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, who once ranked even higher than Zeus.” 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.”
“Hang on, downfall? I thought you were all enjoying a reprieve in the brave new world of the Roman Empire.”
“Well, we were for a millennium or so, the blink of an eye really. Then in yet another twist of Fate, an upstart Thunderer from nowhere – well, the occupied territories, which were hardly even on the map – started flexing his muscles, aiming at world domination. He was causing quite a stir with his innovatory military tactics. Bored with traditional thunderbolts, he came up with cool tricks like turning his enemies into pillars of salt. As for his friends, well he muscled into Poseidon’s domain taking control of the seas to spectacular effect, thus saving a whole nation from the wrath of the Egyptians – who were the heavy hitters round there at the time, remember.
“But it was his son who reaped the reward for his father’s heroic feats. Miraculously, after a cruel and violent death – and believe me, it happens to the best of us – he single-handedly (well, with the help of an army of worshippers) dislodged us from our heavenly home. You know the story well so I won’t retell it; his triumph has been celebrated often enough, accompanied by brass bands and choirs of angels. Yet the greater miracle was the message, which won hearts and minds more effectively than the swashbuckling and carousing of the Olympians. Everyone was sick of endless war, not to mention the depravities of the new Emperor Gods who almost made the Olympians look adorable again.
“Here was a new God radiating virtue, preaching peace and love. Nobody was quite sure of his origins, whether plebeian, royal or even divine as claimed. Yet wherever his proselytes appeared thousands followed, and before long our own acolytes were outnumbered – worse, outmoded. Most of the old Gods were a bit condescending, but as an artist I welcomed the revolution, which heralded a new age of liberty and creativity.
“Sadly, however, we Immortals were not invited to the party. Instead we were demoted, dissed as pagan idols or even fictions, knocked off our pedestals, our shrines desecrated, our sacred groves burned down, our temples pillaged and destroyed. Even our Olympic Games were banned! No deus ex machina to save us this time.
“Oneness was the big new idea. The monotheism of the philosophers and mystics was rebranded as the spiritual basis of the new imperialism. As above so below; one Emperor on Earth, one God in Heaven. ‘Paganism’ – as our worship was now termed – was disparaged as primitive, deluded, superstitious and sinful. Its philosophical teachings were suppressed, though many of our rites were adapted, our sacred sites reclaimed and rebuilt.” Orpheus looks melancholy, then quickly straightens his shoulders and smiles bravely. “But let’s not dwell on past atrocities. It’s ancient history, and we’ve all moved on now.
“Nowadays many people are looking back nostalgically to those glory days. There has been some talk upstairs of reinstating us under the new regime, and the Hero Gods have been campaigning hard. But as I said to Hercules, ‘Dude, outside our homeland and the British Grenadiers, who remembers your great deeds of derring-do?’
“But hey, I’m an artist and really not interested in power or status. Just give me a lute and an audience, and I’m a happy being.
“Now it’s time for the next stage of your odyssey. Are you ready to go deeper?”
I am, curiosity still draws me on, though I’m beginning to feel a bit nervous.
As we walk, the terrain gets drier, stonier, and the sun beats down with some force. The air feels heavy and for the first time I feel the effort of movement on this uphill struggle.
Orpheus glances at me. “You’re very quiet, but fear not! How are you doing?”
“Fine, just thinking. Doctor Who?”
“My vote for a new Hero God. But Bond too, obviously. They’d make a great team. Brains and brawn, geeks and warriors, science and technology. Lords of time and space, superstars of the silver screen.”
“Not a bad choice. Sounds like you’re beginning to get the idea.”
“What’s that then?”
“The Great Game of Gods … From here you can go on to build your own personal pantheon, meeting a few more contenders along the way. You’ll want a few Goddesses too of course.”
“Of course. A few names spring to mind already. Naturally your Queen Persephone, of course the great Goddess Isis – who by the way is also the patron Goddess of our local city – and not forgetting my gracious guide Coventina.”
“That’s a good start. Remember also Gaia, popularly known as Mother Earth.”
As we talk we walk on through the increasingly parched landscape, the red rock pitted with craters like some long abandoned planet. My nose catches a distinct whiff of sulphur and I observe plaintively, “By the way, it’s a bit bleak round here, isn’t it?”
“Yes, this area of Asphodel Meadows is the most barren corner of our realm but under development. There was a time during the height of Greece’s military glory when it was decreed that the Underworld should provide a clearer system of reward and punishment. A three-tier model was introduced. At the top, Elysium was refurbished and exclusively reserved for Heroes as a garden of delight. Ordinary people were segregated in Asphodel Meadows, which suffered a consequent loss of status and quality, its carpet of flowers replaced by layers of ashes. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ they lamented in vain. Serious sinners were packed off to the deep abyss of Tartarus where fiendishly sadistic punishments were invented to torment them. That was the nadir of our fortunes, from Paradise to Purgatory. By the time that regime too had passed, our beautiful country had become forgotten and neglected for the longest time until Persephone embarked on her restoration programme under Britannia’s auspices.
“Horror stories abound about the terrors of the nether regions, but they are greatly exaggerated. You may have heard that the way to Hell is a river of fire, but this is simply a confused ancestral memory of a stormy night when Hades blew his top after Persephone withheld her favours. His volcanic rage literally erupted into a stream of molten lava that wreaked havoc throughout the land. Hell does indeed have its own river. It issues from a mineral spring, a place of natural beauty. Unfortunately the river got taken over by the hellfire prophets who polluted it with too much sulphur and brimstone.
However, the whole region has been restored by one of our clean-up crews voluntarily atoning for their depradations on the earthly environment. Nowadays the portal to Hella’s realm is once again a hot spring bubbling with healing minerals.”
As we near the summit the scenery changes into rock formations marbled with veins of wondrous colours and patterns, streaked gold, rose, russet and ochre. The rock is hollowed out into pools of turquoise water gently bubbling and steaming in the sun. I feel awestruck by the desolate sublimity of the landscape.
“Here we are!” The scenery changes again , softened by flowering shrubs encircling a pool of clear blue water, steaming invitingly in the afternoon sunshine. It contains white marble pillars forming natural seats. “You can sit on one of these pillars left over from the construction of Asklepios’s healing temple.”
“Asklepios is another Son of God, my half brother actually (same father, different mothers). We inherited different gifts from our father, who is patron of all the arts and sciences. My patrimony was music, Asklepios’s was medicine. Asklepios was elevated to the Pantheon for being the greatest healer of his time. He also has the distinction of being one of the few deities whose worship outlasted the Downfall, for he was esteemed by the medical profession.
“Until very recently your doctors swore their oath in the name of our father Apollo, my brother Asklepios and his daughters – my dear nieces Hygeia and Panacea. They are also gifted healers, it runs in the family. Some doctors would like to bring back the original Hippocratic Oath, but most worship Science above all other Gods so it seems unlikely. However, Asklepios’s Rod is still the favourite logo of the medical profession. My brother is always busy overseeing his healing sanctuary, Asklepion. I still have devotees among poets and musicians, who honour my name and take inspiration from my craft. Their worship animates our charisma, while our less popular brethren languish among the grey shades.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this? You know you can turn back and return home at any moment.”
With only the briefest moment’s hesitation I affirm, “Yes, I signed up for the whole trip and I’ll see it through, come what may.”
Orpheus nods approvingly. “A wise decision. You’ll need to be brave and steadfast, but you’ll come out stronger. Chin up!
“And now it’s time to say goodbye. Now it’s time for me to attend Persephone’s party and for you to go to Hell.
“Just sit here and enjoy the sensation of the water and steam melting away all fear, anxiety and stress. As the steam rises, turn off your mind, relax and go with the flow, and you will find yourself gently transported to Hella’s realm… ”
Another enchanting smile, a ripple of chords, and Orpheus vanishes into the mist. I wipe away a tear, then my eyes close, and I feel myself sinking rapidly as the waters close over my head.