Symbols in Stories from Around the World
Hell is a place…until it is said in anger. Then it is something else. I am not offended when hell is used as a place. Though, people feel more comfortable saying “underworld” so there we have it.
Now hell should not be confused with “Hel,” the Viking goddess who presided over the same place as her name that was haunted by serpents. She had a blood-stained hound named Garmr. Having a dog must be important in the underworld as the Greek god Hades had his three-headed dog Cerberus. That hound ate raw flesh, eyes of fire, and intense hearing and this was the very dog that Hercules was to bring back as his Twelfth Labor. This Greek underworld had a chasm and dark flowing waters found in the center of the earth.
The Maori had Hine-Nui-Te-Po, goddess of the night. She hid and then later reigned over the underworld when she wished to hide from her shame that her husband Tane Mahuta, god of mankind and forests, was also her father.
To come upon the underworld, the entrance was usually found in caves, mounds, fairy hills, lakes, springs, or wells. For the Scandinavian tale “The Magic Book,” the hero follows the magician into a cave that descends so deep into the earth that rather than being an actual underworld is much like one. Joseph Campbell, known for explaining the Hero’s Journey, said that a hero needed to experience the lowest of lows and called that the “Belly of the Whale.” He used the Biblical reference of the prophet Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
The Christian underworld is often talked about as full of “fire and brimstone” and is where Satan is found. The underworld is a place of endless torture. Many Buddhists and Daoists see the underworld as a place of nine or ten purgatories to torture the dead. The Jewish underworld is called Gehenna that is full of fire while the Sheol is a shadowy place where souls could be released and escape such torture. Some Native American tribes saw the underworld filled with obstacles the reflected the choices the dead made when alive.
Though, Butan, goddess of the earth and underworld for Benin, oversaw people going to and from these two realms.
For the Ancient Egyptians, there was a radiant light to be found in the underworld. During the night, the sun stayed there. Ra, the sun god, would encounter the serpent Apep of chaos. By sunrise, Ra would have won though would battle again by sunset. Osris, as god of the underworld, sat in the Hall of Judgment in the Duat. He saw all who came there and welcomed the worthy to the underworld while some were rejected a place to be.
Stories that feature the underworld:
- “The Magic Book,” Scandinavian tale, boy is hired by magician and follows down many stairs into the earth and told to stay and clean though the boy later learns magic himself and must outwit the magician
- “Orpheus and Eurydice,” Greek tale, Eurydice was killed by vipers and her husband Orpheus, famous musician, played with such sweetness that Hades and Persephone allowed him to take his wife back as long as she did not look back
- “Rumpelstiltskin,” German tale collected by Brothers Grimm, an imp helps a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold through the third time the lady promises her first born except she could guess the imp’s name and upon guessing she stomps himself into the underworld
What stories do you know that feature an underworld? A place symbolic of the underworld? Please comment below and share with others.
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