Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line. The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come. Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
Kathryn Gin Lum
While ancient Egyptians had no conception of religion as a distinct sphere of life, modern scholars have identified a wide range of Egyptian beliefs and practices relating to the divine. Egyptian religion can be traced back to predynastic times, and it developed continuously until the decline of temple religion in the Roman Period. Three mythic cycles are key to its understanding: the creation of the world, and the related solar cycle, which describe the origin and maintenance of the world, and the Osiris cycle, which provides a justification for the human institutions of kingship and funerary rites. Egyptian religion may be seen as being centered on its temples, which functioned both as sites for the worship of the resident gods and the elaboration of their theologies and as important economic and political centers. In addition to gods, three other categories of divine beings played important roles in Egyptian religious practice: kings, sacred and divine animals, and the dead. The king was intimately involved in the temple religion, as the mediator between the divine and human spheres, the patron of the temples, and the beneficiary of his own rituals, while divine and sacred animals seem to have been likewise understood as living embodiments of divine power. Death was understood through a range of metaphors, to which the ritual response was to link the deceased to one or more of the cosmic cycles through practices aimed at translating them into the divine sphere and thus ensuring their continued existence. As with all aspects of the religion, these rituals changed over time but show remarkable consistency throughout recorded history. Alongside these rituals centered on temple, royal, and funerary cults, a number of personal religious practices have been reconstructed as well as one major break in continuity, the “Amarna Revolution,” in which the ruling king seems to have briefly instituted a form of monotheism.
The epics that are associated with Homer’s name, the Iliad and the Odyssey, emerge from a long tradition of oral song that extends back into the Late Bronze Age. The poems themselves, however, date from the late 8th or early 7th centuries bc. From the perspective of religious belief and religious practice, the society that is described in these epics, like the society of the 8th- and 7th-century Aegean world, is a polytheistic society: the heroes within the epics, like the audiences themselves of that epic tradition, worship not one but a number of gods. The gods of the epics, such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, and Aphrodite, are, however, remarkably vivid, in that they have not only been intensely personalized, being endowed with humanlike form and appearance, but also socialized. These gods are portrayed as a family that lives together on Mount Olympus, where they are embedded in a complex web of interpersonal relationships. And yet, despite their divine status, the gods of epic mingle with the race of heroes on earth; indeed, when they choose, they are key players in human affairs. On occasions the gods behave in ways that, to another culture, might appear undignified, ridiculous, or ungodly; but, for the most part, they presented as powerful figures and at times terrible. To turn from theology of belief, as represented in the Homeric epics, to the theology of religious practice, it will become clear from the discussion in this article that the Homeric account of religious practice is different in some respects from the religious practice of the archaic Greek world; what is observable is that the epic tradition has omitted from its account of religious practice a number of elements important to worshippers in the real world, such as divination through the consultation of entrails or rituals of fertility. And a certain poetic stylization of presentation has made some real-world practices less recognizable. More recently there have been fruitful attempts to identify elements of religious belief and practice that can be traced back in time to the wider Bronze Age world. At the same time, too, scholars have reflected on the gods’ role in the epic as participants in and observers of the action.
Casey Alexandra Kemp
Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy. The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.