In a previous posting, I discussed the “Terrible Judgment” icon type that depicts the second coming of Jesus. And I mentioned that the common motif of the giant serpent with “tollhouses” as rings on his body was not originally a part of the type, but but came later. It appears to have been added to Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” in the latter part of the 1400s.
It is not surprising that it was a later addition, because technically, it is not really a part of the Last Judgment, but rather it depicts the sequence of “little judgments” that ordinary Russian believers thought the soul had to endure, passing through a sequence of “aerial tollhouses” as it rose into the sky after death.
The primary textual source for aerial tollhouses is a dubious document called The Life of St. Basil the Younger, supposedly written by Basil’s disciple Gregory. There is good reason to believe, however, that Basil is a largely, possibly even totally, fictional character used by the writer of The Life as a pretext for presenting his view of the afterlife and other matters. In any case, the document seems to date to the latter half of the 10th century.
What exactly are these tollhouses? They are believed to be barriers in ascending order through which the soul must rise and pass after death. At each tollhouse a demon interrogates the soul for particular kinds of sins, and demands payment. If the soul does not have enough “cash” in the form of good deeds and piety — “cash” attested to by an accompanying angel, then the soul can rise no farther, but is taken down to Hades to await the Last Judgment at the second coming of Jesus.
What are all these demons doing up in the sky with their little tollhouses? Where did this notion of demons in the sky come from? Well, it derives from a notion popular in the early days of Christianity. By that date, there was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that the universe was like a multi-story building, with one level stacked atop another. The level between earth and the moon was believed to be the lowest. In the Christian view, when Satan and his angels were cast out of Heaven, they took as their realm the “sub-lunary” layer or sphere, which extends from the earth all the way to the moon. Consequently, early Christianity got the notion that the world and the air above it were filled with demons, all trying to cause trouble and to tempt humans to evil. The sub-lunary (“below the moon”) level was believed to be the most impure and contaminated level. There were higher levels atop that, with God residing at the very top, like a wealthy man in a penthouse.
In some icons, such as this 19th-century illustration depicting the death and immediate afterlife of St. Theodora, the tollhouses are pictured as a kind of stairway, each with the name of its appropriate sin:
The tale of Theodora and the tollhouses is given in the Life of St. Basil the Younger. At lower left we see the dying Theodora, with an angel receiving her soul in the form of an infant. To the right of the angel is Death. Outside the building to the right, we see Death arriving, seated on a lion, just as depicted in icons of the type “The Only-begotten Son.” The stairway with its demon-manned tollhouse stages to Heaven is at the right.
Other examples may simply show the soul of the believer in the form of a child accompanied by an angel, stopping at clouds on the ascent, each cloud being the tollhouse of a different demon or demons.
Here is one segment of 20 tollhouse depictions in the Monastery of St. John of Rila, in Bulgaria:
At left is the accompanying angel, and beside him the Christian soul. At right are demons holding scrolls showing the sins examined at that tollhouse. The white inscription at top center reads;
Muitarstvo 3 (remember that Cyrillic letters can be used as numbers).
Muitarstvo means “tollhouse” (plural мытарства — muitarstva).
So this illustration depicts Tollhouse #3. The word on the red demon’s scroll — СРАМОСЛОВИЕ (Sramoslovie) tells us he is checking for obscene speech, and the grey demon’s scroll reads for foolish speech — БУЕСЛОВИЕ — (Bueslovie).
The number of tollhouses shown varies from icon to icon. And of course the ascending arrangement, with demons blocking progress, reminds one of the icon type “The Ladder of John Climacus (Klimakos) — but that is a topic for another day.
The notion of the sub-lunary realm being in the control of demons — “the powers of the air” — plays a significant role in Christian belief as early as the writings of Paul. Ephesians 2:2 speaks of the “Prince of the Power of the Air” ( τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος,) and it is a significant topic for those who investigate early Christian belief, as well as the possibility that Jesus may have been originally a mythic being thought to have descended into the sub-lunary realm, being crucified there, unrecognized by the demon controllers of the region. An excellent and well-researched book on the topic is:
On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We MIght Have Reason for Doubt, by Richard Carrier: (Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd (2014) )