Passing Over - Legend & Lore

by Heather Drolet

One of the eternally unanswered questions of the living is, "what happens when we die?"

An infinite array of beliefs on this ponderance has been written over many millennia. Cultural belief and tradition concerning death and the passage into the afterlife can vary considerably.

Myths originating from far and near give us a tapestry of multi-faceted views on passing over, the afterlife and reincarnation. Many cultures in the world today still adhere to some piece of their particular myths concerning death and that which is associated with it. To follow I have included various examples of the cultural and traditional beliefs that have been passed down from many areas of the world.

Anubis, is the jackal-headed, Egyptian god of death. He also presides over the ritual of embalming. Myth states that he performed this service on the great god Osiris. His Egyptian names were Inpu and Wepwawet, which mean, "opener of the ways". It is believed that he led the souls of the dead into the west to the Hall of Judgment.

Hades, the Greek ruler of the Underworld, was the brother of the Olympian god Zeus. Passage in Greek myth was processional. The Greek, Hermes Psychopompos led the dead down into Hades. The ferryman, Charon, took the dead across the infernal rivers. The infernal rivers are the River Styx (river of hate), Achoron (river of woe), Lethe (river of forgetfulness), Cocytos (river of wailing) and the Phlegthon(river of fire). Traveling these rivers represented leaving each of the ill feelings behind you, a purifying before entering the afterlife.

A great many myths surrounding the dead come from Celtic cultures. One transformation theme, stemming from Celtic belief, is that of turning into a bird upon one's death. The raven is a strong example here.


Warriors of Northern Europe who died in battle might go to the god Odin's Great Hall of Valhalla. The goddess Freya received slain warriors as well as the souls of women. Those dying of age, illness or accident went to Hel, overseen by the God Loki's daughter, also named Hel (not to be confused with the Christian "Hell"). Those who were chosen to die in battle were done so on Odin's behalf by the Valkyries. The name Valkyrie means "chooser of the slain". The female spirits went to the battlefields and claimed the slain, bringing them back to Valhalla.

In Ireland, Badb, "the boiling one", presides over the great cauldron. The great cauldron is, in myth and modern pagan belief, a place to which all life goes upon death and from which it waits to be reborn.

Scottish lore provides that "willing" a dying loved one to live, traps their spirit and prevents them from passing over, thereby prolonging their suffering. The author and poet Thomas Campbell wrote "to live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die".

Loved ones’ earthly forms may leave us but within our hearts and memories their spirits live on. The common denominator in most myths associated with death is that their is always a "higher being" to welcome and guide you into the afterlife - but that is just a pagan's perspective.