Few moments in man's life are so certain and yet so fraught with fear of the unknown as death. It is a challenge to which every civilization responds in its own fashion. Attempts at dealing with this fear range from complete acceptance or resignation in the sight of death to suppression and denial of its inevitable coming. In some civilizations, the promise of a paradisiac future can turn life in this world into only a temporary stay, a relatively unpleasant preliminary to a far better eternity. In others, any form of afterlife is denied, and the unknown is transformed into the certainty of non-existence, leaving man with no other goal to pursue than the hic et nunc of this world. It is self-evident that these various views determine to a large extent the ceremonies used to part with the body of the deceased and the literary genre used to express grief about the death of friends and relatives or to console the bereaved.
There are probably as many views on death as there are civilizations; even within one such civilization, views may shift from one century to another, as is exemplified in ancient Greece. This has been observed for our own era as well: in our culture death once seemed to be banned to sterile hospital beds and funeral homes, while nowadays it tends to become more 'social' and comes into the open again. On the whole, a renewed interest in death can be noticed these days, and the present book is an expression of that trend.
This volume of essays grew out of a symposium held in December 1992 at the University of Amsterdam and organized by the Institute for Mediterranean Studies. Most of the papers read there have been included in this book, supplemented by some others, so as to cover as much as possible the broad geographical spectrum of cultures in the area. Although representing only a small part of the many cultures that since prehistory occupied the borders of the Mediterranean, the contributions in the present volume do reflect the wide variety of ideas on Death and Immortality to be found in that region. And, of course, they have common traits as well. In order to bring both differences and similarities to the fore, we have chosen a thematic set-up for this book rather than a chronological or geographical one. Furthermore, the subject index will enable the reader to find his way through the various essays.
The first four contributions offer a general description of ideas and beliefs on death and the afterlife in Ancient Egypt, Hittite Anatolia, Biblical Israel and Classical Greece. As these civilizations have long since disappeared, the term "general" might be somewhat misleading: they can only draw a general picture as far as literary and/or archaeological sources allow us insight into the various cul-