Journeys Of Death And Love: Underworld Myths Through The Ages
At times feared, but often revered, the Underworld and the afterlife have mystified humans for centuries. While cultures represent the Underworld differently across time and around the world, there are some common themes. Interestingly, many stories center on goddesses and women in the Underworld, but not every myth involves a dark, underground place. One thing’s for certain, though: the Underworld always demands something in return.
Persephone & Hades
Persephone’s story might be the most well-known of the Underworld myths. Abducted to the Underworld by Hades, Persephone became the Queen of the Underworld through her marriage to Hades. When Persephone was abducted, Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was ravaged with grief over the loss of her daughter. As the goddess of grain and agriculture, this meant that everything stopped growing with Demeter’s grief: trees, flowers, and most importantly, the crops.
Zeus, Persephone’s father, soon interceded because things were getting out of hand. Demeter had continued to wander the world, consumed by her grief, and was neglecting her duties. People were dying in the famine that resulted. So, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone. Unfortunately – or maybe she did it on purpose – before she left the Underworld, Persephone ate a single pomegranate seed. By eating something in the Underworld one is trapped there forever.
Clearly, Demeter would not be consoled, so Zeus offered a compromise. Persephone would spend one-third of the year with her husband, Hades, in the Underworld, and the remainder with her mother. This myth is one of many that help explain the seasons we experience each year.
Orpheus in the Underworld
It seems fitting that Orpheus would have an entire opera created for him: “Orpheus in the Underworld,” by Jacques Offenbach. He was the son of the muse, Calliope, and was taught how to play the lyre by the god Apollo when he was a young man. As a result, he was considered the best poet and musician in history. Even the trees and animals were said to dance to his music.
Orpheus’s most recognizable story involves the death of his wife, Eurydice. While trying to avoid a satyr who intended to rape her, Eurydice fell into a nest of poisonous snakes that killed her. Wracked with grief, Orpheus began to play the saddest song ever heard. Even the gods wept in response and they, in turn, encouraged him to go to the Underworld to get her back.
He did just that. After pleading with Hades and Persephone for his wife, and playing them enough music that they became sympathetic to his mission, Orpheus was able to free Eurydice. But, there was a catch. He could not look back at her until after they had both returned to Earth or else she would remain in the Underworld. In his eagerness, when Orpheus stepped foot on the surface, he looked back to see if Eurydice was still behind him. Since she was still in the Underworld, she couldn’t leave, and so she was lost to him forever.
One of the oldest stories about the Underworld is that of Inanna, the Sumerian Queen of Heaven. In her story, she wanted to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, who was the Queen of the Dead and had recently lost her husband. Ereshkigal didn’t seem to be pleased when she learned that her sister was at the gates, however. She instructed the gatekeeper, Neti, to bolt all seven gates of the Underworld against her Inanna. Ereshkigal stated that Inanna may enter each gate one at a time, but only if she removed one piece of her royal garments at each gate.
Through the seven gates, Inanna shed her crown, breastplate, beads, ring, and even her clothing to arrive at her sister’s throne “naked and bowed low.” Ereshkigal “fastened on Inanna the eye of death,” and the Queen of Heaven was killed.
After Inanna’s servant Ninshubur realized that something was terribly wrong, Ninshubur went to Inanna’s father, the god Enki, for help. He gave her two “galla,” androgynous demons who can retrieve Inanna from the Underworld. When the galla entered the throne room, they found Ereshkigal in labor, and the galla empathized with her pain. As thanks, she offered them any gift they might want. They asked for the body of Inanna, which was hung on the wall in Ereshkigal’s chamber, and then revived her with the water and food of life. But again, we see the challenge of the Underworld: It’s not easy to leave it once you’ve been there.
The demons of the Underworld tried to claim Ninshubur, Inanna’s sons, and her ladies’ maid Cara, in Inanna’s place – a soul for a soul – but all of them were dressed humbly and were mourning her death. So she stopped the demons from taking any of them. But when she saw her lover Dumuzi dressed in his finest garments, she told the demons to take him in her place. Dumuzi was carried off to the Underworld, but not before his sister, Geshtinanna, volunteered to go instead. While some of the details about the arrangement aren’t clear, the siblings are said to each spend half of the year in the Underworld.
Not every myth involves journeying to the Underworld in an attempt to retrieve or visit a loved one. For instance, Hercules visited the Underworld so many times that literary scholars disagree on the number. And in some traditions, the afterlife doesn’t even include an Underworld.
Field of Rushes
In Egypt, the afterlife is lived in the Field of Rushes, if everything worked out for the best. When Egyptians died, it was believed they traveled by boat to the Hall of Final Judgment. There, they had to plead their case to Osiris, the god of the dead and the Underworld. Before 42 divine judges, one had to plead innocence for anything wrong done while living. These judges would use the Book of the Dead to help them make their ruling.
Then one’s heart was weighed against a feather. If it was heavier than a feather, the afterlife was denied to them. If the scales balanced, they moved on to the Field of Rushes, where they tended a plot of land forever. If the person had been buried with small figurines called shabtis, they could be used to help maintain the land in the Field.
The River Styx
No discussion on Underworld myths is complete without mentioning the River Styx. It’s one of several rivers in the Greek Underworld and is known as the River of Hate. Even so, this powerful river played a role in many myths. Gods swore unbreakable oaths at the river – sometimes to tragic results – and Thetis dipped Achilles in its waters to make him invincible, aside from his infamous heel.
When ancient Greeks buried their dead, they placed a gold or silver coin under the deceased’s tongue to pay Charon, the river’s boatman for their passage into the Underworld. Later, the practice evolved to one coin placed on the lips, and then later to two coins on the closed eyes of the corpse.
A couple of real-life locations have been associated with the River Styx over the centuries. In Italy, for example, the Alpheus River runs partially underground. It’s believed to be a possible portal to the Underworld through which mortals can travel. A stream in Arcadia, Greece, called the Mavronéri, was believed to be poisonous and acidic. The stream’s name even means “black water.”
Today, our view of the Underworld has changed, but our fascination with it remains strong. Remember, when tempted to play with its forces, the Underworld always demands something in return.