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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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: Strains of Paradise: Available till Sep 29th