Fascination with death has occurred throughout human history, characterized by obsessions with death and all things related to death and the afterlife.
Death is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include aging, predation, malnutrition, disease, suicide, homicide, starvation, dehydration, and accidents or major trauma resulting in terminal injury. In most cases, bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death.
The afterlife is the belief that the essential part of an individual's identity or the stream of consciousness continues after the death of the physical body. According to various ideas about the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul or spirit, of an individual, which carries with it and may confer personal identity or, on the contrary, may not, as in Indian nirvana. Belief in an afterlife is in contrast to the belief in oblivion after death.
In past times, people would form cults around death and figures. Famously, Anubis, Osiris, Hades, and La Santa Muerte have all had large cult followings. La Santa Muerte (Saint Death), or the personification of death, is currently worshiped by many in Mexico and other countries in Central America. Day of the Dead (2 November) is a celebration for the dead.
Anubis is the Greek name of a god associated with mummification and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion, usually depicted as a canine or a man with a canine head. Archeologists have identified Anubis's sacred animal as an Egyptian canid, the African golden wolf.
Osiris is the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and rebirth in ancient Egyptian religion. He was classically depicted as a green-skinned deity with a pharaoh's beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive atef crown, and holding a symbolic crook and flail. Osiris was at times considered the eldest son of the god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, as well as being brother and husband of Isis, with Horus being considered his posthumously begotten son. He was also associated with the epithet Khenti-Amentiu, meaning "Foremost of the Westerners", a reference to his kingship in the land of the dead. As ruler of the dead, Osiris was also sometimes called "king of the living": ancient Egyptians considered the blessed dead "the living ones". Through syncretism with Iah, he is also the god of the Moon.
Hades, in the ancient Greek religion and myth, is the god of the dead and the king of the underworld, with which his name became synonymous. Hades was the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea, although the last son regurgitated by his father. He and his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, defeated their father's generation of gods, the Titans, and claimed rulership over the cosmos. Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea, with the solid earth, long the province of Gaia, available to all three concurrently. Hades was often portrayed with his three-headed guard dog Cerberus.
The ancient Egyptians are most famous for their fascination of death by mummifying their dead and building exquisite tombs, like the pyramids of Giza, for their dead. Many of their deities were death-related, such as: Ammut, the devourer of unworthy souls; Anubis, the guardian of the Necropolis and the keeper of poisons, medicines, and herbs; and Osiris, the king of the dead.
A necropolis is a large, designed cemetery with elaborate tomb monuments. The name stems from the Ancient Greek νεκρόπολις nekropolis, literally meaning "city of the dead".
The Greek underworld, Hades, was ruled by the god Hades, and had five rivers that flowed through it. The rivers were: Acheron, river of sadness; Cocytus, river of lamentation; Lethe, river of forgetfulness; Phlegethon, river of fire; Styx, river of hate. The Underworld had attendants who, though not rulers, were important gods and beings. The Furies were female spirits who exacted vengeance against people who committed specific crimes. Keres were female spirits of death and destruction. Persephone was the goddess of the underworld and the spouse of Hades. Thanatos, the god of death, was said to wear dark robes.
In mythology, the Greek underworld is an otherworld where souls go after death. The original Greek idea of afterlife is that, at the moment of death, the soul is separated from the corpse, taking on the shape of the former person, and is transported to the entrance of the underworld. The underworld itself—sometimes known as Hades, after its patron god—is described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It is considered the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus with the kingdom of the dead corresponding to the kingdom of the gods. Hades is a realm invisible to the living, made solely for the dead.
The Acheron is a river located in the Epirus region of northwest Greece. It is 52 km (32 mi) long, and its drainage area is 705 km2 (272 sq mi). Its source is near the village Zotiko, in the southwestern part of the Ioannina regional unit and it flows into the Ionian Sea in Ammoudia, near Parga.
Cocytus or Kokytos is a river in the underworld in Greek mythology. Cocytus flows into the river Acheron, on the other side of which lies Hades, The Underworld, the mythological abode of the dead. There are five rivers encircling Hades: the Styx, Phlegethon, Lethe, Acheron and Cocytus.
The Vikings believed that if a warrior died in battle, he would be taken to the Norse afterlife: the hall of Valhöll, in which the warriors would prepare for Ragnarökk, the battle at the end of the world. Rune stones were erected to commemorate particularly brave warriors. Death in one's sleep (a "straw death") was considered dishonorable.
Vikings were Norse seafarers, mainly speaking the Old Norse language, who during the late 8th to late 11th centuries, raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of Europe, and explored westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. The term is also commonly extended in modern English and other vernaculars to the inhabitants of Norse home communities during what has become known as the Viking Age. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion constitutes an important element in the early medieval history of Scandinavia, Estonia, the British Isles, France, Kievan Rus' and Sicily.
In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a majestic, enormous hall located in Asgard, ruled over by the god Odin. Chosen by Odin, half of those who die in combat travel to Valhalla upon death, led by valkyries, while the other half go to the goddess Freyja's field Fólkvangr. In Valhalla, the dead join the masses of those who have died in combat known as Einherjar and various legendary Germanic heroes and kings, as they prepare to aid Odin during the events of Ragnarök. Before the hall stands the golden tree Glasir, and the hall's ceiling is thatched with golden shields. Various creatures live around Valhalla, such as the stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún, both described as standing atop Valhalla and consuming the foliage of the tree Læraðr.
In the early part of the 20th century, it was common to hold séances at dinner parties. A séance is an event where a group of people (3 or more) try to communicate with the dead through one person of the group, known as a psychic medium.
A séance or seance is an attempt to communicate with spirits. The word "séance" comes from the French word for "session", from the Old French seoir, "to sit". In French, the word's meaning is quite general: one may, for example, speak of "une séance de cinéma". In English, however, the word came to be used specifically for a meeting of people who are gathered to receive messages from ghosts or to listen to a spirit medium discourse with or relay messages from spirits. In modern English usage, participants need not be seated while engaged in a séance.
This fascination with death in Western Culture can be observed in many of Walt Disney's fairytales. After being responsible for the death of an owl on his family's farm when he was 7 years old, he was haunted by the experience and other influences of death in his life, leading to a strong correlation with death in his children's stories.
Today there are a number of authors who have spoken on the fascination people have with death. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a phrase related to this, meaning that in the mass media most of the material is based on death. For example: death and crime are almost always a topic in the news. The goth and metal subcultures are often associated with death and dying.
Daniel Kahneman and others have studied the psychology behind this. For example, people buy insurance and make other decisions based on what comes readily to mind—e.g., the previously recorded high-water mark for a flood, rarely considering that something worse is possible and in many cases eventually likely. This interacts with the management policies of media outlets to create availability cascades and media feeding frenzies: For example, "strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents [in a survey] judged accidental death to be more likely. ... [This is because media] coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it."
This fascination with death and interaction with media editorial policies sometimes has problematic consequences for public policy. For example, Vincent Saccoand others described how the mainstream commercial media in the United States changed their editorial policies in the 1970s to focus more on the police blotter. The human psychology behind "If it bleeds, it leads" meant they could retain or even increase their audience while reducing the cost of producing the news: Investigative journalism is enormously expensive, especially if it offends a major advertiser. Focusing on crimes apparently committed by people without substantive political or economic power is cheap. The resulting increase in crime stories convinced the US electorate that crime was out of control. This led to the election of politicians who would "get tough on crime." The result was a five-fold increase in the United States incarceration rate not justified by any actual increase in crime.
'Necrophilia' is generally used in English to refer to the paraphilia associated with dead bodies, although the term has been used in a broader sense and in foreign language merely to refer to 'a fascination with death.'
In Greek mythology, Persephone, also called Kore, is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Homer describes her as the formidable, venerable majestic queen of the underworld, who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. She becomes the queen of the underworld through her abduction by and subsequent marriage to Hades, the god of the underworld. The myth of her abduction represents her function as the personification of vegetation, which shoots forth in spring and withdraws into the earth after harvest; hence, she is also associated with spring as well as the fertility of vegetation. Similar myths appear in the Orient, in the cults of male gods like Attis, Adonis, and Osiris, and in Minoan Crete.
Psychopomps are creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply to guide them. Appearing frequently on funerary art, psychopomps have been depicted at different times and in different cultures as anthropomorphic entities, horses, deer, dogs, whip-poor-wills, ravens, crows, owls, sparrows and cuckoos. When seen as birds, they are often seen in huge masses, waiting outside the home of the dying.
Ammit was a demoness and goddess in ancient Egyptian religion with a body that was part lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile—the three largest "man-eating" animals known to ancient Egyptians. A funerary deity, her titles included "Devourer of the Dead", "Eater of Hearts", and "Great of Death". Ammit lived near the scales of justice in Duat, the Egyptian underworld. In the Hall of Two Truths, Anubis weighed the heart of a person against the feather of Ma'at, the goddess of truth, which was depicted as an ostrich feather. If the heart was judged to be not pure, Ammit would devour it, and the person undergoing judgement was not allowed to continue their voyage towards Osiris and immortality. Once Ammit swallowed the heart, the soul was believed to become restless forever; this was called "to die a second time". Ammit was also sometimes said to stand by a lake of fire. In some traditions, the unworthy hearts were cast into the fiery lake to be destroyed. Some scholars believe Ammit and the lake represent the same concept of destruction.
Duat is the realm of the dead in ancient Egyptian mythology. It has been represented in hieroglyphs as a star-in-circle: 𓇽. The god Osiris was believed to be the lord of the underworld since he personified rebirth and life after death, being the first mummy as depicted in the Osiris myth. The underworld was also the residence of various other gods along with Osiris. The Duat was the region through which the sun god Ra traveled from west to east each night, and it was where he battled Apophis, who embodied the primordial chaos which the sun had to defeat in order to rise each morning and bring order back to the earth. It was also the place where people's souls went after death for judgement, though that was not the full extent of the afterlife. Burial chambers formed touching-points between the mundane world and the Duat, and the ꜣḫ "the effectiveness of the dead", could use tombs to travel back and forth from the Duat.
In ancient Egyptian religion, Apis or Hapis, alternatively spelled Hapi-ankh, was a sacred bull worshiped in the Memphis region, identified as the son of Hathor, a primary deity in the pantheon of Ancient Egypt. Initially, he was assigned a significant role in her worship, being sacrificed and reborn. Later, Apis also served as an intermediary between humans and other powerful deities.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a soul was made up of many parts. In addition to these components of the soul, there was the human body.
She’ol, in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God. The inhabitants of Sheol are the "shades" (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden.
The Coffin Texts are a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary spells written on coffins beginning in the First Intermediate Period. They are partially derived from the earlier Pyramid Texts, reserved for royal use only, but contain substantial new material related to everyday desires, indicating a new target audience of common people. Ordinary Egyptians who could afford a coffin had access to these funerary spells and the pharaoh no longer had exclusive rights to an afterlife.
In ancient Greek cult-practice and literature, a nekyia is a "rite by which ghosts were called up and questioned about the future," i.e., necromancy. A nekyia is not necessarily the same thing as a katabasis. While they both afford the opportunity to converse with the dead, only a katabasis is the actual, physical journey to the underworld undertaken by several heroes in Greek and Roman myth.
The Asphodel Meadows is a section of the ancient Greek underworld where ordinary souls were sent to live after death.
In religion and folklore, Hell is an afterlife location, sometimes a place of torment and punishment. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as eternal destinations while religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations. Typically these traditions locate hell in another dimension or under the Earth's surface and often include entrances to Hell from the land of the living. Other afterlife destinations include Heaven, Purgatory, Paradise, and Limbo.
Khenti-Amentiu, also Khentiamentiu, Khenti-Amenti, Kenti-Amentiu and many other spellings, is an ancient Egyptian deity whose name was also used as a title for Osiris and Anubis. The name means "Foremost of the Westerners" or "Chief of the Westerners", where "Westerners" refers to the dead.
Imhotep is the titular antagonist in the 1932 film The Mummy. He was later featured in the 1999 remake and its sequel The Mummy Returns again as one of the main antagonists. Sofia Boutella plays a female version of this character named Ahmanet in the 2017 remake. Imhotep is loosely inspired by the historical figure Imhotep, a noted polymath and counselor to the Pharaoh Djoser in the 27th century BC.
Ancient Egyptian deities that have appeared in popular culture include Set, Thoth, Khonsu, Ra and Horus.
Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs were centered around a variety of complex rituals, that were influenced by many aspects of Egyptian culture. Religion was a major contributor, since it was an important social practice that bound all Egyptians together. For instance, many of the Egyptian gods played roles in guiding the souls of the dead through the afterlife. With the evolution of writing, religious ideals were recorded and quickly spread throughout the Egyptian community. The solidification and commencement of these doctrines were formed in the creation of afterlife texts which illustrated and explained what the dead would need to know in order to complete the journey safely.