Underworld travel myths to help DMs build dungeons

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The fantasy role-playing game Dungeons, the world’s first modern role-playing game, focuses heavily on the concept of heroic adventurers exploring underground catacombs full of monsters, treasure, traps and the walking dead, much like cultural heroes in the myriad mythologies of the world often travel through subterranean afterlife who known as the underworlds. The following underworld myths, primal and symbolic, are great sources for D&D Dungeon Masters who want to design a dungeon map that will challenge their players and defy their expectations.

In ancient Greek literature, the word “katabasis” was used to describe any type of journey in which the traveler continuously descends to a lower altitude. Aside from military maneuvers and mountain excursions, the term “katabasis” was frequently used by Greco-Roman storytellers when they spoke of mythical journeys to the underworld, such as the 12th Work of Heracles or the Journey of Orpheus. Hades, a roguelike role-playing game set in the underworld of Greek mythology, reverses the formula with its demigod protagonist striving to break out of the underworld instead of invading the underworld. In these myths and similar stories from Egyptian or Akkadian mythology, heroes and gods left their normal worlds to enter a world of darkness, monsters and dark magic, to defy death and far worse fates in order to receive valuable rewards such as treasure and knowledge win the future or the resurrection of a loved one.

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Underworld myths like this had a strong influence on 20th century fantasy fiction, which in turn had a major influence on Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they came up with the first iteration of Dungeons in the 1970s. The old school dungeon crawling of D&D, in turn, influenced other tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs. Referring to the following myths and legends about heroes traveling to underground realms of death, Dungeon Masters are working on one D&D Game scenario can tap into powerful mythical archetypes and create challenges for its players that are more than just fighting monsters and trying to discover traps.


D&D Adjacent: Aeneas’ Descent and Return from the Underworld

When Virgil was commissioned by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, to write an epic poem in the style of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Created Rome’s most famous poet The Aeneid, a 12-volume lyrical saga about Aeneas, a prince from the fallen city of Troy who wanders the Mediterranean Sea and eventually founds the city of Rome himself. In book 6 of The Aeneid, Aeneas embarks on a long and beautifully described journey through the underworld to visit the shadows of his ancestors, accompanied by a 700 year old woman and prophetess named Deiphobe. Virgil’s description of the agonizing Kingdom of Tartarus and the peaceful Kingdom of Elysium ended with defining the modern Christian concepts of heaven and hell … and with it the upper and lower levels of the Dungeons Multiverse.


Virgil also took many references from Greek myths such as the journeys of Orpheus and Odysseus, while adding his own unique twists to the journey of Aeneas: instead of taming the three-headed dog Cerberus with strength or song, the oracle Deiphobe lulls the dog to sleep a stunned cake. In addition, Aeneas must find and trim a golden branch before embarking on his journey through the afterlife, a gift he must give to Persephone, queen of the underworld.

D&D Adjacent: Sun Wukong wins immortality for his monkey kingdom

Dungeons and Dragons Underworld Myths Monkey King Yama Demons

Whenever ancient demigod heroes like Gilagamesh or Orpheus enter the underworld to gain the gift of immortality or to resuscitate loved ones from death, their heroic quests generally end in failure and become parables about the inevitability of death and the meaning make the most of your mortal life. And then there is Sun Wukong, the infamous “Monkey King” hero from the Chinese classic Journey to the west, of immortality on no fewer than five different occasions.


Related: History of the Cleric Fantasy Character Class in RPG (& Mythology)

Sun Wukong falls asleep and travels to the underworld in his dreams after gaining magical powers of longevity and shape-changing from a Daoist sage and then using them to defend his ape kingdom from some aggressive demons. When the servants of King Yama try to drag the dreaming Monkey King into hell, Sun Wukong fights armies of demons and spirits and finally intimidates the rulers of hell into giving him the “book of life and death”. Sun Wukong erases his name from the book along with any names of his subjects he can find, gaining immortality for his mountain monkeys and additional immortality for himself.


D&D adjacent: Mwindo chases his careless father into the underworld

Dungeons and Dragons Underworld Myths Mwindo

the Epic of Mwindo is a story from the mythology of the Nyanga people in Central Africa traditionally told by storytellers through drama, dance and the use of percussion instruments. The protagonist of this story, the defending champion Mwindo, is a magical boy born to the wife of a chief who only wanted daughters. After using his powers to survive when he was sealed in a drum and thrown into a river by his father (and joined the ranks of other river-thrown heroes like Moses or Karna), Mwindo grows in the care of his aunt and sets up an army to overthrow his father and then pursues his frightened, negligent father into the underworld himself.


Notable highlights of Mwindo’s afterlife adventures include the tricky challenges facing the underworld god Muisa (planting and growing a banana forest in a single day, then collecting honey from a beehive in a petrified tree) and Mwindo’s magical horsehair fly swatter “Conga”, a symbol of royalty with which Mwindo then kills its enemies, much like jaded high-level D&D Cleric, bring her back to life later whenever he feels like it.

D&D adjacent: Lemminkäinen’s mother rescues him from the rivers of death

Dungeons and Dragons Underworld Myths Lemminkäinen Mother

the Kalevala, Finland’s National Epic, is a collection of stories full of heroic and villainous protagonists – the ruthless Kullvero and his speaking sword, Illmarinen, the blacksmith who owned a wealthy artifact called The. forged Sampo, the magical bard Väinämöinen and Lemminkäinen, a red-haired playboy whose attempts to attract beautiful women get him into trouble. In one of Lemminkäinen’s stories, he tries to overcome a series of challenges posed by Louhi, the witch queen of the north, in order to obtain permission to marry one of her beautiful daughters. While trying to catch a black swan in the Tuonela underworld, Lemminkäinen falls into a river and drowns.


Lemminkäinen’s mother (never mentioned in history) lets Illmarinen forge a copper rake with which she dredges Lemminkäinen’s dismembered body parts from the underworld river. She sews Lemminkäinen’s body back together and brings it back to life with an ointment made from magic honey. Interestingly enough, Gary Gygax let himself be heard from Lemminkäinen and other magic-singing protagonists of the Kalevala in shaping the character of Mordenkainen, a particularly famous one Dungeons Magician protagonist.

Next: D&D classes and sub-classes for players who want to make Blacksmith PCs




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