From all parts of the world come myths and legends about the underworld, a mysterious and shadowy place beyond ordinary human experience. The underworld is the realm of the dead, the destination of human souls in the afterlife. In some traditions, it is also the home of nonhuman, supernatural, or otherworldly beings such as fairies, demons, giants, and monsters. Although usually portrayed as a terrifying, dangerous, or unpredictable place, the underworld appears as a source of growth, life, and rebirth in some myths. Many descriptions of the underworld include elements of earthly life, such as powerful rulers and palaces.

The most common idea of the underworld is that it lies beneath the everyday world. The passage from this world to the other may begin by descending into a cave, well, or pit. However, the distance between the two worlds is more than physical, and the spiritual journey involved often includes great peril. The souls of the dead are the principal travelers, but sometimes living heroes, mystics, and shamans also make the journey.

The Land of the Dead. Many cultures believe that after death the soul travels to the underworld. In some traditions the passage to or through the underworld is part of a process that involves judgment of the individual's deeds when alive, and perhaps punishment for evil deeds. In others the underworld is simply the destination of all the dead, good and bad alike.

Some of the earliest descriptions of the underworld occur in myths from ancient Mesopotamia*. One tells how the fertility goddess Inanna, later known as Ishtar, descends into the kingdom of the dead, ruled by her sister Ereshkigal. Trying to overthrow Ereshkigal, Inanna is killed. The other gods convince Ereshkigal to release Inanna, but Inanna cannot leave the underworld without finding someone to take her place. She determines that her husband, Dumuzi or Tammuz, should be her substitute. Some scholars believe that this myth is related to the annual death and rebirth of vegetation.

The underworld Inanna visits is the same as that described in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, in which the character Enkidu has a vision of himself among the dead. The underworld described is a dim, dry, dreary place called the House of Darkness, a house that none who enter leave. The dead dwell in darkness, eating dust and clay. Although recognizable as individuals, they are pale and powerless shadows of their former selves.

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