Since humanity has been consciously aware of death they have created rituals around it, and models of what happens when people die. In the past even close relatives of our species, such as Neanderthals, had rituals surrounding their dead to provide for an existence of some sort for the essence of the being who had died. At the time of writing we can only speculate what sort of views they had, and the significance of many of their practices, as no overt clues have been left . As human society developed so did the ideas of an afterlife, becoming more complex, mirroring the society connected with it.
One of the well-known early models of the afterlife is the Ancient Egyptian one with its complex hierarchy of Gods and Goddesses, and intricate embalming of the dead body in the cases of some of the senior members of their society. The lower members, such as labourers and farmers had a basic removal of the organs to canopic jars, desiccation of the body in natron – a type of salt – and burial in the ground. The further up the human hierarchy the person who died was, the more multifaceted the preparation of the body including coating one or more of the wrappings in the resin from expensive plants such as myrrh and frankincense. The idea of preserving the body in this way was so that the dead person’s ‘Ba’ or etheric body had an anchor on the physical plane. Offerings of food and drink left for the dead, either in tombs, at the grave, or specific holy sites were meant to nourish the etheric body stopping it from returning to the Elements. It was believed that if the persons responsible for leaving the offerings stopped doing so the Ba could leave it’s place of rest in the grave or tomb and haunt the offenders. Today some Vampire covens, also called Houses or Clans, claim these were the first vampires, feeding off life energy or ‘Chi’ rather than actual blood and that they follow these precepts
The Ka was the more refined essence of the person being the summation of all the spiritual and so-called nonphysical attributes that make up a person. After death it used the Ka as a vehicle to travel out of the tomb to the Hall of Ma’at where the deceased was judged on their actions while alive. The papyrus called “Going Forth by Day”, better known as “The book of the dead” in some Egyptian circles, gives the process in detail. If you read it you can see some evidence of social control being exerted through the religion, especially in the 42 negative (as in “I have not ..”) confessions to enter the afterlife as a sentient being. Animals were considered to have connections with various Deities and having a Ka but more an oversoul rather than a Ba, but the details are still under debate by scholars.
Due to the effects of trade with the rest of the Mediterranean the ideas of the Ancient Egyptians had a strong influence on the other civilizations, particularly the Classical Greeks. This became even more pronounced when Alexander The Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and installed his trusted bodyguard and general, Lagides, to rule it. Lagide’s decedents became the Potelmic dynasty which ruled Egypt from 305 to 30 BCE. Greek models of the afterlife tended to emphasise the roles of the Deities as more humanised personalities, and taking much more of a direct role in judging how the person had lived their life according to societal standards. There was also a stronger belief in reincarnation, possibly brought in by travellers from India, Pythagoras and Plato mention it in their writings. The mystery religion of Orphism, which drew strongly from Pythagoras’s philosophy , incorporated it as part of their teachings and this had a strong effect on the many spiritual systems that drew upon it for their inspiration in later times.
Greek models of the afterlife also included a ‘heaven’, the Elyssian fields, and a ‘hell’ in the form of the Underworld ruled over by the God Hades and his consort Persephone. This is where the ‘shades’ – which some or the Pagans who follow the Greek systems consider to be the ‘astral shells’, or personalities, of the dead – dwell. The Romans drew heavily on the Greeks for their ideas of what happened when you died, and followed the same core beliefs.
Perhaps the most well-known afterlife model in modern Paganism is that of the Celts. These were a disparate group of tribes united by similar customs, languages laws and religion. They are thought to have their tribal roots in Bronze Age central Europe around 1200 BCE, becoming recognisable as a distinct ‘Celtic’ civilisation from 800 BCE to 450 BCE. With their metal tools and weapons, plus their skills with horses they spread out through most of Europe and as far East as Anatolia in Turkey. A treaty with Alexander the Great kept them from pushing into Greece until his death in 323 BCE. The Roman Empire expansion started to break up their empire, and, when the Roman Empire disintegrated, they became an influential part of the various local cultures. This was particularly true of their spiritual beliefs. Much of European magick has strong Celtic influence sometimes overtly in places such as Ireland or Scotland, but even in local beliefs such as Sacred Wells, which have similar decorating and ritual customs from the UK to Hungary.
Samhuain or “Summer’s end” customs are mainly Celtic in origin, the idea of the dead being able to visit the living at this time of year due to it being the end of one year and the beginning of another in the Celtic calendar. This is tied into their worldview that the Otherworld and the World of Humans exist side by side and can be accessed at ‘tween, or ‘between places’, including the gap between one year and the next. Even the idea of midnight as the ‘witching hour’ comes from the idea that this time is between one day and the next, especially as the Celts measured time from Sunset to Sunset as a day rather than Sunrise to Sunrise.
Celts also believed that the soul travelled from the material plane to the Otherworld and back again during a person’s lifetime, both during sleep and at birth and death. This is the reason behind the Scots and Irish tradition of the Wake or Lykewake, where the death of the person in this world was their rebirth in the Otherworld. This is the reason for the party and, as a side effect, the energy of the people dancing, feasting and drinking is thought by some Pagans to provide enough energy for the etheric body to stay connected to the Earth plane to provide a smooth transition to the Astral realms and avoid a haunting.