A discussion on the imagery of the Otherworld and the afterlife in three different IE cultures. And a discussion of how these images impact my personal understanding of these images and those of Neo-Pagans in general
The Norse can be said to have one of the most varied and complex tales which determine the fate of the Dead. Most of what determines what happens to the dead is based on the one who died, though life style did play an important role as well. The Norse did believe in a form of reincarnation of a soul or transmigration. They were called "...endrbornir, 'born again'" (Mortensen 43). The belief was that the departed could take up residences in the body of a newborn baby of a descendent especially if the child was given the name of the dead individual. As for the rest of the Norse people, it depended on 'how' you died that determined the destination of an individual's soul. Within their mythology, there were three possible destinations, each very different from the other. Though from the sources I have read so far, these places could be seen simply as different names for the Underworld, much like in the Hellenic culture, where all the places of the Dead were still all located in the Underworld. (Mortensen 43)
Fólkvangr - is the place in which those who have been chosen by Freya go. (Mortensen 33-36)
Valhalla - is the place which Odin, 'Val-fathir', gives a place for all those who have fallen in battle. The Valkyrs are the ones who choose these fallen in battle. It is believed that each day the chosen, the Einherhar awake and battle against each other. Any that are felled rise before evening. The evening is spent rejoicing and drink in Odin's Hall (Mortensen 33-36).
Helheim - those who have died from old age or disease are taken to Helheim ruled by Hel. (Mortensen 33-36)
For the Hellenics, death was a time of judgment. It seems at one point in Hellenic mythology, humans knew the time of their deaths "..we must put a stop to their foreknowledge of their death; for this they at present foreknow" (Atsma). All those who passed into the afterlife were brought before three sons of Zeus, who had once been living themselves: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos. The judges and the judged were stripped naked so as to leave the trappings of the living world behind them. The place of judgment was a divided road: One road led to the Isles of the Blest and the other to Tartaros. As Tartaros is where Zeus threw the Titans, which warred against him, I cannot imagine a much worse fate for a person following the Hellenic path. When the Eleusinian Mysteries were founded, there was another possibility for those that died. The cult taught that as the seed from the death plant was laid in the earth and reborn each year so was Persephone. With this came the belief that we too could go through this cycle as well and could be given a blessed afterlife if initiated into the Mysteries (Leadbetter, Eleusinian Mysteries). But before a soul could arrive at any location, it must first travel through Erebus and across the River Acheron, the river of woe. It was here that the beast Cerberus guarded the entrance to the land of the dead. Those that were judged to be worthy of the Isles of Blest or the rule of Persephone drank from the River Lethe, river of oblivion, so they would forget about their past lives on earth. (Lindermans)
The Celtic culture was extremely varied by individual tribes and by region. However, there seem to be a very common theme from what literature survives from their culture. Unlike The Norse and the Hellenics, the Celtic culture did not seem to have “a land of punishment.” For them, the afterlife was not much different nor very separated from that of the living. It existed alongside that of the living. One major clue to support this belief could be seen in the fact that most of the graves found from Celtic origin are buried with common use and luxury items. (Bane 100)
There does, however, seem to be a distinction maybe between the Otherworld and the Underworld, though both were parts what lay after ‘this life.’ The Otherworld was comprised of Tír na nÓg, “the Land of Youth”, Mag Mell “The Plain of Honey”, Tír Tairngiri , The Land of Promise and Mag Argatnél. Mag Argatnél might be better known as Tir na nOg or Meg Mell, the floating island far to the west beneath the ocean. It was accessible to only a select few, much like the Elysian Fields in the Hellenic culture or Valhalla in the Norse. It was the Otherworld paradise (Bane 101). These lands were inhabited by the souls of the dead, the gods, and a race known as the Áes side (more commonly known as the People of Peace). These lands were free of disease, old age, and imperfections (Bell). The Underworld was considered to be the darker side of the afterlife, possibly populated by many of the less peaceful and darker beings. It was ruled by the god Gwynn ap Nudd . But again this is a generalization of Celtic literature that has survived through the ages (Lindemans).
The consistency and similarities of most of the IE cultures beliefs in and of the afterlife is rather astonishing. One of the things which David Leeming covers in his book was even more revealing of the ideas that pervaded the mythologies and beliefs of the IE cultures: “… four essential principles behind the Indo-European death concept: (1) matter is indestructible, (2) matter is infinitely transmutable, (3) living organisms and the physical universe are composed of one and the same material substance, and (4) time is eternal” (Leeming, The Oxford Companion of World Mythology 200). This ideology reflects much of what we are learning in physics today. As I read through these mythologies I find much comfort and a sense of truth that there is a life after the one we are living now. For me it also confirms what I have always believed, there is not any true “sin” as I was raised to believe in my Christian background. What awaits us is only a continuation of the kind of life we lived in this realm. I think that overall in the Neo-Pagan traditions that there is much the same feeling. It is important to believe that we are not “punished” for not following set rules but that we continue on being the kind of people we are in this life, just in a different realm.