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The Middle Eastern And Mediterranean After-Life Conception

The cessation of the personality with bodily death.

"(Better) to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, than to be lord over all the dead that have perished."
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Homeric Pessimism

In contrast to the optimism of the Egyptians, the majority of civilisations that developed in and around the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East in the centuries before Christ took a dim and pessimistic view.  The ancient Babylonians, Hebrews, and Homeric Greeks (by "Homeric" is meant the viewpoint of the great poet Homer 8th century B.C.E.) and his public), saw the after-life state - the Underworld, Sheol, Hades - as a dark, miserable, quasi-existence; the dead being but a pathetic shadow of their former living selves.

A graphic literary illustration of this is given in Homer's account of the meeting of Odysseus with the shade of Achilles, the greatest and most renowned of all the Greek heros.  Odysseus, descending to Hades in order to consult the dead seer Teiresias concerning the circumstances that prevented him from returning home, encounters Achilles, and congratulates him regarding the honors and fame he had won through his part in the siege of Troy.  Achilles rejects Odysseus' words with a devastating reply:

 "Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death....I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished."
[S.  G.  F.  Brandon, The Judgment of the Dead, p.82 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1967)]

In a society which saw martial glory and honours as the highest of all values, even that is not compensation for the miserable state of after-life existence.  Better to be the most pathetic beggar alive than the King of all the Underworld.  What a contrast to the magnificent and multi-faceted Egyptian afterlife!

The Conception Of The Soul As Breath

According to the Old Testament Hebrews, man was a kind of holistic unity of body and soul; there was no conception of a soul separate from the body, as the Egyptians and the Greek Platonists had.  After death the body returns to the earth, and the life - the ruah or breath breathed into Adam's nostrils by God - returns to God.  Thus the "soul" is identified with the life of the body, and the life with the breath (nefesh, ruah); an idea that survives in the modern expression "breath of life".

Nor was this belief confined to the people of the Old Testament.  It formed an essential part of the entire Middle Eastern and Meditteranean religious and cultural milieu.  G.  A.  Barton, in his article in Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, tells us that

"Only gradually did (the ancient Semites) come to  think of (the soul) as an entity that could exist apart from the body.  In all the Semitic dialects the soul was designated by a noun derived from a root meaning "breathe".
Thus in Akkadian-Assyrian, napasu = "be wide", "breathe"; napistu = "breath", "life", "soul".  In Hebrew naphash = "take breath"...; nephesh = "breath", "soul", "life", "person".  In Arabic...  tannaffus = "to fetch a deep breath"; nafs = "breath of life", "soul", "self".  In Aramaic naphsha = "soul"; ettapash = "breathe".  In Ethiopian nephsa = "breathe"; nephes = "soul"."
[G.  A.  Barton, "Soul - Semitic" in Encyclopaedia of  Religion and Ethics, ed by James Hastings; (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1908, 2nd Impression 1925), p.749]
And we see this identification not only among the Semites of the Middle East.  Consider the Greek word pnuema ("air", "spirit") and the Latin spiritus, from which latter we derive the English "spirit" and "inspiration" (literally "to breath in").  Even that classical word for the soul, psyche, can be related to psychein = to breath [Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p.270 (1976, Penguin Books)].

In the Indian and Tibetan traditions there can likewise be found reference to Prana (breath or vital force) and Vayu (air or wind, equated in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism with Prana), and the nature and yogic activation of this life/breath principle  was explained in great detail.  The Chinese also had a great deal to say regarding the Ch'i or vital-force, its various modes and currents.  But unlike their less perceptive Mediterranean brethren, whose formulations of ruah, nefesh, psyche, and spiritus all confuse (a) physical air or breath, (b) vital force, and (c) mind or psyche or soul, the Far Eastern yogis and occultists consistantly recognised Prana, Vayu, and Ch'i as constituting a principle distinct from the mind or soul.  It was only later that there appeared in the West a similar recognition of the distinction between life-principle and soul.



Man - A Holistic Being Dependent On The Physical Body

The common Mediterranean perspective therefore was that man is a holistic unity of body and soul or life-principle, and death of the body therefore meant death of the personality as well.  For Homer and his readers, man is regarded as being made up of three parts: the body, the psyche (life-principle), and the thymos (conscious self).  With the dissolution of the body, the thymos was merged with the air, and the psyche descended into Hades as a shade or ghost, the eidolon ("image").

Later, as with the Hebrew nefesh and ruah - both of which terms, as we have seen, originally meant "breath", or "soul as the breath of life", and later came to mean "(immortal) soul" - the psyche became the conscious principle or "soul".  As for  the eidolon or "image", I will have more to say concerning this later.

The post-Homeric Hellenic thinkers polarised into two distinct camps when it came to explaining whether or not consciousness continued after death.

On the one hand there were the sages and mystics, such as the Orphics, Pythagoras and his students and followers (the Pythagoreans), Empedocles, and Plato and his students and successors (the Platonists), who all held that the conscious principle or soul (psyche) was an immortal spiritual essence, and transmigrated from body to body.

On the other hand there were the more mundane and pragmatic, this-worldly philosophers and thinkers, such as Aristotle and his successors (the Peripatetics), Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and Epicurus and his followers (the Epicurians), who held with Homer that consciousness or intellect is only possible whilst the physical body continues to function.  The Stoics For example were of the opinion, much in the manner of the modern physicist, that fire (=energy) was the fundamental principle of the universe.  According to them, after death the soul

 "decomposes along with the physical body and returns to...the ether....(The) higher elements in man, such as the Fire of Reason,...also dissolves back into its universal source, leaving no individuality to experience any posthumous state..."
[Jocyln Godwin, Mystery Religions, p.70]
Here we see of course a repeat of the Homeric and Hebraic position, according to both of which bodily death means the return of the component personality aspects to their respective sources.

Origin Of The Belief In Resurrection

For the most part, the Babylonians, Hebrews, Homeric Greeks, Stoics, and Epicurians, like modern materialists and sceptics, nobly accepted their lot.  Indeed, we even have the expression "Stoic acceptance".  But it is a natural consequence of the strivings of the human spirit that it could not be satisfied with a such a limited existence.

Consider the ancient Hebrews.  Their henotheistic / monotheistic Yahweh cult induced in them a strong sense of morals and justice, as indicated by the Mosaic Ten Commandments.  And their god was very much a god of justice, even if this was originally and unfortunately only the crude vengeance of a tribe of savage desert warriors.  But under reformers like the prophet Isaiah (8th century B.C.E.), this brutal Yahweh was replaced by a more morally elevated Yahweh, perhaps the first expression of "God" as the term is understood today.  Yet all the while the problem remained: how can one speak of righteousness and justice when we have all around us the evidence that the wicked flourish and the good go to their graves unrewarded? It was through pondering questions like this that the problem of theodicy, the paradox between Divine Justice and the existence of evil, came into human consciousness.

The Hebrews eventually solved this problem the only way they knew how.  If good and evil are not rewarded or punished by God during this life, it follows that there must be a post-mortem existence where they are.  The shadowy existence in Sheol must therefore be replaced by something fuller.

Thus the later Hebrews, who had come into contact with Persian-Zoroastrian beliefs during their Babylonian Exile (6th Century B.C.E.), adopted the Zoroastrian idea of bodily resurrection.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this first clearly appears in the Book of Daniel (173 B.C.E.).  The reason for the popular appeal of the Resurrection belief is obvious: granted that the personality or consciousness depends for its existence on the body, if there was some miraculous way the body could be restored, the personality and individual existence would also be restored.  The hope of a supernatural resurrection provided this.

Thus we can see that the entire Judeo-Christian emphasis on the "resurrection", and the Christian idea of Christ's resurrection as the guarantee for "eternal life", is based in very large measure on the inability to comprehend any after-life existence apart from the physical body.

The Zoroastrians and Jews therefore, and following the latter the Christians and Moslems, got around the problem of personality disintegration with bodily death by constructing a myth, a sort of fairy tale, which said, "Yes, it is true that your body will die and your consciousness cease.  But if you believe in our religion there will come eventually a miraculous moment when your physical body and therefore your consciousness and personality as well, will be restored, and you will live in a paradise on Earth."

But this is, after all, only a fairy tale.  For if the body has decayed and long since become dust, how can all the scattered elements possibly come together again? There comes a time, when faith becomes too absurd, when one must take a more realistic look at things.  And here we can consider once again those extraordinary Egyptians.

Unlike the believers in the bodily resurrection myth, the Egyptians had valid occult knowledge; knowledge which the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, Christians and modern materialists lacked or lack.

The Egyptians had the idea that it is society (the religious community, family, etc) that should safeguard the deceased's continued personal afterlife existence.  Hence the great emphasis they placed on mummification, funerary rites, providing for the welfare the deceased, and so on.  Along with this there were presumably also various initiation rites, whereby the individual while still living was put in touch with the spiritual-Divine realities that would guide him or her to the heaven worlds or the enlightened state after death.  Such initiation was also a central part of Mithraism, Tantric Buddhism, and the Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner.

Judaism and life after death


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page uploaded 11 October 1998, last modified 19 September 2005