Myth Monday: The Underworld (World Mythology)

October 15, 2018

By Kara Newcastle

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.

Amat has been a good girl, give her a treat!

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 (not like what you see in Moon Knight). 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.

Dut duh duh dah dun, dut duh duh DAH dun, dut duh duh duuuuuuuun!

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.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem reanimated-in-an-underworld-city-of-walking-corpses-on-the-other-side-of-the-most-disgusting-river-in-the-universe bones …

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 shit.” 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.

Everybody, meet Xolotl. He’s a good, if terrifying, doggie.

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, the 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 lay in the West. The people of 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 a 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.) 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.

Yama king, Youdu you.

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 are 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 of 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, being thrown off a cliff into a valley filled with knives, or drowning 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.

A mother’s work is never done.

Japanese: In the beginning, there was the goddess Izanami and her brother-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 nor hell … just kind of a holding tank for spirits.

Myth Monday: Isis and Osiris, A Love Story (Egyptian Myth)

February 12, 2018

Kara Newcastle

 Isis and Osiris

In the world of mythology, there are few stories that celebrate a love as deep and passionate as that of the Egyptian goddess of magic Isis (NOT to be confused with those thugs in the Middle East) and her husband Osiris, the god of the dead.

After Ra, the supreme god and god of the sun stepped down as the first pharaoh of Egypt, his grandson Osiris inherited the throne, and he and his sister-wife Isis began to teach the primitive Egyptians about the arts, medicine, music and law, civilizing them. Osiris frequently ventured out into Southern Egypt to visit the villages and cities, leaving Isis to guard his throne.

Unbeknownst to either Isis or Osiris, their middle brother Set, the god of evil and mischief, was insanely jealous of Osiris, as his big brother seemed to beat him out at every turn; not only did Set want the throne, he had also wanted to marry Isis, but she chose Osiris over him, leaving him to settle for his youngest sister Nephthys.


Nephthys desperately wanted a child but Set had no interest in her (he was impotent as well, which only made him angrier), so she disguised herself as Isis, hoping to entice him. Set immediately recognized her and spurned her, storming away, and leaving her weeping beside the Nile. Osiris soon came by and, thinking that it was actually Isis who was crying, rushed to comfort her. They made love and Nephthys became pregnant with Osiris’s son, the jackal-headed god of mummification Anubis.

 Anubis attending to the mummy of Sennedjem

Nephthys was terrified of Set finding out about her infidelity and left Anubis abandoned by the river, where Isis, having learned about Osiris mistakenly sleeping with Nephthys, found the baby and adopted him as her own son. Set eventually learned of the deception and swore vengeance against Osiris.


One day when Osiris wasn’t looking, Set snuck up behind him and took measurements of his shadow, then used those measurements to construct a beautifully adorned casket. He then threw a banquet and invited the gods—including Osiris—to attend. At the end of the feast, Set presented the casket, saying that he had had it made for himself, but as it turned out, he didn’t fit in it. He offered it to his guests, saying that whoever fit in the casket could have it. Osiris was the last to try it, and when he exclaimed in delight that he fit, Set and his seventy-two evil attendants slammed the lid down, nailed it shut, sealed it with lead and threw it into the Nile river, which was in the midst of its annual flooding. The rushing water carried the sealed box to Byblos, where it tossed the casket onto the shores, which was then absorbed into the trunk of a tree.

Isis learned of the assassination and though she was devastated by the loss of her greatest love, she was determined to bring him home. With the help of Nephthys, Isis traveled all over the world, eventually meeting a group of children who told her they had seen a beautiful casket floating down the Nile. A second group of children told her they saw the casket floating towards Byblos, and Isis was so grateful that she blessed all children with the ability to speak words of wisdom.

 Isis in mourning

Disguising herself as an old woman, Isis stakes a spot on the shore near the palace, waiting for the queen of Byblos’s maids to arrive to do their washing. She befriends the girls and teaches them how to decorate their hair, and the girls are so pleased with how they look they rush off to tell Queen Astarte. The queen ordered them to bring this old lady back to her quarters, and the moment Queen Astarte sees the disguised Isis, she knows that she is in the presence of an extraordinary being, though she isn’t sure who. She hires Isis to serve as the nurse to her infant son the prince Diktys, who was very sickly.

Isis agrees to become the prince’s nurse, and the boy recovered with seemingly supernatural speed. Curious at what the mysterious nurse was doing to heal the boy, Queen Astarte secretly hid in Isis’s room one night to watch. To her horror, she saw the old woman stoke up the flames in her fire pit and gently lay Diktys among the burning brands. Astarte screamed and rushed out of the shadows, grabbing up her son as quickly as she could. Disappointed at the woman’s reaction, Isis revealed her true self, scolding the queen, saying that she had nearly completed the ritual to turn the boy into a god. Astarte apologized profusely and asked if there was anything she could do to repay Isis for healing the prince. Isis asked for the pillar that held Osiris’s body, and the queen gladly gave it to her. Isis removed the casket from the pillar, placed it on a boat, and sailed home for Egypt.

Too in love with Osiris to allow him to continue on to the afterlife, Isis summoned her adopted son Anubis and the god of wisdom Thoth to aide her in resurrecting her brother-husband. As Anubis and Thoth prepared the body, Isis turned herself into a kite (a type of falcon) and hovered over Osiris’s face, using her wings to fan life back into the corpse. Her magic worked, and Osiris inhaled, opening his eyes and coming back to life.

 Winged Isis

The pair were overjoyed at seeing one another again, and together they went into hiding, spending much of their waking hours making love. Tragically, Set learned of his brother’s return and began obsessively tracking the couple. One night he discovered them asleep in each other’s arms and, overcome with rage, Set threw himself at the pair, hacking at Osiris with his sword. In terror, Isis fled, and Osiris tried to fight back, but Set killed him again, chopping up his body and throwing the pieces into the Nile.

A grieving Isis hid herself away, and nine months later gave birth to Osiris’s son Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sun. With Horus in her arms, Isis journeyed the length of the Nile river, collecting all of the severed body parts she could find (the only piece that she could not find was Osiris’s phallus—some say that it was eaten by a wicked fish, others say that Isis turned herself into a fish and swallowed it to protect it, which is why the ancient Egyptians would not eat fish), bringing them back to Anubis. Anubis assembled the body and bound it together with strips of cloth, turning Osiris into the world’s first mummy.

There was no returning for Osiris this time, and he traveled on to the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian afterlife, and became the king of the dead, thus ensuring that the souls of those who died would live on with him. Isis secretly raised Horus in a papyrus thicket, teaching him to become a warrior and avenge his father, and after many years and many wars Horus succeeded in defeating Set, becoming the rightful pharaoh of Egypt. And while Isis and Osiris can not be together, they see each other frequently, as Isis guides the dead to the land of her beloved husband.


 The Holy Family: Osiris, Horus and Isis