Questions have recently been raised on the Facebook page of The Prehistoric Society about what my characters believed about an afterlife, which has pitched me into a very complex subject.
I will attempt to make an answer here but I’m no authority. To begin with, can we assume that everyone before us believed in some kind of afterlife? I thought so, until I read:
‘The Druids hold that the soul of a dead man does not descend to the silent, sunless world of Hades, but becomes reincarnate elsewhere; if they are right, death is merely a point of change in perpetual existence. These Northerners are most fortunate to believe in a doctrine which frees them from that besetting terror of mankind: fear of extinction.’ Lucan.
‘The besetting terror of mankind’ then has a long history and the idea that there is only one life which is followed by oblivion is not so modern as I had supposed. Lucan was the nephew of Seneca and like him a Stoic. Stoicism is a philosophy for living; it is a system of self-control. As such, it has no teaching about the afterlife, but it does touch on the divine realm and identifies the one spirit in all things as Logos. It could be that Stoicism, focussed on surviving in a fraught and dangerous world, could itself lead to a fear of extinction, but I am getting out of my depth here. What I do know is that Lucan did not have to look as far north as Britain: the concept of reincarnation could be found a lot closer to Rome.
The imperial city officially welcomed all religions, and dedicated the Aventine Hill to shrines and temples of foreign cults. (So far as I know, the Christians were not persecuted for their beliefs so much as for their bolshy refusal to put the state first when it came to loyalty). Persian, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, and other influences abounded and, in time, gave rise to two fusion cults: those of Mithras and Serapis. I only mention these to paint a picture of a time of spiritual pick’n’mix rather like our own. These foreign cults based on Persian and Egyptian religion tended to a belief in the afterlife. I can’t speak about the Judaic concept of an afterlife; I should know something about the Christian one but find I am muddled and confused. Resurrection? Ascension? Heaven and Hell? The Kingdom of the Father? I think I know what’s what until I read something slightly contradictory, but so far as I understand it the Christian afterlife relates to the individual rather than the soul and in that way differs from the ideas of the ancient world. (If anyone could point me to a good book on the subject, please do).
Where did the Druids get the idea of reincarnation? Some say it was from Pythagoras (contact with Pythagoreans is plausible – the Gauls sacked Delphi in the 3rd century BC). However, given the fame of the Druids as teachers of wisdom – students came to their colleges from far and wide – it is equally plausible that Pythagoras came to Gaul, if not Britain, to learn from them.
In which case, where did the Druids get the idea from? Not that ideas, especially true ones, are necessarily spread like viruses: they can just emerge in the mind. But let’s say there is a root for this idea. Where would it be? Linguistics tell us that the people of Europe and the people of India share a common ancestry somewhere in the steppes. Some migrated east, some west. ‘Dru-vid’ is a Sanskrit term for truth- (or tree-) knower. It is entirely possible that we share a spiritual culture with our eastern cousins and that the Rig Veda gives us insight into Iron Age Britain.
When writing Chariot of the Soul I had my work cut out for me trying to imagine the daily life of a Druid. The historians gave no clue. ‘Lived in groves.’ ‘Taught in colleges’. What did these things mean? Where were they in relation to the communities? I found answers by looking to the Vedic culture, which survives to day in Hinduism and Buddhism. Brahmins can be holy men living as hermits in Himalayan caves; they can be doctors, judges, politicians living as part of the community. ‘Groves’ it seemed to me, can be understood not so much as a circle of trees as a woodland ashram.
Rebirth, reincarnation, metempsychosis – all these have nuances of meaning, but all relate to the immortality of the soul. Within cultures, however, there can be varieties of belief. The average Roman or Greek is more likely to believe in an underworld ruled by Hades, where hopeless spirits wail and moan in an eternity of longing. The learned will be more attuned to the ideas of Plato and Pythagoras about the immortality of the soul. But is it the immortality of all souls or just those of the learned?
Similarly, in Britain, not everyone would have believed in the Druid afterlife. The common idea, if I can put it that way, is the Otherworld. As with everything else to do with this place and period, it is guesswork, or reconstruction based on meagre information, but this entry on ‘Celtic Otherworld’ from Wikipedia seems good:
In Gaelic and Brittonic mythology it (the Otherworld) is usually described as a supernatural realm of everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy. The Otherworld is usually elusive, but various mythical heroes visit it either through chance or after being invited by one of its residents. They often reach it by entering ancient burial mounds or caves, or by going under water or across the western sea. Sometimes, the Otherworld is said to exist alongside our own located beyond the edge of the earth and intrudes into our world; signaled by phenomena such as magic mist, sudden changes in the weather, or the appearance of divine beings or unusual animals. An otherworldly woman may invite the hero into the Otherworld by offering an apple or a silver apple branch, or a ball of thread to follow as it unwinds.
The Otherworld is usually called Annwn in Welsh mythology and Avalon in Arthurian legend. In Irish mythology it has several names, including Tír na nÓg, Mag Mell and Emain Ablach. In Irish myth there is also Tech Duinn, where the souls of the dead gather.
Miranda Aldhouse-Green, the leading expert on Druidry, has just published Sacred Britain – an excellent book that I highly recommend. Chapter 10 is devoted to ‘The Journey to Avernus’ and in it she tries to make sense of the archaeological finds related to burial. Sometimes there are cremations in urns, cremations which are scattered or deposited in water, burials with grave goods, collections of bones. ‘Sky burials’ (excarnation), where the body is raised up on a platform to be defleshed by birds (a custom still popular in parts of India) were, it seems, reserved for warriors in reward for valour. Warriors were promised eternal life in the Otherworld (not so different from what young jihadis are promised today).
In conclusion, most people of the first century in both Britain and Rome would have believed in some kind of afterlife, or in reincarnation. The variety of burial practice in Britain, which spans cremation to being buried in a chariot drawn by two standing horses (Pocklington, Yorks) may indicate a variety of belief, but then today we still have this same wide span, from a fond farewell down at the local crem to lying in state in some monumental building, and it is not determined by belief so much as social status and economics. So, in the end, who knows? But I have to say that this Christmas I had lunch with someone who believes in heaven, someone who believes in extinction, and someone (me) who believes in neither. Two points to note: we were all, at least nominally, Christian, and we never discuss these differences. When it comes to the afterlife, each to his own.
Having been bounced into writing this piece, the least I could do was ask myself what I believe. The answer surprised me. It is not heaven and hell – I’ve never believed in those as being anything other than states of mind of the living. It is not reincarnation, either in the form of the ever-repeating return of an immortal soul, or the condemnation to repeat until you escape the Wheel of Samsara. No, I don’t believe in death at all, nor birth. I believe in the continuity of spirit in all living forms. Call it Logos if you will. And that is our true identity.
There never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these lords of men; and there will never be a time when we shall cease to be.
Bhagavad Gita 2/12
I am painfully aware that this post will be found wanting by those with more knowledge. All I can say is that I welcome correction with open arms (and mind).