In this day and age, some 135 years after Ignatius Donnelly wrote Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, it is strange to see someone actually accepting Donnelly’s claims as factual, much less working from Donnelly’s book to propose a research program to find Hell. Yes, you read that right: Brad Yoon of Ancient Origins actually claims that using insights from Donnelly’s Atlantis, we can find the real-life inspiration for Hell, which he places in the Caribbean Sea. The argument is one of the odder ones I’ve heard in a while. “I shall extend Donnelly’s thesis and undertake an in-depth analysis of the underworld and where it may have been, and how a real and physical place might have become transformed into the final resting place of souls departed both in the physical and the mythological planes.”
To understand Yoon’s argument requires a little background, which I will try to simplify as much as possible. The Christian concept of heaven and hell is a bit of a latecomer in cosmological terms, sitting atop the earlier Hebrew conception of the shadowy underworld of Sheol and the divine heaven of Yahweh, and the Greek underworld of Hades and the gods’ home on Olympus. In Hebrew myth, there was once an earthly paradise called Eden, and this has long been compared to the vaguely defined earthly paradise that developed in Greek mythology. The Greek paradise began as three separate entities: the Fortune Isles, which were warm and fertile Atlantic islands; the Islands of Blessed, which were conflated with the Fortunate Islands and originated as the land of the blessed dead in the farthest western reaches of the Ocean; and the Elysian Fields, identified with both as early as Hesiod but which originally seems to have been conceived of as the vast opposite land on the western side of Ocean, a gigantic plain where the noble dead live. All of these concepts appear to be influenced by the Mesopotamian paradise where the righteous Utnapishtim lives in immortal splendor in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a land often incorrectly identified with the ancient kingdom of Dilmun.
Such claims are not terribly controversial and have been widely discussed in academic literature. Ignatius Donnelly, however, took all of this and identified all of these lands with Atlantis because a majority of them were islands in the Atlantic. Yoon, consequently, believes the revers: Because he assumes Atlantis is real, it therefore follows that these imaginary (or at least exaggerated) paradises must have been the very real Atlantis. Consequently, he believes he can use the same methodology to find the Underworld’s real-life counterpart.
Yoon chooses to follow the Greeks when looking for the Underworld, even though theirs is not the oldest on record. While Mesopotamian cultures placed the entrance to the Underworld at the mountain gate in the East where the Sun emerged from his nightly judgment of the dead, the Greeks envisioned the Underworld as being all over the place. Hesiod places a single bronze entrance in the farthest west, on the edge of the Ocean. Homer places entrances in several places. Odysseus travels to the farthest west, but there is evidence that this is an inversion of an earlier story in the oral Argonautic corpus of an eastern entrance. (For example, Homer himself describes several eastern lands in terms borrowed from a voyage to the Underworld.) Homer also has Heracles defeat Hades at Pylos, which many scholars interpret as a corruption of an older story featuring the gates (pyloi) of the Underworld. In other myths, characters like Orpheus and Theseus descend to the Underworld from various locations.
Yoon elects to locate the Greek Underworld in the farthest west, and he consequently wants to find a dry, habitable basin below sea level that the Greeks would have interpreted as an underworld. He thinks the Caribbean is this location. But before we deal with that, we must first deal with Yoon’s misconceptions, born of his desire to mix and match terminology as convenient:
In the Odyssey, a myth dating back to the Heroic Age of Greece, Homer portrays the underworld as a gloomy realm of deceased spirits and shades. However, in myths that depict events taking place in the distant past, Hades is described as an abode of the living. For example, in the myth of the Titanomachy, or the war between the Titans and the Olympians, Zeus, son of Kronus, rebelled against his father and the Titans, the elder race of Gods, and emerged victorious in a ten-year-long war. Upon his victory, Zeus imprisoned the defeated Titans in Tartarus. There is no mention of spirits, shades, and ghosts in this version of Hades, and if Hesiod had called Hades and Tartarus by another name, one would hardly suspect that the setting of this war between the Titans and the Olympians was in any way a spiritual realm.
Did you catch the conflation? “Hades” is not synonymous with “Tartarus.” The Greek Underworld was composed of different parts. As Homer himself says in the Iliad (8.17), Tartarus is “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth.” Hesiod echoes the same claim. It is astonishing that Yoon knows this but nevertheless fails to distinguish between the general realm of Hades and the deepest level of Tartarus when it isn’t convenient to do so. But even in a mythological sense, Yoon is wrong because he does not distinguish between the eras of Greek mythic history. There were no spirits, shades, or ghosts when the Titans were chained in Tartarus because humans hadn’t been created yet. The battle of the Titans and the Olympians occurred before the creation of humanity, and therefore there were no ghosts to populate the Underworld until Prometheus and Epimetheus formed men from clay. The Titanomachy did not occur in Tartarus, but in Thessaly, according to standard Classical authors.
In short, Yoon doesn’t understand the subject he wishes to discourse on, and therefore his arguments fail the simple test of factual accuracy. Consequently, there is no reason to support Yoon’s claim that the Underworld’s Greek depiction shifted from a land of the “living” to the realm of the “dead.” It was a supernatural prison from beginning to end.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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