Take a look at the letter U, the latest letter in the A-to-Z alphabet blog marathon.
Looks a bit like a miniature valley, doesn’t it. If I shrunk myself and attached a tiny parachute, I could perch on one of the U’s serif toppers (I’m writing this in Times-Roman) and leap into the letter’s chasm. I’d inflate the parachute, so I’d land softly. But look at the steepness of the U’s sides. I won’t be climbing out of that chasm.
Yep, doomed to spend eternity in this minuscule Underworld.
Fitting – since Underworld is the word I’ve chosen for my Writing Wranglers & Warriors’ post.
Now that I think about it, I could’ve chosen Undertaker. After all, it’s the undertaker who makes us look spiffy in the Underworld. OK, I know the fellow’s dolling up the corpse for its eternal stay in the casket, but hey let me have a smidgen of literary license.
If I’d been assigned A, it could’ve stood for Afterlife. If N, I’d be delving into the mythologies of the Netherworld. But it’s Underworld, so I’ll be digging up the facts surrounding the concept of Underworld. Did I just write digging up? Whoops. My apologies to Charles Dickens and his grave thieves in the holiday classic A Christmas Carol.
Most folks of faith are thinking I’m going to offer some pithy thoughts on Hell, since that’s what most people invoke when they hear the word Underworld. Here’s some breaking news: I’m consigning everyone – good, bad, indifferent – to the Underworld, since that’s what most people believed up until the dawning of the modern religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Got a problem? You can go to …. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Wikipedia lists more than 40 underworld mythologies from Albanian traditions to Zuni mythology – A to Z in keeping with the A-To-Z Blogathon. I’m going to focus on Greek/Roman mythologies, since some of their features have dovetailed into our visions of Heaven and Hell. Not surprising, since early Christians lived in the Roman Empire and many of them were Greeks.
Let’s pretend I’m no longer Mike, a 63-year-old American living in Las Vegas, but Μιχαηλ, an Athens baker on my deathbed in 12 B.C. I’ve been a faithful believer in the gods, obey my sacrificial obligations at the temples. When I see lunar and solar eclipses, thunderstorms, tornadoes I know a god is the reason for them. So I don’t worry about what happens when I take my last breath. I know the god Hermes will transport my soul to the underworld of Hades.
At the moment of death, my soul rises from my body. If you could see, you’d recognize it as me, since it takes on the shape of my mortal mien. The gods like to tease our temple priests and priestesses. Sometimes they say Hades is beneath the depths or beyond ends of the Earth. Other times it’s at the outer bounds of the ocean. Oh, the capriciousness of the gods. I’ve been told that Hades is the dark counterpart of Mount Olympus, the kingdom of the gods. Invisible to the living, it was fashioned solely for the dead.
The god Hades rules the Greek Underworld. Don’t ask. He’s obviously a conceited fellow, since he named his kingdom after himself. His underworld kingdom includes five great rivers that reflect the emotions coupled with death. The Styx circles the underworld seven times (it’s amazing how the number 7 appears over and over again in ancient religions including Judaism’s creation account). Named after the goddess Styx, the river also is known as the River of Hatred.
The Acheron is the River of Pain. According to many accounts, it’s the river that Charon, known as the Ferryman, rows the dead across. Sometimes, though, the Ferryman paddles his boat across the Styx. Charon isn’t particular.
The next river, the Lethe, is called the River of Forgetfulness. It’s named after the goddess Lethe, the Greek deity of forgetfulness and oblivion. A poplar branch dripped with Lethe river water is the symbol of Hypnos, the god of sleep.
The last two are the Phlegethon, the River of Fire, and Cocytus, the River of Wailing.
The entrance to Hades is a bustling place. Grief, Anxiety, Disease, Old Age, Fear, Hunger, Agony, Sleep, Guilty Joys and of course, Death all dwell on the gate’s earth-side. War, the Erinyes and Eris live on the opposite threshold. The Erinyes, or Furies, are the three goddesses who avenge crimes against the natural order of the world. They’re hard on children who commit crimes against their parents, especially matricide and patricide. Favorite punishments: madness to the guilty individual, starvation and disease to a nation if harboring someone condemned by the Furies. The Erinyes are dreaded by the living. The wronged – living and dead – can turn to them for vengeance. Sometimes the Furies can be appeased by a hearty libation. The ancient Greeks were obviously sexist; they depicted the Erinyes as ugly and winged women with their bodies intertwined with serpents.
The entrance to Hades offers haunts for a host of unworldly animals that sometimes venture into the mortal world, according to Greek Folklore – centaurs, gorgons, lernaean hydra, chimera and harpies. And an elm where False Dreams cling under every leaf.
It’s not cheap getting into Hades. Souls carry a coin under their tongue for payment to Charon. Charon doesn’t get many opportunities to bathe in the Styx or Acheron. Souls know him by his filthy look, by his eyes of fire, his bedraggled beard, and the shabby cloak hanging from his shoulders. Upon sight of him, some souls might beg Hermes to return them to their bodies where they can spend years in a coma.
On the other bank, the Cerberus guards the gate of the Underworld. Hades’ three-headed Hell-Hound, Cerberus prevents the dead from leaving the Underworld and anyone alive from entering. His many rows of teeth strip the dead of their clothes, belongings and flesh, turning them into skeletons.
Just inside the gate, so close they grow irritated at the hell-hound’s howls, the Judges of the Underworld decide where to send the newly arrived souls – Elysium, Tartarus, the Asphodel Meadows, Vales of Mourning, Isles of the Blessed, and Fields of Punishment.
All souls aspire to spend eternity in Elysium, the abode for those most favored by the gods. Achilles and Socrates went to Elysium. You and I? Highly unlikely. Normal people who live righteous lives rarely are granted admission. You really have to be loved by a god or goddess. Once there, you have no labors. Not sure if you get to play the harp.
You don’t want to be sentenced to Tartarus. It reminds me of Hell minus hellfire. Located beneath the Underworld, it’s dark and forbidding, the prison of the Titans and Zeus’s father Cronus, cast there by Zeus after his victory.
You and me… we’ll be sent to the Asphodel Meadows. It’s been set aside for ordinary souls who haven’t committed any nasty crimes, who failed to achieve the greatness or recognition needed to enter Elysian. Like I said, you and me. We just try to stay out of the way of the stomping boots and sandals of the gods and goddesses.
When’s the last time you had a bad breakup and you just can’t get over it? You still love that person and will do so until your dying breath and beyond. That means you’re destined for the Vale of Mourning, the abode of those souls consumed by unhappy love. Good news, though. You’ll soon find someone else in the same predicament. My advice? Fall in love and make whoopee… over and over and over again.
In some accounts the Greek/Roman Underworld includes aspects of Buddhism. A soul can be reborn. In Elysium, when a soul achieves all betterment requisites, the soul can stay in Elysium or be reborn. If a soul is reborn three times and reaches the lofty goals in Elysium all three times, the soul can go onto the Isles of the Blessed and enjoy eternal paradise.
The god Hades has set aside a place for people like Roman Emperor Caligula. Once, at Rome’s Circus Maximus, the games’ organizers ran out of criminals. For the next event, Caligula forced the first five rows of spectators into the arena to face lions. Hundreds of Roman citizens were devoured for Caligula’s amusement. The loathsome emperor no doubt ended up in the Fields of Punishment. Hades leaves the choice of punishment for each individual to himself. Fields of Punishment are good approximations of the Christian Hell, but instead of Hades doing the punishing, it’s Lucifer.
Hades can never be mistaken for Lucifer. He’s depicted as stern and dignified, but isn’t seen as a vicious torturer. Even so, he’s the enemy to all life and is hated by the gods and men. Sacrifices and prayer fail to appease him. A son of Cronus, Hades is the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. Zeus rules the heavens, Poseidon the sea and Hades the Underworld. They say Hades is a hospitable host in the Underworld. The other gods assign souls to Tartarus.
Hades took a wife, the goddess Persephone, abducting her. The daughter of the goddess Demeter and Zeus, Persephone was out picking flowers one day. She gathered one favored by Hades. The ground opened and Hades flew out in a golden chariot. Impressed with Hades’ flair, Persephone allowed herself to be seduced and carried to the Underworld by her soon-to-be husband.
Each ancient writer seems to have a different perspective on what life is like for souls in the Underworld, often described as outside of time. Some say the dead are insubstantial with no sense of purpose, their social status when alive meaningless. But they’re aware of the past and future. In poems, the dead sometimes help Greek heroes by prophesying and revealing truths.
One view of the Underworld: at the moment of death, the soul’s frozen in experience and appearance. The dead are exactly the same as they were in life. For example, those who died in warfare are forever blood-splattered. Objects in tombs – dice and game boards – mean the living believe the dead pass their time playing games. Some accounts imply the dead have sexual intimacy, although no children can result. Grave gifts of clothing, jewelry and food left by the living show they think the departed are not much different than they were when alive. The satirist Lucian, though, describes the dead as skeletons. Maybe some of the especially wicked dead are doomed to spend eternity as skeletons, their skin, muscles and organs ripped away by the Hell-Hound.
For myself, I’d choose the Vale of Mourning and lots of sex. I’m more than happy helping spurned lovers get over their heartache. It’s better than being a skeleton.
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I’ve two published novels, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin, both fantasy. They’re the first two books of my Larenia’s Shadow Trilogy. The final book – Assassins’ Lair – is finished and being edited. My novels were published by Wings eBooks. Here’s the link to my Amazon Author’s Page: http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Staton/e/B007ZSSNRM