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In the study of mythology and religion, the underworld is a generic term approximately equivalent to the lay term afterlife, referring to any place to which newly-dead souls go.

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Hell, according to many religious beliefs (most notably in Christianity, Islam (where it is also called Jahannam), and Judaism) about the afterlife, is a place of torment and pain. The English word 'hell' comes from the Norse Hel, which originally referred to the goddess of the Norse underworld. The original meaning was likely "The Hidden": compare Anglo-Saxon helan and Latin celare = "to hide". (Also, the Greek words Hades and similar, came from Greek a-wid = "not seen".)

In most religions' conception of Hell (with the notable exception of Judaism), evildoers will suffer eternally in Hell after their death or they will pay for their bad deeds in hell before reincarnations. In monotheistic religions, hell is ruled by demons, or simply defined by an utter absence of God or redemptive force. In polytheistic religions, the politics of hell could be as complicated as human politics.

See the full article on Hell.

Buddhism & Hinduism: Naraka & Svarga

Naraka or Neraka, in Buddhism and Hinduism, is the underworld and Hell. In Hinduism, there are many hells, and Yama, Lord of Justice, sends human beings after death for appropriate punishment. Such punishment can be in boiling oil, etc. However, Naraka in Hinduism is not equivalent to Hell in Christian ideology. Naraka is only a purgatory where the soul gets purified of sin by sufferings. Even Mukti-yogyas (souls eligible for mukti or moksha), and Nitya-samsarins (forever transmigrating ones in Dvaita theology) can experience Naraka for expiation. In Japan it is known as Meifumadō.

Hinduism also has Svarga (or Swarga), an underworld located on Mt. Meru. It is a Heaven where the righteous live in paradise before their next reincarnation. Svarga is seen as transitory place for righteous souls who performed good deeds but whose conduct is not enough to attain moksha, or union with God. The capital is Amaravati and the entrance is guarded by Airavata. Svarga is presided by Indra, a deva and Lord of Heaven.

Celtic: Annwn

Annwn, (alternatively: Annwfn, Annwyn, Annwyfn, and Annwfyn) was the Otherworld, the land of souls that had departed this world in Insular Brythonic mythology, specifically Welsh.

Ruled by Arawn, or (much later) Gwynn ap Nudd, it was essentially a world of delights and eternal youth where disease is absent and food is ever-abundant. Annwn was said to lie so far to the west that not even Manawydan ap Llyr had found it, for you could only reach Annwn by dying yourself. It was also said, though, that Annwn could be entered by those still living if they could find the door.

The door was said to be at the mouth of the Severn near Lundy Island or on Glastonbury Tor. (The temple of Nudd archaeologically discovered near Lydney, and Brythonic stories such as the tale of Seithenyn, suggest that the Severn Bore held symbolic importance in Druid esoteric spiritual teachings. Glastonbury appears widely as a sacred isle of the dead and as the place where saints and kings are buried.)

Egyptian: Duat & Aaru

In Egyptian mythology, Duat is the underworld, where the sun traveled from west to east during the night and where dead souls were judged by Osiris, using the Feather of Truth. Souls which were weighted down by sin were eaten by Ammit.

Aaru (alternatives: Yaaru, Iaru, Aalu), is the heavenly underworld where Osiris ruled; souls which weighed less than the Feather of Truth were sent to Aaru to exist in pleasure for all eternity. Aaru was usually placed in the east (where the sun rises) and is described as a series of islands, covered in fields of wheat.

Greek: Hades

Hades (Greek: ᾍδης - Hadēs or Ἅιδης - Háidēs) ("unseen") means both the ancient Greek abode of the dead and the god of that Underworld. There were several sections of Hades, including the Elysian Fields and Tartarus. Greek mythographers were not perfectly consistent about the geography of the Afterlife. In general, the deceased entered the underworld by crossing the river Acheron, ferried across by Charon (kair'-on), who charged an obolus, a small coin for passage, placed under the tongue of the deceased by pious relatives. Paupers and the friendless gathered forever on the near shore. The far side of the river was guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog defeated by Heracles (Roman Hercules). Beyond Cerberus, the shades of the departed entered Tartarus, the land of the dead.

The five rivers of Hades are Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe and Styx.

The first region of Hades comprises the Fields of Asphodel, described in Odyssey xi, where the shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats. Only libations of blood offered to them in the world of the living can reawaken in them for a time the sensations of humanity.

Beyond lay Erebus, which could be taken for a euphonym of Hades, whose own name was dread. There were two pools, that of Lethe, where the common souls flocked to erase all memory, and the pool of Mnemosyne ("memory"), where the initiates of the Mysteries drank instead. In the forecourt of the baleful palace of Hades and Persephone sit the three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus. There at the trivium sacred to Hecate, where three roads meets, souls are judged, returned to the Fields of Asphodel if they are neither virtuous nor evil, sent by the road to Tartarus if they are impious or evil, or sent to Elysium with the heroic blessed.

Norse: Niflheim & Helgardh

Niflheim ("Mistland") is the realm of ice and cold in Norse Mythology. It is located north of Ginnungagap and there dwells the Rimtursir and here is also Helgardh located. Niflheim is ruled by the goddess Hel, personally appointed by Odin to rule over Niflheim. Niflheim was broken into several layers: one level was designed for heroes and gods, where Hel would preside over the festivities for them. Another was reserved for the elderly, the sick, and those who were unable to die gloriously in battle and enter Valhalla. The lowest level resembled the Christian version of Hell, where the wicked were forced to live forever.

Helgardh, also known as Hel ("house of mists"), is another Norse underworld myth, and shares a name with the goddess who rules it. It is one of the nine worlds, the abode of the dead, thronged with the shivering and shadowy spectres of those who have died ingloriously of disease or in old age. Niflheim is cold and low on the overall order of the universe. It lies beneath Yggdrasil's third root, near Hvergelmir and Nastrond.

See also


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