When you gotta go, you gotta go. And I’m not referring to the toilet, but to somewhere that (we hope) exists after death.
As this is sort of an important thing to consider as mortal beings, guess what? Our polytheistic ancestors gave a lot of thought to that as well, graciously allowing me to put up this list of 5 dark gods ruling over death or hell.
In the past of course, because since the monotheistic religions made such a splash and pushed them aside and more recently with the advent of science, these guys are probably enjoying a long-deserved and fairly long-lasting holiday from their usual responsibilities. Or are they?! (Queue in suspenseful music).
Of course there were literally… zzzzzounds of other gods with other functions as well. But you’re more interested in the baddies around whom all the cool and fun stuff seems to happen, riiiight?
1. Angra Mainyu/Ahriman
Ahura Mazda meaning the Lord Creator and Supremely Wise respectively is the Supreme Being of the Zoroastrian religion that for more than a thousand years (600 Bc – 650 CE) was the state religion of what is present day Iran, and in the past Persia.
Spenta Mainyu is the Good Spirit by which Ahura Mazda performs good works for humanity.
Angra Mainyu is the Angry Spirit, the destructive force that works to undo all that Ahura Mazda strives towards. Though initially just Angra Mainyu was discussed in Zoroastrianism, later Ahriman appeared as a personification of Angra Mainyu.
Ahriman uses deceit and lust to lure humans away from Ahura Mazda.
If it sounds familiar so far it’s because it’s the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, with a clear duality of good and evil and it just so happens that it influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
However, it is said that Ahriman and Ahura Mazda decide together where a person goes after his/her death, in a win for equality and non-discrimination fit for our modern sensibilities.
An example from one of the oldest civilizations, the Egyptians.
Initially Anubis was the god of the afterlife. And he had several functions in this capacity including guarding the graves, being a master embalmer and most importantly being a judge at the testing of a person’s soul after death.
The test involved placing the deceased’s heart on one side of a scale and a feather on the other. If the person’s heart weighed less than the feather the person would be rewarded with ascension to heaven, where they would be led by Anubis as part of his role. If the person’s heart was heavier, it would be devoured by Anubis, along with the person’s soul.
Top points for poetic imagery.
Around the time of the middle kingdom Anubis was replaced by Osiris as god of the underworld, with variations, but mostly the same function and role.
Since the Norse didn’t have a black and white, good vs. evil conception of the world, it’s not a linear path when it comes to what happens to someone after death, but let’s try anyway.
So, option one: die of old age or illness. You go to Hel, goddess of the underworld (possibly where the Christian word for the concept of “Hell” came). It doesn’t sound like a fun place to be, as she is also credited as being the goddess of disease (once she was born, disease was born) and she’s also greedy, violent and merciless when she goes to villages to collect souls. However, in keeping with the non-linear Norse way of seeing things, she is depicted as both white and black, and both half dead and half alive, symbolizing both death and regeneration.
Option two point one: die in battle and (maybe) get taken by Odin to Valhalla, via Valkyries. Everyone knows this one. If you die a warrior’s death you go to Valhalla where you fight to prepare for Ragnarock (the Apocalypse) during the day and drink and… merry during the night, with all your wounds being healed. This happens to half those who died in battle.
Option two point two: die in battle and (maybe) get taken by Freyja to Fólkvangr, a meadow and training field where you do just what you would do in Valhalla. There’s even Freyja’s hall called Sessrúmnir (“filled with seats”) waiting inside Fólkvangr for your comfort. This happend to the other half of those who died in battle and is far less known. But juuust as interesting.
It’s unclear how the choice between Valhalla and Fólkvangr was made (possibly an early devotion and ritual dedication to Odin or Freyja when a boy became a warrior), but the half-half part is certain.
Finally, Ragnarock itself is a very complicated and convoluted matter. Suffice to say that Loki, the trickster god and appropriately enough the father of Hel and Fenrir, the wolf that will devour the world, and also very appropriately the brother of Hel, have big roles in it.
Moving on to the Slavs, this deity is mysterious not only because it’s name literally means “Black” and “God”, so The Dark God, but because there are not many historical sources to accurately pinpoint his role, functions, importance etc.
However, those that do exist, as well as some indirect linguistic evidence (mainly in the form of an imprecation to send someone or something to the dark god a.k.a. “go to hell” or “to hell with it”) suggest that he was known at least by the Western branches of the medieval Slavs.
And oral tradition, though conflicting, paints an interesting image of him being the opposite of Belobog/Bielobog or the good god (The White God). So, like in the case of Ahriman, whatever Belobog does, Chernobog strives to undo.
The cool HBO-drama worthy plot twist? In some versions of stories Chernobog and Belobog are one and the same god who doesn’t remember his “other” persona when it takes control, which also accounts for the change of seasons: autumn is Chernobog taking control and ruling completely in winter, while spring is the recovery of Belobog and subsequent absolute control in summer.
Surprise, surprise. In case you didn’t know, yes, Hades is the god of the underworld, but Thanatos is the god of death.
His name comes from “to die” or “to be dying”, which is … fitting, yes?
Though he is a minor figure in Greek mythology (I mean, hey, he just gets the job done, after which it’s Charon’s, Hades’, Cerberus’ and the gang’s responsibility), there is a lot of interesting poetry in Thanatos, stemming from his “background”.
Ahem. He is the son of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebos), because they really are different if you think about it, those witty old Greeks!
So, we could say that Night an Darkness beget death. If that’s not a subtle hint to an agrarian civilization, based on a diurnal species, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, in case that wasn’t subtle enough for ya, Thanatos is also the twin brother of Hypnos, the god of… sleep. Cool stuff.
But that’s not the only brother he has. All the other gods that personify negative things according to the Greeks (old age, strife, suffering etc.) are his brothers and sisters.
The good news? Thanatos is considered to be the god of peaceful death, while Keres is the one responsible for violent ones.