice:

    “Go to Heaven for the climate, to Hell for company.”

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