Jul 10, 2016

Negotiating with Death: Special Agreements for the Afterlife Around the World

Until her death (1862) by Frederick A. Sandys.
Top Image: Until her death (1862) by Frederick A. Sandys. Source: Public Domain 
Death as an entity appears in many cultures across the globe. In the West, this entity is known as the Grim Reaper. In Japan, Death is represented by Shinigami, the Gods of Death. A lesser-known element of stories involving Death is the part about those who negotiate with the Grim Reaper. This is their story. 

Death and the Crow

There is an old legend about crows. It is said that these birds can help the spirits of the dead travel safely to the afterlife. The same belief has been connected to eagles. However, it is also said that crows can help give a person a second chance at life by negotiating with Death and by preventing it from severing life from a person’s body. This would allow the individual to complete one last urgent task. In this sense, the crow is one of those negotiators who can talk Death out of claiming a person’s life…at least for a time. 
Crow on a Branch (1873-1877) by Kawanabe Kyōsai. Brooklyn Museum. (Public Domain)

The Flaming Winged Serpent

In Japan, onmyouji were a type of wizard monks. They used to invoke Shikigami (ceremonial deities) in order to help them achieve their tasks. One such Shikigami was Touda or Tousha, the flaming winged serpent. Touda was said to be the only Shikigami capable of killing (in fact, completely erasing from existence) a Shinigami, a God of Death. 

Prolonging Human Life

“Compendium Medicus” (“Hippocratis, Medicorum”) was printed in Byzantine, but the 1588 edition was prohibited by the Church. The text dealt with how medicine should fight in order to prolong human life. It ended with a chapter on human structure, concluding that the human body is stronger than what was known at that time. The main conclusion rested in the fact that human beings had the tendency to become immortal. 
Animal or demon blowing horn, perhaps allegory of disease. In Hippocrates' Aphorismi. (c. 1300) (Public Domain
In many cases of apparent near death experiences, the people who have returned from the other side claimed that they had heard a voice telling them that their time had not yet come and, as a result, their souls were sent back into their bodies. These voices or the entities to whom they belong could be another type of negotiators with Death. 
Also, the shadow is said to protect the individual to whom it belongs. In this sense, the shadow can oppose the Grim Reaper when it comes and refuse to surrender the individual’s soul to Death. Only when the shadow gives its permission can the Grim Reaper sever the person’s ties to life. 
Other legends and stories start from the fact that Death comes for all those who have life and concludes that this aspect is unfair. Such legends speak about regular mortals who have come to this conclusion and who have decided to oppose the Grim Reaper in order to remain alive. 
Death as a skeleton carrying a scythe. (Public Domain)

A Norse Negotiator

In Norse mythology, the trickster god Loki caused the death of the god Balder. When Frigga saw that her beloved son had died, she asked that someone go to Helheim to appear before Hel and bargain for the return of Balder. 
Hemrod volunteered to perform the act and Odin lent him Sleipnir, so that he would quickly reach the realm of the goddess Hel. In the meanwhile, the gods said their farewell to Balder and prepared for the funeral rites. Balder’s wife, Nanna, bent over her husband’s body on the funeral pyre and decided to join him in death as her heart was broken and she could, under no circumstance, be apart from him. 
Balder und Nanna (1882) by Wägner, Wilhelm. (Public Domain
After ten nights of riding on Sleipnir’s back, Hemrod crossed over River Gjoll. There, Modgud inquired the reason for his coming and, once he explained and made sure that both Balder and Nanna had crossed over the bridge before him, Hemrod continued his journey until he reached the large gate. He made Sleipnir jump over the high gate and, once they landed safely on the other side, they carried on until they finally arrived at Hel’s great hall.

When he entered the hall, Hemrod found Balder and Nanna sitting on a couch, both caught up in their sadness. Even though Hemrod told Balder that he had come to take him home, Balder replied that he knew he had to stay in Helheim until the last day. However, he did ask Hemrod to take Nanna back to Asgard, but she immediately refused, once again not wanting to be parted from her beloved husband. In the end, Hemrod presented himself before Hel and asked her to release Balder. 
Her response explained that she would allow the god of light to return to Asgard should all things in creation shed tears for him. With this encouraging answer, Hemrod returned to the realm of the Aesir. Once the gods assembled, Hemrod gave Odin the ring Draupnir (which Balder had sent back). Then he presented Frigga with an embroidered carpet which Nanna had sent for her and gave a ring to Fulla.
Frigg and one of her handmaids, presumably Fulla. (1865) Ludwig Pietsch. (Public Domain
After Hemrod told them about the condition for Balder’s release, the gods sent heralds to all the corners of the world to ask everything in creation to weep for the god of light. They all wept for Balder, and upon their return to Asgard, the heralds noticed the giantess Thok crouching inside a cave by the edge of the road. The giantess was said to have been Loki in disguise. The messengers approached her and asked her to shed a tear for Balder. 

Failure Due to Trickery

To their dismay, she mocked them and refused, while turning her back on them and going back into the darkness of the cave. Thok had told the heralds that, for all she cared, the goddess Hel could keep Balder forever, and with this message they sadly returned to the abode of the gods. 
Upon their arrival, the messengers imparted the upsetting news, and the Aesir understood that they would no longer behold Balder in Asgard. Legend further has it that Odin whispered something, one single word, into his dead son’s ear while his body laid on the funeral pyre. It is not known exactly what the word was. Still, many suggest that what Odin uttered was: “Resurrection!”. 
‘Odin's last words to Baldr’ (1908) (Public Domain)

References:

  • Valda Roric – “Wonders of History and Mythology”
  • Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”
  • Valda Roric – “Loki – The Trickster Unleashed”
  • Valda Roric – “Loki – The Trickster Redeemed and the Secret of the Runes”
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