Monday, 19 June 2017

Buddhist Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

Artist: Haruko Maeda
It is axiomatic that nirvana (ie, the extinguishment of suffering) is the ultimate end goal in Buddhism, however it is equally axiomatic that most people dwell in an ocean of suffering, hence most people do not achieve nirvana, but they do die. What happens after death is something that not all Buddhists agree on. Many Western Buddhists hold afterlife views that differ little from atheism, which is to say that essentially they do not believe in an afterlife except in some very abstract way (such as that what we do in our life echoes on through the ages, or that our material remains will eventually become the basis of some new form of life). However, the orthodox teachings make it clear that traditional Buddhism embraces the concept of repeated rebirths into multiple realms of being. Thus when most of us die we do not die with finality, rather death is part of the ongoing life-death-rebirth cycle that characterises ordinary existence.

The Theravada / Nikaya afterlife
The orthodox position of Theravada Buddhism on rebirth is laid out in The Debate of King Milinda, as written down in the 1st century BCE – it records a dialogue between the Greek king of Bactria and the sage Nagasena. Nagasena says that ordinary people are reborn but that from existence to existence these people are:
“Neither the same nor another … [just as] a pot of milk that turns first to curds, then to butter, then to ghee; it would not be right to say that the ghee, butter and curds were the same as the milk but they have come from that so neither would it be right to say that they are something else [Pesala at 11].”

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Western Mourning Traditions – After the Funeral

"Lady in Mourning" by Mendgen (1930)
In secular times such as ours the rites of mourning have become somewhat vague. Generally speaking, there is a notion that one wears black for a period of time – though no one really expects black to be worn at any time other than at the funeral – and sometimes a group of people may wear black armbands for a certain period, such as a football team at a sports event. There is also a half-remembered tradition that widows should wait for a year before becoming romantically involved with someone new. In the last few decades a new quasi-tradition has arisen whereby the bereaved are encouraged to book some sessions with a grief counsellor or psychologist. Beyond these things it is hard to pin down Western mourning traditions, even Debrett’s fails to say much on the matter, advising of little more than the intricacies of funeral arrangements while acknowledging:
“It is only in our increasingly secular times, when death has become something to be ignored, avoided and indeed feared, that these most final and utterly inevitable rites of passage are often, quite wrongly, skimped on [Morgan, Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners at 96].”
The truth of the matter is that we are mostly left to invent our own way of mourning. Society at large, as fragmented as it is, will expect little from us once the funeral is over. The insensitive will hope that we will simply move on and adapt to the new normal as quickly as possible – the grief of others and the reality of death is simply too awkward to deal with. Those who care will probably encourage us to do “whatever feels right” and treat us gently (unless they are overwhelmed by their own grief). Those who mourn are often left grasping onto thin air, with few known traditions to fall back on – at such times looking at historic traditions may give the bereaved something to work with.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Germanic Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Ingeborg" by Zorn (1907)
One thing of which we can be certain is that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples generally believed that the spirit continued on in some way after death. The popular presentation of the afterlife presented by Snorri Sturluson invites us to think of a sort of Viking heaven, called Valhalla, where slain warriors battle perennially by day, followed by lavish feasting and drinking in Odin’s hall. Alternately, some warriors go to a seemingly similar place overseen by Freyja, the Folkvangar – “wherever she rides in battle, half of the slain belong to her. Odin takes the other half” (Prose Edda at 35). For those who do not die violently Helheim is at least one of the major destinations of the dead. This apparent underworld is perhaps a place of latent dormancy, for from here Baldr (the slain son of Odin) and Hod (another slain God) will emerge when the next cycle of life begins after the world destroying events of Ragnarök. Aside from Sturluson, other sources on Germanic religion indicate a profound and beautiful approach to understanding the afterlife – a topic which we can be sure our Germanic ancestors would have considered deeply, given how comparatively frequent their confrontations with death were.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Bacchus, the Liberator

"Bacchus" by Solomko (earliest 20th century)
The simplest way to comprehend Bacchus (also known as Dionysus and Liber) is to understand him to be the God of the vine and of wine, and all that is associated with wine. Ancient Romans shared many of our contemporary associations with wine, such as cheerfulness, licentiousness and night-time partying, but beyond this the ancients added a sacred dimension. In Latin the name of the God, Liber, literally means free.* The English word liberty derives from it, and that which the word stands for was sacrosanct to the Romans. Bacchus is also the God of libations, with wine being integral to many Roman rites, and the divine patron of religious intoxication and ecstasy, which presumably played a role the Dionysian mysteries. The God also has a dark side, and not only because his revels are often traditionally associated with the night. In liberating his devotees from ordinary cares and inhibitions he momentarily breaks the order of things. When Bacchus holds sway traditional social bonds loosen, including those of class, the family, gender relations, even the order of the State – and the mind – may dishevel. The Hellenic myths relating to King Pentheus and King Lycurgus spell out the danger, a danger that went beyond the mythical in the 2nd century BCE, when the Roman Senate felt compelled to restrict the practice of Bacchic religion.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Critique of Atheism


A bus in the desert. Source: desertskytours.com
In a couple of earlier posts I have spoken against the role Christianity played in my mother’s mind in the months leading up to her death from cancer – she was worried that as she was an apostate she was destined for hellfire.* However, it has since occurred to me that atheism was perhaps the fiercer torturer of her mind, because it was her quasi-atheism that prevented her from becoming the Christian she clearly wanted to be. Her heart was a Jesus loving Christian but her mind was a sceptical atheist – the two combined were a toxic mix that eroded her peace of mind at the time in life when we need peace of mind most (when we come to meet death). Atheistic tendencies and assumptions are becoming increasingly pervasive in contemporary (Western) society, and this is a problem for polytheists, for atheism denies the existence of all deities and so has the potential to act as spiritual poison in the wavering mind, as it did for my mother. I must admit that occasionally I feel myself swayed by atheistic tendencies (especially when I am sinking into depression). Thus, I feel the need to articulate the problems with atheism as I see it. They are as follows.**
  1. By denying the existence of the divine (including the human spirit which continues on after death) atheism implicitly advocates the supremacy of a profaned material world.
  2. Taken to its logical conclusion atheism gives us no reason to live; each of us is as Sisyphus, pointlessly labouring for a lifetime with nothing more fleeting than pleasure to console us.
  3. Atheism gives us only reason and logic to trust in, but reason and logic can only get us so far. The unreasonable, emotional, imaginative, fertile and wild attraction of the Bacchanalia (and similar) will continually unfetter itself so long as life itself prevails.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Head Covering in Roman Polytheism (for Women)

Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 2nd century CE.
Source: iessi Flickr
For someone like me, who only allows my closest friends and family to know of my Pagan ways, I must admit I sometimes feel a tinge of envy when I see “moderate” Muslim women flaunting their religion so conspicuously by wearing colourful headscarves and modest Western dress.* It is historical fact that modest dress and head covering was widespread amongst ancient Roman women, so is this a tradition that contemporary Roman polytheists should adopt? I like to think I’m pretty open-minded so I want to try to understand what “the veil” meant to ancient Roman women. In particular, I want to understand if it was a religious practice.

Head covering  during religious rites
It is a fundamental basic of Roman polytheism that in most religious rites one, whether male or female, covers the head (capite velato), except where the ritus Graecus applies:
“The Romans usually sacrificed with the head covered. In the case of Apollo and Ceres, however, sacrifice was made in the Greek mode, with the head uncovered, apparently because these deities were considered to retain something of their Greek origin … [Warrior, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press at 21].”
Plutarch (1st century CE) posed the question of why it is that when Romans worshipped the Gods they covered their heads and gave a tentative answer:
“… they thus worshipped the Gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying [Plutarch, Roman Questions, penelope.uchicago.edu].”
Covering the head thus denotes piety and establishes the fundamental dress code appropriate to most Roman rites. For me, when I cover my head before the household shrine it is as if I move from the profane to the sacred dimension of life. Also, as Plutarch says, covering the head may minimise the chance of seeing or hearing something inauspicious while conducting the rite. Thus one is less distracted and more focused. Averting negative influences by head covering is also alluded to by Virgil, in book III of the Aeneid; in which head covering is advised so that “no evil-eyed enemy face can intrude” on the rite (line 406, as translated by Ahl).

Friday, 24 June 2016

Epicurean Polytheism

Fresco from the Villa di Livia. Source: Lo Dolce Lume
Oftentimes the philosophy of Epicurus and his followers (most notably the Roman Lucretius), is cited as an important founding stone in the story of Atheism.* This is despite the fact that Epicureanism does not deny the existence of the Gods, and in fact repeatedly affirms their existence. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote that the first principle of his philosophy is that:
“the Gods exist … but they are not as the majority think them to be … For the assertions of the many [in 4th/3rd century BCE Athens] concerning the Gods are conceptions grounded … in false assumptions [O’Connor (trans), The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books at 62-63].”
In the same letter Epicurus goes on to argue that the best kind of man “keeps a reverent opinion about the Gods, and is altogether fearless of death and has reasoned out the end of nature” (ibid at 67). What is radical, and must have been profoundly radical in the ancient world, is the affirmation in the Principle Doctrines of Epicurus that a God is “free from trouble nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore it is not constrained either by anger or by favour” (ibid at 69). However this is not to say that worship of the Gods is therefore useless, for it is known that Epicurus and his followers in fact did worship the Gods, but not in a greedy, grasping way, but rather as an act of reverence for beings who exhibit “the ultimate beatitude” (Urmson & Ree (Ed), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge at 93). The hope and belief was that by doing so we can become Gods ourselves, for to live according to Epicureanism is to “live as a God among men” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus).