The Devil's Atlas is a sumptuously illustrated guide, divided into three parts: hells and underworlds; limbo and purgatory; and heavens, paradises and utopias, as reflected throughout history in global cultures and religions.
Edward Brooke-Hitching describes his book in Shakespearean terms, "as a guide to the landscapes of the undiscovered country from who whose bourn no traveler returns".
He makes it clear that this is not a history of world religions, although he does provide a backdrop from a 2017 UK BBC survey on religion, which found that 46 per cent of people believe in some form of life after death; of those, 65 per cent believe this to be heaven or hell.
Brooke-Hitching hopes that his "exploration of the un-explorable" will provide "insights into the historical imagination in engagement with the continually discomforting subject of mortality".
Its coverage, as envisaged by scholars, artists and cartographers over the centuries, ranges from the 13 heavens of the Aztecs, the Viking mirror world, the Islamic depictions of Paradise, the Chinese Taoist netherworld of "hungry ghosts" to the "Hell of the Flaming Rooster" of Japanese Buddhist mythology.
Brooke-Hitching notes that hell, in fact, has actually often frozen over in the small town of Hell in Livingston County, Michigan. To many writers, like Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other people. He notes that in the construction of the Western image of hell, there is no more significant figure than Dante Alighieri.
Dante's The Divine Comedy, written between 1308 and 1320, "envisioned the afterlife with such persuasive, horrific detail that it profoundly shaped the mortal fears of an entire continent", especially inspiring the "infernal cartography" of European Renaissance artists.
Brooke-Hitching recognises that defining heaven, Paradise and utopia has usually resulted in a much more "nebulous elusive geography than its infernal antipode". It is easier to transport the physical horrors of earth's climate and geology into hell then to re-create the "else -whereness" of heavens and paradises. Nonetheless, he succinctly describes the many attempts, especially through religious belief, to re-create the heavenly afterlife.
Brooke-Hitching concludes by contrasting Dante's absorption into God's love with the Venerable Bede's description of mortal life being compared to the flight of a sparrow passing through a lighted hall.
The Devil's Atlas is a stunning and informative chronicle of imagined portrayals of the afterlife.
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