A GPS app for the afterlife
But no company is offering a guide to the destination that fascinates and troubles billions of humans: the afterlife. Google and Apple can help us navigate this world, but if we want information about the next world we have to turn to the visions of prophets and the speculations of philosophers.
Two and a half millennia ago, members of the ambitious, fissiparous religious movement known as Orphism began to write poems on pieces of gold foil and placed them in the mouths or hands of deceased fellow believers. These 'gold leaves', as they have become known amongst scholars, were intended as navigational aids for the world beyond the grave.
The Orphists both believed in and abhorred recincarnation. The soul was immortal, they proclaimed, but existed only reluctantly inside the gross vessel of the body. While it lingered in this world, the soul could not be liberated from the body. A campaign of attrition, though, could be waged against the oppression of flesh. Many Orphists scorned wine, and rationed food and copulation.
The writers of the gold leaves revered characters like Orpheus, Persephone, and Dionysus, who had visited the Greek underworld and returned. They believed that, if the soul could be woken during the interval between the death of one of its bodies and the birth of another, and could remember its past incarnations, then it could escape further terms of imprisonment in the flesh, and proceed to the island paradise the Greeks called Elysium.
A poem written on a series of gold leaves explains that two pools can be found in the afterworld. One of these pools is called Lethe; its waters inflict forgetfulness on any soul that imbibes them. The other pool is called Mnemosyne, or Memory, and will remind drinkers of their past lives. The soul is urged to recite the following lines:
I am a son of Earth and starry sky. I am
parched with thirst and dying; but quickly
grant the cold water from the
Lake of Memory to drink.
Shakespeare called death an 'undiscover'd country from which no traveller returns', and it is the impossibility of testing any description of the afterlife which has both emboldened and enfeebled the prophets and poets of religion. The imagination might be excited by notions of heaven or hell or purgatory, but imagination requires reality as a raw material, and so inevitably turns to our own world for inspiration when it considers the next. Mohammed's heaven was a desert oasis; Blake's hell was the London of gin alleys and workhouses.
The gold leaves of Orphism are intended to describe the world to come, but their imagery derives, inevitably, from the ancient Mediterranean. The afterworld has cypresses, and fountains, and pools of cool water.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as archaeologists transformed graverobbing from a furtive nocturnal crime to a pedantic science practiced in light of day, gold leaves began to preserved and studied. Until recently, though, the leaves received relatively little attention from scholars of ancient poetry, and were hard to obtain in English translation. Beside the epics of Homer or Virgil or the dialogues of Plato, these relics of an extinct cult perhaps seemed insubstantial and eccentric.
For many years Ted Jenner, the New Zealand classicist and poet, has been translating and studying the death-poems of Oprhism: on October the ninth, at Shakespeare Hotel in downtown Auckland, Atuanui Press will launch Ted's book The Gold Leaves.*
When Brett Cross, the proprietor of Atunui Press and its sister imprint, Titus Books, showed me an advance copy of The Gold Leaves, I noticed how Jenner's translations of the short and incomplete Orphic poems sat between his lengthy introduction and annotations like islands in a sea of prose. Jenner has been determined to describe the origins and career of Orphism, and to catalogue and explicate the symbols that the cult's poets pressed into gold.
Jenner has the same dissatisfaction with quotidian reality, the same longing for some sort of transcendence, as the Orphists. For him, though, it is the world of the past, not any supernatural realm, that is sacred. Jenner has introduced and annotated the Gold Leaves with such thoroughness not because he is a pedant, or some sort of latter-day convert to Orphism, but because he wants to resurrect, through the miracle of scholarship, the mental and physical landscapes in which the Orphists lived and died.
And yet, as Jenner himself repeatedly acknowledges, the Orphic world can never be thoroughly recreated out of fragmentary texts written thousands of years ago. Jenner warns us that even the term Orphism must be considered something 'fluid' rather than fixed. The men and women we call Orphists lived in a world where competing cults borrowed doctrines and rituals, many of them lost to the historical record, from one another.
Like the Orphists' claims about the afterlife, some of Jenner's interpretations of the gold leaves must remain speculative.
Although Jenner is preoccupied with history, and works with the fusty technologies of humanities scholars, like footnotes and bibliographies, his fascination with the gold leaves is arguably related to a very modern longing.
In his new book Off the Map, Alastair Bonnett argues that the thoroughness and efficiency of digital mapping are troubling rather than enthusing many of us. Bonnett notes that some digital maps and mapping programmes are being vandalised by mischievous users, so that images of sea monsters or fabulous ruins disrupt gridded, colour-coded depictions of twenty-first century cities and seas. Hyper-literalism stimulates rather than represses our imaginations.
Precisely because of their fragmentary and speculative nature, the maps of the afterlife created by the Orphists can excite us in ways that the products Google never will.
*Titus will also be launching Murray Edmond's very fine book Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing on October the 9th. I'll post the flyer for the event here as soon as Brett Cross sends it through in a format blogger can digest.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]