The Other Place: A journey into the Underworld with the Witch of Endor

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 10.42.50(image from

At the age of 6 or so I drew a picture pretty similar to this one in my school RE lesson and it’s been a question in my mind ever since and inspired my latest Something Understood for Radio 4: The Other Place. Shading in Sheol – the Jewish underworld – with thick black pencil, challenged the almost uniquely Christian&Islamic binary theology of Heaven and Hell. It’s interesting that both faiths have celebrated martyrdom in their founding history.

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

With Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Most world religions though, do not have a hell. In the programme Rabbi Jonathan Romain gives wonderful insight into why Jews do not believe in Hell and the importance of focussing on doing good on Earth.

The spirit of Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

The spirit of Samuel conjured up before Saul by the Witch of Endor (William Blake)

Rabbi Romain also unpicks the mystery of the pre-Judaic underworld that occasionally is glimpsed in the strangest tales of the Old Testament. We discuss the tale of King Saul – who banned witchcraft – secretly consulting the Witch of Endor to raise the spirit of his dead prophet Samuel from the shadow world.

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood mocking St Francis of Assissi by William Hogarth

A Hellfire Club in joke: Francis Dashwood in an infernal parody of St Francis of Assisi by William Hogarth

I conceived the programme as a partner piece to the Paradise one I made last month. In that we explored the very physical appeal of an Islamic Paradise to young male jihadists. And in this programme, produced by Natalie Steed, we speculate too, about the appeal to rich young aristocrats in the 18th century age of rakes and libertines, of flirting with darkness in their Hellfire Clubs, like Francis Dashwood’s, which met in caves in Buckinghamshire and included a Chancellor of the Exchequer and William Hogarth among its members.They dressed in monks’ robes to carry out their debaucheries. Was it anything more than a Bullingdon Club-type escapade for the privileged?  A sign of a wider fading away of religious fear of Hell itself?

Jacob Marley: "Ask me who I was."

Jacob Marley: “Ask me who I was.”

We think of the Victorian age as undoing all that; the heavy warnings of hell beaten into children in the schools we read of in Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times and Jane Eyre. But even though it’s regarded as a Christian morality tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  connects back to the Jewish and Classical idea of the godless underworld. Not only is it the first time travel adventure in Western literature, but in the spirit of Marley, dragging the spiritual chains he forged in life, we are confronted by an escapee from Sheol, with a lesson about the importance  of living well. And, as Rabbi Romain put it, the need to make the earth a garden in our lifetimes, not wait for the promise of one after death.

There is also an extract from Olivia O’Leary’s powerful 2007  Radio 4 documentary about Limbo Babies that’s haunted me since I first heard it. Limbo – a place mentioned in in Dante’s Divine Comedy – for those unbaptised or born before Christianity – was where the Roman Catholic Church said unbaptised babies went. For thousands of Irish mothers this meant the trauma of their stillborn children being buried in unconsecrated ground and out of the sight of God forever. It was only 2007 when this doctrine was qualified to suggest God would show mercy to them.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 11.55.13

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a feature of the programme. Like my map of Sheol, it embodies our child-like fascination with mapping other worlds; in this case those concentric circles and compartments and towers for different kinds of sin and sinner. We use Clive James’ and John Agard’s wonderful Young Inferno translations, which features bankers in post-crash hell,  to explore the way this story continues to speak to us.

Orfeo (image from Roundhouse website)

The programme starts with the beautiful music of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, whose attempt to bring back Eurydice from the dead is doomed to failure. I have to confess to having been deeply moved by Michael Boyd’s Roundhouse production earlier this year in which the lovers are physically wrenched apart – while suspended in the air between the underworld and the garden of earth.

I’ve put together a list of most of the music we used here on Spotify.

Something Understood: The Other Place is on Radio 4 on Sunday September 21st at 6am and 1130pm and for a month after on BBC radio iPlayer.

Further reading/listening

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise: Available till Sep 29th

Did Dickens invent time travel? BBC Culture feature (July 2015)

High politics and Hellfire: Gresham College lecture on Hogarth’s Francis Dashwood portrait

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
This entry was posted in Culture, Radio, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Other Place: A journey into the Underworld with the Witch of Endor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.