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Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Here is a painting of the Greco-Roman underworld which was painted sometime around 1600 AD by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is presumed that the painting shows Aeneas and the Cumaean sibyl, although a handful of scholars have argued—unsuccessfully, to my mind– that these are actually Hades and Persephone (whom I never imagine as harrowed pedestrians). Admittedly the sibyl looks quite winsome (these being her pre-jar days). Jan Brueghel does not have the same cachet as his famous father Pieter Bruegel (whose busy landscapes of 16th century Flanders do so much to enliven our understanding of the era), but the son was certainly a master artist in his own right. In this amazing vista the damned souls writhe, scream, and quiver amongst legions of demons and monsters. Along the foreground great heaps of bones and masses of snakes remind us we are in the land of the dead. Yet the painting’s greatest strength is the magnificent dark landscape itself. Honeycombed cliffs rise like a diseased columbarium while volcanoes belch magma onto the spirits. In the distance lies a brooding city of the dead where all is forever night. Strange ghost gardens march along the shores of the Acheron and shrieking…things fly overhead. It is a horrible—and beautiful—vision of a subject which had already obsessed artists for millennia when Jan Brughel painted it (and he wound up painting the underworld again and again through his career).

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting of a lesser underworld deity by a lesser Spanish master.  In the Greek pantheon, Charon was the ferryman of the dead– he carried departed spirits across the river Styx a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Charon was a self-interested deity who acted only for money (which, in retrospect, makes him one of the more comprehensible Greek deities from a contemporary American perspective).  If a dead Greek person was properly buried/burned, he/she had a small coin for Charon to pole him/her across the dark river to the grim underworld.  If, however, souls died alone or nameless and were not given a funeral, they then had no way to pay the ferryman and were forced to wander for centuries o millennia at the border of death’s realm.  There is no mention of what Charon did with all of his spirit wealth: he certainly seems unhappy, unkempt, and ill-groomed in this painting.  Maybe he hoarded it all or invested it in unwise joint-stock schemes (or had some other perverse vice which we never heard about). José Benlliure y Gil has certainly done a splendid job at portraying the greedy gaunt boatman and his deceased charges.  Perhaps the painting has a particular strength because the First World War and the Spanish flu were such recent memories when the work was finished.  I especially like the dark owl perched on the despairing spirit in the little boat’s stern and the phantasmagoric figures swirling within the stygian haze.

Mohammed Visiting Jahannam

The Islamic conception of hell is similar to the Christian conception of hell:  Muslim hell is called Jahannam and it is a place of fire and torture.  Deceased sinners enter through one of seven gates, according to the nature of their sins, and are given clothing made of fire (which sounds like it would be hard to dry-clean).  The souls are mercilessly burned until they become black like charcoal.  Nineteen angels oversee the administration of fire-based torture.

But Jahannam does have a special garden feature lacking from Christian hell. In the middle of the fiery realm is a great malevolent tree named Zaqqum with roots that snake down into the raging fires beneath the world.  Zaqqum has fruits which are shaped like devil’s heads.  The hungry spirits trapped in hell eat these fruits, which are the only foodstuff to be had, but the fruits only intensify the suffering of the damned.  The Quran directly mentions the pain caused by eating Zaqqum’s fruit:

[44.43] Indeed, the tree of zaqqum

[44.44] Is food for the sinful.

[44.45] Like murky oil, it boils within bellies

[44.46] Like the boiling of scalding water.

Other references compare eating the fruit of Zuqqum to swallowing boiling brass, or relate how consuming the fruit is so painful that it causes the eaters’ faces to fall off!

There are no known allusions to Zuqqum before Mohammed.  The concept originated with his revelations. Since the writing of the Quran, a number of thorny, poisonous, or bitter trees from Muslim lands have derived their common name from Zuqqum the great misery tree of Jahannam which feeds directly on the fires of hell.

The Tree of Zaqqum (Homa, 2012, Ink and watercolor on canvas)

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

Asphodel tenufolius

This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

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