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Who’s Who in the Underworld

The Underworld. The Afterlife. The Otherworld. It’s got lots of names, and in TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD it has denizens from a lot of cultures. Why should any one culture have a monopoly on death?

I made up the Other Land and the Lady who governs it. The other deities Conor meets there have some basis in tradition, although I took tremendous liberties with some of them. (Hope they’re not mad. Kisin, in particular, seems like he could become inconvenient when angry.)

Anyway, here’s a glimpse at their real stories, in the order in which they’re introduced to Conor:

Oya is a goddess of the Yoruba people of the Niger River, also worshipped in the Caribbean and coastal South America. She is associated with the wind, creating hurricanes and tornadoes and generally wreaking havoc. As a spirit of change and transition, she enjoys hanging out in the marketplace and the gates of cemeteries. She’s sometimes seen as guarding the entrance to the Underworld or easing the passage from life to death.

Charon (pronounced Kha-ron) is an important Underworld figure for the Greeks.  The soul of a dead person traveling to Hades (the Underworld) must pass over a boundary river—sometimes the River Styx, sometimes the Acheron, sometimes both.  Charon ferries souls over the water, in exchange for a coin that’s been placed on or in a dead person’s mouth before a proper burial.


Nergal, the Babylonian Lord of the Dead

The Cailleach (pronounced Kai-lyu’gh with a guttural sound at the end) is a Scottish and Irish nature goddess, sometimes called the Blue Hag of Winter. She is the spirit of her season, touching leaves with her staff to make them fall off the tree and roaming the hills freezing things. For that reason, she’s sometimes associated with death in general, although she also loves and protects deer. She turns into a boulder when spring arrives.

I matched the Cailleach with Dormath, a Celtic hound said to guard the gates of Death.  She seemed like she could use a friend.

Nergal is a Babylonian solar deity, also a god of war and pestilence as well as the ruler of the netherworld. In some legends, he won his post by marrying Ereshkigal, the queen of the dead. He’s often depicted with the hindquarters of a lion, or at least carrying a mace or scimitar topped with the head of a lion.

I fooled around with tradition in creating my version. For one thing, I made him a nice guy.


Anubis, an Egyptian death deity

The Birds: The three ravens Conor meets in the Other Land are my own invention, but there’s a bit of background. The raven or crow is often a harbinger of death, and the appearance of three of them on a Celtic battlefield could indicate the arrival of the Morrighan, a warrior goddess.

Anubis appears in Egyptian art with the head of either a jackal or a dog. He’s responsible for weighing the hearts of the dead to determine their worthiness to enter the Afterlife.  He also ushers the dead to judgment and pleads on their behalf, protecting them from Ammit, the Devourer of Souls.

Kisin is a Mayan god confined to the underworld, where he burns the souls of some evildoers and turns others into domestic animals. (Explains the cat scratching up the furniture, doesn’t it?) In his anger at his imprisonment, he kicks the pillars of the earth, causing earthquakes. He’s portrayed as an extremely stinky skeleton. The word “kis” supposedly means “flatulence” or  “stench.”

Maya is the premier female goddess in Latvian traditions, concerned with women’s duties, childbirth, and economic activities. She’s also the deity who takes the body after death. (The god Dievs takes the soul.) She’s associated with black hens, which are her favorite gift—although she won’t say no to barley beer and rye bread. (Who would?)