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Death Incarnate: Deities of Death and the Afterlife
By B.K. Bass
Cosmology and mythology often form the foundation of our fantasy worlds. The beliefs, myths, and traditions of a people can tell us a lot about their culture. Ancient Egypt is a prime example of this from our own history. When we think of the people living along the Nile River some six thousand years ago, images of hieroglyphics and statues depicting the likes of Set, Osiris, and Ra come to mind. Even the pharaohs, considered god-kings, were part of the religion for this culture.
“His divinity accrued to him from his office and was reaffirmed through rituals, but it was vastly inferior to that of major gods; he was god rather than man by virtue of his potential, which was immeasurably greater than that of any human being.”1
Divinity’s influence is not simply limited to the religious sphere, but is capable of spreading to many realms of public life, including government. The leadership of ancient Egypt was predicated on their belief structure. These beliefs carried not only through their day-to-day lives, but also their expectations of an afterlife. This is reflected by the other icon that springs to mind when thinking of this once-great culture: the pyramids. Colossal structures that – according to the writings of Herodotus – took twenty years for 100,000 men to build.2 The sole purpose of these great monuments was to preserve the revered dead and guide their spirits to the afterlife; having a great effect on the society in the form of labor and resource management, in addition to all of the other considerations that go into such a massive project. In fact, one could say that an entire multi-layered industry was spawned from this perceived need.
In keeping with this issue’s theme of ‘Death and Taxes,’ I chose to explore some of the specifics of cosmology and mythology from our own past that center around death itself. In developing cultures for our worlds – be it a fantasy realm or an alien world orbiting some distant star – taking a closer look at how people view death and the afterlife can do much to inform us about other aspects of their lives.
Custodians of the Spirit
The best place to start our journey into the afterlife would be with those figures who help to usher the spirits of the dead from the mortal realm to the next. These mythical figures are known as psychopomps: “a person who conducts spirits or souls to the other world.”3 Our travels will bring us from ancient Egypt across the Mediterranean to Hellenic Greece to search for one of the oldest examples of these custodians of the spirit: Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead.
"But sail upon the wind of lamentation, my friends, and about your head row with your hands’ rapid stroke in conveyance of the dead, that stroke which always causes the sacred slack-sailed, black-clothed ship to pass over Akheron to the unseen land here Apollon does not walk, the sunless land that receives all men."4
Charon was not a deity, but rather was a “daimon” – or spirit – who was charged with the task of receiving the souls of the dead and transporting them across the river Styx in his skiff, charging a toll for passage. Those who were not properly buried – with a coin placed upon the tongue of the corpse or upon each eye (depending upon the source, reports of these details vary) – would be doomed to wander in a realm between those of the living and the dead forever, haunting the mortal realms in spectral form.5 Oddly enough, Greek mythology has another figure who fills a similar role of ushering the dead to the afterlife. Thanatos was the deity or daimon (depending upon the source) of non-violent death. He was characterized as a bearded man with wings and was said to have a gentle disposition, similar to his brother Hypnos, the deity of sleep. Violent death, on the other hand, was the domain of the Keres, a trio of female spirits regarded to be sisters of Thanatos.6
Many other ancient belief systems had figures who filled the role of psychopomp. Among these were Anubis from Egypt, Ankou from Brittany, Azrail (Azrael) of Muslim beliefs, Archangel Michael of Roman-Catholic origin, Barnumbiir from aboriginal Australia, Epona of Gaul, and Freyja (Freya) of Norse myth, to name but a few.7
A figure still prominent in contemporary folklore structures is the Grim Reaper. Not a defined figure in any one religion, the Grim Reaper is actually a by-product of a series of cultural events. In the distant past, the figures responsible for guiding the dead to the afterlife were often represented as either benevolent or apathetic. In direct contrast, the grisly visage and accoutrements of the Grim Reaper came about as a result of the Black Death, an epidemic that was responsible for the loss of much of the population of Europe in the 14th century. This figure began showing up in artwork contemporary to the plague, but the name “Grim Reaper” did not appear until the 19th century.8 The images in which the Reaper was portrayed and the thoughts of this ghastly being coming to harvest the souls of so many dead were powerful enough that it pervades the common consciousness of the Western world to this day.
In developing our own worlds, there are several questions we can ask ourselves on the subject of psychopomps, and the answers to these questions will do much to develop our fictional cultures. If we choose to include one of these custodial spirits, this creates the sense that the afterlife is another place and that there is a journey to be undertaken after death. Should we choose to exclude one of these figures, we should consider how people view the transition from life to afterlife. Does the spirit simply appear in this other realm?
Another important consideration is the character of our spirit and/or deity. If this figure is kind and benevolent, this would reflect an outlook on death as a welcome transition to another phase of existence. Should the figure be menacing and terrifying, then perhaps the afterlife is a place to fear and the souls of the departed are taken there against their will. How these beliefs would reflect upon the day-to-day lives of those living in this culture is a fascinating concept to ponder. While these two questions only scratch the surface of what we can shape these figures into, they already provide groundwork for some interesting cultural ramifications.
Lords of the Afterlife
Once the spirit has been ushered or otherwise passed on to the afterlife, who is in charge? Almost all of the ancient polytheistic belief systems had a figure who was in charge of the afterlife: a god of death, king of the underworld, or lord of the afterlife. In some cases, the roles of psychopomp and ruler of the dead belong the same being, but in many more cases the roles are fulfilled by two separate figures.
Returning to Egypt, we find a convoluted tale that is a good example of how things are not always cut-and-dry regarding who is in charge of what -- even among a pantheon of deities! Osiris ruled over the afterlife for much of Egyptian history, but a turn of events saw others vying to take his place. The exact details of the myths are lost to time, but what we can interpret from antiquity is that Osiris was murdered by Set, who wished to take his place. Osiris’ son, Anubis, ruled the afterlife in his place for some time, filling both role of custodian and lord of the dead. Isis resurrected Osiris after re-assembling his body, the parts of which Set had scattered across the desert. Once reborn, Osiris took his place as lord of the afterlife and his son Anubis was relegated to his role as a psychopomp, as mentioned above. There are some inconsistencies depending upon the source of interpretation, but one interesting version suggests that Osiris became the god of death because he was the first one to die himself.9
Along a similar vein, Yama from Hindu mythology is also – in some versions of the tale – the first man to die. Because of this honorific, he was appointed as the king of the underworld and judge of all souls. He is neither benevolent nor malicious, but rather is viewed as a figure of careful study who presides over the fate of the dead in a setting similar to a trial; where the spirits are judged for their deeds in life. Because of this moral neutrality, how one feels about Yama depends on what kind of life they have lead. Indeed, some legends have him appearing as an unimposing humanoid to those with a clear conscience and as a horrifying monster to those who have done evil in life.10
Which brings us to a very interesting subject: deities charged specifically with the punishment of the damned. Not surprisingly – given the role of religion in maintaining civil order and establishing common codes of morality – there are quite a few examples of figures who fill this role. We are most likely all familiar with the figure of Lucifer from the Judeo-Christian traditions. Similar in purpose and tone are peers such as Hades of Greek mythology, Whiro of the Maori, and Hel of Norse myth.10 Another notable figure that filled this role was Orcus, an Etruscan god known as the lord of the underworld and punisher of broken oaths. He was characterized as a hulking, monstrous creature who often feasted upon those he was charged with punishing. The ancient Romans adopted the stories of Orcus and melded the Etruscan traditions with those of their Greek neighbors, and the figure was adapted to become a similar figure to Hades. The name has survived and changed over the years, notably as the French ‘ogre’ and the Anglo-Saxon ‘orc’, which was a type of daemon in their folklore.11
As we can see, there are a lot of options other than just assigning a deity as the lord of the afterlife and god of death. Power struggles, family intrigue, and other drama can be taking place in relation to this role. There can also be a variety of figures filling an assortment of roles in regard to this sphere of influence. The examples given here are fairly simple, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that in some cultures – such as Chinese mythology – there might be dozens of characters involved in the management of the afterlife.
Lands of the Dead
Many of us are familiar with certain concepts of an afterlife, either from our own belief systems or those that pervade the cultures we reside within. Most common of these being heaven, the eternal paradise and reward for living a good life; hell, the eternal punishment for living a wicked life; and limbo or purgatory, a realm between the two where a soul might serve penance before moving on to a more rewarding realm. Many belief systems in the past had alternate views of what the afterlife might be like, some of them with much more complicated structures or more personal fates for the departed.
An iconic vision of the afterlife is that of the Judeo-Christian hell described in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, from The Divine Comedy. In this work there are distinct levels of hell for each of the seven deadly sins, each with their own type of punishment. For example; those guilty of wrath are forced to spend eternity in a watery swamp, constantly fighting each other to rise to the surface for air.12 Another notable example of specific punishments to fit the crime is the story of Tantalus from Homer’s Odyssey. After having killed and served another human as a meal to the gods, he was given a special punishment by Zeus himself. He was cursed with eternal hunger and thirst and forced to stand in a lake of freshwater that would always recede should he bend down to drink; and above him hung enticing fruit that seemed within reach, but would draw away should he try to grab it. It is from this legend that the world ‘tantalizing’ originates.
“I saw also the dreadful fate of Tantalus, who stood in a lake that reached his chin; he was dying to quench his thirst, but could never reach the water, for whenever the poor creature stooped to drink, it dried up and vanished, so that there was nothing but dry ground- parched by the spite of heaven. There were tall trees, moreover, that shed their fruit over his head- pears, pomegranates, apples, sweet figs and juicy olives, but whenever the poor creature stretched out his hand to take some, the wind tossed the branches back again to the clouds.”13
Other cultures had a variety of separate realms to where the spirits of the dead might travel, rather than one realm – or two – with specific fates awaiting them. A good example of this would be the realms of the dead in Norse mythology, of which there are four, each catering to a specific set of individuals. Valhalla is probably familiar to many as the hall of the honored warriors, those who have fought bravely and fallen in battle. There is also Fólkvangr – the domain of Freyja – where half of those who die in battle are chosen by her to reside. Then we have Hel, wherein resides the goddess of death by the same name. This was seen as a land of darkness and shadow. Some sources suggest it was a realm of punishment, although this is not entirely clear. Most often, it is simply referenced as the destination of those who did not die in battle. Finally, we have Helgafjell – the holy mountain – another concept of an afterlife for those who did not die in battle. Legends of Helgafjell usually paint the picture of a more pastoral afterlife where the spirits of the dead continue to live a life like that experienced in the mortal realm. It is interesting to note that the only ‘paradise’ promised is for those who died in battle, reflecting the warlike society that this religion was attached to.14
While in many traditions the fate of the deceased was eternal, this was not always the case. Returning again to the Hindu deity Yama – who was also a figure in Buddhism – we see an example of punishment for wrongs committed in life that does not last forever. Once judged guilty by Yama, the punishments prescribed to the spirit only lasted until their karma was balanced. Depending on the specific tradition, the spirit would then either pass on to a more pleasant afterlife or be reincarnated.15
As we can see just from these few examples, we have a lot of inspiration to draw from when creating our own afterlife. Different archetypes might include separate realms for reward or punishment, individually tailored fates, rewards for a specific ideal – such as dying a warrior’s death, and temporary penance for one’s crimes in life. These, of course, are only a few options to get the creative juices flowing.
Weaving the Tapestry of Fate
Now comes the real challenge for all of us: tying all of these threads together. When we start thinking about the afterlife in our worldbuilding, there’s a lot to consider! Depending upon how detailed you wish your world to be, you could spend days shaping this aspect of your world or simply writing a few paragraphs outlining the broad strokes.
Either way, I feel it’s a great idea to at least consider this aspect of the cultures you are creating. As we have seen, beliefs regarding the afterlife do a lot to shape a society, such as with the Egyptians creating an entire construction industry around it. On the other side of the coin, beliefs in the afterlife might be shaped by parts of the society, such as how the Norse valued a warrior’s death over any other, and focused less on punishment for wrongs committed during life compared to other cultures.
Beyond considering the questions of psychopomps, gods of death, and the afterlife itself, there are a lot of other threads that we can weave into these basic elements. An entire hierarchy of supernatural figures might preside over various aspects of life-after-death. Alternatively, we can create culturally-specific ideas that jump outside of the established archetypes.
One example from my own work would be the beliefs of the nomadic Taerwyn tribes in my sword and sorcery series The Burning Sands, which is set on a world covered in deserts. The Taerwyn believe in reincarnation, but also that while waiting for the next life, they spend time in the ‘Spirit Sands’, where there is no thirst or hunger and where men, horses, and other benign creatures spend their time running free across the endless desert.
When we take a closer look at some of these details, it helps us to create cultures that feel more genuine. The ideas a culture has about the afterlife, combined with other concepts both mundane and supernatural, all are part of building a people who feel truly alive. While we may or may not deal with aspects of death and the afterlife once our worlds are built, having these concepts fleshed out provide the foundation for cultures that have beliefs, motivations, fears, and ambitions beyond those of the mortal realm.
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