I was writing my workshop, entitled, "An Awfully Big Adventure: Signposts on the Final Journey of Indo-European Souls," and was describing the things met along the way to the Otherworld: the two fires that separate the soul and the body, the various wells and waters, the ferryman who carries you across, the dog who devours, and the king of the dead himself. Over the past few months I've been dealing with death in various ways, considering my own views on it.
I probably ought to back up for a moment: I'm not much of one to dwell on afterlives. In general, my attitude has always been one of "we don't know, and won't until we get there." This has served me pretty well, honestly, for many years, and I have never thought of a coherent afterlife theory as being a requirement for leading a religious life. I had a (perhaps very Indo-European) view that it's not where we end up in the next life that matters, but how we act and what we do in this life. Sort of an expansion of the "it's not the destination, it's the journey" notion that folk often spout out.
Anyway, as I was finishing up the workshop, I found myself putting the pieces together in my head. Using Bruce Lincoln's Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, I discovered that I was coming to very different conclusions than Lincoln did about what happens after death: his theory was very pessimistic; mine turned out not to be.
In the end, Lincoln responds to the IE myth by saying that there is nothing after death at all: "the otherworld," he says, "[is] nothing more than the grave."
My own response is very different. Death, in an IE sense, really means something: escape from the greedy monster of old age, escape from worry and care, an opportunity to live forever in bliss or knowledge, and (perhaps most importantly) a chance to maintain the cosmos in an ultimate way: to be bound by the Rta or Xartus in the most physical and lasting way possible, by reversing the cycle of creation and thus maintaining the cosmos.
I took my cue for this from the Rgveda, of course. . . Hymn X.16, a hymn regarding the funeral.
May your eye go to the sun, your breath to the wind: go to the heaven and to the earth according to rule, or go to the Waters, if there it is ordained for you! Among the plants to take your place with your limbs!In other words, when you die, the things that formed you at your creation are returned to the cosmos, to live forever within the cosmic order.
I summed this up some time ago in an ancestor prayer you may have seen, not knowing that I would return to it during this workshop, and find myself understanding death as a result of my writing it:
When you were born,When I gave that workshop later in the day, I suspect a sense of my awe at the epiphany was pretty conspicuous, though I tried to hide it as best I could.
The earth became your body,
The stone became your bone,
The sea became your blood,
The sun became your eye,
The moon became your mind,
The wind became your breath.
When you passed to the Otherworld,
Your breath became the wind,
Your mind became the moon,
Your eye became the sun,
Your blood became the sea,
Your bone became the stone,
Your body became the earth.
When we were born, you did the same for us:
You called forth the earth and rocks;
The sea arose and the sun descended;
The moon shone down and the winds sang.
For those who come after, we shall do as you did for us
When we are gone, we shall do as you did before.
In many ways, I'm not ready to face the death of someone I dearly love, no matter how near that possibility may have just been for me, but I find myself now with a more complete toolkit for dealing with it when it does, inevitably, happen to me.