I was never one to wholeheartedly believe in the concept of reincarnation, or transmigration of souls.
The concept of eternal return was quite unorthodox for someone who grew up believing Christian doctrine (“it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”, the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews). The mere thought of it was enough to either instill the idea that I was sinning against God for even entertaining the notion, or lead to sleepless nights due to my overactive imagination. Having once watched an episode of Highway to Heaven, I asked my Sunday school teacher if we go to choose what we came back as – that is, if we wanted to come at all. He didn’t seem enthused and my peers laughed – especially when I said I wanted to come back as a horse.
As we all soon discover, premises and challenged beliefs are de rigueur during one’s formative years. From Jung’s theories regarding the collective unconsciousness to universal consciousness to the holographic soul, it seemed there was an abundance of ideas that could pose to be a challenge to my own beliefs. The concept of one life, one death, and one judgment could be subject to change like my clothes, hairstyle, or college major. When I eventually “left the fold” of Christianity, I found myself leaping from one religious or spiritual tradition to the next. Eventually, I found a spiritual home in the reconstruction movements dedicated to the religion and spiritual practices of the Ancient Near East, namely Sumer and Babylon. To some, I merely exchanged one angry sky-god for several angry sky-gods; to me it spoke to that child within who was always curious to know more about the oppressors of the Israelites.
I would find that rudiments of the belief in reincarnation was commonplace among the early Mesopotamian people. Later accounts however, would tell a different story as the notion of reincarnation was challenged by those who did not believe in it. Humans are generally believed, upon death, to descend to the Underworld, or Irkalla, where they would remain subjects of Ereshkigal, the terrifying Queen of the Dead.
Life in the Underworld was similar to the world of the living, with some exceptions. Your place in the afterlife mirrored that of your place when alive. If you were of higher social status, were afforded proper burial, and offered the appropriate offerings by your surviving family and future descendents, you could live a relatively comfortable life. Those with few surviving family members did not fare so well. It should not surprise anyone that to the higher classes, funerary rites and customs were vital. Without the regular offerings from their surviving family members and descendants, the spirits of the dead were subject to harsh conditions. Poverty in the afterlife was as real as poverty in this life. An impoverished spirit could easily grow restless and become malevolent.
As we find with all religions, there is always room for the skeptic. If the gods could challenge the natural order of things and descend into the Underworld, only to ascend again (as in the case of Ishtar), why couldn’t humans? What prevented the valiant soul of a man or woman or child from rising up out of the Underworld and beginning life anew in another form?
If I had a past life of my own, who would I have been? What was my name? Where did I live? When was I born? Why did I return? How did I die?
I wouldn’t buy into the hype that I was some reincarnated historical figure, mystical shaman, or tribal chieftain. That seems to appeal to some, but I know I would have to be content knowing that my past-life may have been rather mundane. Perhaps I was a simple fisherman, or maybe a scribe (I do like to write after all). Perhaps I was even a gong farmer, as crappy as that may be. A self-professed medium once informed me without any prompting from myself that she could determine where my soul originated. She raised her hands to sides of my face. After a brief moment of silence, she announced with great aplomb that I was a member of an indigenous tribe in Canada before it was colonized by Europeans. I pressed her for more information but she wouldn’t elaborate further and my questions went unanswered.
Over a year ago, I participated in a past-life regression meditation. Participants were encouraged to envision themselves walking down a corridor until we reached a door that we felt comfortable opening and walking through.
In my own meditative journey, I found myself running down a long, seemingly endless corridor. As I ran, I find that the walls are suddenly gone and I am running on what seems to be a bridge made of silver suspended in space. I am surrounded by swirling galaxies and nebulae.
At the end of this bridge is something that I perceive to be a point of light, possibly even a star. I redouble my efforts and continue running towards it until I realize it is a large silver door.
I instinctively reach for where I believe the handle to be and suddenly find myself in a crowd.
Those around me are cheering, singing, and laughing; a procession could be seen ahead of us. Flower petals showered down upon us and there were garlands underfoot. It is at this point that I realize I am a small boy, standing next to his father. This man is tall and has a head of dark curly hair and an oiled beard. He wore a brilliant blue garment or robe, sandals, and a red cap of some sort. I wore something similar – something suited for a child, except my robe was light blue. He looked down at me and laughed as he picked me up and placed me upon his shoulders. It is from this vantage point that I can see nearly everything around us.
There were dancers twirling and jumping, soldiers marching, animals of all kinds led by stern handlers. Large buildings flank us on all sides of the procession route. The sky above us was blue and the air was dry. The crowd began cheering uproariously as white bulls, flanked by men with shaved heads, were paraded before the crowd. The bulls were festooned with ornate garlands and walked with a steady, lumbering gait. They seemed unaffected by the roar of the crowd as they continued on their way.
In the distance I noticed spearheads and heard shouting as people began running in all directions. We were jostled from all sides, my father and I. Women and children screamed and suddenly I found myself separated from my father. I cried out for him and kept crying as he called my name. It is at this moment that I was immediately jarred out of the meditative state. I felt as though I could vomit and I shuddered. There was a profound sense of despair as though I truly was separated from home, life, and family.
In hindsight, I am inclined to believe that the events I witnessed were perhaps conjured up from what I already knew; images embedded within my subconscious mind from the material I read and studied. As emotionally upsetting as it was, I don’t think I was the son of some wealthy Babylonian nobleman, but it’s nice to entertain the notion. It’s nice to think that I have some place in ancient history. Perhaps this spoke to my desire to have a more meaningful religious and spiritual practice. Or, perhaps I was witnessing something that did happen, but to someone else. Perhaps I experienced this moment in time through their own senses.
Last year, at Halloween (or Samhain), I participated in an elaborate ritual journey that was organized and facilitated by a group of friends. During this journey, those participating were to descend into the Underworld as Ishtar had done to meet Ereshkigal. We were then to return having gained perspective of our mortality.
There were several participants and the entire ritual journey seemed to last for several hours. A dark forest in a campground served as the Underworld and along the predetermined route, and spaced far apart, battery-operated candles were hung from branches. Navigating through the wood in the dark is not an easy feat, even with dim, flickering lights to mark the path.
I may have been with a large group, but I was still alone, those who went before and those who went after were far from me. Each of us navigated the dark silently, paying close attention to where our feet landed on the forest floor. The path often doubled back upon itself as though we were in a wooded labyrinth. The silence of the forest was punctuated by the sound of leaves and fallen branches being crushed underfoot. I encountered the first gate and its gatekeeper, and at each subsequent gate, I was stripped of what I carried with me or what I wore.
Like Ishtar, there was no entering the Underworld without customarily leaving something behind.
I finally entered through the last stretch of my journey. Past the final gate, Ereshkigal, as portrayed by one of the ritual facilitators, stood before me in a black robe and a mask.
Despite having been a flesh and blood human woman that hours ago I was laughing with, in this moment, I was terrified. I was asked challenging questions: what do you have left to give? what do you have holding you back? I could offer no poignant responses, save for exasperated sighs and nervous laughter. I was not prepared for this part of my journey.
Finally, after giving answers that made little sense at all, I left out a long, howling scream. I bellowed and roared and then stopped.
It was cathartic. My eyes had welled with tears.
It was what I needed to leave at Ereshkigal’s feet: she told me so.
I was taken from Ereshkigal’s darkened throne room by another initiator who guided me to a secluded area, far removed from the main trail. It was here that I was to wait and contemplate my death.
There’s something very visceral about being alone in the woods at night: it can be terrifying, but also liberating. From where I stood in the dark, I could see the distant lights of the camp where we were staying. The dim, flickering lights that marked the winding path through the Underworld twinkled like a trail of constellations. I saw them and thought: this is what it is like to be dead. I was alone with my thoughts; I could see all around me. If I chose to, I could interact with my environment. Or, I could leave the place I was in and return to the land of the living – I could leave this spot where I seemed to be firmly rooted and run through the underbrush back to our campsite. In that moment however, I did not want to, I began to feel quite comfortable in the dark and by now had wrapped my arms around a nearby tree. I may have fallen asleep, I’m not certain.
It was another facilitator that approached me in the dark and indicated that I was to return to the land of the living. I didn’t move at first, I didn’t want to. I felt sluggish and weary, but found my footing anyway and slowly followed behind them. I trudged through the brush and the fallen leaves towards the light of a campfire which marked the end of the journey. Those who had gone before sat near the fire: some lost in thought, others talking quietly.
The journey was quite sobering.
For anyone familiar with Christian ritual, it felt as though I had been baptized: I had symbolically descended, died, and returned. Upon my return, I felt different and I don’t know how else to describe it; it disappoints me that I lack the words to explain the feeling that came over me. Maybe those things are not meant to be verbalized and spoken aloud. Maybe they, like all mysteries, need to be kept hidden and guarded jealously.
To some, the notion of reincarnation or eternal return seems to offer the promise of setting wrongs to right from a past life; others see it as the soul’s natural progress from lower life form to spiritually enlightened being. Who knows what truly happens when we die? Perhaps we do, whether willingly or not, get caught up in some cosmic wheel of cyclical return. Perhaps we descend to the Underworld and eventually fade into non-existence. Perhaps there is nothing and only the gods are eternal. Perhaps that eternal spark and divine breath that we carry within us returns to them when we exhale for the final time and the light in our eyes fades.
I would wager that it’s more important to set wrongs right in this life; to strive for enlightenment in this life; to make something of this life.
We may die, but we remain alive in the hearts and minds of those who remember us; we remain alive when they speak our names.