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Unlocking the Healing Power of Belief

Science is showing that how you feel isn’t just about what you eat, or do, or think. It’s about what you believe.

At the University of Florida, Parkinson’s disease patient Russell Price undergoes surgery to implant a deep brain stimulation (DBS) lead that will deliver electrical impulses to motion-controlling parts of his brain, treatment which has been shown to provide substantial relief from symptoms in appropriately selected patients. Additional improvement in some patients may also derive from the mere expectation that the procedure will help—the so-called placebo effect. “It’s not a magical thing,” says neurologist Michael Okun.

The pilgrim wasn’t sure he’d make it to the Chapel of Grace. It was agony to walk at all, let alone endure the 70 miles that thousands of believers trek each year to behold an enshrined wood statue: the Black Madonna of Altötting.

Richard Mödl had recently broken his heel, but in 2003 he was determined to complete his first pilgrimage from Regensburg to Altötting, Germany. He figured if the pain got too bad he could always hitch a ride. But he had a deep faith in the Virgin Mary’s ability to deliver him. So he walked. And walked.

Today, at 74, Mödl has a warm smile and a wiry frame that looks as if it could survive a charging rhinoceros. Since the healing of his foot, he’s made the pilgrimage 12 more times, and he’s a passionate believer in its transformative power.

Mödl is not alone in his belief. Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives.

Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. Six thousand miles from Altötting, another man experienced what seemed to be a medical miracle.

Mike Pauletich first noticed he had a problem in 2004. His aim with a baseball was off, and his arm hurt. His hand shook a little, and, strangest of all, his wife noticed he never smiled anymore.

Figuring he had carpal tunnel syndrome, he went to the doctor. But his bad aim wasn’t because of his arm, and the reason he wasn’t smiling wasn’t because his arm hurt. At 42 years old, Pauletich had early onset Parkinson’s disease. His doctor told him that within a decade he wouldn’t be able to walk, stand, or feed himself.

Pauletich didn’t deteriorate as much as his doctor predicted, but for years he struggled with the disease and with depression, as talking and writing became ever harder. Then, in 2011, he turned to Ceregene, a company that was testing a new gene therapy. Parkinson’s is the result of a chronic loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It had been shown in monkeys that injections of a protein called neurturin could halt the progress of the disease by protecting and possibly repairing damaged dopamine-secreting neurons. Ceregene’s experimental treatment was to cut two holes, one in each hemisphere of the brain, through a patient’s skull and inject the drug directly into the target regions.

Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. Before the trial he had struggled to move around. He had to constantly explain to clients of his technology development company that his slurred speech wasn’t caused by drinking. After the procedure his shaking disappeared, his mobility improved, and his speech became markedly clearer. (Today you can hardly tell he has the disease at all.) His doctor on the study, Kathleen Poston, was astonished. Strictly speaking, Parkinson’s had never been reversed in humans; the best one could hope for was a slowdown in the progression of the disease, and even that was extremely rare.

In April 2013, Ceregene announced the results of the trial: Neurturin had failed. Patients who had been treated with the drug did not improve any more significantly than those in a control group who had received a placebo treatment—a sham surgery in which a doctor drilled “divots” into the patient’s skull so that it would feel as if there had been an operation. Ceregene was bought by another company in 2013, and its work on neurturin for Parkinson’s has not been continued.

Poston was crushed. But then she looked at the data and noticed something that stopped her cold. Mike Pauletich hadn’t gotten the real surgery. He had gotten the placebo.

In a sense both Pauletich and Mödl participated in a performance, one that we humans have been engaging in for thousands of years, every time we go to healers with the hope that they can make us feel better. And just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains. These expectations drive the so-called placebo effect, which can affect what happens in our bodies as well. Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.

How does a belief become so potent it can heal? Back to the theater: A crucial part of an inspiring performance is sets and costumes. When Pauletich experienced improvement in his symptoms, it wasn’t just because of the divots he could feel in his head or what the doctors told him about surgery. It was the whole scene he’d experienced: the doctors in their white coats, stethoscopes around their necks; the nurses, checkups, tests, maybe even the bad music in the hospital waiting room. Physicians sometimes call these trappings around hospitals the theater of medicine.

jones navajo shaman

Jones Benally, a healer on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona for more than 75 years, treats the body and the mind of his patient to relieve her pain and stress. He works in a hogan (here)—and also in hospitals and elder-care centers. His daughter and his sons are learning his skills in order to carry on the tradition.

This stagecraft extends to many aspects of treatment and can operate on a subconscious level. Expensive placebos work better than cheap ones. Placebos in brand-name containers work better than those labeled generics. Placebo suppositories work better in France, while the English prefer to swallow their placebos. Often fake injections work better than fake pills. But fake surgeries seem to be the most powerful of all.

Most astonishingly, placebos can work even when the person taking them knows they are placebos. This was reported in a now classic 2010 paper published by Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, and his team. After 21 days of taking a placebo, people with irritable bowel syndrome felt markedly better when compared with people who received nothing, even though those who reported feeling relief were told beforehand (and reminded afterward) that they were receiving placebos.

The experiment showed that a supportive patient-practitioner relationship was key in creating belief in a successful outcome. Patients were educated about the power of placebos and positive attitude. They were told that the placebo pills had been shown, in rigorous clinical testing, to induce meaningful self-healing processes. They were instructed to take the pills faithfully, missing no doses.

“Dealing with expectation is very tricky,” says Kaptchuk, who has spent his life studying placebo effects. “We’re dealing with very imprecise measuring of a very imprecise phenomenon. And a lot of it’s nonconscious.”

Karin Jensen, one of Kaptchuk’s former colleagues who now runs her own lab at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, designed an experiment to determine whether it was possible to use subliminal cues to condition subjects to experience a placebo effect.

During the conditioning phase of the experiment, subjects viewed alternating faces on a screen. Jensen used faces in her experiment because our brains are particularly adept at quickly recognizing them. Half the subjects received subliminal cues: The faces appeared for just a fraction of a second—not long enough to consciously tell them apart. For the other subjects, the facial cues appeared long enough for them to be consciously recognized.

During this first phase, varying heat stimuli were delivered to the subjects’ arms along with the facial cues: more heat with the first face, less heat with the second. In the testing phase that followed, the subjects, including those who saw only the quick-flash subliminal cues, reported feeling more pain when they saw the first face, although the heat stimuli remained moderate and identical for both faces. The subjects had thus developed an unconscious link between greater pain and the first face.

The experiment showed that a placebo response can be conditioned subliminally. Jensen points out that tiny cues as you walk into a hospital—many of which are experienced unconsciously—trigger responses in our bodies in a similar way.

“Part of healing is nonconscious—something that happens instinctually,” she says.

Neuroradiologist

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, neuroradiologist David Kallmes injects medical bone cement into a patient’s spine to stabilize a painful vertebral compression fracture. A study directed by Kallmes at the clinic showed pain relief was almost the same one month later in a control group that received sham procedures. “Shocking to most people,” Kallmes said of the results. “Surprising to me.”

Hospitals are just one common venue for the theater of belief. There are hundreds of alternative medical treatments that harness our expectations—homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicines, urine therapy, cow dung tablets, human blood facials, vitamin infusions, sound healing, to name a few—all with varying levels of proven efficacy.

Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University who has dedicated much of her professional life to understanding people’s interactions with God, says:

“Belief is natural. It comes partly from the way our minds are hardwired”

She says that belief-based healing requires not only a good story but also the effort of an active listener—one with the ability to make what is imagined feel real. When story and imagination sync, the results can be astounding.

“Humans have the capacity to change their experience,” she says. “These are skills, and we can learn them.”

I’d heard of the belief-based healing of the brujos, or witch doctors, of Catemaco, in the state of Veracruz on the eastern coast of Mexico. They are particularly theatrical healers, blending shamanistic traditions with Roman Catholicism much as Christians did a thousand years ago. I’d heard stories of massive, pentagram-shaped bonfires and dancing madmen who spit all over you as a blessing. Certainly worth a visit.

But when I arrived in Catemaco and made my way to a modern brujo’s office, I found no fires or whooping shamans. Far from the dark, bat-infested cave I’d expected, the waiting area turned out to be a tidy little living room that smelled of disinfectant. Plastic amulets and glass crystals lined the shelves. About 10 people sat in chairs, reading magazines or watching soccer on TV. As witch doctors go, the brujo who greeted me looked more doctor than witch. Dressed all in white, he sported a neat mustache and short, heavily gelled hair. Half his office was taken up by an altar packed with crucifixes, statues of saints, flowers, and hundreds of blinking, colored lights.

I’d come for a simple limpia—a cleansing of my spirit. The brujo grabbed an egg, a few sprigs of basil, and a couple of plastic squirt bottles filled with what he said were envy blockers, bad-energy protection, and a liquid that makes wealth. Everything was orderly and sanitized. After a short interview, he got down to the business of my spirit, squirting me liberally with pungent oils and rubbing an egg over my body before cracking it open into a glass of water and examining the contents.

I was familiar with this routine—it’s common among brujos in Mexico. What surprised me was the lack of pomp or mumbo jumbo. It was more clinical than ceremonial. The brujo asked about my knees and lower back (both fine) and informed me that the egg indicated I might be in for some pain in the future. Like a radiologist explaining features on an x-ray, he noted several bubbles around the egg white in the glass: a sign that someone close to me was jealous and wished me ill. Then he offered, for an extra fee, to protect me from future harm. I declined; we shook hands. I left feeling a sense of anticlimax, as if I had somehow missed something. Where was the theater?

It was only when I was back on the street that I began to understand. Twenty years ago you could still find “authentic” dancing, spitting witch doctors in Catemaco (and they still show up for tourists and festivals). But expectation is a moving target. Over the past generation, conventional medicine has become the norm in Catemaco. Spitting and waving chicken feathers inspired confidence before, but most brujos today have adapted to the times, mixing white lab coats and antiseptic spray with their mysticism to tap into their modern patients’ expectations: the theater of medicine. My brujo made eye contact and smiled warmly, like a skillful, caring medical doctor.

And I have to say, I did feel a little better.

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

JASON TREAT, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI
ART: STUDIO MUTI. SOURCES: IRENE TRACEY, UNIVERSITY
OF OXFORD; FABRIZIO BENEDETTI, UNIVERSITY OF TURIN

So how does the theater of medicine actually work? How does a belief literally heal?

One part of the puzzle involves conditioning, as Jensen has shown. Recall Pavlov’s dog, which drooled every time it heard a bell. That happened because Pavlov conditioned the animal to connect food with the sound. Scientists have been able to train the immune systems of rats by pairing sweet liquids with cyclosporine A, a drug that blocks the function of immune cells to keep patients from rejecting transplanted organs. Every time the rat has a sweet drink, it also gets the drug. But after enough trials, the drug is unnecessary: The sweet drink alone is enough to shut down the rat’s immune response.

The placebo effect’s conditioned response in reaction to pain is to release brain chemicals—endorphins, or opium-like painkillers—synthesized in the body. In the 1970s two San Francisco neuroscientists interested in how those internal opioids control pain made a discovery during an experiment with patients who had just had their wisdom teeth pulled.

Ashinaka

The Ashaninka people of Peru use vapor from boiled herbs in their healing rituals. This ceremony is performed by Mircyla Prado Pintallo; at 11 years old she’s learning the art of the vaporadora. Once the patient inhales the vapor, Mircyla will read the leaves to determine whether the healing has succeeded and possibly prescribe other herbs to help the patient regain good health.

The researchers first compared the response of a placebo group to the response of another group that received naloxone, a drug that cancels out the ameliorating effect of opioids. None of the subjects received or expected to receive morphine—and all of them felt miserable. Then the scientists redesigned the experiment, telling the patients that some of them would receive morphine, some a placebo, and some naloxone. No one, including the researchers, knew who would receive what. This time, some of the patients felt better, even though they didn’t receive morphine. Their expectation of potential relief triggered the release of endorphins in their bodies, and those endorphins reduced the pain. But as soon as they got naloxone, they were in pain again. The drug wiped out the action of the endorphins that the placebo response had released.

Howard Fields, an emeritus professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the authors of the study, says:

“Without the expectation of pain relief, you can’t have a placebo effect”

Since that experiment, conditioning has been used to study the effects of belief on the release of other drugs produced by the body, including serotonin, dopamine, and some cannabinoids, which can work in a way similar to the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists could watch how these effects play out in the brain. Tor Wager, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, put subjects in a brain scanner. He applied cream to both of each subject’s wrists, then strapped on electrodes that could deliver painful shocks or heat. He told the subjects that one of the creams could ameliorate pain, but the creams, in fact, were the same, and neither had any inherent pain-reducing qualities. After several rounds of conditioning, the subjects learned to feel less pain on the wrist coated with the “pain relieving” cream; on the last run, strong shocks felt no worse than a light pinch. A typical conditioned placebo response.

The most interesting part was what the brain scans showed. Normal pain sensations begin at an injury and travel in a split second up through the spine to a network of brain areas that recognize the sensation as pain. A placebo response travels in the opposite direction, beginning in the brain. An expectation of healing in the prefrontal cortex sends signals to parts of the brain stem, which creates opioids and releases them down to the spinal cord. We don’t imagine we’re not in pain. We self-medicate, literally, by expecting the relief we’ve been conditioned to receive.

“The right belief and the right experience work together,” says Wager, now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of a neuroscience lab there. “And that’s the recipe.”

The recipe of belief and experience is finding its way out of the lab and into clinical practice as well. Christopher Spevak is a pain and addiction doctor at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Every day he sees active service members and veterans with severe injuries, sometimes just days or weeks after they have left the battlefield. This offers him an opportunity to use expectation and conditioning to tap into internal opioids to stave off, or at least mitigate, long-term pain.

When Spevak first meets patients, he doesn’t ask about their injuries or their medical histories—he has all that on file. Instead he asks them about themselves. He might learn that in childhood a person had a favorite eucalyptus tree outside his house or loved peppermint candies. Eventually, if Spevak prescribes opioid painkillers, every time the patient takes one, he also has eucalyptus oil to smell or a peppermint to eat—whatever stimulus Spevak knows will resonate. Over time, just as with Jensen’s quick-flash faces or Wager’s skin cream (or for that matter, Pavlov’s bell), patients start linking the sensory experience to the drugs. After a while, Spevak cuts down on the drug and just provides the sounds or smells. The patient’s brain can go to an internal pharmacy for the needed drugs.

Ritual and Belief

bad energy cleansing

Chasing away bad energy and spirits with fire, Hmong shaman Ploua Her leads an annual curing ceremony to protect the home of Wang Lue Her. A goat, pigs, and chickens will then be sacrificed, and later eaten by gathered family members.

“We have triple amputees, quadruple amputees, who are on no opioids,” Spevak says of his Iraq and Afghanistan veteran patients. “Yet we have older Vietnam vets who’ve been on high doses of morphine for low back pain for the past 30 years.”

Two years ago Leonie Koban, a member of Tor Wager’s lab, spearheaded a novel placebo study. The scientists were well aware of the roles of conditioning and theater in channeling expectations. They wanted to test the effect of a third element influencing experiences of pain: other believers.

As in many previous tests of the placebo effect, the researchers delivered a burning sensation to their subjects’ arms and asked the subjects to rate how strong it was. But this time they introduced an extra variable. The volunteers looked at a screen and saw a series of hash marks representing how previous participants had rated their pain. For the same stimulus, the subjects reported feeling higher or lower levels of pain based on what they were told previous participants had felt.

The result was not surprising. In the 1950s, a series of tests called the Asch experiments showed that subjects can give answers they know to be wrong in order to conform with the group. What shocked Koban and Wager was the sheer strength of the social influence: The effect was larger than might be expected after conditioning. Tests of the subjects’ skin conductance responses—involuntary changes in how the body is conducting electricity, often used in lie detection—showed that they were not just reporting what they thought the researchers wanted to hear; they were actually responding less to pain. Studies with fMRI machines implicated a separate, complementary network of brain activity that kicks in when conventional placebos are enhanced by peer pressure. Koban goes so far as to say that social information might be more powerful in altering the experience of pain than both conditioning and subconscious cues.

“Information we take from our social relationships has really profound influences, [not only] on emotional experiences but also on health-related outcomes such as pain and healing,” Koban says.

“And we are only beginning to understand these influences and how we can harness them.”

placebo MRI

Placebo expert Luana Colloca at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and others have uncovered another trigger of the mysterious effect: how we think others experience pain. In this experiment, subjects were conditioned to perceive a heat stimulus as stronger when it was paired with an image of a face showing distress, even when the stimulus was moderate. An MRI machine captures how the brain responds to the coupled stimuli.

The impact of the social group could help explain why religion might in a very literal sense be what Karl Marx defined as “the opium of the people”: It can tap into the ability to access our own store of beliefs and expectations, especially when we’re surrounded by other believers who are doing the same.

Nowhere is the power of group belief more evident than in religious pilgrimages—whether it’s the annual Catholic trek to Lourdes, in France, the annual hajj pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, or, largest of all, the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurring every 12 years. The latest Kumbh Mela, in February 2013, drew an estimated 70 million Hindus to the Indian city of Allahabad.

Or the pilgrimage to Altötting where I met Richard Mödl. The first documented healing in Altötting was in 1489, when a drowned boy was said to have been miraculously brought back to life. Today the Black Madonna there attracts about a million visitors a year.

The pilgrims I joined on a cold Bavarian morning in 2016 had already been walking since 3 a.m. After pausing for breakfast, everyone was chatting happily, waiting for the signal to begin walking again, in the rain. I had been nervous about the trip because of ankle surgery I’d had three months before. But in that merry throng of believers, my pain faded away.

“Everyone is here for their own reasons, but they are all here for each other just as much,” said Marcus Brunner, a cheery priest and 27-year veteran of the walk. “The group carries you, and you carry the group all together.”

When we arrived in the Chapel of Grace, we found it covered inside and out with ex-votos—pictures representing miracles spanning hundreds of years and showing every imaginable ailment. Propped against the walls were crutches and canes left behind through the ages by parishioners and pilgrims whose suffering was relieved by the Black Madonna. The expectation of healing continues unabated.

“There is a different way of thinking here,” said Thomas Zauner, a psychotherapist and deacon who had moved to Altötting in order to seek a supportive community for his developmentally disabled child. “Prayer seems to actually work.”

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Spirituality

How Hell Works: A Brief Guide to the Afterlife

Sooner or later, time is up for everyone. It would be ridiculous to think that after such a life we ​​will be able to somehow penetrate through the heavenly gates or deceive the archangel guarding them. It is worth accepting the inevitable: not booths and houris are waiting for us, but the gloomy landscape of hell. And in order not to get confused at the grave board, you should prepare for this in advance. Moreover, you can find a whole bunch of authoritative evidence on how to navigate in hellish terrain. The main thing is not to panic.

Where is it, the underworld? Some ancient peoples burned the deceased: this is a sure sign that the soul must ascend to its new abode in heaven. If he was buried in the ground, then she will go to the underworld.

If sent on the last journey by boat, it sails to the country across the sea, at the very edge of the Earth. The Slavs had a variety of opinions on this, but they all agreed on one thing: the souls of those people who are not kept near their former dwellings enter the afterlife, and they lead about the same existence there – they harvest, hunt …

Those who, due to a curse, or an unfulfilled promise, or something else, cannot leave their bodies, remain in our world – either settling into their former shells, then taking the form of animals, natural phenomena, or simply ghosts of failure. We can say that the afterlife of such souls is our own world, so this is not the worst option for a posthumous existence.

Egyptian hell

Everything will turn out much worse if you find yourself in the afterlife of the ancient Egyptians, where Osiris reigns. During his earthly incarnation, he was killed and dismembered by his own brother Set. This could not but affect the character of the lord of the dead.

Osiris looks repulsive: he looks like a mummy, clutching the signs of pharaoh’s power. Sitting on the throne, he presides over the court, which weighed the actions of the newly arrived souls. The god of life Horus brings them here. Hold on tightly to his hand: the hawk-headed Chorus is the son of the underground king, so it may well put in a good word for you.

Egypt

The courtroom is huge – this is the entire firmament. According to the directions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a number of rules should be observed in it. List in detail the sins that you did not have time to commit during your lifetime. After that, you will be offered to leave a memory of yourself and help your relatives by depicting a court scene on a papyrus scroll.

If your artistic talent is at its best, you will spend the rest of eternity here, participating in the affairs of Osiris and his numerous divine relatives. The rest await a cruel execution: they are thrown to be devoured by Ammatu, a monster with the body of a hippo, paws and mane of a lion and a crocodile mouth.

However, the lucky ones may find themselves in his jaws: from time to time there are “cleansings”, in which the affairs of the wards souls are again reviewed. And if relatives have not provided the appropriate amulets, you will most likely be eaten by a ruthless monster.

Greek hell

It is even easier to get into the afterlife kingdom of the Greeks: you will be carried away by the god of death Thanatos himself, who brings here all the “fresh” souls. During big battles and battles, where he, apparently, cannot cope alone, Thanatos is helped by winged Kerrs, who carry the fallen to the kingdom of the eternally gloomy Hades.

In the far west, at the edge of the world, stretches a lifeless plain, in some places overgrown with willows and poplars with black bark. Behind it, at the bottom of the abyss, the muddy quagmire of Acheron opens. It merges with the black waters of the Styx, which encircles the world of the dead nine times and separates it from the world of the living. Even the gods are wary of breaking the oaths given by the name of Styx: these waters are sacred and ruthless. They flow into Cocytus, the river of weeping that gives rise to Lethe, the river of oblivion.

Greece

You can cross the river Styx in old man Charon’s boat. For his labor, he takes a small copper coin from each. If you have no money, you just have to wait for the end of time at the entrance. Charon’s boat crosses all nine streams and drops passengers into the abode of the dead.

Here you will be greeted by a huge three-headed dog Cerberus, safe for those entering, but ferocious and merciless to those who are trying to return to the sunny world. On a vast plain, under a chilling wind, wait quietly among other shadows for your turn. The uneven road leads to the palace of Hades himself, surrounded by the fiery stream of Phlegeton. The bridge over it rests against the gate, standing on diamond columns.

Behind the gates is a huge hall made of bronze, where Hades himself and his assistants, judges Minos, Eak and Radamant, are seated. By the way, all three were once people of flesh and blood, like you and me. They were just kings and ruled their nations so well that after their death Zeus made them judges over all the dead.

With a high probability, just judges will cast you even lower, into Tartarus – the kingdom of pain and groans, located deep under the palace. Here you will have to meet three old sisters, goddesses of vengeance, Erinnias, whom Hades put to watch over sinners.

Their appearance is terrible: blue lips from which poisonous saliva drips; black cloaks like the wings of bats. With balls of snakes in their hands, they rush through the dungeon, lighting their path with torches, and make sure that everyone fully drinks the cup of their punishment. Among the other “indigenous inhabitants” of Tartarus are Lamia, the stealing child, the three-headed Hecate, the demon of nightmares, the corpse-eater Eurynom.

Here you will also meet many mythical figures. Tyrant Ixion is forever chained to a wheel of fire. The chained giant Titius, who offended the tender Leto, is pecked by two vultures. The blasphemer Tantalus is immersed up to his throat in the freshest clear water, but as soon as he, tormented by thirst, bends down, it retreats from him. The Danaids who killed their husbands are forced to endlessly fill the leaky vessel. The quirky Sisyphus, who once deceived the spirit of death Thanatos, and the intractable Hades, and Zeus himself, rolls a stone up the mountain, which breaks down every time he approaches the top.

Christian hell

The images of Christian hell are largely inspired by the ancient Greeks. It is among Christians that the geography of hell has been studied in most detail. Getting there is a little more difficult. Already in the apocryphal books – those that were not included in the Holy Scriptures or were excluded from it later – different opinions were expressed about the location of hell.

Thus, the “Book of Enoch” places the devil himself in the eastern lifeless desert, where Raphael “makes a hole” into which he lowers him, bound hand and foot, and rolls him over with a stone. However, according to the same apocrypha, the soul will go in the opposite direction, to the west, where it will “groan” in the depressions of the high mountain range.

At the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great, distinguishing between two hells – upper and lower – placed one on the ground, the second under it.

In his 1714 book on the nature of hell, the English occultist Tobias Swinden placed hell in the sun. He motivated his assumption by the then existing ideas about our light as a ball of fire and a quote from the Apocalypse (“The fourth Angel poured out his bowl on the Sun: and it was given to him to burn people with fire”).

And his contemporary and follower, William Whiston, declared all celestial comets to be hell: when they get into the hot regions of the sun, they fry souls, and when they move away, they freeze them. However, you should hardly hope to get on a comet. The most widely accepted idea is that hell is located in the center of the Earth and has at least one exit to the surface.

Most likely, this exit is located in the north, although there are other opinions. So, an old poem about the wanderings of the Irish saint Brendan tells about his journey to the far west, where he finds not only heavenly places, but also places of torment for sinners.

The sun

And in heaven, and under the earth, and on the earth itself, hell is placed in the apocryphal “Walk of the Mother of God through torment.” This book is replete with detailed descriptions of punishments. Asking God to disperse the complete darkness that envelops the suffering in the West, Mary sees a red-hot tar pour out on the unbelievers. Here, in a cloud of fire, those who “sleep like the dead at dawn on Sunday” are tormented, and those who have not stood in church during their lifetime are sitting on red-hot benches.

In the south, other sinners are immersed in the river of fire: those cursed by their parents – up to the waist, fornicators – up to the chest, and up to the throat – “those who ate human flesh,” that is, traitors who abandoned children to be devoured by beasts or betrayed their brothers before the king. But deepest of all, to the crown, are the perjurers.

The Mother of God sees here other punishments due to lovers of profit (hanging by the legs), sowers of enmity and Klchristian adepts (hanging by the ears). In the “left side of paradise”, in the raging waves of boiling tar, the Jews who crucified Christ are suffering.

John Milton, author of the poem “Paradise Lost”, is in the realm of the eternal chaos. According to his concept, Satan was overthrown even before the creation of the earth and heaven, which means that hell is outside these areas. The devil himself sits in Pandemonium, the “brilliant capital”, where he receives the most prominent demons and demons.

Pandemonium is a huge castle with halls and porticoes, built by the same architect as the palace of the Heavenly King. The angel architect, who joined the army of Satan, was expelled from heaven with him. Myriads of spirits rush along the corridors of the palace, swarming in the earth and air. There are so many of them that only satanic sorcery allows them to be accommodated.

Even more confusing is the medieval Christian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. He distinguished three different hells, corresponding to the three levels of heaven. And since God has dominion over everything, all three hells are ruled by him through specially delegated angels.

In his opinion, Satan does not exist at all as the ruler of the kingdom of evil. The devil in Swedenborg’s understanding is a collective name for the most dangerous “evil geniuses”; Beelzebub unites spirits striving for dominion even in heaven; Satan means “not so evil” spirits. All these spirits are terrible to look at and, like corpses, are deprived of life.

The faces of some are black, in others they are fiery, and in others they are “ugly with pimples, abscesses and ulcers; many of them don’t see their faces, others have only teeth sticking out. ” Swedenborg formulated the idea that as heaven reflects one person, and hell in aggregate is only a reflection of one devil and can be represented in this form. The devil’s mouth, leading to the fetid underworld – this is the path awaiting sinners.

Heaven

Do not overly trust the opinion of some authors who argue that the entrance to hell can be locked. Christ in the “Apocalypse” says: “I have the keys of hell and death.” But Milton claims that the keys to Gehenna (apparently on behalf of Jesus) are kept by a terrible half-woman, half-snake. On the surface of the earth, the gate may look quite harmless, like a pit or a cave, or like a mouth of a volcano. According to Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, written at the beginning of the 14th century, souls can go to hell by passing through a dense and gloomy forest.

This poem is the most authoritative source about the hellish device. The structure of the underworld is described in all its complexity. The hell of the Divine Comedy is the torso of Lucifer, inside it has a funnel-shaped structure. Starting a journey through hell, Dante and his guide Virgil descend deeper and deeper, without turning anywhere, and in the end find themselves in the same place from which they entered it.

The strangeness of this hellish geometry was noticed by the famous Russian mathematician, philosopher and theologian Pavel Florensky. He proved very reasonably that Dante’s hell is based on non-Euclidean geometry. Like the entire Universe in the concepts of modern physics, hell in the poem has a finite volume, but has no boundaries, which was proved (theoretically) by the Swiss Weil.

Muslim hell

It looks like a Christian hell and an underworld that awaits Muslims. Among the stories of The Thousand and One Nights, seven circles are told. The first is for the faithful who have died an unjust death, the second is for apostates, the third is for the pagans. Jinn and the descendants of Iblis himself inhabit the fourth and fifth circles, Christians and Jews – the sixth. The innermost, seventh circle is waiting for the hypocrites.

Before getting here, souls await the great Doomsday, which will come at the end of time. However, the wait does not seem long to them.

Like most other sinners, visitors to the Islamic Hell are eternally roasted on fire, and every time their skin is burned, it grows again. The Zakkum tree grows here, the fruits of which, like the heads of the devil, are the food of the punished. Do not try the local cuisine: these fruits boil in the stomach like molten copper.

Those who eat them are tormented by intolerable thirst, but the only way to quench it is to drink boiling water so foul-smelling that it “melts the insides and skin.” In short, this is a very, very hot place. In addition, Allah even enlarges the bodies of the kafirs, increasing their torment.

Honestly, none of the described hells arouses good feelings in us, especially in comparison with our small, but generally comfortable world. So where exactly to go is up to you. Of course, it is not possible to give a complete information about the structure of hell on the pages of the magazine.

However, we hope that our quick overview will help everyone who finds themselves there to quickly navigate and greet their new eternity with the words of John Milton:

“Hello, sinister world! Hello, Beyond Gehenna! “

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Spirituality

Chalk portrait of Virgin Mary appeared 13 years later, Mexican people call for miracles

A recent miraculous phenomenon on an asphalt road in Guadalupe, Mexico, the image of the Virgin Mary painted in chalk 13 years ago suddenly appeared. Local residents believe this "miraculous manifestation". (Video screenshot)

A mysterious phenomenon recently appeared on an asphalt road in Guadalupe, Mexico. A portrait of the Virgin Mary painted with chalk 13 years ago suddenly appeared. The local residents were quite surprised and believe in this “miraculous manifestation”.

This chalk-painted portrait of the Virgin is located on the asphalt pavement of an open-air parking lot next to the Guadalupe municipal government. It was an unknown person who held the “Bella Vía” (Bella Vía) in Guadalupe in 2007 Painted during the festival.

Recently, a man splashed water on the asphalt road there, and this portrait of the Virgin unexpectedly appeared again.

The staff of the city government said that the parking lot has undergone many changes and the city has also experienced extreme weather. This image should have disappeared a few years ago, but it has suddenly appeared miraculously recently.

After the incident spread in the local area, it immediately attracted a large number of people to watch, and city hall officials were also surprised. Many people believe that this is the miracle of the Virgin, and many believers come to worship and light candles and place flowers on the spot.

Félix Palomo, director of the Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Guadalupe Municipal Government, also shared a photo of this mysterious chalk drawing on Twitter and wrote:

“Believe it or not, the problem is that this portrait was created 13 years ago. How could it reappear afterwards?”

At present, the portrait of the Virgin Mary has been surrounded by traffic triangles, and the ground is often splashed with water to make the portrait of the Virgin Mary appear more clearly. As for why this chalk-drawn portrait of the Virgin Maru can be kept for 13 years, no experts have yet provided any explanation.

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Spirituality

The legend that connects the Holy Grail with a Polish village – The Knights Templar and the secret tunnels

Like all great travelers, the Knights Templar of medieval times needed some places to settle, and so they built some of the most impressive castles and cathedrals.

Famous examples of these 13th-century buildings are found throughout the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Less well known are the impressive chapels and fortifications they built in western Poland, where the Knights Templar and other crusaders colonized the area and began to weave their own mythology into the idyllic rural landscape.

A trip to the region of Western Pomerania and the villages of Chwarszczany, Myślibórz and Rurka – near the border with Germany – is an adventure in a neglected destination, where historical secrets are still revealed.

And, according to at least one local legend, there could still be hidden the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus Christ drank at the Last Supper and later had his blood.

The road to Chwarszczany, a village lost among fields and forests, is not very well known, and has few permanent residents. The village itself is a collection of faded houses with less than 100 inhabitants who have chickens and grow tomatoes in the summer.

The farms and houses built in the traditional German style, testify to the geopolitical unrest that has affected the area over the centuries.

The special, timeless chapels built by the Knights Templar

It is here that the Knights Templar established a place of worship. Made of red bricks on a granite base, the church of Agios Stanislaos was built in 1232 on an isolated spot.

The chapel is designed according to the Temple of the Temples, an intricate code that the knights obeyed for fear of exile from the fraternity. The appearance of the building is defensive, its high walls are built to withstand attacks as well as the ravages of time.

It is still used as a place of worship, although Sunday mornings in Chwarszczany are quiet, we usually see about 30 parishioners gathered inside the chapel. There are two renovated frescoes on the walls.

The chapel in Chwarszczany

Discoveries are still being made here that shed new light on the lives and deaths of the knights and their followers. Among the finds below the sanctuary of the chapel are the bodies of some of the knights themselves and a possible secret passage.

Przemysław Kołosowski, an archaeologist working to preserve Chwarszczany’s medieval heritage, says that during excavations in 2019, researchers discovered more fortifications and a cemetery using ground-penetrating radar.

“Our GPR has identified gothic crypts with the remains of the Knights Templar beneath the chapel,” Kołosowski told CNN Travel. “According to legends and medieval documents, there was a well near the chapel. According to rumors, the well served as the entrance to a secret tunnel. “This requires further thorough archaeological research.”

The stories of the Knights Templar are a source of inspiration for movies

The Knights Templar have fascinated historians and archaeologists for years, in part because of the shady aspects of some of their practices.

Their Order was founded in Jerusalem in the 12th century to protect the pilgrims of the Holy Land. They became a powerful force throughout Europe, enjoying papal privileges, tax breaks and rich donations, while at the same time gaining legendary status.

The Knights Templar protected the Holy Grail

They are said to have become the patrons of the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, a sacred ark in which were kept the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses for the second time, and other sacred objects of the Israelis. These stories have inspired films such as Indiana Jones and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

“The Knights Templar are always involved in everything,” Italian writer Uberto Eco wrote in his book “Foucault’s Pendulum.” 

This certainly seems to be the case in 12th and 13th century Europe. In western Poland, landowners decided to prevent this entanglement by inviting knights to settle in what was then known as the Pojezierze Myśliborskie region.

Struggles for political power

About 40 miles (25 miles) north of Chwarszczany, another Romanesque building owes its existence to the medieval order. The Chapel of the Knights at Rurka is a rugged stone building dating back to 1250, built in the architectural style of the German region of Saxony.

In a secluded forest spot, the Rurka Chapel was sold to private hands in 1999 and is closed for renovation.

Going further northeast, after a 25-minute drive, travelers will reach Myślibórz, a narrow community of narrow roads surrounded by forests and four lakes.

The Knights Templar arrived in Mysliborz, Poland in the 13th century. It is an idyllic place, but the show here is stolen by the extremely preserved fortifications of the city, which today look almost as they look during the Crusades.

Myślibórz’s defense architecture provides a glimpse of what life was like in the Temple Age, when communities lived in fear of wars and struggles for political power.

Historical documents place the Knights Templar at Myślibórz from about 1238, when the land around their city was ceded to the local aristocrat, Duke Władysław Odonic.

The secrets of the swamp

The fortifications around Myślibórz were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The city has retained its medieval town planning, with a square in the middle. Around this market there is the 18th century town hall, and houses.

Even today, the main entrances to the city are through two medieval gates, the Pyrzycka Gate and the Nowogródzka Gate, which were built in the early 13th and 14th centuries. Modern roads allow cars to enter the city through the gates. Inside the fortifications there is a cylindrical stone tower with loopholes.

The Holy Grail has inspired many books and movies

Visitors should ask about a secret underground tunnel that runs down the city, from the large church on Market Square to the Dominican convent, which, according to Karolczak, was originally the site of the Temple of the Knights Templars.

After the expulsion of the Knights Templar from Myślibórz in the late 13th century, their legendary treasure disappeared. Karolczak says that according to local tradition, the treasure was sunk by the Knights themselves, in a nearby lake.

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