February 5th, 2005


What happens when we die?

I want to treat this subject flippantly, with the old joke about being a Frisbeetarian, someone who believes that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck. But I'll be serious. Most people think that this is the question that any religion has to answer: what happens when we die, and what should we be doing about it now? I've never really understood that. Maybe it's a symptom of my weird wiring, but I can easily imagine a world that doesn't contain my soul. I've always assumed that I didn't exist before I took my first breath on July 11th, 1960, and after some date I won't exist any more, either, and it's no big deal. In my heart, I'm a materialist on the matter. On many levels, I believe that mind is an emergent property of matter. If something doesn't have your body, your DNA, your pattern of synapses, your physical history, or any physical continuity with you, how is it you? What is there of you that's left? I mostly don't believe in the existence of the soul.

But the problem that I have with that is that we have at least three eyewitness accounts to the contrary, the journeys to the land of the dead and back by Orpheus, Herakles, and Odysseus. If I'm not going to hand-wave all accounts about the gods that are similarly attested by multiple witnesses in multiple places and times, I really can't justify disbelieving in their katabasis just because I don't like it.

You know, just as an aside, this always struck me as the single most improbable thing in Christianity. Jesus Christ had a katabasis, too, only the hard way: he died. He then returned from the land of the dead after three days and two nights. And upon his return, one of two things happened, either one of them insanely improbable. Either nobody asked him what it was like being dead, or they asked him what it was like being dead but didn't think his answer was worth passing along. Does your imagination stretch that far? Mine doesn't. Even when I was a Christian, I had a problem with this part, and thought it was just darned odd. Well, the religion of the ancient Greeks has no such problem. At least three separate heroes, only two of them closely related to the the gods, managed to travel on personal errands to the land of the dead, perform their errand down among the shades of the dead, and return to the land of the living. Were they asked what it was like? You bet, and they all gave substantially similar accounts: being dead really sucks.

When a human being's body dies, according to them, all that's left is a kind of ghost, a shade, a misty and insubstantial thing. Escorted by Hermes Psychopompis (Hermes the Soul Guide), it travels to the land of the dead, ruled over by the gods Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of all the dead. No consciousness remains, and no particular memory, nor any speech or understanding. The shades of the dead only meaninglessly repeat their most characteristic actions in life endlessly, not understanding that they've already done this before or why they're doing it. The land of the dead is dark, and it is cold, and and the wind is achingly bone dry. Where there is food, it neither has taste nor offers satisfaction; where there is water, it never quenches thirst. If the shades of the dead had any sense of the passing of time, or any consciousness of their life after death, it would be an afterlife of torment. What mercy there is is that they neither remember, nor form memories of their time there.

The shades of the dead are hungry for offerings of living-world water, wine, and especially blood; by blood especially they can be called back to a semblance of life, one where they remember their lives and some of what life is like down among the dead. They thirst for this instinctively, but they are not thankful for it when they receive it, because it only serves to remind them what they lost. To the Greeks who knew, death is truly something to be feared, and mourned, and wailed about, because no matter how bad your life is, death truly is worse.

Of course, it's not worth living at any cost, there are prices not worth paying to extend your life. However long you live, you will eventually die. When you die, your shade will leave behind it more than just a corpse. The memory of you will survive for a time, perhaps a long time if you're very lucky or unlucky. Your family, and your friends, and others who depend on you will survive you. Your city and nation will, one profoundly hopes, survive you. In this life, you are expected to care about all of those things, and you are expected to place all of them ahead of extending your own life. Is there eternal punishment if you soil your reputation, ruin your family, or corrupt or betray the place you live to stay out of Hades' realm for a little while longer? Probably not. But unless you're some kind of horrible psychopath, you should feel deep regret in this world if you paid that price, and in your final moments when you finally do die, and that should be enough to stop you.

Is there an alternative to Hades' dark realm? Not for you and me. Some scattered individuals, most of them close relatives of the gods, have demonstrated sufficient virtue that they were offered an eternal life after life, among the blessed gods in their happy home. You should not assume that you will be offered this. Indeed, if the oracle at Delphi was telling the truth, the offer has been withdrawn; I can't find my reference tonight, but I remember an oracle from the late 4th or early 3rd century BCE that somebody was "the last hero." According to Orpheus, there is an alternative that is even worse: to spend all eternity in Hades being tormented specifically, and with full memory and understanding of what is happening to you. But that fate seems to be reserved only for the most notoriously evil, those who specifically aroused lasting anger and horror among the gods.

Is there no hope? The mystai believed there was hope for them; they had seen it. Unfortunately for us, as I wrote yesterday, the mysteries were taken away from us over sixteen hundred years ago; we neither know the necessary passwords reliably, nor are our shades likely to arrive adequately prepared to remember and use them even if we could reconstruct them.

However, many of the pre-Socratic philosophers found their own reason for hope, another reason, by pointing out an interesting lapse in the various accounts of descent into Hades' dark realm. Considering how many people must have died in the whole history of the human race, the place seemed oddly empty. Indeed, other than those famous villains who were being tormented, none of the shades of the dead who were seen below had been dead very long, perhaps no more than a century or so. On this basis, many Greek schools and societies preached a semi-secret doctrine of reincarnation. It was kept semi-secret as a way of discouraging suicide; they really did want death to continue to be seen as something worse than even the worst life. But in private, many Greeks found reason to hope that perhaps some day their dry, cold, and pleasureless shade would find relief in another life, whether again in this world or perhaps in some other kind of world. I find this even harder to believe that the survival of the soul after death, but we'll never know because even to the Greeks, if such a life after life after life existed, it is that that is "the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns" of which Hamlet spoke.

OK, I'm almost done with this for now. If you're not tired of the subject, I'm getting tired of writing about only this. Two more, and then I'm taking a break for a while. Next, why democracy died, and the Greek religion didn't survive it by long. Then, either the next day or shortly thereafter, I'll post a mini bibliography, more like a couple of mini-reviews of the best books and sources. Eventually I'll write the article somebody asked for about what is virtue, what virtues are the gods most likely to reward and which vices to punish, but it won't be right away. And eventually, somewhere down the line, I promise I'll write about why of all the historical gods, I worship Dionysus the most.