Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The boundary between Earth and the Underworld

Posted by Fredsvenn on August 29, 2014

In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp (from the Greek word psuchopompos, literally meaning the “guide of souls”) is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms. It is symbolically personified in dreams as a wise man or woman, or sometimes as a helpful animal. In many cultures, the shaman also fulfills the role of the psychopomp.

This may include not only accompanying the soul of the dead, but also vice versa: to help at birth, to introduce the newborn child’s soul to the world. This also accounts for the contemporary title of “midwife to the dying”, or “End of Life Doula” which is another form of psychopomp work.

Psychopomps are creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply provide safe passage.

Frequently depicted on funerary art, psychopomps have been associated at different times and in different cultures with horses, whip-poor-wills, ravens, dogs, crows, owls, sparrows, cuckoos, and harts.

Classical examples of a psychopomp are Charon or Kharon, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx (meaning “Hate, Detest”), a river in Greek mythology that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld (often called Hades which is also the name of this domain’s ruler), or Acheron, a river located in the Epirus region of northwest Greece that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead, Hermes and Mercury.

Styx was also the name of the daughter of Oceanus, a pseudo-geographical feature in classical antiquity, believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the World Ocean, an enormous river encircling the world, and Tethys, an archaic Titaness and aquatic sea goddess and daughter of Uranus (meaning “sky” or “heaven”) and Gaia (“land” or “earth”; also Gaea, or Ge), and goddess of the River Styx itself.

She was wife to Pallas and bore him Zelus, Nike, Kratos and Bia (and sometimes Eos). Styx supported Zeus in the Titanomachy where she was the first to rush to his aid. For this reason her name was given the honor of being a binding oath for the gods.

The gods were bound by the Styx and swore oaths on it. The reason for this is during the Titan war, Styx, the goddess of the river Styx, sided with Zeus. After the war, Zeus promised every oath be sworn upon her.

Zeus swore to give Semele whatever she wanted and was then obliged to follow through when he realized to his horror that her request would lead to her death. Helios similarly promised his son Phaëton whatever he desired, also resulting in the boy’s death.

According to some versions, Styx had miraculous powers and could make someone invulnerable. According to one tradition, Achilles was dipped in it in his childhood, acquiring invulnerability, with exception of his heel, by which his mother held him. This is the source of the expression Achilles’ heel, a metaphor for a vulnerable spot.

The rivers Styx, Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, and Cocytus all converge at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which is also sometimes called the Styx, primarily a feature in the afterworld of Greek mythology, and similar to the Christian area of Hell in texts such as The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.

Phlegyas, son of Ares and Chryse or Dotis, was king of the Lapiths in Greek mythology. He was the father of Ixion and Coronis, one of Apollo’s lovers. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis fell in love with Ischys, son of Elatus. When a crow informed Apollo of the affair, he sent his sister Artemis to kill Coronis. Apollo rescued the baby though and gave it to the centaur Chiron to raise. Phlegyas was irate and torched the Apollonian temple at Delphi, causing Apollo to kill him.

In the Aeneid of Virgil, Phlegyas is shown tormented in the Underworld, warning others not to despise the Gods. In the Thebaid of Statius, Phlegyas is entombed in a rock by Megaera (one of the Furies) and starves in front of an eternal feast.

In the Divine Comedy poem Inferno, Phlegyas ferries Virgil and Dante across the river Styx, which is portrayed as a marsh where the wrathful and sullen lie. Phlegyas was the mythical ancestor of the Phlegyans.

The ferryman Charon is believed to have transported the souls of the newly dead across this river into the underworld, though in the original Greek and Roman sources, as well as in Dante, it was the river Acheron that Charon plied.

Dante put Phlegyas over the Styx and made it the fifth circle of Hell, where the wrathful and sullen are punished by being drowned in the muddy waters for eternity, with the wrathful fighting each other.

In the catabasis mytheme, heroes – such as Heracles, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante, Dionysus and Psyche – journey to the underworld and return, still alive, conveyed by the boat of Charon.

The Sanzu River (Sanzu-no-kawa), or River of Three Crossings, popularly believed to be located in Mount Osore, a suitably desolate and remote region of northern Japan, is a Japanese Buddhist tradition and religious belief similar to the River Styx. It is believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead must cross the river, which is why a Japanese funeral includes placing six coins in the deceased’s casket.

Rasa (rásā) means “moisture, humidity” in Vedic Sanskrit, and appears as the name of a western tributary of the Indus in the Rigveda (verse 5.53.9). In RV 9.41.6, RV 10.108 and in the Nirukta of Yaska, it is the name of a mythical stream supposed to flow round the earth and the atmosphere, as with Oceanus, also referring to the underworld in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, as with Styx.

The corresponding term in Avestan is Ranha. In the Vendidad, Ranha is mentioned just after Hapta-Həṇdu, and may possibly refer to the ocean (Sethna 1992). Rivers, such as the Sapta Sindhu (“seven rivers”), play a prominent part in the hymns of the Rigveda, and consequently in early Vedic religion. It may have been derived from an older Proto-Indo-Iranian hydronym, as a cognate name, hapta həndu, exists in the Avestan language.

A recurring theme in the yajur veda is that of Indra slaying Vritra (literally “the obstacle”), liberating the rivers; in a variant of the myth, Indra smashes the Vala cave, releasing the cows that were within. The two myths are separate however, rivers and cows are often poetically correlated in the Rigveda, for example in 3.33, a notable hymn describing the crossing of two swollen rivers by the chariots and wagons of the Bharata tribe, 3.33.1cd Like two bright mother cows who lick their youngling, Vipas and Sutudri speed down their waters.

Vaitarna or Vaitarani (defined as Vai, meaning truly, and tarini, meaning saving) river, as mentioned in the Garuda Purana and various other Hindu religious texts, lies between the earth and the infernal Naraka, the realm of Yama, Hindu god of death, and is believed to purify one’s sins.

Furthermore, while the righteous see it filled with nectar-like water, the sinful see it filled with blood. Sinful souls are supposed to cross this river after death. According to the Garuda Purana, this river falls on the path leading to the Southern Gate of the city of Yama. It is also mentioned that only the sinful souls come via the southern gate.

However, other texts like the Harihareshwara Mahatmya in the Skanda Purana mention a physical river as well, that joins in the eastern ocean; he who bathes in it is supposed to forever be free from the torment of Yama.

It is equivalent to the Styx river in Greek mythology and is associated with the Vaitarani Vrata, a religious practice to carry out certain obligations with a view to achieve divine blessing for fulfillment of one or several desires, observed on the eleventh day of the dark phase of the moon i.e, Krishna Paksha of Margashirsha in the Hindu calendar, wherein a cow is worshiped and donated, which is believed to take one across the dreaded river as mentioned in the Garuda Purana, verses 77-82.

Etymologically, vrata, a Sanskrit word, means to vow or to promise. Derived from the verbal root ‘vrn’ (‘to choose’), it signifies a set of rules and discipline. Hence ‘Vrata’ means performance of any ritual voluntarily over a particular period of time.

The purpose is to propitiate a deity and secure from it what the vrati, the performer wants. This whole process, however, should be undertaken with a sankalpa or religious resolve, on an auspicious day and time fixed as per the dictates of the Hindu religious almanacs called panjika.

Vratas – self-control – form the core of the practices of Jainism. Sādhus and sādhvīs (monastics) follow the five mahavratas “great vratas” while śrāvakas and śrāvikās (layfolk) follow the five anuvratas “minuscule vratas”. There are also several common fasts which are also termed vratas.

A vrata may consist of one or more of several actions. Such actions may include complete or partial fasting on certain specific days; a pilgrimage or tirtha to a particular place or places; a visit, darśana, pujas and homas and recitation of mantras and prayers.

According to Hindu texts, vratas assist the practitioner to achieve and fulfill their goals as they bring divine grace and blessings. Sometimes, close relatives or family purohits may be entrusted with the obligation of performing the vrata on behalf of another person.

The object of performing vrata is as varied as the human desire, and may include gaining back lost health and wealth, begetting offspring, divine help and assistance during difficult period in one’s life. In Ancient India, vratas played a significant role in the life of individuals, and it continues to be practiced in modern times as well by a number of Hindus.

In ancient times some believed that placing a coin, usually an obolus or danake, in or on the mouth of the deceased would help pay the toll for the ferry to help cross the Acheron River which would lead one to the entrance of the underworld. If someone could not pay the fee, or those whose bodies were left unburied, it was said that they would never be able to cross the river or have to wander the shores for one hundred years. This ritual was performed by the relatives.

The variant spelling Stix was sometimes used in translations of Classical Greek before the 20th century. By metonymy, the adjective stygian came to refer to anything dark, dismal, and murky.

The name Charon is most often explained as a proper noun from charon, a poetic form of charopós, “of keen gaze”, referring either to fierce, flashing, or feverish eyes, or to eyes of a bluish-gray color. The word may be a euphemism for death.

Flashing eyes may indicate the anger or irascibility of Charon as he is often characterized in literature, but the etymology is not certain. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus thought that the ferryman and his name had been imported from Egypt.

Charon is depicted frequently in the art of ancient Greece. Attic funerary vases of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. are often decorated with scenes of the dead boarding Charon’s boat. On the earlier such vases, he looks like a rough, unkempt Athenian seaman dressed in reddish-brown, holding his ferryman’s pole in his right hand and using his left hand to receive the deceased. Hermes sometimes stands by in his role as psychopomp. On later vases, Charon is given a more “kindly and refined” demeanor.

Most accounts, including Pausanias (10.28) and later Dante’s Inferno (3.78), associate Charon with the swamps of the river Acheron. Ancient Greek literary sources – such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, and Callimachus – also place Charon on the Acheron.

Roman poets, including Propertius, Ovid, and Statius, name the river as the Styx, perhaps following the geography of Virgil’s underworld in the Aeneid, where Charon is associated with both rivers.

He is the son of Nyx and Erebus (“deep darkness, shadow”). Nyx and Erebus were brother and sister.

Erebus was often conceived as a primordial deity, representing the personification of darkness; for instance, Hesiod’s Theogony identifies him as one of the first five beings in existence, born of Chaos.

Erebus features little in Greek mythological tradition and literature, but is said to have fathered several other deities with Nyx; depending on the source of the mythology, this union includes Aether, Hemera, the Hesperides, Hypnos, the Moirai, Geras, Styx, Charon, and Thanatos.

In Greek literature the name Erebus is also used of a region of the Greek underworld where the dead pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

The perceived meaning of Erebus is “darkness”; the first recorded instance of it was “place of darkness between earth and Hades”. Semitic forms such as Hebrew ˤerev, ‘sunset, evening’, are sometimes cited as a source. However, an Indo-European origin for the name is possible from PIE *h1regʷ-es/os-, “darkness” (cf. Sanskrit rájas, Gothic riqis, Old Norse røkkr).

According to the Greek oral poet Hesiod’s Theogony, Erebus is the offspring of Chaos, and brother to Nyx: “From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus”, Hesiod, Theogony (120–125).

Nyx (“Night”) is the Greek goddess (or personification) of the night. A shadowy figure, Nyx stood at or near the beginning of creation, and was the mother of other personified deities such as Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death).

Her appearances are sparse in surviving mythology, but reveal her as a figure of such exceptional power and beauty, that she is feared by Zeus himself. She is found in the shadows of the world and only ever seen in glimpses.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Nyx is born of Chaos. With Erebus (Darkness), Nyx gives birth to Aether (Brightness) and Hemera (Day). Later, on her own, Nyx gives birth to Moros (Doom, Destiny), Ker (Fate, Destruction, Death), Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), the Oneiroi (Dreams), Momus (Blame), Oizys (Woe, Pain, Distress), the Hesperides (Evening, Sunset), the Moirai (Fates), the Keres, Nemesis (Indignation, Retribution), Apate (Deceit), Philotes (Friendship, Love), Geras (Old Age), and Eris (Strife).

Geras, the god of old age, was considered a virtue whereby the more gēras a man acquired, the more kleos (fame) and arete (excellence and courage) he was considered to have. Geras was depicted as a tiny shriveled-up old man. Gēras’s opposite was Hebe, the goddess of youth. His Roman equivalent was Senectus. He is known primarily from vase depictions that show him with the hero Heracles; the mythic story that inspired these depictions has been entirely lost.

In his description of Tartarus, Hesiod locates there the home of Nyx, and the homes of her children Hypnos and Thanatos. Hesiod says further that Hemera (Day), who is Nyx’s daughter, left Tartarus just as Nyx entered it; continuing cyclicly, when Hemera returned, Nyx left.

This mirrors the portrayal of Ratri (night) in the Rigveda, where she works in close cooperation, but also tension, with her sister Ushas (dawn).

Nyx took on an even more important role in several fragmentary poems attributed to Orpheus. In them, Nyx, rather than Chaos, is the first principle from which all creation emerges.

Nyx occupies a cave or adyton, in which she gives oracles. Cronus – who is chained within, asleep and drunk on honey – dreams and prophesies. Outside the cave, Adrasteia clashes cymbals and beats upon her tympanon, moving the entire universe in an ecstatic dance to the rhythm of Nyx’s chanting.

Phanes, the strange, monstrous, hermaphrodite Orphic demiurge, was the child or father of Nyx. Nyx is also the first principle in the opening chorus of Aristophanes’ The Birds, which may be Orphic in inspiration. Here she is also the mother of Eros.

Hubur (ḪU.BUR, Hu-bur) is a Sumerian term meaning “river”, “watercourse” or “netherworld”. A connection to Tiamat has been suggested with parallels to her description as “Ummu-Hubur”. Hubur is also referred to in the Enuma Elish as “mother sea Hubur, who fashions all things”.

The river Euphrates has been identified with Hubur as the source of fertility in Sumer. This Babylonian “river of creation” has been linked to the Hebrew “river of paradise”. Linda Foubister has suggested the river of creation was linked with the importance of rivers and rain in the Fertile Crescent and suggested it was related to the underworld as rivers resemble snakes.

Delitzch has suggested the similar Sumerian word Habur probably meant “mighty water source”, “source of fertility” or the like. This has suggested the meaning of Hubur to be “river of fertility in the underworld”.

Gunkel and Zimmern suggested resemblance in expressions and a possible connection between the Sumerian river and that found in later literary tradition in the Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) likely influencing imagery of the “River of Water of Life” in the Apocalypse (Revelation 22).

They also noted a connection between the “Water of Life” in the legend of Adapa and a myth translated by A.H. Sayce called “An address to the river of creation”. Samuel Eugene Balentine suggested that the “pit” (sahar) and “river” or “channel” (salah) in the Book of Job (Job 33:18) were referencing the Hubur.

In Sumerian cosmology, the souls of the dead had to travel across the desert or steppe, cross the Hubur River to the mountainland of Kur. Here the souls had to pass through seven different walled and gated locations to reach the netherworld. The Annanuki administrated Kur as if it were a civilized settlement both architecturally and politically.

Frans Wiggermann connected Hubur to the Habur or Khabur River, the largest perennial tributary of the Euphrates in Syrian territory and far away from the Sumerian heartland. There was also a town called Haburatum east of the Tigris.

Although the Khabur originates in Turkey, the karstic springs around Ra’s al-‘Ayn are the river’s main source of water. Several important wadis join the Khabur north of Al-Hasakah, together creating what is known as the Khabur Triangle, or Upper Khabur area.

From north to south, annual rainfall in the Khabur basin decreases from over 400 mm to less than 200 mm, making the river a vital water source for agriculture throughout history. The Khabur joins the Euphrates near the town of Busayrah.

Since the 1930s, numerous archaeological excavations and surveys have been carried out in the Khabur Valley, indicating that the region has been occupied since the Lower Palaeolithic period. Important sites that have been excavated include Tell Halaf, Tell Brak, Tell Leilan, Tell Mashnaqa, Tell Mozan and Tell Barri.

The Khabur River is sometimes identified with the Chebar, the setting of several important scenes of the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible, including the opening verse. Those who challenge the identification assert that the Khabur is too far north to be associated with the Chebar. Instead, their likely candidate is the Shatt el-Nil, a silted up canal toward the east of Babylon, which may be the ka-ba-ru waterway mentioned among the 5th century BCE Murushu archives from Nippur.

Wiggermann suggested that as the concept of the netherworld (as opposed to an underworld) in Sumerian cosmogeny lacked the modern concept of an accompanying divine ruler of a location underneath the earth, the geographical terminology suggested that it was located at the edges of the world and that its features derived in part from real geography before shifting to become a demonic fantasy world.

The river plays a certain role in Mesopotamian mythology and Assyro-Babylonian religion, associated with the Sumerian paradise and heroes and deities such as Gilgamesh, Enlil, Enki and Ninlil. The god Marduk was praised for restoration or saving individuals from death when he drew them out of the waters of the Hubur, a later reference to this theme is made in Psalm 18 (Psalms 18).

The Hubur was suggested to be between the twin peaks of Mount Mashu, as described in the Epic of Gilgamesh of Mesopotamian mythology, is a great cedar mountain to the east in front of the gates of the netherworld through which the hero-king Gilgamesh passes via a tunnel on his journey to Dilmun after leaving the Cedar Forest, a forest of ten thousand leagues span.

Masis is the Armenian name for the peak of Ararat, the plural ‘Masiq’ may refer to both peaks. The History of Armenia derives the name from a king Amasya, the great-grandson of the Armenian patriarch Hayk, who is said to have called the mountain Masis after himself.

The corresponding location in reality has been the topic of speculation, as no confirming evidence has been found. Jeffrey H. Tigay suggests that in the Sumerian version, through its association with the sun god Utu, “(t)he Cedar Mountain is implicitely located in the east, whereas in the Akkadian versions, Gilgamesh’s desitination (is) removed from the east” and “explicitly located in the north west, in or near Lebanon”.

One theory is that the only location suitable for being called a “cedar land” was the great forest covering Lebanon and western parts of Syria and, in consequence, “Mashu” is the whole of the parallel Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges, with the narrow gap between these mountains constituting the tunnel.

The word “Mashu” itself may translate as “two mountains”, from the Babylonian for twins. The “twins”, in Semitic mythology, were also often seen as two mountains, one at the eastern edge of the world (in the lower Zagros), the other at the western edge of the world (in the Taurus), and one of these seem to have had an Iranian location.

Siduri, the alewife, a wise female divinity associated with fermentation (specifically beer and wine), lived on the shore, associated with “the Waters of Death” that Gilgamesh had to cross to reach Utnapishtim, the far-away. Siduri’s name means “young woman” in Hurrian, and may be an epithet of Inanna.

In the earlier Old Babylonian version of the Epic, she attempts to dissuade Gilgamesh in his quest for immortality, urging him to be content with the simple pleasures of life. In the later Akkadian (also referred to as the “standard”) version of the Epic, Siduri’s role is somewhat less important.

It is left to the flood hero Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian precursor of Noah) to discuss issues of life and death. Siduri, nonetheless, has a long conversation with Gilgamesh, who boasts of his exploits and is forced to explain why his appearance is so haggard.

When he asks for help in finding Utnapishtim, Siduri explains the difficulties of the journey but directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman, who may be able to help him cross the subterranean ocean and the ominous “waters of death”.

Several scholars suggest direct borrowing of Siduri’s advice by the author of Ecclesiastes. The advice given by Siduri has been seen as the first expression of the concept of Carpe diem although some scholars see it urging Gilgamesh to abandon his mourning, “reversing the liminal rituals of mourning and returning to the normal and normative behaviors of Mesopotamian society.”

Siduri has been compared to the Odyssey’s Circe. Like Odysseus, Gilgamesh gets directions on how to reach his destination from a divine helper. In this case she is the goddess Siduri, who, like Circe, dwells by the sea at the ends of the earth.

Her home is also associated with the sun: Gilgamesh reaches Siduri’s house by passing through a tunnel underneath Mt. Mashu, the high mountain from which the sun comes into the sky. West argues that the similarity of Odysseus’s and Gilgamesh’s journeys to the edges of the earth are the result of the influence of the Gilgamesh epic upon the Odyssey.

The Sumerian myth of Enlil and Ninlil tells the tale of the leader of the gods, Enlil, being banished to the netherworld followed by his wife Ninlil. It mentions the river Hubur and its ferryman, SI.LU.IGI, described as a man, who crosses the river in a boat. Themes of this story are repeated later in the Epic of Gilgamesh where the ferryman is called Urshanabi, the Sumerian equivalent of Charon.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Urshanabi is a companion of Gilgamesh after Enkidu dies. They meet when Urshanabi is involved in the curious occupation of collecting an unintelligible type of “urnu-snakes” in the forest.

Urshanabi’s ferry is at first powered by unintelligible “stone things”, that are destroyed by Gilgamesh, who proceeds to power the boat with 500 wooden stakes he has to make to replace the “stone-things”.

He is banished from Kur by the immortal survivor of the flood Utnapishtim for no discernible reason, possibly for conveying Gilgamesh across the Hubur. They both ferry back to Uruk where they behold its splendour. In later Assyrian times, the ferryman became a monster called Hamar-tabal and may have influenced the later Charon of Greek Mythology.

In another story a four-handed, bird demon carries souls across to the city of the dead. Several Akkadian demons are also restrained by the river Hubur. The river is mentioned in the Inscription of Ilum-Ishar, written on bricks at Mari.

Nergal, god of the netherworld, is referred to as “king Hubur” in a list of Sumerian gods. The word is also used into the Assyrian empire where it was used as the name of the tenth month in a calendar dated to around 1100 BC. There was also a goddess called Haburitim mentioned in texts from the Third dynasty of Ur.


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