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: Lilith, Mother of Vampires (Middle Eastern Mythology)


October 23, 2017

Kara Newcastle

 The Burney Relief: Babylonian relief 1800-1750 BC. Commonly thought to depict Lilith, now believed to be Inanna.

Beautiful, with midnight black hair and clawed owl’s feet, the winged goddess/demoness and thought to be the first-ever vampire Lilith, called the Queen of the Night, has existed in our mythologies and fears since the dawn of civilization. She is a character with a long and murky history, likely beginning her mythological life in Sumeria as a nighttime spirit or class of spirits (I guess “Lilith” was like “moose”–could be singular or plural) frequently associated with screech owls, which in many societies were thought to drink blood. Also known as Lilu, Lilitu, Lillu, Lilake, Ardat Lili and Ardu Lili, she is one of the oldest and most feared entities in mythology, and likely influenced other vampiric creatures such as the Greek vampire-dragon Lamia and her offspring the Lamai.

But where did Lilith herself come from, exactly?

The earliest recorded mention of Lilith comes from a kind-of backstory prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh (which, coincidentally, also has one of the earliest known mentions of zombies.) The Sumerian goddess of love and war Inanna had planted a huluppu tree in her garden, planning to cut it down and turn it into a new throne once it matured. Ten years later, Inanna goes to cut it down and is surprised to find a serpent living around its base, a zu bird (a divine storm-bird described as either an eagle with a lion’s head or a half-man, half-eagle creature) and its babies nesting in the branches, and a ki-sikillilla-ke (“Lilake” or “Lilith”, linked to screech owl,) living in the tree’s trunk. When Gilgamesh arrives to slay the serpent, the ki-sikillilla-ke decides not to take her chances and flees. In another part of the epic, a Lilith spirit appears in the form of a harlot who fled from her home near the Euphrates River and settled in the desert but was unable to have children or produce milk. Her inability to become a mother frustrates and angers her, and thus she retaliates by attacking pregnant women and children.

Later, Lilith was thought to be an attendant of Inanna and was a nymph-like spirit of storms, as well as a spirit of sacred prostitution (priestesses of Inanna and Ishtar—and other ancient goddesses of love and sex—often worshiped their patron goddess by enacting hieros gamos, a rite where they would become an avatar of the goddess and have sex with a devotee, such as a king, to bestow fertility on the land, on the person/people, or to bestow authority onto a leader.) Eventually, she evolved from one of a class of occasionally malicious nature spirits into a goddess-like creature who ruled the night and lived in the uninhabitable parts of the desert. Lilith may have been derived from an obscure fertility goddess in her own right, as she features a duality found in many major goddesses: a Creator aspect (a sexual being that creates life) and a Destroyer aspect (the dark side of a female deity that causes death and destruction, i.e. Hathor/Sekhmet, Devi/Kali, Aphrodite/Anosia, Athena/Gorgon (Medusa), Demeter/Keres, etc.)

According to the Talmud, early Hebraic lore, and The Alphabet of Ben Sira (a medieval text thought by some to be in actuality a satirical story and not meant to be taken as doctrine), Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Both Adam and Lilith were created at the same time out of the same dirt but as separate entities. Yahweh intended for them to be partners, but almost immediately Adam and Lilith began to argue about—what else—sex. Adam believed that he was the superior human and wanted Lilith to be subservient and on the bottom during sex. Lilith said that this arrangement wasn’t fair because they were created equally, and therefore should take turns. Adam wasn’t having any of it, so, in fury, Lilith called upon the secret name of Yahweh (echoing the myth of the Egyptian goddess Isis using the secret name of Ra, the king of the gods) and was filled with magic powers. She fled the Garden of Eden, flying out over the deserts and finding a cave near the Red Sea. Settling there, Lilith was visited by many spirits and demons—among them the Angel of Death, the Archangel Samael—and became the mother to a hoard of demons called the lilim, giving birth to one hundred of them every day (in Islamic lore, she became the mother of the djinn, or “genies.”)

While Lilith was gone, Adam complained to Yahweh about how lonely he was and how he wanted Lilith back. Yahweh agreed that man should not be alone and sent three angels named Sevoy, Sansevoy and Semangelof to bring her back. The three angels approached Lilith in her cave and told her that she had to go back to Adam. She refused. The angels threatened to drown her in the Red Sea but Lilith scoffed at them. The angels then bound her in chains and tried to drag her out, but by now Lilith had grown powerful and resisted. The angels then threatened to kill one hundred of her children every day that she did not return to Adam, and the enraged Lilith vowed to kill one hundred human children every day in retaliation for the deaths of her own (I know, I know, the human race wasn’t supposed to be around then, just go with it) by drinking their blood, one of the absolute worst sins against Mosaic Law.

Eventually, Lilith and the angels worked out an agreement: she wouldn’t have to go back to Adam, but the three angels would kill one hundred of her children every day. Lilith laid claim over the lives of infants and could take whatever she wanted, so long as the babies weren’t protected by amulets bearing the names of the three angels.

 Lilith by John Collier

The angels departed, but Lilith’s hatred of Adam was apparently rekindled. According to some versions, after Lilith discovered that Yahweh had created Eve, Lilith snuck into the Garden of Eden disguised as a four-legged snake and convinced Eve that it was all right to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, Eve and Adam were kicked out of Eden (and the innocent snake was blamed and had its legs removed as punishment), and as they wandered the desert wastes, Lilith and her demon children stalked them wherever they went. After their son Cain killed his brother Abel, Adam abandoned Eve and went out into the desert to fast for 130 years in atonement. While there, Adam was visited by the still beautiful Lilith and fathered a new race of demons on her. Immortal, she continues to plague humanity, and in the Bible, the prophet Isaiah warns that when the Apocalypse comes and the land is made barren, Lilith will be present: “And there Lilith (night demon) will settle/And find herself a place of rest.” (Isaiah 34:14)

 Sundenfall by Hugo van der Goes

Okay, so you’re probably wondering how this all ties Lilith in with being the mother of all vampires. You see, in ancient societies, a “vampire,” or whatever term they preferred to use to describe such creatures (i.e. Lilith) was an entity that stole vital life force out of an otherwise healthy human being. It could be blood, youth, health, fertility, souls or even semen, and Lilith was believed to seek out all of these. She was thought to drink the blood of infants who were not protected by the three angels’ names, and those that laughed in their sleep were said to be dreaming of playing with Lilith and were at risk of having their souls stolen away. Because she was angry that so many of her own demon children were killed, Lilith stole away women’s fertility, caused miscarriages, and lurked in the room to cause difficulties in childbirth (midwives countered this by drawing a magic circle around the laboring mother and calling on the names of the three angels). At night Lilith would sneak into the rooms of sleeping men, drink their blood and have sex with them (the beginning of the succubus & incubus myths), stealing their semen away, and would sometimes watch couples having sex in order to steal any spilled semen. A man who woke up and found that he had a nocturnal emission (a polite way of saying “wet dream”) would quickly say a prayer that would keep any children he fathered on Lilith from turning into demons. Men were advised to not sleep alone or to write, “Adam and Eve may enter here but not Lilith the Queen” on the walls or door of his bedroom. An exorcism could be performed to drive Lilith out of the house (and interestingly, was presented like a writ of divorce), and clay “demon bowls” with inscriptions guarding against her would be placed inverted-side down beneath a house.

For centuries Lilith remained threatening but was largely unknown outside of the Middle East. Things changed in the Dark Ages; a renewed fear of Lilith sprang up amongst European Christian and Judaic leaders and scholars. Christians believed that Lilith married the Devil or one of his generals and was worshiped by witches, was often identified as one of the prostitutes arguing over a child before King Solomon and as the Queen of Sheba. The Hassidic text The Zohar first appeared in Spain around the 13th century, and both spread and convoluted the myth of Lilith further, stating among other things that she drank the blood of children who were born out of “improper martial relations”–that is, a child conceived in a sexual position other than missionary, which is exactly opposite what the original myth stated. This version of Lilith was strongly believed in by Orthodox Jews up to the 19th century, and even now elements of that belief exist in modern times.

Nowadays, Lilith has become more of a popular fictional character in novels, movies and TV shows, though some occultists worship her as the first woman and a source of divine female power, and many see her as a victim of ancient civilization’s shift from sexual equality to all-out patriarchy, turning a goddess into a demon. But the only one who knows the truth may be Lilith herself … her vampiric spirit is rumored to still inhabit the ruins of Babylon.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti