Dancing with the Dead: Ancient Spirituality Returns to a Modern Age

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The Hadza of Tanzania are one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on earth. Anthropologists consider the Hadza an analog for early hunter-gatherer societies, since it is believed that their way of life hasn’t changed in 10,000 years. Living simply and owning few possessions, the Hadza exhibit no birth, wedding or funeral rituals. When a member of their tribe dies, they leave the body to the hyenas and move camp. There are no shamen or healers and no religious devotion to any god. They make no permanent structures to live in, sleeping out in the open during the dry season and following their game of Gazelle and Baboon. The Hadza spend the majority of their time engaged in the search, transport and preparation of food. When asked by an American visitor what the most important thing in life was, the Hadza replied, “Meat”.

It’s commonly accepted that religious belief did not develop among early humans until the Neolithic revolution. Agricultural settlements reduced time required for acquiring food which allowed more time to socialize, share ideas and develop spiritual philosophies. Any assertion made about the Hadza’s early prehistory is purely speculative, but their lack of culturalization would seem to affirm the hypothesis that sophisticated religious beliefs were developed exclusively in agricultural societies. Today, there is still a persistent belief that the Hadza possess no spiritual or afterlife beliefs at all. But recent forays into the culture of the Hadza have shown that they do have a rudimentary belief in life after death. The Hadza believe that things with names and ‘beingness’ possess a soul. 

For a tribe so obviously lacking in spiritual expression, the Hadza’s singular belief that beings have souls is significant. Does it prove that all hunter-gatherer societies possessed the concept of the human soul as a foundational belief? No. There is no way to know when the Hadza developed this belief, but considering their resistance to change and avoidance of other tribes, it’s unlikely that the Hadza acquired this belief through cultural diffusion, particularly at the expense of adopting other more mundane customs. Researchers cannot infer paleolithic beliefs from archeological evidence beyond identifying burial practices that indicate care and concern for the dead. However, it’s been well-established that the concept of the human soul was already universally adopted by Neolithic-era civilizations that developed writing systems to record them. The earliest religious texts come from ancient Egypt where belief in the human soul was already part of a rich and complex spiritual tradition. The concept of the soul also appears in the afterlife beliefs of civilizations that remained geographically and linguistically isolated from one another, from the ancient Chinese in the east to the Maya in the west. The concept is also preserved by indigenous people on every continent, from the Greenland Inuit to the Australian Aboriginal people.

As culture flourished and diversified, afterlife beliefs began to take on more sophisticated mythological elements. The simple belief in the duality of body and soul evolved into the ‘soul’s journey’, a description of the soul’s experience as it leaves the body and travels to one or more afterlife states, potentially meeting gods, beings or deceased relatives along the way. Each civilization attached their own unique cultural accoutrements to the experience. A colorful diversity of deities, trials, judgement narratives and afterlife landscapes all bear the cultural mark of their creators, but the basic elements of the soul’s journey are otherwise remarkably consistent.

The archetypal ‘soul’s journey’ often begins with a description of the soul arising upward from the body after death. The deceased may be able to view their body as well as the mourners at their bedside, grave or pyre, but cannot interact with them. Eventually, the soul begins its journey to the afterlife. The means of egress is symbolic and may include, for example, a river, a path, as smoke, or in the form of a bird. The soul may encounter deceased relatives and a ‘being of light’. There is often a barrier, obstacles or a point of no return. Finally, the soul may undergo a judgement or life review before being granted entry to the afterlife.

If you are even casually knowledgeable about spiritually transformative experiences, then you will instantly recognize the archetypal soul’s journey as similar to the structure of the modern near-death experience. And according to research done by Dr. Gregory Shushan, this is no coincidence. 

Dr. Gregory Shushan is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Religious Experience Research Centre, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Dr. Shushan has published two books on the subject of ancient and indigenous NDEs; the first in 2012 titled ‘Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience’ and the most recent in 2018 titled ‘Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions’. Dr. Shushan has developed a compelling theory suggesting that afterlife beliefs may have been influenced by spiritually transformative experiences, specifically near-death experiences. 

Dr. Shushan analyzed ‘death and return to life’ accounts recorded by large scale civilizations and small-scale indigenous societies during a time in their history before geographical and linguistic barriers were overcome and cultural diffusion became widespread. Dr. Shushan found a consistent set of elements in these experiences cross-culturally and hypothesized that NDEs may be responsible for the homogeneity of the afterlife beliefs.

“Consistent cross-cultural similarities would suggest that afterlife conceptions are not entirely culturally determined, and that they must contain some kind of common foundations (e.g., NDEs). […] The similarities are too consistent and specific for ‘coincidence’ to be an adequate explanation”

Gregory Shushan – “Near-Death Experience and the Origins of Afterlife Beliefs” Published November 19, 2012 by IanRamseyCentre

The most overt connection between near-death experiences and afterlife beliefs were found in Native American and First Nations tribes. Dr. Shushan found 60 near-death accounts recorded by Native American tribesmen who explicitly describe supporting their afterlife beliefs using these accounts. Statements made to Christian missionaries seeking to convert the tribesmen indicated that the Native Americans preferred their own afterlife beliefs because they were based on what they considered an authentic visit to the afterlife and offered exclusive instruction for the tribe’s spiritual welfare. It was, to the Native Americans, far more compelling evidence than what was written in the missionary’s bible. 

In 1623, Captain John Smith, a “sometimes Govenour of Virgina and Admirall of New England” published a ‘history’ of Native American beliefs he encountered, including what is likely the very first NDE recorded in the New World:

They beleeve the immortalitie of the Soule, when life departing from the body, according to the good or bad workes it hath done, it is carried up to the Tabernacles of the gods, to perpetuall happinesse, or to Popogusso, a great pit: which they thinke to be at the furthest parts of the world, where the Sunne sets, and there burne continually. To confirme this they told me of two men that had beene lately dead, and revived againe; the one hapned but few yeares before our coming into the country; of a bad man, which being dead and buried, the next day the earth over him being seene to move, was taken up, who told them his soule was very neare entering into Popogusso, had not one of the gods saved him and gave him leave to returne again, to teach his friends what they should doe to avoyd such torment. The other hapned the same yeare we were there, but sixtie myles from us, which they told me for news, that one being dead, buried, and taken up as the first, shewed, that although his body had layne dead in the grave, yet his soule lived, and had travailed far in a long broad way, on both sides whereof grew more sweet, fayre, and delicate trees and fruits, then ever he had seene before; at length he came to the most brave [fine] and fayre houses, neare which he met his Father, that was dead long agoe, who gave him charge to goe backe, to shew his friends what good there was to doe, to injoy the pleasures of that place; which when hee had done hee should come againe. (Smith, 1623, Book I, folio 11, in Barbour, 1983, p. 79).

In a Sacred Manner We Died: Native American Near-Death Experiences; Wade, Jenny, Ph.D., Institute of Transpersonal Psychology; https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc799240/m2/1/high_res_d/vol22-no2-83.pdf

Likely the most famous ancient ‘old world’ near-death experience was contributed by Plato in his work ‘Republic’. The Myth of Er tells the story of a soldier who is believed to have been slain in battle, but revives 12 days later just before his burial to tell of a fantastical visit to the afterlife. Er describes the process by which souls are judged for their earthly deeds and are either sent to a beautiful, pastoral paradise or a hellish land of torment. He views souls engaging in reunions with long dead relatives and also observes the process of reincarnation which is guided by something akin to the modern concept of Karma. Er is told that he is meant to be a messenger to humanity and is returned to life with the task of recounting his story as warning to those who engage in ill deeds.

Near-death experiences recorded during Medieval Christianity reveal a religious narrative with a continued emphasis on judgement for sin after death but the major elements of the ‘soul’s journey’ remain the same. Consider the Vision of Drythelm, recorded by a monk around the 8th century CE. Of particular note is the transformative nature of the experience. Like Drythelm, many modern near-death experiencers radically transform their lives after integrating their experience.

Drythelm, a pious Northumbrian man, dies of an illness but revives the next morning and describes to his wife the extended vision he has experienced. A man of ‘shining countenance’ leads him to an enormous valley with flames on one side and hail and snow on the other; countless souls are tossed between. The guide explains that they can be saved if the living undertake pious actions on their behalf. Drythelm and his guide visit hell, a bottomless, stinking pit from which tongues of fire send up, like sparks, souls who fall helplessly back in. They then travel to a realm of clear light, and at the top of a vast wall, find a flowery meadow—not heaven, as it turns out, but an antechamber for the almost-perfect. In the kingdom of heaven, Drythelm enjoys sights, fragrances and beautiful singing. Despite his yearning to stay, he is sent back to life, transformed. He gives away his property and retires to an ascetic life in a monastery.

https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/medieval-near-death-experiences

If Dr. Shushan is correct, then NDEs and other STEs may have greatly contributed to our conceptions of the afterlife in religious movements and spiritual traditions. Their significance should be elevated from medical curiosity to a fundamental and significant human experience. It may be why the Hadza, who haven’t changed their way of life in 10,000 years, nevertheless believe that their ancestors survive. It’s true that the Hadza don’t have any particular burial practices, but they do believe the spirits of the dead go to the sun, which is reminiscent of the modern near-death experiencer’s description of ‘going into the light’. 

Dr. Shushan’s hypothesis is highly unpopular by the current scientific standards. As Dr. Shushan relates in his presentation to the Ian Ramsey Centre, the prevailing view is that “all experience is entirely culturally and linguistically created. Not merely influenced by language and culture, but actually created by them…This means there can be no such thing as any sort of cross-cultural experience which we could call the ‘same’ and certainly no such thing as cross-cultural religious experience because all religions and cultures are unique. It also means that religious beliefs cannot be grounded on religious experiences because, of course, language and culture precede experience; and, of course, because there is no such thing as religious experience. It’s a very circular argument.” In other words, structural similarities in afterlife beliefs were missed precisely because near-death experiences are not interpreted as a universal human experience, but as culturally-independent religious allegories. Dr. Shushan notes, “It’s basically the argument that it can’t be, therefore it isn’t.”

Scientific enlightenment in the 18th century introduced a new kind of worldview, one that emphasized scientific objectivity over subjective, personal experience. Reality was redefined through mathematical predictions, material interaction, and the blind machinations of evolution. God was cast out of his role of creator and religious doctrines withered under scientific scrutiny. Spiritually-transformative experiences such as NDEs were recategorized as hallucinations or hypoxia due to physical crisis. Fear of reprisal kept many experiencers from confiding in their clergy or doctors, and by the 20th century, NDEs disappeared from the public consciousness altogether. Despite being a universal human experience spanning continents and millennia, our spiritual heritage was forgotten. Near-death experiences wouldn’t be rediscovered until 1975, when Raymond Moody published the book ‘Life After Life’ and gave a name to the experience.

Scientific materialism has ravaged the state of human spirituality in modern western culture. Organized religion has managed to maintain relevance because they are the only institutions left willing to entertain the hope of life after death, an innate human longing. However, scripture provides scant evidence for an afterlife and even fewer details. Despite a resurgence of near-death experiences due in part by advances in resuscitation technology, scripture-based religions cannot incorporate new evidence about the afterlife unless it affirms existing doctrine. Since scriptural beliefs cannot evolve beyond their source material or risk invalidation, they often find themselves at odds with progressive spiritual and social ideas.

Unsurprisingly, organized religion is in decline. Despite offering the benefits of community building and support, organized religions simply don’t hold the same verve they once did, especially with the younger population. According to this study by the Pew Research organization, young people are significantly less religiously affiliated than older adults and overall, 21% of Americans describe themselves as irreligious. Most interestingly though, only a minority of this group of non-religious Americans would describe themselves as Atheist or agnostic. A full 68% believe in God and a third describe themselves as ‘spiritual, not religious’. 

Organized religion may be declining, but human spirituality is a natural inclination that demands expression. We also live in world which demands scientific evidence and personal interactivity rather than blind faith. I believe it is no coincidence that there is a small but growing number of people resurrecting an ancient model of pursuing spirituality which may satisfy both. Scientists and theologians often regard the spiritual beliefs of ancient cultures as the imaginings of an unscientific people desperate to make sense of a chaotic world. It’s true that scientific discoveries may have rendered Apollo’s chariot unnecessary for dragging the sun across the sky, but it surely has not invalidated spiritually transformative experiences, then or now. The fight to legitimize near-death experiences as worthy of scientific research is ongoing, but open-minded scientists with the academic freedom to do so have found the evidence quite compelling. 

A few years ago, I coined the term ‘Evidential Spirituality’ in order to give a name to the process of creating a personal spirituality through the study of spiritually transformative experiences. What I thought was a revolutionary new way of undertaking the search for life after death has turned out to be a truly ancient practice. With the power of science and global communication, drawing down to the roots of these fundamental experiences can launch humanity into a completely new spiritual landscape. The internet has provided an analog to prehistoric fire circles, where spiritual wisdom and experiences inspired and strengthened the spiritual beliefs of the community. Whether near-death experiences actually prove the survival hypothesis remains unknown. However, NDEs strengthen the archetype of the soul’s journey; a scaffolding upon which cultures and civilizations have built unique mythologies since the beginning of human history. It is a space in the human imagination that holds our hope for greater meaning in our lives and purpose for our existence. Lately it seems we’ve been so busy building walls around our beliefs and weaponizing our ideologies that we’ve forgotten how much binds us together as one people, past and present.

We find ourselves now returning to where we started, rejoining the Hadza as they prepare for the Epeme dance, the only ceremony they observe. Once a month, on the night of the new moon, a Hadza man wearing an elaborate headdress and bells attached to his ankles begins to dance, establishing a hypnotic rhythm. The women then add their voices in song. As each man takes his turn to dance, the spirits of ancient Hadza are invited to join by merging with the souls of the dancers. It is living and dead, flesh and spirit, in one timeless reality. The Hadza didn’t overcomplicate their beliefs like the rest of us, but they preserved the only one that matters: the hope that when we dance and when we sing; when we toil and suffer; we are joined in spirit by the ones we’ve loved and lost. And when finally we die, that our weary souls may find rest and respite after a life fully lived.

We live in an age which venerates scientific objectivity, but we can only live our lives through the subjective lens of our own consciousness. We fail to trust the spiritual experiences of others, having been taught that such experiences are the result of flawed perception and therefore inferior to scientific observation. But there are some experiences that are fundamental to our human identity that can only be understood through personal experience. Love, for example. And fear, and courage, and trust. Spirituality also is a personal experience, one lovingly shared with others; inspired by the whispered wisdom of our souls. We simply have to choose to listen.


Sources:

https://www.history.com/topics/pre-history/neolithic-revolution

Ethnographicablog, “Claydoll” based on the work of Thea Skaanes

Dr. Gregory Shushan, Making the Case For Cross-Cultural NDEs”, Published August 6, 2020 by Alex Tsakiris

Gregory Shusan – “Near-Death Experiences and the Origins of Afterlife Beliefs“, Published November 19, 2012 by IanRamseyCentre

The Structure and Function of Near-Death Experiences: An Algorithmic Reincarnation Hypothesis by Todd Murphy, San Francisco, CA; see “Patterns”

Near-Death Encounters With and Without Near Death Experiences: Comparative NDE Scale Profiles by Bruce Greyson, M.D., University of Connecticut

2 thoughts on “Dancing with the Dead: Ancient Spirituality Returns to a Modern Age

    1. Thanks! I appreciate you and everyone else hanging in there. Trying a new feature too – recording myself reading the post (since I really put the ‘long’ in ‘long form blogging’ most of the time!). It’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. 🙂

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