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A Pagan Perspective on Judgement and Salavation

Robin Herne's picture

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Judgement and Salvation

The polytheist religions, ancient and modern, do not have a concept of salvation. Some do, however, have an idea of judgement ~ such as the religion of ancient Egypt (these days normally referred to as Kemeticism, from the old name for that country, Kemet). In Egyptian tradition the soul of the recently deceased journeys to the Halls of Amenti where they are met by various deities and the 42 Judges, or Assessors, of the Dead. Each of these beings is said to ask the new arrival if they have committed a particular odious act, the deity Tehuti weighing the heart of the dead in the scales of the goddess Ma’at to judge the truth of the answer. If the deceased’s good deeds outweigh their dubious acts, then the soul is permitted to pass through to the blissful Fields of Aalu. The soul weighed down by wickedness has their heart fed to the monster Amemeit. In some texts this is interpreted as utter extinction, whilst in others it is more suggestive of reincarnation, perhaps to try again at making a better fist of life.

Many modern pagans, perhaps heavily influenced by the radicalism of the 60s which rejected such ideas as an austerely judgemental deity, tend to embrace the Tibetan notion of bardo, a liminal state between the end of one incarnation and the start of the next where a process of self-assessment (rather than judgement by some external party) takes place and the outline of the future life planned on the basis of that assessment.

An oft-heard statement made by some modern Pagans is that our religions do not subscribe to notions such as the Devil or Hell. Now, whilst we do thankfully tend to lack a figure of ultimate evil, there are actually conceptions of hellish Afterlife venues within at least some of the old polytheist faiths. The ancient Greeks believed in the existence of Tartarus, an infernal realm initially formed as a sort of prison for the wayward Titans1 and the occasional wicked mortal (such as King Tantalus, doomed to forever suffer thirst and starvation whilst comestibles dangled just out of reach).

Taoism (the polytheist religion of China before Communism) taught the existence of a gruesome place called Diyu, with anything up to ten levels, each for a different type of wrongdoer. The punishments meted out there are nothing if not imaginative, including: rapists being fried in oil-filled cauldrons; pimps getting sawn in half; corrupt government officials being torn apart by having their limbs tied to chariots pulling in opposite directions. This latter one has distinct possibilities, I think you’ll agree!

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no reliable evidence for a punitive zone in the early Celtic conception of the Afterlife. There are, however, accounts from the medieval period of rituals to placate hungry ghosts with food ~ a similar practice being found in China, Japan, Rome, and loads of other place too. By Christian times these restless souls were seen as unhappy, tormented beings ~ whether they were also seen as disconsolate souls in pagan times is uncertain.

The Heathen tales recorded by Snorri Sturlson describe a punitive region within the otherwise pleasant realms of Helheim. Murderers, oath-breakers and other villains are sent to the rancid shores of Nastrond in Helheim where their corpses are fed upon by a dragon. It is possible that this story was a projection of Sturlson’s Christian values, though it may also as easily have been an original concept.

It is easy enough to see why people believe in punitive afterlives, and theologians promote the idea f their existence. Partly the fear of such places serves as a deterrent to potential wrongdoers, but also it gives a sense of hope to the abused, that the people who have gotten away with harming them will, one day, get their comeuppance. Despite the threat of a sort of mystical CCTV camera watching our every move and rewarding or condemning accordingly, countless people both ancient and modern have continued to behave appallingly. If the threat of divine punishment is insufficient to reign in immorality, then it beggars the mind to think hat would do the trick.

Justice within human society is, too often, noticeable only by its absence ~ hence the hope that the Gods will enforce what mankind cannot or will not. However, just because the idea can be rationalised away, does not mean that such places do not exist somewhere in the Afterlife!

If hellish places exist (and I claim no insights into whether or not they do), then various questions are raised. For example, are these places ones of permanent residence ~ or do the dead eventually move on, once their naughtiness has been expiated, as the Chinese Taoists believe? Speaking of which, what sort of sins might condemn a person to languish in Tartarus or Nastrond? The average 21st century Briton may well happily dispatch paedophiles and Reality TV stars to be sawn in twain with rusty blades. The people of the ancient world may have had other sins more immediately to their minds, when contemplating Otherworldly torments. Those who failed to uphold their oaths and those who violated the bonds of family and tribe seem to have got the shortest shrift.

Having said earlier that there is no concept of salvation, most ancient cultures offered guidance on means for the remorseful to make amends. The Greeks had various means by which miasma (spiritual corruption) could be cleansed through ritual offerings, for example. Perhaps one of the commonest themes, exemplified in the laws of ancient Ireland, was the need to make recompense to the victims of ones misdeeds in order to set the balance right. Emotional repentance, without any accompanying attempt to put things right, would have been dismissed as little more than hot air. This is not salvation, in as much as there is nothing to be saved from, it is however an attempt to redeem oneself from cruel and dishonourable deeds and so both restore ones reputation, and pay off all debts.

Is it time to reassess the role and place of these gruesome destinations within modern pagan teachings? Were they genuine (if politically incorrect) apprehensions of Otherworldly sites, or do we dismiss them as mere bugaboos invented by temple priests to scare tykes into toeing the line? These are questions that remain to be answered.

1 Primordial giants, much given to ASBO-worthy behaviour.