(Paradise, by Jan Bruegel)
Paradise, or Garden of Eden, is often the final place where humans will be rewarded for their good behavior. This is an important concept introduced at the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis. It therefore has a special meaning for the Abrahamic religions.
In a broader sense, the concept of paradise is found in almost all religions. Believers also speak of the “Kingdom of God” which will be shown at the end of the world. A similar concept, nirvana, exists in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, even if in this case represents more a spiritual state than a physical place.
Xenophon tells in the Anabasis that in Sardis, in Asia Minor, where Cyrus the Younger was concentrated expeditionary force of Greek mercenaries for help to regain power, it makes them visit his garden. The Greeks are dazzled, they know nothing of the kind. To name this splendor, Xenophon used the Persian word for walled garden: paradeisos.
The descriptions of the afterlife in the Greco-Roman mythology is not uniform, as it refers to Homer, Virgil … In general, for the old, the universe of the dead is a negative form of the living world, the underworld (inferi) or “what’s underneath” – where the dead live as impalpable shadows. This is the realm of Hades – Pluto for Roman – oppressive and insensitive ruler, and his wife Persephone – Proserpine for the Romans. The souls of the dead pass before the three judges Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus that decide their fate for eternity.
The convicts are sent to Tartarus. The righteous are the ones directed to a place of bliss, the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed. The elected are living there in an eternal spring, on a fertile land which produces three crops a year, in the carefree idleness. According to Virgil, elected share the importance of service to the community and we find among them the city’s founders, great warriors, priests, poets or artists. These pictorial visions of the hereafter, however, were far from consensus, as demonstrated for example by the skepticism of Juvenal that speaks of fables which no one could believe except infants.
Mesopotamian mythology and influences
When a Persian king wanted to honor someone who was dear to him, he called him the “companion of the garden,” and gave him the right to walk in the garden with him. There are probably an echo of this practice in the Bible, where God is described in the image of the king, “they heard the Lord God walking in the garden in the breath of the day” (Gen. 3: 8). NB: To compare God to a Persian king may be somewhat strange. The extract mentioned above is somewhat different in the text prepared by the Abbey of Maredsous, “They heard the sound of the Lord God, who was in the garden in the evening breeze.” Gn 3.8.
In the Bible, the appearance of the garden in Eden, although a very sober in its description contrasting with the lush oriental gardens, is due to the Persian civilization: the word Eden appears in several Semitic languages to denote a fertile plain or arable land. The Persian term pairi daesa designated the park of the residence of Cyrus the Great (sixth century BC.) – which helped ending the Hebrews captivity in Babylon – through which passed the Meander River and where there was a garden, an orchard and an area reserved for hunting.
In Mesopotamian belief, all the dead are found to Hell with no hope of salvation, where they live a dull and shadowy existence, condemned to feed on dust and muddy water, unable to support themselves without the help of living. There seems to be no post-mortem judgment – unnecessary in the absence of soterologic theology – and only the gods escape from the “Country of non-return”. There is a notable exception to the fate shared by all humans, that of Utnapishtim, the only human to achieve eternal life through the plant life.
However, oriental myths have always been a great place to gardens and its components, trees, plants and water. Persian mythological ruler of the golden age lies in a garden in height which grow magical trees including the tree of life and from which flows the water of life that makes the land fertile. We find the symbolic representation of mythological gardens in Mesopotamian temples that cap the ziggurats: in a hanging garden which trickles water from a basin next to which stands a snake, trees of various species, including the tree of life, which opens the door of heaven, are part of the nuptial bed of the gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian hero, in search of the plant of life, which confers immortality, joined a garden whose leaves are lapis lazuli and ruby fruits.
According to Judaism
The Hebrew book of Genesis speaks only of the “Garden of Eden” (Gan ‘Eden). Ecumenical translation of the Bible, book of Genesis:
2: 8 “And the Lord God made a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had made. And out of the earth the Lord made every tree to come, delighting the eye and good for food; and in the middle of the garden, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
3:23 “So the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to be a worker on the earth from which he was taken. So he sent the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden he put winged ones and a flaming sword turning every way to keep the way to the tree of life.”
We find the Hebrew word Pardes, only in the sense of “orchard” in three occurrences of the Hebrew Bible: Song of Songs 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5 and Nehemiah 2:8.
But in the Septuagint it becomes “a paradise in Eden,” and so on.
In the literature of the Second Temple period, paradise is sometimes likened to the third heaven. For example in the Apocalypse of Moses.
Sheol is a place mentioned in the Jewish Torah and where stay the souls of believers, to their final disappearance in recent times.