Thursday, August 17, 2006

I'll See You in the Summerlands

Believing as I do that nothing is coincidence, it was fitting that an issue of New Witch magazine I bought the other day mentioned Pagan beliefs about the afterlife - namely that not all Pagans believe in an afterlife or in reincarnation. It was a lucky accident for me, because other than learning about certain gods and goddesses who are associated with the underworld, none of my Wiccan training or reading has addressed the question of what Wiccans do believe about the afterlife.

Personally, I have always believed in reincarnation. When I was a lonely college girl, I spent many hours on a project to research past lives so that I could find my soul mate - I was determined that if I could learn how to identify who he was I would be able to locate him in this incarnation. I have a number of friends with whom I initially made such an powerful connection that I know we are associated from a past life. As I delve into astrology, I am beginning to learn how to look for signs of past life relationships. I have asked my very-Christian sister to promise she will attend my death bed to light candles and play soothing music and ring bells in an effort to calmly direct my spirit to the place it is meant to be next. (This is a practice based entirely upon a Tibetan Buddhist belief that I learned from studying Tibetan mandalas - the best theological education is to study art history - but more about that in another post.) What does any of this have to do with the Wiccan view of the afterlife? Nothing. And everything.

Most Pagans do believe in reincarnation of some sort. Some don't. Depending what pantheon they follow, most Pagans believe in a place - Summerland, Tir Na Nog, Valhalla - where spirits go when they die. Some believe that it's just a resting place and some believe that it's the destination. While researching the web on this topic, I found this excellent overview of different afterlife beliefs by pantheon.

Because of my hereditary connection to ancient Scotland, I have chosen to follow a largely Celtic pantheon (with a few Hindu and Buddhist beliefs thrown in, as you've seen already). Not much is known of the Celtic beliefs of the afterlife. The Celts and the Druids didn't write things down, so our knowledge of their faith and practices comes from third-party sources (namely the conquering Romans) and archaeological evidence. The Celtic Otherworld was sometimes considered an underworld, and sometimes considered a great misty island such as Avalon or Tir Na Nog, or in some cases simply a universe parallel to our own. Wherever it is, the Celtic Otherworld is a happier place than Earth. Though physically it closely resembles the world in which we live, everything is peaceful and healthy, people are joyful and there is no pain.

As with many aspects of Neo-Pagan and Wiccan spiritual practices, issues of the afterlife are largely left to the specific tradition or individual. This is partly due to the fact that Wicca does not have a "bible" to guide the witch in matters of faith, such as the afterlife, and partly to do with the fact that modern Wicca is still a young religion. While those who are Wiccan share adherence to The Wiccan Rede and The Threefold Law, they are not necessarily bidden to share any other particular beliefs.

Silver Wolf's Lair has the most complete discussion of a particularly Wiccan viewpoint on the afterlife I have seen and rather than attempt to recreate their collection of information, I will merely point you to them: The Afterlife: The Wiccan Viewpoint.

Pagans place significant emphasis on our exercise of free will, and this extends to beliefs about the afterlife. As opposed to the Buddhist idea that we continue to be reincarnated until we reach enlightenment, after which our souls will be free, many Pagans believe that we choose to reincarnate and that we select our new life for the lessons we know we need to learn and that our new incarnation will stand to teach us. One prevailing attitude among many pagans is that to spend too much time thinking about what will happen in the afterlife takes our attention away from what we are doing with THIS life. It's an intriguing idea.

On the subject of reincarnation, I am reminded of a funny story. A dear friend of mine - witch, tarot teacher, pan-pantheon goddess worshipper - was addressing one evening the belief that many fundamentalist Christians seem to be sporting that the world is about to meet it's end. By way of reassuring the assembled company that this was anywhere from near the truth, he pointed out that in order for the world to come to end, all of its souls would have to reach enlightenment at precisely the same moment. And, he continued, with the current batch of souls we have running the US government, there was hardly any chance that EVERY soul currently on Earth would be attaining enlightenment for quite some time to come.

In setting out to write this post for A Pagan Sojourn, it became clear to me that beyond my own point of view I knew very little about what Wiccans believe about the afterlife. I turned to Witches' Voice as a source of information and inspiration, and there found a number of excellent essays on the topic:

Nietzschean Existential Panentheism
Author: RuneWolf

...we cannot look to the fanciful rewards of an afterlife that may or may not exist – we need to live life here and now, the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, the pleasant and the painful. We need to face life, not try to pray it or spell it away, and facing life means taking responsibility for our actions, and not trying to find a scapegoat on whom to hang the responsibility when “stuff happens, ” as it often will in an “implacable universe.” This, of course, leads right into the Existentialist part, again reinforcing the birthright and power of human freedom, choice and responsibility.

Living In The Summerlands: A Treatise On Reincarnation And Life
Author: Ashtaroth

Well, Carpe Diem! I believe that the purpose of life is to live. Isn’t that simple? To live in abundance, in love and magic, to celebrate the life around us and to celebrate every day that we experience – that is the point. Recall the charge of the Goddess as written by Doreen Valiente: “Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold – all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” Those rituals are the actions that we perform in the Eden that we create every day.

Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Author: Diotima Mantineia

There may [be] some Pagans . . . who simply [substitute] the Summerland or Valhalla for heaven . . . but Pagans, most of whom have some kind of psychic training, generally understand the reality of the non-physical better than most. As a group, we also tend to be well read, computer-literate, and have a better-than-the-average-bear's understanding of current scientific knowledge. Our mythology, rituals, and stories reflect this knowledge, as they reflect an understanding of the Infinite that comes only from inner experience. It is a measure of the sophistication of Pagan thought that our belief systems seek to incorporate the discoveries of science, not deny them. For the majority of Pagans, physical reality and spiritual reality are seen as intertwined, not as two separate realms.

Here's a memo for those who are looking for a manifest heaven: You are not defined by your body, mind, thoughts or emotions. You are able to be physical because you are ultimately not physical. You are a creator, part of God/Goddess/All That Is, and you...yes, you...can create all the heaven you need with just what's inside you. Welcome to the real world. Welcome to heaven's door.

I Came Back For The Coffee
Author: Gilamere

. . . why would I come back? I would come back because I have hope and faith in people, in the Spirits and Gods, in Creation, and the Creator/trix. I love life. I love the simple things about life, the feel of being all comfy and cozy in bed in the mornings, a good cup of coffee, having a laugh with a friend, making love, experiencing the seasons come and go. I would come back, because I am part of creation no matter what I do. I want to take part in it, and step up to the plate of life. To honor those who leave this plane, and those who are newly born into it, to teach, and be taught, to love, and struggle, this is all life and to be part of that is one of greatest things I could do.

*This article was posted by Nixie of Blogickal! while she was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


Mike said...

Thanks for the great write-up, and providing all those interesting links! I have lots to read up on now. :)

There are definitely differences between Pagan & Buddhist karma—just compare my "misconceptions about Buddhist karma" with much of what you've written, and it's clear that many people think Western karma and Eastern karma are the same, when they're really quite different. I especially like the point where you write, "to spend too much time thinking about what will happen in the afterlife takes our attention away from what we are doing with THIS life."

Playing with philosophy & metaphysics can be fun, and can allow us to embrace our mythic side, but if we take it too far, it really can distract us from what's right smack in front of us. If we're here to learn a lesson, mentally playing with what might or might not be true (and is essentially unprovable) is distracting us from learning that lesson. If we're here based on Buddhist cause-condition-effect, then playing with metaphysics distracts us from the mindfulness required to see our true nature, to see the cause-condition-effect process for what it is.

Great job!

Bernulf said...

Cool post, Nixie!

Kind of blending what you said with what Mike said about the here and now, while it's important to honor the gods, it's just as important (if not more important) to honor the world and the life they've given us :)

Nixie B said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys! I was worried that I wouldn't be able to give people enough meaty info. I hope I've at least pointed people in some good directions.

This post turned out to be a terrific learning opportunity for me because, as I said, before I had to write on this subject I had never addressed the question of Wiccan views on the afterlife in any of my studies. The thing that I found the most intriguing was the focus on living for now instead of worrying so much about the afterlife, even though the majority of Wiccans/Pagans do believe in reincarnation. Maybe that's why I hadn't come across much teaching on the subject.

Inanna said...

Thank you - this is excellent work, as are the other two posts on the afterlife. Mike's is the clearest explanation I've read of Buddhist beliefs, and I knew nothing about Heathen beliefs before reading Bjorngrimnir's post. In a sense, Nixie, you had the hardest job, since you're not addressing a particular Pagan tradition. I love the diversity of views expressed in your post. I'll be linking back from my own blog. Thanks again.

Bernulf said...

Inanna, I think you're absolutely right about Nixie having the hardest task - not only for the reason you cited, but also because the majority of people reading this blog would tend to be one tradition or another of's not just a broad tradition she has to write about, but a broad and informed audience she has to write to.

I'm glad that I was able to give you some further idea about Heathenry :)

Bonesigaur said...

Found this excellent piece of writing after backtracking the link to my website, Silver Wolf's Lair, and just wanted to say thank you for the link to our Summerlands page and how good it was to find a fellow Pagan who has obviously thought long and hard about their own beliefs and been able to write them in such a manner as to not only provide a good understanding for others to view and understand for themselves, but also in a manner that will get others thinking for themselves! I salute you as one who recognises the ability you have and the wisdom you are able to display here!