Medieval Maps of Paradise

Historian Alessandro Scafi on the garden of Eden, Augustin’s concept of creation, and the emergence of the term “Paradise”

videos | January 13, 2017

The video is a part of the project British Scientists produced in collaboration between Serious Science and the British Council.

September 9th 1971. An English musician releases an album in the United States of America. The musician’s name is John Lennon, and the first track of this album became then an icon of music, a song full of poetry and melody — Imagine. Of course, we all enjoyed the music, but did we really realize the text? “Imagine, there is no heaven, only sky is above us. It’s easy, if you try”. My point is that it is not easy at all. My point is that it is not easy to a world without other worlds. Every civilization throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia has imagined another world — a heaven. Mount Meru for Hindus is the paradise of Brahma. The Greeks, the Romans had the Golden age, the Kingdom of Saturn, and then of course come the biblical faiths, and the Prophet Muhammad was carried up to heaven to Al Jannah.

My own research is about a very puzzling and very challenging Christian notion of a Heaven on Earth, of the Garden of Eden spoken about in the Bible – the very original dwelling place of the first pair of human beings, which is located on Earth, because the Bible very clearly mentions trees, rivers, bodies, and yet has a divine feature. It is really a paradoxical condition. This is why I was attracted to this topic. It is important to emphasize that I am not talking about Heaven, I’m not talking about the paradise which would be coming after life — I’m talking about the garden of Eden on Earth. A garden situated somewhere on Earth, it is where Adam and Eve stayed for a short time, but then they were expelled, as we know from the Biblical account, and then now the garden is empty. This is what they believed in in the Middle ages.

Historian Ruth Mazo Karras on church court records, means of contraception, and sex and gender roles in the Middle Ages

It is interesting then to explain the career of this fascinating term — Paradise. This term had a missing career, because this career started, I think, around the second millennium before Christ, because we know from very scarce material that this word Pairidaeza was on the lips of a very ancient tribe living in Iran — the Medes. And we know that around the 8th century Pairidaeza was used in the Persian Empire to indicate these beautiful royal parks where the princes of the Persian Empire would enjoy hunting. Then the words had a kind of, I would say, a career, an adventure, because the very first turning point was when the Greek historian Xenophon in the 4th century translated this word Pairidaeza, which in ancient Persian meant a ‘secluded place’ — a place surrounded by a clay wall. He translated that, when he talked about and wrote about Persia that he knew very well, with a Greek Paradeisos. Then in the 3rd century the famous seventy scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, when they wrote in Hebrew, in the book of Genesis, the reference to garden Eden, they translated garden Eden into Paradeisos. They used the Greek word coming from the Persian terminology. What is fascinating is that around later on around the 2nd century BC in Hebrew circles the word Paradeisos, the notion, became to be referred to another word — the heavenly Paradise. Hence the overlapping of the two things.

So much so that in the 1st century, when, as we all know, Christ was dying of the cross and the ‘good thief’ made the last theft of his life — the best — and he obtained a right to go to the paradise, he said: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. He definitely didn’t mean the garden of Eden, but he meant the heavenly paradise. So the confusion, the overlapping, goes back to the early times, and this is why I think that it is very important to explain that my research is on the earthly Eden, which, to cut a very long story short, became to be clearly defined only since Augustin around 400 AD. Saint August was the authority which very clearly distinguished the garden of Eden, the condition natural and earthly of Adam and Eve, from Heaven — from the resurrected bodies of the blessed we have at the end of time.

As we know, the medieval doctrine was very much influenced by Augustin, and his idea was that the humankind would progress from the garden of Eden from which we were expelled through history up to the heavenly Paradise. My interest is in this very Western Latin notion that developed from Augustin’s reading of Genesis. For Augustin it was very important to defend the literal authority of the scripture, to defend the goodness of material life against heretics and gnostic, neoplatonic tendencies to see the lower world of materiality — as impure. For Augustin it was important to show that the material creation was created by God, it was good, the body is created by God, we are meant to be embodied, and this is for me very important, because many modern popular thinkers and scholars forget what the intellectual context of Augustin was. Other fathers of the Church did not think in these terms.

Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History, Warburg Institute, University of London
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