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Some Modern Pagan Views of the Afterlife
As we saw in the last article, views of the afterlife in different societies mirrored many of the facets of life on the Earth plane. It was believed that people lived similar lives to the ones they had before only slightly better, with no illness, hunger, or poverty/lack. To some extent this was conditional on following certain rules, usually laid down by the priesthood who were heavily influenced by society as a whole, and the leaders in particular. In many of these societies the high priest was also the tribal leader or a highly influential member of the tribe per se. A well-known example of this was the Roman Imperial Cult where the Roman Emperors were worshiped as being Divine in their own right, something that they copied from the Classical Greeks.
Astute readers will have noticed that the examples of the Pagan afterlives given in the last article were all connected with formal, or semi-formal, religions. This is because these are the most well-documented systems and they left lots evidence of their beliefs behind in the form of buildings, writings (in some shape or form), artifacts, and specialist structures. Most of them were the official, overt, state beliefs but, as with many cultures there was also a counter-culture alongside it which was either ignored or actively attacked. In this case it was the Shamanic systems that continued in the countryside outside the influence of the reigning religion in the town.
As each religion was supplanted by the next their jobless clergy and families were forced, usually by circumstances, to move from urban to rural surroundings. Here their beliefs and rituals were incorporated into general folk magick with its Shamanic approach. The Celtic spiritual path was one of the few to be incorporated into this Shamanism approach as far as I know. Possibly because of its roots in Bronze Age central Europe around 1200 BCE when Shamanism was still the main tribal approach to spirituality. The tribes never unified under one leader or religion where spirituality could be used as part of social control. Although Ovates, Bards, and Druids, still wielded a lot of influence there was still a strong reliance on individual power and personal contact with the Divine as opposed to working solely through an intermediary such as a Priest or other members of a holy hierarchy.
For the Celts the Otherworld was a very real thing, death was just transference of the soul to it. The ‘dead’ could even return to visit at certain times of the year, such as Samhain/Hallow’een when the barrier between worlds was at its thinnest. Also the ancestors, also called “The Honoured Dead”, could be contacted through shamanic methods including journeying to the Otherworld in trance states, and using necromantic methods such as the ‘Oracular Head’. This latter technique was where the remains of a body, usually the head or skull were used as a physical connection to contact or summon the former owner.
These techniques were used for centuries in rural areas beyond the reach of the mainstream government and religion of the day. Some of them found their way into Ritual magick, but most of the time ‘contacting the dead’ was mainly the provenance of the provincial Pagans, be they Craft or Cunning Men/Women. It stayed this way until the advent of the modern Spiritualism, officially started by the Fox Sisters of Hydesville New York in 1848. They claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler buried in the basement of the house they were living in, the ghost was supposed to communicate by a code of knocks and cracking sounds. The sisters quickly became celebrities in the US and this lead to the development of Spiritualism as a religion, even though an investigation in 1851 suggested that the girls were producing the knocking and cracking themselves without any spiritual assistance. In 1888 the sisters confessed to faking the whole thing, although one of them, Margaret, recanted the confession and returned to promoting Spiritualism
From the Pagan point of view what the development of Spiritualism did was to provide a legitimate framework for practicing parts of the Craft that would formerly have been banned by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Even so mediums were still prosecuted under the Act, most famously Helen Duncan in 1944 for a number of offences, supposedly including some under the Official Secrets Act. The Witchcraft Act was replaced in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which also opened the way for the open practice of Witchcraft spearheaded by Gerald Gardner. In turn this was supplanted by the Consumer Protection Regulations in 2008 following an EU directive targeting unfair sales and marketing practices aimed at coercive “Psychic phonelines”
Today many Pagans believe in an existence after bodily death, with most systems loosely following the Celtic model with some Indian influence on the subject of reincarnation. Ritual Magick practitioners tend towards the view put forward by Violet Firth, better known as Dion Fortune, that after death your personality and etheric energies are returned to the Universe, and your soul/essence goes for a rest before probably being reincarnated. Both don’t take into account that the Indian idea of reincarnation was used as a form of social control, especially to reinforce the caste system.
An interesting development since the early 20th century has been the fusion of physics with psychic skills to investigate and understand the science underpinning the many types of phenomena attributed to Spiritualist mediums . Several psychic studies centres, such as the Arthur Findlay College of Psychic Science, are combining traditional necromantic techniques for contacting a dead person’s essence with modern quantum physics to this end. They are also co-operating with cutting-edge neuropsychology to see what states of mind are associated with mediumship and what areas of the brain are used when the person is apparently conveying information from the deceased.
Spritualist Temples, or Churches, are readily accessible by the general public in both the UK and USA. It’s worth visiting as part of the congregation both to see some of the similarities with Pagan ritual, and the various techniques employed to distance it from its Pagan roots and bring it into line with local religious belief. If you have been doing some ‘contacting the departed’ work yourself this can be a useful way of seeing if you are getting results but not noticing them. I speak from personal experience here having had what I thought were lucid dreams about someone who had died, only to find when I accompanied my wife to a demonstration of mediumship that I apparently travelled to the ‘other side’. I’ll tell you all about that in the next article, until that have a happy- and safe- Samhain
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