Persian pleasure gardens, the Christian afterlife, and tropical tax havens: the origins of “paradise”

The 13.4 million-file leak called the Paradise Papers are exposing the offshore, tax-avoiding dealings by some of the world’s richest companies and people, from Facebook to the Queen of England. Boosted by alliteration and allusion to last year’s Panama Papers, the BBC explains the paradise name: 

The Paradise Papers name was chosen because of the idyllic profiles of many of the offshore jurisdictions whose workings are unveiled, including Bermuda, the HQ of the main company involved, Appleby. It also dovetails nicely with the French term for a tax haven—paradis fiscal.

But why do we call tropical islands like Bermuda paradise?

For the etymological paradise, we need to look to different sands. (Pixabay)

Paradise: the original Garden of Eden

Whenever we encounter a Latin borrowing in Old English, we can usually look to three sources, according to Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable’s History of the English Language: 1) loanwords Anglo-Saxons picked up from earlier contact with Romans and brought with them when they came to the British Isles from the continent; 2) words taken from native Celtic tribes who absorbed them from Roman rule of the British Isles; or 3) words introduced by Roman Christian missionaries between about 600 and 1150 CE.

That third vector is the source of paradise. In post-classical Latin, paradisus referred to two Judeo-Christian concepts: the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament and heaven in the New Testament. Scholars have found the first paradiseearthly paradise—in the Old English Hexateuch, the first translation of the first six books of the Old Testament into English under the direction of famed monk Aelfric of Eynsham. The second paradiseheavenly paradise—appears in the West Saxon Gospels, the first translation of the New Testament into English unaccompanied by any Latin text.

The early English translations were largely based on the Vulgate, St. Jerome’s fourth-century CE translation of the Christian Bible into Latin, itself based on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Jewish Bible from Hebrew in the third century BCE. And that means the Latin paradisus is based on the Greek paradeisos (παράδεισος).

But the first uses of paradeisos in Ancient Greek appears in the works of philosopher and historian Xenophon, whose paradeisos refers to the enclosed parks or hunting grounds of Persian kings and rules. This makes sense, as Xenophon (~430-354 B E) was writing during the height of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Instances of paradeisos appear in Xenophon’s Anabasis, which recounts his adventures as a Greek mercenary hired by Cyrus the Younger in his efforts to seize the Persian throne from his brother. It also appears in his Cyropedia, a partly fictional political biography of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Achaemenid Empire.

From Henry Graham Dakyns’s translation of the Anabasis:

Here [Phrygia] Cyrus owned a palace and a large park [lit. “paradise,” an oriental word = park or pleasure ground] full of wild beasts, which he used to hunt on horseback, whenever he wished to give himself or his horses exercise. Through the midst of the park flows the river Maeander, the sources of which are within the palace buildings, and it flows through the city of Celaenae.

From mud bricks to palm trees

Thankfully, “oriental word” is no longer a term of art, but by it Dakyn’s is referring an Old Iranian language, Avestan. Remember, ancient Iran was called Persia, and its languages were Indo-European, which is why we can see find cognates in the ulimtate Avestan root of paradisepairidaēza, an “enclosure.” The word joins the Old Iranian pari (“around,” kin to the Greek para, Latin per, and English for) to daiz (“heap up, build,” related to the English dairy and dough as well as the Latinate figure and fiction). With pairidaēza, we can imagine old, Persian walls fashioned out of mud and brick closing off some sort of regal playground.

And in English, we can imagine how an Edenic or eschatological paradise extended itself by analogy to “a place or region of surpassing beauty or delight, or of supreme bliss,” as the Oxford English Dictionary so documents by 1300 in some Middle English poetry and hagiographies. Now, we often associate such paradises with tropical islands untouched and undisturbed by humankind and all its concerns and considerations. 

Old English had its own, native word for paradise: neorxenawang. The second part of the word is connected to wong, a Germanic word for a “plain” or “field.” The first part is obscure, though attempts have been made to etymologize it to some root for “contentment” or “not working”—which sounds pretty closer to our modern notion of paradise.

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