Mythology Monday: The Underworld

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I blinked, taking in the glass walls overlooking a picturesque landscape. I stared at the sky, blue as forget-me-nots. Splashes of fuchsia flowers bloomed against the emerald green grass. Dazzling aquamarine rivers wound their way through lavender mountains. “I thought—”

“That is would be all underground and cave-like? Yeah, that’s a common misconception. Everything that dies comes to the Underworld. It’s a separate realm, and it’s huge. It would take eternity to see it all, but from here I can give you the highlights.”

“Okay.” I was in complete awe of the beauty of this place. I didn’t see the sun, but felt the sensation of sunlight flooding through the windows.

“So that—” Cassandra pointed at one of the beautiful rivers winding its way through the landscape “—is the River Lethe. Don’t drink the water, bathe in it, or even touch it.”

“Why?” I gazed longingly at the translucent water and pressed my hand against the cool glass. I’ve always hated swimming, and all the water I’d ever drank came from a faucet, but something about the sparkling water called to every fiber of my being.

“You’ll forget things. Sometimes when a soul comes here, their death was traumatizing, or maybe their whole life sucked. This river gives them a chance to forget the things that would otherwise haunt them.”

“Like Oreithyia?”

Cassandra hesitated. “She’s an extreme case. There are different levels of memory loss. The Lethe can take away all memories associated with a singular event or person, or wipe away their entire lives, and everything in between. Some memories go deeper than others. Boreas knew she would be coming here so he . . . made it difficult. He doesn’t like to be forgotten.”

I didn’t ask how. I was having a hard enough time dwelling on what could have happened to me. I didn’t need further details.

“We also use it on people who’ve done bad things in life,” Cassandra continued. “We take away all their memories, and they serve in the palace or around the Underworld until their sentence is up.”

That didn’t seem like much of a punishment. “Why?”

“For most people, their circumstances contributed to whatever crime they committed. This gives them a blank slate. When they finish their sentence they can live the rest of their afterlife in peace. Of course it doesn’t work like that for everyone, but between me and Moirae we can usually tell who should go straight to Tartarus.”

I didn’t want to hear anything about Hell. It was bad enough it was so close by. “Who’s Moirae?”

Cassandra smirked. “You’ll meet her later. Anyway, the point is, don’t drink from the Lethe.”

I nodded, staring at the Lethe. I wished I could forget the last forty-eight hours, but that wouldn’t change anything. I would still be here and Boreas would still be— My head shot up. “Could we give that water to Boreas? Make him forget he ever saw me?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t work on deities. You haven’t grown into your divinity yet, but when you do you’ll be immune too.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed.

“That was a good idea, though,” Cassandra said encouragingly. After a moment’s pause she pointed above the Lethe. “Do you see that mountain up there? That’s Olympus.”

“I thought Olympus was supposed to be in the sky.”

“It fell thousands of years ago when people stopped believing in the gods. Most of them died then. They live above the Elysian Fields on their mountain now.”

“Could I meet them?”

Cassandra shrugged. “You can’t go into the Elysian Fields, but the gods get bored easily. They may come to you. You’re new and interesting.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. So far, having the gods take an interest in me had been nothing but trouble.

Cassandra turned me to the left and pointed at another river. “That’s the Styx, and you see those houses over there?”

I nodded.

“Those are the Asphodel Fields. I call them the suburbs.”

I could see why. Pastel-colored houses lined the streets, with postage stamp green lawns surrounded by picket fences. “It looks nice.”

“Pretty much everyone ends up in the Asphodel Fields. You have to be really awesome to end up in the Elysian Fields, and really horrible to end up in Tartarus. Most people live normal lives, and live a normal afterlife.”

“It’s not what I pictured.” I thought back on the Divine Comedy essay I’d written for English class.

Cassandra leaned against the glass wall. It was so clean it looked as if there was nothing stopping her from falling through the bright blue skies. “The Underworld’s just like the living realm, only more peaceful. We still have stores, but no money changes hands. People had things they loved to do up there, and now they can do it down here without any pressure.”

“I wouldn’t want to work in my afterlife.” I stretched. “I’d relax and . . . well, I don’t know what, but I wouldn’t work.”

“Well, the people sentenced to the Lethe do most of the work, but the shops are run by hobbyists. Most people don’t want to do anything resembling work at first,” Cassandra said with a smile, “but eventually they get bored and start learning how to do new things or perfecting a skill they already had.”

“I guess.” I wasn’t convinced. “Can I meet Charon?”

“Maybe later. He’s on the other side of the river right now. See his little boat? The new batch of souls should arrive with him soon.” She pointed to a speck bobbing on the Styx.

I peered closely at the River Styx. In the center was a small island of trees. I could just barely see a long wooden canoe-like boat gliding around the island.

“Anyway,” Cassandra continued, “there’s a few other rivers beyond the Styx, but you have no reason to visit them. If you go past the suburbs you’ll run into a river made of fire called the Phlegethon; that marks the boundary to Tartarus.”

“Sounds like a great place for a swim,” I muttered.

Cassandra laughed. “It’s not as bad as you’d think. There’s a fail-safe, so it doesn’t burn the souls on this side of the river. It actually feels pretty cool.” She paused, considering. “But then I am already dead. No telling what it would do to you. Anyway, you can go anywhere in the suburbs, the palace, and the gardens, but no matter where you are, stop when you get to water.” I almost wanted to object—who was Cassandra to tell me where I was allowed to go?—but I suppressed the feeling. Beyond the river of fire was Hell. Not a place I wanted to go sightseeing. I didn’t want to risk touching the Lethe, and if I recalled correctly, Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed monster dog, guarded the other side of the Styx. If Cassandra said an area was off limits, I didn’t intend to take any chances.

~@~

The Greek Underworld was very well mapped out. Given the number of living heroes that passed through (Odysseus, Aeneas, Hercules, Orpheus, ect) it should be. I made an effort to explain why the heroes could go back and forth by classifying demigods as inbetweeners. They can come and go, it’s why the heroes could visit the Underworld and why we have ghosts. It makes sense to me.

So upon entrance to the Underworld you find yourself on a dock of the Acheron/Cocytus river (it’s unclear which as one flows into the other, one is for sorrow the other for lament, which is sorrow). It’s made of tears of the dead, which makes it a saltwater river. Give Charon two coins (not required in my version) and hop a ferry to the River Styx (river of hate). There’s a marsh in the center of the Styx where the three headed dog Cerberus (still missing in my version) sorts out the souls and sends them either to the Asphodel fields, Tartarus, or Elysium.

Most souls end up in the Asphodel fields. The Titans and the very very very bad souls go to Tartarus. Tartarus is separated from the rest of the Underworld by a river of fire called the Phlegethon. Once upon a time Styx and Phlegethon were in love but were eternally separated. In the Underworld one flows to the other so they can always be together.

Elysium is paradise/heaven. In my version Olympus is located there as well. It’s separated from the rest of the Underworld by the River Lethe (river of forgetfulness). Souls would drink from this river and forget their lives.

Hades lives in a big castle with his judges and advisors. Outside of the castle is the Grove of Persephone, where sad trees live.

There are a few more rivers, but how many and what they are called varies myth to myth. If you add Dante’s Inferno in there there are quite a few circles of hell to add, but for my purposes I’m ignoring those. I had a lot of fun with the geography of the Underworld. It was fun to tweak the myths to fit the setting I needed for the story.

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4 thoughts on “Mythology Monday: The Underworld

  1. Pingback: Mythology Monday: Lethe | Kaitlin Bevis

  2. Pingback: Mythology Monday: Melinoe | Kaitlin Bevis

  3. Pingback: Mythology Monday: Chthonic Deities | Kaitlin Bevis

  4. Pingback: Mythology Monday: The Muses | Kaitlin Bevis

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