Most people today conceive of the afterlife as a place where winged babies dance among the clouds. While it’s hard to prove exactly what an afterlife might look like, everyone seems to have their own conception of “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” (if we can quote Hamlet).
Ancient people also had some thoughts about what might happen after death, and while some of their ideas might seem familiar, others may seem like a scene from another planet.
Let’s explore what they believed, from the ghostly pallor of the Elysium fields to the dramatic boat-burnings of Viking nobility.
The Greeks and their cultural inheritors the Romans believed the underworld, Hades, was surrounded by six rivers whose names alluded to emotions about death, the most famous of which were the Styx (hatred) and the Lethe (forgetfulness). After death, the soul—its shape like that of the person in which it dwelled—would be ferried across some of the rivers by Charon, whose fee was taken in the form of two coins placed on the eyes of the deceased.
A variety of figures embodying various unsettling feelings dwelled around the entrance to the Hades, accompanied by monsters like Centaurs, snake-haired Gorgons, and the Hydra (a many-headed dragon). The gates themselves were guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus, and it is there that the soul would be judged.
Tartarus was where the bad people went. Contrary to today’s notion of flaming perdition, it was a place of intense, palpable darkness: this was where Zeus cast the Titans after he defeated them—a forgotten realm deep under the earth, sort of like the space behind your couch. Neutral souls who were bad and good were sent to the Asphodel Fields, while pining lovers who wasted away their days in unrequited love were sent to the Mourning Fields.
Good souls, and those who were friends of the gods, were able to enter Elysium, a place of no work—sort of like your ideal weekend. If they chose, they could be reincarnated. Those thrice reincarnated, who were awarded an afterlife in Elysium each time, merited dwelling in the Isles of the Blessed, a place that sort of seems to be like an all-inclusive Sandals Resort without a checkout date.
The Greeks did not really emphasize the reward-and-punishment component of the afterlife. For them, Hades was a sort of shadowy place where the deceased lived out a ghostly retirement, playing games, perhaps eating and drinking, and maybe even engaging in romance and marriage—suggesting that in some ways, the underworld was a continuation of life on earth, though a ghostly sort of half-life.
The Celts had a view of the afterlife that is a little hard to pin down—not helped by the fact that this ancient ethnic group spanned the width and breadth of Europe from Ireland to Spain, creating a diverse range of local beliefs (though there were some commonalities). Add to that the missionized spread of Christianity and the suppression of local beliefs (or their transmutation into Christian ideals, such as turning local gods into saints), along with centuries of monastic reinterpretation (preservation, really) of Celtic narratives, and you’ll find that our understanding of the Celtic afterlife is hazy at best.
The Celts were known for burying their dead with food, weapons, and jewelry—ornamental pieces of foliage-like filigree that the Celts are still famous for. The druids, wizard-priests of the Celtic religion, did indeed promote belief in an afterlife, which was sometimes described as being underground, and sometimes as an island or islands across the sea. This “Land of the Living” or “Land of Youth” was an idyllic place without pain, death, sickness, or old age.
In some stories, the hero might be lured into accompanying a beautiful woman in an ephemeral-looking boat to this pleasing place—and if he returned, he would surely find all his former companions long gone, since time was much slower in that land. Echoes of this idea are found in the King Arthur story, which ends with King Arthur being escorted to the mystical land of Avalon by the fairy-folk—someday to return.
The Celtic Otherworld was also a place to where the old gods (or the divine race of Milesians) had retreated after the arrival of the Gaelic peoples. This Otherworld could also be accessed at burial mounds and sources of water, such as ponds, springs, and lakes. Days like Samhain (Halloween) were propitious times for making contact with the other world. In some Celtic belief systems, souls of the dead might journey to Tech Duin, The House of Donn, where they might wait a short while before either being reincarnated or sent to the Otherworld.
The Norse view of the afterlife, which bears similarity to that of Germanic peoples around Europe, featured one of the most dramatic religious rituals of the ancient world: the Viking Funeral. The Norse believed that the soul—which most Westerners conceive of as a monolithic entity—was actually split into four parts. The last breath might release a person’s life force into the greater repository of spiritual consciousness (an ephemeral place beyond our world) but the psychic identity of the person would not begin its afterlife journey until after the total decomposition of the body.
The dead was buried with items they might need, but whatever happened to the dead (burning or burial) would also have to happen to the items that went with them. Slaves might just be dropped into a hole in the ground, while freemen might be buried with weapons. Norsemen (and women) of distinction might be buried within a ship, which was sometimes turned into a massive bonfire, in order to facilitate a huge column of smoke that could lift the deceased into the afterlife—this is Viking Funeral. Seven days later a drinking party formerly marked the death and opened up the inheritance of the deceased, while a pile of stones might mark their final resting place.
Beliefs varied about where the deceased might reside. They might reside on a holy mountain in the area, which could not be even looked at without first washing the face; those with psychic vision confirmed that the dead there were drinking and talking around a hearth. Or, if they had not died in battle, they might be sent to the dark, subterranean pit ruled by the giantess Hel. Warriors who had died in battle ascended to the heavenly Valhalla, where women Valkyries poured them mead and they feasted every night on the meat of the Sæhrímnir, a beast which would resurrect them daily until the final battle of Ragnarok.
The Viking conception of the afterlife might have involved erotic personifications of death and violent rituals. Some ancient sources describe ritual rapes and murders of young women meant to facilitate lifeforce to the dead—making it all sound like one funeral we’ll have to respectfully decline to attend.
The Egyptians built huge pyramids to house their dead monarchs, easily leading us to believe they were obsessed with death. That feeling would only get stronger as you entered one of the unviolated tombs of the pharaohs—something that is nearly impossible today, since tomb raiders (not to be confused with the popular video game) and sponsored archeological expeditions have pretty much cleaned them out (though you can see plenty of things/treasures at various museums in the cities of former colonial powers).
The boundary between this world and the afterlife was a tenuous one for the Egyptians. They embalmed the deceased, removing vital organs and placing them in magical canopic jars—each jar representing a deity associated with that organ. The body was intentionally desiccated and wrapped in shrouds (mummified) to preserve its corporeal form as much as possible, so the dead could arrive in the afterlife.
Tombs were fully stocked with all that might be needed in the world beyond, and the more wealthy the dead man, the more he could take with him—some pharaohs had full-sized boats placed in their tombs, along with magical dolls that would become their servants (a similar practice was also common in ancient China).
One enduring symbol associated with the tombs of Egypt is the Ankh, a sort of cross with a looped top, which represented life and life-giving force. Wall art might depict the gods (such as Osiris, the lord of the dead) presenting the deceased with this symbol, in order to revivify them into the afterlife.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing components about the Egyptian journey to the afterlife was the one in which Anubis, a jackal-headed lord of the underworld, weighed the heart of the deceased against a feather to assess the moral worth of the dead. Worthy souls could enter the underworld, while unworthy souls would be devoured by the crocodilian beast, Ammit—a fairly gnarly end to existence, as if death itself wasn’t one already.
Last but not least, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was yet another vital piece for egyptologists to understand how the ancient Egyptians thought about death and the afterlife. The Book of the Dead which in turn was a collection of magical spells and funerary texts which were placed in tombs to assist and protect the deceased in the afterlife.
Curious for more about the possibilities of the hereafter? Have a look at our article about how the major religions have described the afterlife.