Near-death experiences seem to be a very common form of initiation experience for shamans all over the globe. seemed to be undergoing some sort of experience that placed them on the brink of death. This experience can take many forms, although some of the most common include serious illnesses or intentionally placing oneself in a dangerous situation likely to lead to death. It seems that there is something about being taken to the edge of this life and experiencing what lies beyond it that sparks something off within the shaman-to-be and inspires them to maintain their connection with the Spirit World.
Once they have undergone their initiation and begun to practice their craft, shamans often continue to explore the post mortem world. This seems to occur both intentionally, under their will, and spontaneously, at the call of the spirit world. In both cases, the terrain of the regions they explore seems remarkably similar in accounts from widely separated regions. A Samoyed tribesman who suffered a severe illness gave the following account to explorer Kai Donner. ‘I crossed a large ocean though wondrous forests and high mountains. Finally, I reached a ridge of high hills from which I could see a black river. There were many people in the black river all trying to escape from it…. Others drove back and forth on the river without trying to escape but fished and had a good time on the sandbanks.’ (Holger Kalweit, 1988, p33).
The description of people fishing on the riverbanks is emblematic of the idea, which seems to be widely held, that ‘life’ on the other side is not so different from life on the earthly plane seems. The image of people struggling to cross a river and suffering greatly in the process also recurs frequently in shamanic accounts of near death experiences. Essie Parrish, a Kashia Pomos shamaness from North America, gave the following description of her initial journey into the spirit world, which she undertook at the age of seven whilst unconscious.
‘Through rolling hills I walked…. I walked and walked until I came to a footbridge, and on the right side there were a whole lot of people and they were naked and crying out, “We’re stuck here. Please come over here and help us cross. The water’s too deep for us.”…. I just walked and walked, and then I heard an animal which sounded like a huge dog and there was a huge dog and next to him a huge lady wearing blue clothes, and I decided that I had to walk right through. I did and the dog only snarled at me.’ (Kalweit, p44).
Not only do the preceding accounts have a great deal of parallels with each other, they are also reminiscent of accounts of visits to the world of the dead which come from cultures not strictly classified as shamanic, such as that of ancient Greece. In the myth of Orpheus, a young man loses his wife on his wedding day and is determined to go to the Underworld in order to bring her back. At first he simply follows a long winding path downwards into the bowels of the earth but after some time he comes to the River Styx and meets Charon the ferryman who transports him across the water to the world of the dead. Having crossed the river, Orpheus then comes up against Kerberos, a three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Underworld. The parallels are striking and difficult to dismiss: the pathway, the river, the guard dog.
When investigating shamans’ accounts of their experiences, one can also get a sense of where Christian conceptions of the afterlife may be ultimately derived from. The crossing of the river may be equivalent to the Christian idea of Purgatory, where souls are forced to come to terms with the deeds of the life that has just ended. It seems that some people have more of a struggle crossing the river than others do and Kalweit proposes that ‘the river appears to represent their (the people who have died) individual burden of transgressions.’ (Kalweit, p38). After this stage has been passed, it appears that people then enter states roughly analogous to ideas of Heaven or Hell.
For some people, it seems that the land of the dead may be a joyful place of plenty, where one is reunited with lost loved ones, while for others, it is a situation of horrendous torment. Essie Parrish described how, after she crossed the river, she came to a place and looked down to see that ‘it was hot and there were people there and they looked tiny down there in that furnace running around crying.’ (Kalweit, p44). How much closer to a Christian conception of Hell could this be? All that’s missing is a cloven-hoofed horned one bearing a trident.
In the modern West, most people are very uncomfortable with the idea of death. It is an intensely taboo subject, which many people do not like discuss. To me, it seems highly likely that a large part of the reason for our discomfort at death being discussed is that we can no longer recall what lies on the other side and we lack people in our society to tell us what we can expect. All that we really have are the vestiges of Christian belief, which few people have any real belief in or respect for any more, or a nihilistic belief in oblivion.
Maybe if we gave more consideration to what occurs to us after death and considered that we may have to account for our actions in this life, we would live in a more peaceful and respectful society. As it is, we often seem to live life as though we think ourselves immortal, with little thoughts of the future repercussions of our actions. Maybe we are at some level still aware that this is not the way of the world and that is why the mention of death can still cause such panic and fear.
However, even in the strictly scientific domain of the west, the reality of a world beyond this one is gaining more and more credence. There have been several medical and psychological studies by western scientists on the subject in the past century. In the 1970s, Dr. Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life. Dr. Moody interviewed over 150 people who claimed to have had near death experiences and noted the following components which consistently recurred in NDEs, not necessarily all at once or in any particular order.