By Steve Lopez
Dear Gov. Brown:
Three years ago, my father died in a fairly typical manner. His heart and his body had given out, he could barely move, he couldn’t feed himself and he was in diapers.
He was in a bit of pain, but the physical suffering was nothing compared to the emotional and psychological side of things. His life was gone and there was no joy in a day. He had no privacy and he hated having to be cared for as he lay in bed helplessly, a witness to his own lingering death, which finally arrived as a friend might, delivering the gift of mercy.
Maybe I’m not as brave as my father, but I knew then that I do not want to die that way and wouldn’t want my loved ones to experience the misery of watching me slowly dissolve.
In some circumstances, death may be the best remaining friend and it is reasonable and moral to accelerate the dying process.– Dan Maguire, professor, Marquette University
So what will I do? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be one to put a gun to my head, as some do. Maybe I’d stop eating and drinking water, but that can be a pretty miserable way to go too.
Gov. Brown, I don’t know if you read about this in my column, but I died once. Just after a knee operation, I went into cardiac arrest and flat-lined. That wouldn’t be a bad way to go, actually. No long, drawn-out affair. No messy stuff. But I was resuscitated, and I’m alive and well for the time being, and I’m asking you to give dying Californians the right to depart on their own terms.
No one seems to know what you will do with the End of Life Option Act that’s in your hands and would give us the same freedom people have in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere.
I know that our democracy is based on a separation of church and state, and that leaders such as you try not to let the tenets of their faith assert undue influence on secular decisions. I know too, however, that our values are usually set early and that religious beliefs are often core to who we are.
So it seems reasonable to note that the Catholic Church opposes what critics call assisted suicide and supporters call aid in dying, yet polls suggest most Catholics — as well as most Californians — want the option of going through a series of steps to get a life-ending prescription from a physician.
I know, governor, that you got a little farther than I did in the Catholic Church. You were a seminarian and I topped out at altar boy.
I don’t know if you still identify as a Catholic, but to me, any religion is about a search for meaning and we all know you’re a thoughtful — even spiritual — man who reflects, quotes Scripture and works from a set of basic moral principles.
So I wanted to share some conversations I’ve had with religious people who came to support aid in dying in the context of their experience and training.
“As a Christian I believe God is love,” the Rev. Ignacio Castuera once told me. “…And the God of love would not want any of God’s creatures to suffer undignified situations, especially at the end of life.”
Castuera grew up Catholic and is now a United Methodist Minister in Pomona. He told me about his ministry in West Hollywood during the AIDS epidemic, and he spoke of the honor of being with those who found a way to purchase life-ending medications and face death bravely with loved ones present.
“Death,” Castuera said, “is not the final stage for humans.” It is, in his mind, a deliverance to God.
The Rev. Sergio Camacho, a Methodist minister in Montclair, shares that view.
“Over the years, I’ve seen so many people dying, from brain tumors and other diseases,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how they suffer.… Before they go, they curse their families, they curse themselves, they curse God. It’s horrible, and God doesn’t want that. He wants us to go in peace. We need to think about this with merciful hearts.”
Dr. Robert Olvera, a Catholic physician and former altar boy who grew up in East Los Angeles, has supported aid in dying since watching his daughter die, at 24, from the leukemia she lived with for 17 years. She was blinded by her disease, he said, painkillers offered no relief and she suffered greatly.
“She was basically living in a black hole,” he said. “She had no quality of life.”
She was wasting away, her face was sunken, she did not want to be seen by anyone and she was in that state for the final three months of a life that ended last year.
“She begged me to give her some sleeping pills,” said Olvera, who couldn’t answer that request, knowing he could be criminally charged and lose his license to practice medicine.
Doctors can and do offer palliative sedation, but Olvera believes they should also have the right to grant a terminal patient’s wish to die at the time of their choosing, provided they are of sound mind and have satisfied the safeguards against abuse or coercion that are written into the end-of-life legislation.
I asked Olvera how he would respond to the argument that the timing of death is not something patients and doctors should decide; that should be left in God’s hands.
Doctors, he said, can unplug ventilators and they can answer a patient’s wish to be taken off dialysis. They can recognize that modern medicine has advanced to the point where people can be kept alive almost indefinitely, but all of us must ask whether, in some cases, we are extending life or prolonging death.
As both a physician and a Catholic, Olvera said, he believes no one should have to experience what his daughter did.
I understand that your education was Jesuit, Gov. Brown.
Well, Dan Maguire studied in Rome, became a Jesuit priest and now teaches moral theology at Marquette University, a Jesuit school. Here’s what he told me:
“For almost 50 years a number of Catholic theologians have taught that for the terminally ill, ending life may, at times, be the best that life offers. In some circumstances, death may be the best remaining friend and it is reasonable and moral to accelerate the dying process.”
According to Scripture, Maguire told me, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and it is our God-given right to decide for ourselves on matters such as aid in dying.
“Thomas Aquinas says with great wisdom that human actions are good or bad depending on the circumstances,” Maguire said. “In certain cases, you could say that life is good, and always to be served as best you can, but there are times when the ending of life is the best that life offers, and moral beings can make that decision for themselves…. That’s what human freedom means.”
It’s true, Gov. Brown, that some fear the life-ending option will be abused, and that those who are disabled or in a state of depression will choose inappropriately or be manipulated by relatives who stand to benefit financially.
It’s true, as well, that we need to be mindful of the potentially dangerous intersection of end-of-life options and cost-cutting by health insurance companies that have a financial disincentive in costly end-of-life procedures going on for long.
But I believe the legislation before you offers safeguards against abuses.
I don’t know if my father — who refused a feeding tube before his life came to a close — would have taken advantage of the End of Life Option Act, had it been available at the time.
I’m certain many people — probably most people — would want no part of it. That’s their choice and they should be entitled to the finest palliative care.
But I know that since writing about his death, I have heard from hundreds of Californians who would take a small measure of comfort in knowing that if they so choose, they can avoid physical or emotional suffering as the inevitable end nears. They believe that, as Dan Maguire put it, there comes a time when death is a friend.
I stand with them.
Complete Article HERE!
A Racial Gap In Attitudes Toward Hospice Care
By Sarah Varney
BUFFALO — Twice already Narseary and Vernal Harris have watched a son die. The first time — Paul, at age 26 — was agonizing and frenzied, his body tethered to a machine meant to keep him alive as his incurable sickle cell disease progressed. When the same illness ravaged Solomon, at age 33, the Harrises reluctantly turned to hospice in the hope that his last days might somehow be less harrowing than his brother’s.
Their expectations were low. “They take your money,” Mrs. Harris said, describing what she had heard of hospice. “Your loved ones don’t see you anymore. You just go there and die.”
Hospice use has been growing fast in the United States as more people choose to avoid futile, often painful medical treatments in favor of palliative care and dying at home surrounded by loved ones. But the Harrises, who are African-American, belong to a demographic group that has long resisted the concept and whose suspicions remain deep-seated.
It is an attitude borne out by recent federal statistics showing that nearly half of white Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in hospice before death, compared with only a third of black patients. The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to advance care directives — legal documents meant to help families make life-or-death decisions that reflect a patient’s choices. Some 40 percent of whites aged 70 and over have such plans, compared with only 16 percent of blacks.
Instead, black Americans — far more so than whites — choose aggressive life-sustaining interventions, including resuscitation and mechanical ventilation, even when there is little chance of survival.
The racial gaps could widen when Medicare is expected to begin paying physicians in January 2016 for end-of-life counseling, and at a time when blacks and other minorities are projected to make up 42 percent of people 65 and over in 2050, up from 20 percent in 2000.
At the root of the resistance, say researchers and black physicians, is a toxic distrust of a health care system that once displayed “No Negroes” signs at hospitals, performed involuntary sterilizations on black women and, in an infamous Tuskegee study, purposely left hundreds of black men untreated for syphilis.
“You have people who’ve had a difficult time getting access to care throughout their lifetimes” because of poverty, lack of health insurance or difficulty finding a medical provider, said Dr. Maisha Robinson, a neurologist and palliative medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. “And then you have a physician who’s saying, ‘I think that we need to transition your mother, father, grandmother to comfort care or palliative care.’ People are skeptical of that.”
Federal policies surrounding hospice also arouse suspicion in black communities since Medicare currently requires patients to give up life-sustaining therapies in order to receive hospice benefits.
That trade-off strikes some black families, who believe they have long had to fight for quality medical care, as unfair, said Dr. Kimberly Johnson, a Duke University associate professor of medicine who has studied African-American attitudes about hospice.
Dr. Johnson said her black patients were more likely to believe there are actual religious prohibitions against limiting life-sustaining therapy, and that suffering can be redemptive, or “a test from God.” And those beliefs, she added, were “contrary to the hospice philosophy of care.”
But now some doctors and clergy members are trying to use church settings to reshape the black community’s views, incorporating the topic in sermons, Bible study groups and grief and bereavement ministries.
Dr. Robinson, who is black and a daughter of Tennessee pastors, has been helping pastors develop faith-based hospice guidelines. She tells them, “God can work miracles, yes he can, but even in hospice.”
That message recently rang out from the pulpit at God Answers Prayer Ministries, an African- American church in South Los Angeles, as Bishop Gwendolyn Coates-Stone tried a sermon theme on advance care.
“It’s such a great cost to hold on to some of those sicknesses and diseases that eventually are going to take us out,” she exclaimed into a microphone, bobbing and weaving in a swirl of royal purple robes. “Just like Jesus talked about his death and prepared his disciples for his death, we ought to be preparing our disciples for our death!”
In a moment of benediction, Bishop Coates-Stone made a direct plea: “Help us Lord to have the courage to have conversations with our families,” she said, “that will also not leave them wandering and wondering, ‘What should I do in case of the death of a loved one?’”
A gathering of older blacks convened recently by Dr. Robinson in Leimert Park, a middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood, underscored the challenges such efforts still face.
“Hospice has not been a good place for African-Americans, unless you’re in a white facility and usually you’re one of few black people there,” said one woman, who along with others attending the gathering asked not to be identified in order to speak frankly.
That sentiment was greeted by nods from others in the group. “It gets into money,” another woman said. “The treatment is a little bit better, but then there is still the discrimination.”
Advance directives, in particular, are often seen as sinister, a way for insurance companies to maximize profits. “If you say you want at all costs to live, and they say, ‘Well, your insurance company doesn’t allow that,’ then they’re going to pull the plug anyway,” said the host of the gathering, Loretta Jones, 73, founder of Healthy African-American Families in Los Angeles.
To help allay those concerns, physicians need to be more explicit during end-of-life discussions, Dr. Robinson said. “We have to be much clearer about why we’re trying to have those conversations, or we’ll continue to see a pattern of people who really want life-sustaining interventions even when there’s limited potential benefit.”
Camille Wicher, vice president of clinical operations at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, who has studied African-Americans’ end-of-life choices, said hospitals needed to enlist black families who have had good hospice experiences to share their stories with friends and church members.
“That’s how we learn,” she added. “We learn from each other.”
The Harrises are trying to use their experience to carry out that work.
The agony of their son Paul’s death in a hospital room informed their treatment decisions when their next son, Solomon, became gravely ill. When his doctor conceded that blood transfusions were of little help, Solomon assented to hospice care in his parents’ home. If he was going to be robbed of his future, Solomon would not, his parents decided, be robbed of a good death.
All the while, parishioners from his parents’ church visited Solomon, amazed to find that hospice was not the grim banishment they had always envisioned.
“One of the members said, ‘I thought you were going to put Solomon in hospice,’ ” Mrs. Harris recalled. “I said, ‘We did.’ ‘Well, when is he going?’ I said, ‘They come here.’ ‘They come to your house?’ ‘Yeah, they’re taking care of him right here.’ ”
There was even time for reflection, as Solomon wrote in a poem called “After Life.”
“Fear death?” he wrote. “No, I await death.”
Solomon died a short while later, but the Harrises say his death has had a lasting impact.
“The people in our immediate circle now view hospice positively,” Mrs. Harris said. “I think our experience was powerful enough that it changed people’s attitudes.”
Mr. Harris, the pastor of Prince of Peace Temple Church of God in Christ, often evangelizes about hospice during his Sunday morning sermons, while Mrs. Harris has enlisted the wives of black pastors in Western New York, known as the “First Ladies,” to counter negative views about palliative care. At a recent meeting, the women discussed older church members who might benefit from hospice, and Mrs. Harris wanted to hear how parishioners in the women’s churches responded to some recent outreach.
“It really opened up people’s eyes to the negative stigma of it, feeling like, ‘I’m just putting my loved one away, and not caring for them,’ ” said Joyce Badger of Bethesda World Harvest International Church in Buffalo. “The power of knowledge that we’ve gained is really going to help our community.”
Complete Article HERE!
When I die
In this intimate portrait, Philip Gould wrestles with the meaning, and unexpected ecstasy, of impending death
Philip Gould was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2008, and in the summer of 2011 he was given three months to live. Filmed during the last two weeks of his life, this intimate portrait reveals Gould’s quest to find meaning in what he called ‘the death zone’.
Gould believed that for the terminally ill and those close to them, there can be moments of joy, resolution and inspiration just as intense as those of fear, discomfort and sadness.
‘I am not redefining death, I am offering another way to perceive dying. I have been offered an opportunity to live every moment until there are no more moments for me to live and for that I will be eternally grateful.’
After surviving the Holocaust, letting go of life is complex
Jewish hospice chaplains confront the emotional and medical complexities of death and dying every day, but Holocaust survivors present special challenges.
Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman, director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, said that chaplains are increasingly being called on to provide spiritual support to survivors and their families.
“There are a lot of complex issues,” said Freedman, who has worked in end of life chaplaincy for 23 years. “One of them is making the decision of unhooking hydration – much more complex for a Holocaust family. The idea of not providing nutrition is crossing a sacred or not understood emotional line.”
Survivor guilt and mixed feelings at the prospect that they may “meet their relatives on the other side” commonly surface, he said.
Rabbi Charles Rudansky, director of Jewish clinical services at Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s hospice in New York, reported similar experiences with Holocaust survivors he had counseled.
“Last time they saw their loved ones was hellish, hellish, hellish, and now they’re crossing that bridge,” said Rudansky.
Some Holocaust survivors are apprehensive at that prospect, he said, while others are “uplifted.” A usually talkative person may fall silent, while a quiet person may suddenly have a lot to say.
“I’ve been called in by Holocaust survivors who only want to speak with me so some human ears will have heard their plight,” said Freedman.
Jan Kellough, a counselor with Sivitz Jewish Hospice and Palliative Care in Pittsburgh, said she encourages, but never pushes, survivors to share their stories. While it can be therapeutic for some survivors to talk about the Holocaust, she said, it is problematic for others.
For some survivors, “there’s an attitude of not wanting to give up, there’s a strong will to fight and survive,” said Kellough.
Children and grandchildren of survivors can also struggle to cope with their loved ones’ terminal illness, said Rudansky.
He said such people tell the hospice staff, “’My grandfather, my father survived Auschwitz. You can’t tell me they can’t survive this!’ They have great difficulty in wrapping their heads around this is different — this is nature.”
That difficulty can be compounded by the fact that children of survivors may not have had much contact with death in their lives, said Rabbi David Rose, a hospice chaplain with the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville, Maryland.
Because so many of their family members were wiped out in the Holocaust, children of survivors may be less likely to have experienced the death of a grandparent or aunt or uncle.
“That’s one of the benefits of hospice. We work with them and their families to help them accept their diagnosis,” said Kellough.
Hospice offers families pre-bereavement counseling, 13-months of aftercare and access to preferred clergy.
Special sensitivity is paid to spouses who are also survivors.
“Survivor couples, particularly if they met before the war or just after the war are generally exceptionally protective of each other,” said Rose. “A few different couples come to mind – every time I visited, the partner was sitting right next to their spouse, holding hands the whole visit.”
Freedman underscored that chaplains are trained not to impose their religious ideas on families, but rather to listen to the patient and family’s wishes.
“I tell the people I train that if you’re doing more [than] 30 percent [of the] talking in the early stages of the relationship, then you’re doing it wrong,” said Freedman.
“Seventy percent of communication is coming from your ears, your eyes, your smile — not your talking. Rabbis tend to be loquacious, we’re talkative,” he said. “But when I’m with a family, I am an open book for them to write on.”
Though the work is emotionally demanding, Freedman said, “Helping people through natural death and dying is one of the most rewarding things people can do.”
Complete Article HERE!
Too many African Americans plan too little for death, experts say
Brandi Alexander was relieved when she got the news that her father’s cancer was in remission in 2003. Neither she nor her five siblings subsequently took the time to talk with their father about his final wishes in the event he became ill or died.
But in November 2010, Alexander flew home from Denver to New Orleans for Thanksgiving and learned that her father’s cancer had returned. Less than two months later, Ferdinand Alexander was dead.
“”When my father came out of remission, he declined very quickly and none of us knew what he wanted,” Alexander said. “I had never had a conversation with him. I had all of this knowledge about end of life things but I had never talked to my own father who had a terminal disease. He was remarried and his new wife was making all of the decisions.”
Alexander’s comments came at the conclusion of a forum entitled “The Journey Home: An African American Conversation,” in which senior citizen advocates, morticians, pastors, financial planners and even an emergency room physician came together at SunTrust Bank to talk about death, dying and end-of life choices.
“My father had six kids and we didn’t agree with his wife, who had the power of attorney. And instead of honoring his life we were battling about his death,” said Alexander, regional campaign & outreach manager for Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life advocacy group that used to be known as the Hemlock Society.
While talking about death and dying is almost taboo in the African American community, Daniel Wilson, national director of Compassion & Choices said, “We have to look at the whole spectrum of what end-of-life looks like, from the point of diagnosis to what you need to look for when you are choosing a physician to should I go to hospice.”
John M. Thompson, director of the D.C. Office on Aging, said, “In the District of Columbia we have 104,000 seniors and coming to an event like this is so important not only for the seniors but for their caregivers and the young to understand how to properly plan for the future.”
“Who’s going to be responsible for executing that will, if mom and dad dies?” Thompson said. “This is a chance to have a peaceful ending for mom and dad as they move on with life and live in harmony together.
Dr. Melissa Clarke, a local emergency physician, said, “I have been in too many situations where people have come in and based upon their age should have an advance health-care directive and it should be clear what should be done for them, but it’s not.”
Lynne T. McGuire, president of McGuire Funeral Service Inc. in the District, said that she wishes that she could have the opportunity to talk with families before someone dies. “It is bigger than just funeral planning. The whole end of life spectrum: How do I want to be cared for ? Folks are starting to talk about it, but we really do need documentation.”
For example, McGuire said the funeral home buried a woman who was 102 and learned too late that her husband who died 60 years ago, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and there was space for her. “There was a grave reserved for her but it is too late.”
Tiffany Tippins, CEO of Impactful Wealth Solutions, said, “I think the biggest thing I see in planning for death is the lack of planning: Making decisions, letting someone know when you can’t speak for yourself and when you can act for yourself, what do you want to happen.”
The Rev. Thomas L. Bowen, assistant pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in the District, said in the same way couples are offered premarital counseling, pastors need to offer counseling before people leave this earth. “A lot of times we as pastors are the first responders. When death comes, people say, ‘Lord, what am I going to do,’ then they call the preacher and say, ‘what am I going to do.’”
Complete Article HERE!
She’s often depicted as the patron saint of murderers and narco-traffickers, and the Catholic Church condemns devotion to her as blasphemy. But Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is a Mexican folk saint with a growing following across North America, particularly among the marginalized – transsexuals, immigrants, the poor.
Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death
The One God of the Near Eastern monotheisms— Judaism, Christianity, Islam—is both the creator and stern but loving father of humankind. He cares for his creation from birth to death and beyond. This is somewhat exceptional among world mythologies. Many creator gods are unbelievably remote in time and space: Maheo in the myths of the Cheyenne of the U.S. Great Plains existed before existence, and numerous creators are sky gods, such as Olorun, or “Sky,” in the myths of the Edo and Yoruba peoples of Nigeria.
Although most peoples of the world preferred to believe that creation had a purpose, sometimes it was incidental or even accidental. Qamaits, warrior goddess of the Bella Coola people of the Northwest coast of Canada, killed off the primeval giants who ruled the earth, making room for other life forms merely as a by-product. Coniraya, one of the oldest of Inca gods, could not help but create: His mere touch made everything burst into life.
Such creators often take scant interest in their creation. Qamaits seldom concerned herself with the earth once she had killed the giants and perhaps humans as well; her rare visits caused earthquakes, forest fires, and epidemics. Other creator gods withdraw once the act of creation is over, leaving subordinates in charge. In Ugandan myth, the creator, Katonda, left his deputies Kibuka (war) and Walumbe (death), along with others, to rule his new universe.
The War Gods
War and death are an obvious pairing. Almost no one embraces death willingly, unless seduced by the evil songs of Kipu-Tyttö, Finnish goddess of illness, into joining her in the underworld of Tuonela. To express most people’s sense of death as a battle lost, death is pictured in many myths as a warrior: Rudrani, the Hindu “red princess,” who brings plague and death, and gorges on blood shed in battle; and Llamo, Tibetan goddess of disease, riding across the world, clad in her victims’ skins, firing her poison arrows. Because warriors give protection too, the ancient Greeks were ushered out of life by a gentler psychopomp (soul guide) than in most mythologies, the warrior god Thanatos, brother of Sleep, who escorted the dead to the gates of the underworld.
If war and death seem obvious allies, war and life seem contradictions. Yet it is precisely on the patrons of war, and other gods and goddesses envisaged as warriors, that the business of human life often rests. In most mythologies, the divine energy of the gods is seen as the great motive force of the universe. This energy may be analogous to that of a storm or some other powerful natural force, as in Egypt where the desert wind was personified as the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, who when angry became the Eye of Ra, a terrible war goddess who swept over the land, scorching the earth in her wake.
Just as human warriors are stronger and more active than most other people, war gods and goddesses generally embody pure energy: the Hindu goddess Durga is the anger of Shiva’s consort Parvati, just as Kartikeya (Skanda), Hindu god of armies, is the fierceness of Shiva himself. The divine vigor of these deities is barely contained: Sumerian Ninurta existed as power without form until his mother Ninhursaga confined it in the shape of an eagle-winged warrior. The same idea underlies the curious births of many war gods: Iranian Mithra, born from a rock; Greek Athene, springing from Zeus’s head; Kali, the Hindu death goddess, bursting from the forehead of Durga; and Kartikeya, born from the sparks that fell from Shiva’s eyes. They are eruptions into the universe of divine vitality.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, a number of war gods are themselves creators, like the Mesopotamian Marduk, Mithra in ancient Iran, Min in Egypt, Vahagn in Armenian myth, Unkulunkulu of the Amazulu people of South Africa, and (inadvertently) Qamaits. Many more are deeply involved with the creative and intellectual growth of humankind, their myths saying something universal about the way civilizations develop. Except for the Greek Ares, portrayed as brawn without brain, the war gods are often great benefactors. Tools and weapons are the gifts of Gu, the blacksmith god of the Fon peoples of Dahomey, and of Ogun, venerated by the Yoruba as the power of iron. Craft-skills are bestowed by Greek Athene and Sumerian Ninurta, healing and medical skills by lion-headed Sekhmet and by Unkulunkulu, the Amazulu creator. Magical knowledge is the legacy of Norse Odin, prophecy of Baltic Svandovit. Justice and fair dealing are the province of Norse Tr and Roman Mars, sovereignty and rule of Celtic Medb, Germanic Teutatis, and both Mars and the Roman war goddess Bellona.
It is very often the war gods, too, who oversee the continuance of the human race, and indeed the ability of all living things to reproduce themselves. The myths say this in different ways. Several war gods and goddesses, notably the Greek Ares and the Celtic Medb, were notorious for their sexual appetites. Just as Ares coupled for preference with Aphrodite, so in Haitian voudun (voodoo), Ogoun enjoys sex with the love goddess Erzulie. The Mesopotamian Ishtar, goddess of sex, was in Assyria also the war goddess, to whom were offered the flayed skins and severed hands of prisoners.
This is less a commentary on the rape and pillage historically associated with invading armies than a reflection of a link between war gods and a broader notion of generation and fertility. Gu, in Dahomey, oversaw both fertility and war; Cihuacóatl, Great Goddess of the Aztecs, had charge of war and women’s fecundity. In particular instances, the link between war and fertility might arise from the war god’s dual role as sky and weather god, by analogy with the life-giving rain, as with Mars and Svandovit. Another line of development is represented by Hachiman, who began as aprotector of crops and children, came to protect the whole of Japan, and then became a war god.
Sex and Fertility
But war gods aside, a connection between sex/fertility and death is made in many mythologies from the most ancient past down to the present time. Nergal in Mesopotamia, embodied as a bull (a widespread symbol of virility), was notorious both for his sexual activity and also for dragging mortals off to the underworld; Sucellus, the “Good Striker,” in Celtic myth had a hammer which he used both to strike plenty from the ground and to hit dying people on the forehead to make death easier; Ghede, originally the Haitian god of love, was in later voudun belief amalgamated with Baron Samedi, the dancing god of death who was often questioned via blood sacrifice on questions of fertility.
This link between sex and/or fertility and death is epitomized by Hathor, originally a fierce blood-drinking Nubian war goddess who wore the same lion-headed form as Sekhmet. When introduced into Egypt, she became the cow of plenty whose milk was the food of the gods and kept them fecund. It was Hathor, too, who entertained the sun god Ra on his nightly voyage through the underworld, and also guided souls to the court of the judge of the dead, Osiris.
Life and death are two sides of the same coin: Innanna, Sumerian goddess of sex and fertility, is the twin sister of Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld. They are not two but one, a dual goddess, light and dark. Consider the Irish myths of the Daghdha. Wise, associated with magic, like the war gods he was master of arts and skills. But he was also the gluttonous god of abundance and of fertility, coupling with Boann, the spirit of the river Boyne, as well as his wife Dana, and with the war goddess the Morrigan (significantly on New Year’s Day). He wielded a huge club—with the knobbed end killing the living, the other restoring the dead to life.
Other Aspects of Gods and Goddesses
Some mythologies have vanished; some have gone on to become world faiths. One of the survivors is Hinduism, which expresses its philosophy of life and death in the myth of Shiva, a warrior of vast strength, the most powerful being in the universe, armed with invincible weapons (including a bow made from the rainbow and a trident of thunderbolts). Like many war gods, he was born oddly,
from a slit in a vast penis that appeared in the universe. (He is still honored in the form of a phallic stone column, the lingam.) At the same time, his titles include Kala (“Death”) and Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), because of the terrible dance he dances at the end of each cycle of the universe, when he opens his fearful third eye and unmakes the whole of creation. He is one of the three supreme deities: He destroys, Vishnu preserves, Brahma maintains balance. Together, they order the universe.Though many ancient mythologies explained how death came into the world, comparatively few promised a better life to come. Their underworlds were mostly gloomy places, into which the dead were thrust by hideous demons or fierce warrior-deities, and there either forgotten by their creator or made to stand trial before some dread underworld lord such as Osiris in Egypt or in Chinese Buddhist myth the Four Kings of Hell, who guard the Scrolls of Judgment in which all past lives are recorded. No wonder that many underworlds are filled with unhappy souls, like the spirits led by Gauna, death in the myths of the Bushmen of Botswana, who are so miserable in the world below that they keep trying to escape and take over the world above.
But several societies evolved myths of death and resurrection gods built on the analogy with plant life, which springs up and dies in an annual cycle. The Greeks told the story of Adonis, loved by both Aphrodite and the underworld goddess Persephone. When he was killed by a jealous Ares, scarlet anemones sprang up from drops of his blood. Zeus solved the rivalry between the goddesses by decreeing that Adonis should spend half his year with Aphrodite, half with Persephone in the underworld.
Death and resurrection gods form the background to the emergence in the Near East of mystery religions, so-called because only initiates knew their secrets. These extended the chance of a better hereafter beyond a close circle of special people, such as the pharaohs and nobles in Ancient Egypt afforded a kind of immortality by mummification; Greek heroes taken to the happy Isles of the Blest instead of gloomy Hades; and Norse warriors carried off the battlefield by Odin’s battle-maidens, the valkyries, to the everlasting feast in his mead-hall Vallhalla, whereas those who died in their beds were consigned to the dismal realm of the goddess Hel.
The mystery religions promised life after death to all believers. In Egypt, Aset (Isis), sister and consort of Osiris, by her magical skills reassembled the corpse of Osiris, after he was dismembered by his brother Set. However, the gods decreed that Osiris (perhaps because he could no longer function as a fertility deity, Aset having been unable to find his penis) should henceforth serve as judge of the dead in the underworld. From this evolved the Mysteries of Isis, a popular cult in Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome, from the first century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. At their initiation, devotees were told the secret name of the sun god Ra, which Isis won from him in order to revivify Osiris. They believed that knowing this name empowered them to conquer age and sickness, even death.
From Iran came the cult of the creator and war god Mithra who fought and killed the primeval bull, from whose blood and bone marrow sprang all vegetation. He eternally mediates on humankind’s behalf with his father, Ahura Mazda, the god of light, and combats the dark lord, Ahriman, the evil principle. This battle will end on Judgment Day with Mithra’s triumph. In ancient Rome, where he was known as Mithras, Mithra became the focus of a mystery religion practiced especially by soldiers. Initiation into his cult, as into that of Isis, was believed to ensure immortality. The cult never became widespread, partly because it was secret, partly because it was austere, but chiefly perhaps because it was closed to half the population—the women.
By contrast, Christianity spoke to both sexes. It outlasted both the Mysteries of Isis and those of Mithras, perhaps because the answer it gave to the question “What happens to me after death?” was the same for everyone, king or subject, master or slave, soldier or farmer, man or woman. Moreover, the bodily death and resurrection of Christ himself, prefiguring the triumph over death of all who believed in him, was said to have happened to a historical person within or almost within living memory, rather than to a god in some remote mythical time.
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