An Introduction to Mythology
Page: 85Let us examine the outstanding myths of civilized antiquity, then their savage counterparts, ere we decide how far mankind owes its conception of Heaven and Hell to ethical promptings. This is one of the junctures where religious science is not to be distinguished from the science of mythology, for both explain the origin of ideas dealing with the next world, or attempt to place them in their proper sequence of evolution. But it must be borne in mind that the science of myth is not concerned with[Pg 196] the purely religious aspect of the abode of the dead, whatever form it takes, but with its 'geography,' scenery, and supernatural inhabitants only. If it asks "How far have the myths of a place of punishment and reward been affected by ethical promptings?" it is merely for the sake of the myths, not for any concern with these promptings.
The Teutonic peoples believed that the dead passed to the realm of Hel (our 'Hell'), daughter of Loki. The word Hel appears to be derived from a root which means 'to conceal' (old Teutonic 'Halja,' the Coverer-up or Hider), and signified both the realm of the dead and the goddess who presided over it. But it is probably a later development of the myth, perhaps sophisticated by Christian influences, that makes Hel a place of punishment. In Hel's later habitation we find "Hunger her table, starvation her knife, delay and slowness her servants, precipice her threshold, care her bed." The realm of this dark goddess, the Proserpine of the North, was not originally associated with the idea of punishment, but was pictured rather as a delectable region. Thither fared Balder when slain, and on his arrival 'Eljudnir,' the high hall of Hel, was bravely decorated, while foaming horns of mead were prepared for his reception. In later days, when the conception of Valhalla, the warriors' Paradise, was popularly accepted, Hel became the residence after death of those who had not perished by the sword, who had died a 'straw' death. The Teutonic defunct, then, were divided in death according to the manner of their dying, as in ancient Mexico, where dead warriors went to the palace of the sun-god and those who died of dropsy or were struck by lightning betook them to the luscious and fertile Paradise of Tlaloc the water-god, while the common herd were swallowed pell-mell by the capacious death-cavern of Mictlantecutli, lord of Mictlan or 'Hades.' The Teutonic goddess Hel (or 'Hela' in its Latinized form) was, according to Meyer and Mogk, more closely related to the demonic class of beings than to the gods proper. This is sometimes the case with the infernal powers, and examples occur where they are scarcely more[Pg 197] than mere demons; but most commonly the rulers of the Underworld rank as gods proper. Again, they are often the deities of a subject, conquered, or outcast race. This question will receive further treatment at the end of this chapter.