- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
History Today -
“Maps of Paradise is a highly readable yet deeply learned journey into how ‘humankind has yearned for a timeless elsewhere’, searching for ‘perfect bliss, remote either in time or in space.’”
PARADISE NOWHERE AND ELSEWHERE
Bayazid said, 'paradise is of no worth to those who love'. Rabia had a related saying: 'First the neighbour, then the house'. That is, the neighbour, or God, is more important than the house, or paradise.
FARID UD-DIN ATTAR, IRAN, TWELFTH CENTURY
BEYOND THE CLOUD OF THE PRESENT MOMENT
United States of America, 9 September 1971: an English musician releases an album whose first track is a three-minute song imbued with melody and poetry. War is escalating in Vietnam; nuclear weapons pose a serious threat to the earth's environment and humanity; authoritarian governments and big multinational businesses impose a fabric of exploitation and oppression everywhere. The message of the new song is a call for peace, a reminder that we are all one country, one world, one people.
The song, Imagine by John Lennon, soon becomes iconic, soaring to worldwide fame and commercial success. For some, it is still one of the greatest melodies of modern times. Through it, the Liverpudlian singer and songwriter urged his listeners to envisage '... all the people living life in peace' and challenged them to imagine, with him, a world without any other world: 'Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky'.
Is it possible to imagine a world where there are no other worlds? With no heaven or hell and with only the sky above? The history of religion shows that throughout the ages and in various places humankind has yearned for a timeless elsewhere. For several millennia human civilisations have borne witness to a deeply rooted longing, pressing against the boundaries of history and geography, moving in search of a beyond: a universal nostalgia for perfect bliss, remote either in time or in space. There have even been people who have maintained that there is nothing beyond the visible universe, and yet have nevertheless tried to open their own windows on to the horizon of some unattainable 'otherness'. All around the globe throughout human history and in the most varied of ways, people have longed for another world. They have imagined a perfect happiness existing somewhere at some time, as John Lennon did in his song of a world without religion and without the concepts of heaven and hell. Whatever the guise, secular or religious, a recurring trait across humanity has been to envisage perfect happiness at some past or future time, and/or in some remote place in the present.
In Hindu tradition, for example, original harmony and perfection, now lost, return to the world at the end of a series of cosmic cycles. Then, after the destruction of the universe, the earth will once again offer up its fruits spontaneously, and humankind will, no less spontaneously, follow the law and order of the cosmos. Hindu sources also refer to a mythical Mount Meru, located in the middle of the universe and surrounded by the cosmic ocean, on the peak of which is the paradise of Brahma, god of creation and of all supernatural beings. Tales of mountain islands inhabited by immortals, furnished with palaces of gold and where jewels grow on trees, are found also in Taoism and Buddhism. The ancient civilisations, such as those of the Chinese, the Sumerians, the Babylonians and Egyptians, all had their visions of other worlds. The Inuit of the Arctic lands, the Celts of central Europe, the peoples of South American forests and African deserts all have their 'paradises'. The Greeks and Romans conceived of a Golden Age and 'Islands of the Blessed'. As the perfect habitat for the first human couple, the Garden of Eden was a Hebrew tradition long before Christians adopted the Hebrew Bible as their Old Testament and closed their New Testament with the promise of a final perfection, to be established by God at the end of human history.
However described, all these paradises embody the past, refer to an inaccessible present and anticipate the future. In Europe, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer drew attention to the way that the enchantment of distance reveals paradises which then evaporate like a mirage. Happiness, according to Schopenhauer, is always in the future or in the past, never the present, which he likened to a small dark cloud driven by the wind over a sunny plain: all before and all behind is bright light, only the cloud itself casts a deep shadow. Yet however gloomy the place, and however cloudy the season, humankind yearns for the brightness that went before and is promised to come, and continues to search for the light beyond the horizon.
THE VICISSITUDES OF A WORD
As far as we know, a term pointing to 'paradise' first emerged on the lips of the Medes, a powerful and, for us, enigmatic ancient tribe in the Middle East and central Asia. In the late second millennium BC – more or less at the time when, according to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites to their Promised Land and when, according to Homeric mythology, the city of Troy fell to Odysseus's ruse of the Wooden Horse – the Medes settled on the Iranian plateau. By the seventh century bc they had formed a political confederation that a century later was conquered by Cyrus the Great and transformed into the Persian Empire. The Medes are important to our story, as we speculate that a Median word, possibly *pari-daiza-, passed to the Persians (but here pronounced as pari-daida-) to signify an enclosure. From pari-, meaning 'around', and daiza-, meaning 'a wall made of a malleable substance', such as clay (and derived from diz-, 'to mould' or 'to form'), in ancient Iran the word stood for something surrounded by a wall.
Words travel, and are liable to change their meaning along the way. The Persians conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and Babylonian documents dating from after the conquest contain the word pardesu, here referring to a vineyard. Clay tablets written between the sixth and the fifth centuries BC in Elamite, one of the official languages of the Persian administration, feature the word partetas (corresponding to a related Old Persian word, pari-daida-), indicating a storage place.
Shared historical events – such as the Graeco-Persian wars and the return of the Hebrew exiles to Judaea after the Babylonian captivity – as well as trade gave contemporary Hebrews and Greeks the word 'paradise' in their respective languages. Thus the Jewish prophet Nehemiah, who lived in the second half of the fifth century BC, and the unknown author of the Song of Songs (c.400 BC) used the Hebrew pardes to describe an orchard, a place in which to grow trees. Paridaiza- also appeared in ancient Greek as parádeisos [pron. parádêsos]. The word was used in this form by Xenophon, the fourth-century BC Greek soldier and historian.
As a matter of fact, we are left with no direct textual evidence of the early Median or Persian usage of the term: we only learn from the writings of Xenophon, a Greek familiar with the Persians, that in the ancient Persian empire the Median term *pari-daiza- indicated a hunting park for the enjoyment of the elite, especially kings. The term has been hypothetically reconstructed from the spelling pari-daêza- attested in Avestan (the old Iranian language used in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian sacred text). The Persian parádeisos, then, pointed to a large, well watered field, containing trees, flowers and animals and enclosed by a wall. Here royals and aristocrats chased wild beasts for recreation and to keep fit for war.
The Empire founded in the sixth century BC by Cyrus the Great crumbled two centuries later with Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia, but some of its semantic legacy survived in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, where parádeisos was used to indicate a pleasant garden or a royal park. The association of the word with divine perfection was first made when Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the third-century pharaoh of Hellenistic Egypt, had royal parks laid out around his palace on the model of the majestic Persian 'paradises'. Keen to enrich the great library in Alexandria and to incorporate its splendour into his court, the pharaoh ordered a group of Jewish scholars to translate the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch) into Greek, at that time the lingua franca throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
From an apocryphal Greek document known as the Letter of Aristeas (which could have been composed any time between 200 BC and AD 33), we learn that our habit of referring to 'paradise' began with Ptolemy II's patronage of science and culture. According to the Aristeas tradition, six members from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (72 scholars in all) were summoned by the pharaoh from Jerusalem to Alexandria to make the translation of the Pentateuch for his library. After 72 days the 72 scholars had created a perfect rendering in Greek. Each scholar had worked independently, but divine inspiration ensured that each had produced an identical text.
The translation made in the third century BC for Ptolemy II is today known as the Septuagint, from septuaginta – a Latin allusion to the 70 scholars who completed it. (The term was later extended to designate the Greek version of the entire Old Testament adopted by Christians.) When they came to the Book of Genesis and the account about Adam and Eve, the Jewish scholars chose the words parádeisos en Edem ('paradise in Eden') for Genesis 2.8 and parádeisos tês tryphês ('paradise of delight') for Genesis 3.23. The Greek rendering of the Hebrew gan eden ('Garden of Eden') sought to convey the image of a royal park worthy of God's finest creation. No doubt the scholars imagined the perfect habitat given by God at the beginning of time to the first human couple to resemble an eastern royal 'paradise', created for pleasure (eden means delight') rather than hunting. The Greek parádeisos, however, went further than the Hebrew gan in specifically designating an enclosed park. Indeed the biblical Eden, a garden full of trees, irrigated by four rivers and guarded by an angel with a flaming sword, seemed to describe a true 'paradise' – an enclosed, pleasant and well watered grove similar to those enclosed parks enjoyed by Persian monarchs. Thus from indicating simply an enclosed space, the word came to convey the perfect primordial garden on earth.
Soon, however, the term 'paradise' experienced a further, more significant promotion. In the course of the second century BC, 'paradise' began to signify not just the primordial garden on earth, but also the blissful state of heaven, to be enjoyed by the righteous at the end of human history. How and why the extension of meaning came about is uncertain. It seems that Jews were beginning to take a special interest in their fate after death. They may have been inspired by Greek accounts of delightful abodes in the afterlife, at the edge of the earth in places endowed with a perfect climate and shaded by lush vegetation, reserved for a chosen few heroes or, as in the Orphic tradition, to larger groups of the righteous. Or they may have begun to employ the term 'paradise' to indicate the eternal condition of happiness and perfection they hoped to enjoy after death. In the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, a verdant garden stands out in stark contrast to the desolation of the desert in the same way that life is the opposite of death.
Early Christians embraced the concept, with the images of heaven as a paradisiacal garden, or parádeisos, appearing on many occasions in the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Luke (23.43, compiled in the first century ad), Christ on the cross promised 'paradise' to the good thief, meaning 'heaven'; in his second letter to the Corinthians (12.4) Paul maintained that a visionary flight to the third heaven had carried him into 'paradise'; and in the book of the Revelation of St John the Divine (2.7) Christians are promised a reward for faithfulness in a place called the 'paradise' of God. In later centuries, accounts of the visions of Christian martyrs, the verses of poets and the speculations of theologians describe the Christian world to come, the reward of the faithful, as a fragrant park, full of light and rich in all kind of plants and flowers – truly a 'paradise'. Sometimes this took the shape of a city, the Heavenly Jerusalem; though no longer a garden, it was still always referred to as 'paradise'. From the first centuries of Christianity, the term 'paradise', originally denoting an enclosed space or, more specifically, a royal game reserve suitable for walking in or for hunting, has been associated with the destination of the righteous in the life to come. Whether a garden or a city, and however mysteriously located in the beyond, the idea of a wonderful paradise awaiting the devout took root and has endured.
Nowadays, however, the word 'paradise' has been hijacked for commercial purposes by the tourist industry (Fig 1). In the Western world, advertisements for holidays promise 'paradise' to stressed city dwellers in the shape of some distant but welcoming luxurious natural environment – a place no more than a simple flight away, in which they can relax from the pressures and worries of the ordinary world. All that is needed to book a holiday in 'paradise' is some cash. Words do indeed travel, and their meaning changes along the way.
ELUSIVE BUT EVERYWHERE
12 April 1961: for the first time ever, a human being leaves the earth's atmosphere and enters the void beyond, as yuri Gagarin orbits the globe in a Soviet spacecraft. On his return, stepping out of the spaceship, he boasts that he has been in heaven, but that he has not seen God. That is not surprising: scientists and astronomers today do not seriously consider the possibility of finding either the creator of the world or a heavenly 'paradise' in outer space. Notwithstanding, countless people on earth persist in worshipping a deity who is somewhere up there in heaven.
It is 1520, and we are in the University of Salamanca, in western Spain. Professor Pedro Margalho, a Portuguese cosmographer educated in Paris, has published his Physicae compendium. In this learned treatise he compares medieval doctrines about earth and water, lands and seas, views on the ground and distances in the sky with the actual experience of contemporary Portuguese navigators, who are leading the great European voyages of exploration. Margalho is well versed in canon law, scholastic theology and natural philosophy, and has been closely following all recent advances in geographical knowledge. In his book, he wonders whether the Portuguese seafarers have encountered the earthly paradise as they are sailing all over the world.
In fact they had made no such discovery. They were not, of course, really looking for paradise; nobody assumed Eden was to be found just around the corner. Nevertheless, the widespread belief in Western Europe, one which the Portuguese sailors would have shared, was that the Edenic garden, once inhabited by Adam and Eve, existed somewhere in a remote but inaccessible corner of the planet. The existence of a paradise in some mysterious 'beyond' on earth was beyond question.
It now seems that the notion of a paradise, located neither on earth nor in the heavens, has always existed and is ubiquitous. 'Paradise' is an enduring word that has permeated the different cultures of the Mediterranean basin. As we have seen, it has travelled from Persia, Greece and Palestine to Christian Europe. From first evoking plain clay walls, the word passed on to an incomparable and unsurpassable association with a heavenly region. Now it features as a global concept in discussions of world civilisations. Historians of religion and anthropologists explore different expressions of 'paradise' in religions, past and present, all over the world. It is clearly not restricted to Judaism or Christianity, reflecting rather a fundamental human need to experience, in one form or another, a nostalgia for the blessed state we call 'paradisiacal'. However this nostalgia is named or whatever form it is given – a perfect joy experienced at the beginning of time, or one that awaits us at time's end, or that is hidden in a secluded place – the common thread is that paradise remains inaccessible to living people and that it is outside ordinary human time.
A PARADISE REMOTE IN TIME OR SPACE
Many cultural traditions tell us that a 'paradise' existed yesterday, during a marvellous Golden Age; that it will return tomorrow in the glory of a divine eternity, when the imperfect world comes to an end; or that 'paradise' is already here, on some mysterious island beyond the ocean or in some remote place that we cannot reach. The world's literature is rich in stories about times of peace, plenty and justice, and packed with accounts of secluded realms where fountains of immortality play and it is always spring. It would take endless time and unlimited space to account in detail for every human vision, individual or cultural, of a paradise out of time and space. Instead, we shall briefly explore the European classical tradition to make the point.
Excerpted from MAPS of PARADISE by ALESSANDRO SCAFI. Copyright © 2013 Alessandro Scafi. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.