I have more than once heard pagans talk about how their Christian parents, teachers, or pastors talked about being saved, and they never knew what they were being saved *from*. If I’d grown up in a church that talked a lot about life as dangerous, about the possibility of hell, about divine wrath–something Episcopalians are noticeably not big on–I’d probably have come to ask the same question eventually: What’s so dangerous? What am I being “saved” from?
It took me a ritual initiation and five decades of maturity to come up with an answer for that question.
In November of 2017, I flew to Seattle from the other side of the country to put myself in the hands of people I’d only met on the internet and undergo initiation into the Mysteries of Antinous. Through the ritual actions of a very capable group of witches and devotees of the god, I underwent an experience of death and revival that changed me on a deep level. Nothing I had experienced before or since has been so terrifying and so exalted. I came out of it with a magnified trust in the Beautiful God that when I die, I will be welcome on his Barque of Millions of Years.
Some time later, it occurred to me that Christian baptism was supposed to do the same thing: To put an end to the initiate’s old life, bring them through the underworld, and induct them into a new life as the god. On a day in Seattle, Washington, I became Antinous. Theoretically, on February 13th in the year of my birth, I had already become Christ.
If you attend the liturgy of the Easter Vigil in a Roman Catholic or Episcopal church nowadays, you will see something that approximates what adult converts to Christianity experienced in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. There will be fire kindled in the darkness, and a procession that carries the light of that fire forward and spreads it around. There will be stories told of the whole history of the world, from the creation recorded in Genesis up to the time of Jesus. There will be blessing of waters and a ritual conjunction of the fire and the water. There will be a great deal of chanting, a sudden illumination, the dazzle of white vestments, baptism followed by a joyful celebration of the Eucharist.
The Paschal Triduum from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday is an initiation rite that sends the converts on the same journey as Jesus: to be arrested, tried, and executed, to descend into the underworld, to free the prisoners there, to lead them into a new life. Every person baptized becomes the resurrected Christ, living from the divine life. The readings weave in the history of the Hebrew people as told in the Old Testament so that baptized also become members of a community who went through the waters of the Red Sea together and were led by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of flame, embodied in the Paschal candle.
Christianity was a school or sect within Judaism that mutated first into a mystery cult, then into a state religion. Like the cults of Isis or Mithras, Bacchus or Orpheus, it promised contact with exotic (i.e., not Roman) deities, secret pathways through the afterlife, and a post-mortem existence that was at least as satisfying as earthly life, if not more so. Before any of those deities brought their cults into Rome, Greeks and Romans, too, had streamed to Eleusis every autumn for hundreds of years to partake of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and be assured of a pleasant station in the afterlife.
All of these mystery cults promised salvation. Jesus was not the only deity called “Soter”, savior, in Greek. The savior gods were the rescuers who promised a good afterlife to those who underwent their mysteries. What were people seeking to be saved from? Death. Death without a destination.
What happens if you don’t prepare for death ahead of time, if you don’t undergo a mystery and find a place with a particular god? I’m not going to tell you that I know! What I do know that is that both Norse cosmology and Greek cosmology have a place for people who just die, and haven’t deserved either punishment or special reward, and don’t know the secret handshakes and the passwords. In the North, the vast majority of the dead wind up in Helheim, where the table is set only with bread and water, but there is food for all and room for them. In Greece, Hades was called the Receiver or Host of Many, and the greatest part of his domain was Asphodel, where the shades of the dead lived a thin and insubstantial life.
Perhaps the uninitiated dead wind up somewhere that’s a shadow, a two-dimensional version of mortal life, an okay place to hang out until, one way or another, you get tired of it. Perhaps reincarnation is a kind of recycling; perhaps it’s a way to advance spiritually; perhaps it’s both. I tend to think that some people degenerate so much, morally, spiritually, that they cease to be human; maybe they simply get snuffed out like a candle that has burned down all the way, maybe some of them get punished for harming others.
I don’t feel at all certain of what happens to other people after death, nor do I need to. I do have faith that I have a place with Antinous, and with Jesus, too, and that the gods bring those they love to be with them.