We are forced carry our very own hells with us, and to know their maps but even the routes of access to them. If the location of Hell has been mapped and re-mapped as a personal experience since the Renaissance, defining fixed locations of Hell projects something of a state of mind to the world’s physical geography. If, to quote Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/ In one self place; but where we are is hell,/ And where hell is, there must we ever be,” the places Hell resides is almost a practice of mapping that reflects a culture’s cartographical imagination, hell has proliferated in the age of genocide on an unknown scale, as the atrocities of Armenia, Cambodia, Argentina, Bosnia, Iraq and Rwanda have created new landscapes from hell that have proliferated in the world as real places of a level of trauma that transcends any normalcy, including the normalcy of a map.
If we carry around our personal hells with us, the worldly entrances to hell came back with a vengeance in the Second World War and long before. For the problems of these atrocities challenges on an ethical and moral scale the commensurability of our conventions of mapping, and with it any commensurability itself. Perhaps the muted colors and odd grey zones by which earlier concentration camps in the Nazi era suggest that they are zones “off of the map,” indeterminate spaces ringed by green fields, all but exempts them from conventions of mapping, their primitive barracks, gates, transports, mess halls, work fields, ditches and crematoria all outside of “normal” space, and unmapped, left to strain credibility–even if they were viewed from space by reconaissance flights, these spaces and their modern proliferation cannot be adequately morally mapped in ways we know the world.
This sense of places out of the normal, hardly part of humanity, has perhaps led to the proliferation of maps of hell online. The problem of proliferating hells is a one good way to describe modernity. From Samantha Powers’ attempt to map “problems from Hell” as eventualities the United States government will be condemned to face to the problems of mapping atrocities that recurred in the terrifying landscapes of Hades, Argentina, worldly hells have proliferated in the world from Nazi concentration camps to sites of disappearing that ask us to map the presence of hell in the world, in a grim geography of devasttion that challenged pallettes and iconography to describe adequately.
aBefore these maps of spaces of dehumanization and devastation, we are really looking into hellish worlds we had not been able to see before. But even these dots cannot capture the scale of the hellscapes that emerged for the accelerated loss of life within the industrialization of death that proceeded from Heinrich Himmler’s order of 19 July 1942 stated that unleashed mass-killings from bullets, fire, and gas extermination to fullifll the demand that by the end of December 1942, all Jews, gypsied in Greater Germany be killed, leading to an unprecedented intensity of rates of mass-killings almost impossible to map on paper or by a graph, challenging as the spatial dynamics of the three-month long burst of killings is poorly documented–intentionally–and indicate a terrifying challenge to the world of the data vis that challenges the imagination to even attempt to “map” in the over 40,000 camps of imprisonment and mass-killing that were built between 1933 and 1945, dedicated to imprisonment, forced labor, or mass killing sites dedicated to exterminating Jews, Sinti, Roma, Communists, and so-called “enemies of the state.”
There is a sense of the utter inadequacy of an aerial view–or indeed even Google maps–to map the horrors of sites commensurate to their moral and ethical existence, as if they lay resolutely and stubbornly outside the known world and could not be assimilated to the categories by which we map it.
Aerial Reconnoissance Flight over Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 4, 1944
It’s perhaps not a surprise that every culture seems to have its own notion of Hell but of where the location of hell and its entrance is. If one can pinpoint and map it in an image of the known world, perhaps one can escape its presence in one’s own mind. The poet Czeslaw Miłosz wondered, in a very late poem of 2003, “Have we really lost our faith in that other space?/ Have they vanished forever, Heaven and Hell?/ . . . And where will the damned find suitable quarters?” and bemoaned almost tearfully the unimaginable proportions of the “enormity of the loss,” but there is considerable existential comfort in being able to map Hell with security, and indeed to map the intersection between hell and the world that seems normal, as if the presence of Hell demands of expressibility that elicit stubborn difficulties in placing recurring reappearances of Hell on the relative poverty of conventions we use in a global map of human settlement. The problem of mapping hell was perhaps long a part of humanity, as much as the evils of genocide stupefy in their excess, and raise questions of how to map not only people and places but souls in the world. Mapping hell is, indeed, something of a poetic feat.
Mapping was long about finding a place for the soul in the world, however, as much as ordering spaces or offering way-finding. You know the lay of the land, and the parts you want to avoid. As if consciously and quite intentionally one-upping Christopher Marlowe, on seeing the efflux of modern industry afflicting London, Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined “Hell is a city much like London— A populous and a smoky city,” to comment on the transformation of England; his belief that “It is not necessary to consider Hell and the Devil as supernatural machinery” is uncannily similar to the many maps that pinpoint Hell’s multiple worldly entrances for those eager to read them. It has long been far more satisfying if one can try to pinpoint the entrance points in informed fashion, using some sort of knowledge or evidence to buttress the choice. The location of “Hell” or the underworld was, of course, pre-Christian, even if it is now colored by Christian sources; Hell is a pre-Christian mental geography that was mediated by Christianity and its own specific notions of suffering and remorse, but also is a place that we all know exists, and are eager to find–although not to go there ourselves. Is it any surprise that the dominance of point-based mapping, with its comprehensive tally of location, raises the fundamental moral question of mapping a common relation to hell?
Perhaps it is a coincidence that the proliferation of hells began with the dominance of new national maps, and new military maps, crafted to enable us to think outside of a national frontiers, created a point-based mapping system like the Universal Transversal Mercator, that raised moral questions of where hell was, and that hell exists in the lives of most modern refugees, who live not only outside the edges of borders, but, as the unhoused, outside of geolocation systems.
But perhaps our current maps, dominated by geodata, force the question of the lack of location of a hell, at the same time as we are seeing a proliferation of global hells, all absent from the point-based maps that we treat as surrogates for reality. According scripture, Hell is located deep down in the earth, without either geographic specificity and far more figuratively evocative than precise. Hell is reality and state of mind for the Gospels and Apocalypse; it is not a precise location: it is a place where in “outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30), whose inhabitants are “in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24), surrounded by “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The topography of the new camps made little sense in rational mapping systems, but as a vampiric relation to the enslavement of people, before the scale of atrocities could be imagined.
The image of perpetual burning, self-consumed bodies has been embellished with extensive pictorial detail as a place of eternal punishment, and a site of the destruction of both body and soul and of unending separation from both; it was based on the Old Testament idea of “Sheol” as an abode of the dead (Psalm 49:13-14)–or of those with no abode or place to be, but this place with no life was always seen as closely connected to our own. Hell was deeply spiritual for Dante and in his age–the appeal that we had an informant who had in fact been their to survey its complex topography and descending rings of punishments bore the satisfying sense that we knew where we are in the moral compass of life. The appeal of Dante’s map of hell is evident in the considerable care and detail which Sandro Botticelli and others used to delineate the space through which where Virgil led Dante and navigated among the inhabitants of hell’s circles–an image popular in the late fifteenth century–that could be examined with some recognition and even more amazement as a site of the afterlife.
When Dante’s Florentine editor Girolamo Benivieni’s prepared a printed edition including engraved maps, the portal to Hell was strikingly placed in explicitly modern geographic terms within the terraqueous sublunary world:
The deep comfort of this clearly mapped ontology of the afterlife is to some extent preserved today. Online, we can also navigate this image, thanks to digitization of manuscript images, on one’s very own, and explore the mind-blowing map that Sandro Botticelli drew as if confronting the page from inches away in all its gloriously imagined Dantesque details. The mapping of Hell has taken off in ways that oddly reflects a pretty secular age; sites of anguish and suffering are, it turns out, still pretty compelling to map in a geographical lens.
Compelling woodcut maps described the topography of the realm of the Dantesque afterlife with exquisite geographic care:
Hell was long an individualized affair, and rightly so, the culmination to a balance of sins physical and of mind. But the mapping of a public geography of hell–entrances to the underworld, now navigated not only but Virgil and Vulcan, or even Percy Jackson, but able to be pinpointed on a map. There seems to be somewhat of a flourishing of the addition of “Hell”-sites on the web today, in fact, something of a response to the absence of this all-too-concrete state of mind from the reaches of Google Earth–not that some folks haven’t tried. Perhaps the absence of hell’s location on Google Maps–or how Hell frustrates that portal promising ubiquitous coverage to any user–may have helped generate something like a proliferation of on-line pseudo-erudition about Hell’s possible locations, and the curiosity that it could be in fact right around the corner in some pretty familiar sites that we can arrive at by our devices.
The appeal of mapping hell–and at looking at the sites where others map hell–is a branch of the Googlish compulsion to provide a total mapping of humanity, as much as a religious ontology, and is reflected in the proliferation of models of Hell that circulate online and provide some sort of satisfaction that we known where we are.
Witness, for one, the popularity of the recent ‘discovery’ by Italian archeologists headed by Francesco d’Andria of the location of one “Gate to Hell” in the Phrygian city of Hieropolis, a place where few would have much interest. D’Andria fond “Pluto’s Gate” marked the entrance to a cave whose abundant mephitic vapors and carbon dioxide fumes make it impossible to sustain life–which found some confirmation in the detailed description left by the geographer Strabo of the place as “full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground” where “any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” adding “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”
Italians acknowledge this specificity of one entrance to Hell since they are familiar–through the poems of Dante and Virgil–with the location of Hell in the field of active volcanic craters bubbling with outside Naples in the Phlegraean Fields, which Dante located it in the extinct volcanic crater of Lake Avernus, or the Lago d’Averno, where Aeneas met Charon to be ferried across the underworld, and Romans at the nearby bubbling at Solfatara, a dormant crater emitting sulfuric fumes, which ancient Romans considered entrance to the Underworld. The region of the Phlegraean Fields, site of the Gods’ war against the Titans, some 25 km west of Vesuvius, a region of some 24 volcanic craters that was first settled by Greeks in 730 BC, who called it the “burning fields” and may have associated the seeping grey and white smoke billowing up from its rocky terrain with Vulcan’s land.
But if the site of the former prison in Robben Island in South Africa has its own entrance to Hell–a likely place for one–www.entrancestohell.com lists many more–more matrixes of caves from the Cave of the Chorreadero in Chiapas to the Sibun Caves of Belize, entrance to Xibalba according to the sacred Mayan Popul Vuh, were believed entrances to the underworld, or the bubbling Lake Begoria in Kenya, where sulphurous fumes similarly seep from a volcanic crater in central Kenya’s rift valley, as flamingos fly overhead. Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi in Kenya, land of the Massai, was named by explorers Fisher and Thompson “Hell’s Gate” in 1883, probably due to the heat of its rocks and release of geothermal steam near the Suswa volcanoes; the region’s hot springs and geysers not provide the first center for generating geothermal energy as well as a popular tourist destination. My favorite portal to hell is in Feng Du, in the Chongqing municipality–an actual ghost city, built in a way modeled after the Buddhist notion of Diyu, as a sort of theme-park, built over 1800 years ago, modeled after Naraka and including a bridge to the underworld as well as dioramas, buildings, and statues, whose ghost city is soon to be in large part submerged by the Three Gorges Dam–the “Door of Hell” will remain.
In the United Kingdom, folks have been accumulating actual entrances to Hell since 2002, racking up some 120, all of great names (Tooky; Famras; Bammy; Banu; Quetty Orarna; Benidormo; Vowo mi; Wheatle; Oilyn; Slipknot; Crizzle; Underlow; Trensilon; Abracadansler; or Braaashteeefunorvallishhtuuu) in a format that is easily viewable. The progressive discovery of new entrances reflects a realization about this site–a “constantly updated catalogue to Hell in and around the UK,” a sort of epilogue to Thatcherism; “Wheatle is gentle, luxurious and oozing with street-cred. This is the entrance from which Satan dispatches millions of useless inanimate objects to the gift shops and furniture stores of the UK. Wheatle is closed all day Thursday and is acoustically connected to Mkpg.” Some of these places are perhaps better to visit than others, all connected to an invisible topography of Hell that the site does well to trace based on crowd-sourced observations with compellingly diverting detail: “Vowo mi is the delivery point for the devil’s honey supply. The beehives of England have for centuries organized thrice-monthly deposits of best honey here in return for being allowed to live without satanic interference. The connection to the core is a simple plastic tube, 12cm in diameter. Scientists working for the government of Harold Wilson released a tiny survey vehicle into Vowo mi in 1961 almost immediately losing radio contact with the probe’s passenger the spider-monkey Kiki. Kiki is now the devil’s osteopath and can speak fluent Karatakak. Vowo mi has a good vibe and a pleasing aspect.” (Each has, conveniently, its own streetmap, if one is patient enough to follow the fictional geographies to the rather drab street-maps themselves.)
This sort of collective authorship of locations of potential entrances seem pretty ingenious, if somewhat reflecting J.K. Rowling’s whimsy in its identification of several sites: “Asananc connects, via a big brass pipe, to an enormous frozen lake, fifty seven miles directly below. The explorer Lady Louise Kenilbaker was last seen alive here in 1924 as she entered Asananc, against all advice, on a personal quest to make contact with deep level ice-children. Asananc is not recorded on any OS map, but there are pencil sketches by Rushmount in the British Museum.”
We can now obtain adequate warning signs to post with adequate visibility:
It’s not a surprise that in the past century, “the number of persons being chosen by God to witness the reality of Hell,” according to one website that compiles accounts of visitors to Hell’s “Reality, “is greater then all prior centuries combined.” This site argues that it seems that “as our world moves further away from belief in sin and punishment for sin, God increases His Divine Mercy by granting us more and more confirmations of that reality.” The horrors of the twentieth century has led, even for more secular surfers of the internet, to a greater interest in noting that Hell has some plausible location after all.
For Blanchot, Hell was more of a state of mind, which one entered easily without moving anywhere as one struggled with the act of writing itself and was surrounded by the shadows that it summoned.
Is there an interest in relocating Hell with the illusion of precision of Google Maps? It at any rate seems that the location of Hell is being more vividly redefined online than it had in previous years, as the topic of Hell’s location has expanded to the History Channel and also to Huffington Post, even more vividly than previous years. The recent hell-sightings on the internet are even more concrete. Atlas Obscura notes the existence of a recently created “Gates of Hell,” located near the small village in Turkmenistan of Derweze, a gap of 328 feet in width which has been on fire that stands in the Karakum desert, casting an unearthly red illumination for some forty years–since a Soviet drilling rig collapsed into a cavern of natural gas in 1971, creating an unknown entrance to hell that attracts visitors on the Silk Road. An unnatural natural glow that can be seen for miles around in a crater that gapes sixty meters wide and is some twenty deep–a sort of surrogate foot of Mt. Doom that Peter Jackson unfortunately missed when scouting film sights, but which has made its rounds on the internet. (This was especially unfortunate for folks who felt the films went over budget; I’m sure the first elected president of Turkmenistan, who has made the extinction of the fire burning since 1971 a priority for his first term–but despite the mandate first voiced in 2010, it is still generating its golden glow in Derweze.)
The entire region sits on seeping natural gases, and many of the 350 or so local nomadic residents like to thrown their cigarettes on the ground to generate bursts of flame like small party-favors. This photograph, which has made the rounds online with success, emanates otherworldly light that seems to migrate heavenward, inverting the origin of light from the sun, with an effect that is reverential or almost spiritual in tone.
But once we do locate hell on Google Earth, how can we plot its relation to ourselves? or is locating the site only a moment of temporary relief from our daily grind?