Coming to an End
Mythologies address many of the same questions we still ask today. A universal question that had plagued humans forever revolves around the question “What next? What happens when we die?” Often, when someone dies, eulogies extol the person’s life. Sometimes details of the passing are mentioned as if it will alleviate our grief. Maybe we want to know such details because it helps us understand the concept of death. Reading the mythologies of the world, we realize that the legends of the world’s cultures seem to treat death as one colossal “OOPS!”
According to mythology, death is a mistake, and was not originally part of any deity’s great plan of creation. After all, who spends time on a masterpiece work of art only to then destroy it? So, if death was not an intentional part of life, why does it exist? Who made the mistake that resulted in the consequences we know as death? If you answer to that last question was mankind, then you would be incorrect in your answer.
Rarely can one find a mythological story that puts the blame on humans for death. And those that do address mankind’s mistake as just that – a goof or, in the case of the Burma culture, a failed attempt at humor. In Burma, a country that now goes by the name Myanmar, legend tells of a man who tried to play a joke on the sun god by pretending to be dead. Perhaps his attempt to “prank” the sun deity was the first game of “playing possum”, a children’s game in which kids pretend to be asleep. At any rate, the Burmese sun god was not a deity with a well-developed sense of humor. He took the man’s joke and made it a reality, causing people to really die and making death a part of life, the final chapter.
In the Pacific Island culture of New Britain, it was a twin deity that goofed up. To Purgo was a twin. His twin was mentally superior and when To Purgo was given a message to take from the gods to mankind, he sort of mixed it up. In his confusion, he transposed the subjects of the message. Instead of telling mankind that people would live forever and snakes would perish, he stated that mankind would die and snakes would be eternal. As a result, death has been a part of humanity ever since.
The Dogon culture of Mali also has a myth about death, humans, and snakes. The Dogon believed that a person did not die; they were simply turned into snakes. The Dogon legend tells of a young woman who wished to purchase a cow. The deity Amma told her the price of the cos was “Death” but the young woman did not understand the answer correctly. She agreed to the purchase price. Soon thereafter, the young woman’s husband died and his death was the first of the rest of the world’s acquaintance with death.
There is also a Moroccan myth that talks about death as a temporary state of being. People would simply fall into unconsciousness and then, later, would seem to “wake up”. This was the way of living for quite some time until a prophet’s daughter named Fatima gave in to her petty feelings about a rival. The rival’s daughter became ill and Fatima saw this as a way to inflict pain on the woman she perceived to be an enemy. Fatima asked her father to arrange for the very ill daughter of this woman to actually die a lasting death. This she felt would cause her rival great pain and the woman would no longer be a competitor to her. Her father granted her wish. Later the son of Fatima was seriously wounded in battle and he also died. Fatima waited for him to “wake up” but her father told her what she had wished for the other woman was now the law of the land and her own son would not be awakening from his death. Death it seemed, in accordance to her wishes, was not permanent.
The Blackfoot Indians also have a tale about death. Their creator had one of the best names, albeit a bit sexist, I have studied – Old Man. It does make sense. I mean, the one who created all would be older than anyone else, right? And the male nomenclature was not shared by pother tribes as we will read about later in the week. For now, though, our story is about Old Man, the creator deity of the Blackfoot Indians. Old Man had taken clay and formed a woman and a young boy. This was the beginning of the human race, the Blackfoot tribe believed. One day the woman asked Old man about their lifespan and Old man conceded he had not thought that far ahead. He suggested they throw a buffalo chip (dried waste from the prolific animal that gave the indigenous people both food and skin for clothing and shelter material) into the water. “If it floats,” Old Man promised, “People will die for four days but then return to life.” No knowing all the aspects of floatability of a buffalo chip, woman was unsure of this plan. (In fact, there are many variables as to whether a buffalo chip will float or not.) The woman proposed replacing the dried chip matter with a rock. She convinced Old Man to use the rock, saying “If it sinks, life will end in death as you said.” We perhaps can understand her feeling the rock was a better choice because rocks were solid. Unfortunately, that which made the rock a comfortable choice for her also guaranteed life would end in death. Even if one can skip a rock across the water’s surface, it will eventually sink to the bottom of the river or lake bed.
Perhaps the real end of life occurs when we exhibit a lack of faith and then engage in a penchant to try to control everything ourselves to the benefit of only ourselves. Maybe the way to longevity in life and perhaps immortality is found in having faith and living a life that benefits all makind, living our faith and not just talking about it.