The earliest evidence we currently have of humans believing in some kind of afterlife is a difficult-to-access cave almost 100 feet underground filled with approximately 15 individuals from the Homo naledi species who lived over 230,000 years ago in what is now South Africa.
The difficulty of accessing the cave (and the unlikelihood that a person could just accidentally fall into it) leads researchers to believe that this remote cave served as a graveyard for our ancient ancestors. To intentionally bury the dead is one of the clearest signs of an abstract idea of the afterlife. Why go through all the effort if you didn’t have some conception of an afterlife? There are easier ways to dispose of corpses if it’s merely an issue of keeping your living area hygienic.
The specific beliefs that ran through the head of the Homo naledi person who scrambled down steep rock sides and through narrow tunnels with a dearly departed friend in tow to place them in a sunless cavern far below ground are lost to us today. Since then, however, beliefs about where we go when we die have exploded and diversified, giving us no shortage of intriguing and sometimes poetic stories about our dead. Here are five beliefs about where the dead go when they die:
Our Two Souls Go Their Separate Ways
Across many shamanic religions around the world, long-held beliefs state that humans have two souls: a shadow soul and a breath soul (in some versions, we have up to six souls). The breath soul gives us life and is permanently fixed in our body until we die. The shadow soul is in our mind and is free to wander the spiritual realm in dreams, trances, and similar states but ultimately must return to the body. If it doesn’t, we go insane.
When a person dies, both souls leave the body. The breath soul, eventually, will go give life to something else. This is somewhat like Buddhist reincarnation except that there’s no higher or lower life form you ascend or descend to—and it’s not the whole “you” being reincarnated, it’s just the life-giving soul.
Meanwhile, the shadow soul becomes free to live in that spiritual realm we visit in our dreams and trances permanently. While it may hang around for a few days to watch the funeral, it eventually moves on to an infinite place (usually understood to be the sky or space) and does not return to Earth. In this belief, we already know what the afterlife looks like. We visit it almost every night when we go to sleep.
The Afterlife Is Basically This Life, but in Easy Mode
Ancient Egyptian records suggested two possible routes for a dead soul: achieving eternal life or ceasing to exist. The specific beliefs about each of those changed over time. “Ancient Egypt” typically refers to Egypt’s dynastic period which spanned roughly 3,000 years. Beliefs change a lot over the course of 3,000 years.
However, what remained largely the same was the idea that being dead was just the worst. Once dead, your soul had to navigate a dangerous underworld while passing a complicated series of tests, any one of which could end disastrously for the poor soul that failed to prepare for them properly.
To navigate this successfully, the soul needed a well-preserved body, all the trappings of life (food, money, weapons, and so on), and a solid memory of the instructions for getting through the underworld laid out in the Book of the Dead. Usually, only the noble ranks had the privilege of being fully prepared for death.
The specific tests varied but the final stage was always Osiris, who would weigh your heart against the feather of truth. If your heart was lighter than the feather, congratulations! You unlocked eternal life. Depending on which part of the dynastic period you lived in, that either meant being reborn again and again forever or spending eternity in a paradisiacal field with limitless food and booze.
If your heart was heavier than the feather, you failed. This either meant ceasing to exist entirely or being devoured by a horrific crocodile god, Ammit, and then ceasing to exist entirely. For Ancient Egyptians, then, the afterlife was pretty much like our earthly life and the worst possible punishment would be to die permanently.
Your Soul Goes Underground to Get Judged and Sentenced
The Ancient Egyptians had already introduced some notion of judgement in the afterlife. Earlier beliefs and contemporary shamanic beliefs typically don’t have that element of reward or punishment. Death is just a transition or transformation of state. It doesn’t matter if you were good or evil, rich or poor—dying was the same for us all.
For the Egyptians, the punishment was just nonexistence. For the Greeks—and, later, the Romans—both judgement and punishment were much more elaborate.
To start, a soul needed money to even make it to the afterlife. If you didn’t show up to the River Styx with gold, Charon, the ferry-man, wouldn’t take you across. You’d just loiter on the riverbank until your surviving loved ones finally gave you a proper burial, coin and all.
Once you crossed, your actions during life would be judged by three kings. After deliberation, they would send you to one of three places depending on how good they judged you to be:
- Option 1: The Elysian Fields. This was a paradise where the purest of soul went. It was a perfect Mediterranean climate where the sun never set and the party never stopped.
- Option 2. The Asphodel Meadows. This was an utterly average place, not unlike the Medium Place in the TV show The Good Place. This was where ordinary souls went. If your sins and virtues balanced each other out, you went to this mediocre place to spend eternity with the other underachievers.
- Option 3: Tartarus. This was the deep dark pit way down in the core of the Earth where bad souls were sent to slowly, but never completely, melt in lava forever. In some versions, it’s just a pit of melting bad souls. In others, Tartarus is a lot like the Christian hell, complete with immortal beings whose job is to torment the bad souls using a variety of classic torture devices.
All three of these places were thought to physically exist on (or in) Earth—though they were largely unreachable by mortals while alive. In other words, for the Greeks and Romans, you might say that heaven is a place on Earth.
The Afterlife Is Nonexistence, but in a Good Way
For Buddhists, rebirth is the default state, not the reward. Your soul keeps getting reborn over and over until you finally achieve enlightenment and can move on to a contented state of oneness with the universe—in which your individual self ceases to exist.
While you’re still figuring out enlightenment, though, your reincarnations serve as a kind of judgment of how moral you were in this life. All life forms exist in a hierarchy of realms. If you did poorly, you’d be reborn into a lower realm which includes animals, hungry ghosts, and in some versions, a hell-like realm. If you did well, you’d be reborn into a higher realm which includes humans and a variety of higher, heavenly realms.
The final level is Nirvana. When you reach Nirvana, you are no longer reborn. You become one with everything and the pain and suffering of individual existence disappear. For Buddhists, then, the afterlife is a peaceful kind of nonexistence that is everywhere and nowhere.
Your Soul Returns to the Earth To Protect Your Descendants
Like many shamanic traditions, the Yoruba of Western Nigeria don’t attach much judgment or punishment to death. It’s just a transition. Olusegun Oladipo is the supreme being who creates all beings, human and non-human. When Oladipo makes a human, that human has five parts: a body, a soul, a destiny, a journey, and a heart (or mind).
In this understanding, the soul is like the “breath soul” of shamanic traditions. It’s the energy source but not the intellectual or conscious part of a person. The destiny you are born with is the predetermined number of years you spend on Earth before you die. The heart/mind is most like the English definition of the spirit. It’s the conscious and everlasting piece of us.
When you die, some of those parts are reused to make a new person—most often, it’s thought that they’ll be given to a blood relative. However, your heart/mind does not get reincarnated. This goes up to the realm of ancestral spirits.
When you become an ancestral spirit, you gain special powers and wisdom that allow you to continue communicating with your family and provide them with protection and guidance. You become a sort of guardian force for every future member of your bloodline.
In order to achieve this, however, a special funerary ceremony is needed to guide your spirit to the ancestral realm so that it doesn’t become lost on Earth.
In this vision of the afterlife, family bonds are essential. In the moment of death, your family helps guide you to the spirit realm. Afterward, you help guide them through the rest of their lives. Thus, the dead are still active participants in life on Earth.
What seems consistent across all conceptions of the afterlife is that dying is a transitory state and that, with some notable lava-filled exceptions, it usually leads to something pleasant and peaceful. The fact that such optimistic ideas of death are so widespread makes sense. Death is inevitable but unknowable. It’s scary. Believing it will lead to something nice is a comforting way to make peace with its inevitability.