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Death

Oh, we’re already on the second column and now we’re talking about death.  Or Death.  Or DEATH.  Well, it’s a topic that comes up more in the movies than it does in regular conversation with those whose deaths we really, really care about.  Like those closest to us, or, Gods help us, US. 

In this column I will try and ask a few questions that aren’t often (at least from what I can tell) in Pagan literature.   While the answers ultimately have to come from a personal understanding of the Gods and Goddesses, and our faith, I believe it is useful to discuss principles that could underlie a common understanding or approach toward what it means to be a Pagan and confront death. 

How do we think of death as Pagans? 

The monotheists [1] tend to think of death all the time.  Indeed religion can in many ways be described as our reaction to our ability as a species to understand and foreshadow our own deaths.  Much theology has been built up by the monotheists around what happens after death, and how one should comport oneself in order to ensure that the result is a happy one.   Death has been misused as both a tool and rationalization: a tool to ensure compliance with doctrine, and a way to rationalize sacrifice and behavior in this world in favor of better luck in the next one. 

Contemporary neo-Paganism has two general threads that run through discussions of death:  reincarnation and the Summer Lands.  

A common theme is that all life is a circle, with life returning to death and back again as the God rises and dies through the year.  Thus reincarnation is seen as fitting into a Witch’s concept of the Universe.  Likewise an old theme in Witchcraft [2] is the use of the fact that other belief systems believe in reincarnation.  This fact is, somewhat mysteriously, used to justify and explain Pagan and Witch belief in reincarnation. These are the themes often found in many popular neo-Pagan writings on death:  that reincarnation reflects the circle of life; that other, usually Eastern, belief systems justify our belief in reincarnation; and the Summerlands are a temporary way-station in our circling back from death into life .[3]

So where do the concepts of reincarnation and Summerlands really come from?  What do they mean? How do we approach sorting out death and the afterlife for ourselves? 

To answer these questions, we, unfortunately, need a digression.  In any discussion of Pagan theology there will be a tension between three different viewpoints.  First is the historical view: that we can base our theological answers on an understanding of what happened in ancient times.  Second is what I would call the assertive view:  that various contemporary neo-Pagan traditions have various beliefs, and we should honor those without question, as all views are equally valid.  Third is rationalization:  the application of reason to the questions and systems. 

The historical view often results in a constrained system that does not allow for updating concepts in a modern context.  And, more often, the historical approach just plain gets its history wrong and screws up the second, assertive, view.  Asserting what happens after death is fine, as far as it goes, but that requires more belief in the tradition and the individual who is asserting it than in either a concept based on historical evidence or logical extrapolation from principles.  Rationalization, while it could be a well-crafted extrapolation from first principles, instead often becomes a kind of weak theism or weak agnosticism.  We end up saying that whatever it is we are talking about, like reincarnation, isn’t real, rather it is merely a way for us to feel better about ourselves[4] .  Ultimately this philosophy results in the Gods and Goddesses being thought of as symbols, metaphors, or Jungian archetypes vice real, existing, sentient entities which affect us, the world, and that which is beyond the world.  It weakens our argument, instead of strengthening it.

We need to integrate each of these approaches if we are going to develop sensible answers about how to think about death.  We need to understand the historical record, as much as we can and with a very skeptical mind, and we also need to understand what is being asserted by the general neo-Pagan tradition and why. 

So where do the beliefs in reincarnation and the Summerlands come from?

Reincarnation

It is difficult to figure out (at least for me) how the concept of reincarnation entered into neo-Paganism.  The best guess I can make is that it came through Gardnarian Wicca, as there are many references to it in various authors associated with Gardner.  This path makes sense for a couple of reasons.  First, Gardner was an orientalist, having spent many of his civil service years overseas in South East Asia.  Second, Gardner is reputed to (and from surface evidence did) draw from the Golden Dawn and Crowlian traditions in constructing his Book of Shadows and rituals.  Crowley, in particular, believed in Magickal Memory or reincarnation and had studied extensively in Ceylon and India[5] .  Depending on what you think of Crowley’s influence on Gardner, this could have been another influence on the tradition of reincarnation in Wicca. Third, Robert Grave’s White Goddess, along with The Golden Bough, could have introduced the concept of dying and reborn Gods and Goddesses into early Wiccan thinking. 

The concept of reincarnation or return is present in both Hindu and Budddist teachings, as well many other religious traditions (such as Buddhist influenced Shinto, Taoism, etc.).  In general reincarnation in these traditions appears as a “ladder” or evolutionary process that the soul goes through.  Each reincarnation is supposed to teach the soul something as it progresses toward ultimate enlightenment. 

This concept was attractive for many reasons to the 19th and early 20th Century romantics who saw in Eastern religions an alternative to the traditional monotheistic religions of the time.  Theosophy, for example, includes reincarnation as part of its beliefs [6].  This incorporation of reincarnation into the turn of the century occult thinking could have also been a source of inspiration for neo-Pagan concepts of reincarnation, as the neo-Pagan movement was just emerging at the time that these early “New Age” and spiritualist movements were at their zenith. 

The combination of the influences of Eastern religions, along with the dying and reborn Gods and Goddesses, appeal to the cyclical nature of Witchcraft and it’s association with the seasons.  But if you ask “what did the European Pagan’s believe” you find that death is much more of a one-way trip. 

Summerlands

It is fairly safe to say that reincarnation was not a central tenant of Celtic or European Pagan traditions, including the Egyptian traditions [7].  In these traditions the archeological evidence is very strong that they viewed death as a one-way trip to another world[8] .  Particularly in the older, Bronze-Age Celtic, sites, burial chambers of the elites include such things as chariots and provisions for the next life.  At least for these lucky few, the afterlife held the promise of eternal summer, good hunting, and lack of want.

The concept of a defined afterlife where individual souls engage in some sort of activity, positive or negative, reoccurs throughout early Pagan religious and burial beliefs.  The Greek and Roman traditions had the river Styx and the various happy or not-so-happy places for souls to dwell.  Likewise the Celts believed that you traveled to the Summerlands, a place of feasting, rest, and eternal summer.  There, people did not grow old, or fall sick [9]

So what would a brief consideration of the historical evidence suggest?

Well, it appears that an appeal to history for European Paganism would result in a ruling against reincarnation, and in favor of a defined place for the souls of the dead, at the discretion of the Gods and Goddesses of course.  A concept of punishment after death is included in the Roman religious tradition, but seems to be absent from the Celtic tradition.  Likewise there is a continuous evolution of the concept of an afterlife in almost every tradition, with various cults and sects having different takes on when, where, and how the soul is disposed of after death[10]

If life after death is a valid belief for Pagans, what does it mean for us? 

There are two concepts that you need to consider in assessing belief in life after death. One is dualism, that the soul or essence of an individual survives in some form after death.  The second is one of identity, does the individual consciousness or identity survive after death, or does the soul merge into some form of super or over conscious.  There are many objections on philosophical grounds to either of these claims.

From a purely materialistic, scientific perspective there is essentially no evidence of survival after death.  In fact you can argue there is empirical evidence that everything that makes us an individual (such as consciousness, memory, will, intellect, etc.) is closely tied to the functioning of the brain and thus if the brain is damaged or destroyed, individuality is also affected negatively.  Philosophically there are objections to what we can determine to be an individual, given the constant changing of our individuality through growth and aging, as well as the inability to draw a continuous thread of existence across the boundary of death.  So, as a practical example, when we die do we appear in the Summerland exactly as we were at death?  If we died from old age this could be a very unattractive option given memory loss and personality changes that go along with aging.  Or do we appear as we were at some earlier time in our lives.  If so, at what earlier age are we “us”? And then what are “we” now?

This difference between what we are now, and what we become once we die, and its meaning for the survival of individuality after death is an important consideration for Pagans. 

One way to get around all these objections and problems is to have god wave his magic wand and resurrect/make whole/restore/supersize or whatever the individual consciousness. This is a common Christian approach toward life after death and the survival of the individual.  God makes up the rules, so he can pretty much make up any rule he wants to about what happens after death.

On the other hand, Pagans, in the most general sense, see the Universe as alive with multiple, overlapping, and diverse consciousness.  Gods and Goddesses proliferate, and can be local to individuals as well as regions or geographies[11] .  If there is a diversity of consciousness, then the survival of consciousness for those who survive death fits in well with an overall scheme of Gods, Goddesses, and conscious natural forces and objects.  If the divine spirit inhabits the world, animals, the Gods and Goddesses, as well as individuals, then movement of that consciousness from one state of existence (material life) to another (Summerlands) is simply a transition from the world of the material to the world of the Gods and Goddesses.

We do not require the Christian salvation, resurrection and heaven because we are already spirit, and we will remain spirit after death as well.  Death is a transition of spirit, a transition to a new existence, a new state of consciousness, but not a loss of individuality or consciousness.  What we are now in spirit, we will be then.  Which suggests that the building of a consciousness and life filled with love and memories of charity, joy, and good works will give us an important start in the Summerlands. 

But what about the loss of mental capacity which occurs with age, or injury?  Doesn’t that suggest that whatever survives as spirit does not necessarily uniquely represent us as individuals?  It is possible that this is true, but an alternative explanation is that the brain and body create an intimately linked environment in which spirit is able to express itself in the world.  In this model the brain and body become tools with which our inner and constant spirits interact with the world.  As these tools become injured and damaged, our ability to express spirit in the world becomes less and less.  It does not necessarily imply that our essence is diminished, but rather that our essence has become unable to communicate with the world. 

What it can imply is that our work with spirit, essence, and supernatural worlds is a way for us to understand, and evolve, our essential spirit. 

We can also approach the survival of individuality after death from another direction.  The philosophical objection to survival of individuality that points out we are never “one particular” person during our lives also can be extended to gain insight into life after death. 

If our personalities, perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge changes during our lifetimes, then a question that comes up is “who are we really?”.  This is similar to the standard philosophical question about names, objects, and concepts.  For example what is meant when we say “rock”?  A particular rock, all rocks, or some Platonic concept of a rock that hovers above, behind, or inside of an actual rock?   If we introduce the concept of spirit or essence then this question becomes more answerable. 

The individuality that survives life after death is not the accumulation of memories, capacities, and skills that makes up the individual during life.  Rather it is the essence that lies behind and underneath all of those things.  For example, as we cast a spell, divine, or commune with the Gods and Goddesses we invite that inner core of being to come forward, to contact that which is not the world, and connect us with it.  As we die we transition from that which is in the world, our thoughts, feelings, memories, and beliefs, to that which is not in the world, or essence.  The Gods and Goddesses, along with many other traditional spirits, share that essential nature.  Honoring, worshiping, calling on, or connecting with the Gods and Goddesses places us for a while in that essential world, allowing us to better understand the changes that occur with death.

Thus worship of the Gods and Goddesses prepares us for death, not because it somehow gives us poker chips that we will eventually cash when we arrive at the ultimate teller window, but rather because it gives us meaning and insight into our essential natures, and that can provide comfort and understanding of our ultimate destination. 

 

[1] For me “monotheists” = the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  I’m not sure how to describe Pagan monotheists, but that’s another column...

[2] See, for example, Valiente [An ABC of Witchcraft, 1973, p. 281] for a factually liberal discussion of reincarnation.

[3] For example:  Starhawk [Spiral Dance, 1999, p. 124] discusses the circle of life, death, and rebirth as both a belief adhered to by Witches as well as a metaphor of the death and rebirth of the God.  Silver Ravenwolf [To Ride A Silver Broomstick, 2001, p. 257] devotes a whole chapter to the Summerlands and reincarnation, but most of her discussion concerns the practical, as opposed to theoretical aspects of death.]

[4] This is reincarnation (Summerland, Gods/Goddess, Magic, or whatever) as metaphor.

[5] See, for example, Sutin, L, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, 2000, p. 94.  Crowley’s belief in reincarnation or “Magickal Memory” is laid out in Magick Without Tears, (OTO 1993 edition), p. 242 and Magick in Theory and Practice, p. 50 [Castle Edition].

[6] See, for example, the Wikipedia entry on reincarnation.

[7] As opposed to resurrection, or the brining back of an individual due to the whim, pity, or love of a God or Goddess, which was relatively common.

[8] For example:  Celtic: see O’hO’ga’in, The Sacred Isle:  Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland, 1999, p. 98.  Greek/Roman: Burkert, Greek Religion, 1997, p. 293; Beard, Religions of Rome (Vol 1), 2002, p. 289.  Egyptian:  Shafer, Religion in Ancient Egypt, 1991, p. 46.  For a slightly more nuanced (as always) view of British and Irish Celtic belief, see Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, 1993, p. 183.

[9] See, for example, Hutton.

[10] Roman traditions are a good example of this, ranging from state religions to monotheism to Christianity.  Likewise if you ask “what was the ancient religion of Ireland?” you’d need to specify “when” as well as there are differences between various ages.

[11] I believe we often forget the sheer diversity of belief and number of Deities available in ancient and classical times, with every hill, well, spring, and river having its own God, Goddess, or spirit.

 

 

 

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