To and From the Land of the Dead

To and From the Land of the Dead
by Michael Berman


The concepts of heaven and hell are familiar to all of us, whatever our faiths may be, and the idioms that incorporate the words themselves have become so overused that they are now nothing more than cliché.  On the other hand, although they appear in a number of mythologies and religions, the locations known as heaven and hell are by no means common to all. Neither are they what we are primarily concerned with here. Instead, it is the shamanic concept of the Land of the Dead that is the focus of this new book.

Different types of shamanic journeys can be undertaken to the Lower World to make contact with Power Animals, to the Upper World to meet your Sacred Teacher, and to the Middle-world to see events that take place in this reality in their non-ordinary reality forms and to gain a greater insight into their nature. There are also journeys for the purpose of divination and journeys to carry out soul retrievals. Journeys are also undertaken to the Land of the Dead.

Sometimes the Land of the Dead is antipodal, meaning everything there is reversed: day here is night there, and vice versa. And it is not always necessary to be dead in order to visit ghost land. In eastern Melanesia, for example, living people can go down to the netherworld, Panoi, either in the body or in spirit, and either in dream or in a near-death state. Ghosts advise them not to eat from the food of the dead, for otherwise they cannot come back alive (Couliano, 1991, p.37).

Shamanic rituals enable us to explore the issues of death and dying experientially before we eventually have to face up to the real thing. The divine experience can thus become a preparation for the earthly experience, rather than the reverse. In other words, what is learnt in non-ordinary reality can be transferred to and applied in this reality. In the same way, what can be learnt through a shamanic story (a story that has either been based on or inspired by a shamanic journey, or one that contains a number of the elements typical of such a journey) can be transferred to and applied to this reality and so help us come to terms with the crossing over of our loved ones. From such tales we can learn, for example, that the wish to have those we love, but who have departed from this world, returned to us is perhaps nothing but selfishness on our part. At least this is what the following Hawaiian example would seem to suggest:

A Visit to the Spirit Land: The Strange Experience of a Woman in Kona, Hawaii

KALIMA had been sick for many weeks until at last she died. Her friends gathered around her with loud cries of grief, and with many expressions of affection and sorrow at their loss they prepared her body for its burial.

The grave was dug, and when everything was ready for the last rites and sad act, husband and friends came to take a final look at the rigid form and ashen face before it was laid away forever in the ground. The old mother sat on the mat-covered ground beside her child, brushing away the intrusive flies with a piece of cocoanut-leaf, and wiping away the tears that slowly rolled down her cheeks. Now and then she would break into a low, heart-rending wail, and tell in a sob-choked, broken voice, how good this, her child, had always been to her, how her husband loved her, and how her children would never have any one to take her place. “Oh, why,” she cried, “did the gods leave me? I am old and heavy with years; my back is bent and my eyes are getting dark. I cannot work, and am too old and weak to enjoy fishing in the sea, or dancing and feasting under the trees. But this, my child, loved all these things, and was so happy. Why is she taken and I, so useless, left?” And again that mournful, sob-choked wail broke on the still air, and was borne out to the friends gathered under the trees before the door, and was taken up and repeated until the hardest heart would have softened and melted at the sound. As they sat around on the mats looking at their dead and listening to the old mother, suddenly Kalima moved, took a long breath, and opened her eyes. They were frightened at the miracle, but so happy to have her back again among them.

The old mother raised her hands and eyes to heaven and, with rapt faith on her brown, wrinkled face, exclaimed: “The gods have let her come back! How they must love her!”

Mother, husband, and friends gathered around and rubbed her hands and feet, and did what they could for her comfort. In a few minutes she revived enough to say, “I have something strange to tell you.”

Several days passed before she was strong enough to say more; then calling her relatives and friends about her, she told them the following weird and strange story:

“I died, as you know. I seemed to leave my body and stand beside it, looking down on what was me. The me that was standing there looked like the form I was looking at, only, I was alive and the other was dead. I gazed at my body for a few minutes, then turned and walked away. I left the house and village, and walked on and on to the next village, and there I found crowds of people,–Oh, so many people! The place which I knew as a small village of a few houses was a very large place, with hundreds of houses and thousands of men, women, and children. Some of them I knew and they spoke to me,–although that seemed strange, for I knew they were dead,–but nearly all were strangers. They were all so happy! They seemed not to have a care; nothing to trouble them. Joy was in every face, and happy laughter and bright, loving words were on every tongue.

“I left that village and walked on to the next. I was not tired, for it seemed no trouble to walk. It was the same there; thousands of people, and every one so joyous and happy. Some of these I knew. I spoke to a few people, then went on again. I seemed to be on my way to the volcano,

–to Pele’s pit,–  and could not stop, much as I wanted to do so.

“All along the road were houses and people, where I had never known any one to live. Every bit of good ground had many houses, and many, many happy people on it. I felt so full of joy, too, that my heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.

“In time I came to South Point, and there, too, was a great crowd of people. The barren point was a great village. I was greeted with happy alohas, then passed on. All through Kau it was the same, and I felt happier every minute. At last I reached the volcano. There were some people there, but not so many as at other places. They, too, were happy like the others, but they said, You must go back to your body. You are not to die yet.’

“I did not want to go back. I begged and prayed to be allowed to stay with them, but they said, ‘No, you must go back; and if you do not go willingly, we will make you. go.’

“I cried and tried to stay, but they drove me back, even beating me when I stopped and would not go on. So I was driven over the road I had come, back through all those happy people. They were still joyous and happy, but when they saw that I was not allowed to stay, they turned on me and helped drive me, too.

“Over the sixty miles I went, weeping, followed by those cruel people, till I reached my home and stood by my body again. I looked at it and hated it. Was that my body? What a horrid, loathsome thing it was to me now, since I had seen so many beautiful, happy creatures! Must I go and live in that thing again? No, I would not go into it; I rebelled and cried for mercy.

“‘You must go into it; we will make you!’ said my tormentors. They took me and pushed me head foremost into the big toe.

“I struggled and fought, but could not help myself. They pushed and beat me again, when I tried for the last time to escape. When I passed the waist, I seemed to know it was of no use to struggle anymore, so went the rest of the way myself. Then my body came to life again, and I opened my eyes.

“But I wish I could have stayed with those happy people. It was cruel to make me come back. My other body was so beautiful, and I was so happy, so happy!”

Taken from Thrum, T.G. (1907) Hawaiian Folk Tales: A Collection of Native Legends, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. Scanned at, July 2006. Proofed and formatted by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to 1923.

Michael Berman works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories for O-Books, and To and From the Land of the Dead for Lear Books. For more information please visit

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