The Ultimate Mystery in our Lives
Death is the ultimate mystery in our lives. What happens to us after we die? We wonder if there’s an afterlife, or are we reborn into a new life, or is there nothing at all waiting for us after we die? Whatever a person’s individual’s beliefs are, it seems that it has been a topic that has been obsessed over since the beginning of time. The first three chapters in the humanities book, Culture, Continuity & Change, prehistory to 1600 by Henry M. Sayre (2015) address this topic. These chapters dive into the ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hindu understandings of death.
In this paper I will look further into these cultures and their understandings of death. I will discuss how their cultures used art, architecture, literature and sculptures to describe their belief systems revolving around death. For the Mesopotamians there were not clear “guides” to describe the afterlife they viewed. Literary sources were pieced together, including the most famous Epic of Gilgamesh (Sayre, 2015). The Hindu of India is oldest of the world’s religions, and everything in Egypt revolved around their faith.
How it works
The religion of the Mesopotamian people was polytheistic, consisting of multiple gods and goddesses connected to the forces of nature (Sayre, 2015). They saw human society as part of a larger society of the universe that was governed by these gods. Mesopotamian beliefs of the afterlife came from different periods in their culture and transformed through time. Beliefs and practices relating to death and afterlife were highly influenced by social and economical status, as well as religious patterns. One of the most well-known literary pieces from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It contemplates the meaning of death, the fate of the dead, and different mourning rituals. It consists of 11 clay tablets and was believed to be written sometime before 1200 BCE (Sayre, 2015). This epic poem portrays what some Mesopotamian kings did not want to come to terms with. They were just as human as anyone else, with very human limits and were powerless when it came to death.
A discovery of “royal tombs” were made by a British archeologist C. Leonard Woolley in 1922 (Sayre, 2015). The best preserved and most intact temple is the Ziggurat. He also discovered the Royal Tombs of Ur, where thousands of graves were found. Most were individual graves, but some were chambers with as many as 80 people buried within them. It is believed that those tombs included royalty along with their court. A group of Dedicatory statues was also found in a shrine room of the temple of Tell Asmar. It included statues of men and women, all clasping their hands in what suggests them to be praying.
The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt both had much in common. They were both located near the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. Both cultures built large architectural structures that they dedicated to their gods. For Egypt, these large structures were pyramids. For ancient Egyptians, death was not the end of one’s life, but rather a transition to another reality. They believed if they passed judgement of gods, they would go on to live in eternal paradise.
Egyptians developed the process of mummification. It is a multi-step, highly ritualized process to preserve the body. They believed that preserving the physical body was imperative to its survival in the afterlife. The entire process took 70 days (Sayre, 2015). Another example of how Egyptians viewed death was seen in a papyrus scroll titled Last Judgment of Hunefer by Osiris. This scroll depicted the moment following judgement. It tells the story of a man known as Hunefer, who is brought to the judgement area, shown to pass the test, and then it shown to be seated under a canopy alongside deities, Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. One of the most elaborate examples of artwork for the deceased was that found in the tomb of Tutankhamaun. He was a young king that had been buried in a solid gold coffin. The Funerary mask of Tutankhamun was gold inlaid with glass and semiprecious stones. This discovery showed the wealth of Egyptian kings and the elaborate rituals surrounding the burial of the king (Sayre, 2015).
By the 1200’s, Indian civilization was among the oldest and had influences all over Southeast Asia (Sayre, 2015). Hinduism had become popular in this area and eventually became the dominant religion for Indians. Hindu religion has the belief that humans are in a cycle of death and rebirth, called samsara. Hinduism also believes in Karma, meaning how you live can determine how you come back in the next life. As Hinduism spread throughout Southeast Asia, large temples were built. The temple complex at Bagan covers 16 square miles (Sayre, 2015). The Kandarya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho, represents Indian Hindu architecture. The towers represent the peaks of the Himalayan mountains, believed to be homes of the Hindu gods. The Shiva as Lord of the Dance was a bronze statue that represented the god Shiva. The statue is shown dancing in a circle of fire, believed to show the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation.
All three cultures of Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Hindus had very specific beliefs when it came to death and the afterlife. They all used artwork, structures, and literary works to represent these beliefs. Mesopotamia and Egypt were similar in their beliefs of an afterlife for their deceased. Hindu believed that when one life ended, you simply came back as another life and it was an endless cycle. With so many belief systems its easy to see why death really is the ultimate mystery in our lives.