Representations of Heaven and Hell in Early East Slavic Literature

Michael Pesenson, Bowdoin College

My paper examines images of the afterlife found in East Slavic writings of the medieval and early modern period. In looking through apocryphal, hagiographic and homiletic works on the subject, as well as original East Slavic spiritual verse inspired by these texts, one discerns a marked stylistic and representational difference in the depiction of Heaven and Hell. The latter is on the whole treated much more vividly and dramatically than the former. In this way, the writers of these texts tried to convey a sense of wrenching human drama and pathos that is largely absent in the more formulaic depiction of Heaven. The reason for this difference has something to do with the basic intention of these texts. Since the goal of these writings was to steer people away from sin and towards a life of basic Christian values and morals, the most effective way of convincing them to change their behavior was to frighten them into believing that terrible tortures awaited them in the afterlife if they abandoned Christ or were lax in confessing their sins. As a result, several texts such as the Mother of God's Journey to Hell and the Apocalypse of Paul exhibit in all their gory details the multitude of tortures, both general and measure-for-measure, awaiting sinners in the afterlife. In addition, particular emphasis is given on the irreversibility of judgment and eternity of punishment.

Heaven, on the other hand, is usually depicted much less dramatically and in a more formulaic way. For example, the Old Testament apocrypha found among the East Slavs, such as the Apocalypse of Abraham and Slavonic Enoch portray the seer going through several heavenly layers on his way to meeting God. The description of what he sees during his journey is confined to a general and rather superficial recounting of the number and appearance of the heavenly hordes, cursory explanation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and vague depiction of the awe-inspiring presence of God. Such formulaic treatment, however, has little to do with the writer's literary skills. Rather, it shows a hesitation on the part of the writer to speculate on the mysteries of the "Heavenly Kingdom." For both Jews and early Christians, such knowledge was seen to be unattainable, reserved only for a select few. Under the influence of Neoplatonic thought, later Christian writing continued in the same vein. East Slavic spiritual verse reflected this development. While numerous examples of spiritual verse exist depicting the Last Judgment and the punishments of Hell, virtually none depict the glories of Heaven.

Yet it would be unfair to say that vivid and colorful descriptions of Heaven are completely absent from the East Slavic tradition. Such works as the Apocalypse of Paul, the Life of Andreas Salos, the Life of St. Basil the Younger, and the Journey of Agapius to Heaven depict the heavenly landscape quite convincingly. However, the emphasis in these works is on topography and geography of Heaven, rather than on what happens to the fortunate few who find their way there. For example, very rarely does one find descriptions of measure-for-measure personal rewards in Heaven as one so often does of measure-for-measure punishments in Hell. Thus, even works offering a more vivid depiction of Heaven generally lack a personal, human dimension, which would make these more immediate and dramatic for the reader.