The legends of the dead told by ancient or tribal people are perhaps the most accurate indicators of their religious thought. And from what can be assumed from the burial rites of early humans, they pondered the same kinds of questions concerning the afterlife as humans do today. Where had their friends gone? What do they do and see when they disappear into the unknown? Will they live again? Can their spirits return to communicate? Or are they just gone—forever? Early humans could not answer these great questions, and so, to temper their fear of death, they created rituals, rites, and religions to comfort them.
Although the process of death and the reasons why the once animated body became lifeless were puzzles, aboriginal tribal societies understood that there was something in their departed friends and family members that survived somehow in another existence. The reason for this belief can be easily imagined. As they slept, early humans saw those persons whom they knew to be dead, alive and well in their dreams. Perhaps they themselves had witnessed their friends being killed in a dispute with another tribe or mangled by a predator, yet now they saw them and spoke with them, just as they had before their death. These vivid dreams of the dead undoubtedly led to the belief that there existed an immaterial aspect of human beings, a part that managed to survive the dissolution of the body.
Many Native American tribes believed that the physical body housed two or more souls, which became separated at death. The ancient Chinese affirmed three souls set free at death: one remained in the family house to serve as a kind of protector; another watched over the grave site as "guardian of the tomb"; and the third passed into the invisible realm. The aboriginal people of New Zealand, the Maori, believe that each of the eyes of the deceased is given a separate immortality: the spirit of the left eye ascends to heaven and is seen as a new dark star in the sky, and the spirit of the right takes flight to Reinga, a place beyond the sea.
The Fang people of Gabon envision seven types of souls:
The aboriginal inhabitants of the Fiji Islands believe that a human has two souls: the "dark spirit" and the "light spirit." The Nootkas of British Columbia regarded the soul as a tiny facsimile of the person that lived in the crown of the head.
Early humans generally did not accept death as due to natural causes. Death was either the result of acts of violence caused by human or animal enemies, or it was caused by evil and unseen demons. To the primitive mind, if a man or a woman, without wound or injury, fell silently asleep and never awakened, they had to have been the victim of malevolent spirits.
Some of the earliest rituals revolving around death concerned the interaction between the living and the body of the newly dead. Some tribal cultures believed that an evil spirit inhabited the corpse, and it should not be touched for fear of providing the malevolent entity with a living body to possess. Some anthropologists have theorized that it was fear of the dead body that led early humans to dispose of it. Since evil spirits had caused the "long sleep," they must undoubtedly still be lurking near the body to seize new victims. Therefore, the practical thing to do was to bury or burn or otherwise dispose of the body, thereby removing both the dead and the demons at the same time.
The Australian aborigines showed their fear of the dead by burning all the deceased's property and running away to establish a new village. They believed that the demon resided not only in the dead body, but in all the deceased's belongings. Early tribes in Greenland threw everything out of the house that had been owned by the dead person. At Batta funerals, the natives marched behind the body, brandishing swords to frighten away the death demons. The Galibis of Guiana dance on the newly covered grave to stamp down the spirits. The Winnebago tribe had a fear of evil spirits troubling the corpses of their deceased loved ones, so they swept the grass around the grave in a circle from six to 20 feet in diameter, a ritual that they believed prevented the evil spirits from approaching the departed's final earthly resting place.
The cosmology of certain eastern Native American tribes placed two powerful manitous, representatives of the Great Spirit, on duty in the Land of the Departed. One of the manitous, Chibiabos, like the Egyptian god Osiris and the Hindu judge of the dead, Yama, was master over the realm of the dead and escorted the newly arriving souls into their new environment. Sometimes there was a process of judgment involved, in which the worthy souls would be allowed to dwell in the Land of the Departed and the unworthy would be set adrift in space. The other manitou, Pauguk, protected the realm of the dead from unwelcome intruders with his bow and arrows.
Many Native American tribes believed that spirits of the dead lingered among the living until certain rites had been performed that would aid the spirits in their passage to the other world. Among the Ogallala Sioux, it was maintained that the spirit of the dead passed into the spirit world, by degrees, at the completion of necessary rituals that became the duty of the deceased person's family. Like fleeting shadows, the spirits of the dead slowly migrated to the Land of the Grandparents, gaining strength for their journey from the energy received from their living relatives, who performed a long and demanding rite known as the Shadow or Ghost Ceremony. The time needed to complete the ritual successfully could amount to as long as two years, during which period the immediate family and close relatives endured great privation to ensure the safe passage of the departed spirit.
These extensive rites were conducted in special Ghost Lodges, and it was here that the body of the deceased was kept prior to burial and where the ceremonies on the part of the deceased were held long after his or her interment. The Ogallala most often kept Ghost Lodges when the death was a particularly sad one, such as the passing of a child by accident or illness.
Among the Ojibway people it is customary to cut the hair of a child who has died and make a little doll of it, which they call the "doll of sorrow." This doll takes the place of the deceased child, and the mother carries it with her everywhere for a year. They believe that during this period of time, the soul of the child is transferred through the hair from the dead body to the doll.
The ghost land or spirit land of tribal people is equivalent to the concept of a heaven or a paradise: It is a place free from worry, illness, war, and the fear of death. It seems a general belief among many different tribal cultures that the afterlife of the soul is concerned with the same kind of pursuits that the entity followed as a living person. The spirit land would feature good hunting and fishing, beautiful new lands to explore, and no warfare or tribal rivalries.
Because the deceased individuals would be continuing a life similar to their life on Earth, they would need their valuables, their tools and weapons, and, of course, food and drink. Therefore, in nearly all tribal religions, it was customary to bury material things with the body. For the Papuans, Tahitians, Polynesians, Malanans, ancient Peruvians, Brazilians, and countless others, food and drink was left with the corpse. In Patagonia, it was the annual custom to open the burial chambers and reclothe the dead. Each year the Eskimo take clothes as a gift to the dead. Among the Kukis, the widow is compelled to remain for a year beside the tomb of her deceased husband, while other members of the family bring food daily for her and the spirit of the deceased. In the Mosquito tribe, the widow is obligated to supply the grave of her husband with provisions for a year.
It has been suggested that the religious aspects of funerals grew out of the belief that death was nothing more than a journey to another world and that the newly dead expect to have ceremonies performed for them to hasten their travels and to lessen the dangers of the journey. Among most tribal cultures, therefore, it is customary to dance and feast at the time of death for purposes of pleasing the spirit of the departed and to stamp upon the ground to frighten away evil spirits.
Steiger, Brad. Medicine Power. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Emerson, Ellen Russell. Indian Myths. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965.
Steiger, Brad. Worlds Before Our Own. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1978.
Emerson, Ellen Russell. Indian Myths. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1965.
Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.