. JOURNEYS INTO
Abstract: Early medieval Irish literature presents several types of voyages into the afterworld: echtrai (various adventures into Mag Mell), immrama (sea travels to the enchanted islands of the Ocean), fisi (ecstatic revelations of Christian eschatology), journeys into Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. In this paper, we seek to contrast the fisi and the descents into the cave of Saint Patrick. From a morphological point of view, both have a great deal of topoï in common, which describe the structure of the Christian other world:
the waste land of pains, the infernal pit, the ordeal bridge, the land of the blessed, the celestial Kingdom of God, etc. However, between the two genres appear some major differences, such as the order in which these places are visited. The main distinction lies in the fact that the fisi are mainly ecstatic voyages (i.e. psychanodias), implying a “raptus animae”, while the voyages into Saint Patrick’s Purgatory are physical expeditions (i.e.
somanodias), during the actual life of the adventurers. Although many of the common themes of the two genres derive from the medieval Christian tradition (especially the apocryphal apocalypses and visiones), we argue that the differences may be due to the input of local Irish Celtic heritage.
Keywords: Irish mythology; Christian eschatology; the fis genre; ecstatic voyages; Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; psychanodia; somanodia.
Babes-Bolyai University, Dean of the Faculty of Letters and Director of Phantasma.
The Center for Imagination Studies in Cluj, Romania.
Email: [email protected]
The Irish medieval compilers of early legends and stories used type lists that organized and classified the texts by themes: aided (death-tale), aithed (elopement), cath (battle), compert (conception, procreation), fess (feast), forfess (siege, beleaguering), orcain (murdering, slaying), serc (love- tale), táin (cattle-raid) tochmarc (wooing, courting), tochomlad (invasion, setting), togail (attack, destruction), etc.1 Three of these traditional genres make special reference to the vision of the otherworld: the echtra (adventure in Mag Mell, descent into a sídh); the immram (sea voyage or pilgrimage); and the fis (vision or revelation of the Christian otherworld).2
These types are not mere mnemotechnical devices used by the
“storytellers” in order to organize their material. As David A. Traill has highlighted, they tend to reflect the main “culture-pattern dreams” of their epoch. They express the stereotypes of the conscious and unconscious mind of the communities, a situation which “makes the question of Quellenforschung extremely complex”3. In a book I published in 2006, La quête manquée de l’Avalon occidentale, I tried to disclose the narrative pattern of the first two typologies, in a similar manner to V. I.
Propp’s analysis of Russian fairy tales.4 An important characteristic of these fantastic journeys is that they are worldly voyages, which do not imply the transcendence of the actual human condition. The heroes who become, usually by a supernatural marriage, equals of the fairy ladies of the enchanted islands, or of the underground Tuatha De Danann, reach immortality by simply joining the Mag Mell. Also, the monks that sail to Tir Tairngire (Terra repromissionis sanctorum) do not have to die in order to enter the garden of God. St. Brendan reaches the island of the Terrestrial Paradise and is allowed to visit it (a “guided visit”) during his normal life, in his bodily condition. He does not suffer a visionary rapture or a mystical ascent of the soul; he does not lose his consciousness in a traumatic or lethal state.
Since in my books dedicated to what I call “failed initiation quests” I was interested mainly in physical journeys to the otherworld, I want to focus now on the third genre of Irish early literature, the fisi, in which the voyages are no longer bodily, but spiritual and ecstatic. I will try to underscore its morphology and then to contrast it to a kindred narrative pattern, that of the corpus of texts dedicated to the cave of St. Patrick.
The Irish genre of fis (translating the Latin visio) is a part of the broader “semantic basin” (“bassin sémantique”, to adapt the term coined by Gilbert Durand) of Medieval Christian apocalypses and visions of the afterworld.5 In this paper I will tackle the Irish, Anglo-Saxon and English, that is, insular, literature, without referring to the convergent apocalyptic and visionary continental “stream” of German, French, Roman, etc.
literature. The main texts I use6, extending from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, are (with the dates reported by their first recorders) The Vision of Fursa7 (633) and The Vision of Drythelm8 (696) (both reported by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica), an episode from the Life of Guthlac by Felix of
Crowland (after 700), The Vision of the monk of Wenlock9 (716) (reported by St. Boniface in his Tenth Epistle), The Vision of Laisrén10 (early tenth century), The Vision of Adamnán11 (eleventh century) (included in the Book of Dun Cow), The Vision of Leofric (before 1057), The Vision of the Boy William (1143-7) and The Vision of Tnugdale12 (1148/9) (both included by Vincent of Beauvais in his Speculum Historiale), The Vision of the Monk of Eynsham13 (1196) and The Vision of Thurkill14 (1206) (both reported by the Cistercian Ralph of Coggeshall and reproduced by Roger of Wendower in his Chronica sive Flores Historiarum and by Matthew Paris in Chronica Majora)15; and a later vision of an unknown fifteenth-century woman16 (1422). Merely to mention it, the continental ”stream” comprises the visions of Sunniulf (575) and Salvius (590) (both reported by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks), Barontus (678/9), Rotcharius (early ninth century), the poor woman of Laon (early ninth century), Wetti17 (824), Raduin (835), Charles the Fat (885), Ansgar (late ninth century), Alberic18 (c.1100), Orm19 (1125), Gunthelm20 (1161), Gottschalk21 (1190) and so on22.
The loci of the fisi
At its broadest extent, the blueprint for these eschatological revelations consists of several obligatory topics or motifs: 1. the extra corporeal experience (“raptus animae”); 2. the battle for the soul or a purgatory ordeal; 3. the ascent of the soul through the planetary skies; 4.
God’s Throne of Judgment; 5. the wasteland of pains (the upper Hell); 6.
the infernal pit (the lower Hell); 7. the bridge; 8. the land of the blessed (the Terrestrial Paradise); 9. the Kingdom of God (the Celestial Paradise);
10. the return of the soul to its body. I will briefly examine each of these topoi.
The exit of the soul from the body
In all the texts, the authors or the characters make it clear that the revelation is transmitted via a raptus animae. Bede says about St. Fursa: “In his first vision, his soul was conveyed out of the body (“raptus est a corpore”), and he was graced with the sight and the hearing of the praises of the Heavenly Hosts”.23 Another saint, Laisrén, relates that, during a mission to Connacht, after a fasting of nine days, he fell asleep in the oratory, heard the voice of a shining figure calling him and “all at once he beheld his soul (hovering) over the crown of his head, and knew not which way she had come out of the body”. The Fis Adamnáin recounts about St.
Adamnán that “his soul departed from out his body on the feast of John Baptist, and was conveyed to the celestial realm, where the heavenly are, and to Hell”. The soul of Thurkill, a peasant from a village near London, was also abducted during the night, while his body remained sleeping in bed. St. Julian, his guide, took care to explain that he would convey only the soul, leaving in the body a breath of life, for others to know that
Thurkill was not dead (“sola enim anima tua mecum abibit. Sed ne corpus tuum extinctum putetur, vitalem in te flatum dimittam”).
Other characters of the fisi do not undergo a sleeping trance, but a near-death-experience. In a lethal catalepsy, they depart from their bodies on a journey through the otherworld akin to Er’s in Plato’s Republic. Bede recounts about Drythelm that he became ill one evening, fell down dead, and came back to life the next morning. During this time, he was taken by a shining figure to visit different purgatorial places. St. Boniface counts in his Letters the story of a monk from Wenlock who was so shaken by a violent illness that he left his body and acquired a visionary sight freed from the burden of the flesh (“extra corpus suum raptus in spiritu corporis gravidine subito exutum fuisse”). Tnugdale, an Irish nobleman, suffers a death-like paralysis for three days (“Assunt signa mortis, crines cadent, frons obduratur, errant oculi, nasus acuitur, pallescunt labia, mentum cadit et universa corporis membra rigesunt”). His fellows take him for dead, although he conserves some heat in the chest (“calor modicus in sinistra pectora”). After his return, he relates his extra-corporeal experience (“de exitu animae”) in which he saw the afterworld. Another character, Edmund, falls gravely ill of quinsy, and enters the monastery of Eynsham. After one year and three months of suffering, the young monk is ”rapte in spyryte” (“in excessu mentis raptum”). While his body goes into catalepsy, St. Nicholas takes him by the hand (“manus simul consertas habebamus omni tempore quo corporeis sensibus orbatus mente absens permansi”) and shows him the eschatological destiny of the souls.
The battle for the soul
While beginning their ascent trough the atmospheric and astronomical skies, the ecstatic voyagers witness a confrontation between angels and demons who fight over the souls of the dead. Sometimes this battle involves the character himself, and so it becomes an ordeal meant to determine the purity of his soul. In his second ecstatic voyage, St. Fursa is conveyed by three angels (representing the Trinity) through “clouds of hideous, misshapen demons”. The devils try to bar his progress, by casting showers of fiery arrows and globes of fire at him. Drythelm is menaced by imps with burning tongs, but is rescued by his shining guide. An angel protects the monk of Wenlock from the terrible flames that blaze the atmosphere by laying a hand on his head. St. Laisrén is taken by two angels through the roof of a church. He joins an entire host of angels and begins the ascent, challenged by three hordes of demons of different shapes, armed with fiery bulging spears, darts and javelins. Tnugdale’s soul also is assaulted by demons, as soon as it exits the body, but is fortunately rescued by an angel.
The theme of a dispute over the soul of the dead was inherited from apocryphal texts such as the Testament of Abraham (where the right-hand and the left-hand angels weigh the good deeds and the sins of the souls)24
and Visio Pauli (where the holly and the wicked angels take possession of the corresponding souls)25. The violent confrontation between angels and demons has a judicial dimension. As a rule, angels or saints are supposed to help and guide the souls (“de adventu angeli in occursum anime”), while devils try to stop or diverge them. If they do not succeed in hurting and rerouting the visitors, the demons pledge against them in a kind of trial of salvation. St. Fursa’s acceptance into eternal life is contested by Satan himself, who counts the saint’s sins, especially his vindictive spirit. The demons charge St. Laisrén, enumerating the list of the sins he committed during his life, but fortunately the angels answer all charges, arguing that they have been ”confessed and atoned for by penance according to the will of a confessor”. The monk of Wenlock is confronted with a crowd of evil spirits and a glorious chorus of the higher angels which impersonate his sins and his virtues: greed, vainglory, falsehood, idle word, stubbornness, disobedience, sluggishness, neglect, drowsiness, negligence, carelessness, etc. vs. obedience, fasting, prayer, service of the weak, etc.
Eventually the exit of the trial depends on the moral quality of the people being tested.
Thurkill is shown by his guide, St. Julian, a great church situated towards the East, in the middle of the Earth (“contra orientem usque ad mundi medium”), where the souls of the dead await Judgment. Their moral quality and chances of salvation are physically marked by taints of black and white. Adapted from the Bible, the motif of the two colours, which also appears in several echtrai and immrama (Teigue son of Cyan, Mael Duin), was recurrent in early homiletic literature.26 The entirely black souls are weighed by St. Paul and the devil: if the scales turn to the devil, the souls are thrown into a fire pit nearby, the Gehenna; if they turn to St.
Paul, the saint sends the souls to a purgatorial ordeal. First they are sent into a big cleansing fire, then into a freezing lake, and finally on a bridge of nails which leads to the mountain of joy (“mons gaudii”). The souls tainted with white and black spots are purified by the same fire and ice trial, and thus are justified by the pains of the purgatory (“per purgatorii poenas”). The entirely white souls pass without damage through the torments and reach the paradise mountain directly.
Sometimes the trial is not only continued but even replaced by a painful ordeal, which plays the double role of selecting and purifying the souls. The main device for the cleansing is fire. This theme derives from St.
Paul’s words, widely cited and commented upon by medieval authors:
“Dies enim Domini declarabit, quia in igne revelabitur: et uniuscuiusque opus quale sit, ignis probabit. Si cuius opus manserit quod superaedificavit, mercedem accipiet. Si cuius opus arserit, detrimentum patietur: ipse autem salvus erit: sic tamen quasi per ignem” (I Cor. 3, 13-16). In a literal interpretation to the redemption of the souls as by fire (“quasi per ignem”), the ecstatic visitors are typically confronted by a celestial blaze that consumes their sins, destroying the sinners and purifying the virtuous.
The ascent of the soul through the planetary skies
St. Paul’s formula also offered the occasion for an allegorical interpretation of the late antique representation of the world. Based on Aristotle, the Earth was represented as composed of the four circular spheres of the elements: earth, water, air, fire.27 The atmospheric sky was composed by water (vapours) and air. In order to reach the heaven, the souls of the dead and of the ecstatic voyageurs have to cross the atmosphere. The devils that rapture Guthlac drag him through frozen clouds (“inter nubifera gelidi aeris spatia”), up to the top of the atmosphere (“ad ardua aeris culmina”). From there on extends the last of the four elements that form the material world, namely fire. The great blaze surrounding the whole earth (“in circuitu totius mundi ignem ardentem videbam”), which is about to burn the monk of Wenlock, is reminiscent of this fire sphere that delimitates the atmosphere from the celestial skies.
Through an “interpretatio christiana”, the Aristotelian sphere of fire became a purgatorial barrier that cleanses the ascending souls. St. Fursa has the occasion of contemplating from above four fires dominating the whole earth. The accompanying angels provide the moral reading of the scene, showing that the flames represent the sins that destroy the world:
Falsehood, Covetousness, Dissension and Injustice.28 Citing St. Paul, the angels ease Fursa’s dismay telling him: “What thou hast not kindled shall not consume thee”. Nonetheless, during the return voyage, the saint is once again attacked by demons, which shout at him “a sinner from whom Fursa had accepted a cloak, while ministering to him on his death-bed”. As each sin constitutes a weak spot on the spiritual body, St. Fursa is wounded at one shoulder and, once returned to his material body, will conserve a physical scar from the ordeal.
While “he was out of the body” and taken by the angels to heaven, the monk of Wenlock also saw “a mighty fire surrounding the whole earth, and flames of enormous size puffing up on high and embracing, as it were, in one ball the whole mechanism of the world”. This would be a fair description of an Aristotelian cosmology, except that the monk, and Saint Boniface who writes down his story, charge it with an allegorical interpretation: the threatening flame is an instrument of the demons, who plan to destroy Earth by a burst of fire. Hopefully, an angel counters it by
“the sign of the holy cross” and makes it fade away.
A most elegant adaptation of the theme of the cleansing fire was given by Dante. In his ascent to Heaven, the character leaves the Purgatory and enters the Terrestrial Paradise by traversing a wall of fire that ends the process of purification. The sphere of fire specifically divides the purgatorial mountain into two zones: the body of the mountain that pertains to the material world, and the top of the mountain which is connected to the planetary skies. However, unlike Dante, who presents the nine skies as parts of the Celestial Paradise, the authors of medieval
revelations tend to conceive the planetary circles rather as a purgatorial space.
According to several scholars, the concept of the seven heavens is a reminiscence of the Babylonian magic (mainly in Jewish tradition29) and of mystical Neo-Pythagorean, Gnostic and Hermetic literature (mainly in Christian tradition30). In insular literature, four texts have developed the topos and inspired the fisi: In Tenga Bithna; a short text Na Seacht Neamha from Liber Flavus Fergusorium; an old English sermon in Oxford; and a Latin manuscript Karlsruhe MS Augiensis 254. Their direct source could be the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul according to Jane Stevenson,31 and the Armenian Questions of Ezra after according to Richard Bauckham.32 In a recent contribution, John Carey advanced as more plausible sources several Egyptian Gnostic writings, such as the Pistis Sophia treatise, the texts of the sect of the Ophites (as presented by Origen in Contra Celsum) and the Corpus Hermeticum (Treatise I mainly).33
Fis Adamnáin combines the motifs of the atmospheric ice and fire barriers and of the astral gates, assigning the first ones to the entrance into the City of God. There are six astronomical gates: at the first the souls are met by the archangel Michael; the second one is represented by a river of fire, in which Ariel “purges the souls of the righteous, and washes them in the stream, according to the amount of guilt that cleaves to them, until they become pure and shining as in the radiance of the stars”; the third one is a fiery furnace, that “the righteous pass in the twinkling of an eye, but the souls of sinners are baked and scorched therein for twelve years”;
the fourth is a stream surrounded by a wall of fire; the fifth, a “fiery river, with a strange kind of whirlpool, wherein the souls of the wicked keep turning round and round”; at the sixth, the souls “are illuminated with the lustre and brilliancy of precious stones”; finally, the main doorway of the City of God is represented by a veil of fire and a veil of ice.
In The Adventures of St. Columba’s Clerics, a text which inserts in the immram of Snegdus and Mac Riagla the revelation of a fis (Fís Adamnáin), the two monks also have to ascend through the seven gates of the sky in order to reach the abode of God. As in most of the fisi, but different from the stories about St. Patrick’s Purgatory, the purification mission is assigned not to devils, but to angels. Each sky, guarded by and arch-angel and his helpers, is an obstacle that righteous people traverse instantly, but where the guilty ones have to stay and suffer for twelve years. At the first gate, Michael and two virgins beat the sinners with iron sticks; at the second, Uriel washes the souls in a river of fire; at the third, the souls have to cross a burning furnace; at the fourth, they must go through a vertical curtain of fire; at the fifth, they must cross the vortex of a hellish river; at the sixth, they are illuminated by magical stones; finally, the seventh gate opens to the Empyreal Sky. Even though this is not the Catholic Purgatory, the seven purgatorial heavens play the same task as the seven terraces of Dante’s Mountain of the Purgatory.
God’s Throne of Judgment
After traversing the atmospheric and astronomical skies, the ecstatic visitors are admitted into the abode of God. They are shown the Throne of Judgment and sometimes they are allowed to contemplate God himself.
The vision is magnificent. St. Adamnán reports that “this throne is fashioned like unto a canopied chair, and beneath it are four columns of precious stones.” Above the throne there is “a great arch, like unto a wrought helmet, or a regal diadem: and the eye which should behold it would forthwith melt away.” Hosts of bird-souls and archangels surround the throne, forming an indistinct flaming mass. The Lord himself, in His Glory, is indescribable, as “Heaven and earth are filled full with the light of Him, and a radiance as of a royal star encircles Him.”
In the presence of God, the ecstatic voyagers attend the verdict passed on the souls of the dead. The virtuous are admitted into the Kingdom and sent to the Celestial Paradise. The wicked are devoured by fiery dragons, which deliver them to Hell. Based on St. John’s Apocalypse, Gregory the Great already mentioned several visions in which depraved monks, such as one Theodorus and one from a monastery in Iconium, are delivered over to dragons: “ecce draconi ad devorandum datus sum”, “nunc ecce ad devorandum draconi sum traditus, qui cauda sua mea genua pedesque conlegavit, caput viro suum intra meus os mittens”34 (image that impressed Dante, who used it in his Inferno). In his vision, Adamnán also sees that the souls found guilty are thrown into the mouth of twelve terrifying dragons, which take them to the abode of Lucifer. There they will experience “the consummation of all evil, in the Devil’s own presence, throughout all ages”.
Some texts feel compelled to make the distinction between the individual and the Final Judgement. This distinction is not express theoretically, through concepts, but visually, through the location attributed to the place of judgment. For example, in The Adventures of St.
Columba’s Clerics, Snegdus and Mac Riagla witness the trial of the souls not in front of the throne of God, but in a kind of Limbo, a black desolated region with no tortures. The result of the trial is the same: good men are sent directly to the City of God; those who performed equally good and bad deeds are sent to the land of pains, where they are alternately made to suffer and rest. This regime will last until the end of the world, when good will prevail over evil. Evil men are tortured with different pains: parricides are tied to serpents in a pond of fire; robbers, traitors, corrupt judges, witches, cheats, rebels, heretics are tied with frozen and burning strips and beaten by imps; negligent pious men who succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh are burned in an ocean of fire, but only until the Apocalypse, afterwards they shall be sent to the harbour of life; failing monks, hypocrites, and charlatans are crashed by melted iron and bitten by hell
hounds; dishonest manufacturers and merchants, impious kings, adulterous women are crushed by demons.
The monk of Eynsham is also taken to a place that performs the same function as God’s Throne of Judgment, but is not Heaven. Behind a “ful glorious walle of crystal, hoys heythe no man might see, and lenthe no man might consider”, he beholds Christ “yn lykenes of man, seated aloft on a throne”. The entrance to the Throne of the Son is a gate where a swinging cross makes the selection of the souls: it allows passage to the virtuous, but stops the undecided. Although the dwelling features God on his Throne, Edmund knows “for certen that thys place, were Y saw oure Lorde sythyng yn a trone, was not the hye heuyn of heuyns, where the blessid spiritis of angels and holy sowlys of ryghtwys men ioyin yn the seyghte of God.” As such, the place can be assimilated to the lower Paradise, where a first trial, the individual judgment, is held.
Other fisi, such as The vision of Tnugdale, report the episode of the Throne of Judgment to the final description of the City of God. At the end of his voyage, Tnugdale arrives before the throne of the Holy Trinity (“sedes Trinitatis”), where the Final Judgment will be held. The Throne is the “omega point” of the universe, from where all major places of the world – Paradise, Hell and Earth – are equally visible (“Ab illo ergo loco, in quo tunc stabant, non solum omnem, quam ante viderant, gloriam, verum etiam predictarum supplicia penarum videbant, et quod magis miramur, terrarum orbem quasi sub uno solis radio videre valebant”). The place attributed to the episode of the Throne, at the beginning of the visionary visit (when it describes rather the individual judgment) or at the end of it (when it generally displays the Final Judgment), depends, as I will try to argue, on two different patterns of the supernatural journey.
The episode of God’s judgment of the souls is logically followed by the presentation of the punishments respectively the rewards implied by the verdicts. Consequently, the visitors will be shown the places of Hell and then of Paradise, as the main destinations assigned to people in the Otherworld. Now, in the fisi, both Hell and Heaven have two distinct manifestations. When Drythelm is shown a dark place where the souls are scattered by the wind alternatively into fire and into ice, he thinks this should be Hell; and when he sees a blossom plain hosting people in white garments, he is convinced it is Heaven. But in both cases, his celestial guide takes care to enlighten him that these are neither Hell, nor Heaven, as he might believe, but other specific places, more precisely, the land of pains and the land of the blessed. So Hell is divided into an upper Hell (the wasteland of mourning and pains) and a lower Hell (the pit of the demons), while Heaven is composed of the land of the blessed (which corresponds to the Terrestrial Paradise) and the celestial Kingdom of God.
The double structure of Hell may have its origin in the superposition, by the fathers of the Church, of two distinct antique eschatologies: the
classic vision of an underground Hades, described by Homer and Virgil and embraced by the large public; and the Pythagorean, mystical vision of an overground, atmospheric or lunar, Hades35. The wide literature of apocrypha also offers different locations for Hell. Visio Pauli, for example, revisits the Odyssey, placing Hell in the same land of the Cimmerians where Ulysses found its way to Hades: at the setting of the sun, beyond the great river Oceanus, in a place with no light and joy.36 The process of medieval appropriation of these antique visions is disclosed in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. In the Book IV, Peter asks Gregory “in what part of the world, I beseech you, are we to believe that hell is?”.37 And the Pope reminds us that “some have been of the opinion that hell was in some place upon the earth; and others think, that it is under the earth”
(“nonnulli namque in quadam terrarum parte infernum esse putaverunt, alii viro nunc sub terra esse aestimant”38). Gregory is cautious (“touching this point I dare not rashly define anything”) and doesn’t want to decide. So, quoting Psalm LXXXV 13, (“Liberasti animam meam ex inferno inferiori”), he accepts both theories: “the lighter hell may seem to be upon the earth, and the lower under the earth” (“ut infernus superior terra, infernus viro inferior sub terra esse videatur”).
Pope Gregory’s approach gives us a hint about how the two antique visions of a hell above respectively beneath earth clashed in early Christianity. The theological concept which permitted the accommodation and the juxtaposition of the two topoi is St. Augustine’s distinction between the Upper and the Lower Hell: “Intelligimus tanquam duo inferna esse, superius et inferius; nam unde infernum inferius, nisi quia infernum superius”.39 The theme was revisited by Church fathers and scholars like Cassiodorus (Expositio in Psalterium), Pseudo-Bede (In Psalmorum Librum exegesis) and Honorius of Autun (Elucidarium), and it was used by Irish monks in order to accommodate Celtic and other pagan motifs into the Christian vision of the afterworld.
St. Augustine’s conceptual device for distinguishing the two divisions of Hell and Heaven was adapted in certain anonymous Latin and Irish texts such as Liber de numeris and Scél Lái Brátha (The Tidings of Doomsday). In Liber de numeris, making “glossae in sacram scripturam” on the numbers 1, 2 and 3, an unknown Hiberno-Latin author distinguishes two kinds of good people (“Duo in hac vita sunt genera justorum: unum videlicet bene viventium, sed nulla docentium; aliud vero recte viventium, et eadem recta docentium”), respectively two kinds of bad people (“Duobus modis Deus respicit in hominess, id est, vel ad veniam, vel ad vindictam; ad veniam, sicut respexit Petrum; ad vindictam, sicut in Sodomam et Gomorrham”).40 Evidently, their eschatological rewards are not the same: those who have lived well (according to morals) but learnt nothing (according to theology) are not as good as those who lived morally and learned all. Similarly, there is a difference between the venial and the capital sins, the former can be forgiven, whereas the latter unerringly deserve punishment.
The homily dedicated to The Tidings of Doomsday also establishes a hierarchy between different degrees of piety and culpability. There are four categories of souls: the “very bad” (mali valde), who go directly to Hell, without Judgment; the “bad, not greatly bad” (mali non valde), who will be sent to Hell only after the Judgment (“a troop of them shall be brought to judgment and shall go after their doom to pain and punishment”); the
“good who are not greatly good” (boni non valde), who will be received in Paradise also only after the Judgment (“another troop of them will be brought to judgment, and they will go after their judgement unto reward”); and the “very good” (boni valde), who go directly to Paradise.41 On this basis, the Irish monk-writers ascribed to the souls mali non valde and boni non valde, who both need to face the Judgment, two intermediary places, the land of pains, or the Upper Hell, and the land of the blessed, or the Terrestrial Paradise. The colours white, black and the combination of white and black spots, discussed above, correspond to this quaternary eschatological typology.
The wasteland of pains (the upper Hell)
The next region of the otherworld visited by the ecstatic visitors is the wasteland of pains, conceived as the upper Hell. As such, this region is supposed to host the “mali non valde”, or “not quite wicked”, that is, the sinners whose final destiny is still to be decided. In this quality, it conflates and overlaps with several other eschatological typologies: the limbo (hosting people that are not punished but cannot enter the Kingdom of God either), “locus refrigerii”, a place for awaiting the Judgment, and the Purgatory (a place of repentance and cleansing).
Liber de numeris tackles upper and lower hell as the “hell of saints”
respectively the “hell of sinners”: “Duos etiam infernos in Scripturis legimus:
unus in terra, in quo probantur sancti, alius sub terra, in quo damnantur daemones et impii”. The concept of “infernos sanctorum” is quite puzzling, because it overlaps characteristics specific to several different eschatological places, such as the sinus Abrahae, the limb of the patriarchs before the harrowing of Hell, a place for waiting the Final Judgment, and a Purgatory for venial sins. Furthermore, as the author seems influenced by Irish tradition, it is possible that he describes the upper Hell, having liminally in view the Celtic Mag Mell. On this basis, he offers a long series of contrasts between the two places: “In inferno sanctorum compunctio salutaris, in inferno peccatorum cruciatus poenalis; in inferno sanctorum poenitentia vera, in inferno peccatorum poenitentia sera; in inferno sanctorum abremissio pia, in inferno peccatorum damnatio justa; in inferno sanctorum probatio cum consolatione, in inferno peccatorum poena sine intermissione; [...] in inferno sanctorum nox et dies, in inferno peccatorum tenebrae exteriores; in inferno sanctorum probantur boni, in inferno peccatorum puniuntur pravi; in inferno sanctorum ignis videtur et ministrat, in inferno peccatorum habetur et cruciat; in inferno sanctorum custodiunt angeli, in inferno peccatorum cruciantur
adversarii; in inferno sanctorum gratia, benignitas et misericordia, in inferno peccatorum amaritudo, ira et indignatio; in inferno sanctorum adjuvantur sancti, in inferno peccatorum damnantur daemones et impii; in inferno sanctorum boni et mali, in inferno peccatorum nihil habetur boni; in inferno pravorum non est finis malorum, in inferno sanctorum spes est regni coelorum”.42 Inhabited simultaneously by good and bad people who search the remission of their sins under the supervision of angels, the “Hell of saints” mirrors rather the Kingdom of Heaven than Hell.
Similarly, when he is shown Hell, St. Laisrén is first taken to a place to the North, a huge glen like a cave between two mountains, described as the “porch of Hell”. Here he sees many Irishmen wailing. The angels explain that “whoever is under the displeasure of God during life after thee, here do they behold (their) souls, and this is their certain fate, unless they repent”. Although he is not allowed to talk to them, the ecstatic visitor is told to preach for righteousness and repentance. Like St. Fursa, St. Laisrén is also prepared through his vision for a worldly mission, i.e. to address living people who can still avoid damnation. Nevertheless, the fis suggests that souls can also repent after death, and that they are kept in this place of concealment until they satisfy the demands of God. So the large glen seems to be a moral purgatory, combined with a locus refrigerii, where souls remain until they repent and so be taken to “a place of comfort away from this evil”.
Drythelm is also conveyed into a very long and deep valley, towards the East. The gorge is bordered to the left by walls of terrifying fire and to the right by terrible curtains of hail and ice. Between the two slopes a wind continuously blow and scatter hosts of souls. These two complementary ordeal elements remind us of the battle of angels and demons over the souls, but here their combined effect is, by means of thorough pain, purgation. Although the dead are visibly suffering, the white guide of Drythelm warns him that this is not Hell, as he might believe, but a place with a distinct eschatological aim, i.e. salvation.
In his turn, the monk of Wenlock is shown several “bowels of the earth, many fiery pits vomiting forth terrible flames”. On their edges he can see screaming souls in the shape of black birds (“miserorum hominum spiritus in similitude nigrarum avium”). The bird-souls, black in this case, are a wide recurrent motif in medieval visions. Gregory the Great presented in his Dialogues several narratives about souls leaving the bodies in the shape of doves.43 Later, in the 14th-15th centuries, the bird becomes a standard symbol of redeemed humankind in the icons representing Mary and the Child.44 In several Irish físi and immrama, it is apparently conflated with a similar Celtic motif. (For example, in The adventure of Teigue, son of Cian, Teigue and his warriors meet infernal black birds on a strange island. By eating their eggs, the Irishmen find themselves covered with black feathers, perhaps in accordance with their general sombre sentiments.45) Back to the monk of Wenlock, an angel explains to him that the bird-souls
are allowed to get out of the pits only for a while and then fall back again in the depths. “This brief respite shows that Almighty God will give to these souls in the judgment day relief from their punishment and rest eternal.” So upper hell is a place for expiation, and the refrigerium the souls receive in it is a foresight of the eternal peace they will enjoy after the Final Judgment.
As a rule, the torments in upper Hell are purgatorial. In his Dialogues, Gregory has shown that “before the day of judgment there is a Purgatory fire for certain small sins” (“de quibusdam levibus culpis esse ante indicium purgatories ignis credendus est”).46 The Pope is cautious to inform his readers that the remissible sins are only the smallest and most innocent, such as daily idle talk, immoderate laughter, negligence in the current affairs,
“ignorant errors in matters of no great weight”.47 The subsequent authors of visions, especially the Church fathers, will be careful to secure the moral function of Christian eschatology, by assigning to Purgatory only insignificant faults that people failed to confess during life. Saint Boniface, for example, relating the vision of the monk of Wenlock, takes care to state about Purgatory: “Hic sunt animae, que post exitum mortalis vitae, quibusdam levibus vitiis non omnino ad purum abolitis, aliqua pia miserentis Dei castigatione indigebant, ut Deo dignae offerantur”.
As the imagination of the visionaries seems freer and blunter than that of the fathers in charge, the purgatorial pains described correspond to misdeeds much less benign. Edmund the monk of Eynsham visits three successive places of torment: a swamp where souls are fried in pans, torn up by fiery claws, boiled in liquid metal, eaten by terrifying worms; a huge deep valley between two mountain coasts of fire and ice; a plain with burning braziers where souls are melted and burnt and then reconstituted in order to be tormented anew. Of the three places, the first two are definitely purgatorial, as the tortured souls conserve the hope of salvation.
And even when they are eternally doomed, those who had done some good deeds in their lives are regularly allowed refreshment (“refrigerium supplicii”) as in The vision of the Monk of Wenlock, or alternate moments of pause (most frequent on Sundays48) as in The vision of Adamnán. In a late vision of an anonymous woman from the fifteenth century, the Purgatory is also divided in three regions, which have a purgation function based on the nature of God’s implication: the Purgatory of righteousness (deserved by three great fires that turn souls black, then red and finally white), the Purgatory of mercy and the Purgatory of Grace.49
As the fisi became more and more elaborate, the structure of the upper Hell also grew more complex. The vision of Adamnán and The vision of Tnugdale develop a manifold and multifunctional Hell that foreshadowed Dante’s great system. After crossing a bridge over the pit of flames, Adamnán visits a series of spaces hosting different types of pains: a place where suffering is intermittent, one hour of pains and one hour of calm, for people in whom good and evil are equally balanced, and who will be
released at the Judgment; a sea of fire, with chains like vipers, for fratricides, ravagers of God’s Church and simoniacs; a black mire for people perpetually scorched by their girdles with alternate cold and fire and bitten by demons with fiery clubs; a residence for thieves, liars, traitors, corrupt judges, contentious persons, witches and heretics, pricked by streams of fire in the hollows of the face and by nails through their tongues or heads; a silver wall encloses those who “practised mercy without zeal, and remained in loose living”, but who will be redeemed at the Judgment; a spot where the regulars who transgressed their rules and the impostors are clad in red mantles down to their middle and devoured by stinking hounds incited by demons; and an area where demons rain showers of red hot arrows on cheating artificers, weavers, merchants, corrupt judges, impious kings and adulterous women.
The most systematic is The Vision of Tnugdale. The “mali, sed non valde”
exist in an intermediary place, hungry, thirsty, sad, exposed to rain and wind, but still not tortured in any way – a place that anticipates Dante’s Limbo. Sinners are grouped by categories of sins and types of pains:
murderers, patricides, matricides, infanticides and fratricides are burned like coals and squeezed through an iron lid in valley of fire; intriguers and treacherous people are successively exposed to fire and cold on a mountain; the proud have to pass a bridge over a river of sulphur; the avaricious are eaten by a giant worm; the thieves have to cross a bridge over a lake growling with a multitude of terrible beasts; the gluttons and fornicators are slaughtered by hellish butchers in a giant dome; the faulty clerics are eaten by a winged beast that defecates them in an ice pond and impregnates them with snakes that bite them from within; those who accumulate sins without repenting are smitten by infernal blacksmiths that melt them in balls of twenty up to one hundred souls. These eight categories, anticipating Dante’s circles, suffer great pains. However, their torturing, that of Tnugdale included, is supposed to have a purgatorial effect, to cleanse the voyagers from their sins, as in St. Patrick’s Purgatory.
The infernal pit (the lower Hell)
If the upper Hell is a wasteland for purging sins, the lower Hell is the pit of the damned. There is no redemption and no escape from this place, the tortures are no longer purgatorial, they are an eternal punishment that the Final Judgment will only confirm and make irrevocable. Tnugdale, for example, is told by the angel that no one who entered the pit will ever be allowed to escape from it (“nullus, qui semel intraverit, exire amplius poterit”). As the angel informs Tnugdale, God is eager to listen to the sinners that show repentance at their death, but condemns to eternal death those who deny Him (“qui vel Christum omnino negant, vel negantium opera faciunt”). In the infernal pit the demons are not only the torturers of the damned, but are also tortured for their own deeds.
Compared to the upper Hell, the lower Hell is most of the times scarcely described. The voyagers to the underworld often pass over it on a bridge with variable geometry and, if they do not fall, they have only a fugitive glance at it, obstructed by the distance, the smoke and the darkness. In St. Laisrén’s vision, “Hell itself” (as opposed to the mountain cave and the glen of the “porch of Hell”) is minimally presented (maybe because of a loss in manuscript transmission), on the model of the lake of fire from St. John’s Apocalypse (“et Diabolus, qui seducebat eos, missus est in stagnum ignis, et sulphuris, ubi et bestia, et pseudopropheta cruciabuntur die ac nocte in saecula saeculorum”, 20, 10),50 as a wild sea of fire engulfing the souls of the damned. Some of these, those who practised blasphemy, falsehood, prying and boasting, have nails hammered through their tongues, ears or eyes; others are driven by demons with fiery forks. The monk of Wenlock also has only a distant glimpse of the infernal pit situated in the “lowest depths, as it were in a lower hell”. An angel informs him that the people he can hear screaming within will never receive divine mercy and will be eternally tortured (“Sub illis autem puteis, adhuc in inferioribus et in imo profundo, quasi in inferno inferiori, audivit horrendum et tremendum et dictu difficilem gemitum et fletum lugentium animarum”).
However, in some of the later fisi the influence of the Judeo-Christian apocalypses, with their rich imagination concerning the infernal torments, eventually inspired a progressive amplification of the description, culminating in Dante’s system. In The vision of Thurkill, the presentation of Hell begins with a most elaborated spectacle. In a huge house situated to the North of the eschatological church where souls are being tried, Thurkill attends a complex theatre show, in which the doomed people grotesquely mimic their sins, to the laughter and applause of the demons. Further on there extend four places of torture: in the first, souls are boiled in cauldrons of burning sulphur and liquids; in the second, in cauldrons of ice and snow; in the third, in cauldrons with melting mixtures of venomous herbs; in the fourth, in cauldrons with caustic salted water. Every eight days, the souls are moved from one place to other.
The visit of the infernal pit implies a deeper descent into the underworld, which is most often a new (or the real) “descensus ad inferos”.
After visiting the abodes of the upper Hell, Tnugdale finds himself in a place of incomparable darkness, the “tenebrae palpabilis”. A quadrangular pit (“fossam quadrangulam quasi cisternam”) leads to a cloud of flames and smoke, in which dwell a multitude of souls and demons. The origin of the dimness is the prince of darkness (“princeps tenebrarum”) himself, Lucifer.
The enemy of the human race (“inimicus generis humani”) is described as having a human form, but several arms and tails. In his hands he is crushing crowds of souls, like grapes. He is chained to the ground by all his limbs, otherwise he would destroy the entire world. This is the traditional image of the fettered arch-demon, which traversed medieval popular
mythology, from the demon tied in the “vale tenebrarum” of the medieval legends about Alexander and the “marvels of the East”51 to Dante’s Lucifer imprisoned in the ice of Cocytus.
Some visions posit a more drastic separation between lower Hell and the upper one. In his fis, Adamnán discovers that “beyond the land of torment there is a fiery wall”, which encloses a place “seven times more horrible and cruel”. The landscape is far more terrifying than that of the land of pains. Adamnán sees mountains with caverns and thorny brakes;
bare and parched plains, with lochs full of serpents; sandy, rugged and icebound soil; great seas with horrible abysses; four mighty rivers, of fire, snow, poison and mud. But the main difference between upper and lower Hell in Adamnán’s vision is given by their eschatological employ. Upper Hell is a Purgatory and a place for abiding Doomsday. After the Final Judgment, some of its penitents, the “mali non valde”, “shall be brought into the Haven of Life”; and some, the “mali”, will be thrown into the lower Hell. For now, until the end of the world, the infernal walls of lower Hell imprison only “the Devil’s own tribe”. The sinners condemned for “ever and ever” will join them only after Doom (and even then they will still have a respite, of three hours on every Sunday). The infernal stronghold seen by Adamnán, meant to imprison the absolute “mali”, stands in the thematic line that goes from Virgil’s prison of Tartar to Dante’s fortress of Dite.
Most often, Hell is separated from Heaven by a bridge (“pons probationis”), an ordeal barrier meant to part the damned souls from the blessed ones. As lower Hell is represented as a lake of fire, or as a deep pit underground, and as Christian Hell inherited the rivers and swamps of classical Hades, Acheron, Styx, Cocytus, etc., a bridge would be a logical artefact (similar to the boat of the dead) to cross this obstacle.
Nevertheless, being conceived by God in eternity, and not by men, the bridge has more than a pragmatic aim. Generally it enacts a moral function: designed with variable geometry, it is broad and accessible for righteous people, but become narrow, slippery and impenetrable for sinners.
The topos of the bridge, as most scholars agree, seems to originate in early Christian folklore, and was imposed by the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. In Dialogue 37 of Book IV, the Pope presents the post-mortem destiny of a man called Stephen that died in the plague of 590. The story is told by a soldier who had a near-death experience at the same epoch.
While “his soul was in such sort carried out of his body” (“eductus e corpore”), the soldier saw “a bridge, under which a black and smoky river did run, that had a filthy and intolerable smell: but upon the farther side thereof there were pleasant green meadows full of sweet flowers, in which also there were divers companies of men apparelled in white” (“pons erat,
sub quo niger adque caligosus foetoris intolerabilis nebulam exhalans fluvius decurrebat; transact autem ponte, amoena erant prate, adque virentia odoriferis herbarum floribus exornata, in quibis albatorum hominum conventicula esse videbantur”).52 Not all the voyagers, Stephen included, have the chance of crossing the bridge, because they don’t survive “this manner of trial: if any that was wicked attempted to go over, down he fell into that dark and stinking river; but those that were just and not hindered by sin, securely and easily passed over to these pleasant and delicate places”.53 Moreover, conflating the topos of the bridge with Jacob’s ladder, Gregory recounts that the ordeal is completed by the intervention of “certain terrible men”
who rise from the river and drag the passengers downward, and “certain other white and beautiful persons” who pull them upward. So, the bridge re-enacts the theme of the battle of angels and demons over the souls of the dead.
The sources of the theme are not entirely clear. Scholars from the Religions-geschichtliche Schule (from Miguel Asín Palacios to P.
Dinzelbacher) have argued that the motif of the bridge has its origin in the Iranian theme of the Cinvat, and from there that it was successively adapted by the Muslim mi’raj, by Irish mythology and by Medieval Christian visions. Recently, Ioan Petru Culianu has discarded the “Irish connection”, showing that the theme was most likely transmitted directly from Muslim to Christian eschatology.54 Nevertheless, in Irish literature there appear all types of ordeal bridges. They are present in all the literary species that tackle with the otherworld, echtrai, immrama, journeys to St.
Patrick’s Purgatory, físi.
For example, in The Adventures of Art son of Conn, Art travels to Tir na nIngnadh to find Delbchaem, his future wife. Among the many dangers and perils he has to avoid there is a slender narrow bridge over an icy river, guarded by a warrior giant.55 The most formidable of these bridges is the Bridge of the Cliff that Cu Chulainn has to traverse in order to please the father of his future bride Emer. “And this is the way the bridge was:
the two ends of it were low, and the middle was high, and whenever any one would leap on it, the first time it would narrow till it was as narrow as the hair of a man’s head, and the second time it would shorten till it was as short as an inch, and the third time it would get slippery till it was as slippery as an eel of the river, and the fourth time it would rise up on high against you till it was as tall as the mast of a ship”.56 In order to cross it, Cu Chulainn has no other recourse than to go berserk and perform the
“hero’s salmon leap”.
In The Voyage of Mael Duin, the coracle of the heroes stops nearby a fortress with a bronze gate and a bridge of glass, running over a small river. ”When they used to go up on the bridge they would fall down backwards”. A sinless young lady greets and accommodates them for three days, then disappears together with the castle.57 In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, when the saint reaches Tir Tairngire (Terra repromissionis
sanctorum), which is assimilated to the Terrestrial Paradise, he learns that the island is divided into two regions by a river. The procurator allows him to visit the first one, but not the second. The same as in the case of the Garden of Eden, prohibited to mankind after the original sin, Brendan is warned not to try to find a passage or a bridge over the river: “Istud flumen non possumus transire”.58 The pont-levis to the Kingdom of God has been raised!
The bridge is an important piece of the narrative pattern of the journeys into St. Patrick’s Purgatory also.59 In contrast to classical Acheron, which parts the realm of the living from the realm of the dead, in Irish descents into the purgatorial cave a river or an abyss separates the kingdom of the damned from the Kingdom of God. A narrow, slippery, blade-like bridge (“tres estroit, et aussi poli comme glace et tout esculent”, says Jacques of Voragine) links the two banks. It is a trial instrument which tests not only the faith and moral quality of the characters, but also their courage. Owein and Nicolas cross it without aid, by their own forces.
George is secured by the archangel Michael, who supports and protects him from the onslaught of the devils. William tumbles upon a ladder with blade-like stairs high as a man each.
In the físi, the bridge is, rather than a test of courage and heroic skills, a moral ordeal that carries out the same selection function as the trial by angels and demons in the atmospheric sky, the purgatorial fire in the astronomical skies and God’s Judgment of the souls. It is just another way of separating the good from the bad: it allows the passage of the virtuous but determines the fall of the vicious in the hellish pit beneath. In The Adventures of St. Columba’s Clerics60, the monks are taken to visit Hell. The first region they see is a kind of a limbo, a black desolated plain, with no penance and suffering. Here the souls have to pass a trial bridge, wide for the just, but narrow and slippery for the sinners. In the Vision of Adamnán, after attending the divine Judgment, “little Adam” (Adamnán is a diminutive for Adam) is taken to the underworld. From a “land burnt black, waste and scorched”, a bridge conveys the souls upon a pit in flames. The bridge changes its dimensions and form: it is large and easy for the chaste, the penitent and the diligent people; it is narrow at the beginning and large at the end for the converted; and it is large at the beginning and narrows at the end for the sinners. Obviously, the bridge is developing the traditional allegory of human destiny as a road determined by either virtues or vices.
The bridges have not only a selection, but also a purgatorial function, through the pains they inflict to the passengers. In the vision of the monk of Wenlock, reported by St. Boniface, the ecstatic visitor is shown a bridge of wood (“lignum pontis”) over Tartarus, a river of fire and burning sulphur (“igneum piceumque flumen, bulliens et ardens”). The virtuous souls cross it without difficulties, but the others fall into the river and sink up to the knees, or waist, or shoulders. The angels explain that these are people who
died before confessing venial sins and need purification. After the immersion, a soul rises “far more brilliant and beautiful than when he fell into the foaming and pitchy river.” In the Vision of Tnugdale, several zones of the upper Hell are provided with trial bridges. The deep valley of the arrogant people is traversed by a long and narrow bridge that conveys the humble. The lake of thieves is also crossed by a bridge with iron nails (“clavis ferreis acutissimis, qui omnium transeuntium pedes solebant penetrare”) and each voyager has to go over it carrying on his back what he had stolen during his life (a cow in the case of Tnugdale).
All in all, the bridge has the same function and is a synecdoche of the whole upper Hell. As such, it can appear at its entrance (selecting those who should undergo the purgatory ordeal), during its crossing (selecting those who cannot be purified and are doomed to fall into the lower Hell) or at its end (selecting those worthy of leaving it and entering the Terrestrial Paradise).
The land of the blessed (the Terrestrial Paradise)
When the moral and penitential visit to Hell is over, the ecstatic voyagers reach the land of the blessed. The landscape changes dramatically, from darkness to light and from pain to happiness. Just as the partition of Hell into an upper and a lower zone allowed medieval authors to collect into the former different pagan topics such as the underground Mag Mell (the world within the sidhe) and its Christian equivalent, St. Patrick’s cave, the distinction between the land of the blessed and the celestial Kingdom of God made possible the conservation, within the topic of the first zone, of several pagan themes, such as the
“locus amoenus”, the insular Mag Mell, the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed. Making use of prolific visions such as those of St. John, St.
Peter and St. Paul, these Celtic and classical topics were assimilated to several Judeo-Christian themes, such as the Land of Promise, the Land of the Saints, the “sinus Abrahae”, and the Terrestrial Paradise.
Both Bede and Boniface describe Paradise with the classical terms of the locus amoenus. The “supernum conuentum” where St. Fursa is received by Beoanus and Meldanus is filled with an exquisite perfume of flowers and an ethereal music of angels that charm and transport him (“Tunc anima illius ad dulcedinem superni modulaminis ac sonitum ineffabilis laetitie ultra caelum sonantis intendens, circumfulsit”). In such a place there is no grief, sorrow and misery (“In hoc caelesti regno nulla umquam tristitia nisi de hominum perditione fieri potest”). Drythelm sees the “boni non valde”
gathered in a pleasant plain, full of flowers (“tantaque flagrantia uernantium flosculorum plenus”) whose perfume kills the unpleasant odour of Hell. The monk of Wenlock discovers in the “Paradise of God” a multitude of people in a state of blissful joy, nourished by the divine fragrance of the field (“amoenitatis locus, in quo pulcherrimorum hominum gloriosa multitude miro laetabatur gaudio”). Tnugdale, after seeing Hell, is shown the plain of joy
(“campus letitie”): beautiful landscape, perfumed flowers and fruit, clear light, pleasant and temperate air, etc. The Celtic apple-trees (Emain Ablach or Avalon are the islands of the apple-trees) which give immortality are supplanted by a source of eternal youth: “Fons quoque hic, quem vides, vocatur vivens: si quis gustaverit ex hac aqua, vivet in eternum”. This is the place for the “non valde bonorum”, those who were good, but not enough, to be received directly into the Kingdom of God.
In late medieval iconography, Paradise was often represented as a twofold image: in the lower part of the drawings, was a garden of delights (inheriting the topos of the Garden of Eden), and in the upper part, the City of God (inheriting the topoi of the Kingdom of God and of the Heavenly Jerusalem). The Irish monks moulded their Celtic legacy according to this pattern. In the middle of the plain of joy, Tnugdale sees a castle miraculously suspended, rich and resplendent (“domus mirabiliter ornatum, cujus parietes et omnis structura ex auro errant et argento et ex omnibus lapidum pretiosarum generibus”). This dome reuses the motif of the magical stronghold of the fairy people living in Mag Mell, and upgrades it to the magnificence of the Pauline Celestial Jerusalem. As such, it is the afterworld abode of Christian kings like Conchobar and Donnchad, placed in paradise because of their patronage of the Benedictine monastic federation to which the author of Visio Tnugdali belonged.
In other fisi, the vision of the lower Paradise is assimilated to the Land of Saints. Adamnán discovers that the site is divided into four cardinal dwellings: the eastern abode houses the saints from the East, the southern the saints from the South, etc. The same partition of the Land of the Saints appears in the account of the two ecstatic monks of The Adventures of St. Columba’s Clerics. This division of paradise into quadrants is amplified, in The Adventure of Cian’s son Teigue, into the concept of four cardinal paradises, each situated at one of the cardinal points of the world.
In Adamnán’s description, the wondrous companies of the Host of the Saints, “clad in cassocks of white linen, with hoods of radiant white upon their heads”, “keep singing marvellous music in praise of God.”
Lower Paradise is a mansion where the saints wait for the Final Judgment or, as Adamnán puts it, “abide continually in even such great glory as aforesaid, until the great Parliament of Doom, when the righteous Judge, on the Day of Judgment, shall dispose them in their stations and abiding places”. If in Tnugdale’s fis the historical extension of the plain of delights is unlimited or not specified, being potentially coextensive with Hell and Paradise (the plain of joy is conceived as “the resting place of the not quite good”), in other texts its duration in time is bounded by Doomsday, when all intermediary places will be closed. As such, lower Paradise can be presented as Abraham’s bosom, an ancient Hebrew topos related to the idea of return to the ancestors and utilised especially by Oriental Christianity as a name for the place of rest were dead people sleep until the resurrection. In The vision of Barontus, a continental vision that I
exceptionally invoke here for its plain utilisation of the Judeo-Christian terminology, the place where souls wait for the Judgment and the accession into the Kingdom of God is specifically called “sinus Abrahae”.
Travelling between Paradise and Hell, Barontus sees Abraham seated on a huge throne and receiving into his bosom the souls of the dead who do not go directly to God.
Finally, the effort of incorporating the pagan topoi of “locus amoenus”
and Mag Mell into the Christian concept of the Otherworld led to their assimilation to the Garden of Eden, as in Godfrey of Viterbo’s sapiential poem Pantheon61. In the medieval tradition, the Biblical Garden, permanently closed by God after the original sin, was however open to some special cases, such as Enoch and Elias, to which sometimes were added Moses or St. John the Evangelist. In the Bible, Enoch and Elias were two peculiar samples of people being miraculously abducted “in corpore”, during their lifetime. Originating perhaps in a lost apocryphal text (in the opinion of Montague James), already present in St. Irenaeus’s Contra Haereses (V.5.1.) and in Visio Pauli (20a-b), the theme of Enoch and Elias appears in several Irish texts. The most explicit and complete is Dá brón Flatha Nime (The Two Sorrows of the Kingdom of Heaven), where they are presented as saints who await, in their mortal bodies, the end of the world.
Elias is pictured preaching about Doomsday to birds which are souls of the just.Unlike all other humans, who had to pay by death the price of Adam’s sin, the two saints are allowed to remain alive until the Judgment, when they are supposed to confront the Antichrist and die as martyrs. D. N.
Dumville is of the opinion that Terrestrial Paradise was the most logical place that medieval writers could attribute to this physical immortality, as opposed to the Celestial Paradise reserved for the spiritual immortal beings such as the angels and the souls of the righteous.62
The scene from The Two Sorrows of the Kingdom of Heaven reappears tale quale in the Vision of Adamnán, in its final section. Elias, we are told, preaches to “bright white birds”, which are ”the souls of the righteous, under the Tree of Life, which is in Paradise.” He is teaching them about the two journeys of the dead, to the “joys and delights of the Heavenly Realm”, or to the “pains and torments of Hell”, and about the woes of Doomsday. The description of Judgement Day produces a “look of sorrow”
upon the faces of Elias and of Enoch, and a great lamentation among the birds. The whole episode happens before the time when “will the Lord render due recompense to every one on earth” and the saints will be borne “to a lasting habitation in the Kingdom of Heaven”. Adamnán’s Terrestrial Paradise is then a land where the souls of the righteous, not in human but in bird form, await for the Last Day. It is analogous to the Land of Saints or similar places where, in other fisi such the Vision of St. Fursa, angels or saints instruct the visitors about the chances of salvation deriving from of their moral comportment in life.