Tag Archives: Underworld

The Ultimate Reboot


A few years ago I remember people worrying about Tamagotchis and similar digital pets. The concern was that, since a creature could be re-animated following it’s virtual death, children would develop a false understanding of the finality of pets or relatives actually expiring in physical reality. To anyone who has glanced even briefly at the belief systems of humanity regarding our inevitable passing on, it is quite obvious that that particular black barge sailed a very long time ago.


Pretty much all religions and cultures assume that death is only a temporary state and is followed by a continued or re-established existence of one form or another. In the Philippines a large percentage of funerary practices serve to prevent the spirits of the dead from following you home. Despite this, it is the custom to place the deceased in their coffin without shoes so when they do start wandering around your house they don’t make too much noise.

The ancient Egyptians were famously obsessed with Life 2.0. They believed everyone would re-animate in their pre-used body. It would appear that this belief came from the tendency of corpses, buried in shallow, sandy graves, to dry out and naturally mummify. Later, when rich people started building cool, stone tombs, they found that more elaborate means were necessary to preserve the cadaver. Many interments were accompanied by a little statue, about 60-80 cm (2 and a bit feet) tall. This was a failsafe. If the original body was damaged then the “Ka”, or soul could not re-enter and would have to find a replacement vessel. Presumably the Fields of Yalu (the Egyptian hereafter) were filled with these back up bodies since the artificial mummification practices involved removing the internal organs and putting them in jars. It’s hard to see how having your brain liquified and pulled out through your nose wouldn’t qualify as damage. Ironically the poor, unable to afford tombs, were still getting their whole, un-eviscerated bodies naturally preserved for them in the desert sands, so it would mainly be the rich who were rebooting in the afterlife as short, wooden people.

Unlike the Greeks, whose Elysian Fields are an eternal sunny picnic with your loved ones, an unprepared Ancient Egyptian would find themselves working for their after living. Much like earthly life, Life EternalTM required food, shelter and constant toil on public works. As with most negative aspects of extinction there was a work around. Amongst the various tools, crockery, foodstuffs, jewellery and clothing that one obviously needed to take on the not-so-final journey, many people, rich and poor, were buried with a bag or box of tiny figurines called “Shabti Dolls”. These models, ranging from coarse plaster about 5cm tall to finely carved stone around 45cm in height, could be sent to answer the call whenever there was work to be done, allowing an immortality of leisure to whoever brought them.

When life is generally considered to not only carry on after death but be improved by it, I have to wonder why we put so much effort into staying alive. Thinking about it though, the Egyptian afterlife must be very stressful: walking down the street with posh, child-sized mannequins trying to boss you around whilst having to avoid stepping on all the fragile, miniature labourers trotting about their business (or indeed, someone else’s business). What if there is only one afterlife and we all end up in the same place? Imagine arriving in the Great Beyond with bare feet while two dimensional virtual pets keep winking in and out of existence amongst a moving carpet of fragile Egyptian micro workers tooled up with scythes and chisels!

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Filed under Afterlife, Underworld

“Death cometh, soon or late”


This week it has come to one of our beloved cats and our broadband router. Each case bringing it’s own particular suspension of time and normal activity; one through tears, reminiscence and digging; the other tortuous trouble-shooting and inaccessible e-mails.

Black hooded, scythe in hand, one skeletal finger pointed accusingly at the salmon mousse, the medieval European reaper has pretty much eclipsed all other psycopomps, those who guide our souls to their final resting place. Valkyries and angels occasionally wing their chosen ones away to a blessed afterlife but consensus of popular culture (the very definition of folk-tale) is that our last breath will be harvested by a cloak full of bones with a voice like tombstones and a good line in dry humour.

But where will Mr. Grim take us? Let me transport you across time and space to the shores of ancient Japan which, Shinto myths tell us, were brought into manifestation from primordial chaos by Izanami and Izanagi before they too took physical form and stepped down from the high heavens. These divine lovers then populated the world with the spirits of earth, wind, mountains, trees, and so on until, whilst giving birth to the spirit of fire, Izanami was burnt sufficiently badly to cause the first death in their new world and retired to Yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi, bereft without his dear wife, heads to the underworld to bring her back. At the back door of the mansion of the dead he speaks with Izanami who explains that she may not be allowed to return as she has eaten the food of Yomi, but she will speak with the divine spirits in charge. She solicits assurance that Izanagi will wait outside and not attempt to look at her. After waiting for a day, Izanagi gets bored and goes searching through the mansion for her using a tooth from his comb as a torch. Eventually he finds his beloved but is horrified by her decaying, maggot ridden corpse. She is deeply angered by his betrayal and sets the Hags Of Yomi, several thunder spirits and a thousand dead warriors on him. After an exciting chase, Izanagi reaches the land of light and blocks the exit with a big bolder, thus ensuring that the dead stay down there, and the enraged Izanami becomes their goddess.

A picture of a large rock

The actual physical place, with the actual physical rock that blocks the exit of Yomi.
Seriously, you can go there.

My reason for telling you this tale is that it neatly illustrates a peculiarity which is common to the great majority of mythologies. whilst there is much detail of the creation of all that is above ground no mention is made of the creation of an underworld; yet, when Izanami becomes the first dead being ever, Yomi is already in existence, fully functional, complete with staff, hosts of dead warriors and hags. It seems that no action is needed on the part of the progenitors: the underworld simply appears spontaneously in response to the existence of the world above. In most cases these underworlds accommodate both good and bad where the former live in bliss, reunited with their dearest while the latter have to wade in rivers of spears and get eaten by snakes. Going up to live with the Gods above appears to have been added later as an exclusive option for the elite. The conditions for a beatific winged courier to carry one’s soul in to the sky are generally pretty stringent, however, the tickets to the eternal re-union parties of the various underworlds are simply attained by not stealing or committing murder and generally being kind.

So when the day comes, as certainly it will, and you feel a bony digit tap you on the shoulder, and you are somewhat behind on slitting the throats of goats whilst telling your chosen deity how fab they are, do not despair, all may yet be blissful.  I look forward to seeing our little tortoiseshell kitty again.  The router I’m less fussed about.

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Filed under Death, Shinto, Underworld

An Underworld Journey


It is no surprise to me that amongst the earliest writings yet found we find a version of one of the most widely spread and evocative stories known to man. In marks made with a stick on clay tablets by the inhabitants of the first cities, in the land of Sumer (where Iraq is today) roughly five thousand years agois the earliest known Underworld Journey. In this Sumerian myth Inanna, the goddess of fertility, sex and war, travels to the the land of the dead from which no one can return.

I dare say many of you will be familiar with the Greek tale of Persephone who is abducted by the god of the Greek underworld, Hades. She is eventually rescued by her mother, Demeter (the goddess of the harvest) but has to return to Hades for a number of months each year due to the incautious ingestion of several pomegranate seeds.

Whilst there are similarities between Inanna and Persephone, both tales involving a subterranean excursion and both having an ending that explains the annual cycle of growth and decay, the differences are more interesting. Inanna is no hapless victim. This goddess once declared war on the mountains because they did not bow down to her; and won! She goes to the underworld, ruled by her sister Ereskigal, by choice: “From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below.” What is more, she knows it is a dangerous mission and briefs her trusted minister, Ninsubur on the extensive and painful mourning ritual (involving the laceration of eyelids, nose, ears and buttocks) she must perform to restore Inanna should she fail to return. Inanna descends through the seven gates of the underworld and at each gate has one of her symbols of earthly power taken from her. Thus naked and stripped of everything, she stands before her sister but still has enough power to take Ereskigal’s throne for herself. Here we come to one of the chief points of this tale, “The Anuna, the seven judges, rendered their decision against her. They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.”

The Underworld has laws that hold sway even over the most powerful of divine beings.

Ninsubur, follows her instructions to the letter and Inanna is restored to life, not through force or magic but through sympathy, for it is only by sympathy that those who have entered the darkest depths can be reached. Although alive again, the laws of the Anuna, the underworld judges, still hold her and she is only permitted to return to the light if she finds someone to take her place. Inanna does not let the Anuna take anyone who has mourned her absence but eventually finds her husband, Dumuzid showing no signs of remorse and gives him in to the demons hands. Dumuzid’s sister begs them to take her instead so it is decreed that they will share the job with each spending half the year below. In typically contrary fashion Inanna mourns for the six months Dumuzid is away thus giving us the seasons.

Many scholars would have it that this is just a vegetative myth, that it is a ‘primitive’ explanation for the cycle of winter and summer, but I think that is merely a side effect of the main event; the bit that resonates for us is the descent, the search for… something in the darkness. It is the sense of loss or depression, of something hidden beyond our grasp, that drives us in to the doorway to the underworld. For Inanna and many other travellers in the great below, there is no material gain, only the experience which brings with it some intangible wisdom, a knowing that only those who have walked beyond deaths door and been to the home of darkness may have. When it comes to the Underworld it really is the Journey that matters.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

Details for October tour dates where you can see the Talesman perform “Inanna In The Underworld” amongst other Underworld Journeys are:

Saturday 22nd London Inn, Polson Hill, Morchard Bishop, Crediton, Devon, EX17 6PQ 7.30pm, £5

Thursday 27th South Hill Park Arts Centre, Ringmead, Bracknell Berkshire, RG12 7PA 7.30, £10 £8 concessions.

Friday 28th The Hyde Tavern, 57 Hyde Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 7DY, 7.30 £5.

Sunday 30th The Elm Tree Public House, 16a Orchard Street, Cambridge, CB1 1JT, 8.00, Free

Monday 31st The Hobgoblin, 2 Broad Street, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 2BH, 8.00

More details available via the Talesmn’s Facebook page, scroll down for the relevant gig and click on the event link. http://www.facebook.com/#!/TheTravellingTalesman

Unsuitable for under 12s

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Filed under Abduction, Autumn, Folk Tale, October, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling, Underworld, Winter