Wednesday, 18 September 2019
The Afterlife Journey
Making preparations this week for the funeral of my father-in-law, who has passed away at the age of 99, I’ve naturally been thinking about ideas of death and the afterlife in other cultures. Not just the great texts such as the Bardo Thodol or the Book of Coming Forth By Day, respectively known as the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead, but also mysterious items such as the gold plates buried with Orphic initiates to guide them on their underworld journey.
A particularly interesting after-death journey in the Guarayú culture of Eastern Bolivia is described by Alfred Métraux in his book The Native Tribes of Eastern Bolivia and Western Matto Grosso; the relevant passage is printed as “Journey to the Land of the Grandfather” in Mircea Eliade’s anthology Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World(first published asFrom Primitives to Zen).
Among the Guarayú, after burial the liberated soul sets on a long journey to the west, to the land of Tamoi, the Grandfather. The way is beset with dangers. First the soul must choose between two paths—one wide and easy, the other narrow and overgrown. The narrow path is the one to take, and it leads to a river which contains a large alligator; the soul must mount on the alligator’s back to cross the river, but this can only be achieved if the soul knows how to accompany the alligator’s chant by rhythmically stamping a bamboo tube.
Then comes a second river, to be crossed by leaping onto a fast-floating tree trunk. If the soul unbalances and falls into the river, it is torn to pieces by palometa fish. If the soul manages the crossing, it then approaches the home of Izoi-tamoi, Grandfather of Worms. If it is the soul of a good man, Izoi-tamoi looks enormous from a distance, but gets smaller and smaller as the soul approaches. If it was a bad man, the opposite happens, and the Grandfather of Worms swells to gigantic size, and cleaves the soul in two.
Next, the soul has to travel through a dark region, lighting its way by burning straw that has been placed in the grave for this purpose; but the torch must be held behind the back, to prevent it being extinguished by huge bats. If the soul makes it through the darkness, it arrives at a beautiful tree full of hummingbirds. After washing itself in a brook, the soul shoots a few of these birds, without hurting them, and plucks some feathers for Tamoi’s feathers. Then the soul kicks the tree trunk, to notify its relatives it has arrived at the ceiba tree.
Next the soul must slip between two rocks that continually clashed and recoiled on the path, allowing only a short time for passage, if the soul knows how to address them. Reaching a crossroads, the soul is examined by a gallinazo bird, who makes sure the soul has perforated lips and ears, as all good Guarayú have. If it does not, the bird will misdirect the soul.
Three more ordeals must be passed. The soul has to be bear being tickled by a monkey without laughing. Then it has to walk past a magic tree without looking at it and without listening to the voices that issue from it, telling all the secrets of the soul’s past life. To resist the voices, the soul pounds its stamping tube on the ground. Lastly, coloured grasses try to blind the soul and cause it to lose its way.
All these dangers withstood, the soul arrives an avenue of blossoming trees fill with singing birds. It has arrived at the land of the Grandfather, who welcomes it with kind words, and washes it with magic water that restores its youth and looks. From then on, the soul lives happily in the land of the Grandfather, drinking chicha and living much the same life it enjoyed on earth.
The elaboration of all these horrors and dangers has a real poetry to it. I really don’t want to ever encounter the Grandfather of Worms! But then I don’t much fancy Whinny-muir or the Brig o’ Dread in the Lyke-Wake Dirge, either, our Yorkshire version of the soul’s journey into the afterlife.