In order to understand the concept of the spirit world, one must first understand ancient societies and their relationship with death as well as their view of the world. The Middle Paleolithic period was from 300,000 to 50,000 years ago. During pre-history, the time before written history, society was animistic, polytheistic, or animalistic or all three.
Animism attributes life and personality to an inanimate object and polytheism deals with the worship of multiple deities. Animalism such as in pre-dynastic ancient Egypt, deals with the worship of animals or animal gods especially before a hunt.
As the Egyptian culture advanced the god’s kept their animal heads but had human bodies. People lived off of the earth and were at the mercy of the gods or as we would say nature. For example, according to Mesopotamian mythology, the gods had made humans of clay, but the flesh and blood of a god specially slaughtered for the occasion had been added to the clay.
God was, therefore, present in all people. The sole purpose of humanity's creation was to serve the gods. Additionally, the Sumerians believed in their gods and saw the intentions of their gods as good and powerful beings that controlled their world. The Sumerians explanation for their hardships and misfortunes were the result of human deeds that displeased the gods - in a word, sin. (“Sumerian Polytheism, Sin and a Great Flood Myth”)
They believed that when someone displeased the gods, these gods let demons punish the offender with sickness, disease, or environmental disasters. To our modern mind the people of this time may seem very uneducated or superstitious. But one has to think about their way of life and the experiences they had in day to day living. It is widely believed that this was a frightening time to live. Not so much because of the dangers of living off of the earth but because the gods controlled life and every aspect of life. One would not want to anger or offend a god for fear of retribution. So, people lived in fear giving offerings and sacrifices to the gods and trying what they could to appease or outwit evil or angry spirits.
To put this into perspective, let us look at a huge natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. We know this was an act of nature, a hurricane, but to primitive minds it would have been an angry god that battered the coast. Had this been ancient times, New Orleans and all of its inhabitants would have for all intents been wiped off the face of the earth because of flooding caused by and angry and wrathful deity.
It is during the middle Paleolithic period in history that we begin to see the systematic burying of the dead. Graves have been discovered in various parts of the world of Paleolithic peoples containing personal possessions of the deceased. Human skeletal remains of a mother and child stained with red ochre dating back 90,000 years were found in a cave in Israel. This is the earliest undisputed evidence of ritual burial found.
As of today, it is uncertain what exactly the red ochre signifies but it was quite common of that period. It should bears mentioning here that graves have been found dating back approximately 300,000 years; however, the fact that those graves are in fact ritual burials is highly debated. These early graves are those of everyday people with nothing to denote a leader. The earliest evidence of a shamanistic burial dates back to 30,000 BC in what is now known as the Czech Republic.
Shamanistic practices and beliefs have been found on every continent. The first grave of a shaman dates back approximately 30,000 years. The grave was discovered in what is today the Czech Republic. Because of the heavily weighted clothes the deceased still wore, and doll found buried with him many scholars have considered this to be a shaman. Another ancient shaman grave dating back 12,000 years was unearthed in modern day Israel containing fifty tortoise shells, a human foot and body parts from several animals.
Studies suggest that the burial site dates back to the Natufian people. They were the first form of civilization to adopt the sedentary lifestyle. The methods and rituals performed to construct and seal this grave gives the sense that it belonged to the ancient shamans. Shamans play a vital role in civilizations and cultures, mediating between humans and the spiritual world, acting as healers and messengers to serve the community.
Shamans are holy people or traditional healers and women and were highly respected. Shamanism is based on the thought that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. (“Michael Champlain on Twitter: "Shamanism is based on the premise that ...”) The ancient Mesoamerican world for example is a place full of spirits and ghosts.
They made no distinction between natural and supernatural power because of the belief that every creation had unseen power. For example, a mountain can hold a deity and a rock a spirit. Ghosts are out at night and roam the jungle. To contact the supernatural, such as an animal spirit for example, shamans would use one of over forty hallucinogenic plants that grow in the jungle. Shamans, it is believed, enter the spirit world to communicate with the dead or channel the spirit of a particular deity.
A customary practice for both shamans and royalty in ancient Mesoamerica was to pierce a body part such as their tongue and thread a thin rope through the hole in order to allow the blood to run down the rope in a blood sacrifice to the gods. By entering into the world of the spirit shamans could not only speak on behalf of the tribe and ask for guidance but could also mend a human soul in order to return balance and health.
Spirits could be good or evil and could be the soul of a deceased person or never have lived a human life. These spirits could be consulted and called upon for aid whether it is good or ill. It was also believed that illness was the result of an angry or malicious spirit and that spirit must be appeased or cast out in order for a person to heal.
Gods controlled the weather and must be kept happy, or they would punish the unfaithful with any form of natural disaster that would be detrimental to the society’s way of life. So, a shaman would be called upon to enter into the spirit world for the good of the tribe and function as the mediator of the spirit world and the human world so they could live together in harmony. It was the job of the shaman to discover what the gods wanted or needed and then communicate those desires to the tribe so harmony could be achieved. Shamans could also guide souls into the spirit world and send them on their journey into the afterlife.
The ancient burial beliefs and rituals from around the world are too vast and varied to go into detail in a simple blog. Some have gone by the wayside while others have changed as society has changed and are still practiced today. It is believed that early burial ceremonies were an effort to protect the living from the spirits that caused the death of the person to begin with. This brought about the burning of the deceased in order to destroy the spirits so they could not come after the living.
Some tribes built a ring of fire around the deceased so the spirits that caused the death would be trapped. This has evolved into lighting of candles for the dead. Other tribes would fire a volley of spears and arrows into the air to ward off the spirits and this is still evidenced today by our gun salutes. Floral offering were given to gain favor with the recently departed. Viking warriors were laid out in a boat with their weapons and tools and set ablaze and pushed out to sea. While those rituals just mentioned are tame and quite benign there are other rituals that are thankfully mostly gone in today’s society.
Although still in existence in an exceedingly small number, there are some tribes that eat their dead as a sign of respect. By ingesting the loved one, the members of the tribe are therefore accepting that person’s life energy into themselves thereby continuing the life. In many societies including ancient Greece often, a person was buried in a predetermined spot in the home.
There was a time in European history, although not ancient history but it still bears telling when family hired professional mutes and mourners for the dead. Mutes would stand around looking sad during the wake in order to make others feel sad and mourners were hired to wail loudly during a funeral and often tear at their clothing and face to make those in attendance cry. This has gone out of fashion however it is still used in some African and Middle Eastern cultures.
Throughout history there have also been festival or feast days set aside for the honoring of the dead. Once again, this practice returns to fear. Just as with some burial practices some of these feast and festival days honoring the dead are still in existence today.
One of the most popular is Halloween. It began with farmers dressing as goblins in order to scare away evil spirits so that they may have a good harvest. Lighted gourds, which later became jack-o-lanterns and bonfires, were also used to ward off those evil spirits. Halloween is of course followed by All Souls Day in which people go to cemeteries with lighted candles and leave offerings for the dead. The Mexican Day of the Dead is when family gathers together to remember those that have passed on. This holiday dates back over 2,500 years to the Indigenous cultures of the area. These remembrance festivals are carried out in various parts of the world even to this day and all with the same purpose: to honor, remember, and appease the dead.
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