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Religio Romana

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by Flavia Claudia
Founder, Vestal Order of Nova Roma

This essay was posted to the Nova Roma mailing list in response to a question about what Romans believed happened after death.

When you die ("you" being a good Roman of the Religio persuasion), you are escorted to the River Styx by spirits. There, you and the other recently life-challenged are met by Charon, the ferryman. A coin, an obolus, will have been placed in your former body's mouth to pay Charon (although an aurus gets you a better seat in the boat, some believed). This payment is not representative of money so much as of the relationship between god and man, acknowledging your debt to the gods and their protection and guidance to you.

On the other side of Styx, you will pass Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog belonging to Father Dis, god of the Underworld. Cerberus will be friendly — he only becomes UNfriendly when shades try to get OUT of the Underworld unauthorized.

You will go before the three judges, Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aeacus, who will ask you to account for your life. After you've made your accounting, you will be given the water of the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and one of five Rivers in the Underworld, which makes you forget your past life. You will be sent to the Elysian Fields (a version of paradise) if you've been a warrior or hero; The Plain of Asphodel, if you've been a good citizen, where you will continue to live a good life as a shade; or — if you've really offended the gods — to Tartarus, where you'll be punished by the Furies until your debt to society is paid. (There's no "eternal damnation" in the Roman underworld, although you can be there a pretty long time, depending on what you've done.) Your punishment depends on your crime.

Every once in a while, Dis or Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, will reprieve a candidate for the entire process and send him or her back to live again, especially if the deceased was unjustly murdered. He is given the Water of Forgetfulness and sent back across the Styx, presumably with a treat for Cerberus! (This is where the old phrase, " a sop for Cerberus" comes from — a bribe.)

Dis, while he is God of the Underworld, is NOT the God of Death. He does not decide who lives and dies. Instead, this is determined by the Three Fates. However, Dis does dispatch the god of death, Mors or Thanatos, to do his duty. He also has some connection with Morpheus, god of dreams.

Interestingly, Dis Pater is the only god with no name. He is known by the name of his kingdom: Hades, Pluto, or Dis, all of which refer to the secret riches of the earth.

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