The meaning of the dream symbol: Hell

Images of hell may be seen as depicting the fearsomeness of the unconscious. The fires of hell are those forces of the unconscious that seem to be threatening you. Hell as a place of imprisonment is the unconscious as the receptacle for repressed instinas and emotions. Achievement of personal maturity and wholeness requires facing up to those repressed contents of the unconscious and taming them - that is, transforming their negative energy into a positive one.

Hell as the opposite of heaven may symbolize the mental chaos or even the total loss of self that is always a lurking possibility, whereas heaven represents the achievement of personal wholeness and harmony.


The connotation of the Heel involves power and subservience. In the sense of the foot which crashes down with authority, we see control (of mother, primarily). In this Freudian sense, we witness a correlation with sexual commands and domination in general. Hence, to be placed underfoot seems to symbolize ultimate submission. Conversely, in the sense of our Achilles heel, we see vulnerability and metaphoric pain which never leaves us. Accordingly, we need to determine the position and intent of the heel in its particular dream orientation.


Ancient beliefs - Egyptian, Greek and Roman - differed widely and existed simultaneously, and only the most important of these will be mentioned in this article.

Hades - the ‘Unseen One’, although the etymology is shaky - was the Greek god of the dead. Since nobody dared mention his name for fear of arousing his anger, he was surnamed Pluto (‘Rich One’), a grisly joke rather than a euphemism, by reference to the wealth lying below the Earth’s surface, where the kingdom of the dead was located. The joke became somewhat macabre when Pluto was depicted holding a horn of plenty. Nevertheless, the Underworld is, symbolically, the site of mineral wealth, metamorphoses, transitions from death to life and germination.

After the Olympian gods had defeated the Titans, the universe was divided between the three sons of Cronos and Rhea. Zeus received Heaven; Poseidon the sea; and Hades the Underworld, Hell or Tartarus. He was a pitiless ruler, as cruel as his niece and bride, Persephone, who never let any of his subjects go. His name was given to his kingdom and Hades became the symbol of Hell. It, too, partook of his character, being a place which was invisible, from which, except for those who believed in reincarnation, there was no escape, sunk in cold and darkness and haunted by demons and monsters who tormented the dead. In Ancient Egypt, for instance, the tomb of Rameses IV at Thebes provides an early example of Hell symbolized by caverns filled with the damned. However, not all those who died became the victims of Hades, the elect - heroes, wise men and initiates - were granted a dwelling-place far from the darkness of Hell, in the Fortunate Islands or the Elysian Fields, where light and happiness were lavished upon them.

Analysing Hell from the ethical and psychological angle, Paul Diel remarks:

A personified figure stands for each function of the psyche and the intrapsychic actions of sublimation or perversion are expressed in the interaction of these personifications. The spirit is called Zeus; Apollo, the harmonization of desire; Pallas Athene, intuitive inspiration; Hades, repression; and so on. The essential desire - developmental drive - is represented by the hero, and the confrontational situation of the psyche by battles with the monsters of perversion.

From this viewpoint, Hell is a state in which the psyche has fallen victim to these monsters, either through failure in its attempts to repress them into the unconscious or through voluntary identification with them in conscious perversion.

Some Middle Breton religious writings mention Hell as being an ifern yen, an ‘icy hell’. This term is so at variance with accepted norms that it must be regarded as an echo of ancient Celtic notions relative to non-being.

Aztec cosmology set Hell in the north, the land of darkness called ‘the Land of the Nine Plains’, or nine Hells. Apart from deified heroes, warriors who had been killed either in battle or in sacrifice, women who had died in childbirth and stillborn babies, all human beings returned to the Hells from which they had come, led by a dog as conductor of souls. Having passed through the first eight Hells, they reached the ninth and last into which they plunged and were annihilated.

The God of Hell was the fifth of the nine Lords of Darkness. His place is therefore at the precise middle of the night and we might call him ‘Midnight Lord’. On his back he carried the Black Sun (see under sun) and his symbolic creatures were the spider and the owl.

The Turkic peoples of the Altai approached the spirits of the dead by travelling from west to east, that is, in the opposite direction to the path of the Sun, the latter symbolizing the forward motion of the life force.

Travelling to meet light head-on, instead of following in its path, symbolizes regression into darkness.

Christian tradition pairs light and darkness as symbols of the two opposites, Heaven and Hell. Earlier, Plutarch had described Tartarus as being deprived of light. If, therefore, light is to be identified with God and with life, Hell denotes deprivation of God and of life.

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