The Underworld, also known as the Otherworld or Netherworld, is featured in most mythologies around the world. It is a realm of the dead, where the souls of the recently departed go in their afterlife. Many versions of the Underworld are seen as places of abundance and joy, and reward for good work during their mortal life.
World mythologies call the Underworld by several names:
Celtic – Annwn, Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Hy-Brasil, Ablach, Sídhe mounds
Norse – Hel, Niflheim, Valhalla, Gimlé, Vingólf
Greek – Hades, Elysium, Tartarus, Asphodel
Roman – Inferno, Avernus, Orcus/Hades, Pluto
Egyptian – Aaru, Duat, Neter-khertet, Amenti
Christian – Heaven, Hell
In the Celtic world, the Underworld was known by many names. The Welsh concept of the Underworld was known as Annwn, a world of delights and eternal youth ruled by Arawn/Gwyn ap Nudd. In Irish mythology, Mag Mell (‘delightful plain’), was a place of pleasure thought to be a mythical island far off the west coast of Ireland or a kingdom beneath the ocean (similar to the realms of Hy-Brasil or Emain Ablach).
Tír na nÓg (‘land of youth’) or Tir Tairngire (‘land of promise’) is another Irish concept of the Underworld, an earthly paradise of supernatural beings and a few lucky mortals who were invited to stay. Similar to Mag Mell and Hy-Brasil, Tír na nÓg was seen as a place far to the west of Ireland, on the edges of the map, which could only be reached by an arduous journey or by a special invitation. Famous residents of Tír na nÓg was the mortal Oisín who was brought by Niamh of the Golden Hair (Niamh Chinn Óir), as well as one of the places settled by the Tuatha Dé Danann after being banished from Ireland.
Another concept of the Underworld comes from the sídhe, or faery people, of Ireland. It is thought that when the Milesians (Celts) invaded Ireland, they banished the Tuatha Dé Danann who then took refuse in the sídhe mounds. These mounds can still be seen today in the form of barrows or hollow hills (cnocs) which are inhabited by faery rulers such as Knockma, Finvarra, or Ainé.
The concept of the Underworld in Norse Mythology is related to the World Tree, Yggdrasil (Germanic Irminsul). It was thought that brave warriors would be chosen by the Valkyries to travel to Asgard to join Odin in Valhalla or Freyja in Fólkvangr.
The base of Yggdrasil is the home of the Underworld realms of Hel/Helheimr and Niflheim/Niflheimr. Hel was the Land of the Dead, ruled by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki. When humans were not accepted to Valhalla or Fólkvangr, they went to Hel’s hall Elivdnir. Niflheim was a place of Ice and Fog, the lowest of the nine realms, and has been associated with the region of Hel.
There was also Gimlé/Gimli, a beautiful place where survivors of Ragnarök (the end of the world) were thought to live. Also described as the golden roof of a building in Asgard where righteous men go when they die, similar to Vingólf, one of the buildings of the gods.
In Greek Mythology, upon death the soul was separated from the corpse and transported to the entrance of Hades. Hades was either at the outer bounds of the ocean, beneath the depths or at the ends of the earth.
Tartarus was similar to Hades in that is was far beneath the earth, and was the place where Zeus cast the Titans after defeating them (along with his father Kronos who became king of Tartarus). The Fields of Punishment was where those who wreaked havoc on earth or committed crimes against the gods were banished. The Fields of Asphodel was where ordinary souls who did not commit crimes, nor achieve any greatness, would inhabit.
The Elysian Fields, or Elysium, was where the souls of those who were especially distinguished went after death, particularly those who were associated with the gods or performed exceptional feats. While in Elysium, the soul had a choice to either stay or be reborn. If the soul achieved Elysium three times, they were sent to the Isles of the Blessed to achieve eternal paradise.
Also in Greek mythology, there were five rivers that flowed in both the real world and the Underworld. The River Styx was the most prominent Underworld river, also known as the ‘river of hatred’, and was thought to circle the Underworld seven times.
© A Year And A Day (2013)