Ye Gods! #1: Death Gods

Ancient myths are pretty much the original fantasy stories—or it might be more correct to say that modern fantasy is simply the latest packaging of the myth. Most major works of fantasy use at least the character archetypes and plot structures established in myths, with some even referencing specific names or events. A fantasy writer who doesn’t know their myths is kind of like a Christian who’s never read the Bible. You can get the gist, you can even do it mostly right, but there’s wisdom in the details you can’t come across any other way.

For this series, I want to take a cross-mythology look at how common concepts are represented, focusing on the four that have had the most direct impact on modern fantasy: Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Norse.

And what better place to start than with the happiest of all topics: death.

Death gods have a unique place in most mythologies. They’re often an important member of the pantheon, but the extent to which they’re portrayed in myth and art depended more on how the culture viewed death than the figure’s importance. There is often also a distinction made between gods that rule the underworld and those that represent death as a concept.

Greek/Roman death gods: Hades/Pluto, Thanatos/Mors, and the Keres

b6cb0a0d7613962a39c59bfff79418feHades
In Greek myths, the primary role of Hades was to guard the underworld, making sure that the dead never left and the living never entered. His rare depictions in Greek myths typically are in attempts to retrieve the dead; Hades takes the role of antagonist, placing trials in the hero’s path.

Hades was given control of the underworld after the defeat of the Titans. He drew lots with his brothers. Zeus picked the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the land of the dead. He rarely ventured above-ground; when he did, he often wore a Helm of Darkness which allowed him to remain invisible to mortals.

Family Tree: Oldest son of Titans Cronus and Rhea. His wife is Persephone (Proserpina in Roman), a goddess of fertility and harvest.

Depiction:  Hades is rarely depicted in early Greek myths and art. He was given lots of epithets to avoid speaking his name like “The Unseen One” or “Agesilaos” (from the Greek ago, meaning carry or fetch). Though feared, he’s not thought to be evil, and is seen as practical and fair in his treatment of the dead. He is also a passive god, unlikely to interact with mortals unless they dared enter his domain.

As a chthonic god, Hades also had positive associations as the ground that nurtures seeds and leads to a bountiful harvest. In later Greek myths, this aspect of Hades is emphasized more and he was given the epithet “Plouton,” meaning wealth. It was this version of Hades that was transmuted into the Roman god Pluto.

Hades can alternately be depicted as young or old. He frequently has a dark beard and sits on an ebony throne, and is easiest to identify when he has Cerberus at his side (the 3-headed dog who guards the River Styx). Also sometimes holds a 2-pronged staff, called a bident, that’s suspiciously similar to the pitchfork often carried by the Christian Devil.

n12-1thanatosThanatos
Where Hades is the guard of the underworld, Thanatos (Roman Mors) is the personification of death. A minor deity, referred to occasionally, depicted rarely. His main duty is to guide dead souls to the underworld. It’s sometimes specified that he guides the souls of those who died peaceful deaths while the Keres guide souls killed in combat (more on them later).

Family Tree: Most often the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Chaos or Darkness). He is the twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep), and his other siblings include Charon (the boatman over the Rivers Styx), Eris (strife), and Nemesis (retribution).

Depiction: Thanatos is depicted in a consistently more negative light than Hades. He’s merciless and hateful toward both mortals and other gods. Views toward him did soften over time as he became more associated with peaceful death. He’s also not the sharpest in the pantheon; when he’s involved in myths, it’s almost always because a hero has tricked him. Sisyphus tricks him and chains him to a pillar, eliminating death for a short span until Ares comes to free him, frustrated that no one’s dying in battle. Heracles overpowers Thanatos at one point, too, and without the brutal consequences that ultimately befall Sisyphus.

Considering all that, it’s a bit surprising that when Thanatos is depicted it’s almost always as a child, sometimes with wings like a cherub, sometimes holding a butterfly (this makes sense in Greek: the same word is used for “butterfly” and “soul”). When he’s an adult, it’s usually alongside his twin brother Hypnos, like in the painting above.

The Fates and the Keres
The Keres are female spirits said to be the daughters of Nyx. Their description from Shield of Heracles is “Black Dooms gnashing their white teeth, grim-eyed, fierce, bloody, terrifying…As soon as they caught a man who had fallen or one newly wounded, one of them clasped her great claws around him and his soul went down to Hades.”

The Fates, or Morai, also had some dominion over death. These three sisters wove the cloth of time, and even the gods were beholden to their decisions. Clotho spun the thread; Lachesis measured the length; and Atropos cut the thread with her “abhorred shears.” She was believed to be the one who determined when and how mortals would die, and was therefore even more feared in some circles than Hades himself. Atropos was also known as the inflexible or the inevitable; unlike other Greek death gods, no one was ever depicted as escape the Morai.

Ereshkigal: The Babylonian queen of the underworld

British_Museum_Queen_of_the_Night.jpgEreshkigal was the ruler of Irkalla (the Babylonian/Sumerian land of the dead) and fits the archetype of the Crone Goddess—powerful, ancient, often jealous of others’ beauty and youth. She  was the only one with the power to pass judgment or make laws in Irkalla, though there were many gods in the Sumerian pantheon who controlled aspects of the world that typically brought mortal deaths (plagues, war, famine, etc).

Family tree: Daughter of Nammu and Na, and sister to Ishtar (fertility, love, war). She has many children, among them Namtar (a messenger deity whose father is Enlil, god of wind) and Ninazu (god of healing, fathered by Gugalana, the Bull of Heaven).

Her husband to her husband, Nergal, varies depending on the telling. In some, he is banished to the underworld after insulting Ereshkigar (or her son, Namtar) and their relationship is one of Master and servant—or he is banished there and then conquers it, taking control of the underworld and making Ereshkigar his wife. In some, Ereshkigal’s rule of Irkalla is eliminated completely; it is Nergal who’s given rule of the underworld by Enlil, and Ereshkigar is his servant.

Depiction: Ereshkigar is associated with lions and owls; interestingly, Nergal is often depicted as having a lion’s head, which has suggested to some that they’re both aspects of the same god. Associated with lapis lazuli. Usually has dark hair, and though her age can vary she’s often depicted as a crone sitting on a throne.

Mesopotamian mythologies were not nearly as hesitant to utilize their death gods as the Greeks. Ereshkigal is a main player in several myths. The best-known is probably “The Descent of Ishtar,” a variation on the underworld journey narrative.

Egyptian death gods: Anubis, Osiris and Nephthys

anubis_balanceAnubis
Like Hades, Anubis was important to the Egyptian pantheon but rarely featured in their myths, though unlike Hades he features prominently in visual art, especially tomb decorations. Anubis performed all of the tasks associated with death. He was an embalmer and a protector of the graves; he also weighs dead souls to determine their fitness for the afterlife. In early accounts, he is also the lord of the underworld, though this position is usurped eventually by Osiris.

Family tree: His origin is somewhat shrouded, alternately the son of Ra (sun) and Nephthys, Ra and Hesat, or Osiris and Nepthys. Has a wife, Anput, who is the goddess of funerals, and a daughter, the serpent goddess Kebechet.

Depiction: Most often as a man with a jackal’s head, which is a pretty clear identifier, though you may also see him with scales or holding a flail, called a nekhakha. He usually wears black, though not for the reasons you might expect; black in Egyptian culture was a color of fertility and rebirth, and also likely represented the color of mumified skin.

osiris-tomb-of-nefertariOsiris
It was during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom that Osiris seems to have replaced Anubis as lord of the underworld. Before that, he was the god of resurrection, revered more than feared and as a chthonic god responsible also for the cycle of flooding and growth in the Nile valley.

Family tree: Oldest son of Geb, the earth god; alternatively, the son of Ra and Nut (the sky). Osiris has many siblings but the most notable are his brother Set and his sister/wife, Isis, with whom he has a son, Horus.

Depiction: In art, Osiris is often shown as a green-skinned man with a pharoah’s beard and clothing. The details of his depiction can vary—sometimes he’s a mortal king, other times king of the gods—but the overall story arc is the same. His brother, Set, is jealous of his throne, and kills Osiris, chopping his body into small pieces and scattering it across the earth. Isis gathers up the pieces of Osiris’ body and uses a spell to bring him back to life long enough to get her pregnant with her son, Horus. When he dies a second time, the other gods place him in charge of the underworld.

Nephthys
Like the Greeks, the Egyptians had a separate goddess to represent the experience of death. Nephthys is a protection goddess who plays foil to her sister, Isis, representing the death experience while Isis is the birth experience. She also oversees funeral rites to some extent, a role she shares with Anubis.

Family tree: Sister of Isis and wife of Set, as well as the mother of Anubis and the “nursing mother” of Horus.

Depiction: Usually a woman with falcon wings. She’s associated with the kite (Egyptian hawk). The general attitude toward her seems to be one of resigned acceptance. Death is a necessary step of the resurrection cycle and this is the light in which Nephthys is shown. Even though she’s married to Set, who serves as the villain of Osiris’ myth story, she works on her sister’s side, helping Isis to gather up the pieces of Osiris, rather than being shown as allied with her husband.

Norse death gods: Hel and the Valkyries
There are three Norse underworlds: Valhalla, Folkvangr, and Hel. Which a soul is sent to depends on its manner of death. Those that die in battle go to either Valhalla (the great hall overseen by Odin) or Folkvangr (a meadow ruled by Freya). Neither Odin nor Freya is a strictly death deity, however, in the sense of the underworld being their primary concern. Hel is the most apt equivalent to a lord of the underworld, while the Valkyries serve as one representation of the death experience itself.

Valkyries
The vaklyries choose who dies in battle and guide the souls to either Valhalla or Folkvangr. There’s an interesting similarity between their name and the Greek Keres discussed above, who had a similar purpose, though there doesn’t appear to be any shared etymology.

The extent to which the Vaklyries determine a person’s fate changes depending on the telling. In some myths they are simply psychopomps, or guides, transporting the slain to their correct realm at Odin’s behest. In other tellings they are more sinister, and use an array of magic spells to influence who lives and who dies.

Family tree: Both Odin and Freya have connections to the valkyries, though their exact origin is unclear. Sometimes they’re portrayed as simply parts of Odin projected into their own forms; otherwise no lineage is given.

Depiction: Depending on the text, they can be terrifying, demonic creatures or beautiful warrior women. They appear widely in the mythologies, coming into action any time someone slain in battle required transportation to the afterlife.

indexHel
While those who die in battle go to Valhalla or Folkvangr, those who die peacefully go to Hel, an underworld said to exist under one of the roots of Yggdrasil (the tree of life). Hel is generally described as a large hall like Valhalla. While the path to reach it is fraught with the usual perils, the Norse Hel is not the fiery pit of a similar name from Christian mythology. It is in fact described as existing in Niflheim (the land of ice as cold) rather than Muspelheim (the land of fire). The goddess Hel only receives the dead sent to her realm, rather than judging whether or not they can gain entrance.

Family tree: Daughter of Loki and Angrbooa (a female giant). Hel also has two siblings, Fenrir (a giant wolf) and Jormungandr (a sea monster).

Depiction: Given their parentage, Hel and her siblings were expected to cause a lot of trouble. Odin made the pre-emptive decision to banish each of them to somewhere they couldn’t do much damage. Jormungandr was cast into the great ocean around Midgard, Fenrir was bound, and Hel was sent to Niflheim, where Odin charged her with providing homes to the souls sent her way.

Hel’s appearance follows the crone archetype. She’s occasionally referred to as an ogre or a troll and is often decrepit or somehow malformed. Her skin is usually half blue and half flesh-colored. She’s often shown sitting on a throne or with her guard dog, Garmr.

The Big Picture

  • The way death gods are portrayed is a direct reflection of the society’s views about the afterlife. The Greeks feared Hades more than the Egyptians feared Anubis, or than the Vikings feared the valkyries. Regardless, though, few ancient underworlds are the terrifying realms of punishment seen in Christian Hell.
  • Many death gods did not come to this task willingly, but were either assigned the role (Hades) or sent to the underworld because of death or banishment (Hel, Osiris). The same is true of the death god’s spouse (Persephone, Nergal).
  • When it’s a death goddess, she’s almost invariably depicted as a crone archetype; regardless of gender, they tend to be relatively passive figures, even when they’re important figures in the pantheon. Even in the case of Osiris, things happen to him more than he’s the cause of events.
  • Most ancient pantheons make a distinction between the ruler of the underworld and the personification of death. The ruler of the underworld tends to be the one who judges souls and guards the dead, though both may guide newly departed souls. If a distinction between realms is made based on the manner of death, it’s typically between combat deaths and peaceful deaths.
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