Tag Archives: Hades

Voyages to the Hereafter – The Purgatory of St. Patrick

The Church has followed the Jewish tradition regarding Purgatory. In fact, since the 2nd Century BC the Jews believed that there was a period of purification after one died. For this reason, in the book of 2 Maccabees 12,43-45 it is written that Judas Maccabaeus sent to Jerusalem 2,000 silver drachmas in order to offer a sacrifice for those who had died in battle. Then, further references to Purgatory are also found in other biblical passages. In the Apocalypse, for example, it is written that nothing unclean will enter the Hereafter (Ap. 21,27), so everyone has to enter free from sins, therefore completely purified first. In the book of 1 Corinthians 3,15 St. Paul says that one can be saved, but only through a sort of fire. Moreover, Jesus clearly says that there are sins that can be forgiven after death (Mt. 12,32). Since the beginning, Christianity believed that there was a period of purification after death, although a more articulated idea of Purgatory formed between the 3rd and 12th Century. This was an evolution of the belief – such a belief was present in both liturgy and funerary epigraphy – that one may purify from some sins after death. The theoretical basis for the existence of Purgatory was provided by Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, who described Hell’s pains. As for the idea of a Purgatory place and its representations, were fundamental the descriptions of visions or travels to the Hereafter, which already had a long tradition in pre-Christian literature (e.g., the descent to the Hades of Odysseus and Aeneas). Initially neglected for the will of the Church of defeating paganism, stories of travel experiences to the Hereafter flourished from the 7th Century, especially in the monastic framework, where popular elements could be filtered by Christianity. Finally, these stories spread all over in the 11th and 12th Centuries. It is worth to mention that the Catholic concept of Purgatory fully realized only later, thanks to Dante Alighieri who, in his literary work “The Divine Comedy” (written between 1302 and 1321), described the triple division in which he imagined the Afterlife was divided: Hell (place of eternal punishment), Purgatory (place of temporary punishment) and Paradise (place of eternal reward).

The Purgatory of St. Patrick.

The first mention of St. Patrick’s Purgatory was made in the Saint Life, written between 1180 and 1183 by Jocelyn of Furness.

According to his account, Jesus appeared to Saint Patrick, who was unable to convert Irish people. Christ showed him a round and dark cavity, maybe a pit or a cave, and assured him that those who, after having been purified from their sins, had spent a day and a night in it would have seen both the punishment awaiting the evil ones and the prize for the righteous ones.

Upon the Saint decision, the cavity was then enclosed by both a wall and a door, and a church was built nearby (by tradition the episode is dated to the year 445). The door key was given to the canons’ prior (he would have then become Saint Dabheog) that established there. It was provided that all penitents, who had faced the try, should have then written down a report on what they had seen.

Jocelyn of Furness located the place of the Purgatory of St. Patrick on a mountain of Connaught, in the western part of Ireland.

The knight Owen (left side) listens to the list of Purgatory torments from Prior (in the middle). From Le voyage du puys sainct Patrix auquel lieu on voit les peines de Purgatoire et aussi les joyes de Paradis by Claude Noury, Lyon 1506.However, the international success of St. Patrick’s Purgatory is due to the work of Henry (ancient codes do not say anything more about his name), a monk of the Cistercian abbey of Saltrey. In the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (written between 1190 and 1210) Henry of Saltrey tells the story of the Cistercian Gilberto, who was sent to Ireland at the time of King Stephen of England (between 1135 and 1154).

As he did not know the language of that country, the monk chose the knight Owein to guide him. The knight told him that, after a bad life, he repented of his sins and wanted to go through the punishment for all the bad actions he had committed while he was still alive, instead of being punished for them after death. Therefore, he was brought to a mysterious place through a door, which was strictly guarded by monks and to which no one was admitted without the consent of both the bishop of the local diocese and the neighboring church prior. First, both bishop and prior tried to dissuade him to take the try, because if he had been seduced by demons’ temptations, he would have then been sent directly to Hell, with no return. Since his obstinacy, they gave their permission, imposing him a preparatory period of fasting and prayer in the nearby church and advising him to invoke the name of Jesus in case of need during the try.

After having entered the cave, Owein went through various places of punishment. Everywhere he saw souls punished according to a well-established Christian imagery. He also received his punishment: he was assaulted, tempted, threatened and mocked by the demons who were providing those punishments and were leading him during the “visit”, but he was always saved in extremis by the invocation of the Divine name.

Finally, he arrived at an extremely narrow bridge, going over an infernal river of fire, which kept on widening as he was proceeding along the path. Once passed, he reached an amazing countryside, in front of a high wall that surrounded a beautiful city, which was nothing but the Earthly Paradise. Once through the door, a procession of Saints met with Owein and joyfully welcomed him in the divine city, then showing him the wonders of that place of bliss.

After this adventure and having been cleaned from all his sins, the knight returned outside. After 15 days of prayer in the nearby church, he returned to the world, but the experience had impressed him so much that Owein decided to become a crusader and then went to the Holy Land.

Lough Derg, ancient map. Island of St. Patrick’s Purgatory.Henry of Saltrey does not indicate the place where St. Patrick’s Purgatory was. However, in a margin note of a manuscript, dated to the second half of the 13th Century, of the Topographia Hibernica by Gerardo Cambria it is indicated that there is a lake in Ulster, with an island divided into two parts: the first, that is pleasant, with nice gardens and a church; the second, that is horrible and desolate, with many demons. It is highly probable that this lake is Lough Dergh (Lacus Derg), in which there are two islands: the largest of which, Saints’ Island, is home to a church, today dedicated to Saint Patrick; the second, Station Island, is the place of the “Purgatory” door.

The fame of the Purgatory of St. Patrick rapidly spread in Christendom thanks to Matteo Paris who, in the 12th Century, popularized the story of Henry of Saltrey, and also thanks to the poetess Mary of France, who translated the text into French in the Espurgatoire Saint Patriz. The story spread through remakes and versions in the vernacular throughout the whole West. Then, the Purgatory of St. Patrick often appeared in preachers’ sermons, and this contributed to its extraordinary fame.

Further voyages’ stories to the Purgatory.

Lough Derg, today.Further to the story of the knight Owein, it is worth mentioning at least other three reports: those of the knight Ludovico of Sur, the knight William Lisle and Antonio of Giovanni Martini.

The story of the knight Ludwig of Sur, who visited Purgatory on September 17, 1358, reports that, after a preparatory period of prayer and fasting, Ludwig was led by twelve monks to a rather small cave. After having spent there about half an hour, he saw a man dressed in white, who invited him to start the journey. After having descended some stairs, the knight found himself in a large room, where three monks scolded him for his temerity and anticipated him the temptations and pains he would have faced soon. In order to succeed, it would have been enough to make a cross sign and say a Gospel passage. The story continues with the description of Hell’s torments, with the difference, in comparison to Owein story, that temptations were not the work of demons but of graceful young women.

As for the account of the experience of the English knight William Lisle, who had been in Ireland in 1394, it is reported that William had been locked with a companion in the cave of Island Station for a whole night. During the descent, he had been surrounded by hot steam and had fallen asleep in a sleep full of strange dreams. This led him to believe that the “visions” of the place had been nothing but illusions, caused by gases, which would have caused an altered state of consciousness.

In a letter, sent by the Florentine Antonio of Giovanni Martini to a fellow citizen, is described the experience of Antonio’s descent to the Purgatory, which took place in November 1411. The preparation process for the try is accurately described: a three-day fasting (just bread and water), wearing a long white robe (like a shroud), monks’ recitation of the prayers for the dead over the pilgrim laying down on his back, a procession around the chapel next to the entrance of the cave, the “burial” into a narrow cave (similar to a tomb rather than a cave). It would appear that this complex ritual was part of a well-established technique to alter the state of pilgrim’s conscience, which, in fact, refers that he felt very weak and saw things that he could not write or say, except in confession. Antonio of Giovanni Martini was extracted from the cave while he was unconscious, after only five hours.

E.A. – V.G.

The concept of the Afterlife beyond the oceans of time: “the Etruscan civilization”

What was the concept of the Afterlife in the Etruscan culture?

This is the question we will try to answer through this presentation, and we hope that, further to catch your attention, we will manage to provide you with a relatively complete framework, which may be able, at the same time, to increase your desire to deepen this topic further.

Before starting, however, we would like to clarify the reasons for this article, which could inaugurate a new line for discussions on our website. We could provide you with an articulated explanation and various motivational elements, but we prefer to be direct and simple. A recurring topic (indeed a dominant subject), that is basically shared by all the ancient peoples (it’s worth to mention, for instance, ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and, of course, Etruscans), is the great importance of religion and the spiritual side of life, in particular the evident interest for the Afterlife. Today, as well as during the past, this topic is fundamental in our existence, whatever some people may say. Therefore, it will be very interesting to proceed together along ancient civilizations’ paths, so that we can then return to our current world, perhaps with a new awareness by having gone through the sources of our civilization.

Now we can start our journey in the past!

Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia (Italy)First of all, we would like to point out that the practice of excavating underground complex monumental necropolises was started by the Etruscans. In fact, before them in Italy the dead were burnt and their ashes were buried, usually in a small hole in the ground.

The lower world was considered by ancient peoples as the womb of both Mother Earth and the Hereafter. Souls of the dead were believed to reach that world and arrive at the presence of deities. The Underworld gods were a divine couple: Hades and Persephone, that were named, in the Etruscan language, Aita and Phersipnai. The yearly return of Persephone on earth, among the living, corresponded to the beginning of Spring and, on that occasion, “Little Mysteries” festivities were celebrated. “Great Mysteries” festivities, instead, were celebrated in September and recalled when the goddess disappeared, going back to the underworld.

The entire symbolic and mythical cycle of the Mysteries referred to the great mystery of death and rebirth. The main Mystery topic concerned the soul that, through a particular ritual of death and rebirth, could aspire to immortality, providing a higher meaning to the human condition, which, in this way, could be equivalent to the divine life of gods and heroes. This concept of the soul and its possible “awakening” was the core of this great sacred mystery. This concept was used later, for example, by Pythagoras, but we can also find it in the heart of Christianity. In the inscription of Samothrace it is also mentioned that the priest of Cybele used to break a consecrated bread and offer a sacred drink to the person to be initiated, and this also has common aspects with Christianity.

According to an ancient Mediterranean belief, human beings would not have a single “Self” but different ones. The human being would be the sum of three main identities, or “bodies”: the physical body, the shadow and the demon (or double).

At the time of death these parts would separate from each other: the physical body would decay and would be absorbed by the ground, while the “shadow” would be released and destined to an ephemeral existence in the Underworld or, possibly, to be born again (after drinking from the “spring of oblivion”). The third element instead, the demon, according to the ancient Romans was made up of two parts, Lares and Manes. There were two Manes for each person: one was good and the other was evil. Lares instead were a collective entities of divine nature.

The soul, at the moment of death, would return to its Lares, that is to its original strain whose location was inside the Mother Earth. Human beings would have, however, the possibility of a different fate. Those who had recognized their own demons, Lares or Manes, and had gone beyond their limits, could have an immortal soul and enjoy the same life of gods, heroes and initiates to Mysteries. For the others it was inevitable to enter the never-ending cycle of life-death-rebirth as shadows, unaware of reincarnations they had gone through.

It’s likely that the Etruscan word Larth may be the source of the Latin word Lares. The Etruscan Larth was the sacred-king, the first authority which the twelve Lucumoni obeyed to and who had a supreme power. Etruscans and Romans started to worship their ancestors (Lares), whose souls were living underground in front of the earth’s gods. The result of all this was the construction of large and monumental cities for the dead (necropolises). They were built according to a magical concept: heaven and earth forces were joined in a magical connection, allowing the soul of the deceased to adequately perform his/her long journey into the Afterlife. Necropolises were assiduously visited. In fact, banquets with music, dances, rituals and offerings (e.g., milk, honey, wine were poured on the ground, on memorial stones or on altars) were performed for the dead and for the gods.

'The shadow of the evening' - III Cent. BC, Volterra (Italy), Etruscan museum «Guarnacci»Ancients believed that the experience of death could face a fundamental problem of “detachment”: the person’s earthly part, that is his/her “shadow”, could obstacle the soul during its difficult separation from the physical body. Therefore, funerary objects, as well as the amazing frescoes in tombs, had the purpose of attracting the shadow and making it release the spiritual soul. An interesting representation of a shadow is the well-known Etruscan bronzes called “shadows of the evening”: slender and elongated figures with adolescent, evanescent and serious features.

Among the Etruscan gods, it is worth mentioning the young goddess Vanth (comparable to the Greek goddess Moira). She had great wings and a torch to illuminate darkness as she accompanied the souls during their difficult passage into the Hereafter, and symbolized destiny, the implacable fate. We don’t know much about her, just that she had the “role of escorting souls” (as for the Romans, this task was given to Mercury, Hermes “Psychopomp” for the Greeks).

There were monstrous characters, who were often depicted in Etruscan tombs, with the function of monitoring and protecting tombs:

  • the demon Charun (the greek Charon) was a half-beast humanoid, holding a hammer;
  • the horrible Tuchulcha, whose face resembled a vulture, had donkey ears and used snakes as offensive weapons.

Precious depictions of the Etruscan Hereafter reached us thanks to the tombs of Tarquinia (Italy). Among others, we want to mention in particular two tombs which, in our opinion, can better provide us with information useful to our subject.

Tomb of Charons

“The Door” (“Tomb of Charons”, Etruscan Necropolis of Tarquinia, Italy. It was used a Nikon D-70 with a Nikon 50-70mm zoom lens, 2011) This tomb was discovered in 1960 and is an excellent example of a Hellenistic hypogeum with “two floors and a vestibule”: an upper floor (vestibule), used for religious ceremonies, and two burial chambers (located at a lower level) and accessible through stairs starting from the main hall. On the vestibule’s back and right walls two false doors have been painted (a symbolic entrance to the Afterlife).
Both doors have, on each side, two winged Charons, who are the Etruscan demons of death, custodians of Hades, dressed up with short skirts and holding different tools: hammers, axes and snakes. Next to each figure, a painted inscription indicates the name of the Charon demon, together with a different nickname which distinguished its particular function (unfortunately we do not know it).

Tomb 5636

“Before the Threshold” (“Tomb 5636”, Etruscan Necropolis of Tarquinia, Italy. It was used a Nikon D-70 with a Nikon 50-70mm zoom lens, 2011) This tomb dates back to the second half of III (3rd) Century BC and has significant differences in comparison with those dating to the previous period. It has a flat ceiling (instead of a sloping one), and only the right wall and the central pillar have been painted. On the central pillar a winged Charon is shown. On the side wall there is a scene of particular interest: a dead person is ready to cross the door of the Afterlife, accompanied by the goddess Vanth who, while laying her right hand on the deceased left shoulder, holds a torch in her left hand. The door is guarded by Charon who is sitting, and in the middle of the scene there are two men and a child (perhaps relatives of the deceased, who had died previously), represented in the act of welcoming the deceased and showing him the way to the Afterlife.

Some considerations

Besides the two similarities between the Etruscan world and Christian faith, already mentioned above (“awakening” of the soul; breaking of the bread and drinking from the holy cup), it is interesting to highlight another aspect that provides further resemblances.

The Afterlife is completely separated from our world and Etruscan demons, who are guarding its entrance, are just a confirmation of that. Even for our belief, the two worlds are distinct and separate, although they can get, under certain circumstances, partially and temporarily connected. We refer not only to Near-Death Experiences, during which the world of the Afterlife or, more often, of the Near-Afterlife is reached for a short time by those who have been considered dead and, later on, awake. In fact, we also refer to many people who, at the point of death, witness the visit of their dead beloved ones. Well, in both of these cases the threshold between the two worlds can become a privileged place for the encounter with those who have already died. In some cases, our loved ones arrive to accompany us during the transition, and in other circumstances they stop us and push us back. We can find all this in a painting from tomb 5636, in Tarquinia (Italy), that we have already mentioned above. In fact, we can see there just this double typology of experience, where the encounter with our ancestors takes place near the door to the Hereafter, guarded by the demon Charon. The soul of the deceased is accompanied by the goddess Vanth, who holds a torch, but it is certainly the meeting with his loved ones to “enlighten” the moment of his passage.

E.A. – V.G.