Many of our emotions and actions are affected by our beliefs, and especially those about death.
Two possible (and predominant) beliefs about death are: (1) an expectation of the extinction of one’s consciousness at death and the return of the elements of our body to the earth, and (2) an expectation that our consciousness continues to exist after death, either merged into a larger consciousness without continuance of one’s individuality, or a continuance of one’s individuality within a distinctly different paradigm of existence. Visions of death (1) and (2) are mutually exclusive by definition, yet both visions can exist with or without belief in a transcendent or immanent power. Vision (1) begets a solipsistic view of life as a zero-sum game, whereas vision (2) can beget either a solipsist if there is no belief in a higher power, or a communal view if there is one.
We shall only investigate vision (2), for vision (1) is a modern concept, and inconceivable in an ancient scenario which lacked the scientific method to inflame men’s souls toward hubris. Lest there be any doubt of this, consider that an evil man in ancient times was not an atheist, but a believer that the higher power is transcendent but not immanent i.e. very unlikely to mete out benefits or penalties on an individual basis, or any basis for that matter. This might be more familiar to you as Paley’s Divine Watchmaker viewpoint toward a creator god.
Fixing our eye upon vision (2), and upon the alternative of a continuance of one’s individual identity, ancient man faced still more alternative outcomes for his still individual consciousness (let us call it “soul.”): (a) a helpless continued existence in an ill-defined world of shadows, much like a ghost lost in a forest, or among “gods,” or among corporeal men, or among likewise helpless wraiths; (b) a metamorphosis or transmutation from an earthly body into (i) a purely spiritual form, or (ii) a spiritual being with a recognizable likeness to its prior earthly body, but which is now immortal with, perhaps, superhuman powers (such as sinlessness).
Wow! Don’t quit on me now, for within the possibilities (2), (a), or (b) and either (i) or (ii), we have the possibilities necessary to cover the range of concepts of the afterlife which had emerged during the Early Bronze Age, e.g. 5,203 years ago, and which were visible in the artifacts of early-dynasties of both Mesopotamia and Egypt, and were documented as literacy emerged in both.
Human, Animal, and Wagon Sacrifices waiting at Royal Burial at Ur — British Museum Agatha Christie Exhibit
First, let me succinctly define our straw royalty in their preconception of an expected life after death. First, the royalty believes that they will pass through death with their individual consciousness still intact, and into another existence as either a helpless wraith, or as a blessed person with visible likeness and some powers intact. Second, the royalty believes that sacrifices of valuables to their god(s) before and after death will gain benefits from the gods in the present and in the afterlife. Third, the royalty conceives the need for food, drink, servants, and other accoutrements from their world to be essential in their afterlife, and only to be available if stashed with them in their tombs at the time of their burials. Fourth, the royalty realizes that they must either persuade or coerce their essential companions to accompany them in their journey through death i.e. all present and accounted for in the tomb’s confines when the funeral is done.
Tomb of 1st Dynasty Pharaoh Djer, entombed with 318 retainers. Photo. Wikipedia.
Pretty grim, huh? It gets grimmer. From the excavations at Ur and Hierakonpolis (and other Naqadan sites) during the pre-, proto-, and early-dynastic periods, we see these human sacrifices done by the hundreds. If you have forgotten or want to refresh, or never confronted these atrocities, I suggest you view posts #12 and #13, listen to the audio version of Gilgamesh in post #11, and look at the National Geographic article on Hierakonpolis near the end of post #29. And, if you think it only happened in the Middle East, take a look at similar sacrifices in Mesoamerica and China.
Aztec Human Sacrifice, Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico. Source.
It was then, and still is dangerous to live within reach of people who believe they can curry favor with their “god(s)” and improve their afterlife by murdering other people.
Thanks for visiting. I hope you take away some useful insights.
And if you have another view, please feel encouraged to leave a comment.