Harrowings of Hell in Sandman and Christianity

By David Armstrong

Caveat Lector: Spoilers follow for Netflix’s The Sandman Season One.

In The Sandman, Season One, Episode 4, “A Hope in Hell,” Morpheus, aka Dream of the Endless, Lord of the Dreaming, embarks on a harrowing of hell to retrieve his helm, one of three magical objects which contain and channel his creative power over the imaginal realm. Broadly speaking, the katabasis he embarks on resembles very much the Western doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell as it can be found in the Latin patristic and medieval tradition from St. Augustine onwards. In a nutshell, the way that Morpheus’ katabasis resembles Christ’s own in the Western model both provides an imaginative outlet for thinking through the descent into Hades today as well as underlines why the Eastern (both Greek and Syriac) model of the descent into Hades is so superior to its Western counterpart.

The parallels are not very hard to see. Morpheus, like Christ, goes in search of what is lost. As he descends, he approaches the gate of damnation with respect, entering according to protocol as one king into another’s realm and proceeding to Lucifer Morningstar’s throne room, where he petitions for the return of his crown. (Nota bene: Sandman was originally published with DC Comics, and the Netflix adaptation retains some loose memory of that in the form of DC’s particular version of Satan, as well as Jenna Coleman’s Johanna Constantine.) Acknowledging Lucifer’s penultimate power in the universe, Morpheus unwittingly engages her in a kind of psychic combat called only “The Oldest Game,” in which one must metrically self-identify as an ever greater archetypical reality to succeed. Morpheus does so by identifying as Hope. Winning the game, Morpheus replies to Lucifer’s threat to not permit him to leave with a threat of his own: what will the point of Hell be without the hope of heaven that dreams provide?

Morpheus is also clear-eyed about the place of his opponent in the chain of being. Lucifer is “by far” his superior, wielding more power in creation than anyone, probably, other than the Creator. (One wonders, given Morpheus’ later resumption of his total power after John Burgess destroys his ruby and releases his essence from within, if Lucifer’s superiority only obtains at the level of his mitigated form; he is, after all, effectively a hypercosmic deity, a divine personification of an abstract force of reality.) Morpheus is not here to overthrow Satan (gratifyingly to an Enochic scholar, perhaps, Satan is identified as the former angel Samael), but simply to get his own stuff; he respects but will not just submit to “the sovereignty of Hell,” as Lucifer sweetly, but sinisterly, suggests. There is something almost vaguely Oedipal, even, in the interactions of the (feminine) Lucifer and Dream, and almost Jungian about Morpheus’ insistence on his independence from the Morningstar.

One consequence of the exchange is that Hell is left largely unaffected by Morpheus’ advent and absconding. This is reflected in a more personal way for Dream by the imprisonment of Nada, a human once loved by Morpheus who betrayed him and has been kept in Hell for 10,000 years since. Morpheus clarifies, in his brief exchange with her, that he “still [has] not forgiven her,” and hence she will remain in inferis. “She defied me,” explains Morpheus to his companion, Matthew the Raven: gods do not easily forget, I suppose.

It is a visually arresting episode, with plenty of interesting things to consider: how indeed would the traditional Satan relate to those cosmic and supracosmic entities that traditional Neoplatonic philosophy, absorbed into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, insists are real? What relation has Hell to the imaginal realm of dreams and visions, or Heaven, for that matter? There is a long tradition of metaphysical speculation on those questions that might occupy us, from the descents to hell and ascents to heaven in Jewish, Christian, and South Asian apocalyptic literature to Ibn Arabi’s Barzakh. But for the life of me, the only things I could focus on as I watched the episode were, first, how much like the Western doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell Morpheus’ is, and how inferior that position is to the traditional, ubiquitous doctrine of Christ’s katabasis in the East.

By “Western,” to be clear, I mean that of Augustine and Aquinas, each of whom have their merits, I want to be acknowledge, but the scope of salvation in their thinking is not one of them. For both authors, Christ descends only to the limbus patrum—the realm of the Old Testament righteous, from Adam to John the Baptizer. They are all he takes with him, too, in his ascent. Like Morpheus, Christ just comes for his stuff: he comes politely enough not to really, substantially change Hell otherwise (it’s a bit different in Dante: Christ’s descent has impacted every circle of lower Hell). The “sovereignty of Hell” is not assented to, but it is also not abolished. Christ’s katabasis is also not really in this tradition much different from his classical Greco-Roman parallels like Asklepios, Theseus, Herakles, or Orpheus: each descends into Hades with specific boons in view, and returns, usually, with only those, the iron doors of Hell intact and the reign of death secure. At best, some of these are passive (Asklepios) and others are incompetent (Orpheus), where Christ is on that score much more like Herakles or, in this case, Morpheus, getting what he came for and going.

The problem of course with this doctrine of Holy Saturday is that it is unclear what Christ actually accomplishes in descending. Many ancient Jews, we should acknowledge, believed that their great patriarchs, prophets, and heroes of more distant antiquity were already in heaven: the pitch that they were in fact in hell and in need of rescue was bound to be a hard sell for at least some. Indeed, Christ himself seems to have been among their number: he openly says that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive with God (Lk 20:38). The Transfiguration, in which Moses appears alongside Elijah to speak with Jesus in the sight of Peter, James, and John, alludes to, and only really works with, similar ancient Jewish beliefs about Moses’ deification, angelic transformation, or heavenly translation (Matt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). What would or could Christ’s descent offer them (assuming, of course, that time is purely linear across the realms, which seems a bad assumption whether we are thinking in antiquity or now)? Sure, in one text, Christ does speak of Abraham in Hades (Lk 16:19-31, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man); but he is in the paradisal, elysian Hades, not the Tartaran, punitive Hades where the Rich Man finds himself. This is not exactly something to be saved from; when early Christians transferred the righteous patriarchs and prophets of Israel from a variety of positive afterlives to a universal consignment in Hades, it was precisely for the sake of helping to craft a biblically compelling narrative of Christ’s descent.

In the West, this was the only such narrative move; in the East, though, it is joined to another, which is that Christ comes to get the patriarchs as the first spoils of a full-scale ransacking of hell. By far, then, the Eastern doctrine of the descent into Hades is the more impressive one. First, Christ does not ask to be let in: he either sneaks in clandestinely, like the thief in the night about whom he parabolized, or he breaks down the doors themselves, upon which he stands pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves in the traditional Byzantine iconography of the scene. Early Christian literature, hymnography, and iconography frequently depicts Christ’s katabasis as an invasion of the infernal world that leaves it decimated and empty, except for an enchained Satan. Second, Christ leaves a perpetual witness where he has been. This is sometimes evident even in some Western forms of the harrowing–Dante’s Inferno, for example, has been seemingly blasted apart by the descent of Christ just to its highest rung–but it is clearly evident in the East, where Christ becomes indeed the true Lord of hell, where the dead have the opportunity still yet to meet and confess him. (I am loathe to recommend anything by Hilarion Alfeyev now given his original silence on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite his apparent sacking by Putin sometime in June; but his Christ the Conqueror of Hell really is, unfortunately, the best book in English on the topic.)

Sandman performs two great services then. On the one hand, Sandman invites us to think about hell not as a clearly geographic or cosmographic entity, but in terms perhaps more accessible for us: another realm, subject to different laws than the ones that govern our own physical world, and in which the psychic state of those present, waking and dreaming, is as much responsible for the creation of the reality as anything else. This is perhaps truer for no one than hell’s (former for us, current for Sandman) lord, whose whims transform the landscape of Avernus accordingly; the reality of the psychic and the imaginal as the source both of joy and of sorrow is demonstrated in Sandman’s game with Lucifer, the “oldest game,” where poetry and imaginal beauty or horror has the capacity to inflict physical damage on the opponent. But on the other hand, Sandman underlines what has to be true for Christ to be genuinely superior to other heroes who have descended to the underworld–Aklepios, Herakles, Orpheus, and, yes, Morpheus himself. Short of genuinely conquering the underworld, Christ is at best one among many such heroes to have descended, and perhaps not even the most impressive one. The Eastern take on the harrowing of hell preserves Christ’s supremacy as the heroic archetype himself. This does not make him any less real, of course: we should expect precisely such forms to radiate from the face of him who is the Divine Nous itself, the source of waking and dreams alike.

David Armstrong writes regularly at A Perennial Digression, which also has an attached YouTube channel. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Joshua U says:

    Fantastic stuff


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