A local cemetery in my neck of the woods
This post was submitted to the Pagan Blog Project on October 25, 2014.
Every polytheistic religion of the ancient world has its concept of the Underworld, but what is this mysterious world exactly? In popular culture, it’s usually pictured as a dark, nightmarish place that exists underground and which is filled with ghosts and demons. In fact, this notion of the Underworld seems to have influenced the Christian idea of hell, except that only “bad” (i.e., non-Christian) people are thought to go there. In ancient paganism, however, almost everyone was thought to go to the Underworld, save for heroic warriors and kings (who were allowed to reign with the Gods in heavenly places like Valhalla). Going there had nothing to do with whether you were good or evil in life; it was basically a matter of social status. Important people were noticed by the Gods and allowed into Their various heavens, while common working class folk were expected to eat mud, drink tears and generally gnash their teeth down there in the darkness.
Or were they?
This view of the Underworld seems to have been rather popular in places like Babylon and Northern Europe, but just how “popular” were they in reality? Part of the trouble is that this information is mostly based on things that were written down for us in the tombs of important kings and nobles. Common people usually didn’t know how to read or write in most ancient cultures, so there’s very little for us to go on when it comes to their own interpretations of the matter. It’s only natural that kings and chieftains would think they’d get a better place in the afterlife than their subjects, but does this really mean that common people couldn’t expect to have a happy afterlife at all? We do know that in many cultures, regular people would bury their ancestors beneath the floorboards of their very own homes. They would also keep altars for these relatives and make offerings to their spirits on a frequent basis. In predynastic Egypt, the deceased were buried in a fetal position and with their faces turned to the West (i.e., the direction of the setting Sun). This indicates a belief in the possibility that these people would enjoy some form of rebirth in the next world, regardless of the fact that they weren’t all-important monarchs with massive reputations (or egos).
The evidence that’s available to us shows that the Egyptian Underworld was much more favorable to the common person than many others. The Egyptians called it Duat, and according to Maria Betro’s Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt (1996, Abbeville Press), this name means “Place Where the Sun Is Born.” Why would they refer to the land of the dead by such an optimistic-sounding name? Because it was where Ra, the Creator of the universe, would cross paths with Osiris each night to be reborn. As the Sun God, Ra “dies” whenever He crosses beneath the horizon, thereby passing into the realm of the invisible. While He’s there, He has to be regenerated by Osiris, who was the first of the Gods to have ever died. Once this happens, Ra begins to be reborn, a process that culminates at dawn. So from the Egyptian perspective, the Underworld isn’t just a place of death and decay; it’s also the place of new energy and life (i.e., a source as well as a destination).
Now I’ve heard it said by some people that we shouldn’t celebrate the fact that Seth killed Osiris, but consider the following. Prior to Osiris’ death, none of the Gods knew what death was even like. Mortals would live and pass away upon the face of the Earth, but did the Gods care? Probably not. It wasn’t until Seth proved that They too could die (and that He could make it happen) that They started empathizing with the human fear of death. After Isis raised Osiris from the grave (thereby defeating death), Osiris descended into Duat. And just as He had previously gone about the Earth, teaching people how to plant crops and stop eating each other, so did Osiris create a justice system in the afterlife. Instead of just leaving mortals to eat their own filth in darkness, Osiris decided that the good-hearted should be rewarded and that only the wicked should be punished. Thus it was that He established the Weighing of the Heart, in which He is helped by Anubis (who guides the dead safely to Osiris’ place and weighs their hearts) and Thoth (who records all the results of this process). But if Seth had never slain Osiris in the first place, none of this would ever have happened; so it is that good things sometimes need bad things to make them happen.
Bearing this in mind, it’s easy to see how the cult of Osiris eventually became so popular throughout Egypt (and even throughout Greece and Rome later on). Osiris may very well have been the first God in history to have offered a more egalitarian version of the afterlife, for with Him, it isn’t your social status that determines whether you’ll go to heaven or hell; it’s your heart. Now there are certain other people out there (mainly evangelical Christians) who really don’t like it when people point out the various similarities between Osiris and Jesus Christ. They insist that the two are drastically different, and I actually agree with them. While They both refrain from judging the dead according to social status, the criteria They actually use are quite different. Jesus states in the Bible that no one can enter His heaven except through Him, which is usually taken to mean that you have to worship Him to get there. But Osiris doesn’t say anything like that. There’s a list called the 42 Negative Confessions which provides us with examples of what the Egyptians expected to be judged for during the Weighing of the Heart. And while this list includes things like murder, rape, and stealing food that’s been offered to the Gods, there’s nothing that says a person has to actually worship Them. (So all non-Christians take note: even if we aren’t welcome in Christ’s heaven, we’re pretty much all welcome on Osiris’ farm, just so long as we’re basically good people.)
I might mention just as an aside that there’s one entry in the 42 Negative Confessions I find a teensy weensy bit troubling. It says, “I have not lain with a man,” which suggests that Osiris doesn’t think too highly of homosexuality. I don’t know if this is really true or not, and even if He did think that way back then, it doesn’t necessarily mean that He still does now. (Yes, Virginia, Gods can change Their minds; just look at the Bible, Yahweh apparently does it all the time.) But I’ll tell you what I do know: Seth is pansexual, and as the Friend of the Dead, I figure He’s partly there to defend LGBTQ rights in the afterlife. If you experience any trouble in Duat over your sexual orientation, just let Big Red know and He’ll put a stop to it for you.
“So tell me, brother; Freddie Mercury stays, right?”
There’s also some confusion as to where Duat is, exactly. Until fairly recently, it’s been assumed for the most part that the Egyptians thought it was literally underground. More up-to-date Egyptology has shown that they actually identified it with certain regions of the nighttime sky, including Orion (i.e., the constellation of Osiris) and Sirius (i.e., the star of Isis). Since it’s not only the realm of the dead but also of the Gods and of
Apophis (making it a single realm containing all known spiritual phenomena), Egyptologists like Maria Betro have started calling it the “Otherworld” instead of the “Underworld.” If you ask me, I think the physical world and Duat are really two sides of the same coin. The universe is like a gigantic human body, and the world of matter (including everything in outer space) is just the skin of that body, while Duat is the invisible world that exists beneath that skin. In my opinion, Duat is everywhere; it’s all around us all the time, and we don’t have to actually “leave” this world to get there. Furthermore, every physical thing in our world has a spiritual counterpart in Duat. On the other side of the Veil that separates us from Duat, there’s a spiritual being that occupies the exact same space in which you are now seated, reading this blog post…And that entity is what the Egyptians would have called your ka or spirit double.
There are also certain times and places at which the Veil between us and Duat is partially (or perhaps even completely) lifted. Cemeteries and tombs are the most immediate examples, since we bury our dead in them. (This would mean that for people who buried their dead beneath the floorboards of their homes, the Veil was always lifted all year long.) I think the Veil is weaker not only in places where people die or are buried, but where they are born as well. (Think about this the next time you attend a birth at a hospital, or even a home birth.) I also think the Veil weakens at different times across the globe. Usually, it seems to happen most when the part of the Earth on which you live is currently tilting toward or away from the Sun (i.e., spring and autumn). The Egyptian holidays don’t match up with ours exactly because their geographical climate was very different from that of North America and Great Britain. They didn’t have a major festival of the dead that happens at the start of November because that time of year was more like summertime for them (i.e., when that part of the Earth is tilted about as far toward the Sun as it can go). If I were living in Egypt, I’d probably feel more of a compulsion to celebrate actual Egyptian festivals; but here in North America, Samhain and Walpurgisnacht are generally more conducive when it comes to lifting the Veil.
The hieroglyphic for Duat looks like a five-pointed asterisk in a circle. The asterisk itself is the hieroglyphic for seba or “star,” and the circle included in Duat represents the cycle of rebirth. More specifically, Betro likens it to the womb (and I’ve always thought it was funny that the words “womb” and “tomb” rhyme and use most of the same letters). The circle in the hieroglyphic makes me think of the star being “hidden” so as to become invisible. But doesn’t this image make you think of something else in particular? If you ask me, it looks like it could be the possible origin of the pentacle (as opposed to the pentagram, which is just a five-pointed star without a circle). Pagans usually say that the pentacle represents the five Greek elements (i.e., earth, air, fire, water and spirit) combined into the cycles of nature. I think this is certainly a valid interpretation, but when I look at the pentacle, I basically see the word Duat. It makes me think of people and things going to the Otherworld when they die and coming back from the Otherworld when they’re reborn.
The Egyptian hieroglyphic for Duat
Since the pentacle is now the most important symbol for witchcraft, it also makes me think of how women (who are all natural-born witches in my opinion) are living “bridges” between this world and Duat. After all, it’s into women’s bodies that men dispense their vital life force during procreative sex, and it’s from women’s bodies that children are later born. Even if a woman never has sex or bears any children, she’s a living, breathing gateway to the Underworld by virtue of her biology alone. I think this partly explains why certain men in history became so afraid of women and created an oppressive patriarchy. It also partly explains why powerful and assertive women – or those who would not conform to the patriarchy’s standards – were demonized as “witches.”