For thousands of years, many people have chosen to believe that existence doesn’t end with physical death, and that some sort of afterlife exists.
Many ancient civilizations, in fact, developed elaborate visions of what life beyond the grave might be like. The beliefs of four ancient peoples--the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans—each present a strikingly different vision of immortality and the spirit realm.
The Mesopotamians imagined the universe as a sphere, divided equally between the reality of the living and the realm of the dead, which was ruled by a queen named Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal. The grave functioned not just as a place to put a person’s body, but also as a doorway through which the spirit passed into the underworld. Mesopotamians imagined the afterlife as a pretty awful place, where the dead were thirsty and forced to eat dust for sustenance, unless the living provided them with food. They apparently also saw it as a corrupt place where it was necessary to bribe the ruling deities, and put gold chains and other valuables in the grave. A poem from that period, “The Death of Ur-Nammu and his Descent into the Underworld,” depicts a Mesopotamian king’s final journey to the afterlife, where he gave garments to Ereshkigal and weapons to Nergal as tribute. In exchange, they built him a dwelling and gave him the authority to rule over dead soldiers and convicted criminals.
The ancient Egyptians saw life as temporary and the afterlife as eternal. Historian John J. Taylor, author of “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” notes that in some ways, they put more emphasis into preparing for death than they did into living. The palaces of their kings, for example, were built of short-lasting materials such as mud-brick, weeds and wood, while their tombs were built from stone. Dying, to them, was not the end but merely an event that they had to pass through in order to reach a new stage of existence, and join a different class of being, the dead, who shared the universe with the gods and the living. They also believed that a person’s body would continue to play a vital part in his or her existence after physical death, which is why they spent so much time figuring out how to preserve dead bodies.
The underworld was ruled by Osiris, a god who not only reigned over the dead but also controlled everything that came from the Earth, from the annual flood of the Nile to the sprouting of plants. In order to get to his realm, a dead person had to navigate through hills and fiery lakes and get past hostile demons, which required directions contained in Egyptian sacred texts. Once a person got there, it was necessary to pass other tests, including weighing the heart to determine if he or she had been virtuous during life. Flunking that test would result in the heart being eaten by a monster called Am-Mut. But if a person passed, Osiris would welcome him or her into the afterlife. Existence in the Field of Rushes, as the afterlife was called, was in some ways similar to life on Earth. Each new resident of the Egyptian afterlife was granted a plot of land and expected to grow crops there, in addition to worshiping the gods.
The Greeks also had a pretty grim view of the afterlife. Their underworld was called Hades, which was the same name as its ruler. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the ruler of the sky,
The realm itself was guarded by a fearsome watchdog named Cerebrus, who had multiple heads, snakes growing from his back, and a serpent’s tail, and used its fierceness to deter any of the dead from trying to escape. Hades was shrouded in impenetrable darkness and generally unpleasant, but some parts of it were worse than others. The worst place in the underworld was a windswept region called Tartarus, reserved for those who had outraged the gods. The dead stayed the same age and in the same physical condition that they had been at the moment of death, and were sometimes tormented with the same thoughts and feelings as when they were alive.
The Romans had a much more varied view of the afterlife than the Greeks, according to historian J.M.C. Toynbee’s book “Death and Burial in the Roman World.” The Roman writer Virgil, for example, imagined an underworld divided into three regions—a hell where criminals underwent torture in punishment for their deeds, a halfway region called limbo where infants and people who had died young dwelled, and the Elysian Fields, where heroes enjoyed a pleasurable existence.
Others believed that the dead dwelled in the sky or in the Moon, or were carried across the ocean on the backs of sea creatures to the Blessed Isles. But regardless of how they envisioned the destination, Romans generally believed that a richer, happier existence waited for them after death, as long as they fulfilled certain conditions, such as having lived a virtuous and productive life on Earth.
Numerous other ancient cultures, from China to Persia, developed their complex beliefs about the afterlife as well. While their visions might differ, all seem to have been driven by a desire to understand how death fit into what it means to be human, and what happens to us after we leave the world that we now can experience with our senses.