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- "This is Illyria, lady." VIOLA: "And what should I do in Illyria? My brother he is in Elysium."
Greek Elysian Fields
In Greek mythology, Elysium was a section of the Underworld (the spelling Elysium is a Latinization of the Greek word Elysion). "Elysium is an obscure and mysterious name that evolved from a designation of a place or person struck by lightning, enelysion, enelysios. (Burkert 1985 p. 198)
The Elysian fields were the final resting place of the souls of the heroic virtuous. Two passages in Homer established for Greeks the nature of the Afterlife: the dreamed apparition of the dead Patroclus in the Iliad and the more daring boundary-breaking visit in Odyssey. Greek traditions concerning funerary ritual were reticent, but the Homeric examples encouraged other heroic visits, in the myth cycles accreted upon Theseus and upon Heracles (Campbell 1948; Ruck and Staples 1994)
The Elysian Fields lay on the western margin of the earth, by the encircling stream of Oceanus (Odyssey), and there the mortal relatives of the king of the gods were transported, without tasting death, to enjoy an immortality of bliss (Odyssey book iv: 563). Hesiod refers to the Isles of the Blessed (makarôn nêsoi) in the Western Ocean (Works and Days). Pindar makes it a single Isle. Walter Burkert notes the connection with the motif of far-off Dilmun: "Thus Achilles is transported to the White Isle and becomes the Ruler of the Black Sea, and Diomedes becomes the divine lord of an Adriatic island." (Burkert 1985, p. 198).
Among the poets to interpret Elysium is Virgil, who describes an encounter there between Aeneas and his father Anchises. Virgil's Elysium knows perpetual spring and shady groves, with its own sun and lit by its own stars solemque suum, sua sidera norunt (Aeneid book vi:541).
"Geographical" Elysian Fields
In the Renaissance, the heroic population of the Elysian Fields tended to outshine its formerly dreary pagan reputation; the Elysian Fields borrowed some of the bright allure of paradise. In Paris, the Champs-Élysées retain their name of the Elysian Fields, first applied in the late 16th century to a formerly rural outlier beyond the formal parterre gardens behind the royal French palace of the Tuileries.
What suited Catherine de' Medici suits Harrison County, Texas, where a rural community is Elysian Fields, Texas. New Orleans, Louisiana, filled with French place names, has a major street named Elysian Fields Ave.
After the Renaissance, as popular poets became less influenced by reading Greek and Latin literature, and images of Valhalla entered the popular European imagination, an even cheerier Elysium evolved for some poets. Sometimes it is imagined as a place where heroes have continued their interests from their lives. Others suppose it is a location filled with feasting, sport, song; Joy is the "daughter of Elysium" in Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy. (Examples of this other picture of Elysium are needed here, if available)
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion 1985
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 1948
- Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth 1994: "The Liminal Hero"
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