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: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology (World Mythology)

Myth Monday: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology

By Kara Newcastle

Ever seen Disney’s Hercules? At one point, Herc comes up against the evil centaur Nessus, loses his sword in the river and starts to panic. As Hercules thrashes around searching for his sword, he tries to refocus himself by repeating what he’s learned in hero-training.

“Right. Rule number 15 … A hero is only as good as his weapon!!”

Here, Hercules grabs a hold of something and brandishes it triumphantly … only to realize it’s a fish. That aside, Hercules wasn’t entirely wrong; for some mythological characters, the weapon makes the hero. And some of their swords are pretty damn cool (there were so many to chose from, I might do another list in the future!)

  1. Excalibur (England): Of course, this one’s a gimme, but no mystical weapons list would be complete without it. To begin, Excalibur was not the sword that King Arthur pulled from the stone (that’s a literary shortcut authors and Hollywood like to use); after Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, he used it on several campaigns, eventually shattering. Deciding it was time for Arthur to have a sword worthy of a king of all England, the wizard Merlin took the young king to meet the Lady of the Lake (one of many), where the water spirit gifted Arthur the magical sword Excalibur and its scabbard. The scabbard was enchanted so that whoever wore it would not bleed to death in battle. However, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey stole it and threw it back into the lake, so after Arthur fought his evil son Mordred he died from his wounds. In most versions of the story, Arthur orders his knight Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur back into the lake, where it is caught by the Lady of the Lake.
Katana_blade_1505_Osofune_school by Rama

2. Kusanagi The Grasscutter (Japan): After slaying the multi-headed Orochi Serpent, the storm god Susanoo proceeded to chop up the dragon’s body. Upon cutting off the dragon’s fourth tail Susanoo was surprised to find a sword inside. Calling it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, Susanoo presented it to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu as a sort of peace offering after all their feuding. Amaterasu passed the sword down to her descendants, and eventually it came into the possession of the hero Yamato Takeru. One day Takeru was trapped in a field by his enemies, who set the grass on fire in the hopes of killing him. Depserate to escape, Takeru drew the divine sword to cut back the grass, but when he did he found that the sword had the power to control the wind. Takeru used the sword to turn the fire back onto his enemies, and afterwards gave it the name that it is known by today: Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the Grasscutter. The sword continues to be bestowed upon different family members and is featured in a number of stories. Today, it’s alleged that the Kusanagi no Tsurugi is kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, Japan. Said to be too divine to be view by mortal eyes, its kept locked away. The last time it was seen was in 2019 at Emperor Naruhito’s ascension ceremony. It symbolizes the virtue of valor and is one of the Imperial Treasures.

3. Fragarach (Ireland): Forged by the gods, the sword was first owned by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea. Also known as the Retaliator, the Whisperer and the Answerer, it was bestowed upon Nuada, the first high king of Ireland. Kings of Ireland had to be physically perfect, so when Nuada lost his arm in battle, he abdicated in favor of Lugh, the future god of the sun, and gave him Fragarach as the symbol of his kingship. Fragarach was incredibly powerful; it could easily cleave through a shield or wall, delivered wounds that were always fatal, made its opponents weak, and, when held against a person’s throat, had the ability to force the person to tell the truth (which is why it was also called the Answerer.)

  1. The Harpe (Greece): A harpe is a sword that is either sickle-shaped, or has a straight blade with a sickle-like point protruding out towards the tip. Sometimes the myths say that Cronus used a harpe made of flint or adamantine to castrated his father Uranus, but the harpe was most famously used by the hero Perseus. A son of Zeus (big surprise), Perseus was determined to protect his mother Danae from King Polydectes of Seriphos, who wanted to marry her. Wanting to get the boy out of the way, Polydectes manipulated Perseus into going on a quest to slay the monster Medusa and bring back her head. Perseus found the way to Medusa’s cave, but was at a loss as to how to kill her without being turned into stone by her stare. The answer of course came from the gods: Athena gave Perseus a highly reflective shield, Hades gave him his helmet of invisibility, Hermes gave him his winged sandals, and Zeus gave Perseus a harpe made of adamantine (sorry, I can’t help but look at Zeus at this point as an absentee father trying to make good with his son.) Not only as Perseus able to use the harpe and the other gifts to kill Medusa, he also used the sword to destroy a sea monster summoned by the god Poseidon. (Side note: it was not known as a kraken. The kraken is a Norwegian sea monster. All the same, that still stands as a really cool quote to yell.)

5. Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (Persian): This emerald-encrusted sword once owned by King Solomon was featured in the world’s longest epic poem, Amir Arsalan-e Namadar, and was wielded by the eponymous hero (Amir Arsalan, if that helps) on his many quests. One of his quests was to face the giant, horned demon Fulad-zereh, who had been terrorizing the world by flying through the air and kidnapping beautiful women, and now had usurped the throne of the fairy king and turned many of his courtiers to stone. Fulad-zereh’s mother was a powerful witch, and she had enchanted Fulad-zereh so that nothing could harm him … except for the sword Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (she might as well have been designing the first Death Star.) Knowing this, Fulad-zereh guarded the sword carefully, but Amir Arsalan was able to outwit him and kill both Fulad-zereh and his mother with Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār. The sword was so powerful that any wound that it inflicted would not heal unless treated with a special potion—an ingredient of which was Fulad-zereh’s brain, but Amir Arsalan had no problem making it.

6. Beowulf’s swords Hrunting and Næġling (Danish): Two swords are noted in the epic poem Beowulf, and interestingly, despite their unique abilities neither one of them help him. Beowulf was a warrior from Geatland, and he and his men were summoned by King Hrothgar of the Danes to help them kill the monster Grendel, who had been raiding Hrothgar’s drinking hall. Not long after arriving at the great hall, Beowulf proceeded to boast about his many adventures, irritating the king’s retainer Unferth. Unferth accused Beowulf of lying, to which Beowulf mocked him back. After witnessing Beowulf disarm Grendel—literally—Unferth falls quiet. The Geats and Danes don’t have long to celebrate Beowulf’s victory, as Grendel’s even more monstrous mother comes for revenge. They pursue her to a lake, where she plunges to the depths. There, Unferth hands Beowulf his sword Hrunting, telling Beowulf that the sword would never fail the one who held it. Happy for the gift, Beowulf leapt into the lake after Grendel’s mother and drew Hrunting … only to find that it was useless against the creature. This has led some scholars to wonder if Unferth had lied about the sword’s power in the hopes that Beowulf would lose (don’t worry, he didn’t.) Many years later, Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and Beowulf, now an old man, goes out to confront it. He takes with him the sword Næġling, a very ancient weapon that had been passed down to him through his family and was said to contain immense power. Unfortunately, by now Beowulf is too old to wield it properly, and he is killed by the dragon’s venom.

7. Gram (Norse): Once upon a time, the Norse warrior Sigmund was enjoying himself mightily at the wedding feast of his sister Signy. As he parties with the other Vikings, a stranger in a black cloak enters the hall and walks straight up to the Barnstokker tree growing in the middle of it. The man draws out a sword, lifts it up, and plunges it straight into the trunk of the tree. The man says to all in the stunned hall, “He who pulls out this sword will keep it as a gift from me, and he will know that he never carried a better sword than this.” The man was Odin, the king of the gods in disguise, and as soon as he walked out of the hall every man there lunged for the sword. Only Sigmund was able to pull it free. King Siggeir becomes envious and tries to buy the sword Gram, but when Sigmund won’t part with it, the king begins a campaign of murder and torture against Sigmund and his family. Sigmund manages to keep the sword until it is broken in battle by Odin himself. Sigmund’s wife Hjordis keeps both pieces for their future son, Sigurd. Years later a dwarf named Regin tells Sigurd about an amazing hoard of gold guarded by the dragon Fafnir, and Sigurd promises to slay the dragon if Regin can forge him a sword. Regin repairs Gram, and Sigurd uses it on several quests. The last time Gram is seen is when it is placed between the bodies of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brunhilde on their funeral pyre.

8. Kladenets/Mech-samosek (Russia): The actual translation of “kladenets” is a little tricky, but most stories that feature the Kladenets describe it as a “self-swinging sword”—in other words, a sword that fights on its own. Also known as a mech-samosek, the sword cannot be forged, it has to be retrieved by a hero from a burial mound (the root word of the name means “treasure”,) and will do the fighting for the hero itself. Some versions state that the sword must be held, that it can kill anyone with a single blow, but if you hit the dead body a second time the sword will bounce back and cut your own head off. The Kladenets is most frequently listed as the weapon of the folk hero Ivan Tsarevich.

9. Thuận Thiên (Vietnam): In 1418, seeing that the land we now know as Vietnam was suffering under Ming control, Long Voung, the Dragon King, decided that it was time he helped the humans out. The best way to do that was to bestow his own sword upon them, but there was one problem: the sword came in two pieces. Long Voung sent the blade of the sword down river, where it was dredged up by a local fisherman three times. Realizing that this was something significant, the fisherman brought the blade home and kept it in a corner for several years. After some time Le Loi, a general at this time, visited the fisherman’s home. Almost immediately, the sword blade began to glow brightly. Holding it up, Le Loi saw the words Thuận Thiên, “Heaven’s Will,” etched on the blade. Seeing this as another sign, the fisherman insisted that General Le Loi take the blade. Some time later, Le Loi was fleeing his enemies through the woods, when a sparkle caught his eye. Looking up, he saw a jewel-studded empty sword hilt dangling in the branches of a banyan tree. Bewildered, Le Loi climbed up, pulled down the hilt, and fitted it into the blade he found at the fisherman’s house. Seeing that the pieces fit together perfectly, Le Loi realized this was a sign from heaven, showing him that he had the gods’ approval. The sword caused Le Loi to grow extremely tall, and have the strength of a thousand men, and seeing him with the divine weapon help rally the people of Vietnam to his side. Within ten years, the Vietnamese had driven out the Ming Chinese, and Vietnam was now an independent country with Le Loi as its king. A year later, Le Loi was on a pleasure cruise on Ho Luc Thuy (Green Lake), when a giant turtle with a golden shell emerged from the water and swam towards him. In a human voice, the turtle told Le Loi that his task was complete, and that he needed to return Thuận Thiên before its divine power corrupted him. Le Loi looked down at the sword at his side (which was twitching towards the turtle, as if wanting to go to it) and realized that the turtle was right. He tossed Thuận Thiên to the turtle, who caught it in its beak, and then sank beneath the water. Since then the lake has been known as the Lake of the Returned Sword, or Sword Lake.

10. Skofnung (Norse):I was trying to focus on as many different swords without repeating myself, but I came across this one. I don’t remember ever reading about it before, and there’s not a whole lot I found right now, but it’s just too cool not to mention.

The origins of Skofnung are a little murky, but early writings of the sword say that it was stolen from a burial mound by the Icelandic Viking Skeggi of Midfirth, who was chosen by lot to go in and get it. Eventually, it comes into the possession of Danish king Hrolf Kraki, who declared it to be the greatest sword of any in the Northlands. Not only was it supernaturally sharp and incredibly strong, it was also possessed by the souls of twelve of Hrolf’s most faithful warriors (and HOW did that happen? I’m not totally sure I want to know.) The sword passes hands several times and is even the lone survivor of a shipwreck. At one point one of the owners warns a friend that any cut made by Skofnung will not heal unless it is rubbed with the Skofnung Stone, which I don’t know exactly what that is. Mostly I’m just hung up on the ghosts of twelve dead berserkers bound to the sword right now.