To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Sheol, The Underworld. 

Day 25: Sheol, The Underworld

The ancient concept of Sheol

The ancient concept of Sheol

There is a place called Sheol, far off in the west, and there stands a great and lofty mountain, terrible to behold. But the mountain is empty inside, capacious, and smooth. And it is here, inside this mountain, where all the souls of the dead, both righteous and wicked, fly to after death. Here they will remain until the Day of Judgement. 

The spirits of the dead cry up to heaven, pleading for mercy and justice. Abel is here and pleads to heaven for justice against his murderer, Cain. “Remove my brother’s seed from the face of the Earth!” cries Abel to heaven. 

The spirits of the righteous and the spirits of the wicked are not kept in the same chambers, but separated by chasm, by water, and by light. Here they both suffer torments, until the End of Days. The spirits of the dead continue as like their earthly life, but in a very diminished state, for in this realm they are but shadows.

The Myth’s Origins

Before Gehenna became the primary place in jewish folklore where the souls of the dead went when they died, there was Sheol. The myth above comes directly from the Book of Enoch, which describes a tour of Sheol by none other than the angel Raphael. The word “Sheol” appears many times in the bible. It’s meaning is likely a synonym with bor, abaddon, shacḥatm, words meanning pit or destruction. It may also be a synonym with tehom, or abyss.

Likely evolving from the fact that the dead were buried underground, and of course echoing pre-Judaic beliefs of an “underworld,” Sheol became not just a “pit”, but an actual place where the dead souls went. Many of the concepts of Sheol appeared in Assyro-Babylonian myths of Ishtar’s descent into Hades. In fact, early Greek translations of the Hebrew bible used “Hades” to replace Sheol as the abode of the dead.

Genesis 37:35 says, “I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol.” Some texts translate Sheol as “the grave,” but the Hebrew implies that Sheol is an actual place. The the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes and some Psalms all suggest Sheol is under the earth. The Book of Enoch says Sheol is “toward the setting of the sun,” i.e. in the west. Proverbs and Isaiah say that Sheol is very deep and marks the furthest point from heaven.

The dead descend or are forced down into Sheol but the revived are lifted from it. And sometimes living souls are hurled into Sheol before their natural time to die, and Sheol is described as having a mouth that sucks them down. 

Sheol was seen as a place where all the dead go when they die, the wicked and the righteous, as a kind of holding place. Later mythology developed Gehenna as the primary place where the dead go after this life, the good and evil among us. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth

Sheol, the abode of the dead

Sheol, the abode of the dead

It’s fascinating to see how the myths of the underworld evolve over time. While some scholars argue over whether Sheol was an independent concept developed by post-exilic Jews or if they had adopted an extant Babylonian myth into their own cosmology, the relevance of Sheol certainly has shifted. Myths of Hades and the Underworld of a Babylonian people likely evolved into myths of Sheol in early Judaism. Later Judaism replaced Sheol with Gehenna. Christianity further altered myths of the afterlife into elaborate circles of hells, fully explored in the works of Dante. 

Building on this notion of evolving meaning, I used both Gehenna and Sheol in my novel King of Shards. In my universe, playing with the idea that Sheol is the “furthest point from heaven,” I made Sheol a realm of demons. Some humans dwell there, but they are slaves to their demon overlords. Gehenna, which I call Gehinnom in King of Shards, using the Hebrew name, is populated mostly by humans. Both worlds are “Shards,” or fragment universes left over when the Creator smashed their universes long before ours was created. They are places of scarcity and suffering, and the beings who dwell upon them live difficult lives.

One of the things I attempted to do with King of Shards is use Judaic mythology as much as possible, but I also did not let it hinder me. So while I let mythology inform my work, I never let it constrain it. In that sense, I’m building on these myths just as those who have come before me have.  

Tomorrow’s Myth: Adne Sadeh, The First Man