Monday, June 12, 2017

Into The Underworld

Into the Duat. 

This week I’m going to take us on a journey into the depths of human psyche. Down, down into the underworld. This is another subject that fascinates me, especially regarding early conceptions of The Land Of The Dead. I touched upon the subject in my bird symbolism post, mentioning the evidence for belief in a solar boat that plunged into the underworld by night and the association with migrating birds. 

Once the world was governed by our concept and belief in Myth. Things were different then, we thought differently. Some scientists and psychologists are convinced that certain faculties of the 'modern mind' are the result of a continuing evolution of the brain. Whatever the theory the fact is attested in the art and sculpture left behind from those far off days. 

That ancient pagan religion permeated the very fabric of everyday life is an obvious indication that folks viewed the world very differently than we do. How you view your surrounding affects your thought process... it's as simple as that. Long before the renaissance rediscovered Plato and Greek philosophy, long before these same philosophers syncretised their accounts of creation and our place within the world we were part of the world in a deeper sense than we understand now. 

The roots of this separation actually lie in mystery cults preceding Christianity, but the Bible undoubtably reinforced our separation from the world: Yahweh's world was made for human use, and we, as images of the Maker, were set higher than the earth and the animals. With the advance of science many shrugged off the mantle of religion but maintained this separation.  However, previous to the anthropomorphisation* of the gods  there was no 'it' and 'us', little to separate us subjectively from the world around. We were in it. Humans and myth were inseparable. If we understand this then I think we are closer to understanding the distant past. I think C.G Jung grasped this concept, guessing that such a thought process was buried deep in our subconscious, despite our modern consciousness. Myth lived on in the form of archetypes.  

In Egyptian myth the sun god, Ra, rides his solar ship into the underworld where he battles with Apep, the great serpent, for the duration of the night, aided by a team of deities, until the ship emerges once more. The symbolism to illustrate this point is poignant, and though myth, it illustrates our eternal struggle against darkness - for it is not only the darkness of a single night that the sun’s absence represents. It is the absence of fertility, the onset of winter, both physically and mentally. As an allegory the tale works on various levels, for it is also the battle against death, which even the gods succumbed to. The Egyptian Book Of The Dead gave instructions of how the soul should navigate the Duat, or Underworld of the ancient Egyptians. The Cult of Ra flourished from at least 2400 BC. 

Sporting his ram's head form, Ra would set out on his boat to navigate the rivers of the  Duat. There he and his companions would face Apep, or Apophis, the massive chaos serpent that wished to swallow Ra forever. The defeating of this monster and the sun god's subsequent triumphant return as the rising sun was one of rebirth and victory over darkness.

Anubis weighs the Heart of the dead against the Feather of Ma'at.

The Duat was ruled over by Osiris, the God of the dead. It was portrayed as a remote and inaccessible realm. Here the souls of the dead would be judged. Their hearts were weighed on great scales by Anubis. Each heart was set against the feather of Ma'at,  goddess of truth and justice. Those unworthy would remain in the Duat, Those who were worthy were sent to Aaru, a more hospitable zone of the Underworld. 

To the Greeks Hades was a miserable place ruled by the god of the same name and his consort Persephone  It was grey and gloomy, with loads of phantasms sort of hanging around. Not exactly the place to be. And yet, the people seemed to accept this concept for eons. Hades was the jailor and the underworld was where the souls existed under his dominion. Similarly the Japanese had Yomi, another gloomy realm. But these weren't  places where the dead were tormented or punished, unlike the Christian Hell, where sinners went to be tortured by demons and devils, while Yahweh (The Christian god) looked on. 

Hades taking the hound for a wee stroll.

Elsewhere the underworld is kinda jazzed up, a sort of stop over on the way forward, a terminal terminal en route for the next world.  Famously the Celts believed in an afterlife in the soul's transmigration in other worlds. Similar notions on the theme in which souls were birthed back on old Earth to live it through again, until they learned that materialism is a no-no arise in Eastern traditions. 

The Celts, like the Vikings, were of old stock, they held tenaciously to their tribal whiles, even as they were pushed  to the fringes of  Europe by the Romans. The Celts raided cattle, lived with honour and possessed great gusto for life, just as those early Grecians of Homeric tales did. They were warriors not soldiers. That the Celts are reported speeding naked into battle perhaps projects their renown as brave warriors, whose beliefs in rebirth enabled them to assuage  fears of  Roman spear points. They were battling now, and later they’d battle in some other realm, so what? Though the Celts appear to have no clear cut underworld as such, there must have been some that did - it was named Annwn. It was a place of bounty, where people ate and drank their full from a great magical cauldron. There were many Celtic otherworlds and fairy realms, some of which the dead visited.

The underworld wasn't only a place of death though. In Norse cosmology the underworld is populated by giants and wolves. Odin, The High One, used his powers as a psychopomp to guide spirits down below, or to visit -  for only Odin could gain the secrets known by the dead (see my Odin post). He held court there, in his great hall, Valhalla, surrounded by the slain heroes, banqueting and fighting as they had in life. Indeed the Norse concept is far removed from gloomy Hades. Here warriors revelled in perpetual glory. But of course, there was also Niflheimr where the goddess Hel resided. To her hall, Èljúdnir (meaning rain-dampened) went the treacherous, the murderers and thieves. Its gate was guarded by a fierce dog called Garmr, much resembling the three-headed dog Cerberus of Greek legend.

18th century Prose Edda manuscript
with Hel in the lower Right.
She was half white and half blue.
Light and shade. 

 I could list every culture’s version of the underworld, or land of the dead, the Heaven of the Judaeo-Christians, the Nirvana of the Buddhists… every culture has its version. Originally, preceding later myths, the underworld was the domain of the Great Mother. For it was her womb that sprang forth life, but her other role was as tomb. This is reflected in the myths featuring great monsters and serpents, such as Typhon and Tiamat, which are always born of the Earth Mother, and though these monsters originally represent chaos, they are  overcome by humanity in the guise of the Sky-god/dragon-slayer**. Thus they are consigned to underworld duties, hence their Chthonic*** association. 

Exploring themes of souls and underworlds in avery different vein is a wee web-comic that I’ve been working on. It's called Nu-City Blues. Please go look and comment if you have time. It’s all free. 

My Webcomic - Nu-City Blues.

There is much to be made of the myths, too much for a humble blog post. But I’d like to suggest that there is something edifying and very human in this search for some form of world beyond this. I’m very much a believer in the intuition of the ancients. I think they could tell us a thing or two about the world - The real world, before we categorised it into abstraction, and filtered it out. 

Sure,  afterworlds and heavens have been used by the powers-that-be, those self-serving priests, who wished to monopolise the mind and soul of mankind. Mostly such sects turned these concepts into places to be desired (in the sky - heaven), or feared (in the ground - Hell). Heaven was only obtainable if you did not sin; the value of sin being set by the moral standards of the elite -  very often those that set them were/are abusers of such systems. 

How many people lived in absolute terror that they might go to hell for coveting their neighbour’s wife? Or having sinful thoughts? The Big Brother of the mind enforced by doctrine and sadists from the pulpit. A sad thing indeed. Personally, if there’s an afterlife, or and underworld, etc, I’m pretty certain it’s open to all. Hell exists solely in the minds' of humans.

From the Basilica of San Petronius, Verona, Giovanni De Moderna. Fifteenth Century A.D.


* Assigning human attributes to something - for more on Human Gods see the last post.

** Much spare time has been spent researching Serpent mythology, and a vast part of it links to this topic. This is a tome in the making -  a real journey through time… watch this space folks!

*** I love this word - it means subterranean.


Gods and Goddesses Of The Ancient World - Compiled by L.F.C. 
Who's who in classical Mythology - Michael Grant and John Hazel
Symbols of Transformation - C.G Jung 

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