Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Delahoyde & Hughes


The Underworld:

  • How is the Underworld of mythology different from Christian Hell?
  • How is Hades/ Pluto different from the Devil?
  • Who the devil is the Devil?
  • What does it mean that “Hell” stops in the Underworld when Orpheus sings?

In Classical Mythology, the Underworld, the realm of Hades, provides a beginning place from which to consider the changing constructs of the afterlife in mythology. It is possible to view the changing images of the underworld by looking at the iconography of hell and the devil.

In polytheism, Hades has a few different masks, including an image that is Zeus-like and bearded — Hades/Pluto is a majestic, elderly man holding a scepter, twig, cornucopia, or pomegranate. On some vases, Hades is shown averting his gaze from the other gods.

In tenth-century Christian Europe, and for at least half a millennium thereafter, the Devil was everywhere. He leered out of every church door; he capered through castle and church and cottage; and his plots and pranks and temptings of humans were spelled out in sermons, on the stage, in paintings, in pious books, and in stories told in taverns or in homes at bedtime. No corner or cranny of daily life escaped him. He lurked outside every orifice of the human body, waiting for the chance to get at the human soul inside. That’s one reason why to this day we say “God bless you” when we hear someone sneeze.

The Devil fathered children on sleeping women; he stirred up conspiracies and treasons; he led travelers astray. He caused boils, plagues, tempests, shipwrecks, heresies, barbarian invasions. Whatever he did, his name was on everyone’s tongue, and he went by many names: Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Belial, Mastema, the Prince of Darkness, the Lord of Lies. In the Bible he was the Accuser, the Evil One, the Prince of this World.

Today, a few scant hundred years later, he has dropped so far out of sight that some believe he is gone for good. It may be true that 40 percent of Americans tell the pollsters they believe in the existence of the Devil and another 20 percent find his existence probable. But though they use him often enough in common lighthearted expressions (“give the devil his due,” “the devil is in the details,” “the devil made me do it”) and in the privacy of their hearts may put the blame on him when they covet their neighbor’s wife or cheat on their income taxes, they do very little talking about him out loud. Reported physical appearances of the Devil are far rarer than sightings of UFOs. In practical terms, people have banished him from public life.

Yet most everyone who discusses moral standards in pulpits or on television talk shows or in the New York Times is agreed that morals are lower than ever before. The Devil should be out in the streets and on the airwaves, roaring like a lion about his triumphs. Where has he gone?

  • How has the image of the devil changed throughout time?
  • How is the 21st-century notion of the devil similar to and different from the Hades of mythology?
  • Is the earth and are the creatures that inhabit it ever cast as evil or demonic? Explain.


See Psalm 88:3-5.

In some respects the Jews were the least morbid of the Mediterranean peoples: they had no relationship with the dead (such as worship, sacrifice, visiting, anticipated reunion, etc.). In fact, the dead are unclean. Sheol is not hell since hell was not developed. Sheol was “the grave,” “the pit,” “the place the body is laid to rest.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 refers to a sort of oblivion.

They possibly shared a vague version of their Near Eastern neighbors’ view of the shadowy afterlife in a dry dusty underground venue (as with Samuel’s ghost summoned by Saul).

Isaiah 14:9-15 refers to the king of Babylon specifically. But Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2-3 betray a Persian influence perhaps, and resurrection of the physical body. Reform Judaism does not accept resurrection.

Hell:Later developments and elaborations regarding Hades indicate a persistent impulse to project this-worldly notions of justice into the afterlife, and so punishments supposedly befitting the crime begin to appear.

Even the New Testament has next to nothing to say about the topic of hell. Apocryphal stories and various afterworld visions emerged in the centuries before Dante, usually with either a generic punishment meted out indiscriminately for all sinners, no matter what the sin, or else the vision might present a rather haphazard glimpse of certain happenings. Dante’s achievement in the early 14th century was in the encyclopedic combinations of Medieval Christian theology, poetry, and the poetic Classical traditions of Hades.

Here is a site for more on Dante.

Works Consulted

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 3rd ed. Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.