In my previous blog that introduced this series, I mentioned that according to statistics, the slim majority of modern day humanity believe in some sort of afterlife. It appears then that the idea and belief in ones survival beyond death is not as common as it was in the ancient world. In fact, it’s been said that for the ancients, the question was not ‘Is there life after death?’, but rather ‘What are the conditions in the afterlife, and how can one improve or achieve more desirable conditions there?’
So how did the ancient world come to believe in such a realm like this in the first place?
Well, it seems that much of it stemmed from their understanding of the universe around them.
It appears that people in the ancient world generally believed in a three-tiered universe. The ‘heavens’ were for the great gods, the earth for humans, and the underworld for the dead and deities associated with that realm. We get a glimpse of this sort of understanding from some of the Ancient Near Eastern literature that talks about all three levels.
So buckle up, because we are going to take a look at two ancient cultural understandings of the underworld and the realm of the dead.
One of the more famous epics from ancient Mesopotamia was the Epic of Gilgamesh. This primordial poem follows Gilgamesh (a king), who after losing a friend in death, commits to finding a way to beat death and achieve eternal life. Interesting enough, as soon as Gilgamesh finds this sacred underwater plant with rejuvenating properties, it is stolen from him by a snake! Now this poetic saga spans across multiple tablets and contains many references to deities and monsters as Gilgamesh journeys into the realm of the gods (heaven), earth and even the underworld itself.
Now in terms of the Mesopotamian underworld, this place or realm was commonly referred to as ‘the Great City’, ‘the Great Below’, or ‘the Land of no Return’. Interesting enough, this too was a place of levels or tiers: the lowest was the court of the gods of the underworld; the middle level was the watery realm of the deity Apsu; and the upper level immediately under the earth’s surface was believed to hold the ‘spirits’ of the dead. I know, all these levels can all start to get a little confusing.
Anyways, according to them, the entrance to the underworld was supposedly in the west. The belief was that Shamash – a sun god – would go down at night and travel under the earth before rising again in the east the following morning. What happens to Shamesh and his engagement in the underworld is a mystery, but at death, the dead need to cross a river in order to gain entrance into this mysterious underworld. This was only possible via the aid of a boatman whose name was ‘Remove-hastily’! I guess the idea was to get across as fast as possible.
Regardless, the grim reality of this underworld is graphically depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh and others as a gloomy, dark and treacherous place of no return. In fact, the underworld is described as a ‘house which none leave’, a ‘road from which there is no way back’, and a place where there is ‘no light’ and all reside in darkness. Simply put, the Mesopotamian underworld is definitely a dreary place where there seems to be no way out.
Now, contrasting ancient Mesopotamia’s epics and poems of the underworld is the elavborate Egyptian system and journey into the afterlife.
Probably the most famous piece of Egyptian literature is the Book of the Dead. Well, that is if you have watched the Hollywood film series The Mummy or its sequel. If not, that’s fine. But what is well known about Egypt is their elaborate fascination with the afterlife and even death itself.
Interestingly enough, the Egyptians are believed and credited to be the first culture and society that preserved the human body after death. And its actually in the Bible!
Genesis 50:2 says, ‘and Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed him.’
Here, we see Joseph (a Hebrew) desiring for the Egyptian tradition of mummification to take place for his dad. We know that the Egyptians probably did this because they believed that part of their being or personality (called the ba) could actually travel back to its corpse after death. So preserving the human body was important to them. Furthermore, the Egyptians believed that this ba would not be able to survive in the afterlife without its human body remaining intact and being somewhat recognizable. This is most likely why the Egyptians went through great lengths to keep their dead bodies preserved and safe.
But as well as halting decomposition and ensuring the recognition of one’s corpse, the Egyptians also placed various items into the tomb of their departed loved one(s) and often recited certain phrases, spells or magical prayers in order to secure a safe passage to and through the underworld. It was believed that items (food, instruments, weapons) could be of assistance and even help the departed as they made their way towards the ‘Judgement of the Dead’.
This was the ultimate trial one faced in the Egyptian underworld. Guided by Anubis (the jackal-headed god of the dead), travellers of the underworld would make their way to the courtroom of Osiris (the king of the subterranean realm) in order to be weighed. But not like the modern day weight-watchers kind of weigh in.
The believe was that once at Osiris’s courtroom, the decedents heart was placed on a scale, where it was weighed against the ‘feather of truth’. If a person claimed to be noble and good, then the scales would remain balanced (their heart would not weigh more than the feather), and they would be deemed ‘blessed’. If however, a person’s claim to living a good life was not truthful, then their heart would weigh more than the feather, and quite literally the scales would not tip in their favour.
For the non-blessed people, they would be condemned, drowned or cast into a place of complete darkness and stagnation – where the dead walked upside down, consumed urine and feces and were tortured by fire and snakes. But they also could have been consumed and devoured by a ravenous hybrid creature of sort (Ammut/Amamet) whose name literally meant ‘gobbler’. Either way, it wasn’t good.
So, whether one was banished to an ‘outer darkness’ of the underworld or was simply annihilated, this Egyptian second death was deemed to be the worst fate imaginable.
Contrasting those fates, were the fates of the ‘blessed dead’ who were transported across a canal by a boatman to the blissful realm of Osiris and Ra, with whom they would be with forever. Here they would live with the gods in the sky and enjoy immeasurable abundance and pleasure on their very own piece of property, field or island that would produced an inexhaustible harvest. This was known as the ‘Field of Reeds’, ‘Field of Offerings’, ‘Isles of the Just’ or ‘Great City’.
This was the end of the journey for the Egyptian ‘blessed’ and was the prized goal for all who entered the underworld seeking paradise.
I will stop the tour here for this week.
As we can begin to see, the Ancient Near East (ANE) understanding of death and the afterlife was very complex, immensely creative and for the most part is somewhat mysteriously concealed.
Next week I will come back to this and present a couple more ancient perspectives from Persia and Palestine.
Until then, Maranatha!
One thought on “What happens when I die?: The underworld and realm of the dead”
As Arte Johnson would say “Verrrry in terrrr est ing”. Looking forward to the next instalment.