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  • The first book dedicated to near death experiences in indigenous societies

  • Offers a unique contribution to our understanding of near death experience and shamanic phenomena cross-culturally

  • Presents a new interdisciplinary theory of the origins and development of afterlife beliefs across cultures

  • Presents dozens of previously unrecognized accounts of near death experiences in societies from three continents

Table of Contents

Foreword by Allan Kellehear


I. Exploring Near-Death Experiences Across


II. North America

III. Africa

IV. Oceania

V. Interpretations, Implications, and Conclusions


Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions

Near-death experiences are known around the world and throughout human history. They are sometimes reported by individuals who have revived from a period of clinical death or near-death and they typically feature sensations of leaving the body, entering and emerging from darkness, meeting deceased friends and relatives, encountering beings of light, judgment of one's earthly life, feelings of oneness, and reaching barriers, only to return to the body. Those who have NDEs almost invariably understand them as having profound spiritual or religious significance.

In this book, Gregory Shushan explores the relationship between NDEs, shamanism, and beliefs about the afterlife in traditional indigenous societies in Africa, North America, and Oceania. Drawing on historical accounts of the earliest encounters with explorers, missionaries, and ethnologists, this study addresses questions such as: Do ideas about the afterlife commonly originate in NDEs? What role does culture play in how people experience and interpret NDEs? How can we account for cross-cultural similarities and differences between afterlife beliefs? Though NDEs are universal, Shushan shows that how they are actually experienced and interpreted varies by region and culture. In North America, they were commonly valorized, and attempts were made to replicate them through shamanic rituals. In Africa, however, they were largely considered aberrational events with links to possession or sorcery. In oceania, Micronesia corresponded more to the African model, while Australia had a greater focus on afterlife journey shamanism, and Polynesia and Melanesia showed an almost casual acceptance of the phenomenon as reflected in numerous myths, legends, and historical accounts. 

This study examines the continuum of similarities and differences between NDEs, shamanism, and afterlife beliefs in dozens of cultures throughout these regions. In the process, it makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge about the origins of afterlife beliefs around the world and the significance of related experiences in human history.


"Gregory Shushan has produced the most important scholarly work on near-death experiences in the last thirty years.  He describes the process by which, despite regular attempts to marginalize its power, the NDE has been perhaps the most important shaper of religious creativity in human history. This is a journey and an argument as fascinating and as engrossing as the social history of mankind itself."

        -- From the foreword by Allan Kellehear, author of Experiences Near Death

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"Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions is a tour de force. By comparing recorded cases from North America, Africa, and Oceania, Shushan presents a compelling argument for the centrality of Near-Death Experiences to the development of religious ideas across time and culture. Any future discussions of NDEs and the origins of religion will need to take Shushan's major contribution into account."

                                                   -- Fiona Bowie, founding member of the Afterlife Research Center

"Gregory Shushan's new book provides a uniquely insightful and provocative analysis of near-death experiences that documents their formative influence on worldwide beliefs about an afterlife. His ethnological perspective results in a more comprehensive understanding of NDEs than a purely biological or psychological model can provide, and suggests that afterlife beliefs are rooted not in culture but in the universal human experience of NDEs. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand NDEs and their role in society."

                    -- Bruce Greyson, Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia.

"This is a remarkable survey of near death experiences gathered from reports across the world. Interested readers will be amazed at the data reported by the author in this erudite and intelligent inquiry."

                      -- Gavin Flood, Oxford University


"Shushan does an admirable job explaining the challenges of comparing exceptional experience, and demonstrates subtlety and nuance as he compares and contrasts Indigenous NDE in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Readers will be challenged by the breadth of methodological concerns Shushan examines, and by his careful thesis regarding how  we can study the power of NDE within the organization of cultural knowledge surrounding the fundamental human concern with the significance of death."
                         -- Mary L. Keller, University of Wyoming, Reading Religion.

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Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations

Gregory Shushan challenges post-modern scholarly attitudes concerning cross-cultural comparisons in the study of religions. In an original and innovative piece of comparative research, 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). 


These are considered in light of historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife 'journeys'. 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.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Gavin Flood

Part I: Theory and Methodology 
   1. Comparison and Universalism
   2. Early Civilizations, Diffusion, and Cultural            Continuity
   3. Near-Death Experience

Part II: Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early         

4. Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt
5. Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia
6. Vedic India
7. Pre-Buddhist China
8. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Part III: Universalism and Culture-Specificity
9. Analysis of Similarities and Differences
10. The Interface of Conception and Experience
11. Alternative and Supplementary Theories
12. Conclusions: Theoretical Eclecticism and A

        New Comparative Framework



"...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." 

--  from the Foreword by Prof. Gavin Flood. 

“…one of the most interesting and methodologically reflective examples of comparative work in the study of religions.”

-- Michael Stausberg, The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion

"... a dense, rich, thought-provoking work that points at some interesting questions while making a good stab at proving the value of this type of comparative study. Even readers who don’t agree with all of Shushan’s conclusions will have to admire his willingness to mount a full-scale attack on some of the big questions, not only of the anthropology of religion, but of human existence in general.  9/10."  - James Holloway, Fortean Times 308, December 2013

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"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." - Prof. Ken R. Vincent.

"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." - Dr. David Rousseau


"There are numerous positive reasons to read this book... 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." - Prof. Allan Kellehear.

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