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Well, this week has been a good week for me socially (since I have had multiple fun events) and a bad one for me physically (since I have had a cold all week). The upshot is that I have not gotten as much blogging done as I would like. Fortunately, there will be plenty of time to relax and enjoy things in the afterlife…or at least we can enjoy anything that was buried in ceremonial symbolic form with us in our lavish tombs. Well, anyway, that is what the people of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) believed [it was a big improvement from certain early kingdoms where they dispensed with the “symbolic” part and just buried aristocrats with all of their favorite concubines and servants]. These spirit objects/grave goods are known as “Mingqi” and they make up a plurality of Han objects in museums and cultural collections. Of course, the afterlife would be empty without the most reliably delicious of all animals—so here, partway through the year of the chicken, is a Han dynasty symbolic ceremonial burial chicken which some well-heeled chicken lover took with them when they went away forever.

The chicken was made of simple baked earthenware and 2000 years of grave conditions have not altered its delicate facial features for the better, but the elegant winsome lines and perfect bold form leave no question about who the masters of ceramics have been from the time of Rome to the present. There is no news about whether the original owner is now stuck in a poultry-free afterlife since his chicken Mingqi was carried off by some ancient robber or modern archaeologist.

Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though.  The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself.  Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.

Hel

Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon.  Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence.  A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse.  Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.

Hermod before Hel (John Charles Dollman, 1909, print)

In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet.  She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead.  Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder.  Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism.  In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”

Goddess Helby (digital art by *Scitza on deviantart)

Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings.  During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death.  After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound).  The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.

The children of Loki ( Willy Pogany, 1920)

Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma:  unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead.  They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?].  The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon.  As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below).  After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.

To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert.  Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed.  He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land.  Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.

Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt.  He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide.  Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them.  Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm.  Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set.  Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history.  Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run.  All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale.  Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands).  When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast.  Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history.  Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.

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