Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Setting Talk: The Great Beyond

Question: Since in the Hero's Journey Universe all Underworlds are real, what decides which Underworld every person who dies goes to?

A good question, and one that you might just see in a Setting chapter in the HJ book. Let's talk about the concepts involved!

Like all universes that place multiple cosmologies and mythologies in the same world, there's always a question of whether or not conflicting ideas of various parts of the universe represent irreconcilable differences or can somehow be brought into line to work together. Worldbuilding with a bunch of different worlds involved is complicated; how do to you say everything is true when some things argue with each other? Who's "right" and who's "wrong", and why did you make that choice?

There are two options, really, for the underworld (or netherworld, or afterlife, depending on the conception of the culture) in a multi-mythology setting: universalism, or doubling down on individualism.

The universal approach is to say that there's one Underworld, with a capital U, and that every culture's different stories about it are just different people describing the same thing from their own cultural standpoint. The Underworld is where all the dead end up, and various gods administer entrance into it for their peoples; Anubis and Hermes and Xolotl all conduct people to the same place, and humanity tells whatever stories about it make the most sense to them based on how scared they are of the Underworld and what they imagine must happen there. It could be that there's just one big Underworld with all of humanity equal within it, and that the death gods of various cultures either fight for dominance among themselves down there or form a sort of council or collective who administer it together. On the other hand, you could also say that the capital-U Underworld has smaller "sub-territories", and that each death god is in charge of one for their local peoples, so there's just one Underworld but there's still some flexibility with who's doing what.

The individual approach is to instead say that there are many underworlds, each separate from the others as well as separate from the world of the living, and that individual death gods administer them as their own separate feudal territories. Each underworld has its own rules about entry, its own geography and inhabitants, and its own population of dead mortals, and dead people who end up there experience it based on their religion's processes and the whims of the gods who own it. This gives the setting ultimate freedom to set up each underworld its own way without worrying about whether or not it introduces rules that have to be universal to the big-U Underworld, but it also introduces the exact question this blog is about: if all these underworlds are completely separate realms, who goes where and why?

HJ uses an individual approach; each underworld is its own world. HJ actually has an uncounted number of potential worlds; every mythology's separate non-mortal worlds are potentially places that Heroes can visit with their own self-contained rules and entrance criteria, and that includes the worlds that are mostly populated by the dead. Yomi is distinct from Jigoku, which is in turn distinct from Di Yu which is distinct from Naraka, and they are all places that receive the dead and that Heroes or gods might have an interest in affecting or visiting. (In the case of underworlds, visiting them is generally not recommended, especially if you're not already a god, but that has never stopped people from trying to do it anyway.) We use this approach for a lot of reasons; some cultures have more than one underworld or an underworld that isn't overseen by a deity, making it hard to fit them into the universal model without problems, and some cultures don't have an underworld at all, which would lead to weird stuff like either making some pantheons/cosmologies "unimportant" in a political sense in the big-U Underworld or otherwise inventing made-up underworld features for them just to try to shove every culture into the same box. The convenience of "there's one underworld, everyone goes there, we don't have to figure out who goes where" isn't enough to make up for losing unique cultural features or beliefs or having to compromise on interesting stories, so individual it is, but that leaves us still asking about who goes where.

Generally speaking, there are multiple factors that are involved here.

  • Person's Religion. If a person is a believer of a particular religion, it makes sense that they should go to the afterlife that religion believes in. If a character is a worshiper of the Babylonian gods, for example, they expect to go to the Babylonian afterlife - down to the netherworld of Irkallu, to live in the great citadel of the dead forever.
  • Person's Ancestry. If a person isn't strongly religious, but they do have a strong ethnic or homeland connection to one particular culture, they might go to the afterlife that culture overwhelmingly believes in. For example, if the character is ethnically Egyptian and lives in Egypt, it might make sense to declare that they go down into Duat when they die, even if they didn't necessarily believe in Duat while they were alive.
  • Person's Location. If a person isn't strongly religious and doesn't have a strong cultural connection to their homeland, but they have lived somewhere a long time and are part of that place, they might go to the afterlife that their current location makes the most sense for. For example, a non-religious person of mixed European descent without any real cultural connection to any one religion or people who died while visiting somewhere in Ireland might end up in Tech Duinn, since they weren't strongly tied to anywhere else and therefore they just went to the closest, easiest realm for the dead.

These are roughly in order of priority, but there's also an undercurrent there of assuming that everyone who dies must go to an underworld... which may not necessarily be the case. As I said above, in some cultures there is no underworld; the dead might become a natural phenomenon (such as stars or clouds) that remains in the mortal world, or they might be considered to remain with their descendants, inhabiting shrines, homes, or their graves as ghosts. And what about atheists, or people who don't have strong religions who end up dying somewhere divorced from their ethnic cultures and inappropriate for their current location's traditional underworld? Are we implying that the Native American underworlds are chock full of atheist white folks just because they happened to die in North America and their highly mixed Finnish, Irish, German, French, British, Lithuanian, and Russian background didn't have a strong enough connection to send them somewhere else? (The answer is no. No, we are not.)

So, it is also entirely possible that some dead people don't end up in an underworld, either because their religion doesn't have one, or because they don't have a religion themselves and death gods are not out there desperately trying to meet some sort of quota where they run around trying to collect more souls, Pac-Man-like, than the next person. In these cases, a person who died might become a ghost, haunting their place of death, or they might simply "go to sleep", their spirit becoming inert and inactive until or unless some event that affects the dead were to wake it up or some Hero or god with Death were to intentionally call them up. Some people might be more likely to end up in an underworld if they have a connection to a religion with a psychopomp or guide for the dead - those religions often have strong feelings about the dead belonging safely in an underworld and needing to be contained there, so there are gods whose job it is to go find the dead and make sure they get there, so even an atheist who died far abroad and had no real connection to an ethnic culture might still end up in Hades if they had Greek ancestry, because Hermes might make it his business to go get them. People from cultures with important death rituals also might end up as ghosts or lingering souls if they weren't properly taken care of when they died, which might give them a vested interest in haunting their relations to try to get the proper funeral rites (or bothering passing Heroes if that doesn't work!).

So, to sum up the answer to the question now that I've drifted around it a bunch, nobody really "decides" where someone goes, except in the fringe case of people performing funeral rites or guide gods picking up lost souls; rather, they decide individually, based on their religious choices, or if they don't have a religion, their cultural ties might affect them instead. It's a complicated subject and I'm looking forward to the many fringe cases people will no doubt come up with during play!


  1. Is the Mayan Underworld called Xibalba or Metnal?

    1. I think it's like Yomi and Jigoku for the Shinto... they both are.

    2. It's kind of both! The ancient Maya (and modern Maya, who still exist) were a large network of city-states and territories with shared language and culture, which means that they did a lot of things together but also had a lot of regional variation. Xibalba is the underworld of the Popol Vuh, written down from oral legends kept by the Maya of Guatemala; Metnal is in some myths considered one of the levels of Xibalba, and in others a separate underworld that is primarily concerned with punishment of the dead in a way Xibalba (unpleasant and depressing to be in, but not actively designed to set dead people on fire) usually isn't. Some groups, especially in more recent centuries, refer to Metnal as the only underworld and definitely make it a place of punishment; there's some scholarly argument over whether or not this later feature is a result of contamination from the Christian idea of Hell being introduced by invaders.

      So yeah, much like Yomi and Jigoku - although strictly speaking Yomi is the Shinto underworld and Jigoku is the Japanese Buddhist one, there's a lot of cross-pollination in the modern day especially.

    3. ooh,ooh. Since People been asking this a lot,can i know,what would the concepts of the Mayan Devotional Sphere?

    4. Oh, man, there's a lot to consider for them! Since so many Maya deities are mirror images of each other - young/old, male/female, night/day pairs who complement each other - the Divinity track might have something to do with counterpart forms or cycles, as well as probably something about divine-humanity connection through a human who represents divine power on earth. Ritual would almost certainly have to do with autosacrifice and perhaps representative artwork and imagery that adds to a god's power and the identification of the worshiper with them, and Theology would be likely to have something to do with the repeating cycles of the world over time and the waxing/waning nature of a lot of Maya myth cycles.

      That's what I have off the top of my head, obviously more time and work would be needed!

  2. I now have a mental picture of Anubis in a Pac-Man mask, chasing ghosts in Duat, going "wokka-wokka-wokka"....

  3. Interesting !
    This brings me a question : if some death gods and psychopomp gods from different pantheon are in conflict, is it possible for one of them to "steal" the deads of another ? For example, by performing the funeral rites of another culture ? Or is there an cosmic law preventing them to do so ?

    1. I think this might be a question for individual Sagas and what their stories are about! I have too many questions for an easy answer - how are they "in conflict", and why? Why would they want to "steal" souls from other underworlds or deities? What does that get them and what is their goal? I think it would probably depend on what your Saga is about and what the greater plot involving these deities is saying about them and their shenanigans. :)

      For the most part, I can't think of too many death deities who would have a baseline desire to take or hoard souls from other gods - most of them are wardens/administrators/rehabilitators, not collectors who just like having a lot of dead people around. But I think it's possible you could have some neat plots involving deities who think one god isn't doing it right and decide they have to intervene (are they right, or just biased?), or who are trying to cope with a shifting religious landscape that is creating new syncretic practices that they and other deities involved aren't sure how to handle yet, that kind of thing!

    2. I'm suddenly imagining a bunch of Death Gods holding an intervention for Yama going "Dude, we like that you're invested in your work, but you're up to FOUR multi level constantly evolving Underworlds... just take a break already!"