Death Through the Ages: A Brief Overview - Ancient Times
bce circa soul body
Archaeologists have found that as early as the Paleolithic period (about 2.5 to 3 million years ago), humans held specific beliefs about death and dying. Tools and ornaments excavated at burial sites suggest that our earliest ancestors believed that some element of a person survived the dying experience.
Ancient Hebrews (circa 1020–586 BCE), while acknowledging the existence of the soul, were not preoccupied with the afterlife. They lived according to the commandments of their God, to whom they entrusted their eternal destiny. Early Egyptians (circa 2900–950 BCE), on the other hand, thought that preservation of the dead body (mummification) guaranteed a happy afterlife. They believed that a person had a dual soul—the ka and the ba. The ka was the spirit that dwelled near the body, while the ba was the vitalizing soul that lived on in the netherworld. Similarly, the ancient Chinese (circa 2500–1000 BCE) also believed in a dual soul, one part of which continued to exist after the death of the body. It was this spirit that the living venerated during ancestor worship.
Among the ancient Greeks (circa 2600–1200 BCE), death was greatly feared. Greek mythology—full of tales of gods and goddesses who exacted punishment—caused the living to follow rituals meticulously when burying their dead so as not to displease the gods. Although reincarnation is usually associated with Asian religions, some Greeks were followers of Orphism, a religion that taught that the soul underwent numerous reincarnations until purification was achieved.