The underworld is perhaps the most important motif in mythology and literature – tied up with ideas about life, the afterlife, belief, culture, storytelling, and the psyche, it’s the setting of humanity’s reckoning with the ephemeral nature of mortality.
As writers, we can use the motif of the underworld in two aspects:
- The underworld as world of adventure
- The underworld as world of the dead
Why write the underworld?
- Create an internal or external site for the change your character undergoes, and the wisdom they extract from their experiences in the story.
- Explore your character’s unconscious, and how the archetypes of the collective unconscious manifest in their life.
- Explore your character’s reaction to the unknown in themselves or in the world.
- Explore your characters’ reaction to the nature of death, and to the idea of their own death.
- Explore your characters’ relationships with the dead (both those they knew in life, and those they did not).
- Create an “underground” “sub-culture” that resists or subverts the ways of the ordinary world.
- Create the home world of the antagonist.
- Remove the character from the home world in order to challenge and change them.
- Develop the rules, customs, and aims of your story culture; in particular, how their perception of death shapes their perception of life.
- Explore the boundaries of the upper world.
- Deepen your story world by portraying its inverted, mirror, or dark side.
- Tap into a rich literary tradition.
When to write the underworld?
- The underworld as world of adventure is usually entered soon after the character begins their engagement in the story. In the Hero’s Journey, this is in response to the Call to Adventure, when the character crosses the Threshold of Adventure and leaves the Ordinary World behind. The rest of the story takes place in this symbolic underworld, until the character crosses the Threshold once again and returns home.
- A literal descent into the underworld is likely to take place much later in the story. In the Odyssey, the voyage to the land of the dead happens in Book 11, almost halfway into the 24-book poem.
- A journey to the world of the dead is best undertaken when the character reaches a mental, emotional, or physical standstill in the story. Their work with the world of the living has progressed as far as it can, and in order to seek deeper truths, uncover secrets about themselves or their world, or achieve greater mastery, they need to overcome more difficult challenges.
- A journey to the world of the dead is the ultimate challenge a character can overcome, which is why those who succeed in returning are revered in myths around the world. You can prepare your character for the journey by having them first undergo adventures that take them to locations symbolic of the underworld.
- In the One Page Novel, the character enters the World of Adventure in the Quest, and emerges back into the Ordinary World in the Power (thus the two stages can be plotted as mirror opposites). However, a literal trip to the world of the dead might best be undertaken when the character is deeper in the underworld, particularly during the Shift and Defeat. The Shift suggests an overturning or inversion, and no location better symbolises a sense of loss and Defeat than the depths of Hell.
How to prepare for the Underworld?
- In order to be ready for the underworld as World of Adventure, the character must acknowledge and respond to the Call to Adventure. This may be either…
- An external motivator (something or someone else), or,
- An internal motivator (the character themselves),
and their response may be…
- Willing (they are convinced of the need to respond), or,
- Unwilling (they are forced to respond).
- In order to prepare to enter the underworld as World of the Dead, the character should be at a point in the story where…
- They have experience of previous symbolic descents to the underworld.
- They have tried their mental and physical powers and have achieved some success.
- They have a very strong motivation for undertaking the journey, and this motivation manifests both internally and externally.
- Additionally, the character may prepare in the same way they would when entering any dangerous situation. They may…
- Pack essentials such as food, drink, clothes, shelter, power supplies, etc.
- Bring protection such as bodyguards, talismans, or powerful creatures.
- Leave instructions behind with a trusted companion as to what should be done if they haven’t returned by a set date, as Inanna does in Sumerian myth.
- Complete a mini quest to win or collect a protective item, as Aeneas, who was told to obtain the golden bough.
- Settle their affairs, such as their duties to their people, or their responsibilities to their dependants.
- Say goodbye to loved ones.
What to do in the Underworld?
The character’s task(s) in the underworld may be to:
- Try to bring a loved one back to the world of the living.
- Commune with a loved one or a stranger who has died in order to:
- Seek consolation.
- Discover arcane or forbidden knowledge.
- Learn a secret about themselves.
- Parlay or plead with the gods on behalf of their world.
- Retrieve a valuable item or creature (perhaps as part of a mini quest).
- Bring comfort, or free the dead.
- Challenge their powers and abilities.
- Accompany someone who has recently died.
- Face the shadow self.
- Sacrifice themselves or someone else, perhaps as replacement for one of the dead.
The Underworld as World of Adventure
In the Hero’s Journey, this is the world that the character enters by crossing the Threshold of Adventure. In The One Page Novel, this is the new world of the Quest. In opposition to the World of Adventure is the Ordinary World which is the familiar home that the character leaves behind (Stasis), and usually returns to at the end of the story (Resolution). The Ordinary World is the world of light, while the World of Adventure (being in the underworld) is characteristed by increasing darkness.
The World of Adventure is a conceptual story space, meaning it may not be an actual location in the story, but simply the part of the story where the character encounters new and complicated:
But often it’s easier for writers (especially within the constraints of genre) to turn the World of Adventure into an external location, and to physically remove the character to the new World. This also allows you to set up the important contrast and tension between the Ordinary World and the World of Adventure.
- Leaving home to start university/boarding school
- Starting a job at a new company
- Moving to an unfamiliar location
- Meeting someone in a strange neighbourhood
- Setting off to discover an unkown part of the world
- If you’re using a plot formula, identify the stages that belong to the World of Adventure/the Underworld.
- What physical location symbolises the Underworld of Adventure in your story?
In this clip, Joseph Campbell describes a diagram which represents the self as a circle, intersected by a line representing the Threshold of Consciousness.
The Threshold of Adventure – that is, the symbolic division between the upper and lower worlds that the character crosses – is also the Threshold of Consciousness. In this sense, any descent into the underworld requires the character to face the fears and insecurities in their psyche. The story is the process of bringing to light the shadow self that has been relegated to the individual’s or the society’s unconscious, and integrating this shadow back into the whole.
Loss of consciousness is sometimes an initiatory act that mimics a symbolic death, and for this reason it can be a meaningful element of a ritual that allows passage to the underworld.
- What has the character been unwilling to accept about themselves?
- What has the character’s society been unwilling to accept about themselves?
- How does the character commune with their subconscious?
Dissent & Descent
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
– Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost
When something is secret, illicit or illegal, we tend to use language such as:
- Under the counter
- Sub rosa
- On the down-low
In contrast, we use language denoting “up” or “high” to express moral superiority:
- High ground
- Above board
Uprisings are put down, people who follow alternative ways of life are said to be part of sub-culture, and desires which contradict our social persona are relegated to the sub-conscious. Clearly there is a link between dissent and descent, and many writers have enjoyed the practice of overturning this order and making the underworld the site of life and light rather than death and darkness; chief among them, William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Blake not only penned his own hellish proverbs and undermined the word of the Bible, he also reinterpreted the work of one of the greatest English poets (and perhaps of all poets) when he wrote:
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
- What is the accepted social order in your world?
- Who goes against the social order? Who has been forced “underground”?
- How are the inhabitants of the underworld morally superior?
Note: I’m dying to deconstruct this section, but I’ll leave that pleasure to you…
The Underworld as World of the Dead
While the World of Adventure is a story space, the World of the Dead is a physical location, although it can be either an internal or an external landscape. The World of the Dead is often the setting of the afterlife – the place where souls “live” after the body dies. But it can also be populated by characters who are spiritually “dead”, or who have been exiled, or who have chosen exile from the Ordinary World for various reasons.
In this sense, you can use a symbolic World of the Dead in your story without reference to a spiritual or paranormal explanation.
A distinction may be drawn between the underworld and the wasteland motifs in literature, where the underworld involves a willing descent and a quest to an existing location – usually to bring back some vital wisdom from the dead – while the wasteland often descends upon the character because of a (perceived) misdeed and transforms the world around them.
The prototype for the wasteland motif is the story of the Fisher King, whose ailing causes the land to become barren. The worlds of post-apocalyptic fiction, no-man’s-land in war fiction, haunted locations in ghost fiction, and corrupt corporations in crime fiction are common equivalents of the wasteland in modern literature. For the underworld journey (katabasis), at least for the Western literary tradition, the prototype is in Homer’s Odyssey.
The difference is subtle, and as a writer you’re welcome to ignore it, however…
- If your characters spend most of the story in the “underworld”;
- If your characters don’t journey to the world of the dead, but instead…
- Their ordinary world transforms into the world of the dead;
- and if the appearance of the world of the dead is linked to a character’s misdeeds,
… then you might want to consider developing the wasteland motif as distinct from the underworld.
Types of Literary Underworld
THE URBAN UNDERWORLD: One popular use of the World of the Dead is as a “criminal underworld”, occupying the dark and dingy corners of a city. But it’s important to remember that, while society may regard its inhabitants as criminals, from another point of view the inhabitants may very well be a group of marginalised, disenfranchised, misfit characters living in their own “ordinary world”.
The urban underworld may also be the home of unusual or supernatural people or creatures who have been forced “underground”. As such they may use sewers, underground/subway tunnels, basements, bunkers, or other subterranean urban structures.
- The opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip
- Knockturn Alley in the Harry Potter series
- London Below in Neverwhere
THE HEAVENLY UNDERWORLD: There may be some debate about whether this is really an underworld at all, because worthy, long-suffering, “good” characters are often seen ascending to a higher plane in the sky. This is usually depicted as the celestial abode of the “good” gods – such as the Olympians, and the Asgardians, and of course the unified deity of the monotheistic religions.
However, not all descents underground are dark, grim, or hellish. Many cultures imagined subterranean worlds of light. In Zoroastrian scripture, the king Yima, in order to avoid a cataclysm, creates an underground city or Vara lit by artificial light. In shamanic journeys, the shaman descends through a hole in the ground and emerges into a bright, sometimes watery underworld. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the daily journey of the sun god, Ra, briefly brings light even to those grim nether regions of the Duat.
While for most characters the Heavenly Underworld is the end goal, for some it may represent boredom, being cut off from those they love, or a sense of unworthiness.
- Avalon in the King Arthur legends
- The Undying Lands (Valinor) in Lord of the Rings
Note: These examples are across the water rather than under the land, perhaps because the former represents a journey of hope and immortality, whereas the latter is more readily associated with death and burial.
THE HELLISH UNDERWORLD: Many religions foresee a painful end for those who don’t obey the rules, and the “hellish underworld” is where they end up. This is a world of eternal, sometimes fiery torment for wrong-doers. Often, each sinner’s punishment is tailored to them.
- Hell in Paradise Lost
- Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings
- The Horcrux Cave in the Harry Potter series
THE GRIM UNDERWORLD: This is one of the most common literary underworlds because it offers a real chance of a “life”, though nothing on the scale of the Ordinary World. Sometimes the Grim Underworld is an adjunct to the Hellish one, and may be depicted as limbo or purgatory. Characters in this world may have unfinished business which they need to complete before transitioning on to another state.
But in other mythologies, such as in the Akkadian underworld, Kur, there is no final judgement, and the dead exist forever, with nothing to eat but dust.
- The world of the dead in His Dark Materials
- Pandaemonium in Paradise Lost
- The underworld in Homer’s Odyssey
- The land of the dead in The Earthsea Cycle
THE UNCANNY UNDERWORLD: Elements of the underworld are often inversions of the ordinary world. Sometimes these inversions overturn expectations, sometimes they subvert the traditions of the world of the living, and sometimes they literally turn things upside down. This can be useful for comical effect, but it can also impart an unsettling feeling.
The German word, unheimlich, is usually translated as “uncanny”, but also means, “unhomely”. This is particularly apt for the character who leaves their home world and travels to an underworld which bears the characteristics of a familiar setting, but in a way which renders them strange and disturbing.
- Wonderland in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- The house in House of Leaves
- Why do you want your characters to spend time in the underworld?
- What do your characters need to accomplish in the underworld?
- Which type of underworld, or combination of underworlds, is best suited to…
- Your genre?
- Your character’s aim?
- Your story world?
Looking at depictions of the underworld of the dead in mythical and literary texts, it’s clear to see that they have been created by the living, and for the living.
- For example, some myths stress the importance of the judgement of the soul, clearly in order to encourage people to live well and do good while they’re alive.
- Others emphasise the harsh living conditions that are only alleviated by material wealth and proper burial in the upper world, perhaps to uphold the status of the rich, or of a worldly priesthood.
- For yet other cultures the key is to bear many children and keep up a line of descendants, and so they teach people how their dead ancestors suffer without regular libations and offerings.
- What is the most important social aim in your story world? Survival? Creation? Procreation? The accumulation of wealth?
- What belief about the afterlife could uphold this aim and motivate the living to live accordingly?
- Which type of underworld would be best suited to promote this social aim?
The Descent to the Underworld (katabasis)
First—hell is not so far underground—
My hair gets tangled in the roots of trees
& I can just make out the crunch of footsteps,
The pop of acorns falling, or the chime
Of a shovel squaring a fresh grave or turning
Up the tulip bulbs for separation.
– from Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother by A.E. Stallings
“Katabasis” is the name given to the journey down to the underworld, or to the entire underworld adventure. The monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” presents the mythemes that may be encountered in a katabatic narrative, whether in the World of Adventure, or the World of the Dead, or both.
Broadly speaking, a journey to the underworld of the dead may include the following episodes:
- Deciding to make the journey.
- Searching for the entrance to the underworld.
- Entering the underworld.
- Meeting the guide to the underworld.
- Paying the price for crossing.
- Learning about the organisation of the underworld.
- Meeting the souls of the dead.
- Meeting the rulers of the underworld.
- Being judged.
- Obtaining the prize.
- Journeying up out of the underworld…
- And succeeding in returning to the ordinary world…
- Or failing and remaining in the underworld forever.
A night-sea journey (in the “belly of the whale”) may also be a part of the katabasis, or it may be a separate episode.
The Entrance to the Underworld
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.
– from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid
The entrance to the world of the dead is often a conduit underground. Depending on the story, and the purpose of the katabasis, the entrance may be nearby, in a familiar location, or at the ends of the earth or sea. It may also be in plain sight, or hidden and accessible only to a few.
- Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, falls down a rabbit hole.
- Professor Lidenbrock in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, finds a passage through an Icelandic volcano.
- Percy Jackson, in The Lightning Thief, travels down an elevator in DOA (Dead On Arrival) Studios, Los Angeles.
Possible real or symbolic entrances to the underworld:
- An adit/mine shaft
- A lift/elevator
- A cave
- A volcano
- A tunnel/underground passage
- A well
- A ravine/crevasse
- The roots of a tree
- A sinkhole
- A whirlpool/maelstrom
- A basement/cellar/bunker
- A cremator
- A grave/crypt
- A hole in the ground
- An underground/metro/subway station
- A gate
The purpose of a physical gateway to the world of the dead is to distinguish the katabatic journey from the usual method of entry – through death. However, it could also be possible to transport the character when they are unconscious, or dreaming.
- Is the entrance to the underworld hidden or in the open? Why?
- Is the existence of the entrance known to all or only a few? What are the consequences for those who know, and those who don’t?
- Is the character reluctant to enter? Why or why not?
The Guide to the Underworld (psychopomp)
At the Threshold of Adventure, a figure conversant with the ways of the underworld will appear to guide the character. This figure is often an animal or a therianthrope, but may also be human or divine. Sometimes the guide is an aspect of the traveller themselves, such as their soul, or anima/animus, as is the case in His Dark Materials when the children meet their personal death.
The guide may also be someone the character knew in life, in person or by reputation, as with Dante’s guides, Beatrice and Virgil.
Some mythological guides are:
- Hermes/Mercury – ancient Greek/Roman messenger
- Azrael – Jewish & Islamic angel of death
- Anubis – ancient Egyptian god of the dead & embalming
- The Grim Reaper – human personification of death
The guide may point out and describe…
- The organisation of the underworld
- The various divisions of the underworld
- The souls of the famous, or infamous dead
- The rulers of the underworld
- The rules that govern the underworld
- Who knows enough about the underworld to guide your character?
- What are their feelings towards each other?
- How good is the guide? What do they reveal, and what do they hide?
It’s also a common motif for the passage to the underworld to require a price of entry. In Ancient Egypt, people were buried with valuable objects for this very purpose, and in Ancient Greece, it was customary to place a coin in the dead person’s mouth or on their lips specifically to pay Charon, the ferryman of Hades.
There may also be a non-monetary price on knowledge from the underworld, famously in the form of the Faustian “bargain with the devil”, but also in prayers or offerings to the gods, or in the exchange of news or promises with the dead. For example, in order to speak to the dead, Odysseus pours libations on the ground, and vows to sacrifice animals when he returns home. In return for the wisdom of the runes, Odin gives up one of his eyes.
In some cases, the price may be even heavier, as a life for a life.
- What is the price for entering the underworld?
- How willing is the character to pay it?
- How do they try to bargain?
The Rules of the Underworld
Do not put on clean clothes,
Lest the (dead) heroes will come forth like enemies;
Do not anoint thyself with the good oil of the vessel,
Lest at its smell they will crowd about thee.
Do not throw the throw-stick in the nether world,
Lest they who were struck down by the throw-stick will surround thee;
Do not carry a staff in thy hand,
Lest the shades will flutter all about thee.
Often the underworld will have its own special laws that are not governed by the logic of the ordinary world.
One rule that holds in the underworld of the Persephone myth is that anyone who eats the food of the underworld is doomed to remain there for eternity. Another rule is that only those who have died are allowed in, and that no one is allowed out. Obvious, in a sense, and the crux of the katabatic character’s conflict, but their ability to succeed in their task and return to the world of the living will depend on their finding a loophole, or a compromise in the rules that govern the underworld.
In the World of Adventure, the character will often enter into a new society with different laws, priorities, and expectations than their home world, and their task will be first of all to learn the ways of the new world, and then to gain proficiency in them, and finally to synthesise them with the old world view.
- What rules can make the character’s work more difficult?
- How can the character bend or break the rules to get what they need?
- What are the consequences of bending or breaking the rules?
The Geography of the Underworld
Thetis baptized her mortal son in Styx;
A mortal mother would on Lethe fix.
– from Don Juan (IV,4) by Lord Byron
Descriptions of the world of the dead often emphasise its vastness. If it is to contain the souls of every person who has ever died, the underworld needs to be much larger than the world of the living. This makes the underworld inherently suited to epic poetry. Even so, most writers feel the need to place some sort of order and division on the underworld.
In designing your underworld, you might consider…
- LEVELS: Dante famously divides his inferno into nine concentric circles, each one featuring a different sin and its punishment. This allows him to deal systematically with the dead.
- GATES: In the myth of Inanna’s descent, the Sumerian underworld has seven gates, and at each gate the traveller is stripped of a possession. This repetition is a way of showing the difficulty of the task, and of distancing the character from the world of the living.
- LANDSCAPE: In Greek/Roman mythology, the River Styx formed the boundary of the underworld, and the dead were ferried across it by the boatman, Charon. Using natural features mirrors the ordinary world and makes the underworld feel uncanny.
- CITIES: Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes the creation of Pandaemonium, the capital city of Hell. Again, this gives the reader an ordinary world order they understand, and which they can easily compare and contrast to their own.
The Inhabitants of the Underworld
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
– from A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg
In populating your underworld, you might consider…
- THE GUARDS: often ferocious, mythical creatures wait at the gates of the underworld, such as the three-headed dog Cerberus in Greek mythology, or the Cŵn Annwn, or hounds of hell of Celtic myth. The lion-hippopotamus-crocodile Ammit of Ancient Egyptian belief fed on the souls of those who failed the judgement of Anubis. These terrifying creatures can safeguard the treasures of the underworld, and attest to the powers of those who can get past them.
- THE BOATMAN (or FERRYMAN): Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the River Styx in Hades, is one of the best-known inhabitants of the underworld. Perhaps the idea of a chthonic river is particularly evocative? Or maybe it’s the story of the ferryman himself?
- THE UNNAMED, UNNUMBERED DEAD: with such a vast number of departed souls, the most difficult task may be describing the sheer extent of the crowd in the underworld. This may impart a sense of awe, helplessness, or insignificance. On the other hand, it may also spur a character on to escape back to the ordinary world.
- THE FAMED OR FAMILIAR DEAD: creating the contrast between the vast crowd of souls and the few who are recognisable and important to the katabatic character can be a way to heighten the emotional impact of the journey. It can also work to comic effect, depending on the exchange!
- THE RULERS: They may be monarchs, military leaders, political leaders, or any character who mirrors or mocks the power structure of the ordinary world. The underworld is sometimes governed by a sibling of the ruler of the world of the living, to emphasise the opposition, but also the close bond that ties the two worlds together, as is the case with Hades and Zeus (Pluto and Jupiter), and Ereshkigal and Inanna.
- THE RULERS’ CONSORT: Many chthonic gods and goddesses choose consorts from the world of the living. This can develop their own backstory, as well as serving the usual mythical function of explaining various seasonal phenomena.
- THE JUDGES: The judges are sometimes the rulers themselves, but sometimes a separate deity or entity is chosen to judge the souls of the dead and find them worthy or unworthy to move on. This judgement is a great source of suspense, and can reveal a lot about the society, as previously discussed.
The Communion with the Dead (nekyia)
O, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days’ conference with the dead!
– from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
Talking to the dead is one of the chief concerns of katabatic travellers. We all have at least one person we long to meet again, but communion in the underworld usually comes with its own challenges.
- In the Odyssey, Odysseus must hold the souls back from feeding on his blood offering, until after he has learned what he needs from Tiresias.
- In the Aeneid, Aeneas tries to embrace his mother, only to discover that she is no more than a shade.
There is a sense of urgency caused by the difficulty of maintaining communication, and staying alive in an environment meant for the dead. And no matter how long the character spends with their loved ones in the world of the dead, it is never enough…
The communion with the dead can also be a way for the character to uncover messages from their own subconscious, especially in discovering knowledge or resources that they already possess but are consciously unaware of. This is often the revelation that allows the character to rise up out of the underworld in the Power.
The Return from the Underworld (anabasis)
This lyre lark is for the birds, said Orpheus
It’s enough to send you bats
Let’s stay down here, Eurydice, dear
And we’ll have a bunch of screaming brats
– from The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Characters who manage to navigate the underworld successfully, and complete the task for which they made the journey, eventually emerge back into the ordinary world, in a real or symbolic resurrection. However, sometimes the return journey is even more difficult than the entry, since escaping the world of the dead is not the natural way of things.
In the monomyth, Joseph Campbell describes several mythical events that might occur:
- Refusal of the return – the character may decide to stay in the underworld rather than returning to the ordinary world bearing the elixir of life.
- The magic flight – the character may be magically transported up out of the underworld, often pursued by a supernatural being who wants to keep them trapped. In response, the character may jettison items to try to slow the pursuit.
- Rescue from without – the character may be saved by another supernatural being, or by someone from the ordinary world who “pulls them up” and out of the underworld.
If you’re enrolled in The One Page Novel, see the article titled, Failed Heroes, Tragic Heroes, Antagonists, Villains, and Anti-Heroes for further guidance.
Nor is the character’s work done when they are back in the ordinary world. Their task is then to disseminate the knowledge that they have brought back from the dead, in order to help improve their society. In terms of their own life, they will often take some time to adjust to the ordinary world, which has not only changed while they were away, but which has also shifted due the new perspective they’ve gained through their katabasis.
It’s not unusual for a character to fail to integrate the teachings of the underworld. And so begins the journey anew…
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
- Does the character succeed in their task?
- Who or what must be left behind?
- Who tries to keep the character in the underworld?
- Who helps the character return to the ordinary world?
- How does the character disseminate the elixir of life?