The idea of death as such has always fascinated humanity, just as much as the fascination of figuring out how life in general began. Thus, we look to mythology- the Gods- Greek, Egyptian, Nordic, Celtic, Hindu, and Buddhist anyone who can possibly explain this to us. In older religions and cultures such as Nordic, Egyptian and Hinduism, the idea of afterlife is quite prominent. This, in my opinion, is the human inability to accept death as a final sentence. After all, death is the realm of darkness and it is human nature to be afraid of the unknown. Life symbolizes the light and even in death, if the torch of afterlife still shines bright, death as a concept is much sweeter to look at.
As I stated before, it is the older religions and cultures that give the prominence to afterlife very boldly. The modern religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam accept the finality of death as it is given in their respective religious texts. In Hinduism, the cycle of afterlife states that after one human life ends, the spirit is a slave to the vicious cycle of fate where it will be reincarnated into another life.
In Celtic mythology, the dullahan is a headless rider who carries his or her head under one arm. The head’s eye’s are often small, almost fly-like, black in color, ready to fly out of the head while the mouth is stretched in a hideous grin, stretching to both sides of the head. The color of the head seemingly matches the color of moldy cheese. The dullahan uses the spine of a human corpse for a whip, and their wagon is adorned with funereal objects. For example, the candles in skulls to light the way, the spokes of the wheels are made from thigh bones, the wagon’s covering made from a worm-chewed pall or dried human skin are the decorations and the very basic materials used to create their wagons. The time and place the dullahan stops riding, is often where the person dies. If the dullahan speaks the name of the person, that person often dies right at the moment. Thus, they are not allowed to speak more than once on every journey. The Silence and the darkness of the night is their realm. Dullahans do not appreciate being watched on their errands. For this reason, if a careless person does happen to open the door when they are ridding, the person is drenched with a bucket of blood, marking them to be the next victims of the dullahan. However, they are known to whip their witness’ eyes out as well. However, like any beings, dullahans too hold fear of some object in the universe. That one object happens to be gold- a single gold pin can drive away a dullahan.
This is the basis of the popular European folktale of the ‘headless horseman’. In Brother’s Grim’s German fairytales, the headless horseman is seen to be spotted in two fairytales. In one, a woman from Dresden in Eastern Germany goes out early Sunday morning to pick acorns to a place called ‘Lost Waters’, when she hears a hunting horn. When she hears it again, she turns around she sees a headless man in a long grey coat sitting on a grey horse. In the second one set in set in Braunschweig, the headless horseman is referred to as ‘the wild huntseman’ who blows a horn to warn hunters not to ride the next day, because they will meet with an accident. In American culture, the headless horseman is a fictional character in the American author Washington Irving’s short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ from Irving’s collection of short stories entitled (Wikepedia)., The legend of the Headless Horseman begins in Sleepy Hollow, New York, during the American Revolutionary War. Traditional folklore holds that the Horseman was a Hessian artilleryman who was killed during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. He was decapitated by an American cannonball, and the shattered remains of his head were left on the battlefield while his comrades hastily carried his body away. Eventually they buried him in the graveyard of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, from which each night he rises as a malevolent ghost, furiously seeking his lost head.
Nevertheless, they are considered to be manifestations of the Grim Reaper himself. In Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could Not Stop for Death’, death could be seen as a different persona of a dullahan or the headless rider. This can be inferred from the first stanza of the poem:
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
The fact that death visits her in a carriage, it can be an altered form of the Headless Horseman as ‘death’ in the poem is not headless, where as the traditional form of the Headless Horseman is headless.
In Nordic culture as well, the idea of entities carrying souls to the afterlife is very prominent. It is here that the concept of the Valkyrie shines. The name Valkyrie, very literally translates to ‘chooser of the slain’ in Old Norse. They basically comprise of a host of female figures who roam the battlefield, choosing who may live and who may die. Out of half who do die, are guided to Valhalla, the afterlife. The Valhalla was basically a majestic, enormous hall located in Asgard, ruled over by the god Odin. Chosen by Odin, half of those who die in combat travel to Valhalla upon death, led by valkyries, while the other half went to the goddess Freyja’s field Fólkvangr. In Valhalla, the dead join the masses of those who had died in combat known as Einherjar. Frejya was the Nordic Goddess of earth, fertility, sexuality, love, beauty, war and death. Her afterlife, the Fólkvangr, which literally translates to ‘army field’ or ‘people field’, is a meadow or a field ruled over by the goddess Freyja. Thus, it is the Valhalla that is considered to be the absolute afterlife. She technically was the leader of the Valkyrie. It is her title as ‘Valfreyja ‘, which in Old Norse literally translates to ‘Mistress of the Chosen’, which indicates that she is the leader of the Valkyrie. This is attested in several poems of the Poetic Edda (Poetic Eda), which has, in the 19th century, become one of the most powerful influences on Scandinavian Literature.
As Christianity conquered Europe, the domestic culture and religion such as Paganism and Nordic, Greek and Celtic culture was dethroned. Gods and Goddesses such as Hecate and Frejya were demonized and forced to fall from their original grace. Associated with the underworld and death, they were falsely accused of the worship of Satan. The reason as to why this was done was because religion was and is one of the most integral parts of society. Religion has always held a society together like glue. Spirituality and the belief in a higher power have always been present since the birth of humanity. Religion has always been used to explain the unexplainable, such as natural disasters. Religion has been used to shed light on the darkness of the unknown. They moved to place a human face on the unknown Gods, that began as animal spirits and nature as a human face established a form of connection with those who worshiped it. Thus, when the domestic mythology was connected to the worship of Satan, the people, bullied into believing it through conquered land and blood and soon enough, the domestic culture and mythology was forgotten, associated with the worship of the devil and locked away until it was revived again in the modern world.