Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Dark Goddesses

Today's question says: In honour of Hallowe'en, how about some cool and spooky info on goddesses of death? Spooky info, eh? Let me see how festive we can get up in here!

There are myriad goddesses of death out there, from all kinds of different religions and cultures. They mean a thousand different things, but this question is pretty appropriate, because a general worldwide trend exists in which death goddesses are often terrifying in a way that death gods who are male are not. There's a whole barrel of conjecture about why this is - possibly because women represent the ability to give life in many cultures thanks to being the primary people who give birth, so they can also have the power to take it away, or possibly because they are sometimes considered more dangerous and uncontrolled than their male counterparts, making them frightening unknown quantities instead of the male underworld god archetype of the responsible administrator - but the honest truth is that we don't know for certain, and that it's just as likely that every culture with a scary death goddess has their own reasons for their terrible lady of the great beyond.

We could talk about a lot of death goddess topics, but since we were specifically asked for spooky Halloweeny fun, we'll do a quick run-through of some of the most famous goddesses and their most horror-movie moments!


Although Ereshkigal has many positive things in her myths, including volunteering to take charge of the underworld and acting as a generally benevolent steward of the dead, she is still among the most terrible of all Mesopotamian gods, and that's including some very shady characters indeed. In perhaps her darkest tale, Ereshkigal's husband Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, was killed when her sister Inanna sent him to fight Gilgamesh. Inanna then descended into Ereshkigal's realm to offer her condolences and ensure that her sister did not blame her for Gugalanna's death.

Ereshkigal's minions slowly stripped Inanna of all her power and glory, convincing her to give up one of her masteries for each gate of the underworld that she passed, until she was naked, cold and alone when she finally reached the inner sanctum. Inanna stormed into Ereshkigal's throne room, demanding to know why she had been treated so poorly... only to discover too late that her sister was indeed seeking vengeance for the loss of her husband. Ereshkigal stole the life from Inanna's body, striking her dead, and hung her lifeless corpse from a meathook in the ceiling, leaving it to slowly rotate as a gruesome reminder of her transgressions.

Inanna was eventually rescued when the other gods demanded her return to prevent the earth from becoming barren, but even then Ereshkigal's vengeance was not ended. In Inanna's place she took her husband Dumuzi, the handsome shepherd god, and drags him into the underworld to suffer torture in her place each year, pulled from the lands of the living by the many fingers of her terrible messenger demons.


The dread goddess of the crossroads is also an underworld goddess, frequently seen in company of the other death gods as well as stalking abroad in the dead of night. Associated with crossroads, witchcraft and the night, there are few goddesses more suited to send a little witchy thrill up your spine around Halloween.

Hekate was especially fond of Hekabe, the former queen of Troy who was captured by Odysseus at the war's end. Hekabe went quietly, but as they journeyed they came upon the body of Polydorus, her son, who had been brutally murdered by the Thracian king who was meant to be his caretaker. Hekabe immediately went to the king's palace and requested an audience, but when he granted it, thinking she was only a grief-stricken woman, she threw herself at him and gauged out his eyeballs with her own fingers, murdering him as vengeance for her son's murder.

The Thracians attempted to stone her in retaliation, but as they hurled the rocks at her, Hekate transformed her into a slavering, howling dog, a terrible beast that could not be killed or escaped. The dog roams the Thracian countryside even now, and it is said that the dog's baying can terrify any living person and be heard in the dead of night when Hekate's rites have been neglected.


The terrible death goddess of Norse mythology lives in the dreary underworld halls that share her name; she is not well-described except that half of her visage is frightening and dark, and that she is a monster just as horrifying as her siblings the Fenris Wolf and Midgard Serpent, just as likely to wreak ruin and death in her wake.

Hel was banished to the underworld when only a girl, thanks to the gods who feared her and her siblings and saw in them the potential for destruction. There, she lives in a miserable palace of suffering and horrors, eating with her utensils Famine and Hunger and sleeping in a bed composed of disease and sickness. She was mostly forgotten by the gods who banished her until Baldr, their most beloved son, was killed by his brother and consigned to her realm; they sent messengers to demand that she return him, but she refused to do so unless the entire world wept for him, a task that the gods could not successfully complete. She thus kept the most beloved and beautiful thing ever made by the gods for herself only, locked in the dark halls of the underworld for her sole pleasure.

Hel's true terror is still yet to come; at the terrible cataclysm of Ragnarök, Hel will throw her lot in with her treacherous father Loki. When he arrives to do battle with the gods, it is said that all of Hel's people will arrive with him - the goddess of death will throw wide her doors, and all the dead who have ever been left in her care will walk again and visit terror on the living.


Izanami's story is something straight out of a terrifying Japanese horror movie (and of course, she is probably one of the earliest inspirations for that genre!). After giving birth to several children with her her husband Izanagi, she conceived and bore Kagutsuchi, the god of flame. He burned her so badly as she gave birth to him that she was wounded beyond repair, and although she gave the world the water god Mizuhame as she died, she passed away in agony.

Izanagi was beside himself with grief at the loss of his wife, so he determined to go and win her back by traveling to the underworld, where he had little experience since the world was very new and very few things had yet died. He traveled down into the blackness of the bottom of the universe, Yomi, until he finally found his wife; he could not see her in the dark, but she told him she was glad to see him and that she hoped they would be together forever now. She cautioned him not to look at her face, however, a request that he honored until his curiosity eventually got the better of him. When he lit his lamp, he was horrified to discover that his once-beautiful wife was now a rotting hag, her flesh and hair decaying and her visage as grim as death itself. He ran in terror and she pursued him, screaming dire threats and curses that he had looked upon her putrescent state.

Izanagi escaped, barely, and rolled a giant stone against the mouth of the underworld so that Izanami could not follow him. But she swore that she would eventually take and destroy each mortal life that he created, and waits in the cold dark of the underworld to receive each and every helpless mortal.


Morena or Marzanna is the winter witch of Slavic mythology, a figure who was once soft and green and pleasant in the springtime but who becomes as cold and iron-hard as ice when she destroys the countryside to usher in the winter. Morena was married to Jarilo, a handsome young fertility god, with whom she lived many happy years until she discovered that he was unfaithful to her and had taken many other lovers.

Furious and devastated, Morena transformed overnight from the beautiful young maiden she had been into the winter hag, and murdered her husband in revenge for his misbehavior. She refused to return to the world above, leaving winter to kill any warmth and life that might be trying to peek through the snow, and instead descended to the underworld, where she built a house from Jarilo's limbs, bones and other body parts. She lives in that house all winter long, surrounded by the grisly remains of her unfaithful husband, until he is resurrected in the spring... only to be murdered by her again, and once more dismembered and trapped in the underworld with only his terrible wife for company.

In many Slavic countries, celebrations in which Morena or Marzanna is burned or drowned in effigy are still commonly practiced; it is hoped that by symbolically destroying her, they may banish her ill will and allow the winter to end. Even this is a dangerous ritual, however - a wrong move or an accidental insult can cause Morena to notice one of the hapless mortals trying to send her away, and she may respond by reaching out her bony fingers to inflict suffering and disease on them, causing them to become one of her subjects sooner rather than later.

There are many other awesome death goddesses with tooth-tingling stories of terror out there - Hine-nui-te-po who we talked about last week, for example, who killed Maui by crushing him to death with her vagina, or the terrible Morrigan, the phantom queen who foretells heroes' deaths by washing their bloodied clothes - but we can't stay here all day. Beware the darkness this Halloween, dear Heroes - there are more powerful and dangerous beings than mere ghosts that might be waiting in it!