Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle. But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence. In the underworld, he was as a god.
Yet Achilles would have traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
then rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
(translated by Robert Fagles)
The mythologies of ancient Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection. As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.
Most other religions postulate that the dead could return. This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope. It’s easier to face death – our own or the passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn.
Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth. Our minds are patterns. If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually.
The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now. Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories. Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion. Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.
Indeed, the physicists who believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature. Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist between the stars.
This speculation seems no different from any other form of religious belief. Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a disembodied spirit in the sky …
But we, as individuals, are unlikely to return.
More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected. They slip away; we strive to bring them back. Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism. From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”
Louis Komjathy, a scholar who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by the upheavals of the twentieth century. There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a recreation of a lost past.
At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches. Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice. Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion. I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.
Pagans managed to repel the Roman invaders. But then, years later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths.
No one recorded the original beliefs or mythologies of the druids. Celtic mythology was written down only after the populace had converted; to make the stories “safe,” they were recorded as the memories of conquered giants who had been exorcised by Saint Patrick.
Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity. Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely. For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean.
And, yes, “Thor’s challenge” could also mean “ocean.” The old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience, the poets were challenging people to understand. Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is. (Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I think it’s silly.)
When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories. These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.
Indeed, some contemporary Christians’ prejudice against women is so stolid that when archaeologists sequenced DNA from a famous warrior’s skeleton and realized that she, the ceremonially-buried warrior, was female, many people suddenly decided that perhaps this woman was not a great warrior after all.
Her prowess had never been questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.
And so, although we still have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout the cannon) were left out.
But, even if we still had the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking religion. With a copy of the Bible, you wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you suddenly understand Judaism. In practice, these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are violent and petty. Yahweh felt slighted and decided to murder millions in a flood. You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you thought believers were supposed to behave.
As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed. In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.
But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion. They do not know any of the traditions. Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal.
And, look – I’ve obviously never discussed theology with an ancient viking, either. Maybe their beliefs really were brutish and unpleasant. But I suspect that the vikings would feel puzzled, if not dismayed, were they to meet the tattoo-riddled milk-chuggers who self-describe as Odinists today.