The Isles of the Blest

October 11, 2006 at 7:05 pm (Theosophical Museum)

We are fortunate to have a transcript of Helena Petrona’s lecture given this week at the Museum.

For a place that is essentially timeless, heaven has a long and colorful history. It is perhaps our most distant and yet most strangely familiar dream. No less sought after by poets and lovers, then by saints and philosophers, it is perennially evasive. Attempts to enclose it within dogma render it as lifeless as the vague accounts of psychics, mediums, and those who don’t quite cross over. Indelibly imprinted in the deepest longings of our hearts, heaven is so faint and wavering an image as to be almost invisible, and yet our nostalgia for it is at times so strong that it almost single-handedly carries us to the transcendent.

The ancients knew heaven by many names. It was sometimes called Elysium, other times the Elysian Fields, and to those who participated in the mysteries, it had yet another name – The Isles of the Blest. It was first envisioned as a meadow in the underworld where the great heroes were carried body and soul and made immortal. There they were free to pursue their favorite activities, and worries and illness were unknown. Soon, it became the abode of all the blessed dead, at the farthest and westernmost edge of the world, where souls of heroes, poets, priests and the virtuous lived in perfect happiness surrounded by grass, trees, and gentle west winds and enveloped in a rose-tinted, perpetual light.

In the fifth century B.C.E., Pindar described the Isles of the Blessed, governed by Cronus, as swept by ocean breezes, filled with beautiful trees and golden flowers, fields of grain, and meadows studded with roses and shaded by trees exuding fragrant balsam. There is no work and the fortunate inhabitants, garlanded with flowers, spend their time playing strenuous games, riding, playing draughts or making music on the lyre, while a sweet smell wafts over from the incense burned on the altars of the gods. Entry to it is reserved for those who have led three successive lives of purity on earth.

In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places we read of Lucian’s account which appeared in his True History written in the 2nd century:

“The Isles of the Blessed are some five hundred miles long, in the Atlantic Ocean, the home of a people who dress in beautiful purple spider webs. In spite of being bodiless, they can move and talk as mortal beings. They resemble naked spirits, each covered with a web that gives it the shape of a body.

The island is long and flat, ruled by Radamantus. The capital of the island, also called Blessed, is built of gold with walls of emerald. It has seven doors made from a single piece of cinnamon, and the roads that cross the city are of ivory. There are temples to all the gods, built of beryl and containing tall altars made of amethysts used for human sacrifices. Around the city runs a river of exquisite perfume, fifty feet deep and easily navigable, seven rivers of milk, and eight of wine, and fountains spouting water, honey and perfume. The city baths are large crystal buildings, heated with cinnamon, the tubs contain both water and hot dew.

“Travelers will not find on the Island of the Blessed the darkness of night or the light of day to which they are accustomed. The island is constantly bathed in a twilight, as if the sun had not yet risen. Nobody grows older on the island, it is always springtime and only one wind, the zephyr, blows here. In the middle of a wood is the meadow of the Elysian Fields, where there is a delightful permanent party in progress. The guests drink from two springs, one of laughter and one of pleasure. Then they lie on beds of flowers, while nightingales rain petals down on them, scent falls from the sky like dew, and the surrounding trees magically supply glasses of wine. The country is rich in every species of flower and every kind of plant; the vines give grapes twelve times a year; apple trees, pomegranate trees and others, give fruit thirteen times a year, because in the month of Minossa they give fruit twice. As well as ready-made sheaves, the wheat produces beautifully baked loaves, growing from its tips like mushrooms.”

The Elsysian fields or Isles of the Blessed were sometimes located on the earth’s surface, sometimes in the sky and sometimes underground as a separate division of the land of the dead in the underworld. The appearance on some Roman sarcophagi of dolphins, sea-monsters, sea-nymphs and Tritons, and of curving lines possibly representing waves, suggest a belief in the journey to an afterworld across the sea.

In the Neoplatonic tradition there are seven Isles of the Blessed, each ruled by one of the seven planetary deities. Each Isle is an outflowing of the One, that which transcends even the farthest stars and yet is closer to us than our breath. These seven islands all exist in the same timeless space that we do in our essential nature, yet are hidden to us as we traverse the intricate weavings of our varied destinies.

Yet even as we glimpse the outermost isles, it is rare upon dying for anyone to go past the Isle of the Moon where our souls are once again reunited with bodies and returned to Earth, each having drunken deeply of the River of Forgetfulness.

Cicero himself notes in The Dream of Scipio that,

“Below the moon all is mortal and transitory, with the exception of the souls bestowed upon the human race by the benevolence of the gods. Above the moon all things are eternal.”

Yet some do rise higher, to the sphere of the sun, and some higher still to the sphere of the stars, where they live with the gods.

Virgil’s account of Elysium, set traditionally in the underworld, analogous to the lunar Isle, also emphasizes the importance of this River.

“Thus with their liturgy to the goddess ended, they came to the place of joy, the pleasant lawns, the groves of the lucky, and the blessed homes. These lands are clothed in larger air and light the color of life; they see their sun, their stars. Here figures were training on the grassy grounds, some playing games, some wrestling in the ring, and some were treading the dance and singing songs. There stood in his poet’s gown, Orpheus, playing his instrument of seven strings…”

“Aeneas saw others about him on the grass, feasting and singing cheerful songs of praise. Above them hung sweet bays, and from a hill Eridanus tumbled his waters through the grove. Here were the band who for their country bled, here priests who in the world led saintly lives, prophets of truth, who spoke as a God would speak, those whose discoveries made a better world, those who by doing good earned men’s remembrance. Each one wore snow-white bands about his head…

[His father then explains] “None has a place assigned. We live in groves; our beds are the riverbanks and fields made fresh by springs…

“Just then, far down a slope, Aeneas saw a grove apart, with foliage thick and rustling: this was the haven of peace, where Lethe flowed: about it flitted the nations of mankind like bees in a meadow on a summer’s day….His father said, ‘Those are the souls whose fate binds them to flesh once more. At Lethe’s wave they drink and forget past years of care and fear…

“It is like this: the heavens, the earth, the watery wastes, the luminous globe of moon, the sun, the stars, exist through inward spirit. Their total mass by mind is permeated: hence their motion. From mind and spirit comes life—of man, of beast, of bird, of monsters under the foam-flecked seas. Life is from heaven—a seed of fire that glows bright, so far as flesh cannot repress it, or earthly, death bound bodies dull its glow. From flesh come fear, desire, pain and joy: its pitch-dark prison blinds us to the light. And even on that last day when life departs, not all our evil, all the body’s foul corruption leaves us: deep ingrained, in ways past comprehension, much has hardenened fast. Our souls, then suffer pain, and pay the price for wrongs done years before: some , like a cloak laid off, hang to the winds; some lose their stains by flood and swirl, or cautery of fire. We suffer, each, our ghostly selves, then pass—some few—to gain Elysium’s fields of joy. The years go by; Time makes his cycle just, our hardened filth is sloughed; intelligence pure, as of heaven, is left, and breath, and fire. After a thousand circling years, God calls these souls to Lethe in a long parade to gain forgetfulness, then view the sky once more, and wish to put on flesh again.”

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, Copley Translation

Other accounts of heaven offer different imaginings. In a fresco from a fourth century catacomb in Rome, an angelic figure introduces Vivia, an elderly lady, to a banquet where she is reunited once again with her loved ones. Philosophers also imagined heaven as an endless banquet while there were no doubt others who perhaps thought of it as the late Argentine writer Borjes did, as an infinite library, not unlike the fabled library of Alexandria where the wisdom of the ages waited for us, who now with ample time at hand, could read it without interruption.

Cavendish in his Visions of Heaven and Hell notes that the ancients had many different ideas about how the dead reached the sky. They might fly up as birds or be carried up by birds or winged spirits, or they might climb a ladder or float up like specks of dust in the rays of the sun. Some thought that the souls of the pious rose up into the air where they were purified by wind, water and fire, and this was the real crossing of the Styx.

The Neoplatonists believed that the souls of the virtuous became stars and multitudes of them could be seen in the Milky Way. There they would live forever with the gods, having returned in remembrance from what we once forget as our true home. It is at the intersection of the zodiac and the Milky Way where both ascent and descent occur. Leaving the perfect sphere of the heavens we descend as a cone, moving into the realm of multiplicity drawn by the thinnest and most deadly of weights, our thoughts. As the Latin Neoplatonist Macrobius wrote in the 5th century,

“The soul from its lofty pinnacle of perpetual radiance disdains to grasp after a body and this thing that we on earth call life, but yet allows a secret yearning for it to creep into its thoughts, gradually slips down to the lower realms because of the very weight of its earthly thoughts. It does not suddenly assume a defiled body out of a state of complete incorporeality, but gradually sustaining imperceptible losses and departing further from its simple and absolutely pure state, it swells out with certain increases of a planetary body: in each of the spheres that lie below heaven, it puts on another ethereal envelopment, so that by these steps it is gradually prepared for assuming this earthly dress. Thus by as many deaths as it passes through spheres, it reaches the stage which on earth is called life…but to the soul is death.”

But as he further assures us…

“Be not disturbed that in reference to the soul, which we say is immortal, we so often use the term “death”. In truth, the soul is not destroyed by its death but is overwhelmed for a time; not does it surrender the privilege of immortality because of its lowly sojourn, for when it has rid itself completely of all taint of evil and has deserved to be sublimated, it again leaves the body and, fully recovering its former state, returns to the splendor of everlasting life.”

With these words Macrobius gives full expression to the recurring theme of all ancient visions of heaven— the immortality of the soul. Whether represented by Bacchus rescuing Ariadne, Attis rising to be with Cybele, Selene waking the sleeping Endymion from the sleep of death, angels guiding the soul to the heavenly banquet, or a hundred other themes from myth, there was always a firm belief that we were not abandoned at death. Christianity, the great survivor of the classical world, would only give new vision to a resurrection that was already well known.

The belief in a pure abode beyond this world would continue to thrive not only in the West but in the East as well. When Greek thought traversed the silk route to Gandhara and gave Buddhism its first images of the Buddhas, with their distinct resemblance to Apollo, a new idea arose in Buddhism about an island paradise presided over by a Buddha of boundless light. This paradise was named Sukhavati, the blessed or pure land curiously enough envisioned as lying in the West.

According to the Pure Land scriptures this blessed island is fertile, prosperous and crowded with gods and men. It has flowers, fruits, fragrant scents and flocks of birds with sweet voices. There are no mountains there but a great plain, through which streams and rivers run, some as much as fifty miles wide, flowing over golden sands and emitting delicious odors and beautiful music. The temperature of the water in the rivers varies to suit each inhabitant’s preference at any particular moment. There, banks are lined with scented jewels and trees in hundreds of thousands of shades of color, made of gold, silver, beryl, crystal, coral, red pearls and emeralds.

And everywhere there are beautiful lotus flowers made of precious jewels, jewels such as have never been seen on Earth, but which we know have a long history in the realm of visionary experience.

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