by Piet Coetzer

Memories that last

Words most often capture the past

Heaven and hell.jpg

When you find yourself in 'seventh heaven' because the girl of your dreams agreed to a date or you condemn someone to 'burn in eternal hell' for stealing her from you, you are using a large piece of humankind’s longest-lasting collective memory. And, when you 'unfriend' that bugger on Facebook, you probably are helping to create a collective memory for the future. 

The expressions, 'seventh heaven' and 'burn in eternal hell', are both excellent examples of how words and expressions serve to capture humankind’s collective memory, even when we often forget how they became part of our everyday vocabulary.

'Seventh heaven', describing a state of utter personal happiness and bliss, dates back to several thousand years before even the first texts of the Bible was written. During remotest antiquity, the Sumerians carved a scene into stone of winged figures (were they angels?) descending from what they believed was the first of seven heavens to pour water into the cup of the king.

According to the religious tradition of the Semitic people of the Near East, the blue sky that we see above us was but the first heaven or sphere of seven beyond the earth. If you ascended to the seventh heaven, you moved to the very presence of El, the Almighty. It was in that heaven that he kept residence.

This memory of a plurality of heavens was captured in the very first verse of Genesis, where it is recorded that: "In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens . . ." More evidence follows this in the Bible. In Psalm 148:4 it is written: "Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens."

And this memory also found its way into other religious traditions, for instance in The Testament Of The Twelve Patriarchs and other Jewish apocrypha. The ancient Persians and Babylonians were also familiar with the concept, with the Persians picturing the Almighty in the highest of the seven heavens. There he was, "seated on a great white throne, surrounded by winged cherubim."

Likewise, the Koran, which came much later, also refers to seven heavens.The ancient Egyptians also believed that the soul moved through the seven spheres of the planets to the Ogdoad, an eighth realm.

And hell?

Evidence of the possible ancient origins of our perception of the other end of the spectrum, going down to the eternal fires of hell, dramatically surfaced recently.

Archaeologists working at a site in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now Pamukkale, in southwestern Turkey, claimed they have discovered the Gates of Hell, the mythical portal to the underworld in Greek and Roman legend.

In ancient times, a temple was said to have stood next to steps leading down to a cave entrance filled with foul and noxious gases. The Greek geographer Strabo in about 24 A.D. described the cave as being “full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Italian archaeologist, Francesco D'Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento, when announcing the recent discovery said he and his team found a cave with Ionic semi columns upon which were inscriptions with dedications to the gods of the underworld, Pluto and Kore.

“We could see the cave's lethal properties during the excavation. Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes,” he said.

The site remained fully functional until the 4th century A.D. and became an important pilgrimage destination for the last pagan intellectuals.

Historians believe the site was sacked by Christians in the 6th century A.D., with several earthquakes adding to the damage.

Maybe, somewhere in the future, someone will become curious about the origin of the term 'unfriend', and discover it dates back to the days of primitive electronic communication devices.

I wonder if that future researcher will realise that for some members of the human race in the early 21st century, applications like Facebook turned into a kind of hell of their own.


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Issue 392


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