Mythologies of Death and on the Origins of Dying

Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade

Evoking the different life-crises of an Australian male, W. Lloyd Warner writes: “The personality before birth is purely spiritual; it becomes completely profane or unspiritual in the earlier period of its life, when it is classed socially with the females, gradually becomes more and more ritualized and sacred as the individual grows older and approaches death, and at death once more becomes completely spiritual and sacred.”

Whatever they may think of death, a great number of our contemporaries will certainly not agree that death is a “completely spiritual and sacred” mode of being. For most non religious men, death was emptied of any religious significance even before life lost its meaning. For some, the discovery of the banality of death anticipated the discovery of the absurdity and the meaninglessness of life. As an anonymous British psychoanalyst is reported to have said: “We are born mad; then we acquire morality and become stupid and unhappy; then we die.”

This last sentence — “Then we die” — admirably expresses the Western man’s understanding of his destiny, but it is a somewhat different understanding from that found in many other cultures. There, too, men strive to pierce the mystery of death and grasp its meaning. We do not know of a single culture where such a sentence — “Then we die”-would not be taken for granted. But this flat assertion of human mortality is only a pretentious platitude when it is isolated from its mythological context. A coherent and meaningful concluding sentence would be: “[…] and therefore we die.” Indeed, in most traditional cultures, the advent of death is presented as an unfortunate accident that took place in the beginnings. Death was unknown to the first men, the mythic ancestors, and is the consequence of something that happened in primordial time. As one learns how death first appeared in the world, one comes to understand the cause of one’s own mortality as well: one dies because such and such a thing took place in the beginnings. Whatever the details of this myth of the first death may be, the myth itself offers men an explanation of their own mortality.

As is well known, only a few myths explain the advent of death as a consequence of man’s transgressing a divine commandment. Somewhat more common are the myths relating mortality to a cruel and arbitrary act of some demonic being. Such mythic themes are found, for instance, among Australian tribes and in the Central Asiatic, Siberian, and North American mythologies, where mortality is introduced into the world by an adversary of the Creator. In contrast to this, among archaic societies, most of the myths explain death as an absurd accident and/or as the consequence of a stupid choice made by the first ancestors. The reader may recall numerous stories of the type of the “Two Messengers” or “The Message That Failed,” which are especially common in Africa. According to these stories, God sent the chameleon to the ancestors with the message that they would be immortal and sent the lizard with the message that they would die. But the chameleon paused along the way, and the lizard arrived first. After she had delivered her message, death entered the world.

Seldom do we encounter a more appropriate illustration of the absurdity of death. One has the impression that one is reading a page of a French existentialist author. Indeed, the passage from being to nonbeing is so hopelessly incomprehensible that a ridiculous “explanation” is more convincing because it is ridiculously absurd. Of course, such myths presuppose a carefully elaborated theology of the Word: God could not change the verdict for the simple reason that, once uttered, the words created reality.

Equally dramatic are the myths that relate the appearance of death to a stupid action of the mythic ancestors. For example, a Melanesian myth tells that, as they advanced in life, the first men cast their skins like snakes and came out with their youth renewed. But once an old woman, coming home rejuvenated, was not recognised by her child. In order to pacify the child, she put her old skin on again, and from that time on men became mortal. Lastly, let me recall the beautiful Indonesian myth of the Stone and the Banana. In the beginning, the sky was very near to the earth, and the Creator used to let down his gifts to men at the end of a rope. One day he lowered a stone. But the ancestors would have none of it, and called out to their Maker: “What have we to do with this stone? Give us something else.” God complied; sometime later he let down a banana, which they joyfully accepted. Then the ancestors heard a voice from heaven saying: “Because ye have chosen the banana, your life shall be like its life. When the banana-tree has offspring, the parent stem dies; so shall ye die and your children shall step into your place. Had ye chosen the stone, your life would have been like the life of the stone, changeless and immortal.”

This Indonesian myth aptly illustrates the mysterious dialectics of life and death. The stone symbolises indestructibility and invulnerability and consequently an indefinite continuity of the same. However, the stone is also a symbol of opacity, inertia, and immobility, while life in general and the human condition, in particular, are characterised by creativity and freedom. For man this ultimately means spiritual creativity and spiritual freedom. Thus, death becomes part of the human condition; for, as we presently shall see, it is the experience of death that renders intelligible the notion of spirit and of spiritual beings. In sum, whatever was the cause of the first death, man became himself and could fulfil his specific destiny only as a being fully aware of his own mortality.

The elder Henry James, father of William and Henry, once wrote that “the first and highest service which Eve renders Adam is to throw him out of Paradise.” This is, of course, a modem, Western view of that primordial catastrophe, the loss of paradise and immortality. In no traditional culture is death regarded as a blessing. On the contrary, in archaic societies, one can still detect the idea of man’s perenniality, that is, the conviction that man, though no longer immortal, could live indefinitely if only a hostile agent did not put an end to his life. In other words, a natural death is simply inconceivable. Just as the ancestors lost their immortality through accident or demonic plot, so a man presently dies because he falls victim to magic, ghosts, or other supernatural aggressors.

Nevertheless, in many archaic cultures, as the myth of the Stone and the Banana so gracefully suggests, death is considered a necessary complement of life. Essentially, this means that death changes man’s ontological status. The separation of the soul from the body brings about a new modality of being. From this point on, man is reduced to a spiritual existence; he becomes a ghost, a “spirit.”

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