In November, my paternal grandmother passed. She was five days away from her 93rd birthday. As I was/am going through the grieving process, I started to actively recall all the studies I have done regarding death and grieving practices across the globe and throughout the centuries. Mixed with the grieving process was constructing a January term class called “Goddesses Around the World.” As I marked each culture, religion, and goddesses we would be studying I kept coming back to an interesting fact. In many ancient cultures, it was the divine feminine who oversaw death, not only at times as the bringer of death but more importantly, as the guardian of the dead, the protector of all those that have gone from the earthly realm.
I was brought back to my graduate course work in the Ancient Near East and the goddess Ereshkigal. She is the mistress of the netherworlds. She oversees caring for the dead. Tammi Schneider states, in her book An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamia Religion, that her duties include eating clay in lieu of bread, drinking muddy water instead of beer, and that she weeps for the young men who have to leave their sweethearts, the young maidens who have their lover’s lips torn from them, and all the young children who died before being able to live a full life. It is in both the stories of the “Descent of Inanna” and the “Marriage of Ereshkigal and Nergal” that we can unravel this ancient society’s views on life and death.
I was struck with how visceral the mourning of Ereshkigal was a few weeks ago as I was still laden with the grief and sadness of burying my grandma, one of three instrumental women in my life. What a way to see the afterlife, that a goddess is lamenting the loss of life’s true joys- food, drink, and love as she is watching over the souls of those that have departed. I felt Ereshkigal’s presence in a way I had never felt before. Felt to my very bones how comforting it would have been for the Mesopotamian people to know that their loved ones, and themselves later in the future, would be watched over by the Queen of the Netherworld, who understood the value of life.
The other goddess that I found comfort and solace in was the Celtic and Roman goddess Epona. Epona’s original manifestation was as the goddess of horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules. She is the equestrian and cavalry goddess later for the Romans. What she is later known for, and where she fits into the narrative of my grandmother’s passing is this. My grandmother was 100% Irish Canadian. Her family migrated during the Great Potato Famine that saw Ireland’s greatest’s exports become her own people. So Epona not only became another figure in the grieving process but the extra level of fate as she shares the same Celtic/Irish blood that ran through my grandmother’s and my veins. Now the reason Epona becomes important is the establishment of Epona in the journey of death. It is on her chariot, driven by all sorts of equines, that she carries the soul to the afterlife. (This also links her to the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.) She is a keyholder to opening the underworld to transport the souls. Epona, a goddess, carries souls to their next endeavor, to their resting place – a goddess, a divine being carries the souls of humans to their next journey. More importantly it signifies that the soul is not alone. This was so powerful to me. While death is an individual undertaking (pun intended), the journey to the next endeavor doesn’t have to be. They are not left to wander or remain alone. What a beautiful concept of death, that you do not need to fear it, for you will not be alone in the deathly venture.
As a devoted Catholic all her life, my grandmother knew who she belonged to and where she was going. I was comforted to know that she would finally be reunited with my grandfather, her other family members, and friends that have all gone before her. For Christians, there is a belief that a soul is greeted at death by Jesus and God the Father. For Catholics, there is an added belief that in heaven, souls will also be greeted by all the angels, the saints, and the Blessed Mother Mary. It was here again, where I found comfort. Comfort and solace in the belief that my grandmother would be welcomed into the great beyond, the hereafter, the next revolution, by a Mother’s arms.
As I write this, I know that my Grandmother was offered a hand up onto the chariot of Epona, that she was greeted in the halls of Ereshkigal, and that the lament was not for her life but for the lives left on earth mourning her passing, as she led a full, robust life filled of food, drink, and love. And I know she entered the gates of Heaven to be greeted with the smiling faces of my great-aunts and uncles and a loving reunion with my Grandfather. And I know beyond a shadow, that the Heavenly Father greeted her by telling her, “Welcome home my true and faithful servant.” And as I write this, I know in my bones, she was embraced by the Divine Mother (in all of her forms) as sweetly and as warmly as my grandmother hugged me every time I would walked through her door in Allen Park, Michigan.
As humans, we have constantly sought to understand and control things that are inevitably out of our control. The biggest challenge being death. May each of us be given a hand onto the chariot of Epona, greeted in the halls of Ereshkigal, and enveloped into the loving embrace of the Divine Mother/Feminine.
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is the proud granddaughter of Patricia Ann Donovan LeBoeuf. Anjeanette is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Whittier College. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. Anjeanette also writes the for activist blog, Engaged Gaze. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it. Anjeanette has had a love affair with books from a very young age and always finds time in her demanding academic career to crack open a new book.