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The Evolutions Of Hell

Thiess the Livonian Werewolf had a very straightforward Hell to invade: a physically accessible place, located beyond a watery passage to the underworld (which seems likely to me to be a survival of something related to the Slavic myths of Veles, in which the chthonic cattle-lord god is ruler of the waters, and who, post-Christianisation, was partially recast as a Devil figure). It contained stolen things – field fertility, cattle blessings, and so on – which could be retrieved for the good of the community. (And indeed the earlier court conflict which made Thiess’s werewolfing more known in his village seems to have raised his status, possibly because people recognised him as someone who would go to great lengths for the common good.) For all that it was framed in Christian terms, it was not theologised in a Christian form – it was a thieves’ den staffed by the enemies of God, not otherwise made more complex with matters of sin, punishment, or even damnation. The nuances of orthodox theology were lost on Thiess, who claimed not to understand them.

It is less clear in what I know of this narrative what the Devil’s sorcerers got out of their end of the deal. Access to the food and resources stolen from the collective, perhaps, or magical powers inaccessible to ordinary folk – presaging, perhaps, the capitalist-imperial model in which certain forms of wealth and power render one immune to consequences. A guess might be that the sorcerers wished to be removed from the risks of community – when the collective status rose or fell, they did not wish to be bound to the same fate as others, and would make whatever deals it took to protect themselves and their families.

It is quite likely that they felt that those stored-up supplies were rightfully theirs – after all, they worked to bring the grain to harvest as well. Crop failure wasn’t fair, and wouldn’t anyone do what it takes to stave off starvation? “You wouldn’t want to see my children waste away, would you?” they might say. Security, certainty, the preservation of life itself, those were worth a deal with the Devil, who was, after all, only building a granary.

Perhaps the werewolves seemed to them the one on the Devil’s side. “I’ve done everything I can to protect my own, and here come these thieves in the night. They steal cattle and tear them apart to fund their burglary, they venture into the granary I helped build, they take the seed that I helped put there….” You can see it, right?

Here’s the interesting trick to it: regardless of whether or not I would place each of those people among the Devil’s partisans, all of them are opposed to this theological concept of Hell, this place into which the essentialities of life vanish and leave people bereft. For the most part, people have worked to close the gates of the Hell that they understand. Some may do it out of concern for whole communities, a more expansive care; others may do it to secure a better place for themselves, their families, because being able to provide for others gives them status and security, or whatever else. But the Devil’s party and those who steal back from them, whichever political faction one aligns with them, are agreed that their communities need food and there must be mechanisms to attain that end.

Hold that thought. (And I’m going to put a cut there, because this is going to get gigantic, I can already tell.)

So, with this underlying model of Hell, we see that, over time, people as a collective close the gates of Hell when they find them and feel able, more or less. There is a general trend to come up with technologies, understandings, and worldviews that make existence feel less threatened. And this has two effects, for an ontology of Hell.

One is that the techniques to close a Hellmouth are just as effective at opening one. Perhaps more so. And it doesn’t take much to get people to use them – to decide that their own personal power or wealth (or greater certainty of survival) is worth a price that other people will pay. There is enough food produced in the world, at the moment, but its distribution is affected by corporations, by individuals seeking power, by forces that are rather abstract and inaccessible on the scale of the individual human. And many of those forces are at best indifferent to humanity as a whole, and even less invested in the non-human web of being, and easily harnessed by someone operating as one of the Devil’s sorcerers, wanting to secure their own position at the cost of the common good. (And this gets worse for topics other than food – though gods know there are plenty of Purity Of Food arguments out there in various forms and I need to write more food theology – I mean, how many people have thought that the way to abolish the Hellmouths of War was to have weapons too scary to actually use? That’s the entire fucking Cold War in a genetically engineered nutshell.)

And it’s easier to be tempted to the Devil’s party than it used to be. As the networks go global, the consequences to the community are more likely to wind up Not In My Backyard. If several tons of food are destroyed here, well, it’s not the people here that might suffer, it would’ve been shipped thousands of miles away. The runoff from that leaky pipeline isn’t in my water, it’s in water over there, and maybe I need that oil, did you ever think of that? “You wouldn’t want to see my children waste away, would you?” And the massive structures that make it possible to produce the bounty create vast separations in place between the people commanding their operations and the people doing the work, as any study of the ratio of CEO pay to the average worker’s wages will reveal.

The other effect is that what counts as an existential threat gets a whole lot more abstracted. People who do not have immediate fear of starvation, plague, or warfare might well get more and more sensitive to anything that hints in those directions, trying to recalibrate the same level of anxiety about mortality to different conditions.

It’s easy, of course, when things can be treated as an easy analogy to the primal fears of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Consider the response to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s: here was plague and death, and it was concentrated in communities that were seen as undesirables (queer people and drug users). The response was twofold – to cast those suffering the plague as being condemned and damned (keeping in mind that that is a Christian theologisation of Hell, there, and not terribly compatible with the lupine one), and to encourage fear of contagion among other populations. To, in short, suggest that HIV was something that could steal the life essence from the community, and that – rather than working to close that Hellmouth with medical science and compassion – the appropriate action was quarantine, isolation, and panic, and being very clear that it must not be allowed to steal from us, and make sure that we never slipped into being like them, the ones from whom that theft was acceptable and correct. It was a Devil’s bargain, made by the Devil’s sorcerers, and they had the power to not only condemn so many to wasting, brutal, and isolated deaths, but to seed fear and steal more lives for Hell.

It was left to the people who would venture into Hell and care for those stolen lives – who were seen as tainted, risky, and treacherous afterwards – many of whom were already at least half-monstrous due to their own queerness – to steal back as much as they could.

Then there are times the analogies, the sense of existential threat, are framed a little bit differently, but we can still see the echoes of it. Consider the shape of the discussion as framed by certain parents of autistic children – how many of them speak of that language of Hell and theft. They say their child was taken from them, stolen away, they want to steal that person back – the person that they imagined existed, the phantom, the imaginary person – to put that person in place of the child they have. Meanwhile, actually autistic people have to fight to be heard, to get a place to speak, there are countless stories of having discussions of autism in the world dominated by people who are not autistic. (I’ve read several of them recently, but do I have the links saved? No, that would take forethought and realising they were going to be relevant to something the next week.) That narrative of theft and recovery, that sense of struggle against the Devil’s minions, whatever incomprehensible forces have stolen our children, it speaks to something primal, something compelling, those old werewolf stories… that is, if one forgets that those autistic people are still here and have their own perspective to offer.

And I have known autistic people who have taken comfort in changeling stories – in hearing of children who were “taken away”, replaced with someone strange, who knows unfamiliar words, who does not act like the other children do, quite. Who have said, “That is me. That is a story about me.”

But those stories also have changelings burned with hot pokers and abused and killed, in the hopes that the fairy folk would return the “real” lost child. And this is something that is still done to autistic children today.

Much like it is done to queer ones, to gender-variant ones, to all of these things that lead someone to conclude that someone has stolen a rightful child and taken them away to Hell. And because we cannot find the gates of Hell that hide that stolen property, we try other means to get it back.

Perhaps that’s how we can decide which side is the werewolf and which the sorcerer: which person thinks that other people are a property that can be stolen from them, or an item which can be dismissed.

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

– Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

When I look at some of the blocs that comprise what’s called the alt-right, I see a lot of people operating from a condition of existential threat. Sometimes that’s quite explicit – consider all the cries of “white genocide”, for example, from people who are afraid of being outnumbered, as if being outnumbered (and having a number of recessive genes) is an intrinsic pathway to annihilation. Sometimes it’s more veiled, though not all that veiled – the *Gator obsession with the idea that people wanting games they found interesting, or critiquing aspects of existing games, meant that they were going to destroy the brainless shoot-em-ups that they wanted. Or MRA obsession with women having sex with people other than them, or women they find unattractive having sex at all, or other such things. This threatens them at a core level, on an identity level, in a way that they cannot respond to with anything less than a Horsemen-are-riding scope of agitation.

And it’s broader still than that. Dominionist theologies are all about trying to enforce a particular flavor of Christianity on people who do not follow it, demanding compliance with a particular form of power. And when challenged, the cry is the same as it has always been: “You don’t want my children to waste away, do you?” A simple “I don’t subscribe to your religion” from someone who does not want to be bound by those principles is seen as a core attack, as a Devil’s play to destroy them. They have an invasiveness about them, a prurience, that holds that other people conducting their own lives must conform, because they truly believe that they have a right to the Devil’s granary of stolen lives and stolen power. Those people who want to steal back the right to go about their ordinary daily lives unmolested by the dictates of godbotherers are attacking what is rightly theirs, their holy right to call down damnation.

But “damnation” only means “we’ve decided to give your life to the Devil”. That’s all it means. All that so-called holiness and the accumulation of power is just the means to steal lives – black lives, queer lives, Native lives, disabled lives, women’s lives, so many other lives – and feed them into Hell, and profit off those storehouses. No amount of “It’s for your own good” and “this is your salvation” can repay a stolen life, no amount of saying “We are opposing Satan!” can make up for a single person thrown into Hell. You do not oppose the Devil by feeding souls into his engines.

As long as other people are an acceptable sacrifice, as long as there are people whose lives can be consigned to Hell, then there will be sorcerers. Who they think is expendable will vary – there will be not just the ones that we know as popular bigotries, but there will be those who want to condemn people of other political parties, or people who have been victims of particular crimes. There will be people who want to consign people who write the wrong kind of story or play the wrong kind of game to expendability, and make bank on their marginalisation. There will be people who find other people’s marginal status, their relegation to the brink of reality, to be very handy, since someone whose life depends on finding a job might well be someone who will do anything. Be any thing, and for a pittance besides.

People. Are. Not. Things.

Not pawns in a cosmic game, not win tokens, not items to bend to the will of power or destroy if they displease. They do not exist to be stacked like cordwood in the bellies of slave ships or the depths of warehouses or set to slave in governor’s mansions or shackled to jobs that cannot even pay them what it costs to live because others can afford to expropriate their life, steal their breath, and store them away in Hell.

(And if you want a Kemetic version of this rather than a lupine one, try my post from last year, in response to the Pulse shooting: Put It All On Trial. Look, I say the same thing, over and over again, in different metaphors.)

But this is what Hell is, now: those Hellmouths of simpler times, when humanity’s worries were tangible, concrete, and we could imagine walking into Hell and carrying out seeds and thereby saving the world are not gone, but they are, in at least some ways, buried under other, more intricate ones.

The Horsemen are still riding. You can hear their hoofbeats, and they sound something like this:

It’s not that we want you to starve, but surely you don’t think you’re entitled to food? Starvation is bad. Just do the work. It doesn’t matter that the work doesn’t need you to do it, and you are replaceable, interchangeable, meaningless to the system: the system needs bodies and time, and your life is your problem. Send it to Hell for all we care.

(Seen elsewhere: “How badly did we fuck up the world that ‘Robots can now do much of the necessary work’ is seen as a crisis?”)

It’s not that we want you to go to war, fight, be maimed, die, we support the troops. But you know those people Over There hate us and our freedoms, and we need to put the hurt on them so they know who’s right. They can go straight to Hell, am I right? What do you mean, joining the Army was your only hope of getting an education and a better life? Isn’t that a bit of a Devil’s bargain?

It’s not that we want you to get sick and suffer, but really, if you were responsible, this wouldn’t have happened. Are you sure you’re not too fat? Are you poor on purpose? Why didn’t you go to the dentist before this happened? Someone probably should’ve looked at that injury at the time but now it’s way too late to do anything about it, sorry. What is that, we couldn’t possibly give treatment to that, is it even a person?

It’s not that we want you to die, but people like you shouldn’t exist. They’re trouble, you know, the cop was probably afraid for his life. You know what they say about the wages of sin being death. She defied God’s will. It’s a mercy, you know, someone shouldn’t be forced to live like that. It’s the lügenpresse’s fault. Couldn’t she have been nicer when she turned him down? Someone should do something about people like you.

How many ways does this rhetoric send people to the granaries of Hell each day? Hell is no longer content to glean our seeds, it demands our selves as its tithe. Sixteen tons, and what do we get?

The Devil’s sorcerers may not outnumber the rest of us, but many of them are powerful and their bargains have bought them powers that the rest of us do not have: affluenza, say, or the position to be so far removed from damage one causes that nobody can imagine bringing it to trial (though hey, someone’s been charged with involuntary manslaughter regarding Flint’s water, that’s a news story recently, how novel that someone who had some responsibility for poisoning an entire town might actually get charged with something), the ability to literally get away with murder, at least so long as the victim is one of the ones already damned.

People are not things. People are not optional. A rhetoric that says, “Well, sure, you exist now, but in an ideal world that wouldn’t be the case” is a rhetoric of annihilation, and a tool of the Devil’s sorcerers.

But the Devil’s sorcerers, too, are human, and forgetting that is a path towards becoming one of them, and storing up and expending lives into Hell.

The Harrowing of Hell shall not be complete until, as Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has said, the last sinner is dragged kicking and screaming into heaven. The Hounds of God must steal them all back.

Hey look, this turned out to be Universalist theology too. Go me. I’ll add it to the categories tickies and maybe someday someone reading my UU backposts will be amusingly confused.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been following developments on two news stories.

The fire in a low-income apartment building – Grenfell Tower – is one of them. Here we have lives stolen by landlords who were unwilling to use a recent renovation to put in anything like building sprinklers (and who may have damaged some of the safety precautions intended to slow the spread of fire in a building), most obviously, but there are layers beyond that – that austerity measures reduced the funding for fire brigades notably, that an attempt to introduce legislation requiring such housing to be “fit for human habitation” was defeated by a Tory vote (and that many Tory politicians are landlords). And, further, that part of the reason so many were saved was the Muslim inhabitants, awake because of Ramadan, noticed the fire and started getting people out; the diversity of the population there was preservative.

The other is the shooting in Virginia, in which a man armed with a rifle shot at the House Majority Whip, aides, and others, injuring several. (And, because he is a white man, he was initially taken into custody alive.) And I cannot say that after all these years of “Second Amendment solutions” I am surprised by the terrorism there, even as I recognise that it is terrorism, is anti-democratic, is as hostile to the underlying nature of governance as the administration this man might well have thought he was fighting. It is actively difficult to deal with people who one believes are Hell’s partisans without losing an understanding of their humanity. People have wrestled with this one for ages. But one must be so very careful with unleashing Hell’s tools, those Horsemen – of bringing out Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death and setting them riding – because they leave the gates of Hell open, and they go where they will once unleashed.

It is by acting as a community that we save each other, and ourselves. Including from violence. Deliverance is in the hands of the shapeshifting other who we welcome home. Have each other’s backs. Know what it costs to venture into Hell, even if you cannot do it today, and know that building a home to come back to is why the werewolves can change their skins.

5 comments to The Evolutions Of Hell

  • Crowess

    Nice one, and Hounds of God, as well. There’s something to think about the Dead in the Underworld (that includes Hell)–and what’s feeding what, which you’re getting at in these, obviously.

    • wyfwolf

      Thiess insisted that the werewolves were the Hounds of God!

      I am doing a whole lot of poking at this thing. Projects are projecty.

      • Crowess

        Projects are always projecty!

        Hell, and the Underworld more generally, seem to have developed rather elaborate bureaucracies, and these seem well reflected in the navigation of spirit hierarchies in several traditions/systems. There’s the operative strand that points to how Hell and devils and demons and even the Devil himself all fulfill offices and roles divinely ordained. (That is, the Devil is responsible for running this world as himself a Creation, if not the first created being.) The fact that we have as much magic for influencing court cases, officials, and so forth in this world and others probably links in with that at a deep structural level.

        That said, there’s probably something to coming at the Hellish organizational problem in a more cluster-driven or rhizomatic fashion, that the Underworld and Hell(s) are run on far more “tribal” kingship models with local and regional considerations. (You do point at this in how we off-load person-costs onto other places, and other people.) At the same time, the Dead inhabit such a system and such a cosmology, and probably also on a “tribal,” local, regional basis, despite how tempting it is for folks to off-load their Dead into abstractions. But it’s attested that the Dead–how many of the Dead become “devils” or even devils for all intents and purposes? Do the old kings and elite–the ancestral 1%–glut themselves on what the living keep dumping into Hell? And when you have Dead folks who no longer have to operate under mortal civic control, how long until some of them decide to become diabolic elites themselves? (I dunno!) If nothing else, intergenerational wealth and how the West relocated ancestral veneration away from the populace and into the mostly exclusive domain of the 1% is interesting (who gets buildings and organizations and statues built or named after them?).

        I also wonder about the closing of hellmouths in the transactional models of spirit congress that’re on record, or do we merely stuff them over-full of what we cast out? Or have we as cultures made pacts contingent on sending far more than the expected 1/10th teind?

        Anyway, I recently was told (on the topic of politics, consumption, and wars in heaven) that as our population has grown, we have grown better at promulgating and propagating inequality. And the fact that “we” (lots of “we” in this comment) do so often through the control of food (what we eat as well as how much we can eat) points to not only the embodied manner of food and our agency but also what food opens to us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.