Friday, 18 August 2017

When Odin Recruits: On Becoming a Pagan Widow

The Death of Messalina by Rochegrosse (1916)
Note: this is a cathartic narration of my experience.

Earlier this year my husband (W) died suddenly from pulmonary embolism. He was in his early 40s. We first met at school, when he was 16 and I was 14. We hooked up two years later. For almost the entirety of my adult life we were together and for most of that time we were totally into each other (although we did have problems, and break ups, here and there). I adored him, he was my universe. Although I’m not sure I knew quite how much I adored him until he died. He treated me (mostly) very well. He had a traditional approach to our marriage; he was protective and loyal. He would not have left me for a younger woman when I got into my 40s (like my sister’s husband did). He was not emotionally abusive or violent (like my father). He was honourable and true. He didn’t care for religion but, even so, he had personal values that he upheld and believed in – he had integrity.

It happened as follows.

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.