To hell and back, again

In the last post we traveled along with four different voyagers to the afterlife. Two were from the sixth century, two from the seventh, so now let’s look at two from the eighth century. These stories come to us from Boniface, the English monk who came to the continent late in the seventh century, was befriended by Charles Martel who rendered him protection, and eventually became the “Apostle of the Germans.” He was killed in 754 by a band of pagans in Frisia, close to the age of 80.

Boniface left a large collection of letters which provide rich information not available anywhere else. There are not a lot of ‘informal’ sources from the eighth century, as most of what we have are saints lives, decrees, annals, charters, and the like. Some of Boniface’s letters take a much more relaxed, conversational tone. In 716 he wrote to Eadburga, an abbess back in England, and provided a long description of an unearthly vision.1.Boniface carried on a lively correspondence with several women, another reason why his letters are so valuable

Boniface relates that he himself actually spoke with the man who had a vision (this fact alone separates this incident from all the others so far). As with others, this man was carried high into the air by angels, so that he “saw a mighty fire surrounding the whole earth, and flames of enormous size puffing up on high and embracing, as it were, in one ball the whole mechanism of the world.” He then heard all of the sins and all of the virtues he had ever performed speaking to him, in a catalog of his life.

He then saw a pit, with souls in the form of black birds perching on the edge, crying out in human voices. Farther below in the pit he heard a deeper groaning and greater lamentations. The birds, his angelic explained, were those souls who would eventually be granted eternal rest at the day of judgement, while those deep in the pit were “those souls to which the loving kindness of the Lord shall never come, but an undying flame shall torture them forever.”

The man then saw a “pitch-black fiery river” with a log laid across it like a bridge. Some souls passed easily over the log, while others fell into the river, but emerged cleansed of “those trifling sins” which needed purging. Heaven was on the other side.

[H]e beheld shining walls of gleaming splendor, of amazing length and enormous height. And the holy angels said: “This is that sacred and famous city, the heavenly Jerusalem, where those holy souls shall live in joy forever.” He said that those souls and the walls of that glorious city to which they were hastening after they had crossed the river, were of such dazzling brilliance that his eyes were unable to look upon them.

The man then saw several specific souls, including an abbot who was the subject of a virtual tug-of-war between demons and angels, a girl who stole a distaff (demons celebrated the theft), and Coelrad, then an English king, of whom a group of demons convinced his guardian angels to abandon their protection, much to the angels’ sadness.2.Boniface, Letters, II, pp.3-9.

There is another letter in Boniface’s collection that is not to or from him, but written to a monk by an unknown author. The letter is fragmentary, and starts right in the action, as the author relates a vision described to him by another. Souls are again dunked in a fiery river, the level of their sin determining the depth of their punishment. A pit was there, with places of torment being prepared for those still living. The visitant saw many “abbots, abbesses, counts, and souls of both sexes.” Demons were very evident, and, as with the previous example, highly engaged in everyday life on earth.

[H]e saw three troops of enormous demons – one in the air, one on land, and a third on the sea – preparing torments for the places of penitence. He saw the first troop striving to deceive men in this our common life and the second pursuing souls in the air, as they emerged from the prison of the body, and dragging them away to torment.

The man saw several specific people3.Otherwise unknown to history. undergoing various torments. Two queens were submerged “up to the armpits,” while their “tormentors themselves threw the carnal sins of these women in their faces like boiling mud, and he heard their horrible howls resounding, as it were, through the whole world.”

Heaven was described as a series of fragrant places, linked by rainbow bridges, the higher ones nicer than the lower ones.

Finally he was returned to his body, with angelic instructions to remember the love of God.4.Boniface, Letters, XCII, pp.167-169.

There are several common details in these and the previous descriptions. The voyagers, who are all male, often are either very sick or actually die before their vision begins. They are reluctant or even pained to return to the world of the living. Usually punishments and rewards are graduated according to a person’s life. There is a deepest hell and a highest heaven, to which the worst and the best are immediately sent. Then there are intermediate areas, where souls are cleansed and expunged before the ‘next step,’ usually the Day of Judgement. Fire predominates, with ice making an occasional appearance. Rivers of flame or lava or other boiling fluid are usually present, with the sinners having to make a crossing.

People with a religious calling during their life seem to be singled out for recognition and particular punishment in the afterlife, although perhaps the monks that recorded the visions felt the need to point this out to their fellows. Many of the visions include reminders from the angels that those souls who have a chance of advancing will benefit from the prayers said and masses performed for their benefit by the living.

The visions almost always describe the terrors of hell in far more vivid and unrestrained detail than the joys of heaven. This is understandable – people rubberneck at car accidents, not weddings. And anyone who has read Dante’s Divine Comedy can attest to how much more readable the Inferno is, compared to the Paradise.

While the visions are fascinating, in and of themselves, what most excites me is the idea of how real these visions must have been for those that heard the tales. Modern society is far more focused on the material, temporal world than that of the eighth century, and we tend to regard these recollections as quaint, or look at them with an analytical eye.5.I considered creating a table to analyze commonalities and differences between the visions.

The people that heard these stories were continually steeped in an invisible world, rich with pagan and Christian elements. Illiterate, untraveled, and what we would call hugely superstitious, hearing these stories must have had an immediacy and power that is lost to us. A peasant or craftsman would listen as their village priest told them of Boniface’s experience, that the great man (already so close to the living God) spoke to a person who actually visited hell, and it would be as real as hearing your neighbor’s story of meeting a celebrity in Las Vegas, but with vastly more power.

We have gained much, but lost much also. I know where I would rather live, but I must confess to a touch of sadness.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Boniface carried on a lively correspondence with several women, another reason why his letters are so valuable
2. Boniface, Letters, II, pp.3-9.
3. Otherwise unknown to history.
4. Boniface, Letters, XCII, pp.167-169.
5. I considered creating a table to analyze commonalities and differences between the visions.

To hell and back

Visits to or visions of the afterlife are a common motif in western literature. Odysseus visited the land of the dead and saw his mother. Aeneas traveled to Dis to find his father, and learn of the future of the Romans. These exploits continued after Christ, but of course took on a Christian character. There are dozens of examples. If only someone would collect all these Christian visions into one book

Out of the four dozen examples found by Eileen Gardiner, there are five that were relatively recent to the population of the eighth century. Two are related by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, two came from Britain in the early eighth century via the Venerable Bede, and one is related by Boniface. There is a second vision in Boniface’s letters that Gardiner did not mention, which gives us a half-dozen fresh voyages to the nether regions for us to investigate.

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