A few years I attended the Tutankhamun exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition included more than 130 artifacts (over 5000 were found in the tomb). I marveled at the exquisite gold burial mask, the coffinettes containing his mummified internal organs, the collection of statues in his image, as well as the items he used in his daily life—board games, favorite chairs, beds and linens.
What struck me most about this exhibit was the faith it exemplified: the immutable belief that life continues after death. If the dead were worthy, the ancients believed, they entered a splendid realm similar to their earthly lives but without the pain and hardship. The soul’s journey was considered perilous, and for this reason the body was carefully prepared before burial and fully equipped afterward. Tombs were filled with everything the soul might need; if some of these items were too large, pictures of them were drawn on the walls.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also believed in the soul’s journey, but their views were more elaborate, involving several rivers and deities who meted out reward or punishment. Heroes were sent to sunny Elysium, the bad were sentenced to Tartarus and punished by The Furies. Decent citizens who had not achieved greatness were sent to the Fields of Asphodel to forget all that they knew on earth and live for eternity as “shades.” Those who died unjustly were sometimes forgiven and allowed to return to earth.
Gods were believed to control everything, not just man’s ultimate fate but the luck, or lack of it, he encountered on earth. To illustrate their sweeping respect, the ancients built temples to house and honor their deities. From the pyramids to the Parthenon, from the monoliths of Stonehenge to the giant statues of Easter Island, no structure was considered too daunting to attempt, and people embarked on these projects knowing they would take several lifetimes to complete.
Modern civilizations have their own religions, and many still believe in a waiting paradise for those who deserve it and eternal damnation for those who don’t. What has changed is the extent to which our beliefs comfort us. While we attend religious services and observe various traditions, most of our focus is on this life, not the next one, and into this one small life we pour an endless stream of worry and doubt and fear. We deny the fact of our aging, and we are so fearful of death that we won’t even talk about it. We pray for salvation but lack certainty.
What the ancients could not explain, they assigned to a god. Bounty or catastrophe, the gods took credit for it. While there must have been a few doubters, most of the population assumed that as mortals they had little understanding of the world and even less control over it. Gods were rolling the dice and only fools would risk The Furies. Surrender was a way of life, and anyway paradise was waiting.
We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides. The greater mysteries, why we are here and where we are going, are still beyond our reach. There is wisdom in letting these questions be and simply acknowledging, with fierce devotion, the force that put us here.