Around the turn of the eighth century, a sickly Anglo-Saxon monk known as Dryhthelm died in the early hours of a Northumbrian evening. Through the night his household mourned his passing. Then at dawn, as the sun returned, so did Dryhthelm, who sat up in bed with a start. All fled the undead man but his wife; she stayed, trembling in fright. “Do not fear,” he said. “I have been permitted to live among humankind once more,” and he told her what he had seen.
The journey in fleeting death had taken Dryhthelm down to a valley without end, one side of which was “terrifying with raging flames,” the other “equally intolerable owing to fierce hail and cold blasts of snow gusting and blowing away everything in sight.” Everywhere were “poor souls” who attempted to escape the intense heat by leaping into the cold and then, finding no respite, launched themselves back into the high flames to burn again. Surveying the “torture of this alternating misery,” Dryhthelm took the bilateral terror to be hell; he knew of its promised torment, its eternally unhappy agony. But his guide corrected the assumption: “Do not believe this, for this is not the hell you are thinking of.”
Dryhthelm was shaken—how could things be worse? Still farther he was led, to where the landscape grew gloomier, the covering sky even more eaten by darkness, where flames came spurting from a pit with a vile stench. He stood, “unsure what I should do or which way to turn,” unable to differentiate between the “wretched wailing” of souls and a “raucous laughter, as though some illiterate rabble was hurling insults at enemies they had captured.” Here it was at last: the infernal gloom, the precipice of damnation, the cries of suffering wretches, all the sorrowful punishments wielded by mindless, remorseless, contemptible hordes. Finally, the mouth of hell.
Dryhthelm’s story was recorded by his contemporary the Venerable Bede in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It is among the harrowing selections of the 2018 anthology The Penguin Book of Hell. Historian Scott G. Bruce, who collected the texts, gently proposes in his introduction that “the political calamities of the modern world have increased the currency of the concept of hell as a metaphor for torment and suffering.” From the “sulfurous and dark” mountain envisioned by the medieval Irish knight Tundale to the Nazi death camp Treblinka—about which the Russian writer Vasily Grossman commented that “not even Dante, in his hell, saw scenes like this”—the book traffics heavily in such horrid currency.
Read it all.