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A Pagan Perspective on Death

Robin Herne's picture

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There is no singular view of death within the assorted polytheistic and pantheistic religion of the ancient and modern world There is no singular view of death within the assorted polytheistic and pantheistic religions of the ancient and modern world. Some subscribed to idyllic and hellish afterlives (depending on ones behaviour in this life), whilst others favoured reincarnation. Pretty much all of these faiths saw, and continue to see, death as a natural event and not something to be feared or considered a punishment from the Gods.

My own particular form of polytheism draws its inspiration from the early Celtic tribes. We are told by the ancient writer Posidonius that, “The teaching of Pythagoras prevails among the Gauls, that the souls of humans are immortal and that after a certain number of years they will live again, with the soul passing into another body”. Other Classical writers mentioned the belief in the transmigration of souls ~ the idea that souls could return in new bodies, human or otherwise.

The polytheist religions place great emphasis on reverence for the dead. This is not indiscriminate, but seeks to commune with those ancestors specifically regarded as benevolent and whose kind graces can be encouraged through proper ritual and offerings. Those who were quite horrible in life are often treated with kid gloves in death, the assumption being that they may not have changed much.

Those traditions that hold to reincarnation often describe the human psyche as consisting of more than one part (the Egyptians, for example, claimed nine aspects). At death one part may go on to animate a new body, whilst others may have another destiny ~ and it is these latter parts that can sometimes be seen as spectral guardians.

Most religions have had something to say on the matter of deliberately entering the land of the dead ~ in other words, suicide. The majority of faiths have discouraged self-destruction, often seeing it as an afront to the Divine.

A Wiccan might well find such actions in conflict with the code known as the Rede (and it harm none, do as you will) ~ if they apply the notion of harm none to incorporate self-harm.

The Ancient Romans and most Greeks had quite different views on the matter, and numerous prominent people took their own lives for a variety of reasons. Under some circumstances suicide was positively encouraged, as a means to avoid dishonour. A dignified death was seen as preferable to a wretched life. In this respect there were echoes of the Japanese practice of harikari as a means of avoiding dishonour.

An early Egyptian account describes a man contemplating suicide thusly, “Death is before me today, Like the recovery of a sick man... Like the longing of a man to see his home again, after many years of captivity.” It may come as little surprise to see that the Egyptians saw death as a solace to be embraced (provided, of course, that the living gave ones soul due reverence to ensure inclusion amongst the blessed Akhu rather than the neglected and wrathful Muatu).

Perhaps the key difference for some of these cultures was the perception of death not as a punishment or finality, but as a simple stepping-stone along the way of a vast journey. If death was no big deal, then suicide could not be seen as a massive issue either.

We simply do not know how the early Celts viewed the matter of suicide, though there are references as mentioned above to the Druids teaching that death was but a stage en route to other things. Amidst the Germanic tribes, the Havamal does not say anything directly but one verse has implications:

The lame rides a horse, the handless is herdsman,

The deaf in battle is bold;

The blind man is better than one that is burned,

No good can come of a corpse.”

In many cultures (our own included) serious illness or disability is often regarded as a cause for people ending it all. The Havamal, by contrast, seems to suggest that it is better to live and make the most of what your health still permits than to give up and die.

I have heard some proponents of reincarnation aver that suicides will end up having to come back and do it all over again in a bid to find some preferable solution to their problems. This may, of course, be the case ~ though one cannot help but feel that some people have suffered so much first time round that it would be a perverse deity indeed that required them to repeat the experience.