Death is a universal experience, and folklore has long sought to explain it.
Stories of human mortality
Death is a universal experience, and folklore has long sought to explain it. In many cultures, the afterlife is seen as a place of reward or punishment for one’s deeds in life. In other traditions, death marks the beginning of a journey to another realm.
The idea of an afterlife is a comforting one for many cultures, providing hope and solace in the face of mortality. This concept has been embraced by numerous religions and spiritual traditions throughout history, from Ancient Greek beliefs about the journey across the river Styx, to modern-day Buddhist teachings about karma and reincarnation.
In some cultures, ancestor worship is common practice. Native American tribes often tell stories about how their ancestors continue to watch over them from beyond the grave; this provides comfort during difficult times when loved ones are no longer with us physically but remain close in spirit.
The origin of death
Some folktales explain how death first entered the world. Before this event, the concept of death did not exist – then human existence was changed forever.
In Asante mythology, death was brought about by an argument between two gods: Ta Kora and Owuo. They decided that, if a person was sick or wounded, they would race to reach that person first. If Ta Kora arrived first, the person would live. If Owuo arrived first, they would die.
In Polynesian mythology, humans were able to shed their skins in the manner of a snake, rejuvenating their bodies by doing so. This happened until one day, an old woman shed her skin, and her grandchildren start crying. She hastily returned to her old skin – this ended the power of rejuvenation, and cursed humans to die instead.
In many cultures, death is personified as a figure or entity. By characterizing death in this way, folklore provides comfort; if we live good lives then perhaps these entities will treat us kindly when they come for us instead of taking us away against our will.
In Welsh mythology, the Ankou is an omen of death who appears in the form of a skeletal figure with a scythe and hooded cloak. He travels through villages at night collecting souls to take away with him. In Japanese folklore Shinigami are supernatural beings that act as messengers between this world and the afterlife. They are often depicted as grim reapers who come to collect people’s souls when their time has come.
The underworld is a common theme in folklore: a subterranean realm where people go when they die. In Greek mythology, Hades is the ruler of an underworld populated by ghosts and monsters. In some stories, people manage to escape the underworld and resume their lives in the world of the living, but this respite does not last for long – death can never be escaped.
Mayan mythology features an underworld known as Xibalba, which roughly translates as ‘the place of fright’. Xibalba is ruled by twelve gods who test those who enter it with various trials, like swimming across a river of scorpions, or sitting on a burning hot bench.
Heaven and Hell
In Christianity, heaven is a place of eternal bliss where those who have lived righteous lives will be rewarded with an eternity of joy. Hell, on the other hand, is a place of punishment for sinners and those who have committed grave sins against God.
This idea of judgment is a common one, and has appeared in folklore all around the world. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, a person’s heart would be weighed on a set of scales after they died. If their heart weighed less than a feather, they would enter paradise. Otherwise, they were turned away.
These stories suggest that our choices in life can determine our fate beyond this world. This encourages people to strive for righteousness and moral goodness, as it is the only way to guarantee peace when we face mortality’s embrace.
Reincarnation is another approach to life after death. It is a feature of folklore in many cultures, including Buddhism and Orphism. In Buddhism, reincarnation is part of the cycle of life and death known as Saṃsāra. It teaches that karma determines one’s fate in their next life, with good deeds leading to rebirth in higher realms while bad deeds lead to lower realms.
Orphism was an ancient Greek religion which believed that souls could be reborn multiple times until they achieved perfection and were released from the cycle of reincarnation. This idea has been adopted by some modern spiritualists who believe we are all on a journey towards enlightenment through successive lifetimes.
The idea of cheating death has always captivated human imagination. Folklore is full of tales about gods who are immortal or heroes who find ways to extend their lives beyond what was thought possible. In the *Epic of Gilgamesh*, the hero embarks on a journey to find eternal life after his friend Enkidu dies. He eventually discovers that immortality is not possible and must accept death as part of life’s cycle.
Many cultures have myths about magical fountains or pools which can grant eternal youth and vitality if one drinks from them. Other stories tell of elixirs or potions which can bring everlasting life.. In Medieval literature, the Holy Grail granted immortality to those who touched it. The Philosopher’s Stone is another artifact associated with eternal life.
A permanent end
Most societies believed in life after death in one shape or another, but there were a few exceptions. In Ancient Greece, the Epicureans believed that death was simply a permanent end to life.
This view of mortality was based on their philosophical beliefs about the nature of existence; they argued that since nothing lasts forever, death must be final. They believed that life should be enjoyed while it lasted and focused on living in the present moment rather than worrying about what would happen after death.
The Epicureans also rejected superstitions about judgment after death, arguing that fear of being punished for one’s actions was irrational and unnecessary. Instead, they advocated for living a virtuous life out of respect for oneself and others – not because one feared punishment from some higher power. This philosophy provided comfort to those who were uncertain about mortality by offering alternative explanations which did not rely on faith.
In the modern world, people have turned to science and technology in an attempt to cheat death. Advances in medicine have enabled us to extend life expectancy, while the concept of cryonics involves preserving a person at extremely low temperatures, then waking them up in the future. Transhumanism is another movement which uses transplants, gene editing and nanotechnology to extend human lives
The idea of using science and technology to prolong life has been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism. On one hand, many see these advances as an opportunity for humans to overcome mortality; on the other hand, there are those who worry about ethical implications such as overpopulation or inequality between those who can afford these treatments versus those who cannot.