Death is one of two things. Either death is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another. Now if there is no consciousness, but only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvellous gain. If, on the other hand, death is a removal from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing could there be than this? Put it this way: how much would one of you give to converse with Orpheus and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. It would be a specially interesting experience for me to join them there …
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.
Looking around, I behold a handsome young man with long tumbling curls sitting on a bench and strumming a lute, his orange robe billowing in the breeze. He lays down his instrument and smiles charmingly at me. “Welcome to our world, Sybil!”
My jaw drops, and I stare entranced at this vision of male beauty and charisma. “Oh my God!”
He smiles ironically. “How very perceptive of you. My name is Orpheus and I am your guide on this lap of your Odyssey. Now please come and sit beside me, and let me tell you something about this place. You look as fresh as a dawn daisy after your journey.”
Blushing rosily, I sit down beside Orpheus, who reaches down and offers me a leather flask. “Try this. It’s milk and honey, the traditional breakfast drink of shepherds.”
I take a swig. “This is delicious, I might even switch from my morning coffee!” I drink some more to the accompaniment of Orpheus’s melodic riffs, feeling refreshed and happy.
The air is as freshly floral as a country garden on a spring morning, the sun is rising above the distant hills, and a soft breeze ruffles the treetops. The trees are all arching towards us as if to catch every note of Orpheus’s sweet music, as he plucks delicately at the strings of his lute. Even the birds are lined up on the branches to listen, and only now in the lull begin their own song again. Before us lies a green pasture, a vision of pastoral peace and beauty. Sighing contentedly I observe, “This is certainly a more pleasant place than I dared expect on undertaking this voyage.”
Orpheus laughs. “You’re right that people often expect it to be a lot gloomier down here. Indeed there is a dark side, but the stories do not all agree. We poets are granted a license by Mnemosyne, the mother of our Muses, to add our own embellishments. Some of us are lyrical songbirds and see only beauty and joy wherever we go; others are of a darker turn of mind and inclined to see ghosts and demons lurking in every shadow. Then there are the epic bards for whom the only drama is a heroic quest followed by a mighty battle.
“Let me show you around.”
Orpheus picks up his lute lovingly, strumming it as we stroll together across the meadow. He smiles as he sees me admiring the flora. “I see you like these wild flowers and are trying to identify them. On Earth they flourish in the hills of my homeland, and are loved by our Queen Persephone who used to gather them with her mother. She has planted them on these banks to remind her of home and welcome our visitors.
“Nowadays we have gardeners, but however stylish and elegant their landscaping on Earth, here they like to encourage a more natural look, simply enhancing the natural beauty of this place by encouraging wildflowers.
“These flowers are asphodels: lilies of the field, ancestors of the daffodils that bloom so brightly in the spring sunshine. They can also be translated as ‘heaven in a wild flower’. Once this place was just a field of reeds, but it has been renamed Asphodel Meadows. You have arrived in Paradise!
“You may believe Paradise is reserved for the fortunate and privileged, but we Greeks understand that it is open to everyone, including those you call ordinary people. Our ancestors invented democracy almost miraculously out of the surrounding barbarism. True, the torch was then passed on, but the original high idealism still resonates and you will see the results as you travel onwards. The radical humanity of this new philosophy was reflected in our overhaul of infernal topography.
“Asphodel Meadows is the People’s Paradise. Here we may all rest from our labours and enjoy the beauty, tranquillity and abundance that Mother Nature has bestowed so generously on our planet – recreated here in ideal form.
“Paradise takes many forms in different cultures. Once it was an Aegean island, its hills blanketed with spring flowers where nymphs and shepherds frolic and the naiads babble in the brook. Nowadays it is as likely to be a public park – a city centre oasis – or a palm-fringed tropical beach, a rose garden on a balmy summer evening, a woodland ringing with the dawn chorus, a Scottish island bathed in sunshine … anywhere that heals your heart and soothes your soul.
“If you wish to rid yourself of fear and familiarize yourself with what lies beyond, it is an excellent practice to prepare for your arrival by visualizing the paradise of your heart’s imagining. It’s very simple, here’s how.
“Sit down on this grassy knoll, close your eyes and relax. Imagine yourself sitting in a place of natural beauty, unspoilt, peaceful. It can be somewhere you know and love or an imaginary location, or it could be a traditional paradise: Elysium, Summerland, the Garden of Eden, Firdaus – wherever resonates for you. The air is fresh and fragrant with the scent of your favourite flowers. The only sounds are natural: the song of birds, the whisper of a breeze in the treetops, the babbling of a brook, the gentle roar of the surf breaking on the beach.
“Create your own paradise and fine-tune it exactly as you want it, as an artist does with a landscape painting. Add a water feature, flowers and birds of your choice, allow yourself perfect weather. If the view is blocked by trees, move them. Remove any impediment to perfection: clouds, flies, barking dogs, noisy machines. You can be here alone or with your family and friends. Your favourite animals and birds can be here including mythical beasts, and the lamb may play with the lion cub or any other animal of your choice.
“You have been to paradise many times, remember…”
I close my eyes, relax and breathe deeply. Memories well up and flood my mind.
I remember my favourite garden from my childhood, blooming with bright flowers, surrounded with trees and filled with birdsong.
I remember a bluebell wood carpeted in vivid blue and illuminated by spring sunshine filtering through the tender green foliage.
Then my imagination ventures further afield and I remember a warm beach fringed with tropical forest, monkeys leaping through the trees and parakeets calling, the sun setting over the ocean.
I remember roaring through a tunnel in a train in the dusty heat of an Indian summer, passing a billboard proclaiming “Welcome to Kashmir, Paradise on Earth”, and emerging into a world of cool lakes amid stunning mountain scenery.
Returning home, I remember walking through the South Downs with Basil on a perfect summer day: lambs gambolling, larks singing, round-headed rampions blooming, and the sea shining in the distance. All’s well with the world.
“Good, you’ve got the picture. Now come and see, enter the real thing.”
We stand up and walk towards a hedge of hawthorn and honeysuckle with a trellised archway covered in climbing roses whose heady scent perfumes the warming air. On either side of the archway, two hunky dudes are lounging.
“These are the guardians of Paradise, though their role is largely ceremonial nowadays. As you see, they carry no weapons, though once they were armed with the latest military technology. Unfortunately they got a bit trigger happy with the flaming swords that were state of the art in ancient Babylon and ejected our first residents a bit too unceremoniously. As a result they were disarmed. But it has to be said those swords were really cool, so we may style them up again under the new regime.
“Simply walk through this archway and you will find yourself in your very own personal paradise.”
Off I go, my heart beating a little faster, apprehensive but eager to experience whatever awaits me on the other side.