The Spirit Land
By Gary R Varner
An excerpt from a book in progress.
Most every culture believes in the existence of the soul after death. Usually the afterworld was a duplicate of the earthly existence of the deceased although much more pleasant with abundant game, beautiful mountains, rivers and forests. Usually the soul also must meet certain tests to transition from the physical world to the land of the dead.
Many of these tests call for the spirit to cross vast chasms with narrow passageways or traverse over massive waterfalls while monstrous creatures attempt to pull the soul into oblivion.
The afterworld of the Lakota Sioux is in the northern sky. Here the departed live on in peace and plenty free of illness and sorrow. They spent their eternity playing games, singing, dancing and hunting as they wished. It is said that “agreeable women and fine horses” are also there to make the afterworld an even finer experience.
In Lakota myth, the spirits of cowards or mean spirited people are met by the Spirit of the North on a narrow trail on the path to the Otherworld. The Spirit of the North trips the soul so that it falls into the waters, which separate the land of the living and the land of the dead, the Spirit of Waters is allowed to do as it will with the fallen soul. Another Lakota tradition says that after death the soul “must cross a river on a very narrow tree. If he is afraid to cross the river, he returns to the world and wanders about forever. If he crosses the river, he goes to the spirit world.”
The theme of the soul crossing over an abyss by walking over a narrow ledge is a widespread one. In every case, the soul is threatened with monsters, guardians of the otherworld and other varied distractions, which attempt to pull the soul into swirling waters or into deep crevasses so that it is not able to reach the underworld where eternal life is waiting.
Native Americans believed in an existence after death, the quality of which depended on how an individual lived and died. The Nahuatl believed that all persons continued to live eternally and that the soul was not affected by the personal behavior of the individual prior to death. The Aztecs, on the other hand, believed in the consequences of acts that were outside those normally accepted. While the Nahuatl believed in a “heaven” where the soul continued to live much as it had on earth, they also believed in the concept of multiple heavens of lesser degrees—somewhat similar to the Christian concept of purgatory.
The Luiseño Indians in Southern California, according to Moriarty, “recognize that there was something within the body that did not die with the flesh.”
The Luiseño believed that when one died the soul went to a heavenly place ruled by Chinigchinix, the god. The Luiseño conceived of this heaven as a place similar to the terrestrial world that they lived in but with a sense that sadness and work were no longer evident. Another belief was that the soul would travel to heaven and become a new star in the night sky. In those cases where an individual died away from their traditional lands it was felt that Chinigchinix would decide if the soul was worthy to live on in heaven or not.
The Gabrielino, a neighboring tribe to the Luiséno, believed that the hearts of fully initiated tribal members took their places as stars in the heavens. The other, more ordinary members, “went to an underworld where they made merry with dancing and feasting.” Like other groups the Garbrielino believed that the Milky Way was the home of the spirit—at least for those initiated members.
Another California tribe, the Pomo, believe that the afterworld is in the heavens as well. To get their after death the Pomo believe that “they will ascend by a ladder. The souls of the wicked will fall off the ladder in the ascent and descend into negative and nondescript limbo, where they will be neither happy nor tormented, but rove vacantly and idly forevermore.” The truly evil, however, are transformed into the grizzly bear or the rattlesnake which must crawl over the burning sand or be forever hungry.
The Coast Miwok believed that the dead leapt into the sea at Point Reyes and followed a string through the surf to the west and the setting sun where they resided with Coyote in the afterlife. In many native traditions Coyote plays a major role as both trickster and a cultural hero who created the earth, caused death, taught the people about fire and generally brought knowledge to humankind.
The Hupa Indians residing in the far northwestern corner of California believed in a “damp, dark underworld” with only the spirits of shamans and singers who participated in major ceremonies allowed to journey on to a more pleasant afterworld in the sky. Other California tribes as well, such as the neighboring Karok, believed that the afterworld was established along class lines. The Karok did believe that the spirits of all dead journeyed to an afterlife in the sky, however, “an especially happy place was reserved for rich people and ceremonial leaders.”
The Karok soul must chose between two paths after death. One was a path of roses which leads to the “Happy Western Land beyond the great water” and the other a path of thorns and briers which leads to a dark land of evil.
Another Northern California tribe, the Mattoal, believe that the afterworld lays southward in the Great Ocean. The souls of the bad did not journey on to the afterworld but transformed into the grizzly bear which was representative of sin.
The Mandan Indians of the plains believed that the soul returned to the subterranean world that was, according to mythology, the place of origin for the Mandan people.
The Assinniboin and Athapascan tribes believed that upon death the soul migrated toward the south where the climate was warm and the game abundant. The Assinniboin concept of hell was, naturally, the reverse of this. Hell was a land of perpetual ice and snow and a lack of everything desirable.
Hidatsa concepts of the afterlife were quite developed and were similar to the concepts of the ancient Greeks. Washington Matthews, a 19th century ethnologist, wrote in an 1877 study:
“When a Hidatsa dies his shade (soul) lingers four nights around the camp or village in which he died, and then goes to the lodge of his departed kindred in the village of the dead. When he arrives there he is rewarded for his valor, self denial, and ambition on earth by receiving the same regard in the one place as in the other; for there, as here, the brave man is honored and the coward despised.”
Individuals who committed suicide also went to this afterworld but had to remain separated from the others—in a form of purgatory.
The Hidatsa concept of heaven is similar to the concepts of other religions—life continues although somewhat altered. The souls of humans hunted and fed off the “shades” or souls of animals that had died on earth. A lifestyle exactly the same as the earthly one was maintained. This new world of the afterlife appeared little different except that the four seasons were reversed in their order.
In Virginia, the Sapona Indians believed in a supreme god and believed that upon death all souls were taken under guard to the “great road” where the good and evil souls traveled together until they reached a fork in the road. One lane of the road was level and clean, the other strewn with rocks, and mountainous. The good and bad souls eventually were separated by strikes of lightning.
According to legend, the level road, the path on the right taken by the good souls lead to a “charming warm country” where time did not exist and the weather perpetually like May. The souls, upon reaching this land, lived much as they had on the earth with one exception: everything that was attempted was successfully accomplished. The animals were plentiful and fat. At the entryway to this land of plenty sat an old man who, like St. Peter, determined if the soul was worthy to enter.
The left path, covered with debris, lead to a land of perpetual hunger. A “bitter kind of potato” was the only source of food, which gave the soul-body great ulcers. The land was covered with another miserable thing—an eternal blanket of snow. According to Sapona legend, the women who resided in this hell were all ugly and attacked the men constantly with their unbridled passions. To make things worse they could only communicate in shrill tones. The ruler of this afterworld was an ancient, ugly woman with serpent-like hair. It was her only duty to determine the various degrees and period of torture with the type and amount of torture given out depending on the amount of sins accumulated by the soul. If, after the period of torture was completed, the soul had repented of its crimes it was allowed to travel on to “the regions of bliss.”
Like the Sapona, the Natchez also had a very defined concept of the afterlife. They believed so strongly in a heaven with abundant feasting, dancing women and pleasure that the men willingly went to their deaths in battle so that they would enter this afterworld sooner. The Natchez also believed in a hell in which the soul was left naked, exposed to mosquitoes, the world covered in water, and food limited to spoiled fish.
The Pawnee’s belief system of an afterlife was included in their cosmological views. The Pawnee believed that some souls traveled to the heavens to become stars while other souls belong to those who died of illness or cowardice forever traveled the Milky Way, also referred to as the “ghost road” from end to end. Of course, the chiefs, shamans and priests all ascended to a distant heavenly village.
“When at last it shakes free of its corporal abode,” wrote Hoebel, “the Cheyenne soul wafts free and light up the Hanging Road to dwell thereafter in benign proximity to the Great Wise one and the lonng-lost loved ones. Only the souls of those who have committed suicide are barred from this peace.” Where these souls wind up is not revealed however although the Cheyenne do not have a Hell.
Existence on the Hanging Road, a world suspended between the heavens and the earth, is just as it was for the Cheyenne while they were living. “All the Cheyennes of the past live in heaven, just as they did on earth—and have a good time of it,” states anthropologist Hoebel.
The Hopi Indians of the American Southwest believed in the immortality of the soul and that an afterlife was lived in a parallel world to that experienced on the earth during their lives. The soul was believed to live, work and play in the same manner as the individual had on earth. However, the soul also was thought to have the ability to float in the clouds and to bring rain to the physical world.
Contrary to the Hopi, the Navajo have an extreme fear and avoidance of anything having to do with death. The afterworld is, according to Kluckhohn, “a shadowy and uninviting thing.” The Navajo believe that the afterworld is just like the physical world of the living but located in the north just below the earth’s surface. The spirit must travel down a trail until they reach a sandpile at the bottom. Here the spirits deceased relatives, who look just as they did while living, guide the soul to the afterworld which takes a four day journey.
In Apache tradition “the ghost of the departed makes its way or is led by other ghostly kin to the underworld, ‘a beautiful place beneath the ground, where a nice stream of water flows between banks that are lined with cottonwood trees, and everything is green.’”
The way to this beautiful world was through an opening in the ground “cut out like a window.” This opening is hidden by tall grass and the departed soul must be led to it so that it isn’t missed. Once inside the opening, however, it is almost impossible to return.
An individual who had a “near death experience” described this afterworld:
“The same ways we have here are carried on down there too. Those people dance, eat, and sleep. A person down there can actually feel another in the flesh. The people remain the same age as they were when they died. I saw people as they were when they went. That is the way it is always seen. There is no sickness, death, pain, or sorrow there…The same places, the same sacred mountains, the same ceremonies exist there as here. It is just as though everything is transferred to a different country.”
The spirit land, according to the Maricopa, was a duplicate of the physical world of the living, except day and night and the seasons were reversed. “The dead were constantly at dances and games,” wrote Spier, “so many of them together that there were crowds at the games. They went to war. They were always enjoying themselves, with plenty to eat.”
In the Maricopa afterworld, as in so many others, the old became young and “old things new.” However, babies matured to age fifteen or so. The dead who inhabit this afterworld mate and have children. “Living” in the land of the dead was not eternal however. The inhabitants eventually get old and die again—in fact they have three lives and die three times. At the fourth death the soul becomes “nothing more than a bit of charcoal lying in the desert.” The only complaint voiced by the Maricopa dead is how rapidly they could travel:
“When a living person wanted to go somewhere, he had the pleasure of anticipation and fulfillment: he set a day and on that day went off camping enroute for however long it might take him. ‘But with us,’ the dead complain, ‘when we want to go anywhere, we are there before we know. We do not like that.’”
The Indians in Northern California living in the Lassen volcano area believed that the dead lived on much as they had in life—using sweat houses, hunting, sleeping and carrying on as they always had. The major difference is that sickness no longer exists. No clear picture of their ancient beliefs can be obtained however since after the white settlers arrived the Native traditions became heavily influenced with Christian dogma. These people believed that after death the soul would go south where it was ‘evaluated” and, after passing the evaluation, it would travel to a distant place in the west by way of the Milky Way.
Many Native American stories of the afterlife speak of the dead hunting as they had in life. What exactly did they hunt? According to Father Paul Le Jeune, who wrote of the Montagnais Indians in 1634, “They hunt for the souls of beavers, porcupines, moose, and other animals, using the soul of the snowshoes to walk upon the soul of the snow, which is in yonder country; in short, they make use of the souls of all things, as we here use the things themselves.”
The Chumash Indians of California’s Santa Barbara coastal area believed that the soul is eternal and reincarnation a normal part of the cycle. However, there are differences in the final disposition of the spirit. “The dead go west and are born again in this world,” writes anthropologist Thomas Blackburn. “It is all a circle, an eddy within the abyss.” After death, unless cremated, the spirit remains in the area where they lived for five days. Those who were cremated immediately go to the west and do not remain for the five day period to pass. The souls of those drowned, however, always remained in the sea, never reaching land and never being reborn. Likewise souls of infants never reached the afterworld of the adults. Most souls, who did not drown or were infants at death, traveled west where they remained for twelve years. At the end of the twelve years the soul would be reborn. During this time, the soul was free to travel the world although they inhabited another sphere, far in the west.
The Chumash believed that the dead found their way to the afterworld through a sacred pool at Point Humqaq. Point Humqaq was so holy that all Chumash avoided it except for periodic pilgrimages to leave offerings at the shrine. Point Humqaq was viewed as a “portal” used by the souls of the Chumash to reach heaven where they awaited their turn at reincarnation. Humqaq Pool, located nearby, is a basin in which fresh water continuously drips and where the Chumash spirit “bathes and paints itself” while waiting to ascend to heaven.
The Chumash myth "The Soul’s Journey to Šimilaqša" tells of the soul’s journey from the grave to Point Conception where the sacred pool is located. The story says that “there in the stone can be seen the footprints of women and children. There the spirit of the dead bathes and paints itself. Then it sees a light to the westward and goes toward it through the air, and thus reaches the land of Šimilaqša (‘land of the dead across the sea’).”
The souls of the Chumash dead must cross a river or pool that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead, as they did at the River Styx and other boundaries throughout the legends of many other cultures. A slender pole is dropped across the water on which the soul must walk to the other side. To complicate the issue two water monsters attempt to dislodge each soul as it crosses the pole, if they fall they are doomed to be transformed into a being with both human and frog-like attributes, forced to live in the waters for eternity. The myth goes on to say that the souls of murderers and other evil people are turned to stone and do not cross the river but must watch as the other souls are allowed to cross throughout time.
Far to the north, the Netsilik Eskimo believed that there are three afterworlds. The first is called “the village,” or Agneriartarfik. Located in the sky, this afterworld provides an abundance of game with caribou in huge herds. If, however, the spirit tires of hunting and eating caribou “the moon spirit helps them down to the sea where they can kill seals.” This afterworld is beautiful with good weather and the residents “continuously happy.” The dead play at games and everything is supposedly happiness and fun. This afterworld is reserved for hunters who have died violently and for women who have undergone the pains of receiving large and beautiful tattoos. The dead remain at their age when they died.
The second afterworld is located in the underworld, deep beneath the tundra. Called Aglermiut, the dead here experience the same benefits that the dead in Agneriartarfik receive. Salmon fishing and caribou hunting are excellent and the dead live on in happiness and abundance. The main difference between this afterworld and the physical world is that the seasons are reversed. Aglermiut is populated with hunters and tattooed women as Agneriartarfik is.
The third afterworld, called Noqumiut, is also located underground and just below the earth’s crust. This world is reserved for the lazy hunter and women who would not undergo the pain of receiving tattoos. The residents here huddle together with hanging heads and closed eyes. They are perpetually hungry and apathetic with the only food the butterfly, which can only be caught if it flies too close to the head of a dead man or woman.
As in most cultures, those individuals who break societal rules or who do not contribute to the wellbeing of the whole are punished. In Netsilik society, the lazy and idle received the most severe punishment after death.
The Tollamook Indians on the Oregon Coast believed that after death the soul had to travel a long distance to reach the world of the dead. After two days of walking a river was reached where the soul had to wait for ten days. After ten days, a canoe crossed the river to get the soul and take it to the other side. On the other side, all the other souls had gathered in a large house to greet the individual. Dancing and feasting soon commenced. This land is said to be beautiful with colorful birds and plentiful game and fish to take. The best thing is that the old are young once more. The Tillamook also believed that the vast schools of salmon were also composed of the spirits of dead ancestors who returned to Tillamook Bay each year to provide food to those still living. The spirits reincarnated as salmon hope to be captured by their descendents.
New England tribes had similar beliefs in the afterworld as other tribes across North America. The Narragansetts, who occupied much of Rhode Island, believed that the soul consisted of two parts. One was believed to exist while the body slept and the other which was a reflection of the body. After death one of them continued to an afterlife similar to the physical existence during the time the individual lived. This afterlife existed for the souls of “great and good men and women” who lived on in the house of the creator, Cautántowwit. The souls of murderers, thieves and liars were sentenced to an existence of continuous wandering and restlessness.
The Algonquians of Virginia had two philosophies regarding an afterlife. The upper class believed that only chiefs and shamans could expect a life after death. However, the majority of Algonquian believed in reincarnation and survival after death.
The Algonquians of North Carolina also believed in an afterlife structured according to the individual’s moral conduct. Those with evil souls were believed to go to a pit of fire in the west while reincarnation was commonly viewed as an outcome for most.
The Huron believed that after death and after the Feast of the Dead had been performed, souls “would assemble covered in their robes and grave goods and depart on a path along the Milky Way.” The souls of the very young or the elderly remained in a special village and used the corn fields abandoned by those still living. These earth-bound souls were occasionally noticed but were not feared or considered a threat. In fact, efforts were made by the villagers to keep these souls supplied in provisions.
Those who had been killed in battle or who committed suicide were feared by both the living and those who died peacefully and went to their own villages of the dead. Along the way to the afterworld, souls were faced with obstacles which must be passed.
According to Heidenreich, “the souls had to go past the rock ecaregniondi in the Petun country. Near this rock lived oscotarach ‘head-piercer’ who drew out their brains and placed them in pumpkins. Next, the souls had to pass over a log that lay across a raging river guarded by a fierce dog. Many who were frightened by the dog fell off the log and drowned. After many months, the souls would finally get to the village of the dead, which was very much like that of the living. There they would continue as they had in life, their occupations and status unchanged.”
The Aztec and Maya, who lived life so close to death, believed in an afterworld of thirteen layers above the earth and nine below. The underworld was a place of fear, dread and darkness. The thirteen layers of heaven above the earth were for a select few who died in battle, in childbirth or even by suicide. Those who died in battle would enter the paradise world of Tonatiuhichán where they would join the sun and take the form of a butterfly or hummingbird. Those who died in water or in storms entered Tlalocán which was a paradise ruled by the rain god Tláloc. Fruit and delicacies were abundant in Tlalocán along with life-giving rain and waterfalls. Those who resided in this paradise could do so in their leisure for work was no longer necessary.
The twelfth and thirteenth layers of heaven were occupied by the Lord of Duality, Ometeotl along with babies who had died before their time and those who died in their sleep inexplicably. These souls would obtain a new life in a new world to be created after the cataclysm that is to end the fifth sun in the form of a massive earthquake.
The Maya believed in an afterworld shaded by the World Tree where the dead spent their time drinking chocolate. The vast majority of the Maya, however, would not enter paradise but rather the underworld of Xibalba, “Realm of Fright,” where hellish creatures tormented them unceasingly.
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