Death. It's a scary concept for many, I have discovered. I've received a message from a reader of this blog about it while I was away on vacation (I'm back now, yay, and will be catching up with my inbox in the next couple of days. If you've sent me something I ask for a bit more patience. Thank you!). The message reads as follows:

"As I read about the Hellenic understanding of the afterlife, I am left with a feeling of uneasiness and, I'll be blunt, fear.  I grew up in the Orthodox Christian tradition where the afterlife in Heaven is what one was to strive for, and the rewards were supposed to be great.  I love the Theoi, and I love to worship them, and at the same time, I somewhat fear the afterlife that may await me in this tradition.  It seems dreary, empty, monotonous, and devoid of feeling.  As reading, I found that the dead Achilles is to have said to Odysseus, ' Do not try to make light of death to me; I would sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much to live on, than ruler over all the perished dead.'  How do I reconcile my faith and practice in life with that which seems to await me in death?"

This question is one I hear more often. It's one I always find hard to answer because I have never been involved in Christianity and find the idea of heaven (or hell) neither comforting nor desirable. In Hellenismos, it all comes down to living life as a mortal, one of the Delphic Maxims, and being judged by that standard, not the divine one of Christianity. The Christian mindset, in fact, would be considered hubristic in Hellenismos: we would ask to be put on the same level as Gods and judged by Them instead of our peers. We are not Gods, we are human and the human standard applies to us.

Christianity is a very dogmatic religion centered on belief: belief in God, belief in Christ and in Mary as mother, and there is the Holy Ghost and all the saints if your Catholic.  If you live a decent life, perhaps not even a good one, and believe in Christ you will go to heaven which has taken on all sorts of grandeur depending on the various branches of Christianity with a promise of eternal life. Our Hellenic religion as practiced by the ancients was not one of dogma nor of belief in the sense of Christianity. It is one of relationship, of accepting the reality of the Gods and Goddesses as part of the world and cosmic order, and honoring that reality in ritual practice and acts of piety. The cultivation of ‘eudaimonia’, happiness, literally the state of the good daimon, was (and is) a major goal of philosophy. Christianity includes judgement before entering heaven and we, long before the Christians, have judgement by the law givers, Rhadamanthys, Aiakos and Minos. In other words, we are judged by a human standard--as we should be.

What seems to be rather universal is a concept of something after life. The Homeric view of death is that we live on in the lives of others which is quite sensible and realistic. where our bodies go after death of secondary importance. This is why--especially in the Homeric view of the Underworld--we lose our memories. We are no longer part of life. Our memories belong with those who do. Thought the mystery cults--especially The Eleusinian Mysteries--we got to keep our memories, meaning we would hold on to our sense of self. Personally, I would not want that. Once my life has ended, who I was is gone. As it should be. I will be laid to rest and perhaps reborn to live again. But it is that time that I am alive that matters. It is there I must strive to do good and live up to the Gods and the maxims They have set out. I must make that time a pleasurable and ethical one for myself. Once I die, I am dead and I will forget. there is nothing to fear.

Now, mythology is a way of understanding the reality of nature and the human condition for both good and bad. It was not meant to be taken literally but used colorful imagery in poetic form (poetic license) to make the oral tradition memorable. Just because the dead Achilles is to have said to Odysseus, 'Do not try to make light of death to me; I would sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much to live on, than ruler over all the perished dead' does not make it so. This is Homeros’ view of death and not to be taken as the Christians do their gospel.  Pherekydes visited the underworld and describes a rather gloomy place, but that does not make it so. Likewise, Christians describe heaven as a lovely place as a reward for living a decent life and following their beliefs, a very attractive alternative but that does not make it so. Religions around the world have differing views of the afterlife, but which view is correct? The ancient Hellenic practice always contains the element of unknowability. 

Of course that does not mean the ancient Hellenes did not believe the Underworld to be as described--the idea formed somehow, after all. And throughout Hellenic history this view has changed to include more desirable outcomes once death occurred. Even at its brightest, though, the Underworld was never something to strive for like in Christianity. It was Pherekydes of Syros who was born in 585 BCE who was the first to describe the immortal human soul, which underwent refinement throughout Hellenic philosophy and gave the Christians a base for their future dogmatic views of the afterlife, but even he did not consider that immortal soul's afterlife experiences the goal of life. Our religion is all about living not in a promise of the hereafter.  We all must go through the death experience. That is what it means to be human; to be alive.

Fear of death is inherently human but Christianity has fostered it into a way to control life. Hellenismos is not like that. We govern ourselves through ethics because we value life, not because we want a reward after death. What happens after death in unknowable and unavoidable. It is the time we are alive that we should be ' worried'  about and make the most of. Letting go of the fear of death is, perhaps, the first step towards that goal and I strongly wish thatfor all my readers.