This Week’s Prompt: 100. Subterranean region beneath placid New England village, inhabited by (living or extinct) creatures of prehistoric antiquity and strangeness.
The Resulting Story:
The underground and underworld are topics of human imagination for as long as humans have been around. It’s of little surprise, since the world below is an almost alien notion—neither plants nor sun seem to be there, but at the same time things spring from it. In this case, Mr. Lovecraft wants to point to prehumen or at least prehistoric. And for that, we have a startling amount to find in folklore. We discussed some of this before—but most of this is new.
We can start of course with the creations of the worlds before this one. One Othama story tells of worlds buried in layers beneath this one. The first one, inhabited by the first race of humans, never suffered age or sickness. However, without these, the immortals grew too numerous and devoured everything, before turning to cannibalism. They were wiped out, and the sky collapsed on them, forming the next world. Here age was introduced, but it grew quicker with each generation—and so they were wiped out. The next age smoking tobacco spread down the generations too fast—and so they too were buried. Before the forth and current world was made, the gods noticed that the world was slightly off balance—each collapsed sky had tilted farther and farther up in the east. After raising the west to balance it, they placed the current race of humans.
The Dine have a slightly different story, presenting a layered world but not layered creations. Instead, humanity ascends through each world after being driven out of the one before it. Battles often follow, although one document suggests the third world was abandoned after Coyote kidnapped two of Water Buffalo’s children. The fourth world was found too barren for habitation, and the final ascent was into this world, the fifth world.
The Zuni have another tale of underground peoples in the same area. Here these people are not quiet dead, but not quiet alive. They live opposite lives of humans—food is toxic too them, but they can live on vapors and steam. They are ‘incomplete’, and able to shift their shape. One story tells how two heroic twins heard the wailing and war calls of these people, and went down to learn of their nature. The twins used magic to travel down into the underworld, entering a dark lake with their shields on backwards.
They discovered what we have already revealed—but also that the unmade men cannot be hurt by strong blows and weapons, but only by soft and normally delicate things like grass. The wind of straw becomes a wind of arrows below, and the touch of a jay bird landing on them is like lightening. The twins try and teach their own ways to make them stronger, but are disdained as eaters of refuse and monsters by the people there.
Further south, we find the Maya. We have here a number of chthonic and underground realms. In the Popul Vuh, the world below is Xibalba, the land of the dead. Here we find the houses of bats and obsidian, rivers of pus and scorpions. We also find in more modern times the Earthlords. These spirits are rich but flighty, and live far away from any towns. They dress as colonial Spaniards and ride horses—and with their immense wealth comes the power to be both cruel and kind without worry.
Among the Ainu, there are conflicting descriptions of the underground. At least one version claims that the bottom of the underworld, seven layers down, is where great thunder gods battle. When one die, they are restored to the heavenly abodes and shoot back down to their place of war, forming lighting bolts. These battling gods fight over fields of paradise, far enough away that they will not destroy the world.
Other accounts suggest that the world is like a coin—on this side, we live. On the other side, the gods and others live in a paradisaical existence or demons live a hellish one. Both trample down the ground, keeping it even.
Among the Tonga, the underworld contains Maui Atalanga’s garden, where his mischievous son Maui Kijikiji discovered fire. Fire was held by Maui Kijikiji’s grandfather, who loaned his grandson some of it—only for him to repeatedly put it out. At last, he gave him the hole log in frustration, which Kijikiji tried to smuggle out. Atalanga caught him, and forced him to return it—but didn’t notice that some of Kijikiji’s loincloth had caught on fire. There also grows a nonu tree, who’s leaves restore the dead. In Maori stories, Maui (and my source indicates only one Maui) is a descendant of the inhabitants of the underworld, and steals fire from the below as well, and discover his heritage like Maui Kijikiji by following his father and finding a secret road to the below. He stole fire more properly, with no father trying to stop him as directly.
There is a mountain in Basque country that has a darker below, it’s entire interior full of Satanic worshipers. Strange songs are sung and resound out, smoke rises from burnt offerings. I discussed the fullness of the origin of these omens on patreon, but at least in part the regular witches sabbath begins here, and it appears the mountain is named after these gatherings (Aqualarre–a mountain I can’t find on the world maps).
Welsh mountains and mines are said to be inhabited by coblynbeau. The cobyln is a knocker or thumper in the mine. They stand about a foot and a half tall in miners clothes, and attend to a variety of activities in a mine with no clear purpose. If irritated they will throw stones at miners. At least one account reports that they are busy in their own, spectral coal mines and thus are only seen when they are on holiday.
Their German cousins, however, are less friendly. The German miner will hear three distinct knocks to mark his doom from the knockers, and smaller knocks for lesser evils. These are a tad taller as well, and will even go to unwork the miners efforts. Some even report that these kobolds will place wicked metal in the ores if insulted, seeking to poison miners who have displeased them. On other times, they will work to ensure a miner with their favor strikes a particularly rich vein of metal—more aid then the average cobyln.
In Ulster, fairies can be found in clefts and caverns—and speaking with them can have dire consequences of deafness or loss of speech. Demolishing one fortress that the faeries dwelled in lead to the death of every laborer, and a number of caverns beneath the fortress had a tendency to swallow up cattle plowing nearby. These caverns could even be hidden from mortal eyes, and held prisoners within, and some were laid on their side so movement required going down a central hole. Some of these are built by a group known as the Danes—however, these appear distinct from the real Danes, as they were wiped out in a massacre by the current population of Ireland in most accounts. They had sandy hair, long limbs, and large feet. They are joined by the Pechts, who could slip through a keyhole. The pechts dress in grey cloths or skins, and will work the field—however, if they are paid in food they will grow offended and flee. The pechts are said to be particularly numerous, capable of standing in a single line and passing dirt from one end of Ireland to the other without moving a foot. These two are sometimes conflated with fairies, a group we could write on for ages.
The underground in Arabia has such strange wonders as well—massive caverns guarded by automatons and talisman gates. Buried in the earth in one story is a crown that made one the king of all of India, realms of riches. Maps to these places, and information on how to navigate their terrors, were the starts of many an expedition.
In the pulps and works around H.P. Lovecraft, of course, there are other underground and subterranean locales. There was the world of Vril, a land where men and women turned hidden and occult powers of life for their own uses. There was the Hollow Earth, where perhaps ancient species and people survived—a notion that perhaps owes some of its origins to the disgust at notions of extinction, and partly to the lack of exploration of the depths. The idea that dinosaurs were not wiped out by the Creator but persisted in some yet unseen place was strong for a long time. Mr. Lovecraft put a number of caverns beneath the world, from ones used for Satanic rites to ones in the distant Antarctic to systems beneath castles that hide ancestral fears.
These stories present us a swath of dangers in the underworld, even if uninhabited. And we have yet to the touch on the clearest meaning, that both terms of antiquity and prehistory suggest—that the depths of the world are old and historically heavy. They are places full of potential riches lost to time and things time has swallowed up. From lost creations of cannibals, to the origins of flame, to things made of smoke instead of flesh…I wonder what we will find, when we descend below?
Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. E.P. Dutton 1919.
Batchelor, John. The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901
O’Bryan, Aileen. The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians. Smithsonian Institute, 1955
Collcott,E. E. “Legends from Tonga. The Maui.” Folklore Vol 32, No. 1, March 31 1921.
Cushing, Frank Hamilton. “A Zuni Folk-Tale of the Underworld”. The Journal of American Folklore Vol 5., No. 16, American Folklore Society Jan-March 1892.
Jackson, Georgina F. Shropeshire Folklore: A Sheaf of Cleanings. 1883
Popul Vuh: Sacred Book of The Quiche Maya. Translated by: Allen J. Christenson. University of Oklahoma, 2007.
Watanabe, John. “From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism.” American Ethnologist. Vol 17. No 1. Feb 1990.
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