That definition, from Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, opened a rather verbose term paper I did back in college on the various human perceptions of the afterlife in cultures around the world. I recently found my notes for that overly-erudite research paper and that got the juices of curiosity flowing again. As back in my youth, when I thought that B paper was actually worthy of an A, I have been wondering why human perception of what happens after we die is so divergent and yet so similar.
The question that really fascinates me on that score is why has it been only recently in the evolution of mythology that humans have embraced the idea of eternal and/or temporary punishment in the underworld. What the heck turned us, almost en-mass, into a bunch of drooling voyeurs who enjoy nothing more than hearing, reading or gawking at sermons, texts and art portraying the grizzly torments of souls in, for the sake of brevity, Hell?
Well, lets face it, I can’t answer that question. In fact, no one can. What we can do, though, is peer into those dark, chthonian corners with a skeptical but curious eye and see what’s what out there in underworld-land. From primitive cultures to the current religious “Big Three”, it doesn’t hurt to explore and wonder at the ideas that formed and continue to form our perception of what happens after we die. And since rose gardens, harps and a lot of time to read are by comparison boring, the torments of the “evil” are a good place to start.
Here’s just a taste of what such investigation holds in store. In
Connaught, Ireland, the was believed by the Celts to be a door to the underworld. The dark opening has a vaguely mouth-like appearance and is near the original capitol of Cave of Cruachan Connacht, seat of the now famous Queen Madb. According to the Celts, this was the gateway to Oweynagat. Though not officially a place of tormented souls, Oweynagat was thought to be the origin of destructive beasts that could emerge from the cave and cause widespread pestilence and destruction. The connection to the sihd or fairy world was also made at the cave, with stories of changelings and abducted babies connected to the place.
Not surprisingly, Christianity painted an even more sinister face on this opening in the Earth. It became a gateway to Hell, to be avoided at all costs but especially around the time of the Celtic festival of Samhain – October 31st on the Gregorian calendar. On that night ghostly shades and terrifying animated corpses would crawl up out of the ground and attack any foolish mortal who made the mistake of being out and in the cave’s proximity.
It is probably reasonable to imagine that the local, pagan population around the
interacted in some way with the geological formation. Perhaps they performed ceremonies or left offerings there, particularly around Samhain. In an effort to demonize these Celtic practices, the Church turned the place into “The Walking Dead” complete with lost souls and ghastly zombies. Their ruse was made easier by the already existing belief that the cave did indeed contain things to be feared. Cave of Cruachan
Next week and in the Fridays to come we’ll explore more myths, legends and down right mutilated histories of the chthonian realms. From the curious to the morbid it should be, at the very least, an interesting if Dante-esque journey. Vendredi heureux ~
via Wikimedia Commons Cave of Cruachan