Gospel & Universe
Systems of Hope
❧ This page suggests that the Classical Age shift from a dismal to a positive afterlife seems to have been influenced by Egypt and Persia ❧
From Dread to Hope - Western Isles
From Dread to Hope
Exactly why or when the grim vision of the afterlife changed north of Egypt is a matter of debate for scholars of the early Classical world. Yet it's not hard to see how the more hopeful Egyptian type of afterlife system would supply people with greater philosophical meaning and greater moral incentive. Whether or not the Egyptian view influenced the Persians or the later Mesopotamians, Hebrews, and Greeks, it seems that something like it was adopted sometime in the first millennium BC. The idea of an afterlife is still debated within Judaism, yet the possibility is clearly stated in the 2nd C BC Book of Daniel, attributed to a Jew living in Babylon centuries earlier: “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.”
It seems more than likely that the specific idea of an afterlife land of the blessed was influenced by the positive afterlife scenarios in Egypt and Persia.
In the Egyptian afterlife judgment, if your heart is light you go to a lush garden. If your heart is heavy and it weighs down the scales, then your soul will be thrown into flames. This is an ingenious scenario, since it leaves the world brighter each time: good people continue to exist, while evil people are erased from the face of the universe. Dark and nasty places like Hell are not required. There are no endless prison riots or gnashing of teeth.
The Zoroastrian Persians may also have had an influence on the positive afterlife scenarios that developed in the late Classical period and that provided Judaism and Christianity with greater motivation than the grim Mesopotamians scenarios. Zoroastrianism contains a supreme Being, free will, the notion that you sow what you reap, an afterlife journey (over a bridge), the judgment of the soul, and the notion that everyone will eventually be redeemed from their sins. I should add that the influence of Persian thought isn't clear in the Bible however, despite the Persians being held in much higher regard than the Babylonians — especially since in 538 BC the Persian king Cyrus the Great issued a decree that liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity.
Something similar to both the Egyptian and Persian scenarios seems to occur in Jewish thinking, where the soul stays for a year in a purgatorial Gehinnon (sometimes translated as Hell) and then moves on to Olam Ha-Ba, or The World to Come, at which point it could be destroyed or continue to exist. From what I gather, this Jewish view is also questioned and countered by other Jewish views, and the general afterlife scenario (like the question of the existence of an immortal soul) isn’t as clear as it becomes in mainstream Christianity.
There also seems to have been a transition from hopelessness to hope in the epics of Greece and Italy — two literary streams that strongly influenced the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
In Homer's Iliad, death seems a bleak prospect:
Certainly Achilles' fate in the Iliad conforms to its view of death generally: such forms of immortality as the apotheosis of mortals, worship as a cult hero, or translation to a White Island or Elysian Plain are passed over in virtual silence. The heroes of the Iliad look ahead only to Hades' dismal realm. (Anthony Edwards, "Achilles in the Underground," 1985)
Likewise, Odysseus sails westward to the edge of the world and then communicates with a vague swarm of unhappy souls. When Odysseus meets Achilles, the great warrior tells him that he'd gladly swap places with a poor labourer above ground:
How didst thou dare to come down to Hades, where dwell the unheeding dead, the phantoms of men outworn. [...] Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished. (The Odyssey, trans. A.T Murray, 1919)
It's hard to make out clearly the topography of this Greek realm. Perhaps this is because there were different models of the afterlife, reflecting current and earlier models, such as those that came from the Mycenaeans and Minoans:
Belief in a realm of Hades was complemented by an alternative land of the blessed, usually an island located at the edges of the earth, where kings and other favoured individuals enjoyed a happy eternity. Although it remains unclear just how this eschatology fits into the religious thought of pre-classical Greece, the idea of such an afterlife is generally agreed to go back at least to Minoan-Mycenaean times. (Anthony Edwards, "Achilles in the Underground," 1985)
This is of course a complex topic, best suited to experts in the Ancient and Classical worlds. Yet it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that whatever the deep roots of a positive afterlife are, the Egyptian scenario must have played either an originating or a reinforcing role. The many masterful renditions of The Book of the Dead give a clear picture of the importance and ubiquity of this concept, an inspiring version of which can be seen in the frescoes depicting the afterlife of a 14th C. BC scribe called Nebamun — now in the British Museum: