The origins of paradise: the earliest journeys to Elysium and heaven
by Professor Piotr Bienkowski
An extract from Where Airy Voices Lead: A Short History of Immortality (O Books, 2020)
Many people today believe in an eternal heaven and hell. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of US adults believe in heaven and 58 percent in hell. Yet there are no single agreed descriptions of heaven and hell. Just the Christian view of heaven alone has been endlessly imagined over 2000 years with little consensus: as a heavenly Jerusalem; a garden paradise; a place where angels sing eternal praises to God; where we meet our loved ones and remember everything; a place with hierarchies and grades of reward, where our bodies are perfected and purified and we have no desires; or as a state of perfection and love outside time and space, which is not a ‘place’ at all – and sometimes a mix of these. If you do end up in heaven, which heaven will it be?
Different religions, cultures and individuals have imagined myriad possible heavens and hells, although there are overlaps and common motifs. Many descriptions of heaven in different cultures essentially repeated motifs – for example, that of a temple or palace, a heavenly city or a garden paradise – which had become traditional, especially in Christianity, or adapted motifs first encountered in classical descriptions, for example the idea of Elysium. Cultural borrowing permeates ideas about the afterlife, and it can be difficult to untangle and judge which idea came first.
The word ‘paradise’ itself comes from the Greek paradeisos, used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, for the Garden of Eden, and the Greek word in its turn was borrowed from Old Persian paira-daeza, which means ‘enclosure’, ‘park’ or ‘garden’. The shift to the meaning of paradise as a heavenly pleasure garden, or heaven itself, and the abode of the righteous dead in the afterlife, was secondary, possibly inspired by the Greek idea of Elysium, at a time when Greek ideas were influential on early Jewish and Christian thought.
So where do our ideas about what heaven is like come from?
In the ancient Near East and early Greece, the cosmos was understood as being in three layers: earth, the underworld and heaven. Earth was for humans. Under the earth was the bleak underworld, the abode of the dead and the gods of the underworld, where all who died were destined to go, regardless of virtue or lack of it. Above the earth was heaven, populated solely by the gods. Heaven was not for humans, and a theme of some of the early legends is that humans might visit heaven temporarily, but they cannot stay there, nor do they have any hope of immortality.
In the classical world, the underworld offered a bleak continued existence for all dead souls. But something better was reserved for heroes, the distinguished and the privileged: a paradise called Elysium (alternatively the Elysian Fields or Plain). This is first mentioned in Book 4 of Homer’s Odyssey, written between 750 and 650 BCE, as the destination of Menelaus, Helen of Troy’s husband:
Gods will carry you
off to the world’s end, to Elysium…
There is no snow, no heavy storms or rain,
but Ocean always sends up gentle breezes
of Zephyr to refresh the people there.
This description is remarkably like that of Olympus, the home of the gods, in Book 6:
The place is never shaken by the wind,
or wet with rain or blanketed by snow.
A cloudless sky is spread above the mountain,
white radiance all round. The blessed gods
live there in happiness forevermore.
By the fifth century BCE, in the writings of the poet Pindar (c. 518-c. 446 BCE), entry to Elysium had broadened to include the righteous. A similar place originally reserved for the privileged few were the Isles of the Blessed, a mythical, winterless home of the happy dead, which some classical writers in fact identified with Elysium. In Plato’s Gorgias, a little after Pindar, Socrates described a myth, which he said he believed, concerning the reward of virtuous and the punishment of unrighteous souls. At a crossroads, the virtuous were sent one way to the Isles of the Blessed, the unrighteous the other way to Tartarus to undergo punishment: here, some of the wicked could be cured, an idea adapted much later into the Christian notion of purgatory.
A more detailed description of the underworld and of Elysium is found in the Aeneid. The Aeneid was unfinished when Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil (or Vergil), died in 19 BCE. It tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan, who travels to Italy and becomes the ancestor of the Romans. Borrowing themes from the Homeric epics, Virgil deliberately set out to write a Roman national epic, linking Rome to the Trojan War and making the hero, Aeneas, an ancestor of the emperor Augustus.
In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas journeys to visit his dead father, Anchises, in Elysium. Virgil locates Elysium in part of the underworld, which was itself in a real place, north-west of Naples, where volcanic activity had supposedly created an entrance to the underworld. Nearby was the town of Cumae, and it was the Cumaean Sibyl, an aged virgin prophetess, who led Aeneas on his journey.
The entrance to the underworld is a miserable place:
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle…
…and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.
This entrance is guarded by monstrous creatures: Centaurs, the man-eating dog-women Scyllas, the hundred-armed Briareus, a fiercely hissing seven-headed serpent Hydra, the Chimaera breathing fire, snake-haired Gorgons and winged-demon Harpies. Once ferried across the River Acheron, guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus with serpents writhing round his neck, there are places for dead infants (an idea later echoed by the Christian limbo), those condemned innocently and suicides. As in Plato’s Gorgias, the path divides: left to Tartarus, right to Elysium (instead of to Plato’s Isles of the Blessed, demonstrating that the two were essentially interchangeable).
Virgil describes their entry into Elysium,
the land of joy, the fresh green fields,
the Fortunate Groves where the blessed make their homes.
Some of the privileged dead here take part in sport, or dance and sing, or feast:
We live in shady groves,
we settle on pillowed banks and meadows washed with brooks.
This is not dissimilar to some descriptions of the ancient Egyptian afterlife. There may have been direct cultural borrowing between the Egyptian Field of Reeds (the domain of Osiris, god of the underworld, synonymous with fertility) and Greek Elysium – indeed, the ancient Greeks themselves recognised the similarity, and explained that the mythical Orpheus brought the idea over from Egypt to Greece. If there is any truth at all in this, then, given the huge influence that the bucolic images of Elysium were to wield over future descriptions of heaven, we can credit the ancient Egyptians with inventing the idea of the afterlife as a restful paradise.
The heaven of the Aeneid is reserved for the gods: Jupiter’s palace on Olympus is among the stars, from which he looks down on earth, while gods often sit on clouds. A very different journey to heaven is found in the Roman orator and politician Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’, from Book 6 of his De republica, written in 52 BCE. Although this predates the Aeneid, its vision of heaven departs from the traditional classical depiction of a tripartite cosmos, with an underworld and an Elysium, as in Homer and Virgil. Cicero’s heaven is informed both by Plato’s philosophy of the soul and by the discoveries of Greek and Roman astronomy. From the sixth century BCE onwards, astronomical observation had become more accurate, and the Greeks developed the idea of a spherical, as opposed to a flat, earth, with the seven planetary spheres above: the moon, sun, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the fixed stars. Later, Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170 CE) synthesised this into a new structure of the cosmos and explained the motions of the heavenly bodies. These discoveries had a huge impact on how the afterlife was understood: rather than being located in an underworld, or somewhere at the world’s end, ‘heaven’ came to be conceived as being beyond the known planetary bodies.
In a dream, Scipio’s dead grandfather tells him that a special place in heaven is assigned to loyal subjects, where they may enjoy an eternal life of happiness. Scipio’s dead father and grandfather are in fact still alive, but their souls have been released from the bonds of the body. At death, the souls of loyal subjects are released from the body and dwell in the Milky Way. Scipio is elevated above the earth and shown the structure of the cosmos. His grandfather shows him nine concentric circles, the outermost of which is heaven, containing all the rest. The other eight circles are the planetary bodies known to Greek and Roman astronomy: the stars, planets, sun and moon, which revolve in the opposite direction to heaven. Below the moon, everything is mortal and doomed to decay, while above the moon everything is eternal.
This vision of heaven is a reward for good and loyal behaviour. But the souls of those who indulge in sensual pleasure fly close to the earth and only return to heaven after many ages of torture. Scipio hears the music of the celestial spheres as they move, producing sweet harmonies – a sound mortal men are deaf to.
Astronomical observations had a profound impact on Jewish, Christian and, later, Islamic ideas of what heaven might be like. Once the nature of the cosmos was understood as being more complex than the old tripartite system, heaven too developed from single to multiple levels. Many of the journeys to heaven envisaged an ascent not to a single heaven, but through several levels, sometimes roughly corresponding to the planetary spheres. Seven levels were common (the likely origin of the phrase ‘in seventh heaven’, i.e. the ultimate joy, since the seventh and final level is where God resides), but sometimes there were three, five or ten levels, and later Jewish rabbinic speculation concluded that there could be more than 955 heavens. Multiple levels of heaven became common in early Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, culminating in the nine levels of Dante’s heaven in his Divine Comedy.
About the author/BIO
Piotr Bienkowski's disciplinary background is as an archaeologist and museum curator. He has been Professor of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Manchester, Director of Manchester Museum, Chair of the North West Federation of Museums and Galleries, and before that Head of Antiquities at National Museums Liverpool. For many years, he was editor of Levant, the journal of the Council for British Research in the Levant, and editor of the British Academy Monographs in Archaeology series.
He has published 15 books and around 50 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals and books, as well as around 80 other publications. He now runs a cultural consultancy working in the UK and Europe. He is a leading authority on the archaeology of Jordan and directs an excavation in Petra.
Copyright © 1998 - 2020 Mystic Living Today All rights, including copyright, in the content of these Mystic Living Today web pages are owned or controlled for these purposes by Planet Starz, Inc. |
Terms of Service
Disclaimer and Legal Information
For questions or comment, contact Starzcast@mysticlivingtoday.com. Reproduction of this page in any form is not allowed without permission of the author and the owner of this site. All material on this web site, including text, photographs, graphics, code and/or software, are protected by international copyright and trademark laws. Unauthorized use is not permitted. You may not modify, copy, reproduce, republish, upload, post, transmit or distribute, in any manner, the material on this web site. Unless permissions is granted. If you have any questions or problems regarding this site, please e-mail Webmaster. Web site design by: Creative Net FX