Sunday, 27 January 2013

Where Do You Wander?

In Poul Anderson's The Sign Of The Raven (New York, 1980), even Harald Hardrada can reflect on life when faced with the death of an old friend:

"Now we are the old ones, he told himself. It is our turn to stand as a wall between man and eternity, and one by one we are pulled away into we know not what. Oh Ulf my sworn brother, where do you wander tonight?" (p. 177)

Despite Harald's official and nominal Christianity, he here expresses the oldest human attitude to death, the slight contradiction between "...we know not what..." and "...where do you wander...?"

As I understand it, there have been three basic stages in beliefs about the hereafter.

(i) We were thought to leave our bodies temporarily in sleep and permanently at death. We dream about the dead, thus seem to meet them in their realm, which is a mere absence of life: Sheol; Hades; Hel. Homer has Achilles say that it is better to be a slave among the living than king among the dead.

(ii) When society divided into classes, these social divisions were projected into the hereafter. In the Viking version, warrior heroes go to Valhalla but the rest, including even the peaceful god Balder, still go to Hel (not Hell).

(iii) In Egyptian and Biblical mythology, there emerged the idea that goodness would be rewarded and suffering compensated for in the hereafter, e.g., that the roles of rich and poor would be reversed, as in a New Testament parable.

(Of course, the Indians developed the alternative idea that souls do not go anywhere else but endlessly return here until they are released from reincarnation. It is as if every possibility has been imagined, then intellectually elaborated.)

Harald is right back at stage (i). Chapter X, "How Ulf Uspaksson Fared Alone," ends with Harald's extraordinary dream, incorporating elements from several mythologies, about Ulf's journey through the hereafter. (Read it.) Even when writing not historical fantasy but historical fiction, it is always possible to include fantastic dreams. This one reminds me of a dream that was had by Anderson's character, Eodan, near the end of The Golden Slave, especially because centuries pass in both.

I agree with one aspect of (i): death is the absence of life. But, since the absence of consciousness is unconsciousness, the dead should not be aware of absence.

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