Exploring Beyond: Ancient Views on the Afterlife

By Jack Ripley | May 15, 2024

Greek and Roman Beliefs in the Afterlife

Embark on a journey through time and across cultures as we delve into the captivating realm of ancient beliefs about the afterlife. From the mystique of ancient Egypt's journey through the underworld to the warrior's paradise of Valhalla in Norse mythology, our exploration unveils the diverse perspectives and rituals surrounding life after death.

Join us as we uncover the intricate customs, myths, and spiritual landscapes of civilizations such as the Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, and beyond. Through this journey, we aim to entertain by presenting a fascinating exploration of ancient beliefs about the afterlife, inform by educating readers about diverse cultural perspectives, and inspire contemplation about the universal human fascination with what lies beyond the threshold of mortality.

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Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630s, via Met Museum

In both Greek and Roman mythology, the realm of the afterlife was governed by Hades or Pluto, along with his consort Persephone or Proserpina. Upon death, souls faced judgment before three judges, determining their fate in the afterlife: the Fields of Asphodel for the ordinary, the Pit of Tartarus for the wicked, and possibly Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed for the virtuous and heroic. To reach Hades, souls had to cross the River Styx, ferried by the sinister boatman Charon, often providing payment with a coin placed in the mouth of the deceased. Some accounts even mention offerings of honey cakes to appease Cerberus, the fearsome three-headed guardian of the underworld's gates, highlighting the elaborate beliefs surrounding the journey to the realm of the dead.

Aztec Afterlife Shaped by Death Circumstances

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José Clemente Orozco’s monumental mural, ‘The Epic of American Civilization,’ with the panel commemorating the Aztec Underworld gods in ‘The Coming of Quetzalcoatl (1932-34).

The Aztec civilization, flourishing in what is now modern Mexico, held unique beliefs about the afterlife, where the destiny of souls was determined by the circumstances of their death rather than their earthly deeds. Divided into four cardinal directions, each with its distinct afterlife realm, Aztec cosmology offered varied destinies for departed souls. Women who died in childbirth were honored in the eastern afterlife, aiding the sun's emergence from the underworld. Those succumbing to diseases, lightning strikes, or drowning found solace in the bountiful southern afterlife. Mictlan, the northern realm, awaited those who died naturally, presenting daunting challenges across eight levels before offering peace on the ninth. Warriors fallen in combat ascended to the western heaven, joining forces with the god Huitzilopochtli to ensure the sun's eternal rise. After four years of celestial battle, they returned to Earth reborn as hummingbirds, embodying the cycle of life and death in Aztec belief.