What is purgatory, and who believes(d) in it?

13th century Christians came up with Purgatory as a place where you could work off your imperfections and eventually get to Heaven. I’m not sure if it evolved because it filled a need–for instance, no one likes the idea that an innocent baby might go to hell just because it isn’t baptized. Dante’s Divine Comedy, which devoted 33 cantos each to hell, purgatory, and heaven (well, I think heaven got an extra canto to make 100) popularized purgatory in the imagination of the world, but he had very specific ideas about who might end up there and who might not, ideas that didn’t always coincide with mainstream church ideas.

Neither Babylonians nor ancient Jews had a heaven or hell concept. Like Homer, writers of the Hebrew bible refer to death as a place where you are aware but dead and beneath the earth. It is neutral, and everyone goes there. When we read bibles in English, we see heaven as a synonym for sky, and we see hell as a translation for two Hebrew words and a couple of Greek Christian words.

  • The Hebrew words for hell are Sheol and Gehenna. Sheol just means “pit.” Gehenna or Gehinnon (The Valley of Hinnon) was a suburb of Jerusalem where people burned trash, and it had an association with more ancient practices like child sacrifice. I like to compare Gehenna to Canton, NC, because they both smelled bad.
  • The Greek word is Hades, the Greek name for their underworld. Different authors had different ideas about Hades. In most myths, it was a joyless place ruled by the god of death, Hades, and sometimes his wife Persephone, whom he abducted and whose mother ravaged the world with winter while she was gone. It is often described as being guarded by a three-headed dog, and it has a ferryman who rows you over the river of forgetfulness (Lethe). In Homer, Achilles describes it as the worst possible state. Virgil, on the other hand, set aside a place for the great heroes and poets to be reincarnated after a purgative period.
  • A Latin word for the same place was Tartarus.

We don’t see references in the Hebrew bible to any kind of organized afterlife until Daniel, who implies a resurrection for a select few at the end times. He says the rest will perish. Luke describes a rich man “in torment in Hades” asking for a drink to quench his thirst. (Luke’s Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to thread a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.) The apocalypse of Peter (second century CE) first describes a vivid hell: Murderers were “cast into a certain strait place, full of evil snakes, and smitten by those beasts” while the souls of the murdered looked on with satisfaction. Those who blasphemed and slandered the righteous were forced to “[gnaw] their own lips… and [receive] a red-hot iron in their eyes.” The rich who refused the orphans and widows were made to wear “tattered and filthy” garments and to walk endlessly over “pebbles sharper than swords or any spit, red-hot.” Here’s my source for that quote: https://people.howstuffworks.com/hell.htm . 2 Esdras actually sets aside a place of torment for the undead.

Purgatory is a 13th century CE Christian invention, which is one why the protestants rejected it. This resource on Dante also discusses beliefs about Purgatory generally: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/discover-dante/doc/purgatorio/page/2

It was Dante who really fleshed this idea out in his Divine Comedy, which is divided into inferno–the interesting part, purgatorio, and paradiso. Purgatory was invented because it seemed too harsh to deny all sinners paradise, so they put the minor sinners in purgatory to burn off their imperfections before they get to paradise. The ancient Judaeans didn’t need a purgatory because they didn’t believe in an afterlife period. 

This is fun for English majors because Protestants rejected the notion of Purgatory while Catholics still accepted it. So Hamlet comes home from college in Wittenberg, which was the flower of Protestantism. It’s where Martin Luther nailed his theses. And he sees a ghost who tells him he’s in Purgatory. Big problem for Hamlet: Catholics believe in ghosts and purgatory,  but Protestants did not.  So Hamlet doesn’t just have a problem of sanity; he has a life or death dilemma, one that contradicts everything he’s been taught. 

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