Shushan - Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience

Gregory Shushan

  • London and New York: Continuum
  • 238 pages
  • 978-1-4411-3088-4 | Paperback | 2009 (this edition)


In an original and innovative piece of comparative research, Gregory Shushan challenges post-modernist scholarly attitudes concerning cross-cultural comparisons in the study of religions and religious experience.  He analyses afterlife conceptions in five ancient civilisations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) in light of historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife ‘journeys’.

The existence of cross-culturally consistent thematic elements between the texts and experiences suggests an experiential source for afterlife beliefs cross-culturally. A theoretically eclectic interpretation is argued, however, in order to account for both differences and similarities, combining complementary elements from a variety of theories: structuralism, functionalism, cognition, and conceptual logic. It is argued that the apparently universal thematic elements of NDEs are interpreted, expressed, and indeed experienced in culture-specific ways, indicating a symbiotic relationship between belief and experience (i.e., culture-specific beliefs influence the universal experience, and vice versa).

Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations is a significant study, for it presents a comprehensive new comparative framework for the cross-cultural study of myth and religion, while at the same time providing a fascinating exploration of the interface between belief and experience.


"In this engaging and wide ranging book Gregory Shushan takes us on a fascinating journey through ancient ideas about the afterlife…. But this is not simply a historical mapping of these early concepts, the author brings them to life and makes them relevant to contemporary concerns about what has become known as near-death-experiences…. This is a bold and engaging book. The author does not shy away from difficult issues and lays down a challenge to postmodern relativism and the idea that all human experience is a cultural or social construct." – Gavin Flood, Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion, University of Oxford

“There are numerous positive reasons to read this book. Firstly, Shushan successfully develops a very strong case against sociological, psychological, and biological reductionism when attempting to explain what appear to be ‘universal’ elements in otherworld journey stories.  Secondly, Shushan provides an important mapping of what it means to say that culture mediates (but does not create) personal experiences.  For anthropologists and folklorists, Shushan also offers a set of suggestions and a schema for analysing myths (structure–mytheme–symbol) in descending order of cultural and personal idiosyncrasy….  Certainly in the area of ‘near-death studies’, Shushan’s work is original, well argued, and much needed….  The historical, theoretical, and ethnographic orientation of Shushan’s work is a wonderful contribution to this important area…. [and] a valuable and important addition to the literature in religious consciousness studies, and the sociology of death and dying.” – Allan Kellehear, Professor of Sociology, University of Bath.

Conceptions of Afterlife in Early Civilizations is a very well-written book by a consummate scholar.... Shushan’s book is a major contribution to the field of comparative religion and near-death studies.  It is a ‘must-read’ for students of religious experience.” – Ken R. Vincent, Professor of Psychology.

“This book represents a scholarly and well-argued study, and is a landmark in both the anthropological study of afterlife conceptions and in research into NDEs. I recommend it highly, and I eagerly await its sequel, which according to reports in the blogosphere is now under way as a study of NDEs in relation to afterlife beliefs in worldwide shamanic and small-scale societies.” – David Rousseau, Director of the Centre for Systems Philosophy.


Additional Information

Authors Gregory Shushan
Year 2012

Shushan - Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience