Designing from Bones ~ Underworld

by PicadillyWilson via Flickr CC

It lies not in darkness, but in shadow. It breathes the air escaping your lips, drawing it into empty lungs. It feels the pulse of your blood. Your heart. Yet – it has none of these things, but longs to partake of them. It clings to the back of your skull like a film of mist. Hiding in the place you can never quite seem to see. Its longing, shadows the rhythm of life with a pulsating desire. And it is getting closer. Testing. Stretching. Pressing dried sinew against the veil that separates life from death.  And soon. It will long no more. (Quote: Gene Lempp)


There are as many beliefs about the afterlife as there are cultures and religious understandings. Most of these beliefs differ greatly in their nuances, while agreeing on broad issues.

  • The ancient Babylonians called the Realm of the Dead, Irkalla. The dead would pass through seven gates that slowly stripped them of all they had, leaving them to rot in silence at the final destination.
  • The Chapel of the Skulls via CC

    The Greeks took a more active view and saw divisions or realms of the Underworld with the final resting place of the dead based on how one had lived their life; with virtue or deceit.

  • The Aztecs called it Mictlan, a four year journey through crashing mountains and other obstacles necessary to obtain a peaceful final rest. But at least they provided guides for the journey.

Three very different interpretations of the afterlife (and others vary just as much) but all have a few basic things in common. All, or almost all, believe:

  • That the Dead at least temporarily pass on to another realm of existence where they continue to exist out of sight. The “realm” may be honeycombed through the mantle of Earth or a  metaphysical location – but they are all “somewhere.”
  • What if the spirits of those the Terra Cotta Warriors depict were to return and possess the statues to once again walk among mortals? Photo: CC

    That this realm can be contacted by living beings or communicate with living beings through one or more methods. However, methods vary wildly, from ritualistic to only on certain days or moons, to mediums and seances.

  • That our ancestors impact our daily lives in an active manner. Once again, methods and messages vary from direct kibitzing to visions, signs and portents.
  • That there are other beings than the dead, in the Underworld. Gods, demons, spirits and more – but malicious denizens far outweigh the benevolent ones when all myths are weighed on the scale of good and evil.

It is in both the commonality and the variance that we can find elements to create a fictional Spirit World of our own. Think of the Spirit World as a house. What is the address? In a cave somewhere? Floating in a metaphysical plane above Earth? Skin-close but out-of-touch like the caress of an unseen spider web?

Now put on doors and windows. How does one enter, or leave, the Realm of the Dead? How can the living enter it and how can the dead return to life from it? How can this place be contacted? By letter? By phone? By yelling from the street out front? Live chat?

How does what lives in the house impact those outside? Can it move through their neighborhoods and lives as a physical presence or is it an internal guidance that can only advise. Some have viewed the afterlife as an echo of a former life that follows a person when they are reborn or which clings to a newborn soul, such as Roz Morris and others have done.

Which brings us to the meaty topic of: Who or what lives in the Spirit World?

Demons are one of many denizens of the Underworld. “Demon” by Simon David Hutchinson, CC

If you think ALL of the dead live there, most myths would disagree. Many of the dead choose to leave the Underworld by drinking waters of forgetfulness, passing beyond a special river, mountain or chasm – vanishing forever from all realms connected to ours. But some of the dead, either because they long to live again or because of extreme valor or wickedness choose (or are forced) to remain in this place. For some this acts as a prison sentence, such as Purgatory, for others it is the receipt of eternal reward in bliss.

There are heroes that fight for the living in the land of the dead. And there are evils that ensnare the living to feed upon their life force.

And yet this, is just the dead humans. Most Realms of the Dead are ruled over by one or more deities, that in turn are served by varying forms of demons able to spread plague and famine and a host of other destructive powers, thus ensuring a steady flow of new souls. Hell is a well-oiled machine.

The misfit children of the gods were often cast into the Underworld to torture the dead –  hatred for their divine parents seething within their misanthropic bodies. There are ghosts that linger, spirits that move, and a few spirits that are made up of the fears and emotions of the dying, collecting the energy of suffering like dust to a Swiffer.

Then there is the “ancestral presence,” a belief that those who have passed beyond work to influence those that yet live. This concept has always interested me, for are we not eternally linked to the actions of our predecessors? Living in a world of cumulative design, will we in turn impact existence and pass on our own ancestral presence to coming generations? Deep, I know. But I leave the thought for your consideration.

As we saw with the Faerie or Otherworld last week, the Underworld, if fully combined, would fill most of our galaxy. And may well do so.

At the core of all these beliefs is a single thought and concept. That Life. Death. And, that which is beyond life are all connected by a single strand, the World Tree ideal, be it a diety, an object or a Messiah – which when one considers it, is the life of each and every one of us.

We are born and live. We aspire to be greater. We die and pass beyond.

“The Wizard” by Sean McGrath via WikiCommons CC

Have you heard any interesting tales of the Underworld? Have a thought on the afterlife you’d like to share? If you had a chance to rule the Underworld, what rules would you put in place to govern it? I’d love to chat with you!

Join me next week when we dig into the life of one of histories greatest wizards and force his secrets into the light. Until then…

Peaceful Journeys.

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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9 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Underworld

  1. K.B. Owen says:

    The Rick Riordan books have quite a lot of underworld and “misfit children” in them. Thanks so much for the post, Gene! Cool as ever. 😉

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Kathy: Cool I will have to take a look at his work. Thanks 🙂

      Jess: You and I have similarly dark tastes I think (grins). Yes, everything on DfB runs alongside my writing projects (not just NaNo). Thanks 🙂

      Marcia: I was wondering if I’d get someone versed in Catholicism to pop in. Yep, the Catholics have one of the more complex modern systems for explaining the Underworld (the “new” one where below and above are technically one symbiotic unit). Love the idea of getting to haunt our kids, beyond the “little voice of mom/dad” they will forever carry in their heads. Thanks, Marcia 🙂

      Reetta: I did a post that included Ammit and this particular myth. You can find it here: (it’s from July of 2011, one of my earliest posts and chance to see how my writing skills have progressed). The older the myth the more I love it – the reason – in their inception most had to do with major events or the need for a major social change/training. It is easiest to locate the original reason for the myth by finding the earliest version of it. When I was researching this post, I did run into Tuonela, but will have to give it a deeper look – the maahinen sound interesting. Thanks, Reetta 🙂

      Jane: LOL! Indeed. Thanks 🙂

  2. Jess Witkins says:

    You know I love reading about the underworld. So many theories and beliefs about the afterlife. Are you using some of this in your NaNo project? Cool stuff, Mr. Lempp!

  3. I love this stuff! It always fascinated me that as conservative the Catholic religion is in its moral attitudes, it holds with beliefs such as those you mention. Theirs particularly being Limbo, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell. Personally, I do believe in the afterlife and that ancestors can remain to advise/comfort/annoy the living. Death might not be so bad if we can haunt our kids! 🙂
    In the midst of those beliefs, you throw in a modern analogy, “like dust to a Swiffer” ! I laughed out loud at that one! Another awesome post, Gene!

  4. It’s fascinating what the diffeferent cultures believed happened to us after death. One of my favourites is the Ancient Egyptian story of Weighting of the Heart. They believed that one of the person’s many souls resided in the heart. So Anubis (God of Death) placed the deceased person’s heart on a scale with the feather of Maat (Goddess of Justice) at the other end. If he was evil and the heart weighted more than the feather, a crocodile monster Ammit consumed the heart.
    Our shadow and name were also pieces of our soul according to the Egyptians. That’s why it was really important to them, that the person’s name is remembered through the ages. As long as the name exists in some form (like written down on a slab of stone), a part of the person exists too.

    The Finnish Underworld was called Tuonela or Manala, and it was located under the ground or in far north, and separated from the living by a dark river. There were some myths connecting it to the land of the fairies (maahinen, creatures of earth). The shamans could journey to Tuonela in trance to get answers and wisdom from the dead ancestors and spirits.

  5. Jane Sadek says:

    Oh the roads your imagination can lead to!

  6. angelapeart says:

    Another Catholic here 🙂 Yes, the concept of the Underworld is highly explored in our religion but, personally, I find the Greek beliefs more entertaining. The five rivers of Hades and the great pit of Tartarus alone are the endless source of inspiration for a fertile imagination of fantasy and paranormal genre writer 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Angela: Right with you on the Greek Underworld. I think only the Norse come close to them in confused complexity. The Greeks had adaptable mythology and it often contradicted itself from generation to generation without apology, yet remained a cohesive concept throughout its history. A fertile and flexible source for stories without a doubt. Thanks 🙂

  7. Pingback: Mind Sieve 11/12/12 « Gloria Oliver

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