9 Myths & Beliefs About Death In Cultures From Around The World
We all deal with death in different ways. Indeed, as them any myths about death in cultures from around the world demonstrate, there are as many ways to understand death as there are people in the world. What most of them have in common, though, is that they try to make sense of something that is inherently unknowable. Of course, myths are far from the only way humans attempt to comprehend death; some of us might do everything from reading about unusual ways people can die to purposefully experiencing a simulated death in the pursuit of that comprehension. There aren’t many wrong ways to go about it — but it’s interesting to me that this common thread, this need to make something we can’t fully understand at least partially knowable, runs through beliefs that are as wide and varied as it’s possible to be; it speaks to the universality of death, and as fractured as our world often seems these days, I’ll take whatever unity I can find.
Many cultures and belief systems have extremely specific “origin-of-death myths” — myths that attempt to explain how death came to be and why humans die (kind of like really morbid Just So stories). Equally prevalent are mythological beings and creatures associated with death, whether they actually cause death or merely warn of its approach. Even simple superstitions get passed down from generation to generation, with the meanings and origins of them sometimes obscured by time, but by no means lost.
This isn’t to say that every member of every culture subscribes to each and every one of the myths and stories these belief systems share, of course; that’s the beauty of it all: We’re all free to pick and choose the beliefs that make the most sense to us and discard those that don’t. All we have to do is be respectful of each other’s beliefs, even if we don’t believe them ourselves.
What do you believe?
1. Ancient Egypt: The Field Of Rushes
As is the case in so many ancient cultures, in Egypt, there was a journey between death and the afterlife. First, your soul would travel by boat to the Hall of Final Judgment. There, you’d make the case for your entry into the afterlife to Osiris, god of the dead and the underworld, as well as of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. Your judgment would come in two parts: First, you would stand before 42 divine judges, pleading your innocence — with the help of the Book of the Dead — of anything you might have done wrong while living. Then, your heart would be weighed against a feather. If it was heavier than the feather, then you’d be denied the opportunity to enter the afterlife; if the scales balanced, though, you’d be welcomed to it.
Once you entered the afterlife — the Field of Rushes or Field of Reeds — you’d be given a plot of land to maintain. If you had been interred with shabtis —small figurines meant to help you out in the afterlife — they could take on some or all of the work needed to maintain your plot of land.
2. Japan: Izanami, Goddess Of Death
When it comes to Japanese death myths, most Western readers are probably most familiar with Shinigami — from “shi” and “kami,” making the word mean, quite literally, “death god” — due to the cross-cultural appeal of manga and anime like Death Note and Bleach. Interestingly, though, Shinigami are a relatively recent addition to the pantheon — the word only started to appear in literature from the Edo period on, meaning that they became A Thing sometime around the 18th or 19th century.
Before Shinigami, though, there was Izanami, a divine being who, along with her brother/husband Izanagi, created the islands of Japan. The islands, of course, were their children — kids born of siblings being notable landforms and other natural phenomena is a theme that runs through the mythologies of a huge number of cultures — but when Izanami was giving birth to a further child, Kagutsuchi, she died. Izanagi buried her and killed Kagutsuchi, thereby creating a bunch of other deities, before journeying down to the underworld — Yomi — to see if he could bring Izanami back.
Like Persephone of Greek mythology, however, Izanami had eaten while she was in Yomi and was therefore no longer able to leave. She told him she’d try to make her case to the gods for returning to the surface, but told him he had to be patient; he wasn’t allowed to see her during the process. But hey, guess what? He lit a torch so he could see her anyway — and when he saw that she was no longer beautiful, but rather a rotting corpse full of maggots, he decided he was fine with her staying where she was and tried to leave. She tried to chase him down as he fled, but he escaped and sealed off the entrance to Yomi with a boulder. Ever since then, she’s been thought of as the goddess of death — and what some people consider to be the first Shinigami.
3. Mexico: Don’t Place Your Bed Facing The Door
Why? Because you’ll invite in death. According to a piece by Alejandro Alba for BuzzFeed from 2014, this superstition is based on the saying, “Los muertos salen siempre de la casacon los pies por delante,” which Alba translates as meaning, “The dead always come out of the house feet first.” Having your bed face the door positions your body so you’re heading out feet first, making the whole thing one big symbol of death.
For what it’s worth, the tradition of the dead leaving the house feet first seems to be present in a lot of different cultures; I wasn’t able to track its path precisely — largely because from what I’ve found so far, it’s a long and winding one that would be one heck of a deep dive all on its own — but in addition to being a saying in Mexico, it’s also a tradition that was followed in 19th Europe and America. (The idea was to stop the spirit of the deceased from looking back to the house and gesturing for another family member to follow them.) What’s more, according to a number of morticians, coroners, and other folks working in the death industry, it’s also a practicality in the modern age: It’s easier and safer to carry a body that way, and since the toe is where the identification tag goes, it’s easier to check who you’re carrying if it’s heading out feet first.
4. The Philippines: Guard The Casket
During Filipino wakes and funerals, there's a superstition that someone must stay awake to watch the casket all night before the burial — because otherwise, an aswang, bal-bal, or other corpse-stealing ghoul might steal the body of the deceased and replace it with the trunk of a banana tree disguised to look like the deceased. Aswangs and bal-bals both eat flesh, so once they’ve nabbed their prize, they’ll, uh, consume it.
Keeping a vigil can help keep the monsters at bay, though. Notes the Filipina writer of the website A Real Messy Beautiful Twisted Sunshine, “Visitors stay up late by gambling or playing cards, BINGO, or mahjong. These will keep them from sleeping, thus helping the family watch over the dead. Gambling is allowed during the wake because the pot money will then be given to the family to help with the funeral expenses.” Additionally, quotes the Aswang Project about the mourning customs (larao) the ancient Visayan, “The first thing which they did on the death of their associates was to perform the larao (which signifies the mourning). This consisted in not eating anything for many days and, at the end, for three consecutive days. During these days, however, they indulged much in intoxication. At night they watched, for it was said that if they did not do so, the aswang would come and would eat the liver if the deceased were young, and if he were old, the guts.”
5. Blackfeet Nation: Why People Die Forever
There are (obviously) a huge number of different death myths among Native and indigenous peoples in the United States; the country's many, many cultures aren't a monolith. One such story collected in the Blackfeet Digital Library — an ongoing online project collecting the folklore and knowledge base of the Blackfeet people — explains why people die forever, rather than coming back after being dead for a short time.
According to this story, there were once only two people in the world: Old Man, and Old Woman. Eventually they needed to decide how people were going to live and die, so they had it out: Old Man suggested people should have eyes and mouths in their faces positioned “straight up and down”; Old Woman countered and said they should have eyes and mouths in their faces, but “they shall all be set crosswise.” Old Man said people should have 10 fingers on each hand; Old Woman said that was too many and countered with four fingers and a thumb on each hand instead. And so on and so forth — until they came to the subject of death and dying.
Old Man proposed tossing a buffalo chip in the water. If it, floated, he said, people would die for four days, then live again; but if it sank, they would die forever. Old Woman countered by saying she would toss a rock in the water, using the same “if…then” rules Old Man laid out. The rock, of course, sank, so it was determined that people would die forever.
The kicker comes at the end of the tale:
After a time, Old Woman had a daughter, who died. She was very sorry now that it had been fixed so that people died forever. So she said to Old Man, “Let us have our say over again.”
“No,” said he, “we fixed it once.”
And that is why, when people die, they stay dead.
6. Bantu Cultures: The Lizard And The Chameleon
Many Bantu cultures in Africa apparently share similar myths about the origin of death. The details vary a little from culture to culture, but the basic story is this: God sent a chameleon to tell humankind that they would live forever. The chameleon was a bit of a slowpoke, though, meandering and stopping to eat along the way — which meant that a lizard who had been sent forth with the message that humans would actually die eventually got to the humans first. Because the lizard (who may or may not also have been sent by God — it varies) arrived before the chameleon, the lizard’s message of finite life, rather than infinite life, set the standard, thus bringing death to humankind.
Chameleons and lizards are both often considered bad omens as a result of this myth.
7. Ireland: The Wail Of The Banshee
The banshee — from the Irish bean sí and Old Irish ben síd, quite literally meaning “woman of the fairy mound” — isn’t usually the cause of death; she’s really more of an omen of death.
She’s said to appear when someone is about to die, although the form she takes might be one of many: She might be a beautiful woman wearing a shroud; a red-haired woman in a white dress; a woman in a silver dress with long, silver hair; a headless woman carrying a bowl of blood; an old woman with red eyes, a green dress, and long, white hair; or an old woman dressed in black with a veil covering her face. She also might appear near a river, where she washes a bloody robe. She might scream; however, she might also do something more like keening or wailing.
According to some versions of the myth, banshees also have a tendency to tie themselves to particular families — that is, your family might have its very own banshee that wails when something terrible is about to befall you or your relatives. To be honest, I’m not totally sure she deserves the bad reputation she has; she’s doing what some might consider a valuable service, after all. Wouldn’t you want to be notified when something is about to go terribly, terribly wrong?
8. Bolivia: Wash Away The Grief
In Bolivia, funeral rites often include a mix of Catholic and indigenous beliefs and traditions. Mestizo people who live near the capital city of La Paz, for example, sometimes wash the clothing of the deceased in the Choqueapu River as part of the tradition; then, while the clothes dry, they share a meal. After the clothing is dry, a bonfire is built on which the clothes are then burned. The intention of the ritual is twofold: It both helps the mourners find peace, and allows the deceased’s soul to travel into the afterlife.
9. Early Anglo-Saxons: Watch Your Feet
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