Gods and Goddesses of Death and the Underworld

Allegory of Death
Cultures around the world have honored the gods of death and dying. Peter Zelei Images / Getty Images

Death is rarely so apparent than it as at Samhain. The skies have gone gray, the earth is brittle and cold, and the fields have been picked of the last crops. Winter looms on the horizon, and as the Wheel of the Year turns once more, the boundary between our world and the spirit world becomes fragile and thin. In cultures all over the world, the spirit of Death has been honored at this time of the year. Here are just a few of the deities who represent death and the dying of the earth.

Did You Know?

  • Cultures around the world have gods and goddesses connected to death, dying, and the underworld.
  • Typically, these deities are associated with the darker half of the year, when the nights get longer and the soil goes cold and dormant.
  • Death gods and goddesses are not always considered malevolent; they are often just another part of the cycle of human existence.

Anubis (Egyptian)

Statue of Anubis at Vatican Museum
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This god with the head of a jackal is associated with mummification and death in ancient Egypt. Anubis is the one who decides whether or not one the deceased is worthy of entering the realm of the dead. Anubis is typically portrayed as half human, and half jackal or dog. The jackal has connections to funerals in Egypt; bodies which were not buried properly might be dug up and eaten by hungry, scavenging jackals. Anubis' skin is almost always black in images, because of its association with the colors of rot and decay. Embalmed bodies tend to turn black as well, so the color is very appropriate for a funeral god.

Demeter (Greek)

Face of Demeter, goddess of harvest
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Through her daughter, Persephone, Demeter is linked strongly to the changing of the seasons and is often connected to the image of the Dark Mother and the dying of the fields. Demeter was a goddess of grain and of the harvest in ancient Greece. Her daughter, Persephone, caught the eye of Hades, god of the underworld. When Hades abducted Persephone and took her back to the underworld, Demeter’s grief caused the crops on earth to die and go dormant. By the time she finally recovered her daughter, Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds, and so was doomed to spend six months of the year in the underworld.

These six months are the time when the earth dies, beginning at the time of the autumn equinox. Each year, Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter for six months. At Ostara, the greening of the earth begins once more, and life begins anew. In some interpretations of the story, Persephone is not held in the underworld against her will. Instead, she chooses to stay there for six months each year so that she can bring a little bit of brightness and light to the souls doomed to spend eternity with Hades.

Freya (Norse)

Statue of the Norse Goddess Freya in Stockholm.
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Although Freya is typically associated with fertility and abundance, she is also known as a goddess of war and battle. Half of the men who died in battle joined Freya in her hall, Folkvangr, and the other half joined Odin in Valhalla. Venerated by women, heroes and rulers alike, Freyja could be called upon for assistance in childbirth and conception, to aid with marital problems, or to bestow fruitfulness upon the land and sea.

Hades (Greek)

While Zeus became king of Olympus, and their brother Poseidon won domain over the sea, Hades got stuck with the land of the underworld. Because he’s unable to get out much, and doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with those who are still living, Hades focuses on increasing the underworld’s population levels whenever he can. Although he is the ruler of the dead, it’s important to distinguish that Hades is not the god of death — that title actually belongs to the god Thanatos.

Hecate (Greek)

Sculpture of Hecate, an ancient fertility goddess later associated with Hades and witches.
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Although Hecate was originally considered a goddess of fertility and childbirth, over time she has come to be associated with the moon, cronehood, and the underworld. Sometimes referred to as the Goddess of the Witches, Hecate is also connected to ghosts and the spirit world. In some traditions of modern Paganism, she is believed to be the gatekeeper between graveyards and the mortal world.

She is sometimes seen as a protector of those who might be vulnerable, such as warriors and hunters, herdsmen and shepherds, and children. However, she's not protective in a nurturing or motherly way; instead, she is a goddess who will exact vengeance upon those who cause harm to people she protects.

Hel (Norse)

This goddess is the ruler of the underworld in Norse mythology. Her hall is called Éljúðnir, and is where mortals go who do not die in battle, but of natural causes or sickness. Hel is often depicted with her bones on the outside of her body rather than the inside. She is typically portrayed in black and white, as well, showing that she represents both sides of all spectrums. She is a daughter of Loki, the trickster, and Angrboda. It is believed that her name is the source of the English word "hell," because of her connection to the underworld. 

Meng Po (Chinese)

Asian Senior with a Cup of Tea
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This goddess appears as an old woman — she may look just like your next-door neighbor — and it is her job to make sure that souls about to be reincarnated do not recall their previous time on earth. She brews a special herbal tea of forgetfulness, which is given to each soul before they return to the mortal realm.

Morrighan (Celtic)

This warrior goddess is associated with death in a way much like the Norse goddess Freya. The Morrighan is known as the washer at the ford, and it is she who determines which warriors walk off the battlefield, and which ones are carried away on their shields. She is represented in many legends by a trio of ravens, often seen as a symbol of death. In later Irish folklore, her role would be delegated to the bain sidhe, or banshee, who foresaw the death of members of a specific family or clan.

Osiris (Egyptian)

Osiris
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In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is murdered by his brother Set before being resurrected by the magic of his lover, Isis. The death and dismemberment of Osiris is often associated with the threshing of the grain during the harvest season. Artwork and statuary honoring Osiris typically portrays him wearing the pharaonic crown, known as the atef, and holding the crook and flail, which are the tools of a shepherd. These instruments often appear in the sarcophagi and funerary artwork depicting dead pharaohs, and the kings of Egypt claimed Osiris as part of their ancestry; it was their divine right to rule, as descendants of the god-kings.

Whiro (Maori)

This underworld god inspires people to do evil things. He typically appears as a lizard, and is the god of the dead. According to Maori Religion and Mythology by Esldon Best

"Whiro was the origin of all disease, of all afflictions of mankind, and that he acts through the Maiki clan, who personify all such afflictions. All diseases were held to be caused by these demons–these malignant beings who dwell within Tai-whetuki, the House of Death, situated in nether gloom."

Yama (Hindu)

In the Hindu Vedic tradition, Yama was the first mortal to die and make his way to the next world, and so he was appointed king of the dead. He is also a lord of justice, and sometimes appears in an incarnation as Dharma.