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What Are the Different Types of Underworld Mythology?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most types of underworld mythology fall into one of two basic categories: underworlds segregated based on the deeds a person performs in life and underworlds intended for all of the dead regardless of actions in life. Many of the oldest legends and myths about various underworlds fall into this latter category, and many cultures had early concepts of an underworld in which all of the dead would gather as ghosts or shades. There are also a number of instances of underworld mythology, though, in which the dead would go to different types of places depending on how the person lived or died.

Underworld mythology typically refers to any type of mythological system dealing with the location that people’s spirits or souls go to after death. While the name “underworld” indicates the idea that this was a place located beneath the real world, this was not always the case and is simply used as a single term for different systems. Some types of underworld mythology are built around the idea that the dead would go to a land beneath the land of the living, and entrances to such places could be found in certain caves. There were also mythologies in which the underworld was a reflection of the world of the living, sometimes literally created as a mirror image of the world.

Some of the earliest types of underworld mythology contain an underworld in which all people go to the same location upon dying. Early forms of underworld mythology, such as those found in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts, had a single underworld that all people would go to. The underworld of Japanese mythology is similarly inhabited and came to exist upon the death of one of the first gods. Similarly, the Greek underworld, at least initially, was such a place and was often referred to as Hades, though it eventually changed in myths to have different locations for different people.

There are other forms of underworld mythology in which there are multiple places for the dead, and where a person’s spirit went often depended on the life he or she lived. The Egyptian, Greek, and Roman underworlds became similar to these systems, wherein a person would be judged after death based on his or her deeds. Such systems often developed at least two different locations for the dead, one resembling an idyllic paradise and the other a place of punishment or penitence. These types of underworld mythology continue to influence both modern religious thought and creative depictions of fantastical worlds beyond life.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Jul 05, 2012

@Zipline-- Oh, so even though there isn't "heaven" and "hell" in the Greek mythology, the basic concept of a place of reward and a place of punishment still exists. That's interesting.

I'm also interested in learning more about the Hindu underworld and the mythology of what happens after death. As far as I know, there is a "heaven" and a "hell" in Hinduism as well. Heaven is in the sky (in the sun) and hell is underground.

What differentiates Hindu underworld mythology has to be reincarnation. Hindus believe that the spirit comes back to the world again and again. I don't know if this means that the spirit doesn't go to heaven or hell until their reincarnations are complete or if it first goes to the underworld and then returns for another life in the world.

By ZipLine — On Jul 05, 2012

@simrin-- I'm not quite sure, but the Greek mythology of Hades might be similar.

Even though Greeks believed that they all ended up in the same place after death, they also believed that the underworld wasn't the same all around. People were placed in different parts of Hades based on how they died.

For example, there was a place called "Elysian Fields" in the Greek underground and this was the most beautiful place where good people were placed. In another part of Hades, was a place for bad people where they were punished called "Tartarus." And then there was a third place, the "in-between" where people who didn't deserve Elysian Fields nor Tartarus were placed.

By SteamLouis — On Jul 04, 2012

Is there a myth where people first go to different places according to how they lived and then eventually end up in the same place?

I know that there are some theories about this. That when we die, we will either go to heaven or hell. But people who went to hell will eventually end up in heaven after they have paid for their sins in hell as well.

Some also say that we will all go to hell first (because everyone sins) and after being punished for a certain time period, will move on to heaven. How long someone spends in hell before they go to heaven depends on how much and how severely they have sinned.

I'm curious, are these notions based on an ancient mythology? Has anyone heard of an underworld mythology that is similar to what I described. If so, which one is it?

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