Death is for us human beings the ultimate concern. We know that one day we and our loved ones are going to die, but not when — and most importantly, our destination after we pass away.
The exhibition “Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife” at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, discusses aspects of the next world according to ancient Greek mythology, inviting us in the process to review the topic from wider, both mythological and religious, understandings of the subject.
The afterlife has always been in man’s mind since prehistoric times. From about 25,000 to 100,000 years ago, prehistoric man was buried with weapons, flint implements and food in the graves that they dug. This shows that our ancestors assumed that in some sense and in some form humans continue to exist after their death, so as to have the need to have useful objects, which were buried with the deceased.
In ancient Greece it was anticipated that the soul left the body after death and continued to exist in some form. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while just a few heroes related to the Olympian gods enjoyed eternal paradise. Although the gods decided the fate of every individual on earth, someone could control his fate through divination and sacrifices to them.
On loan from the National Museum in Naples, and recently conserved by the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquity Conservation department, this exhibition explores depictions of the Underworld in the art of ancient Greece and southern Italy.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, a large funerary vase (4’11”x 3’08”), called krater in Greek, was made around the middle of the fourth century B.C. in Altamura in the region of Apulia, southwest Italy. The ancient inhabitants in that region buried their dead with assemblages of pottery and other goods, and large vessels were produced for the graves of the local elite. Though not Greeks themselves, Apulians engaged closely with the culture of Greece, and many of their funerary vases are decorated with scenes from the Greek myth and drama.
The Underworld — otherwise known as “House of Hades” or simply Hades — is a rare subject in Greek art. It is only in south Italy vase painting from around 350 B.C. that a tradition of richly populated Underworld scenes developed. There are 35 Apulian funerary vessels in the exhibition, including the krater, and together they bear detailed representations of the afterlife and the mythological figures associated with it. Rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead and bear directions for where to go in the Underworld are also exhibited.
From the distant past to this day, we still do not have concrete proof of what is going to happen after we die. In general, as our ancestors did, most religions today believe — by faith, of course, not reason — either in some sort of continued existence, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior in this life, through the reincarnation of the soul (Buddhism, no God or god to Hinduism, 33,333 gods), or within the monotheist tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), heaven and hell after one life. Some agnostics and atheists, minorities within the world religions, believe in eternal oblivion.
In Christianity, the Bible promises eternal rest and peace in heaven to the saved, a place “Where there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, neither shall be any more pain” (Revelation 21:40, KJV, King James Version). The holy book also warns of hell as a place of eternal torment, where the wicked will spend eternity in a place where the worm dies not, the fire was not quenched, and “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28, KJV). Dante Alighieri’s (Tuscan, c. 1265-1321) epic poem “The Divine Comedy” (1308-1320, La Divina Commedia in Italian) has, perhaps, done more to disseminate the Roman Catholic Christian Medieval (and beyond) idea of the afterlife, with its theology and lore, than the Church and the Bible.
Near Death Experiences (NDE) are the closest things to a scientific explanation of coming back from the dead. NDEs are a biological coping mechanism that occurs when death is imminent and the person feels like he or she is passing through a dark tunnel towards an intense light at the end, meeting “beings of light” (mostly dead relatives and, Christians believe, Jesus), peacefulness, absence of pain and reliving life experiences. Science explains that these pleasant feelings might be due lack of oxygen in the brain, abnormal functioning of dopamine that causes hallucinations, and reliving past moments of life is due to release of noradrenaline, a stress hormone one could expect to be released in high levels during distress. So much for early 21st-century science being able to explain the afterlife.
Therefore, based on current beliefs, maybe the Altamura Funerary Vase person has reincarnated, lived other lives (maybe he is among us today, who knows?). Other alternatives would be heaven, hell or maybe eternal oblivion. We do not know therefore, we grin and bear and hope for the best — after all, the end of life was never meant to be the extinction of hope.