The_Triumph_of_Death__Bruegel_4

Court Transcript…

Some theologians say that hell is simply the absence of God; others claim that hell is an eternal place reserved for the punishment of the damned. Where is hell? An abyss inside the earth? A dimension set apart by Christ? I know that hell is a definite place; but where it is for you I cannot tell. Perhaps hell is everywhere, and the damned are not confined to a specific realm, but at liberty to roam the earth just as they please, their bodies inseparably fettered to their own portion of hell-fire. Saint Augustine said: “It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost reveals it by special revelation…” (i) The punishment of sin is a natural counterpart to the reward of virtue. Shall I be damned for killing a rapine priest? I might return in the body of an ox; or even as Future Jack. Better that I was annihilated. I fear that God can never satisfy his desire for vengeance, for He says of the damned: “Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched.” (ii) But if I am damned eternally, how can it be that at this very moment, in another sphere, I am a beautiful lady sipping wine on a Venetian veranda? Alas, when it comes to salvation, the power of human reason is woefully deficient, for the workings of God are wrapt in mystery.

 

Jacques is telling it…

The sabbat is just a distant glow, flaring through the trees. I come to a druid mound where I meet a gnome with a dirty face. He wears a leather cap and holds a sulphurous lamp. His voice rumbles like grinding millstones:

‘Follow me Jacqueline…’

I must be dreaming.

He leads me into a dank cave that heaves with leathery wings. The ground festers with dung and crawling life. He scurries ahead muttering, as we follow a vein of copper down a twisting shaft. Where have I come, on such magic flight, where the darkness calls my name?

Stretching out before me is a vast quagmire that bubbles a noxious stench. The lamp reveals a slithering mass that teems about my feet: a mire of eels with subtle shining bodies; some are silver threads that flit like lightning; others are slow, fat and mottled, with gaping jaws of pin sharp teeth. A ghostly hydra breeches the surface, its glassy guts swarming with the dead.

Something snatches my foot and a giant tentacle writhes about my waist. I fall under its dread weight and sink into the slough: a bog of bodies, bloated, black and blain. Then I become aware of others in the same plight, drowning in a morass of mortal remains. The souls of reprobate women, tormented by eternal union with vile male bodies. The squelching bog devours me whole, until I lie crammed, chilled and smothered in writhing things.

I pray for salvation, hoping to awake in bed. But this is no dream, for I experience a profound sense of reality, of something beyond the physical. Nothing in dreams could approach this spiritual essence. Indeed, this infernal realm seems more real than earthly life. The hell of Mother Church is a seething lake of fire. But mine is a bottomless bog of reanimate dead…

I resurface, gagging at the fug. Everything is lost in swirls of green mist. ’Tis hard to see, but amongst the heaving shapes, I discern the dead priest crawling toward me, his fierce eyes burning in hollows of madness. He clambers amid the corpses, the candlestick still embedded in his bloody crown. Then he rasps with sepulchral voice:

‘God damn you.’

He draws ever closer, groping the bodies that bob and roll in turgid swells. In vain I try to swim but the mire tugs at my legs, sucking me down. I wail for the gnome but he’s vanished into thin air. Then I realise that the tunnel which we entered by has simply ceased to exist. The priest closes in, snarling and cursing, until his pulpy flesh is pressed on mine. I grapple with his moulding bones as he claws at my face, forcing his fingers between my lips. His jaw teems with maggots as he makes a hideous cackle:

‘No teeth, no toothache!’

The ghoul squats on my chest and smothers me in gore, tearing entrails from his groin and stuffing my mouth:

‘Eat up little goose!’

And so I wrestle with my sin, choking on his foetid bowels. But I am just one of thousands in this putrid pit, where each is doomed to suffer a hell of their own making. I grieve for the Light and its great mystery, and my soul cries out to the heights:

‘Oh great master, save me!’

In that instant the entire bog vanishes, priest and all. All is quiet and still. I stumble forward, blind, helpless, desperate, mist swirling round my feet. I plead forgiveness, hoping that God will grant me some reprieve. But to my horror, the swamp re-appears like an ink blot in mine eye. The earth oozes blood and heaves with loathsome things. Then I spy the priest where I first saw him, on the margins of the mire. And so the relentless terror begins anew, as he comes crawling toward me all over again. Is this the third assault or the tenth? How oft’ this horror plays out I cannot tell. But each time the priest vanishes, I keep vigil, watching the dim horizon for his grisly silhouette. I wonder why God has damned me for killing a raping devil. I murdered him with good intent. I kept the milkmaid’s honour. I preserved her chastity. I saved her life. As if this eternal punishment would serve to reform my morals! How she haunts me in this cesspit of death! My necrotic state is beyond anything I deserve. Yet the pain of her loss causes even greater anguish. Oh the desolation of my soul!

‘Master, save me!’

I die for the umpteenth time. I pray for some temporary remission, an interval of supernatural grace. But the bog breaks through the mist, and once again the priest comes lurching toward me, wading through the mire. Once more I struggle in vain, until he straddles my neck and gibbers:

‘Eat up little goose!’

He claws at his groin and crams my mouth with offals. I sink beneath the mire, drowning in a bloody rheum that congeals in my throat and lungs.

‘Oh great master, save me!’

But each time I die, I awake to find the priest crawling toward me all over again. This maddening cycle never ends. And I long for annihilation – the end of all perception. But my wits remain sharp and the terror just as keen. Indeed, with each new occurrence, the darkness enlarges my faculties, so that my perception of hell increases. Yet despite these relentless tortures and my repeated pleas for mercy, my heart is hard as stone. For it seems that God is indifferent to the crimes of Mother Church, whilst I am damned for killing a corrupt priest. How many times I choke on his innards I cannot tell. Ten-thousand times ten-thousand. I perceive my sufferings as completely unjust. How can a loving God conceive a punishment of such perverse and indescribable intensity? It seems there is no proportion between one rash sin and an eternal torture in Hell. Why must I endure the hideous presence of the damned for saving an innocent maid? This inequity only incurs an intense hatred of God. Indeed, my desire to kill the priest burns even brighter, so that I am locked in an endless bloody struggle. My predicament is altogether hopeless; I feel completely abandoned by divine providence. It stings like a scorpion in the heart: the knowledge that God, on whom my entire existence depends, is now the enemy of my soul. What moves me in the end is an utter sense of despair – and the absolute conviction of my eternal damnation. Finally, I bawl to God:

‘Your filthy priest deserved to die!’

At once I fall into a black void. I fully expect the priest to re-appear. But the cycle has ended. The writhing things have gone. I seem to float in a profound and utter silence. I assume events have turned in my favour and await some change of state. But there is nothing. Nothing but infinite blackness. So I wait… and wait… and wait… Some say that even the damned shall attain beatitude in the end. Must I await the end of days? ’Tis hard to describe this timeless hole. Even in a gaol there are walls to touch and floor to sit on – an external frame of reference. But I dwell in total emptiness, suspended in nothing, bereft of touch, sight and sound. And whatever heavenly body I possessed in the meadow has been obliterated. This is my pœna damni – my pain of loss: the disintegration of that beatific vision; and a complete separation of my soul from God. I find no peace nor rest. The void is all consuming. I crave for movement – for some shape or sound, however small. Even a distant spark would be a cherished friend. But there is only negation. Not even a body to feel. My mind unwinds like a distaff. Thoughts seem to evaporate before they can form. Yet I am somehow aware of this erosion, this loss of mental faculty. Logical construct becomes almost impossible. All correspondence with the sensual world is lost; and my heart longs for contact with another order of reality. This absurd void of soul causes immeasurable anguish; and it makes me crave the infinite truth and goodness of God. What art Thou; and what am I?(iii) I yearn for the orb and my previous state of grace. My entire being becomes focused on communion with Her ultimate Reality.

Memories begin to flash: visions of a life once lived. And with them come feelings. A hovel built against a blasted oak. A crone with healing hands. Love. A bubbling cauldron… That means something. Aeons pass. Then I spy a faint light, many leagues away. Oh blessed light, come closer! My faculties gradually return. I sense movement as the light begins to spin. Does the light orbit me, or do I orbit the light? Perhaps we orbit each other… Wait… ’Tis not a light but an eye! The Cyclops, my beloved diamon! I can’t recall his name, but I sense his infinite love, rippling through the cosmos.

‘Blessed Cyclops! Save me!’

His presence rushes into the void like a fine wind, seeding empty space with atoms of intention. Something pushes from below and I feel myself rise, as if from a bottomless sea. Up, up, I go, ascending at great speed. And all around are leviathans of the deep, flexing their mighty fins, mewing songs, thrusting me upward in a gyre of silver bubbles. I whirl in a vortex, rising like a cork, my whole body aching for breath. At once the bubbles turn to stars as I breach the surface, gasping for air.

I find myself on a rocky promontory, wheezing like a washed-up sailor. Surely, I’ve been sleep walking. For beside me stands an ancient thorn. I recognise the place at once: this is precipice where I spied Margot and the monk. Then Krew purls across the illimitable depths:

‘Behold the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve…’

Thunder booms and an abyssal chasm yawns wide. In the harrowing dark I glimpse fiery cloisters where cowled swine roast vassals on red hot coals. A labyrinth of vaulted alleys extend downward in all directions. A din of quarrels fills my ears like many barking dogs. I see a ruined city where devils rampage through filthy streets, committing murder, robbery and rape. There are rows of gloomy brothels, howling with desolation, where clouds of flies swarm on beds of fornication.

Beyond the city walls are tillers of the soil: a destitute mob, assailed by cold and hunger, trudging the frosty furrows. They orbit a vast arena, goaded by demon monks who flog the wretched churls with cruellest relish. The earth opens in terraces of turf and stone, and the procession winds down like beads in a gaping funnel. Yet rising from the depths is a titanic pillar of stone, girded by spiral stairs. This is the navel of the world, the omphalos of Mother Church. And so the crowd descends, step by step, Psalter by Psalter, into the very bowels of Hell.

Down, down, they go, like a great whirlpool of humanity, sucked into the realm of the damned. They wail for salvation, despairing of Christ’s mercy, but He never comes down from His rood. So let it be, in the name of God, that they live in bondage and die in yolk.

Demons strip the men and women, then throw them in burning pits where black devils torture them with unutterable pains. They hang them by the feet and dunk them in boiling fat; they lift them by the thumbs, or by the head, and put braziers under their feet. They tie knotted cords about their crowns and tighten the ropes until their skulls crack and the knots are forced deep into their brains. They lock them in chests with snakes, toads and scorpions. Some men they tie between wooden boards, and press them together with sharp flints, so that their limbs sever and their bones break. Others are put in iron collars, so heavy they can barely stand; a sharp spike of iron pierces the throat, so they cannot sit, lie or sleep, but must bear the weight of all that iron. Some are tethered in the most fiendish of ways; the big toe of each foot is tied with bowstrings to the canines; then their backs are pricked with goads until they tear out their own teeth. Yet others have their shins worn away with rough pieces of wood until the bare bones appear. Many thousands waste away from hunger and disease. I cannot tell of all the grievous tortures that these devils inflict. Yet I know every broken face and suffer every pain. I bawl in grief:

‘Why have you returned me to hell?’

The thunder purls:

‘This is not hell. ’Tis the earthly realm of every castle dungeon in France…’

I must be dead.

An owl with a giant spoon stirs the hazy depths. Through wisps of smoke I see all manner of bizarre creatures, half animal, half human and half machine. Upside-down demons with genital faces lurk amongst the rocks. A nun glides towards me, riding a cock on two wheels; I spy a walled garden of strange fruit where depraved bishops bare buttocks to beggars. There are gnarled trees full of dark hollows, where withered crones with pendulous tits hang like roosting bats. And seated on a crystal throne, in the very midst of all, I see the Pope playing dice with a hare. The thunder purls again:

‘Behold the Pope of Fools, God’s representative on earth, whose power penetrates heaven and hell! The pope, who unlocks the bonds of purgatory and treads Satan underfoot! The pope, who dwells in mansions of the blessed! The pope, who holds all men in thrall, yet gambles with a pagan hare!’

An infernal organ blasts from caverns deep and my bones tremble with the sound. There comes a crescendo of booming pipes; a chorus of Heavenly hosts; and all about the earth is weeping and wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. Again the thunder purls:

‘Behold the pale horse: and he that sits upon him, whose name is Death, for hell follows with him. And power is given to him over the four parts of the earth, to kill with sword, with famine and with death and with the beasts of the earth…’ (iv)

I see a cliff-tomb surrounded by vines that drip with blood. The stone rolls back and the portal sighs an icy wind. Then Death rides out in billowing black clouds. His thundering hooves rip the plains into a maze of blazing fissures. Dead legions swarm from every crack; leprous hordes, ravaged to the bone; shrieking spirits that no man can bind, not even with chains.(v) They assemble in ranks with shields and spears, then storm across the land, reaping city after city with their bloody scythes.

Death’s banner unfurls in the setting sun. The horizon flares in sulphurous palls that belch from burning domes and spires. Skeleton soldiers march from the towns, spilling their carnage into rivers of blood. They torch hovels, churches, mills and barns. Flaming women jump from the windows whilst children and animals scream from inside… How the people beg and pray! But the onslaught is merciless. Wet naked bodies, huddled in ditches, fall under slashing blades of steel. The grinning legions march ever onward, over the hills, spreading plague, hunger and ruin. Mule trains follow in their wake, towing corpses to quarried graves, where flocks of crows feast on rotten flesh.

Death blows his clarion horn – an eerie blast that freezes me to the marrow. There comes a terrible rumbling as Titans stir in mountain halls. Then the very air seems to rip apart as seething stars fall from the sky. My legs buckle and the ground hits me in the face. The earth quakes, rattling my teeth. Trees start walking down the hills and I’m half buried in falling rocks. I choke, lost in acrid smoke that vents from lakes of bubbling pitch. The whole Creation reels in the firmament. I hug the aged thorn but the trunk ignites and the gorge tumbles into tracts of molten fire. I plummet like Lucifer and burn to a cinder, wailing His holy name.

A sharp pain stabs my chest.

I fall back in my body with a thud.

Then I awake, sprawled beside the cauldron. I groan at my aching head as the hovel comes slowly into focus. Margot looms above, prodding my ribs with her staff:

‘What are you doing down there boy?’

‘I fell asleep.’

‘Did you drink my magic potion?’

‘Yes moma.’

‘What did you see?’

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights.’

She nods and asks no more.

I get up, staggering like a drunkard. The spell has left me clammy and my heart is racing. Margot takes my hand and leads me back to bed. I crawl under the blanket and assume my usual position, curled on my left, facing the wattle. Firelight flickers on the walls. I check my childhood friends: a hare and a fox, carved in the daub. I’m safe. But I dare not close my eyes. For I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I have been given irrefutable proof of hell. Margot fondles my hair:

‘Are you all right Jacques?’

‘Yes moma.’

She cleaves to my body, entwining her legs with mine. Then she falls asleep, whistling through her nose.

I have returned. Returned to the sinister body into which I was born. But I sense Krew watching by the hearth, the embers glinting in his crystal eye. He has shown me a sublunary realm, suffused with faery-fire. But my spirit body persists as the one true reality. Everything else is a dream.

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2006.

i. De Civ. Dei, XX, xvi, in P.L., XLI, 682. [Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 7, p.208].

ii. Isaiah, 66:24, [Douay Rheims, Challoner Revision]. Mark, 9:43, 9:45, 9:47.

iii. Saint Francis.

iv. Apocalypse 6:8.

v. Mark 5:3.

Image credit: ‘The Triumph of Death’ by Breugel (detail).