It lies not in darkness, but in shadow. It breathes the air escaping your lips, drawing it into empty lungs. It feels the pulse of your blood. Your heart. Yet – it has none of these things, but longs to partake of them. It clings to the back of your skull like a film of mist. Hiding in the place you can never quite seem to see. Its longing, shadows the rhythm of life with a pulsating desire. And it is getting closer. Testing. Stretching. Pressing dried sinew against the veil that separates life from death. And soon. It will long no more. (Quote: Gene Lempp)
There are as many beliefs about the afterlife as there are cultures and religious understandings. Most of these beliefs differ greatly in their nuances, while agreeing on broad issues.
- The ancient Babylonians called the Realm of the Dead, Irkalla. The dead would pass through seven gates that slowly stripped them of all they had, leaving them to rot in silence at the final destination.
The Greeks took a more active view and saw divisions or realms of the Underworld with the final resting place of the dead based on how one had lived their life; with virtue or deceit.
- The Aztecs called it Mictlan, a four year journey through crashing mountains and other obstacles necessary to obtain a peaceful final rest. But at least they provided guides for the journey.
Three very different interpretations of the afterlife (and others vary just as much) but all have a few basic things in common. All, or almost all, believe:
- That the Dead at least temporarily pass on to another realm of existence where they continue to exist out of sight. The “realm” may be honeycombed through the mantle of Earth or a metaphysical location – but they are all “somewhere.”
That this realm can be contacted by living beings or communicate with living beings through one or more methods. However, methods vary wildly, from ritualistic to only on certain days or moons, to mediums and seances.
- That our ancestors impact our daily lives in an active manner. Once again, methods and messages vary from direct kibitzing to visions, signs and portents.
- That there are other beings than the dead, in the Underworld. Gods, demons, spirits and more – but malicious denizens far outweigh the benevolent ones when all myths are weighed on the scale of good and evil.
It is in both the commonality and the variance that we can find elements to create a fictional Spirit World of our own. Think of the Spirit World as a house. What is the address? In a cave somewhere? Floating in a metaphysical plane above Earth? Skin-close but out-of-touch like the caress of an unseen spider web?
Now put on doors and windows. How does one enter, or leave, the Realm of the Dead? How can the living enter it and how can the dead return to life from it? How can this place be contacted? By letter? By phone? By yelling from the street out front? Live chat?
How does what lives in the house impact those outside? Can it move through their neighborhoods and lives as a physical presence or is it an internal guidance that can only advise. Some have viewed the afterlife as an echo of a former life that follows a person when they are reborn or which clings to a newborn soul, such as Roz Morris and others have done.
Which brings us to the meaty topic of: Who or what lives in the Spirit World?
If you think ALL of the dead live there, most myths would disagree. Many of the dead choose to leave the Underworld by drinking waters of forgetfulness, passing beyond a special river, mountain or chasm – vanishing forever from all realms connected to ours. But some of the dead, either because they long to live again or because of extreme valor or wickedness choose (or are forced) to remain in this place. For some this acts as a prison sentence, such as Purgatory, for others it is the receipt of eternal reward in bliss.
There are heroes that fight for the living in the land of the dead. And there are evils that ensnare the living to feed upon their life force.
And yet this, is just the dead humans. Most Realms of the Dead are ruled over by one or more deities, that in turn are served by varying forms of demons able to spread plague and famine and a host of other destructive powers, thus ensuring a steady flow of new souls. Hell is a well-oiled machine.
The misfit children of the gods were often cast into the Underworld to torture the dead – hatred for their divine parents seething within their misanthropic bodies. There are ghosts that linger, spirits that move, and a few spirits that are made up of the fears and emotions of the dying, collecting the energy of suffering like dust to a Swiffer.
Then there is the “ancestral presence,” a belief that those who have passed beyond work to influence those that yet live. This concept has always interested me, for are we not eternally linked to the actions of our predecessors? Living in a world of cumulative design, will we in turn impact existence and pass on our own ancestral presence to coming generations? Deep, I know. But I leave the thought for your consideration.
As we saw with the Faerie or Otherworld last week, the Underworld, if fully combined, would fill most of our galaxy. And may well do so.
At the core of all these beliefs is a single thought and concept. That Life. Death. And, that which is beyond life are all connected by a single strand, the World Tree ideal, be it a diety, an object or a Messiah – which when one considers it, is the life of each and every one of us.
We are born and live. We aspire to be greater. We die and pass beyond.
Have you heard any interesting tales of the Underworld? Have a thought on the afterlife you’d like to share? If you had a chance to rule the Underworld, what rules would you put in place to govern it? I’d love to chat with you!
Join me next week when we dig into the life of one of histories greatest wizards and force his secrets into the light. Until then…