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: Storm Gods (Now You Know Who to Blame for Ruining Your Picnic)

Myth Monday: Storm Gods (Now You Know Who to Blame for Ruining Your Picnic)

By Kara Newcastle

Picture it: It’s summertime. It’s finally warm and sunny! The weather has been incredible all week long, and you make plans to go to the beach Saturday. You go to bed at the end of a perfect day, wake up the next morning …

Annnnnd it’s pouring out.

Well, that figures. You were so looking forward to spending the day at the beach, and now those plans are shot. You almost feel as though somebody’s playing a dirty trick on you … and you might not be wrong on that point. Mythology is packed with gods and goddess who control the weather, and some of them aren’t always responsible with those powers. Take a look at the list (by no means complete) and see if you can figure out which drizzly deity is to blame.

In ancient Greece, the man responsible for thunder and lightning was the king of the gods, Zeus. Zeus was the physical embodiment of lightning—in fact when Princess Semele, pregnant with Zeus’s son the wine god Dionysus, was tricked into demanding to see Zeus’s true form, his lightning killed her instantly. However, Zeus was thought to propel lightning down from the sky using bolts forged by Hephaestus, the lamed smith god and/or the Cyclops brothers who had sided with Zeus in his war against the Titans. Some versions of the myth depict Zeus’s thunder and lightning as actual deities, usually personified as the goddesses Astrape (lightning) and Bronte (thunder, which is also where we get the name Brontosaurus, for the long-necked dinosaur that paleontologists can never agree if it actually existed or not.)

For the Vikings, king of the gods Odin was sometimes thought responsible for storms, but when it came to thunder and lightning, these were products of Thor the thunder god’s divine fury. Whenever Thor smashed his battle hammer Mjolnir, the impact sounded like thunder, and lightning would fly from the wheels of his chariot, drawn by his two goats Tanngniost (“Teeth barer”) and Tanngrisnir (“Teeth grinder.”) Thor was never without Mjolnir, and the day he discovered it was stolen by the giant Thyrm Thor nearly went out of his mind with rage. Thyrm said he would trade Mjolnir back to Thor only if Thyrm could marry the goddess of love and beauty, Freya. Freya of course refused to do so, prompting Loki to suggest that Thor disguise himself as Freya, with Loki disguised as “Freya’s” attendant. Covered in a veil, the hulking, hirsute Thor slouched into the giants’ feast hall, and the second the giants were distracted, Thor grabbed Mjolnir back and brained everyone there.

I should also mention that Freya’s twin brother Freyr was not only the god of fertility, he was also a rain god as well (because nothing is fertile when it’s bone dry.) So if you get a rainstorm with no thunder, you know who’s at fault.

Dance wand featuring Shango

Shango was the ofttimes testy, axe-wielding thunder god of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. As a mortal, he was the fourth king of the Oyo Empire, but he wasn’t always seen as a fair ruler. He became so unpopular with his followers that it was said that Shango wandered into the forest and hung himself in despair. Later, a terrible storm roared over the land, and the lightning bolts all hit and burned down the houses of Shango’s enemies, prompting those that were still loyal to him to proclaim that Shango had become a mighty thunder god. Shango became one of the most popular orishas (a being that guides humans through life and are sometimes said to be extraordinary people who became gods after their deaths) among the Yoruba. In the 19th century, the Yoruba used Shango as a rallying symbol to unite under as they fought the slave trade, and a statue of Shango was erected at the Kainji Dam to help electricity to flow through the power lines.

Ọṣun Olo Ekòdidé Olo Omi Olo Orọ (Oxum Dona do Ekodide, da Água e da Fortuna.) by Joseph Nunes

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the time to also mention Shango’s three wives, Oshun, Oya, and Oba. Oya is both a fierce warrior and a goddess of turbulent storms, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, while Oshun is a more gentle (until she gets really mad—once she was deeply insulted by her devotees and sent down a torrential rainfall that flooded the land) goddess of love, nurturing, water, rivers and rainfall. Oya is extremely jealous of Oshun because she is Shango’s favorite, and the goddesses fight frequently, so worshippers are advised not to invoke both goddesses at the same time. Oba, Shango’s first wife and also a goddess of rivers, wisely avoids as much contact with Oya and Oshun as possible, though they both hate her because she was the only one of Shango’s wives to bear him heirs.

Perun slaying Veles in bear form

Perun was the god of thunder, war, fertility, and king of the gods in ancient Slavic mythology. He’s been largely forgotten today, but some of his stories still survive (and he’s a delightful character in the Iron Druid novels.) Perun ruled over the dry land of the living, but periodically Veles, the tricky god of the wet Underworld would sneak to the surface and try to steal something of Perun’s. Perun would respond by lobbing lightning bolts at Veles, who would run all over the world, transforming into various things to try to escape Perun’s retaliation. It was thought that if a lightning bolt struck a tree, for example, then the tree was actually Veles and Perun had successfully zapped him.


Okay, I really can’t make a list of weather gods without mentioning the Japanese god of thunder, the mighty Raijin … but, if you’re a Mortal Kombat fan, you know him better as Raiden. Raijin would stand amongst a set of Taiko drums and, with his fearsome face set into a snarl, he would pound of the drums to create thunder. Raijin was also a ferocious warrior and was said to have defended Japan against the Mongol invasion, throwing lightning bolts and arrows at the enemy fleet. Another story tells how the Emperor dispatched a man named Sugaru to capture Raijin and force him to turn away an oncoming storm. Raijin ignored Sugaru’s orders, so Sugaru prayed to Kwannon, the goddess of mercy, to help him. Kwannon agreed to help and brought Raijin to Sugaru, who then promptly stuffed the thunder god into a sack and dragged him back to the Emperor. (Oh, and for reasons I haven’t figured out yet, during thunderstorms Japanese parents sometimes tell their children to keep their bellybuttons covered up, or Raijin would eat them.)

Indra by Sudhansu Ajaudharany

In the early Vedic era, Indra was the god of thunder and war, as well as king of the gods (sensing a theme here …) He was armed with the varja, a sort of ceremonial club or mace that represented the thunderbolt—and in Indra’s hands, it was. According to the Rigveda (one of a collection of ancient Hindu texts), a dragon-like asura (demon) called Vritra stole all the cloud cattle (rainclouds) and hid them within a mountain. Indra attacked Vritra to free the cattle, and at one point was actually swallowed whole by the demon. Once inside Vritra’s stomach, Indra wielded his thunderbolt and split the dragon in two. With the monster dead, Indra was able to free all the cloud cattle, and rain quickly fell to earth.

As you probably know by now, summertime is hurricane season in the United States, and we can thank the ornery Mayan god Huracan (that’s where we get the word “hurricane”) for that. Huracan isn’t all bad though; he stood above the endless primordial ocean and chanted “Earth” three times until it arose out of the waters. Huracan also helped to create humans … even though it took him and the other gods three tries to get it right … and after the second attempt Huracan let loose the Great Flood to kill all the humans because they were so evil … and I’m starting to think he missed a few … Oh, and he’s also depicted in artwork as a man with one human leg and one leg in the shape of a snake, representing the zig-zaggy, serpentine movements of a lightning bolt.


Back to ancient Greece we go to meet Typhon, the impossibly huge monster giant that almost defeated all of the Olympian gods. Said to have one hundred heads, one hundred arms, and one hundred snake tails for legs, Typhon was created by the goddess Gaea to avenge the slaughter and imprisonment of her Titan children. The name “Typhon” is thought to be derived from the ancient Greek word for “whirlwind,” which, considering the way he tore through the Olympians, makes a certain amount of sense. Nowadays, a huge storm in the Pacific is known as a “typhoon,” and while it’s more likely the word is derived from Asian terms, Typhon has since become linked with the incredible phenomenon.


And now for a return trip to Japan to meet Susanoo, the god of storms and the sea and storms at sea. Susanoo was one of the youngest children born to the creator god Izanagi. According to one legend, Izanagi had gone to the underworld Yomi to try to save his wife Izanami, but failed. Emerging into the world of the living, Izanagi ritually bathed, and then wiped tears from his eyes. One of these tears turned in Susanoo, who from the get-go was a problem child. He screamed and cried so much for his dead mother that his weeping stirred up massive storms, and Izanagi had to kick him out of heaven. While exiled, Susanoo decided to visit the home of the food goddess Ōgetsu-hime. Susanoo demanded food, to which Ōgetsu-hime provided by creating it from various things that her body … uh … produced. Susanoo was so disgusted that he slew Ōgetsu-hime. Susanoo’s elder sister, the sun goddess and queen of the gods Amaterasu was furious that he had killed Ōgetsu-hime, but Susanoo didn’t apologize. In fact, he responded by going on a rampage, throwing a flayed pony (Amaterasu loved ponies) onto her throne, among other offenses. This did not endear him to the gods, so Susanoo was sent to earth, where he became a hero to the mortals there.

That’s just a selection of the storm gods that are stomping around out there, and any one of them could be at fault for the torrential downpour on your day out. Just keep your head down and mouth shut—you don’t want to say anything to get the gods madder and fling a lightning bolt after you.