Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mythology Talk: The Journey Through Duat

Time for another mythology question!

Question: Could You make a post about Ra's Journey to the underworld and the gods he meets there?

Now, not only am I excited to answer mythology questions sometimes again, but I especially love this one because it made such a perfect excuse to show off some of the in-book art for the game. Each pantheon has a cosmological map detailing important places in their mythic universe, and since so much of the Egyptian universe is concerned with Duat and what's going on down there, their map is a perfect companion to talking about Ra's journey on the cosmic barques. Here's the Egyptian cosmology map:

There he is up there, even! Still on the daytime part of his journey, clearly, but we can move on to talking about the less daytime parts. There are full writeups about a lot of these locations in the book, actually, but here's a quick simplified version!

At the edge of the world lies the Watercourse of Ra, the great source of the Nile river that travels out of the world of mere humanity and into Duat. Entering upon the river, the barque is greeted by six serpents with flaming breath, who guard the passage into Duat and allow none who might harm Ra to pass by them. After passing the first of the pillared gates that separate each region of Duat, the barque enters Ur-Nes, the land of the shadowy boats, which float upon the waters seemingly without any captain or crew and carry the souls of the dead onward to the great fields of wheat and plenty that await them. At the end of Ur-Nes is the Watercourse of the One God, where the beautiful kingdom of Osiris stands; but, of course, Ra will not be staying here, as he is only temporarily dead and has places to be come tomorrow.

The barque passes the Pits of Fire, where souls of the wicked dead are tormented, and also past the pits is the Land of Living Forms, where the river falls into a fathomless ravine and is engulfed by the desert of Seker, which is as far as any of the dead who are not gods themselves can travel. In the desert, the barque barque transforms into a great serpent, the better to travel through the parched sands when a boat can no longer carry the god onward, with Ra and his entourage in its snaky mouth. The serpent carries on to the Hidden Land, the abode of Seker and the great sphinxes of the underworld, and then to the Abyss of Waters, where many of the gods are said to dwell, but again Ra can't stop and visit, although it's said that the other deities often come out to pay respects to his passage as he goes by.

The Secret Cavern is the most dangerous portion of the journey, since it's where the great serpent Apep lies in wait, intent on swallowing Ra and bringing eternal darkness to the world; this is where Horus and Set battle the serpent each night, and where the other gods who join them on the barque struggle to make sure that the sun can rise again tomorrow and the world won't be plunged into chaos. (And this is pretty relevant, considering that there was a solar eclipse that took a shot at the venerable old god last week in southern North America!) The barque then continues on past the Sarcophagus of the Gods, where the graves of all gods who have died remain (although these gods, too, call out to pay their respects when Ra passes by), until it reaches the Procession of Images, where serpents belch flame to light the way and guard the barque, which has returned to its original form.

The Lofty Banks lie beyond the Procession of Images, the home of the greatest among the Egyptian gods, and they come out to provide light and encouragement to Ra to see him the rest of the way through Duat’s many gates. The Mouth of the Cavern comes next and leads to the land of Ra himself, who rules and maintains it when not busy; and finally, at the easternmost edge of Duat, lies the land where Darkness has Fallen and Births Shine, the place of rebirth and rising at each new morning. Here Ra enters the mouth of the great golden serpent Ka-en-ankh-neteru, the Life of the Gods, and through it is reborn to embark upon the solar barque and rise into the sky to cross the world as a new day’s sun.

There's a lot of complex symbolic and representational value in each of these steps, some of it easy to unearth from casual scholarship, some of it probably requiring an Egyptian Antiquities degree to really get into, but that's the basic gist of it!


  1. Hi It was Me Nicolas Milioni who sent the question. I'm so bloody grateful right now, my favorite thing your work are those mythology posts,they're just so FUN!
    And i love Ra,he's so cool.

    1. Hello, thank you for the question! :) I'm so glad you enjoy the posts! Ra is indeed awesome in every sense of the word.

  2. I can't wait to see the Hindu's cosmological map since I know next to nothing on that religion.

    1. Hindu cosmology comes in two major flavors... the old Vedic system, and the newer Puranic one. In the Vedic age, there were only Three Worlds... Bhu, the Earth, embodied by the goddess Prithvi... Svar, the Heavens, embodied by the goddess Dyaus (Yes goddess... Dyaus' gender is in constant flux in the Vedas and seems to change to fit the hymn situation, but other texts also mention a Goddess Dyaus, so while the Sky Father Dyaus Pita may have been a thing in the mists of time, is negotiable, and I prefer the Goddess version) and Bhuvar, the In-Between, the Space between Heaven and Earth, embodied by the Goddess Aditi.

      Humans live on Earth, whose principal deity is Agni, the Ancestors live in In-Between, with the principle deity being Indra, and the Gods live in Heaven, with the principle deity being the Sun.

      Now that was the simple Vedic system... the Puranic era is more complex and is often called 'The Fourteen Planes of Existence' but that's a lie because there's actually 16, not 14 :)

      These 16 realms are divided into the seven upper realms, the seven lower realms, one realm that is lower than the lowest, and one realm that is higher than the highest.

      The lowest nadir of Hindu cosmology, right above the Primordial Waters, is Naraka, Hell, where Yama judges should and punishes the wicked before sending them off to a new life. Depending on who you ask, the blessed Ancestors live in Yama's palace as honored guests, though they may also be in one of the upper realms depending on the version.

      Above Naraka, the lowest of the seven lower realms is Nagaloka, also known as Patala, where reside the Great Serpents, Ananta and Vasuki and their ilk... some say their hoods support all the realms above.

      Above that is Rasatala, traditional abode of the Asura.

      Above that is Mahatala, abode of the Naga, serpent children of the snake demigoddess Kadru (think of these serpents and the ones lower down like the elder and younger Cyclops of Greek myth... similar beings but on very different power levels and origins).

      Above that is Talatala, realm of Mayasura, the great demon architect and illusionist... this realm is full of his wondrous creations, both real and unreal, and enterprising heroes may find useful items here, depending on the mood of their Lord.

      Above that is Sutala, abode of the demon king Bali... Bali was pushed down here by Vishnu's dwarf incarnation but he so pleased Vishnu with his devotion that Vishnu made this level a paradise to equal Indra's heaven, and personally stands guard over it... Bali is a great and just ruler, and all his subjects live in prosperity. According to some beliefs, when the universe ends, Bali and his wife will survive, and they'll be made the Indra and Indrani of the next universe.

      Above that is Vitala, where an aspect of Shiva and Parvati rule, eternally united in sexual intercourse... their fluids flow through the land in a great river of pure gold, and the ghoulish inhabitants of this realm are all decked out in gold from this river.

      Above that, the highest of the seven lower realms is Atala, home to Mayasura's son, who populates his pleasant realm with beautiful people to suit all tastes, such that most visitors find themselves never wanting to leave.

      (I'll describe the upper realms in another post, I don't think the box can take anymore).

    2. The first of the seven upper realms is Bhuloka, which is Earth... you know what it's like, you live here :)

      The second of the Upper realms is Bhuvarloka, the In-Between Space reason between Heaven and Earth, where any number of semi divine beings live, such as the yakshas and kinnaras. The Blessed Ancestors are also sometimes said to live here, in a throwback to Vedic beliefs.

      Above that is Svargaloka, Indra's Heaven where Indra and his Court of gods live. Another possible abode for the Ancestors, depending on whom you ask.

      These ten realms (the seven lower plus the first three upper ones) are sometimes collectively called Mrityuloka, literally, the plane of Death, because all beings in three planes will eventually die. In addition, these planes depend on the eternal creative power of Brahma to continue existing, and therefore when Brahma goes to sleep at the end of his day (which is roughly 4320000000 years so we've got a while) these ten realms dissolve back into primordial nothingness, to be recreated when Brahma awakes at the end of his night (which is of the same duration as his day). The realms above these are got those beings who have transcended the cycle of death and rebirth.

      Above Svarga is Maharloka, the realm of the mighty, where great devotees and powerful sages go.

      Above that is Jnanaloka, the realm of knowledge, where the most knowledgeable and wise and enlightened of sages go.

      Above that is Tapaloka, realm of austerity whose enlightened inhabitants drew in eternal contemplation of the divine.

      Above that, the highest of the seven upper realms is Satyaloka, the Place of Truth. Traditional scripture makes this the abode of Brahma, but more recent interpretations say that Satyaloka is the combined essence of Brahma's domain, Brahmaloka, Vishnu's domain Vaikuntha and Shiva's domain Kailash, since the Trimurti and Tridevi are Truth, their combined realms are the Abode of Truth.

      Higher than Satyaloka, is the Highest... the domain of the Supreme Divinity... for Vaishnavite Hindus, this is the domain of Vaikuntha, for Krishna worshippers, His Goloka realm is here... for Shaivite Hindus, Shivaloka resides here, and for Shakta Hindus, Durga's Domain of ManiDvipa (the crystal continent) also known as Akshara Dhaam (the home that does not decay) holds sway above all else. All Hindus can agree that the highest of the realms, higher than the high, is the domain of supreme divinity and reality, even if they can't quite agree on who that is :)

      Hope that helps Donner, feel free to ask me any questions :)

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    4. Hi Samudra. Sinc you're sharing knowledge today,can i ask you to tell me more about rishis? Especially bhrigu, i know he cursed vishnu but is there any other great deeds to his name? And can you tell other times the rishis beat the gods?

    5. Hi Nicholas :)

      Bhrigu has actually done a full sweep of the Trimurti... legend says that Bhrigu was once asked to determine which of the Trimurti was most worthy of respect, so he went to visit each one. He went to Brahma, but Brahma was busy litening to Sarasvati playing music and did not hear him enter Brahmaloka... incensed at not being given the respect due to a Sage visitor, Bhrigu cursed Brahma to never receive worship. He then went to Kailash, where Shiva was busy watching Parvati dance, and did not see Bhrigu enter... again angered, Bhrigu cursed Shiva that he would only be worshipped in phallus form.

      Finally Bhrigu went to Vishnu, who (you guessed it) was busy talking to Lakshmi and didn't notice him enter Vaikuntha... so Bhrigu, utterly fed up with the Trimurti, just straight up kicked Vishnu in the chest. Vishnu, who probably remembered the last time he had a run-in with Bhrigu, promptly fell to his feet and massaged Bhrigus feet in supplication... pleased, Bhrigu declared that Vishnu was most worthy of respect amongst the three, and walked off... of course, the story doesn't end there. Lakshmi is mad that Bhrigu kicked Vishnu in the chest (since Lakshmi resides in Vishnu's heart, he technically kicked HER) and leaves Vishnu. When Vishnu tries to follow her, she sends him into a coma. Brahma and Shiva turn into a pair of cows and help Vishnu come around again and many other shenanigans later, Vishnu and Lakshmi make up.

      Then there's Anusuya... Anusuya is the wife of the Sage Atri and a mighty Sage in her own right. The story goes that a young Brahmin lay dying, when his wife saw the Yamadutas, Yama's messengers, coming towards him... they informed her that he would die at dawn, so the young Brahmin's wife uses her Sage powers to stop the sun from rising. This of course causes some issue in Indra's court, as Surya is unable to do his job because this young Brahmin's wife won't let him... so they go to Anusuya. Anusuya speaks to the young girl and convinces her to let sunrise happen. Of course, her husband dies, but Anusuya, being a Rishika (female Rishi), just brings him back to life immediately, because that kind of thing really isn't a big deal for Rishis.

      Anusuya's fame spreads far and wide until even the Tridevi hear of her, and hear that some people have started to worship her as a Goddess equal to them. They're pissed, and ask their husbands to test if she is really worthy of all this praise. So the Trimuti disguise themselves as Brahmins and go to Anusuya begging for alms... she promises to feed them, at which point the Trimurti say that they will only accept the offering if she does it naked. Now Anusuya is in a bind... she promised to feed them, but she also has no interest in stripping for them. So, she turns the Supreme Lords of the Universe, into babies, and proceeds to breast feed baby Brahma, baby Vishnu and baby Shiva. Only later does she allow them to return to normal, and the three even agree to be born to her in one combined incarnation: Dattatreya.

    6. Then there's Vishvamitra... Vishvamitra is a Rishi known for both his immense temper for those who get on his wrong side, and his genuine niceness if you get on his right side. Once, a king named Trishankhu said that he wished to go to Heaven while still alive. The Sage Vashistha refused to help him in this, and when he approached Vashistha's sons, the sons were angered that he was trying to turn them against their father, and cursed him to become untouchable. Vishvamitra heard of this and vowed to send Trishanku to Heaven... and with his powers Trishanku began rising up... but Indra would not allow an untouchable into Heaven, so he stoped him, so Trishanku was floating in In-Between Heaven and Earth.
      Furious that Indra had dared oppose him, Vishvamitra immediately not only transformed Trishanku back to normal, he brought forth another Heaven, filled with it's own Devas and other immortals, and installed Trishanku there as Indra... this second Heaven was far more wondrous than the first, and Trishanku began ruling the world as Indra with his own court of Devas. Horrified at this, Indra and his court begged Vishvamitra's forgiveness, and finally it was decided that Trishanku's Heaven would move to the Southern Hemisphere while Indra would stay where he is (Trishanku in Indian astronomy is the constellation Southern Cross).

      That is a sampling of Sages thrashing Gods in Hindu myth :) (very technically speaking, a Rishi is a Sage that has composed some kind of hymn or sacred text, but in common Hindu parlance the word is used to mean just Sage in general)

    7. Holy mother. I want to party with those dudes,they make enlightenment sounds even more badass

  3. You should totally teach classes about these myths. I can perceive how much you love them. I thank you

    1. Thank you :D I love these stories since I grew up with a lot of them, and I love re-telling them as well, so I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  4. As a weird synchronicity, my wife and I were just discussing Re/Ra and the solar barque on the night before this was posted. I'd be interested in something that talks about the Gods and Goddesses who traveled on the barque with Re/Ra [BTW - is that pronounced "Raaa" or is it "Ray"?], and what the did. Seth in particular seems to have changed from a defender of the Solar barque to an antagonist over the centuries, while past went from warrior to pampered temple cat. Perhaps a future post?

    1. Sounds like an awesome future post to me!

      ("Ra" is pronounced "rah", generally speaking, and "Re" is pronounced "ray". Modern orthogrophy is a mess that way. The basic problem is that ancient Egyptian vowels are written down, but we don't know for sure what sound they made because everyone who knew was long dead by the time we started trying to figure it out, so whether you put an A or an E depends on the scholarly tradition of transliteration you subscribe to. So the actual name is "Rˤ" but what that vowel is actually pronounced as is a matter of taste and linguist studies loyalty.)

    2. Well, that answers the question, though it's impossible to "clear it up" without a time machine. :-) Thanks!