Ancient cultures' folklore and beliefs varied from district to district, village to village and within the mainstream doctrines.
The Ancient Semitic people of the Near East, such as the Canaanites and the Babylonians, believed all the dead go to a dark place below the earth, regardless of how they lived their lives on earth.
Mesopotamian religion, based on some of the first written accounts in history, is thought to have had influence on the later Canaanite, Greek and Phoenician religions and more modern religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The afterlife for ancient Mesopotamians was the "Great Below" and everyone went there as ghosts. This realm was a dark place below the world of the living, where the ghosts had no power. This was not considered a punishment or a reward, but simply death.
Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian) beliefs of the afterlife were a never-ending and dreary version of living. There was no concept of judgment and the prospect was the same for the good and the bad alike.
The co-existing religions of Sumeria, Babylonia and Assyria revered different gods as supreme among the divine pantheon. But all touted belief in the afterlife and immortality and buried objects serviceable to the living with their dead. Some believed in the existence of a second being within us. The first being was buried and the second survived death and continued on. The Latin "anima", for the soul, from the root “an” for the breath, associates the breath with the second self. Their belief in the movability of the soul applied in both dreams and in death.
In death, Assyrians contemplated the universe as an agricultural place. They assigned spirits under the earth and believed men's spirits also entered the world below. However, there is no indication of the concept of underworld or heaven.
For Babylonians, in death the soul traveled to Irkalla, a place for living spirits of the dead and an underworld from which there was no return. It was not considered a place of reward or punishment, but was known as the House of Darkness where every person's soul, whether they were peasant or priest or king while they lived, continued on in a rather bleak and miserable state.
Although variations regard rebirth of the soul as a privilege granted to some, particularly those who lived a 'noble' life, the concept of rebirth is consistent as a natural outcome after death. The form of the soul,s return varies from human to winged creatures, always returning in some form usually in the world below, sometimes in the same world, or even interacting in both.
Canaanite's feature the Cult of the Dead. The dead are honored and the living pray to them for guidance and help. They are buried with goods and given offerings of food and drink.
There is no evidence of belief in an afterlife in another realm. Upon death of the physical body, the soul (called "nps") goes to the land of Mot. Mot is the god of death and can also be translated to simply mean "death". Thus, death was simply death, although with a need for access to nutrition.
In Hittite religion only royalty makes it to Paradise in the afterlife. Everyone else becomes a spirit in the underworld.
Ancient Egyptians believed in the soul. For one's soul to be granted an afterlife, three conditions had to be met: preservation of the body, having your name written down somewhere, and having a light heart. The more good deeds you did in life, the lighter your heart would become. The goddess Maat weighed your heart; if it was too heavy, your soul would live in your tomb forever.
If you met all conditions, your soul could board Ra's boat and sail away into your afterlife. The god Osiris opened the door to the Land of Two Fields - the heavenly place of afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed the soul had two parts: the Ka and the Ba. Each morning, the Ba flew off to watch over your surviving family and the Ka went to the Land of Two Fields to enjoy your afterlife. Each evening, the Ka and the Ba returned to your tomb for sleep.
If your preserved body was disturbed or destroyed or if your name was not written down anywhere, the Ka and Ba would get lost. You would disappear and no longer be able to enjoy the afterlife or watch over your family.
Ancient Judaism, founded by Abraham in his covenant with God, did not appear to have a focus on afterlife or a belief in a soul distinct from the physical body. Rather the focus was on the here and now in this life, and on keeping the promise to God being rewarded in this life rather than in heaven, such as in safety from enemies, good crops and healthy, bountiful life.
Judaism holds that there will come a time when the Messiah - a god-sent ruler - will come and free the Jews and bring security and justice to the earth.
Although not a focus, a feature of early Jewish beliefs is in the soul's immortality and physical resurrection with the arrival of the Messiah. In the interim, the soul goes to Sheol - meaning the underworld or perhaps simply the grave.
Ancient Greeks believed that at death the soul separated from the body and was transported to the underworld.
Hermes, messenger of the gods, took souls to the banks of the Styx, the river between earth and the underworld, between life and death. If you had gold (one's family put coins under the deceased's tongue), the ferryman Charon took your soul across the river Styx (and/or River Acheron) to the three judges of the underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus (ruler of Elysium) and Aeacus. Ruled by the Greek god Hades, the underworld was populated by many other characters, such as Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance, and the three goddesses Erinyes who avenged crimes against humanity.
One's soul would be placed, according to judgment, into one of five realms:
Tartarus was not part of the underworld, but rather was described as being far beneath it. Here the souls of the evil or rebellious blasphemers of the gods were punished for their sins.
The Fields of Punishment was said to be for the souls of those who sinned, but not enough to deserve the punishment of Tartarus. Other accounts describe it as a place reserved for those who particularly wronged the gods or committed great crimes. Here Hades would design punishments particularly suited to the crime.
Asphodel Fields is described as a meadow and for ordinary souls whose sins equaled their good deeds, so they could not be judged either pure or evil. Souls of Asphodel are described as "witless, without activity, without pleasure and without future."1
Elysian Fields were peaceful and beautiful and reserved for the souls of those who lived pure lives. Souls reaching Elysian could also choose to be reborn.Isles of the Blessed were an eternal paradise within Elysian. If a soul was reborn three times and achieved Elysian each time, they then go to Isles of the Blessed.
The Greeks definitely believed death was not an absolute end to existence. Descriptions of souls' journeys to the afterlife and the realms could be quite varied and elaborate, and there was value placed on respecting and honoring the dead. However, overall the ancient Greeks viewed afterlife primarily as a remembrance and that souls were inactive with no influence or strength.
The Ancient Romans had beliefs similar to the Greeks, although the names of the gods and demigods varied, such as Pluto instead of Hades.
Ancient Celts believed the soul was eternal and that there was an afterlife in an Otherworld, a plane on Earth accessible by death or divine intervention. The early Celtic literature of Ireland intertwines Christian and Celtic myth, although the Christian and pagan are often carefully separated as beliefs. Celtic religion is more tolerant - there is no punishment for being a bad soul and death is a long pause before rebirth. In ancient times, however, it was more commonly held that it was a one-way journey and the concept of reincarnation was not necessarily evident. The Otherworld was made up of the Land of Youth, the Land of Promise and the Land of Honey and was close to the concept of paradise, free of disease and old-age. As a realm, it was similar to Earth but was inhabited by gods and by fairies, also known as the People of Peace.
Various descriptions of Norse afterlife realms exist, the following being the most well known. All collectively allude to the underworld as an extension of the grave and describe a cycle of return of the physical body to the earth and a continuation of other parts to their descendants as well as to the underworld.
Valhalla ("Hall of the Slain") is a majestic hall ruled by Odin and reserved for half of those who died courageously in battle. The other half goes to Folkvangr ("Field of the Host"), a beautiful meadow ruled by the goddess Freyja. Some interpretations have only Valhalla.
Helheim ("The Covered Hall", sometimes referred to simply as Hel) is described similarly to the Asphodel Meadows, for those judged neither good nor bad and a place where the dead go to be reunited with their friends and families.
Niflhel ("Misty Hel" or "The Dark") is similar to Tartarus and is deep beneath Hel where the deserving are sentenced to a second death and punished with others like them. Some scholars see Niflhel as a more recent addition to the pre-Christian beliefs of the Northern Europeans.
Descriptions of an afterlife in the underworld resemble human life, featuring love, carousing, battles, eating, sleep and generally taking part in activities of the living, albeit in a non-physical form.
The dead were perceived to dwell here on earth in some cases, there to watch over their descendants.
Zoroastrianism beliefs include universal resurrection as part of a death leading ultimately to purification and renewal of the world, termed frashokereti (translation suggested is "making wonderful"). This doctrine holds that good will overcome evil; the universe was originally pure and became corrupted; the world will be restored to its original state; and the fate of the soul is one's own responsibility.
An individual's fate depends on the totality of that person's words, thoughts and deeds during life. From this, everyone also shares responsibility for the world's fate.
In death, souls await a Judgment Day. One Zoroastrian mythology has the soul attempt to cross the Bridge of the Requiter where all life deeds are weighed. If bad deeds outweighed good, the bridge narrows and the soul falls to Hell. If good outweighs bad, the soul goes to the Zoroastrian version of Paradise. The common theme in Zoroastrianism is that all souls go through a purification of some kind - whether a brief terror, a time in purgatory or a time in Hell. Ultimately, all come to Paradise, sometimes known as the "House of Song" or the "Best Existence."
1. Cole, Susan (2003). Michael B. Cosmopoulos, ed. Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. p. 194