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Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.

To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:

Aita Conjuring.  A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita Conjuring. A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.

Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.

Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.

Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.

Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!

Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.

Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.

Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!

etruscan_stone_sarcophagus

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar).  The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem.  They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe.  Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between).  They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money.  Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.

templar01

Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts.  In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them.  When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence.  He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order.  On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested.  They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies.  Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins).  One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet.  Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name.  Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well.  Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.

Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber.   During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314).  Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him.  Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism.  As a result, Baphomet has become popular.  You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category.   The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity.  Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.

  Bap

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

vishnu

When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

Vishnu_and_Lakshmi_on_Shesha_Naga,_ca_1870

This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut.  For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.

How do we keep ending up here?

As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone).  The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities.  As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.

Qin-Guang-Wang

The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu.  Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity.  Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood.  This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail.  Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination.  In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise.  A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.

Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception.  According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless.  The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.


Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun.  To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation.  However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence.  Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story).  Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”

Akkadian Seal of Nergal with a sickle-sword and a mace with two feline heads (c. 2360–2180 BCE, carved from soapstone)

As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.

Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time).   After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy.  Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal.  The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).

A modern painting of Nergal

Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death.  He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!

Ancient Egypt was divided into two parts: 1) the black lands which compromised the fertile valley of the Nile where almost every Egyptian lived and; 2) the red lands–the burning deserts on both sides of the Nile which were virtually uninhabited but which provided gold, copper, stone, and other precious raw materials vital to Egypt’s interest.  The red lands were divided into the Arabian Desert which stretched away east of the Nile to the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert which lay westward and into the trackless Sahara.  The black lands were also divided in two: Lower Egypt consisted of the lush green swamps of the Delta in the north (this territory runs from the 30th parallel to the Mediterranean); Upper Egypt, stretched from Lower Egypt up through the Nile valley into the higher altitudes (hence the name) and terminated at the southern cataracts where the lands of Nubia began.

Egyptian goddess Wadjet (painting from the tomb of Nefertari, ca 1270 BC)

This is important background information for today’s post which concerns the cobra goddess Wadjet and tomorrow’s post about the three crowns of Egypt.  As you may recall from previous posts about the rainbow serpent and Nuwa, I have an abiding affection for snake gods.   Egypt actually had several snake deities but the most important was Wadjet, the ancient cobra goddess who served as protector and patron deity of Lower Egypt.  Originally Wadjet was a local deity of Per-Wadjet, a venerable city on the Sebennytic arm of the Nile (one of several branches which the Nile takes through the Delta).  Per-Wadjet developed from a truly ancient pre-dynastic city of Deb (which in turn came from a Paleolithic settlement over ten thousand years old) and was the sight of a famous oracle renowned throughout Lower Egypt. The Greeks later christened the city as “Buto” and it has been surmised that Wadjet’s oracle may have played some role in the Greek worship of serpent oracles.

Wadjet

When Menes (whom modern scholars increasingly identify as Narmer, the catfish king) united Upper Egypt with Lower Egypt to become the first pharaoh, the culture of the Lower Egypt was largely subsumed, but Wadjet’s role expanded greatly. Wadjet came to represent all of Lower Egypt.  In such a guise she was one of the deities who protected the monarchy and the pharaoh. The symbol of Wadjet was the uraeus, the stylized upright spitting cobra which Pharaohs wore on their brow. But despite her royal trappings, Wadjet also remained the goddess of women in childbirth, who were under her direct protection.

Amenhotep II wearing the Uraeus (painting, ca. 1400 BC)

Wadjet literally means “the papyrus colored one” or “the green one” which was an appropriate designation for the goddess of the Nile Delta.  Our picture of ancient Egypt is often built around the desert, but the Nile Delta is a wet region today and it was even more so during the age of the pharaohs. Great shallow wetlands were filled with papyrus and reeds, which in turn hosted countless fish and waterfowl.  Crocodiles and hippos flourished there in ancient times (as did poisonous snakes).  As with most Egyptian deities, Wadjet’s form was depicted in many different ways:  sometimes she was a cobra or a snake with a woman’s torso.  Other times she appeared as a woman with a snake’s head, a two-headed snake, or a woman wearing the uraeus.  Wadjet was associated with the Milky Way–the primal serpent.  In later dynasties she was elided with sundry other gods and goddesses most notably the goddess Bast.  Wadjet-Bast was a very fearsome deity combining the attributes of a lion and a cobra!

Wadjet as a lion goddess (Carving, ca. 8th century BC)

Wadjet was not merely a deity of this world. The ancient Egyptians were profoundly interested in their place in the afterlife and Wadjet was of critical importance there. To quote webcalf.com, “In the Book of the Dead, Wadjet protects the souls of the deceased by destroying their enemies in the Underworld.”  An ancient myth about Wadjet shows her foremost as a divine protector. Her sacred city Per Wadjet was the location where Isis gave birth to Horus. Set, the evil god of the red desert sought to destroy mother and child, but Wadjet wove stalks of papyrus into a screen and hid the pair beneath this blind deep in her marshes.

A gold amulet of Wadjet (from Tutankhamun's tomb, ca 1320 BC)

Wadjet had a twin sister, the vulture goddess Nekhbet who was the protector and patron of Upper Egypt and was shown as a white vulture. White vultures were symbolic of purity because ancient Egyptians (incorrectly) believed they were all female and reproduced without males. Nekbeht is a fascinating figure in her own right (but I am writing about snake gods—you can go start your own vulture god blog). The two sister goddesses were symbolic of all of Egypt and they frequently appear together and were worshiped as the “two ladies.” Additionally Wadjet was goddess of the red crown of Lower Egypt and Nekhbet was the goddess of the white crown, but that is a subject for tomorrow.

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

One of the most horrible deities of the underworld comes from the violent and frightening cosmology of the Maya civilization of Central America. The Mayan god of darkness, violence and sacrifice was Camazotz a flying bat god who inhabited Xibalba, the Mayan hell. Originally an anthropomorphic bat monster worshipped by the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Camazotz was adopted into the Mayan pantheon as a vampire killer who reveled in slaughter. The deity appears throughout classical Mayan art and sculpture. Camazotz also features in the post-classical compendium of Mayan myths, the Popul Vuh, where he is master of a house of were-bats like himself.  There he (or one of his minions) claws off the heads of one of the story’s twin heroes during their attempt to defeat the lords of Xibalba in a marathon ball tournament.

Classical Mayan sculpture of Camazotz

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