Paradise renamed

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; … And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

The concept of paradise has fascinated religious and spiritual people from our earliest history. The concept of a paradise both as an earthly place and as a heavenly destination has also inspired musicians, poets and writers.

Virgil’s Aeneid describes his hero discovering the Elysian Fields, the Roman heavenly paradise:

… they came to the happy place, the green pleasances and blissful seats of the Fortunate Woodlands. Here an ampler air clothes the meadows in lustrous sheen, and they know their own sun and a starlight of their own.

But from where has the word, paradise, come? This word that evokes a heavenly place of abundance, peace, beauty and serenity has a long and fascinating history but its origins are rather more earthy.

Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia (now Iran), encouraged its followers to tend their own gardens. So when Xenophon, who had been a Greek mercenary with the Persian army, returned to Athens he wrote about the pairidaeza, the large garden parks of the Persian nobles, and brought the word into Greek.

The Old Persian word pairi-daeza meant a walled orchard (pairi – around and diz – to make or form). Ancient Hebrew took pardés from this and the Greeks took a similar form paradeisos (from peri around and dheigh to form or build), which became the Latin paradisus.

The Hebrew pardes was used in the Old Testament and when it was transcribed into Greek, as part of the Christian Bible, the Greek form paradeisos was used.

From the Greek to the Latin was a small step. The Latin form became the word to describe both the earthly and the heavenly paradises.

The Latin chant, In paradisum (into paradise), is sung during the Catholic burial service, or sometimes as part of a Requiem Mass, to accompany the dead to their heaven.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli (May angels lead you into Paradise)

This gradual change of meaning is an example of melioration, where a word’s meaning improves over time. The word has travelled over a millennium and a half, across several languages and religions. The change in meaning took 1,500 years, developing from a walled orchard, to the Garden of Eden, to heaven, and then to a heaven-like place. It has travelled linguistically through Ancient Persian, to Hebrew, to Greek, and to Latin before arriving in English. It has Zoroastrian roots, Pagan and Jewish parentage before it arose in Christianity. The concept of  paradise has inspired many people and religions.