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Sunday, May 29th, 2005, 10:52 AM
Religion and afterlives

(Nigel Pennick)

There is a seriously dislocated perception of divinity in many historical studies of Europe at the time of the Christian missions and Crusades against indigenous Pagan traditions. The Christians saw their beliefs and practices as a religion, whilst Pagans viewed Christianity as one cultus among many. Present-day Christian writers make the false assumption that, historically, Pagans in antiquity saw a duality of Paganism and Christianity. It is clear that in post- Roman Europe Pagans saw culti of such divinities as the Genius Loci,
apotheosised figures like Homer, Alexander, Augustus and Jesus, Hercules, Venus, Vesta, Woden, Siwa, Isis, the Dísir, Jehovah, Sirona, Freyja, Svantevit, etc.

The seventh-century Anglian king, Raedwald, was vilified by Christian commentators because he paid homage to all shrines he passed, Pagan and Christian. At his palace, his chapel contained altars to the Pagan deities and Jesus. Christian apologists see this as "hedging his bets", trying to curry favour with both `sides'. But this is a wrong viewpoint; from a Pagan perspective, they are all aspects of divinity, and it is one's personal choice to which cultus or culti one is a devotee.

Christians viewed all deities other than theirs as anti-gods and goddesses, or lumped them with the catch-all figure of badness, the Devil. By so doing, they denied pluralism. They also enforced a belief in the fixity of this world, following flat earth cosmology, having a heavenly upperworld and a hellish underworld, but no Otherworld. Pagan traditions recognise the existence of the Otherworld, inhabited by its own beings and accessible from this world in both directions.

The Otherworld, unlike the Christian ideas of tripartite cosmology, is geomantic. It is related to this world because it has specific points of entry, where Otherworldly beings may manifest, and where humans can enter the Otherworld. Places like the Hörselberg (in Thuringia) have been known for millennia as points of entry to the Otherworld. Certain mountains, springs, rivers, lakes and caves are gateways to the Otherworldly residences of the Dísir, the Queen of Elfland, the Lady of the Lake and similar beings. At certain times, under special conditions, humans may enter. They may never return,
but if they do, they return to this world empowered with some special gift.

The next world, the place of the dead, is different. Various branches of Pagan philosophy have different views. Those that teach reincarnation or transmigration see the next world as a resting place before return to this world.

Others, teaching that we only have one life see the next world as the abode of the dead. This has several possibilities, depending upon the philosophical system. The most usual feature is that the dead cannot return to the earth, and that living humans cannot penetrate the next world. Gods and empowered beings of myth are sometimes depicted as entering the next world.

But, as befitting a pluralistic cosmos, there are exceptions. Frau Percht, an Otherworldly figure, carries the souls of yet-to-be-born children around, tending the plants. There is a folk-tale that at the location the cathedral of Strasbourg was built, there was an underground lake in which dwelt the souls of yet-to-be-born children. Certain Scandinavian beliefs tell how the spirits of the dead "go into the fells", and reside there. Thus, there are holy mountains of the ancestors and ancestresses where people can go for help. The female ancestresses become the Dísir. German mountains with names such as Disenberg or Disibodenberg are clearly such places.

Belief in some kind of afterlife undoubtedly assists warriors in risking their lives in battle. It is a recurrent theme in the European tradition. The Greek boxer-philosopher Pythagoras also taught that human souls are repeatedly brought back to live upon this earth. In his Pharsalia, the Roman author Lucan wrote of the ancient Celts: "These people, who live in the north, are happy in their
delusion. They rush forth bravely to meet their enemy. To them, humanity's primal fear of death means nothing: it is cowards who live, but they will be born again tomorrow".

The Pythagorean and Celtic belief in transmigration or reincarnation is one spur to death in battle. Another is the certainty that one will enter another world. To the Norse warrior, this was Valhalla, the Great Hall of Odin in Asgard. Their belief was that every warrior who died in action was chosen by one of the Valkyrs who flew, unseen, above battlefields, choosing the dead for Odin.

Christians took up the idea from earlier mystery cults that death was the gateway to life. A Roman soldier who had been through the Taurobolium, in which he bathed in the blood of a bull sacrificed to Mithras, was "born again into eternity". If he subsequently died in battle, then he went immediately to the Mithraic paradise. Christians, too, felt that, if they died as martyrs in witness to their religion, they went straight to heaven. This was extended to
those who fought against non-Christians in the crusades against eastern European Pagans, and in the crusades in Palestine. On the other side, Islamic warriors fighting for the Saracen and Ottoman causes equally believed that, should they die in battle, their souls would ascend to paradise.

When we view each religion as a belief system, rather than a truth that excludes all others, then the conventional view is that their devotees are deluded believers who put faith in vain hopes of one or other afterlife, according to the teaching of their cultus. But, if we take another viewpoint, we have the intriguing possibility that they are choosing a specific afterlife.

Drawing conclusions from magical principles, it can be argued that Christian soul-magic is constructed deliberately to prevent reincarnation. It selects the place of residence of souls (as does the warrior of Odin who goes to Valhalla). Such magical control denies personal choice. Burial in designated places only, according to prescribed rites, such as in a churchyard, directs the soul towards a particular place. They destroyed, as far as they could, the
possibility of being buried elsewhere, and then they had the monopoly of souls. With this monopoly, they could then demand that the living adhere to their beliefs and regulations, or be sent below to God's Concentration Camp.

In the Pagan tradition, however, a woman who founds a family may go into the fells and become a Dis, guardianness and helper of her descendents. One who is buried in the woods may be assimilated to the spirit of the trees. Or one may come back to this world as a descendent, who possesses the same character, generations later. One may return to this world as a non-human animal, not as a punishment, as in some non-European religious teachings, but for other reasons. Or one may inhabit the ether, as do artists and writers, inspiring those who are in harmony with one's work. Whatever one's path in this world, then it will be so in the next.