Death and what comes after

You don’t just close your eyes and then open them on the other side a fully transfigured and elevated spirit. In ancient Greek religion, and Bacchic Orphism in particular, death was seen as a journey through another land with numerous obstacles and trials to overcome – paralleling in many respects what we find within Tibetan Buddhism. As the soul undertook this quest, the family it had left behind went through their own transitional phase, mirroring the process through the funerary and later mortuary rites they performed.

These rites not only helped the family work out their grief, but assisted the soul in their underworld journey – indeed, without these rites there was a chance the soul could get trapped between the worlds and become a restless, vengeful spirit. These rites began with the washing and preparation of the body, either for burial or cremation. Offerings and libations were made, the family accompanied the body in procession to its tomb, more offerings were made – including the cutting of hair and shedding of blood – and then a period of seclusion and mourning began.

During this time the family, especially those who had tended the body, were in a state of miasma or pollution, which precluded them from conducting any public business or visiting shrines and temples. The loss of their loved one had created a gap through which the underworld powers could reach and claim more members of the family, by madness, disease and other calamities. It also forced them to focus on their loss and dredge up all of the pain and grief it caused.

When this liminal period – ranging anywhere from weeks to months – was complete the family would perform purificatory rites and make more offerings to the deceased. For the next year or so, members of the family would be in a state of mourning, often wearing special clothing or amulets to reflect this, and performing a series of periodic rites, including feasting at the graveside and monthly libations.

Hero-cultus followed a similar model – and may in fact have grown out of these domestic rites, except that the dead belonged not just to a particular family but the entire community. There was also a difference in status and power. While the dead could, in special circumstances (especially if proper rites had not been carried out) make their continued presence known through dreams, healing or sending illness, an increase or decrease of luck, fertility, wealth, etc. as well as violent physical manifestations this was a prerequisite for Heroes, and very often what caused cultus to be established for them.

Heroes were not, as we often think of them today, paragons of virtue to be emulated but powerful forces requiring placation and appeasement through offerings, rites, dances, athletic and artistic competitions, etc. Once they had been recognized and fully integrated into the community through these activities they would act on behalf of the populace, bringing protection and numerous other blessings to those who honored them. Often the Hero’s sphere of influence extended only to the area surrounding the shrine where their mortal remains were kept and a number of ancient Greek poleis or city-states fought wars over possession of these relics. Some Heroes, however, most notably Herakles, the Dioskouroi and Achilles transcended this limitation and worked wonders on behalf of numerous farflung Greek communities.

Indeed these figures often straddled the blurry but resolute boundary between the Gods and the dead. Some attained full apotheosis or divinization while others received dual honors, as both a God and a Hero. Later, during the Hellenistic and Roman period, many rulers received divine honors and cultus, sometimes while alive but most often posthumously.

Additionally there were people who acted as mortal incarnations of the Gods. They were either born half-man and half-God (often claiming descent from a divine progenitor) or else they became possessed by a deity who simply never left until their demise, at which point the person was either completely absorbed by the God, became the recipient of hero-cultus or underwent apotheosis and was regarded as a divinity in their own right. Dionysos and Aphrodite are the ones we find most often involved in this, though there were also New Hermeses, Herakleses and Zeuses.

Another option was for the individual to become a daimon, a type of Spirit that inhabited the space between mortals and the Gods and included everything from ghosts to Nymphs to abstract and often undifferentiated powers to foreign and unknown divinities. These beings were often more powerful than humans but less powerful than the major Greek Gods themselves, and though long-lived lacked their distinguishing characteristic of immortality.
Daimones could either be beneficent or malevolent, but there was always something uncanny and dangerous about them.

Their shrines, when they had them, were places of oracular consultation, dream incubation and healing and they were particularly drawn to ecstatic, orgiastic rites and bloody sacrifices in which they received the entire victim as opposed to the Olympians who got the smoke of burnt bones and entrails while their worshipers consumed the meat in a communal feast.


3 comments

  1. Is Commodus a Neos Herakles? I’ve always wondered if that was the case. Have you found more than one Neos Hermes? I’ve only ever heard of Antinous being a Neos Hermes

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