Weird History

Purgatory Doesn't Appear In The Bible, So Where Did It Come From? 

Melissa Sartore
Updated June 28, 2019 10.2k views 13 items

What happens when you die? According to Catholic theology, you go to either Heaven or Hell, but to reach either you must go through a liminal space between them called Purgatory. It is a location and state of being associated with Catholicism, but it is derived from pagan traditions where the soul is judged and cleansed. Like many pagan concepts of death and the afterlife, Purgatory is a location that offers a path to salvation.

Though it began merely as a state of being for souls neither fully good nor fully bad, popes, clergymen, and theologians throughout the Middle Ages expanded its role in the Catholic church and established Purgatory as a specific location between Heaven and Hell, while medieval authors and artists further fleshed out the look and layout. Purgatory does not appear in the Bible, but the development of Purgatory as an ominous, spiritual place where you are dead and waiting for judgment is tied up in prayer, penance, and sin through centuries of theological debate.

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The Term 'Purgatorio' First Appeared In Writing Within The 'Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii' 

The first use of the term purgatory - or purgatorio - occurred in the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, a 12th-century text attributed to H. of Saltrey. The author was most likely a Cistercian monk in Ireland, who recounted a tradition within the Irish church in which an Irish knight, Owein (also Owain, Eoghan, or John) visited St. Patrick's Purgatory.

Owein was a knight who fought during the 12th century. One day, he was alarmed at his own actions, specifically those committed during the civil war surrounding King Stephen's reign, and began to fear his eternal fate. As he contemplated his evil deeds, he confessed to the bishop and performed penance as a means of forgiveness and reconciliation. Owein was so contrite that he told the bishop he would travel to St. Patrick's Purgatory to achieve absolution. The bishop told him that was unnecessary and prescribed fasting and prayer instead.

Owein, determined to go to Purgatory, descended into a dark, gruesome hole with the hopes of seeing Paradise on the other side. For Owein, Purgatory was a means to an end. He persevered through Purgatory with the promise of salvation. 

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Purgatory Was Shown To St. Patrick During the Fifth Century CE

According to legend and the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, St. Patrick received divine guidance about purgatory from God. Patrick was a Christian missionary who lived at some point during the fifth century and wanted to save the Irish from paganism. However, the Irish would not convert to Christianity unless he proved himself able to cross to the other world and back again.

According to one version of the legend, while Patrick slept one night, or perhaps in a vision, St. Patrick was visited by God who led him to a sparse, barren location. The divine guide showed him a pit and told him that anyone who entered into the place and spent one day and one night there would receive absolution. When St. Patrick awoke, there was a book and a staff before him, left by God as symbols of authenticity. 

While the details of the story differ depending on the source, in all tellings, St. Patrick was the recipient of divine knowledge, and it was he who found the entrance to St. Patrick's Purgatory.

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The Early Church Fathers Theorized Intermediary States For Souls Neither Good Nor Bad

As a pilgrimage site, St. Patrick's Purgatory gained increasing importance during the Middle Ages, but the early Church Fathers discussed the idea behind a purgatory-like state previous to the Middle Ages. During late antiquity, St. Augustine of Hippo argued that there are some "who have departed this life, not so bad as to be deemed unworthy of mercy, nor so good as to be entitled to immediate happiness." 

He identified souls that carried over to the afterlife still tainted by sin but worthy of purification, suggesting that there must have, therefore, been an intermediary state where this took place. 

A century later, St. Isidore of Seville further justified this idea, using the book of Matthew 12:32, which states that "whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him, but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come" to justify the idea that "some sins will be forgiven and purged away by a certain purifying fire" in between this life and the next.

In both instances, the purification of the soul took place after death, but not in a physical location. Purgatory, as it would become known, was for different types of sinners whose souls needed to be saved in order to achieve salvation. 

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People Were Making Pilgrimages To St. Patrick's Purgatory Before The Legend Was Recorded

According to the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, Owein's journey to Purgatory took place around 1150. The text itself was written sometime during the 1180s, but there were references to a pilgrimage site associated with St. Patrick as early as 1120. David, the Irish rector at Wurzburg in Germany, described St. Patrick's Purgatory in his own works, but these were far less known than those that recounted Owein's journey and the legend that developed around it. 

It is widely believed that St. Patrick's Purgatory is located on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Pilgrims must undergo three days of fasting, sleep deprivation, and exposure to hyperthermia. 15,000 visitors still undergo this difficult religious experience every year.

St. Patrick's Purgatory's increasing popularity and presence in Christian literature reflected the growth of the concept of purgatory itself. The contributions of Church Fathers like St. Augustine and the experiences of holy men like St. Patrick synthesized to establish Purgatory as a Roman Catholic truth.