Lands of Legend: the Underworlds

Trigger warning: references to incest, rape and domestic abuse

It is nearly the end of the year, nearly the end of this project, and it’s time to talk about death! If I was to write about all the Underworlds out there, this would be a book, not a blog post, so I have made a selection of three. Consider this month’s Land of Legend as a holiday brochure of sorts for your afterlife needs. We’ll visit the sights, gossip about the royalty, and hopefully avoid any fiery pits.

Hades is named for, well, Hades: son of Cronus and Rhea, brother to Zeus and Poseidon (among others), and king of the Greek underworld. An isolated figure in comparison to his many hectic relatives, Hades is best known for that time when he completely lost his head and kidnapped the goddess Persephone, thereby making a mortal enemy of her terrifying mother. That shambles turned out better than it had any right to. Hades convinced Persephone to eat six seeds of a pomegranate and by so doing, she was committed to an existence halfway between worlds – six months of the year among the living, and six months ruling alongside Hades as queen of the dark realm they now shared.

The Greek underworld was divided into three lands. Great heroes went to the glorious Elysian Fields and the Fortunate Isles. Notorious villains received highly personalised and excruciating tortures in Tartarus, which was basically the underworld of the Underworld, far beneath the rest of Hades. Most people, though, went to the Asphodel Fields, the land of shadows, which by all accounts that I’ve read was just…boring.

At the entrance to Hades stood an elm tree, its leaves thick with false dreams, and through the lands flowed five rivers. The Styx was the river of hatred, encircling the underworld seven times over. The Acheron was the river of pain, and the main point of entry for the recently dead, who were carried across its waters by the ferryman Charon for the price one obol, a coin that had to be buried with each corpse. Sometimes Charon would make an exception for souls bearing a golden bough, but the unburied were always out of luck, stranded on the far bank of the afterlife. The Lethe brought oblivion, its waters erasing the memories of the dead. The Cocytus was the river of wailing and Phlegethon was the river of fire. The eastern boundary of Hades was marked by yet another river, the Oceanus, which encircled the world.

For a god as unsociable as Hades, he had a lot of associates. Charon, of course, and the three-headed dog Cerberus, but also the Furies – Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone – who acted as avengers, in particular on behalf of wronged parents. In fact, hanging around outside the entrance to Hades were a veritable compendium of miserable types such as Grief, Anxiety and War. Once a soul entered the Underworld, they were never to leave, but sometimes a plea that would fall on deaf ears with the king would receive a more merciful response from his wife. The musician Orpheus pursued his dead lover Eurydice, bewitching Charon, Cerberus and even the Furies with his playing. By appealing to Persephone with his song of broken hearts and loneliness, he won a chance to save the woman he loved, if only he could walk the long way to the surface without looking back to see if Eurydice was still there behind him.

But of course he did look back, and Eurydice was lost. In time Orpheus fell foul of the Maenads, who killed him, and he made his own way down to Hades, still singing.

The Norse underworld, Niflheim, was the province of Hel, the trickster god Loki’s only daughter. In one disturbing version of events, Loki ate the heart of the giantess Angerbotha and from that Hel was born. Above the waist, Hel was a beautiful woman; below the waist, a rotting corpse. The leader of the gods, Odin, condemned her to an existence in the underworld in the same way he imprisoned her brother Jörmungandr in the sea and Fenrir with unbreakable chains – to be Loki’s child was to be born with a legion of enemies – but Hel took Odin’s lemons and turned them into the lemonade of vengeance. First, she made the place her own. Hel had a palatial hall called Éljúðnir, Hunger for her dish and Famine for her knife, and three servants: a serving man called Ganglati, the maid Ganglöt and the guardswoman Modgud, who stood watch on the bridge over Gioll, the river of death. Then, when Odin’s beloved son Baldr was killed, the gods begged for Hel to return him to the land of the living. She agreed…on the stricture that every living thing in the world should weep for him first.

She never let him out. And at the final battle, Ragnarok, death came for Odin himself.

Another lady of the Underworld is Hine, the guardian of Death in Maori mythology. She was the daughter of the creation god Tane with Hine-ahu-one, the woman he had sculpted from earth. Hine had many names: Hine-titama, meaning ‘Dawn Maid’, Hine-i-tauira, meaning ‘Patterned Maid’ and Hine-manuhiri, meaning ‘Newly Arrived Maid’. Then Tane tricked her into becoming his second wife. Together they had five children: Tahu-kumea, Tahu-whakairo, Tahu-otiatu, and Tahu-kumea-atepo and Hine-tītamauri. But Hine was curious about herself and her life, and when she found out that Tane was her father as well as her husband, she was so horrified that she fled for the safety of Rarohenga, the Maori underworld. There she became Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of death.

After leaving Tane she bore three more children: Te Pō-uriuri, Pō-tangotango, and Pare-kōri-tawa. She also married again – this time, her husband was her uncle, Rūaumoko, the god of volcanoes.

Unlike Hel, Hine was an almost maternal presence. By freeing the spirits of the dead to return to the Sky Father, she acted as a guide instead of a gaoler, but just because she took a gentler approach did not mean it was at all a good idea to mess with her. The trickster Maui found that out the hard way. Fresh from feats such as fishing islands out of the sea and beating up the actual sun, he decided he would achieve immortality for all humanity by creeping up on Hine while she was sleeping, crawling…through her vagina…and emerging from her mouth. Disney Maui this is not.

As Maui crawled inside Hine, a watching bird laughed at the sight of him. The goddess woke immediately and crushed Maui to death with the obsidian teeth inside her vagina. So perish all rapists.

The path between Rarohenga and the world of the living was guarded by Kuwatawata, but the living could visit the realm of the dead, at least to begin with, and Rarohenga was also the home of Ue-tonga, the god of tattooing, and Niwareka, his daughter. Niwareka married a chief called Mataora and went to live on the surface of the world. At first they were happy, but Mataora was a jealous man and began to abuse her, and Niwareka followed in Hine’s footsteps by retreating to the safe haven of Rarohenga. Mataora pulled an Orpheus, searching for his wife and singing of his regrets, and Niwareka chose to forgive him. Unfortunately for Mataora, he forgot to pay his respects to Kuwatawata on the way out, and in consequence the living were barred from entry to Rarohenga.

In these stories, the Underworld is not necessarily a place to be afraid of. Persephone and Hel started out as prisoners and became queens; Hine sought sanctuary and ended up granting it. The dark is not always something to fear.

Though it may be worth taking a few singing lessons, in case there’s a goddess to bribe on the way out.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from around the World – ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherin Headlam (Kingfisher Publications, 1998),,,,ō