Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate. (Abandon hope all ye who enter here.) Dante
The darkness thickens as Morgana and I descend even further into the depths of Hell. We halt in a claustrophobic stone chamber lit only by a dim yet lurid phosphorescence on the clammy walls. The temperature drops perceptibly and I shiver as Morgana gazes at me sternly, stonily. “Souls you would call serious sinners go to the Dungeons. Please be clear we are not talking about the natural enjoyment of sensual and worldly pleasures, nor even about being rude to your parents or mean to your best friend. Such minor peccadilloes are part of the rough and tumble of life in which we are all sometimes unkind, angry, lazy, vain and all the other myriad faults and failings that human nature is prone to. Taken too far these actions may incur karma…”
I desire to go to Hell, not to Heaven. In Hell I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, but in Heaven are only beggars, monks, hermits and apostles. Machiavelli
“Do you have any questions?” asks Morgana, formerly Merlin’s apprentice and now my guide in Hell.
“Well, you’ve reassured me that there have been major improvements since I was frightened half to death with stories about this place. Even so, I’m curious. You say that people come here of their own free will, but why would anyone choose to go to Hell? I’ve heard people joke about how in the great hereafter they’d rather have fun with the sinners than sing hymns with the saints, but I’ve never taken it seriously.”
How can I describe my vision, the air of Hell is too thick for hymns! Arthur Rimbaud
“And now I’m gonna get medieval on yo’ ass,” says Morgana, my guide in Hell. She laughs uproariously at my look of alarm. “Not really, things have moved on a lot since the Dark Ages, when nobody cracked jokes about the Spanish Inquisition because you did expect them to come knocking at your door. Such excesses helped cause a backlash of unbelief that has frankly lifted a great burden from the hearts and souls of suffering humanity. At one stage we were almost closed down as numbers were diminishing so rapidly. Indeed, your compatriots ‘dismissed hell with costs’ two centuries ago in earthly time.
As I open my eyes, the mist clears and I find myself in a monumental spa, fully covered with black marble. Basins with gold taps line the sides, and I can just make out the labels, recognizing some of the finest Bordeaux vintages. My eye lights on an artisanal Black Forest gin, while my nose picks up the distinctive peaty aroma of a Talisker whisky.
I step out of the Olympic-sized pool, cosily wrapped in a fluffy black bathrobe, my feet shod in jewelled slippers. A figure in a dapper black uniform with slicked-back black hair glides up, wheeling a gold-plated drinks trolley. With a fixed blank smile, he proffers a huge triangular glass filled with vivid red liquid and two black olives on a cocktail stick. I eye it dubiously and he bows slightly. “Demon’s Blood & Balls”, he rasps metallically, “everyone’s favourite down here.”
I hate to be so rude as to refuse a drink, so I raise the glass to my lips and sip cautiously. “Not bad, you must give me the recipe for my next Halloween bash.”
The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity. (Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
“Back to happier subjects, we do throw good parties here.” Orpheus beams at me, radiating goodwill. “Lavish banquets, fountains of wine, dancing choreographed by the Graces. Even my father occasionally honours us with his presence, and everyone sings paeans to him. Then we play duets together, him on his lyre, me on my lute.”
“Yes, I am also a Son of God,” he looks down modestly. “There are quite a few of us actually, though we’ve kept a low profile since the Downfall. My father is Apollo, the only One of us who kept His name under the new regime.” His chest swells visibly as he looks up. “Everyone knows Sun Gods are the greatest, even though now and again they get usurped by the Old Thunderers … sorry, Brethren of the Skies.”
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)
“We’re almost out of our time together. Do you have any more questions?” asks Orpheus, my charming guide to Paradise.
“Not for the moment, thank you, you’ve given me such a wealth of information to reflect on and absorb. You’re a star!”
“Alas not I, only my instrument,” he raises an ironic eyebrow. “And you’re welcome. I enjoy coming here and it gives me a chance to spend time with my wife.”
“Your wife?” My face must have fallen a little, for Orpheus gives me one of his most radiant smiles and pats my hand gently.
What wond’rous life in this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head; The luscious clusters of the vine Upon my mouth do crush their wine; The nectarine and curious peach Into my hands themselves do reach; Stumbling on melons as I pass, Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass. (Andrew Marvell, The Garden)
I find myself walking though a cool green tunnel of foliage. As I emerge into the bright morning I see a lake sparkling ahead of me in the middle distance. I am standing at the top of a steep grassy bank covered in myriads of daffodils, all in full bloom and gleaming yellow gold in the sunlight. The place looks familiar yet altered, enhanced. Turning round I see a garden planted with flowering shrubs, glowing in the sunlight and scenting the air with their heady fragrance. Suddenly I recognize where I am: rus in urbe; a garden which is also a public park, where Basil and I have often walked and enjoyed its salubrious beauty. I walk down the bank of daffodils into a glade of trees surrounding a spring. I stand there for a moment drinking in the cool tranquillity of this oasis.
As the boat glides gently down the river I sink once more into a light trance in which time seems to be suspended. It is too dark to make out anything beyond the banks, though occasionally vague shapes seem to flit past.
Suddenly I am aware that the boat has stopped and is moored to the riverbank. The Boatman raises his hand and indicates that I should disembark. The sky is lightening, colour returning to the scenery, and I step out carefully.
The riverbank is covered with beautiful, tall, lily-white flowers, which emit a subtle fragrance as I brush through them and emerge into a lush meadow. Meanwhile my ear is caught by the sweetest sounds of music.
One midsummer day in midlife, I found myself in a dark wood. It is a yew forest, nestled into a vale amid the rolling hills of the South Downs. Cultivated yew trees are usually clipped and trimmed, but in this ancient wildwood the trees spread their branches wide, intertwining with each other and canopying the forest into an arboreal cathedral. Their green shade is cooling and soothing on a warm summer day, while their resinous aroma is gently soporific.
We’re gonna take a little ride on the Solar Boat
Bring your scepter, bring your thunderbolt
We’ll see the eye in the canopy, the morning star
The edge of the void, it’s not too far…
Fascinated by the vivid colour, complexity and power of the ancient Egyptian bardo, as depicted on papyrus and stone, I did further research into this lost world. My most astonishing revelation was that the Egyptian paradise was not a fixed location but had undergone a radical transformation over the course of history.
Since Pharaoh is the Son of God, his exalted status must be recognized in the afterlife as in life. Instead of toiling with the peasants in the Field of Reeds, surely a more fitting destination is the abode of the Gods in the Stellar Realms. Of course he needs a suitable mode of transport and the most magnificent vehicle in existence is the barque of the Sun God Ra, who sails it every day on a round trip through the known universe.