To hell and back

Visits to or visions of the afterlife are a common motif in western literature. Odysseus visited the land of the dead and saw his mother. Aeneas traveled to Dis to find his father, and learn of the future of the Romans. These exploits continued after Christ, but of course took on a Christian character. There are dozens of examples. If only someone would collect all these Christian visions into one book

Out of the four dozen examples found by Eileen Gardiner, there are five that were relatively recent to the population of the eighth century. Two are related by Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, two came from Britain in the early eighth century via the Venerable Bede, and one is related by Boniface. There is a second vision in Boniface’s letters that Gardiner did not mention, which gives us a half-dozen fresh voyages to the nether regions for us to investigate.

Around 571, Gregory relates, a simple man named Sunniulf became abbot of the monastery of Randan in France, and he was granted a vision.

[A] certain river of fire, into which men, assembling together on one part of the bank, were plunging like so many bees entering a hive. Some were submerged up to the waist, some up to the armpits, some even up to the chin, and all were shouting out that they were being burned very severely. A bridge led over the river, so narrow that only one man could cross at a time, and on the other side there was a large house all painted white.

It turns out that Sunniulf had been too lenient with his monks, and was told that the bridge over the river of fire could be easily crossed only by those who had been strict over those in their care. Sunniulf mended his ways, and presumably entered the white house without scalding.1.Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, bk.IV, ch.33, p.227.

Gregory’s second vision came from another Abbot, Salvius by name, who was extraordinarily pious and even decided that being abbot was too prominent for him. One day he died and was laid out, but the next morning returned to life. Not only was he in good health, but he had no need of food or drink. He related that after his ‘death’ he was carried above the earth, until he could see the moon, sun, and stars.

Then I was led through a gate which shone more brightly than our sunshine and so entered a building where all the floor gleamed with gold and silver. The light was such that I cannot describe it to you, and the sense of space was quite beyond our experience. The place was filled with a throng of people who were neither men nor women, a multitude stretching so far, this way and that, that it was not possible to see where it ended.

Salvius then saw “a cloud more luminous than any light,” and was washed by “a perfume of such sweetness that, nourished by its delectable essence, I have felt the need of no food or drink until this very moment.” Unfortunately “a Voice” then tells him he must return to the earth, a decree which Salvius decries with much vehemence, begging and beseeching to be allowed to stay. On his return to his earthly life Salvius only reluctantly tells his tale, and in fact is punished for doing so by the need to consume food and water again. He lived for many more years.2.Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, bk.VII, ch.1, pp.387-88.

Otherworldly excursions were not limited by a traveler’s geography. On the other side of the channel the Venerable Bede recorded a couple of seventh century visions. An Irish holy man named Fursey came to England and built a monastery. At some point in his life he fell ill, and during the worst night he saw “choirs of angels.” Three days later Fursey was granted a greater vision, in which he “saw not only the greater joys of the blessed, but the amazing struggles of evil spirits.” In the vision angels carried him to a great height.

[H]e saw what appeared to be a gloomy valley beneath him, and four fires in the air, not far from one another. Asking what these were, the angels told him that they were the fires which were to burn and consume the world. ‘One of them is Falsehood, when we do not renounce Satan and all his works as we promised at our Baptism. The next is Covetousness, when we put the love of worldly wealth before the love of God. The third is Discord, when we needlessly offend our neighbors, even in small matters. The Fourth is Cruelty, when we think it no crime to rob and defraud the weak.’ These fires gradually grew together and merged into one vast conflagration…

As Fursey flew through the sky with the aid of angels, devils flew at him, accusing him of various evil thoughts and deeds, but the angels defended him. He almost returned to his body without further incident, but as he and the angels flew through the great fire, which the angels parted for him, devils flung a burning soul at Fursey. This fiery soul actually burned him, and left scars on his face and shoulder.3.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.III, ch.19, p.173-75.

A second vision recorded by Bede occurred to a man named Cunningham. He also fell ill and died, but came back to the world in the morning. His vision is quite lengthy and detailed, including a guide, a “handsome man in a shining robe,” who brings Cunningham to a place of fire and ice, abandons him to be threatened by demons, but who then returns to give him a vision of the ‘waiting room’ of heaven. Cunningham’s vision divides the afterlife into four possibilities.

Some of us who “are perfect in word, deed, and thought,” are fit to “enter the Kingdom of Heaven as soon as they leave the body.” Others who have “done good, but are not so perfect” wait in a “flowery place,” “a very broad and pleasant meadow,” for the Day of Judgement, when they will be admitted to Heaven. Then there are those “who have delayed to confess and amend their wicked ways…” For them there are no flowers. They are plunged into a dark and broad valley.

The side to our left was dreadful  with burning flames, while the opposite side was equally horrible with raging hail and bitter snow blowing and driving in all directions. Both sides were filled with men’s souls, which seemed to be hurled from one side to the other by the fury of the tempest. For when the wretches could no longer endure the blast of the terrible heat, they leaped into the heart of the terrible cold, and finding no refuge there, they leaped back again to the burned in the middle of the unquenchable flames.

But these poor souls will also be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven on the Day of Judgement. Not so those wretches who are dumped into the pit of Hell itself, a place where “masses of flame” filled with souls rise up into the air, until the souls tumble back into the pit, a place filled with “an indescribable stench.” Cunningham himself is threatened by “dark spirits” who wield “glowing tongs.” He is finally rescued by his guide, who actually disappeared to go learn what his fate would be. Finally Cunningham reluctantly returns to the world of the living.

Next time we’ll look at those eighth century visions, as described by Boniface. We’ll also do a little compare and contrast of the different visions, and look for commonalities and outliers. Sleep well!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, bk.IV, ch.33, p.227.
2. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, bk.VII, ch.1, pp.387-88.
3. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.III, ch.19, p.173-75.

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