For the Greeks, Hell was a place called Tartarus, and its three most famous inhabitants were Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the hill, Ixion, strapped to a wheel for eternity, and Tantalus, forever unable to quench his thirst. For ancient Norsemen, the great abyss that formed the boundary of the ocean and the world, Ginnungagap, was derived from Tartarus and Chaos. Europeans whose lands bordered the mighty Ottoman Empire appropriated the word and used it to demonize their enemies, “The Monstrous Tartar.”
From the British Museum: “Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: )”
Aeschylus, Virgil, Aristophanes, and Homer before them, wrote eloquently about hell. In Prometheus Bound
, Aeschylus writes, “Oh if only he had hurled me below the earth, yes beneath Hades, the entertainer of the dead, into impassable Tartarus, and had ruthlessly fastened me in fetters no hand can loose, so that neither god nor any other might have gloated over this agony I feel!”
In Birds, Aristophanes says, “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence.”
In the Iliad, Homer writes of the saffron-robed dawn, and Zeus threatening to hurl into Tartarus anyone who dares oppose him.
Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: “Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.”
Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th century, wrote of Tartarus in The Danish History, saying that the vanquished King Harald would “outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus.” The king who slew him, Ring, prayed that “Pluto, the lord of Orcus, [would] grant a calm abode there for friend and foe.”
Grammaticus also told of an expedition to a land of the dead by an Icelander named Thorkillus. Somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea, this place was known as Gandvik in the Norse, derived from a word meaning “magic.”
Icelanders used to tell incredible stories of enormous riches piled up there, but the way to this place was full of dangers and almost inaccessible to mortals. According to the experts of this route, one had to cross the Ocean that surrounds the Earth, leaving Sun and stars behind, traveling to the kingdom of chaos and finally moving into places without light, shrouded in perpetual darkness.
Thorkillus traveled to the place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.
For those Europeans who suffered the geographical misfortune of living along the warpath of Ottoman Sultans, nothing but the most extreme depiction of their enemies would do.
The image above, from the British Museum, explains that Tartars were monsters, no doubt from the pit of hell. The word was first used in this sense in the 13th century, referring to the hordes of Ghengis Khan. “… from Medieval Latin Tartarus, from Persian Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said to be ultimately from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by Latin Tartarus ‘hell.'”
The Online Etymology Dictionary also says that a phrase from the 1660s — “to catch a Tartar” — means “get hold of what cannot be controlled.”
My own purposes for the word Tartarus are more mundane. It only appears once, in what is now Chapter 7 of my novel. Mina and her protector Sa’d, are shopping in Galata for a map of Anatolia. Naturally, they visit the map-maker.
It looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Scrolls, paper, books, twine and dust lay everywhere, on tables and shelves in the front of the store, and Mina could only imagine what might be seen behind the heavy curtain at the back.
“What do you need?” Shouted the owner. “I have it!” He scuttled out from behind the curtain, a small man covered with an apron and bearing a most delicate knife.
“A map of the empire from here to the Caspian Sea,” Sa’d replied.
“Should that include the regions toward Egypt, or the other direction toward the Tsar and his beastly hordes?”
“The beastly hordes.” To Mina, he said, grinning, “You knew there would be beastly hordes, right?”
“Yes, I suppose so, although I hadn’t considered it directly. Are they as bad as they sound?”
“Worse!” said the proprietor. “Their knives are a thousand times the size of this.” He raised the sharp little knife and slashed the air dramatically. “But I use mine to greater effect. I can slice the world in half, while they are limited to slaughtering a few hundred men a day. Where are you going? As far as Astrakhan? Up the Volga River? Even to Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?”
“Not as far as that, cartographer.” Sa’d smiled, clearly enjoying the man’s histrionics. “Just the Caspian. A merchant’s route, if you have one.”
I’ve done a fair bit of research on ancient maps, but I don’t know what kind travelers might have actually carried with them. In my mind, Mina acquires something simpler than the map of Natolia produced by Joan Blaeu in 1635, seen below, and Tartarus is (of course) not depicted.
“The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.” From the Facsimile Edition of the Atlas Blaeu.
Finally, a shameless plug. If you’d like to read the first two chapters of my novel, head over to WattPad. Criticism encouraged!