For something that is as inevitable a part of their life as their birth, humans seem to have become very bad at dying. Always preferring to look the other way, treading unsteadily backwards whilst time moves steadily forwards. They think that under the bright white light of the hospital room and with the clear potions that flow into their veins they will cheat it somehow. That it is an offer they can turn down. I wonder why.
So as you were asking, I suppose I could show you how to get into the Underworld to have a look around for yourself. If you chose you could do what I have done and watch people die over and over and learn how to get there on your own. I can show you the route, however, should you decide that business is really not for you, thank you very much. I will tell you about some things we might learn on the way.
I am a guide, someone who accompanies the deceased to the afterlife, so I know all the hidden entrances. The old word for my kind was psychopomp. The name sounds silly dropped into modern conversation but this is all that it means in translation – guide of souls. In older times, they made stories of us on cold, moonless nights. The guide might be in any of a number of forms – an ancient god with winged feet and a bag of tricks, a blinding angel wreathed in fire or a black raven sitting quietly on a branch looking at you with one eye. Or someone earthlier still – a doctor, say, in a white coat on which you perhaps notice the small drop of blood on the sleeve. If you wanted to learn to be such a guide then you must also learn not to judge the souls you take. That really is not part of the job.
You will need a gold coin as payment. Any one will do but don’t bother coming without one because you will end up stuck on the bank of the last river for at least a hundred years. And I don’t have any restaurant recommendations for that particular part of purgatory.
I wonder what interest you have in these matters then?
It might be that you are trying to find a certain person to tell them the words you should have spoken whilst they were still alive.
It might be that you desperately want to bring that same person back because you miss them.
It might be that you want to hear portents of your future and when you might die yourself, because they say that the dead have that power of foretelling.
Or it might just be that you are curious in a kind of creepy rich tourist way.
We will use one particular entrance but there are many others. We will find the River Acheron in north-western Greece and follow it into one of its underground caverns. And I know what you are thinking. Isn’t it the River Styx? But it turns out it is more complex than that and there are five rivers in the Underworld and actually it is mostly said to be the Acheron where Charon rows. When you look at photographs of it in the travel brochures it will look green and cool and inviting, such that you can picture its waters drifting languidly amongst the trees. You will be thinking it doesn’t seem that bad. I will show you the black lake in the cavern it flows into and the distant island across its waters. It is possible you might not find it so inviting then.
But let’s keep going because there are other interesting things to see.
By the way don’t go on one of those cheaper tours that take you to the Necromanteion, an old building on a cliff above the Acheron. You will say it is just ruins. That is now true. It used to be sold as a way to enter the Underworld. Except the ancient priests would take your money, get you very high on some concoction of drugs, and then lead you into a chamber full of hallucinogenic smoke where one of them would swing from a contraption pretending to be a ghost. Sounds pretty lame doesn’t it? It was.
I digress. We will get across the lake using your coin and I will introduce you to Hades and Persephone sitting regally on their thrones. You will think he looks stern but not as dark as you might have expected. Just maybe a bit bored. And she will look both distant, like she doesn’t really want to be there, and petrifying, when she turns to you and looks directly into your heart.
At that point I will take my leave of you for I have other places to be. You will be a little surprised because you thought it was a round trip. But I will point out that the ticket I gave you at the start said “Non-return”.
Alex Kazemi lives in Auckland, New Zealand where he works as a doctor and moves in and out of some strange worlds. He is an emerging writer and has had work accepted for publication in Thin Air Magazine. Generally speaking he doesn’t mind the dark.