Myth Monday: The Underworld (World Mythology)
Myth Monday: The Underworld (World Mythology)
Pretty much every culture in the world had some kind of myth about life after death. Some of these places were heavenly, some were horrifying, and some were, well, kind of boring. Here’s a selection of post-life destinations for the ancient deceased.
Ancient Greece: The realm of the dead was called Hades, named after its eponymous king, and was divided into three sections: The Elysian Fields, a paradise for heroes; the Asphodel Fields, an ordinary area for the common-folk; and Tartarus, a place of creative torment for sinners and evil-doers. The souls of the dead were escorted to the Underworld by Hermes, the messenger god, who would leave them on the banks of the Styx, the River of Blood (one of seven rivers that wound through Hades.) The dead would have to pay the ferryman Charon to escort them safely to the opposite side of the Styx, where they would be sorted into their afterlives by three judges. If a soul decided that they would like to take another shot at living, they would drink from the Lethe, the River of Oblivion, forget all about their past lives and be reborn into a new body. The entrance to Hades was guarded by the giant three-headed dog Cerberus, who would drag back any soul that tried to escape and shred any living being that tried to enter. Four living men were permitted to enter (Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus and Pirithous) but getting away wasn’t exactly easy.
Ancient Egypt: The afterlife, called Duat or the Field of Reeds, was a paradise, but only if you could survive the journey to get there. The road to heaven was filled with hundreds of monsters and demons that would try to destroy any human souls that journeyed to the afterlife. Deceased Egyptians were buried with a Book of the Dead, a combination travel guide and spell book to help protect them from the vile creatures. Led by the jackal-headed god of mummification Anubis, the deceased would negotiate their way past all the monsters and meet the god of the dead Osiris and Ma’at, the goddess of truth. There the soul would place their heart on one side of a scale, and Ma’at would place the Feather of Truth on the other side. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul was deemed worthy of paradise and permitted into Duat. If the feather outweighed the heart, Ma’at would take the heart and toss it to Amat, the crocodile-headed/lion-maned/hippo-bodied she-monster that guarded the gates to heaven. Amat would devour the heart, and the sinful spirit would be obliterated. In addition, the snake demon of darkness Apep escaped the underworld every night to wage war with the gods on earth. The sun god Ra would turn himself into a cat and whack off Apep’s head with a knife.
Sumeria: the land of the dead, Irkalla, was ruled by Ereshikgal, a dread goddess whose upper torso was that of a beautiful living woman but her lower torso was a decaying body. She was so powerful that she was able to kill her sister Inanna, the goddess of love, sex and war (don’t worry, the gods brought her back). The Sumerian underworld had seven gates (like the Greek underworld had seven rivers), and each gate was guarded by a huge creature called a Scorpion. The only living being known to enter the Underworld and escape was the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh entered the underworld to seek out the spirit of the ancient king Utanpishtim, and from him learn the secret to immortality.
Vikings: Put it this way; if you were a warrior and you were annihilated on the field of battle, then lucky you! You either get chosen by the Valkyries, the warrior daughters of the king of the Viking gods Odin and taken to Valhalla to party with the king, or you get chosen by Freya, the goddess of sex and war, and go party with her—doesn’t matter what you were like in life, if you died in battle, then you got the grand prize. Anybody who wasn’t killed while fighting went to an icy cold hell beneath the earth called Niflheim, ruled by the dread goddess Hel. Like Ereshikgal, Hel looked like a beautiful, normal human woman on top but was a rotting corpse below. Her monster dog Garm guarded the gates of Niflheim
Maya: of all the underworlds to go to, Xibalba shouldn’t be anywhere on anybody’s list. The place is nasty. Tim Burton would take one look at the place, back up and say, “Holy sh*t.” How messed up is it? Well, first you have to enter a cave, then cross over a river of blood, then a river of scorpions, and then (I hope you’re not eating as you read this) a river of pus to get there. Xibalba is set up like a city inhabited by rotting corpses (though the Hero Twins’ mother was supposed to be very human-looking), with buildings such as the House of Bats, where huge bat demons would swoop down and chop off your head, which would then be taken to be used in a ball game. The inhabitants were mean, petty, vicious and vindictive. And apparently you could die in Xibalba … where the deceased spirits of the deceased spirits went after that I don’t know.
Aztec: the Aztec underworld was called Mictlan, ruled by King Mictlanecuhtli (“King of the Dead”) and Queen Mictecacihuatl (“Queen of the Dead”) and while pretty much everybody wound up there, there journey to the underworld was difficult (hey, nobody said it would ever be easy.) Escorted by the dogman-like psychopomp Xolotl, the spirit had to endure challenges such as a wind that blew knives around, and a river of blood with deadly jaguars (I don’t know if the jaguars are actually in the river of blood.) Mictlan is divided into nine parts, with areas reserved for people who died in a particular way, such as in childbirth. However, people who died in a water-related mishap were sent instead to the paradise Tlalocan, ruled by the rain god Tlaloc and his wife Chalchiuhtlicue … maybe because they felt bad about it?
Celtic: The Celtic Underworld really isn’t so much of an underworld as much as it is a mystical island paradise that laid in the West. The people of the Britain believed in Avalon, the Island of Apples, ruled by the fairy Morgan and the final resting place of King Arthur. One of the many lands of the dead in Irish mythology was Magh Meall, ruled by the sea god Manannan Mac Lir (or sometimes the Fomorrian king Tethra) who kept an impressive dining hall where he provided wonderful mead and meat from his immortal pigs (they regenerated after being slaughtered.) There were thought to be about a thousand of these lands, collectively called the Blessed Isles or the Summerlands, but, unlike most of the other underworlds we’ve examined, ordinary humans could visit them, and frequently did. Unfortunately, there’s price to pay for visiting the land of the dead; time passes differently there, and some stories claim that for every hour spent in the Blessed Isles, one day goes by in the real world.
A famous legend from Irish mythology told of a prince named Bran, who set sail with a number of his men to visit these islands. When Bran decided it was time to head home, the spirits warned him not to set foot on human-inhabited land, or he’d die. Upon returning to Ireland, he and his crew met a group of strangely dressed people on the shore. He told him that he was Prince Bran, but the bewildered people didn’t believe him, saying that Bran and his men died over a hundred years before. One of his men, so frustrated at not being believed, jumped over the edge of the ship, and the second his foot touched the sand, he turned instantly to ash. Shocked by the death, Bran told his story to the horrified Irish, then he and his men turned their ship away and sailed back to the Blessed Isles. Interesting note: the country of Brazil was so named because, hundreds of years ago, a group of Irish traveled across the Atlantic, searching for these islands, but instead are thought to have found America (they didn’t turn to ash upon returning home, luckily), and many years later an explorer who found this part of South America thought that this must have been the area the Irish spoke of and named it Brazil, after one of the mythical islands called Hy Bresail.
Chinese: Ever seen Big Trouble in Little China? (If not, shame on you.) Remember how Wang remarked, “The Chinese have a lot of hells”? Well, it’s true; some legends say in Diyu, the Chinese underworld, there’s as few as three and as many as 12,800 “courts”, each designated to punish a soul for a particular sin, and ruled by ten fearsome judges known as the Yama kings. Diyu is so big, it actually has a capital city, called Youdu, and the realm is divided into eight cold hells, eight hot hells, and a few thousand different hells for various other sins. Every person passes through each part Diyu for cleansing, staying there for however long the attending Yama king thinks is appropriate. Once the soul is deemed clean, it is allowed to leave Diyu and be reincarnated. Many years later, Taoism declared that there were only eighteen hells, with one Yama king who ruled over all these courts and appointed judges to each court. These hells included tortures such as being trampled by animals, freezing, having boiling liquid poured down their throats, thrown off a cliff into a valley filled with knives or drowned in a pool of rotten blood—for starters. The soul would be ripped apart, and then restored to relive the tortures over and over again.
Japanese: In the beginning, there was the goddess Izanami and her husband, Izanagi. They lived in happiness, until Izanami tragically died while giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi was devastated and determined to bring her back. He traveled underground to the cold, dark land of Yomi and called for his wife. Izanami, hidden in the darkness, called back to him that she could not follow him because she had eaten the food of the underworld and was now bound there, and then she went to sleep. Determined not to leave her, Izanagi groped through the dark until he felt the wooden comb in Izanami’s hair. Taking it, he set a flame to it to make a torch—then recoiled in revulsion when he saw what was once his beautiful wife. Izanami was now a rotting corpse! Izanagi screamed in horror, waking Izanami. Izanami was so outraged at his rejection of her that she chased after him, siccing several demon women on him as well. Izanagi managed to outrun his corpse-wife, emerging out onto the sunlit surface and quickly rolling a boulder over the entrance to Yomi. On the other side, Izanami screamed that she would kill 1,000 people a day in retaliation for his rejection. Izanagi answered by saying that he would grant life to 1,500 people in response. No matter what though, everyone, regardless of who they were in life went to the dull land of Yomi, which is neither a heaven or hell … just kind of a holding tank for spirits.