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Devoured by a monstrous worm or boiled nude in a vat of searing pus — what sort of extraordinary agonies await you sinners in the afterlife? Mythological and religious concepts of death and the afterlife are loaded with convolution, ambiguity, and speculation. Many cultures embrace a trial of judgment after death, whereupon their souls are either salvaged or pitched into eternal damnation. Here we will look at five representations of hell, and what transpires during that final judgment.

Chinese Mythology: Diyu

article-imageFengdu Ghost City, which was built to represent Diyu (photograph by Robin/Flickr)

In Chinese mythology the concept of Diyu, or "earth prison," meshes the combined afterlife variants of Confucianism, Taoism, folk tales, and the Buddhist hell realm of Naraka. Diyu serves as a temporary zone in which the dead are brutally smited until their tenderized souls are ready for reincarnation. Originally consisting of over 90,000 hells, various interpretations have reduced the number to ten courts or 18 levels, each dealing with a different atonement.

King Yama, wrathful ruler of Diyu, oversees the punishment of all the dead and administers a formidable yet temporary, atonement that directly correlates to the severity of their sins. Perpetrators may be sawed in half, trampled and penetrated by a horned beast, deep fried in a wok, or be forced to climb mountains barbed with knives.

For mortals who want to get a taste of Diyu before their judgment day comes, they may visit Fengdu, the Chinese "ghost city" modeled after the nether world and its daunting trials.

Torture in the afterlife in Fengdu City (photograph by GS3/Wikimedia)

Norse Paganism: Niflheim

article-imageNidhogg at the Wodan Timbur Coaster (photograph by Jérémy Jännick)

As one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, Hel, or Helheim, is the kingdom of souls for the common civilian who did not earn his death through battle. Eponymously named for this underworld, Hel was also the guardian of the realm, a hulking beast of a woman with a half-blackened face of corpse-like beauty. In the 13th century, Poetic Edda and Icelandic poet Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda, suggest that Hel and its even icier netherworld Niflheim ("World of Fog") were places of the blackest, bitterest, frigid dread.

In the depths of Niflheim, the lowest roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, stretch down for nourishment from Hvergelmir, a boiling cauldron of a well. Nidhogg (meaning “malice striker,” or “striker in the dark”), a 30-foot, carrion-obsessed worm gnaws on the roots of the tree while she waits for delectable corpses of perjurers, adulterers, and murderers to wash up on Dead Man’s Shore. Before Christian influence brought focus to individualized punishment for one’s moral standing, the pagan concept envisioned a neutral destination of rot and renewal. Like worms in a compost bin, the messengers of death in the Norse underworld act to encourage rebirth. Old branches die off so that new ones grow stronger. As is true for the Earth itself, the living can only flourish with the existence of decay.

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Earlier this year, the metal façade of the American Folk Art Museum was dismantled and taken into storage as the Museum of Modern Art absorbs the institution's former home. The loss of the fortress-like architecture on West 53rd Street is just the latest in the merging and destruction of New York City's museums. These vanished museums — either closed completely or now invisible inside another, larger museum — all contributed to the cultural landscape of the city today, even if their names are mostly forgotten. Below are ten of these lost museums. 

Broadway and Ann Street, Manhattan

article-imageScudder's American Museum, in the former NYC poor house (via NYPL)

One of the first museums to draw the crowds in Manhattan was Scudder's American Museum, which ran from 1810 to 1841. First lodged in the city's former almshouse, it was started by John Scudder with the acquisition of some smaller museum collections, including the Baker's American Museum. Eventually it relocated to a five-story building at Broadway and Ann Street, where patrons could pay a small price to see an 18-foot live snake, taxidermy dioramas, a two-headed lamb, magic lantern slides, bed sheets from Mary, Queen of Scots, and some macabre curios like a wax figure cut by a guillotine. It was even open until 9 pm, to wander by candlelight.

As P. T. Barnum wrote in 1869: "People in all parts of the country had sent in relics and rare curiosities; sea captains, for years, had brought and deposited strange things from foreign lands; and besides all these gifts, I have no doubt that the previous proprietor had actually expended, as was stated, $50,000 in making the collection." In fact, Barnum was so impressed with the museum, he decided to buy it and transform it into the greatest spectacle the city had known. 

Broadway and Ann Street, Manhattan

article-imageBarnum's American Museum in New York (19th century illustration) (via

When Barnum bought Scudder's American Museum in 1841, he turned the building at Broadway and Ann Street into a billboard blaring a jubilee of entertainment, from sideshow fakes like the Feejee Mermaid (really a monkey and fish sewn together) to living wonders like the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. A gargantuan Lecture Room hosted theatrical and educational events, and real animals as exotic as beluga whales delighted massive crowds.

Imitators sprung up all over the Bowery with dime museums, but Barnum was uncontested, at least until a devastating fire in 1865 that burned the whole place to the ground. Some reportedly cheered at the destruction of the sometimes banal and grotesque museum, but most were horrified at the loss of the city's major cultural destination. Barnum tried again with another location, but that, too, burned down in 1868, so instead he went on the road with the circus that still has his name. 

252 Broadway, Manhattan

article-imagePeale's Museum (1825 watercolor) (via Museum of the City of New York)

A rival of Barnum was Rubens Peale, son of naturalist and Baltimore and Philadelphia museum creator Charles Wilson Peale. Peale set up his own New York museum in 1825, like Barnum offering a mix of natural and sensational wonders on Broadway, although a little more refined. As the Bowery Boys explain in their thorough post on the museum, Rubens "was sensitive to some of the cheap ploys of [his father's] Philadelphia Museum (live animals, displays of human deformities) and tried to keep his New York museum a dignified affair, although today we would find its use of waxworks and flashy lectures rather silly."

Eventually he rechristened the Peale's Museum as the New York Museum of Natural History and Science, but séances and mesmerism were still known to take place within the walls. Unfortunately, Peale's wunderkammer was wrecked by the Panic of 1837, and the impossible competition from Barnum. 

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In January of 1661, King Charles II of England ordered the exhumation of the corpses of Henry Ireton, John Bradshaw, and Oliver Cromwell. He arranged to have the bodies hanged and beheaded because the three men presided over the trial and execution of his father, King Charles I.

The corpses were hanged at the Tyburn gallows, and their bodies were left there until the afternoon. The corpses were then decapitated and buried under the gallows. According to tradition, it took eight blows to separate Cromwell’s head from his corpse.

The heads of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw were impaled on 20-foot spikes through the base of the skull then displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall. Cromwell’s head stayed on the spike for more than 20 years before it disappeared.

 article-imageDrawing of Cromwell's head, from Pennant's 'London' (1790) (via Wikimedia)

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is considered an enigmatic and contentious historical figure. He became a Puritan, committed to carrying out God’s plan following a spiritual crisis in the 1630s. He started out as a Member of Parliament during the reign of King Charles I (1600-1649), but became Lord Protector after the execution of the king.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) started when King Charles I and members of Parliament couldn’t agree on reforms that would check the King’s power. Cromwell fought on the side of the Parliamentarians against the Royalists and commanded successful military engagements that led to their surrender.

Cromwell played a decisive role during the trial of King Charles I, and was one of the people who signed his death warrant. In 1653, he was sworn in as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland for life. Cromwell died in 1658 at the age of 59 from an infection of his urinary tract or kidneys. During a post-mortem examination, Cromwell’s cranium was cut open so his physician could study his brain, then his body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Charles II returned to England after Cromwell’s death and made sure all of the signatories to King Charles I’s death warrant were punished.

article-imageOliver Cromwell's death mask at Warwick Castle (photograph by Terry Robinson/Flickr)

While the whereabouts of the heads of Ireton and Bradshaw have drawn little interest, the Lord Protector’s remains have attracted considerably more attention.

In 1875, Dr. George Rolleston examined two heads that were reported to belong to Cromwell, and compared them to Cromwell’s death mask. The first was a skull from the collection at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Rolleston believed this skull didn’t belong to Cromwell because the damage around the hole in the parietal bone indicated that a spike entered from the top of the head, not the bottom. Also, there was no flesh left on the skull and no evidence that it had been embalmed.

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article-image20 Fenchurch Street, aka "The Fryscraper" (photo by Luc Mercelis / Flickr)

Last September, Londoners experienced a pretty unusual architectural phenomenon: One of the city's newest luxury towers, the half-finished 525-foot-tall skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch St., began inexplicably shooting a "parabolic death ray" hot enough to melt cars. The massive building's glass façade with its unusually wide top was concentrating sunlight to the point that it created a reflected hotspot of up to 230ºF — much higher than the boiling point of water. In addition to the roasted Jaguar, the "Fryscraper" set a barber shop's carpet on fire and shattered a restaurant's slate floor tiles. It also, naturally, became a tourist attraction, with people gathering in the unseasonably warm afternoons to fry eggs and toast baguettes in the glare. 

Surely the building's designer was mortified by the results of his creation, right? Well, no. When architect Rafael Viñoly was questioned about his flawed design, he heartily deflected, blaming consultants, global warming, cost-cutting developers, and the sun's elevation. This was an especially galling disavowal of responsibility because the science of solar reflectivity analysis has been gaining traction for several years. There are many tools, firms, and even apps available to architects and developers to help avoid just this problem. Especially damning for Viñoly is that the "death ray" issue was not actually unprecedented. And the last time a high-profile building had had problems of this nature, it was also one he'd designed. 

Vdara Hotel in Vegas (photo by brx0 / Flickr)

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The foundation of Atlas Obscura is contributed by intrepid users around the world, out exploring the places no one else is noticing, or delving into history that's been all but forgotten. Here we are highlighting five of our favorite recent additions to the Atlas. Have a place we've missed? Create an account and become a part of our community.

Royse City, Texas

article-imagephotograph by amboy

Finnish architect Matti Suuronen had a dream of affordable prefab housing that could roam from beach to mountain, and since he was designing this in the 1960s, his dream home looked like a UFO. Unfortunately with the oil crisis of the 1970s making plastic expensive, and maybe people not ready for extraterrestrial living, fewer than 100 Futuro Houses were built, and now less than 50 survive. One Futuro House in Royse City, Texas, added with great photographs by Atlas Obscura user amboy, has been left to retrofuture ruin as if it crash landed and its aliens moved on. 

Arinj, Armenia

article-imagephotograph by littleham

In 1985, Levon Arakelyan's wife asked for a potato cellar, and he spent until his death in 2008 constructing a labyrinth of caves instead. Levon's Divine Underground in Arinj, Aremenia, added with subterranean photographs by littleham, stretches 70 feet beneath the house above with stunning halls and interlaced rooms embedded with small shrines. 

Orinda, California

article-imagephotograph by Mallory Pickett

When the Fairy Post Office, added with whimsical photographs by Mallory Pickett, was placed in a hollow of a tree in a park in Orinda, California, in 2013, its creators expected the tiny letter depot to be an ephemeral installation. Instead, the miniature post office expanded, with visitors adding trinkets and wall maps, and exchanging letters with fairies and field mice. 

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