Your Personal Hell
If you’re developing a detailed underworld backdrop for a novel or story arc, here’s some questions to help you flesh it out. For a one-off character or story, these may not be helpful. Even for a well-realized story these aren’t a checklist or PDF form: A.J. Hackwith’s “Hell’s Library” series has a hellish bureaucracy without any obvious guiding hand, though that becomes a plot point over the course of the series. If anything sparks your interest, great. If detailing a full pantheon that you’ll never use gets in the way of writing, don’t do it. You can write a compelling story in the court of the Goddess of Winter without working out the personalities and wallpaper of the other courts.
Who’s the Boss?
The roll and nature of a demon reflects a culture’s relationship with the divine. An apocalyptic setting like, say, the 20th century has a different set of villians than a comical hellscape from the 13th century. As a shorthand, we’ll use the word “Deity” for the powers that be, whether it’s a One God, 12-part chorus, dualistic pair, or nameless force.
Strict Montheism: The One God
Strict monotheisms are rare: when you start getting into questions of “why do people suffer,” they break down. Etyptian Atenism (1400 BCE) may be the only true example, and it was discarded in 20 years.
If Deity is in charge of all good and all evil, they may be responsible for human suffering. This Deity may have a dark side that must be appeased and a light side that must be honored. The old testament Jahweh resembles this, a protector god and a warrior god, who guarded the Jewish people while simultaneously testing their faith. A seasonal harvest/resurrection god might behave like a dualistic pair in a single entity.
Alternatively, the One God may be malevolent, a divine punisher/predator that is feared and propitiated. “Gods of Evil” are rarely worshipped, except by thrill-seeking teenagers. This kind of deity might serve as the backdrop for an anti-hero story (“Paradise Lost” for example, and possibly the “Dark Materials” series). They may be orderly to the point of tyranny, or simply so old and established that they no longer serve their original purpose.
Strict monotheism tends to assume a single Creator God, we’re playing loose with that definition here.
Some variations on the theme:
Monolatry (Henotheism): Our Little Monotheism: One God, but not THE god. Early Judaism and early Mesopotamian religion probably fell into this category: El/Jahweh was the One God of the tribe of Israel, but there were other gods (either part of a “divine council of gods” or problematic enemies.) Inana was the primary god of Babylon, but other cities had other gods. This structure may lead to a polythiestic pantheon (which is why some gods have muddy divine portfolios, like Aphrodite (love/war) and Ishtaar (love/war/kingship) – they were general-purpose gods that ultimately became something bigger. On the other hand, as El/Jahweh and his followers established themselves as the primary god of a large region, El’s worship became more like a monotheism.
Kathenotheism: “One god at a time.” This might be worship of a living king/pharaoh, a gradual change from one chief god to another (like serial monogamy in dating…) or some heavily cyclic arrangement (a seasonal life/death god, or a system that passes rulership over after the milennium).
Pluriform Monotheism: This approach clears up a lot of the unnecessary confusion of a pantheon by arguing that there is one Deity (primary god, divine force, cosmic principle, etc) but that power has many manifestations. The many gods that appear to be visible are aspects of Deity, independent but not truly individual and certainly not actively opposed to Deity, although they may fight with each other. Hinduism comes close. Egyptian religion may be something like this, their gods are flexible and change identities easily and flow into each other much more than the Greek gods. Three-in-one gods and trinities likely fall into this bucket.
Mitigated Dualism: Two gods, likely opposed to each other (good/evil, order/chaos, civilization/wilderness, True God/Pretender or Usurper God, Deity vs. Free Will). One of these is clearly stronger than the other. Judaism/Christianity moves between these positions: the Azazel/Scapegoat Ritual suggests a time when El/Civilization was opposed to Azazel/Wilderness; Gnostic Christianity suggests an abstract primary god that’s beyond our perception and more immediate, flawed deity (Jahweh) with fists full of thunder; medieval Christianity’s devil was weak, sometimes bound with chains, sometimes crippled, sometimes just dim and easily tricked – he could be a threat, but one that wisdom, guile, and prayer could overcome. Apocalyptic Christianity suggests a very real war between Good and Evil, that might go either way, which is arguably Radical Dualism, below.
Dualism/Radical Dualism: Two gods, opposed to each other or simply cyclic, of similar power. Zoroastrianism and Apocalyptic Christianity both have a God of Good and God of Evil, locked in a conflict that will someday resolve itself and usher in a new world…Judaism/Christianity adopted dualistic elements from Zoroastrianism, possibly because it made a better story, possibly to shift blame away from their One True God..
Ontological dualism is related: the Jedi “Force” and Taoism’s Yin and Yang are light side/dark side versions of an energy that suffuses creation. There may or may not be gods that draw from this energy or pick sides in a conflict. Ancient Egyptian religion juggled two forces: ma’at (order and harmony) and isfet (disorder), the Pharaoh and the gods preserving order and civilization against the chaos beyond.
Another form of dualism might be a case where a religion has two creator gods (land and sea, sky and land, East Kingdom and West Kingdom). Relations between the two creators may be friendly or strained, and they may have a very different set of ethics and beliefs, even having different afterlives for their worshippers.
Fantasy writers and game developers tend to buy into the idea that a pantheon comprises a set of gods each with unique powers, clearly defined and non-overlapping. The God of Underworld, Goddess of Plants, Great Sky God, God of Trade and Wealth, and so on. This is a lot easier to manage in fiction or with a single authorial voice (as happened with Greek myth through Hesiod’s “Theogeny” or Heterodotus’s summary of Egyptian myth, both of which arguably created a mythological canon out of chaos.)
Most polytheisms developed over time and reflect the interactions of different cultures and different myths. While it’s good authorial fun to make a list of divine duties and powers and then distribute them to a list of individuals, real-world myth tends to be much murkier.
One common pattern is that either an older set of deities is assimilated into a new set, either as a conquered group (as may be the case with the greek Titans, bound and tossed into hell by Zeus and his kids), in an awkward amalgam the warring Norse Aesir gods and VAnir gods), as regional gods, or just as exciting new options (as in the anything-goes Roman religion, which was okay with any form of worship as long as taxes were paid and the imperial cult was respected).
Regional Polytheism: The Mesopotamian pantheon began with regional gods: multi-purpose patrons of a city that didn’t strongly interact (Enlil was the main god of Nippur, Ishtaar was the main god of Babylon, Anu was the main god of Uruk…) and these gods tended to have broad sets of powers (Ba’al: sky, kingship, thunder, war, strength; Ishtaar: sky, love, war, strength, trickery, magic, kingship…) At least initially there wasn’t the assumption that a god had to be the “god of a thing,” they were simply the god of the local city-state, and obviously more awesome than any other god. Over time a regional mythology developed (such as a travelling liturgical play that told the big stories of the region, with different chapters unfolding at each city honoring their chief deity).
Inclusive Polytheism: Greek and Roman polytheism, as taught in schools today, focuses on 12 primary gods, but the number is much higher…21+ primordial powers (Nyx, Thanatos, Erebus, etc…) 12+ Titans (Chronus, Tethys, etc…) 30+ Olympian gods (Zeus, Pan, Demeter…likely MANY more) and then a host of nymphs, muses, furies, oceanids, monsters…) Greek and Roman religion freely adopted from local pantheons as they expanded, sometimes adapting local gods (The Egyptian god of chaos Set merging with the Greek monster Typhon), or sometimes just assimilating them (which may explain why there are so many war gods in the full list of Greek gods).
Late-Stage Polytheism: Over time, the huge multiplicity of regional gods and rival pantheons may be collapsed into a more manageable number: less useful gods fade away (Mesopotamian religion likely started with a mother god, but she was rolled into the sisters Ishtaar and Erishkigal; all beautiful goddesses are rolled into Aphrodite, even if they were originally warrior-goddesses, that sort of thing…) This is helped along by cultural institutions that promote specific stories (the Pharaoh of Egypt adopting Horus as his representative god, taking away from Osiris’s “kingship” role and demonizing Set; Mystery Plays spreading a single myth-cycle across Mesopotamia) or by having a single strong authorial voice smoothing out the system (such as how Hesiod, Heterodotus, and Snorri Sturluson helped tidy up Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology).
It takes a special kind of god to rule over hell. “Chthonic” is a catch-all category for deities who are associated with death and the underworld. There are some common themes..
Agriculture, Vegetation, Rebirth deities:
It’s surprisingly common for a goddess of life to become a goddess of death. This may be because so many ancient deities are harvest deities: early polytheisms tend to be about life, and death is an afterthought. Osiris is arguably the best example of this: a popular agriculture god who, upon his death, became the underworld king, giving rulership up to his son Horus, who is in some ways the god of the Pharaoh line. The Egyptian underworld is a world of bountiful harvests, but like any farm, it requires workers. Many grave goods in Egypt are dedicated to taking some of the work of this life-after-life off of the deceased’s shoulders. While there are things like demons in the Egyptian underworld, they tend to be in two main categories: things that harass people as they go through the various lands of the dead to their final destination, and negative spirits that harass the living.
Celtic myth didn’t have much of an underworld, it was more of an “otherworld” where spirits and the dead blended together. The god Annwyn over time became the iconic horned rebirth god, vaguely sending souls along their journey to ultimate reincarnation.
Persephone is another iconic harvest/chthonic goddess, though she’s part of a power couple as well, consort to Hades/Pluto, in a long game of good cop/bad cop. Much of her mythology and the cult around her focuses on her rebirth role, not so much on her chthonic aspect, although one of her names, “Kore” (the maiden) may have been used because she was too frightening to actually mention by name. Like Egypt, later Greek religion assumed a life-after-life, which wasn’t unpleasant and similar to mortal life, just a bit less colorful. It also contained a reincarnational element, as souls eventually moved on to a rebirth over time.
None of these figures preside over a punishing afterlife that breeds the sort of demons we have in the 21st century…their underworlds have a way out, or at the worst are a “life after life” scenario. Maybe deities or cultures with a focus on life simply don’t build out the mythology of death.
One interesting case: Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, had some particularly violent followers, the furies, who came to be associated with the underworld. This seems less an aspect of his role as a harvest god and more his role as a god of dangerous excess and frenzy.
Kingship, Justice, Civilization, Metallurgy (?), and Sky Gods:
Broadly this is a category of “rulership” gods. Ba’al and Yahweh fit in this mold…it’s easy to forget that Yahweh is a chthonic god, but “death and beyond death” is a part of his mythology. Erishkegal, Pluto, and Osiris may fall into this bucket too, they rule the underworld in a way that reflects the overworld. The underworld under this sort of deity may seem more like a prison, with no escape: Erishkegal had demonic secret police that dragged souls back to the underworld when they escaped, and Pluto had Cerberus guarding the gate, and ultimately, the Greek underworld was a prison for the titans that originally gave birth to the gods.
A divine focus on rules and justice may require a place for rule-breakers to go. Perhaps this is a dull box, or simply distance from the divine or divine reward. Bad people may be simply wiped out (Jahweh again, some interpretations of scripture suggest that sinners are simply burned up rather than tortured.) Or there may be cruel and ironic punishments: Greek and Egyptian myths both expanded their underworlds to allow punishment for the dead over time.. Greek Tartarus was expanded to include the worst mortal sinners, and later Egyptian “book of the dead” works included colorful punishments that sound a lot like medieval Christian hellscapes.
Hell, or at least the land of the dead, is often just “over there.” In Mesopotamian myth, the underworld was an extension of the idea of wilderness. Civilization was central to their mythology, so where it ended was where the underworld began. A powerful deity of kingship and civilization may create a dangerous underworld from the wilderness, populated by demons of wild animals and other wilderness threats. That kind of underworld is like a shadow cast by the god of civilization, and this wilderness/civilization duality is perhaps foundational to the Jewish religion.
Fire, Plague, Death, War Gods:
Otherwise known as “gods of suddenly becoming dead.” It’s rare that one of these is crowned “Lord of the Underworld.” When it happens, it’s mitigated somehow. The Big Obvious in this case is the Mesopotamian god Nergal, who’s got aspects of the sun in its “cruel desert heat” mode, and is a bad-tempered creature of war, plague, and slaughter. However, one could argue that his worst impulses are tamed by his wife, Erishkegal, who is usually the actual “god of the dead” in that pantheon, and the two share the crown.
A more subtle version of this is the very similar spirit Samael, who is one of the earlier models for Satan and has some of the same genetics as Nergal. Initially he is an angel or archangel of death and plague, but ultimately becomes a demon that’s opposed to Jahweh, Lillith’s husband, the snake in the garden of Eden, and so on. The transition from “punishing angel” to “dangerous demon” seems to be a very short slide.
It seems like these deities would be very hands-off as gods of the dead…maybe they open the door for a soul before booting them into it, but don’t have the patience for long-term management.. But if they have an unusually cruel spirit, they may settle in long-term as gods of punishment. Their demons might stay on the surface, spreading plague and pain and bringing people closer to their final destination.
Trickster, Chaos, Evil and Strength gods:
None of these stand out as major chthonic gods (unless we’ve overlooked some). However, two Chaos/Trickery gods – Loki and Set – are a part of the DNA of the modern devil. Both have a casual cruelty and vengeance streak, but more importantly, both are opposed to the God of Order, creating a dualistic struggle that may or may not end the world someday. And both breed dangerous monsters. As “kings of the underworld” types, they don’t fit the bill, but they are, or can create, hazards that could populate an underworld. The Greeks, incidentally, associated Set with the father of monsters, Typhon.
The medieval devil as a tempter may fall into this category: he seeks to undermine the God of Order’s world by tricking and tempting mortals. He’s at a disadvantage and as often as not gets thwarted, even by peasants, but he slowly fills his punishing kingdom, pact by pact and temptation by temptation. Gods of Evil are very rare, usually more like monsters or demons than gods, but in this role the devil qualifies as one…evil defined in large part by its opposition to the God of Civilization.
Wealth and the Underground
In a cosmology that places the land of the dead in a literal underworld, it makes sense that the king of the underground realm would take on the role of king of the dead. After all, cultures that bury their dead are packaging their loved ones up for delivery into his territory. And along with the “underground” portfolio comes an association with the riches buried in the ground.. Greek/Roman Pluto/Hades is a good example of this type of chthonic god. Cold, distant, and brooding, he was something of a hands-off god. Hades was so distant that he faded literally into the landscape, his name becoming the name of the realm, then he was subsumed by his realm, leaving his understudies Charon/Thanatos to take over as the actual God of the Dead. This kind of miserly god may not care what happens to the souls under his charge, or he may count each one and hold onto them with both hands. If he has demonic servants, they’re probably more concerned with souls as property than with any sort of justice. Down the road, Pluto himself became one of the lords of hell, subservient to Lucifer–either a judge of the dead (as per Dante) or a prince of greed.
Hierarchies of Hell
How is your personal hell organized? The hell described by the grimoires is heavily medieval, based on a feudal hierarchy and assuming a military hell, ready to move onto the battle field, but that structure has evolved over time. Wikipedia’s article on The Classification of Demons dips into many of these concepts.
No Structure or One Ruler
This fits the modern, urgent conception of hell: While the devil is theoretically in charge of the whole mess, the threat the modern demon-fearing Christian faces is more of a hoard of demons, acting out in all directions without the appearance of a master plan…this echoes the Mesopotamian wilderness, where demons wandered with all the organization and causality of disease and wild animal attacks. This is a reasonable way to contrast the hoards of hell with the forces of order, but it doesn’t seem like rich material for a story that focuses on demonkind…except perhaps as part of a redemption arc. But it would serve to highlight the order and grandeur of the opposing force, and might make a backdrop for a post-rapture story where hell has at least temporarily broken free.
It seems like a single monarch of hell with no supporting structure would feel similar to the “hoard” model.. Though there’d be a single point of failure or strategy, the stories that come from these two models seem like they’d unroll with the same patterns.
Hell and Regent
This is the model of early medieval hell: the source of all evil has been vanquished, and a puppet has been left in his place. In the Gospel of Nichodemus we meet a Satan that is crippled when Jesus invades hell, and Heaven appoints Beelzebub as caretaker lord of Hell until the events of the Book of Revelations take place. Beelzebub appears to be a more cautious ruler, and the devil himself is left as a tourist attraction for authors passing through Hell…culiminating in Dante’s vision of a mindless Lucifer frozen in a lake at the center of the world. This is the “Gimpy Satan” model, and is useful for explaining why there is evil in the world without forcing God into an ugly dualistic system.
This might be a simplified “seven deadly sins” model, where a single overlord has a set of powerful servants who administer hell. The Mesopotamian underworld appears to have had something like this, with a complex set of underworld gods (the Annunaki) dividing up duties in some incomprehensible arrangement. Greece had some similar concepts, where a small set of judges of the dead governed under a distant emperor. White Wolf’s role-playing game Wraith: The Oblivion uses this concept (dividing hell up into territories, each with its own stand-alone dark lord), and it’s a useful model for role-playing games generally, as it allows for lots of intrigue.
This is the hell most associated with the grimoires: Lucifer (or another king of hell) sits at the top of the hierarchy, with a set of princes under him (though most Seven Deadly Sins systems class Lucifer as the Prince associated with the sin of pride, which is usually placed at the top of the hierarchy. Under those demons is a mess of dukes, counts, barons, presidents (not President in the modern “elected chief of state” sense, but president in the sense of “president of a college” or “one who presides over a board.”). Each of these dozens of middle-managers wrangles a number of legions of hell, and many of them have unique powers given as a powerful noble demon. In terms of story development, this gives the opportunity to watch an infernal character rise in rank, perhaps even as far down the hierarchy as a damned soul, or lets the author focus on a character of some rank and influence in a complex system.
Elements of this are based on the hierarchy of angels and the nine orders thereof, and both concepts are linked to the medieval concept of the great chain of being: that every element of creation had its own place in a hierarchy from “god” to “bug.”
There is no true agreement on the setup of the hierarchy…even basing them on the seven deadly sins opens up questions, since there’s not a canon list of those either.. John Wycliffe’s straightforward set of seven sins is one of the more influential ones, and informs many grimoirists and seems to be the backdrop of the Hazbin Hotel series. Cornelius Agrippa proposed a terribly complex system of one prince (Lucifer), two chiefs, three furies, three judges, four princes of the elements, four princes of the directions, six Authors of Calamities, nine princes over the devils…it’s a lot.
This charming outlier is the work of self-proclaimed demonologist Alexis Berbiguier, who populated the real world of France with any number of imps and goblins, with a complex court structure possibly parodying the French nobility at the time: His structure starts with the very medieval Satan (prince without kingdom), Beelzebub (chief devil), and then spins out a number of lesser roles and ambassadorships, including butlers, chiefs of police, commanders, treasurers, “grand pantlers…” it’s a complex and bustling hell created to drive Berbiguier insane, or moreso.
Location Location Location
Many early depictions of the afterlife don’t distinguish between spirits of the dead, daemons/demons/angels, or numinous creatures like fairies or monsters. Broadly we’ll call these mythical spaces “otherworlds” as opposed to “underworlds.” If your demons aren’t entirely physical creatures, they can be stored in any old dimension.
“Over There Somewhere”
This is one of the oldest images of the land of the dead, or the land of the spirits: it’s sort of “just over the mountain ridge,” or “in the north,” or “to the west” (favored because it’s where the sun sets). Or, specifically, in Britain, just south of London. This version of hell is almost always across the water in some form, though there’s usually a ferryman or a bridge to make the journey if not easier, at least possible. It is theoretically possible to walk or ride to the otherworld – or, possibly for one side to invade the other. This lends itself to pre-Christian worlds where the land of the dead wasn’t as religiously loaded of a concept, but you could adapt it to something like a modern post-rapture setting where the mortal world and underworld overlap, or overlap again.
Right here, just…invisible
In Faust, when the title character asks Mephistopheles where hell is located, the demon responds “why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” In this sense, hell is wherever God is not. In Egyptian mythology, the world of the dead was contiguous with our world, possibly touching it at the pyramids, and pockets of the afterlife were regionally specific to their real-world locations. Some role-playing games and movies suggest that at least uppermost levels of the afterlife are simply bleak, decaying reflections of the real world (Wraith the Oblivion again, among others), and perhaps when someone learns to see the other side of reality, they become vulnerable to the creatures there. This seems like the assumption of 20th century demonology: that demons swarm just on the other side of what we can see, and are able to influence us from that realm.
Right here, really, right here
This is the assumption of a few post-rapture stories (The “Battle Pope” comic assumes that after the rapture, humans and demons co-exist, sometimes violently.) Arguably it’s the assumption of Berbiguier’s 1820 Les Farfadets (“the gremlins,” more or less), and possibly Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse – both dark conspiracies where real-world demons influence real-world protagonists. Whedon is markedly more engaging. This might be appropriate for a paranormal romance that doesn’t worry too much about cosmological details: demons and other such beasts are simply a different species, with different abilities.
A subcategory of “over there somewhere,” Hell is literally or metaphorically underground, teaming with demons and sinners. This seems kind of silly as a literary conceit, asking as many questions about geology as it does, but it still captures the imagination in urban legends.. This image of hell goes way back, and is the assumption of the Mesopotamian underworld, which placed hell under a great subterranean ocean. This is arguably the conceit of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which places the entrance to Hell somewhere in Rome and the mountain of Purgatory somewhere near New Zealand, though whether this is a literal hellmouth or a metaphorical one seems to vary across the text.
A few writers, modern or pre-modern, have suggested that Hell is in the sun, a comet, or a planet on the far side of Earth’s orbit. Lovecraft-inspired horror film Event Horizon suggests that something quite like hell is on the other side of a man-made dimensional gate orbiting Neptune. This feels too zany to warrant a full discussion, but we may expand this in the future.
Wikipedia, “Dualism in Cosmology“
Encyclopedia Britannica, “Monotheism” (actually about the spectrum between monotheism and polytheism)