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Greek and Roman Ideas of the Life After Death

The ideas of the Greeks and Romans in respect to the life after death were clearly derived from the Ancient Church, in which many of the Magi or wise men enjoyed open communication with the spiritual world and thus were able to describe that world as it then actually existed. The further back we go into antiquity, the clearer stand forth these ideas and the more do they resemble the descriptions of Heaven and Hell and the Intermediate world, as revealed in the Writings of the New Church. The knowledge of the spiritual world, possessed by the Egyptians and Assyro-Babylonians, was in later ages communicated to the gentiles in Greece and Italy, but was there clothed in forms of fable and fiction and thus rendered somewhat dim and confused.

The supreme heaven, represented by Olympus, was by universal consent placed far above the skies. But as to the whereabouts of the rest of the spiritual world there seems to have been considerable obscurity. By the oldest writers, such as Homer and Hesiod, it was placed far to the West, beyond the uttermost boundaries of the occidental ocean. But the later and most common idea placed the realm of Hades in the interiors of the earth, to be approached by living men only through certain vast caves and subterranean passages. One of these, according to Roman traditions, existed near lake Avernus, a dismal pool in the Campania; hence Avernus became a general name for Hell, as in Virgil's famous strophe: "Facilis est descensus Averno,"— easy is the descent to Hell,—to which the poet added, "But to return and re-enjoy the day, this is a work, a labor.''

Having arrived at the confines of Pluto's kingdom, all spirits found themselves, first, on the banks of Acheron, a black and bridgeless stream, too swift for even the boldest swimmer. The only means of crossing was by the ferry of Charon, a grim old boatman who would accept no passenger without being paid the sum of a penny, the ''obolus.'' The ancients, on this account, were careful to place a small piece of money under the tongue of the deceased. All those who could not produce this sum were obliged to wait for one hundred anxious years, at the end of which they would be ferried over, free of charge. We conceive this whole myth as referring to the state of vastation in the "World of Spirits, and we are reminded in this connection of the words of the Lord in Matthew: "Verily, I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing." (v: 26.) That is, no evil spirit is let down into hell, until he is vastated of the last vestige of good and truth, and no good spirit is elevated into heaven until he is delivered from the last remnant of evil and falsity. Old Charon would seem to represent the inexorable justice which demands this vastation before the final judgment.

Having safely passed the Acheron, the newly arrived spirits find themselves in the great Hall of Judgment, where Pluto and Persephone sit in gloomy state upon the ebony throne, surrounded by the three judges, Minos, AEacus, and Rhadamanthus. While waiting for their turn before the judges, the Spirits of the dead, wander about in Hades, or the World of Spirits, which is described as dreary, dark, and cheerless. All the dead are here together, good and evil, young and old, all more or less anxious and discontented, sighing for the joy and activity of their former life on earth. Achilles, when questioned by Odysseus, declared that he would rather toil as a peasant on the earth than be a king in the gloomy abode of departed shades. Later on, however, Achilles is described as being among the blessed in the Elysian fields.

While Pluto himself presided as supreme judge of the dead, the actual decrees were delivered by the three subordinate judges, Minos, AEacus, and Rhadamanthus, who, according to the account of Socrates, (in Plato's Gorgias, 168), are seated in a meadow "at the three roads, of which two lead to the Islands of the Blessed, and the other to Tartarus." Conducted by Hermes, each soul must stand up before one of these judges, by whom he is searchingly and impartially examined as to his thoughts and actions. What is good with him is separated from what is evil, and each is placed in one of the scales of Themis, the blindfolded goddess of justice. If, then, the good outweighs the evil, the soul is conducted to the Elysian fields; but if the evil outweighs the good, the soul is handed over to the Furies, the three livid and merciless daughters of Acheron and Nyx, who with scourges made of stinging serpents drive him over the rivers of hell and through the brazen gates of Tartarus.

Guarding the approach to Hell sits Cerberus, "three-headed dog, as cruel as fate,'' who fawns upon all who are about to enter, but effectually prevents their return from the infernal regions. Such hell-dogs are still being seen in the spiritual world, as, for instance, those guarding a hell of modern adulterers, described by Swedenborg in Conjugial Love, n. 79.

We passed through formidable forests in a region bordering on the west, and there were lakes out of which crocodiles raised their heads, and opened at us their wide jaws beset with teeth; and between the lakes there were terrible dogs, some of which were three-headed like Cerberus, some two-headed, all looking at us as we passed, with a horrible hungry snarl and fierce eyes. . . . The angel told me that all these wild beasts were representative forms of the lusts of the inhabitants whom we were about to visit. The lusts themselves were represented by those horrible dogs; their deceit and cunning by the crocodiles, etc.

And again:

I saw a great dog, like the one called Cerberus by the ancient writers; the gape of his jaws was horrible. I was told that such a dog signifies a guard lest a man should pass over from heavenly conjugial love to the infernal love of adultery. When a man passes from the former love into the latter opposite one,—the delight appearing almost the same,—then such a dog is presented, as it were guarding, lest the opposite delights should communicate with each other. (De Conjugio, 104.)

Cerberus often stands as a representative of Hell itself, and figures in this character in the story of Hercules, who in his twelfth and last labor took the hell-dog captive. This is a very clear prophecy of the work of Redemption, wrought by the Lord in His Human, who overcame the power of Hell and "led captivity captive." The conception of this hell-dog is universal throughout all the mythologies, from the Egyptian "dog of Typhon" in Amenthi, to the Scandinavian "Garm" who "horribly howls by the Gniupa-hollow."

As the Heaven of the Ancients was divided into two very distinct regions: Olympus and the Elysian fields, so Hell was similarly divided into Erebus and Tartarus. We must remember that we have to do here with the time when the third or lowest heaven, and the opposite hell, had not yet been formed. Erebus, the land of shadows, (compare the Hebrew Ereb, evening), is often used as synonymous with Hades, or the intermediate world, but according to Homer it was distinct from Hades, and beneath it was Tartarus. It answers, therefore, to the second or Satanic hell, the hell of the Ancient Church.

The deeper hell, or Tartarus, was surrounded by three dismal rivers, of which the first, Cocytus, or "river of lamentation," consists of the tears which continually flow from the eyes of the damned in Tartarus. Beyond this is the Phlegethon, a river of fire, and the third and last is the fearful Styx, which means "hateful," and which winds its black and poisonous waters nine times round about the prison of fallen gods and monstrous men. By the first river was probably signified the stream of falsities issuing out of hell, and by the second, the flood of evil loves; while by Styx is perhaps signified the state of profanation which especially characterized the hell of the Most Ancient Church.

The ancients called the most ancient hells Tartarus, and the deep places there they called Styx. (Cor., 38.)

This river, therefore, was regarded with so much awe that the most binding oath, among gods or men, was "by Styx," as the most dreaded place of punishment for perjury.

Tartarus itself, by the evidence of New Church Doctrine as well as by the testimony of all classical writers, was the deepest and most ancient hell, the place of punishment for the rebellious gods and certain monstrously wicked men, even as Erebus was the prison of ordinary mortal evil-doers. Here, in vast caves of eternal darkness, surrounded by the triple rivers of Hell, and girt about with triple iron walls and brazen gates, were to be seen the once god-like Titans who had fallen from heaven, and the hundred-handed Giants and other antediluvian monsters, each one writhing and hissing in impotent fury under the load of fire-spouting mountains, such as AEtna and Vesuvius. The sound of groaning and cursing fill the air, mingled with the whistling of scourges incessantly plied by relentless furies. Addison thus describes it:

Dreadful gleams,
Dismal screams,
Fires that glow,
Shrieks of woe,
Sullen moans,
Hollow groans,
And cries of tortured ghosts.

Here, too, are the scenes of punishment of those malefactors whose extraordinary crimes have filled all mankind with awe. Here are seen the forty-nine Danaides,—sisters who, on their wedding-night, treacherously murdered their bridegrooms; their punishment is the unending task of trying to fill with water a bottomless tub,—a dismal picture of human self-intelligence, which, faithless to the Divine truth, is condemned forever to the vain pursuit of false notions which never permanently satisfy the mind.

Up a steep mountain-side a groaning and sweating man is rolling a huge round rock. He is Sisyphus, an ancient king of Corinth, who was noted for the treacherous cunning with which he way-laid travellers and even attempted to deceive the very gods. He has been rolling this stone uphill for ages, but when ever he reaches the summit of the mountain and fancies his task done, down it slips from his hands, rolling to the very bottom compelling him to begin his hopeless exertions anew. Thus it is with all the tasks undertaken by human prudence and self-confidence, without reliance upon Divine Providence; and thus are the devils in Hell forever plotting and laboring to accomplish their fell designs, but though their schemes always fall to the ground they are ever ready to try again.

Most dreadful of all is the punishment of Tantalus, a king of Lydia, for killing his own son, Pelops, and placing the remains as food for visiting gods in order to test their omniscience and Divinity. Though standing up to his chin in a limpid pool, the waters ever recede when he bends to drink; above his head hangs a branch, loaded with all manner of luscious fruits, but they elude his hand whenever he reaches forth to grasp them, and thus he is "tantalized" throughout eternity. Such is the lot of self-reliance when it has sacrificed its faith on the altar of scepticism. Such is the history of human Philosophy, for instance, which, though everywhere surrounded by the indisputable evidences of

Divine Love and Wisdom, still reaches out for "Natural Theology" in its own way, denying Divine Revelation and depending upon human science and reason alone. For thousands of years it has pursued its hopeless task, but the water of life and the fruits of the tree of life have ever eluded its self-confident lips and hands.

In bright contrast with these horrible scenes are the pictures which the ancient poets afford of the final reward of truthfulness and virtue, in the heavenly societies which they termed "the Elysian Fields" or "the Islands of the Blessed."

The way thither leads across the river Lethe (oblivion), from the water of which each spirit is obliged to drink and which possesses the wonderful power of causing a total forgetfulness of the past sorrows and troubles of earthly existence. This evidently refers to the closing-up of the corporeal memory which all spirits experience when entering upon their permanent homes in the eternal life. Swedenborg thus describes certain spirits who

were oblivious of themselves and of those things which were of their self-love. The ancients outside the Church also had a knowledge of these states of oblivion, but they had derived it from the Ancient Church, and they called them Lethean waters which they drank. (S. D. 1773.)

The Elysian Fields mean literally the "effulgent fields," fields of light, and were so called from the radiant light shed upon these abodes of blessedness by a sun and constellations which were not of this earth. ("Solemque suum, sua sidera norunt," Virgil). We will not attempt to describe these heavens, but will let the poets speak for themselves.

Hesiod, speaking of the race of heroes and demi-gods who in prehistoric ages inhabited Greece, says that to them after death

                        The God designed
A life, a seat, distinct from human-kind;
In those blessed Isles where Saturn holds his reign,
Apart from heaven's immortals; calm they share
A rest unsullied by the clouds of care.
And yearly thrice with sweet luxuriance crowned,
Springs the ripe harvest from the teeming ground.
(Works and Days, 162-177.)

And Homer, in the Odyssey, makes the prophet Proteus foretell a glorious future for the hero Menelaus:

But oh, beloved of Heaven! reserved to thee
A happier lot the smiling Fates decree:
Free from that law, beneath whose mortal sway
Matter is changed, and varying forms decay,
Elysium shall be thine: the blissful plains
Of utmost earth, where Rhadamanthus reigns,
Joys ever young, unmixed with pain or fears,
Fill the wide circle of the eternal years:
Stern winter smiles on that auspicious clime;
The fields are florid with unfading prime.
From the bleak poles no winds inclement blow,
Mould the round hail, or flake the fleecy snow;
But from the breezy deep the blessed inhale
The fragrant murmurs of the western gale.
This grace peculiar will the gods afford
To thee, the son of Jove, and beauteous Helen's lord.
(Odyssey, iv:561 pp.)

Other references to the Islands of the Blessed and the Elysian fields are to be found in Pindar and the works of Plato, but the most complete and the most noble description is the one given by Virgil in the sixth book of the AEneid, where the "pious AEneas," having safely traversed the dangers of Hades and the horrors of Tartarus, led by the guiding and protecting hand of the Sibyl, finally passes through "the ivory gates" of Elysium, in order to consult his father, Anchises.

Thus having soothed the queen of Dis,
They reach the realm of tranquil bliss,
Green spaces, folded in with trees,
A paradise of pleasances,
Around the champaign mantles bright
The fulness of purpureal light;
Another sun and stars they know,
That shine like ours, but shine below.
There some disport their manly frames
 In wrestling and palaestral games,
Strive on the grassy sward, or stand
Contending on the yellow sand:
Some ply the dance with eager feet
And chant responsive to its beat.

Others along the sward he sees
Reclined, and feasting at their ease,
With chanted Paeans, blessed souls,
Amid a fragrant bay-tree grove,
Whence rising in the world above
Eridanus 'twixt bowering trees
His breadth of water rolls.

Here sees he the illustrious dead
Who, fighting for their country, bled;
Priests, who while earthly life remained
Preserved that life unsoiled, unstained;
Blest bards, transparent souls and clear,
Whose song was worthy Phoebus' ear;
Inventors, who by arts refined
The common life of human kind,
With all who grateful memory won
By services to others done;
A goodly brotherhood, bedight
With coronals of virgin white.

But not from the poets alone, but also from the classic artists, we learn what real and living ideas the ancients possessed of the glories of heaven, so different from the vague ''Christian'' notions of a bodiless and useless existence in the world to come. In the scenes descriptive of Elysium we find that life there was not one of pleasures merely, but of useful occupations. In these "asphodel meadows," which none but the pure in heart, the truthful and the generous can be suffered to tread, each one is engaged in employments resembling those on earth, and whatever had warmly occupied his attention in his first life, continues to be a source of virtuous enjoyment in the new life. One famous painting, however, represents a long procession of blessed Elysians as engaged in profound meditation, with folded arms and bended brows, silently communing with the muses and the gods. This picture finds fitting words in Swedenborg's description of those in the other life who are continually in reflection.

They dwell in a place which is pleasant and herbacious, like the Elysian fields, nor do they want to be disturbed by anyone, because they have delectation in thinking. (S. D. 1232.)

The ancient Athenians themselves, with whom Swedenborg was privileged to converse in heaven, told him that

When we were men in the world, we believed in the immortality of the soul, and we assigned to the blessed ones places which we called the Elysian fields; and we also believed that the souls were human figures or forms. (C. L. 182.)

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Crown of Revelations
Rebirth, Reincarnation
The Holy Center
Salvation in the Gospels
Psychology of Marriage
Precious Stones
The Human Mind
The Moral Life
Saul, David & Solomon
Bible Lost & Found
The Human Soul
Genesis and Exodus
City of God
Swedenborg Cosmology
Ultimate Reality
The Pattern of Time
Means of Salvation
NC: Sex and Marriage
Book with Seven Seals
My Lord and My God
Philosopher, Metaphysician
Inspiration of Genesis
Words In Swedenborg
Book Expo
Missionary Talks
Tabernacle of Israel
A Brief View of the Heavenly Doctrines
Ancient Mythology
Odhner: Creation
Ten Commandments
Christ and The Trinity
Discrete Degrees
Body Correspondences
Language of Parable
The Ten Blessings
Creation in Genesis
The Third Source
Noble's "Appeal"
Life After Death


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Life After Death

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