by Wm. Michael Mott
(c) 2000, Wm. Michael Mott

Subsurface Inhabitants in Folklore, Myth, and Literature


The legends, myths, and literature of mankind have always been filled with fanciful or terrifying accounts of underground lands and races, hidden from surface sight. Rumors of a largely-unseen reality, of cavern-worlds, hidden tunnel systems which criss-cross the globe, and the occasional accidental discovery of a larger, geode-structure within the Earth have migrated from the realms of folklore and early scientific speculation, and into literature--and perhaps back into folklore again.

When reading and studying the available fiction which touches upon the topic of a subterranean world, many similarities come to light, which is interesting insofar as the various writers were not necessarily familiar with one anothers' works. It is obvious that many of them drew upon folktales and mythology, as well as the latest scientific findings and theories of the day, drawing indeed upon a huge matrix of archetypes and forms with which to work. Religious traditions have also been a major influence on the development of fiction about subterranean worlds and inhabitants, and some brave souls have shared accounts of what they have believed to be their own encounters with the denizens that dwell within the Earth's crust. In this work all of these aspects of underworld studies, and more, will come under careful examination, but this is not so much an examination of the underworlds as it is of their inhabitants.


1. The East.

One of the earliest examples of subterranean stories is to be found in the Gilgamesh cycle of stories, which some would say is not so much fictitious as it is a distorted account of actual ancient events. Gilgamesh was an actual king who ruled Uruk (also called Unug) about 2600 B.C., and he was supposedly of half-divine origin. Like other heroes of ancient mythic cycles who were demigods, or semi-divine, Gilgamesh longed for an immortality which he saw as his birthright, much the same as Heracles of the Greeks. In one tale from his cycle, he befriends a physically powerful, hairy, subhuman character named Enkidu, and teaches him the customs of humanity. In a later tale, on behalf of his friend and king, Enkidu agrees to venture into the underworld of ancient Mesopotamia, to search for someone who has the secret of immortality. Other Sumerian accounts leave little doubt that the KUR, or KI-GAL (the "Great Below") was a place of immense size and great terror. This realm was ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal, a warlike god who had entered her queendom with plans of conquest, only to be seduced by the enemy, who became his wife. The KI-GAL was said to be filled with a wide range of beings, including the spirits and undead, reanimated bodies of human beings, and also savage guardians called "scorpion men." Other residents were described as sexless and robotic "artificial" beings called GALATUR or Gala, who were used by the rulers of the underworld for missions of kidnapping human beings from the surface world, or for other errands. Also present in the underworld were the UTUKKU, "eagle-headed" reptilian humanoids, which are probably the original djinn and ifrits of the ancient middle east. The latter beings are usually depicted with wings, representing their ability to fly when dispatched on the errands of the rulers of the underworld. Another strange race is the PAZUZU, a canine-faced, humanoid monstrosity with reptilian scales and tail. All of these are motifs which are found to permeate nearly every ancient underworld tradition, in one form or another, and have also found their way into folklore and literature.

Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, Tibet, Nepal, China, and Japan, have very similar traditions about subterranean inhabitants. In India there is a strong belief in the reality of the Nagas, a race of serpent-people or lizard-men who make their homes in two major underground cities (or civilizations), Patala and Bhogavati. The latter is said to be under the Himalayas, and from there the Nagas wage war on other, human, subterraneans, from the subsurface kingdoms of Agharta and Shambala. To this day, Patala is believed by millions of Hindus to have an entrance in the Well of Sheshna, in Benares. According to herpetologist and author Sherman A. Minton, as stated in his book "Venomous Reptiles," this entrance is very real, with forty steps which descend into a circular depression, to terminate at a closed stone door which is covered in bas-relief cobras. In Tibet, there is a major mystical shrine also called "Patala," which is said by the people there to sit atop an ancient cavern and tunnel system, which reaches throughout the Asian continent and possibly beyond. The Nagas also have an affinity with water, and the entrances to their underground palaces are often said to be hidden at the bottom of wells, deep lakes, and rivers.

The Nagas are described as a very advanced race or species, with a highly-developed technology. They also harbor a disdain for human beings, whom they are said to abduct, torture, interbreed with, and even to eat. The interbreeding has supposedly led to a wide variety of forms, ranging from completely reptilian to nearly-human in appearance. Among their many devices are "death rays" and "vimana,"" or flying, disk-shaped aerial craft. These craft are described at length in many ancient Vedic texts, including the Bhagivad-gita and the Ramayana. The Naga race is related to another underworld race, the Hindu demons, or Rakshasas. They also possess, as individuals, "magical stones," or a "third eye" in the middle of their brows, known to many students of eastern mysticism today as a focal point for one of the higher chakras, or energy channel-points, of the human(oid) nervous system--the chakra associated with "inner visions," intuition, and other esoteric concepts.

In China, the Lung Wang (Dragon Kings) closely resemble the Nagas in many respects. The Lung are said to dwell either in the "celestial realm," that is, the stars and planets, or beneath the surface of the Earth. . They, too, possess a "magical pearl" in their foreheads, a "mystical" or divine eye or source of power. Like the Nagas, some of the entrances to their palaces or kingdoms could be found beneath lakes and rivers, or behind waterfalls. Almost always, such entrances are well-hidden from the intrusive eyes--or feet--of mortal men and women.

One such entrance to the Chinese underworld was said to be in the "Eastern Mountain" of Taishan, near Qufu province. This entrance to the Chinese Hell was guarded by savage demons called Men Shen, often depicted as warriors wearing fierce, animalistic masks or faces.

There was also interaction between the Lords of Hell, as they were known, and the Dragon Kings. The four Hell-Kings, called Yan Luo or Yen Wang (possibly derived from the Hindu death-god, Yama), rule over a vast region which consists of eighteen levels or locales. In one tale, a Dragon King is robbed by an extremely clever and human-like "monkey," who is similar in many respects to the Hindu Hanuman (who in turn came into conflict with the Rakshasas of the underworld, in the Ramayana). Enkidu also comes to mind in this tale. The Dragon King calls on the help of the Yan Luo, who are in turn bested by "Monkey" as well.

The eighteen regions of the Chinese netherworld are beaurocratic, tedious systems or civilizations, an apparent mixture of Taoist and Buddhist ideas, with a strong influence from the latter.

Japanese hell is even more of an amalgam of different traditions, as it incorporates Chinese and Hindu Buddhist characteristics into an older, animistic Shinto system. Emma-Hoo (perhaps from Yama-Raja) is the king of Jigoku, an eight-leveled region of fire and ice. Jigoku is filled with "Oni," or demons, which have the heads of oxen or horses, but humanoid bodies. Japan also has other cavern-dwellers who come out upon occasion, such as the bird-headed, reptilian goblins called Tengu, who dwell in mountainous regions, mostly come out by night, and are experts in the use of the weapons which are in modern times associated with ninjitsu. According to legend, the tengu trained Minamoto Yoshitsune, a famed samurai swordsman of the late 12th century, when he was an exiled boy on the run from his enemies. The Tengu are almost identical in description to the Utukku of Sumerian myth. Other beings are the kappa, a semi-aquatic and totally reptilian-looking humanoid dwarf, the "ugly girls of hell," and sundry other shape-shifting entities which dwell underground, or under houses. The Fox People are among the latter, often taking human form, and delighting in abduction and seduction of mortals.

Transitioning back to the west of Sumer, the underworld of Ancient Egypt had many things in common with its Mesopotamian counterpart. Called the Tuat or Duat, it was ruled by the God of the Dead, Osiris, the counterpart of Sumer's Nergal. It is the servants of Osiris, however, that are of concern here. One was the jackal-headed god Khentimentiu, and also Anubis, both gods of arcane knowledge, embalming, and other sciences. The god of knowledge, Thoth, was also a regular in the Tuat, and he had a humanoid form but the head of a baboon (which is in many respects very canine in appearance). All three of these deities bear a strong resemblance to the Sumerian Pazuzu. Another parallel exists in the Ushabtiu, originally conceived as artificial, animated and robotic servants which were very similar to the Gala, or GALATUR, of the Sumerian underworld. Like the Gala, the Ushabtiu could be dispatched to punish or abduct an ordinary mortal, or even the Pharaoh himself. These beings were represented in burials by the Egyptians, with small statues of the same name, mimicking the supernatural servants of Osiris and hopefully providing a retinue of retainers and slaves for the deceased. Another being with familiar characteristics was the Ammut, a blend of crocodile, lion, and dog; but the most-feared being to haunt the underworld was possibly the god of chaos and strife, Set or Seth, who attempted to mount a coup de'tat against his brother Osiris. Set is often considered to be the Egyptian counterpart to the Judeo-Christian personality known as Satan, his appearance both canine and reptilian, with a human form but animalistic head, long-snouted or muzzled. The hugest dragon of the Tuat, however, was the gigantic serpent Apophis, very similar to Nidhoggr or Jormungand from the Norse underworlds, a monstrous serpent which brought fear even to the Gods.

2. The West.

Moving into Europe, the mythical subterraneans became less distant and more immediate, interacting with the common-folk on a much more regular basis. Scandinavians had their trolls/jotuns, also called etins (giants), which were great, granitic beings, sometimes hairy of form, and of immense physical power. More mysterious were the dwarves, a race (or races) of stunted, powerful craftsmen and weapons-smiths.

One race of dwarves was from Svartalfheim, the land of the Dark Elves, which was a cavern-world in its own right. Some of the Svartalf/Dwarf kind lived in Nifleheim as well, which was the land of the dead. Along with the savage and man-eating trolls, the dwarves would turn to stone, into toads, or otherwise die if struck by the direct rays of the sun. More often than not the entrances to their homes were hidden in inaccessible mountain sides and other remote locations.

The Scandinavian and Germanic peoples also believed in the huldre or hidden folk, also called the Elves. Their domain was a luminous cavern-realm called Alfheim. From Alfheim they would venture forth to cajole, abduct, or seduce human beings. Other beings were the kobolds, or mine-dwarves, perhaps a variant of the Norse Svartalf. Another type was the Tusse, a variant of elf which lived close to humans, usually beneath a farmstead, or close to one. The primary interest of the huldre/elf-folk, which could be said to include all of the Germanic types, seems to have been procreation with human beings for purposes of maintaining genetic diversity. Like the trolls and dwarves, the elves seemed to dislike bright sunlight, but may have had more tolerance than their troll and dwarf cousins, as they were sometimes seen at dawn, twilight, or dusk, or by day in deeply-shadowed valleys or mountain chasms. Huldre/elves in particular were said to dwell beneath mounds and hills which were in closer proximity to human habitations, as trolls did more rarely. The elves took a regular interest in human affairs-weddings, births, and deaths, (bloodlines?) the success of crops and livestock, and so forth--but only for their own selfish interests. They seemed to be overly-concerned with genetic and biological diversity, and they pilfered livestock, crops, and human genes via theft or cross-species liaison whenever they saw fit to do so. The elves are generally depicted as extremely fair-haired and fair-skinned.

Dragons were also said to live deep in the Earth, as recounted in the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) saga of Beowulf; and the monster Grendel was a hairy, scaled fiend, a naga-troll which later British traditions would have called a goblin (and modern cryptozoologists would term a "hairy humanoid"). For Grendel, the term "Pazuzu" would probably have been just as appropriate. Dragons were the special guardians of "buried treasure," i.e., buried knowledge or technology, much of it often made by the powers of the subterranean dwarves. The European dragon had a nastier disposition than his oriental counterpart, or perhaps he came into conflict with a group of people who entertained different philosophical ideals when it came to living in fear of man-eating entities; whatever the case, like his eastern cousins, he had a relationship with both underground caverns, and deep bodies of water.

England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland each have a rich tradition of under-earth dwellers, with many similarities or even common origins between them. Like the Norse/Germanic variants, the "fairies--" goblins, trows, knockers, brownies, leprechauns, sidhe (shee), tylwyth teg (terlooeth teig), and numerous other categories of humanoid beings--were fair or foul, malevolent or kind (actually, indifferent), making their homes almost without exception, beneath the ground. Mounds, hills, ruins, ancient raths or hill-forts, mountains, cliffs, and even cities of great age were said to serve as the rooftops of their palaces. Like the nagas and dragons, some had the entrances to their subterranean homes at the bottom of lakes. To remove all doubt as to their relationship with Norse hidden-folk and Indian nagas alike, they shunned the sunlight, and often seemed interested in crossbreeding their own bloodlines with those of human beings, or even in crossbreeding their "livestock" or fairy cattle, horses, hounds and so forth with the surface specie which were most compatible. The goblin-dwarf Rumplestiltskin, in his lust to have the human baby and it's genetic bounty, is just one example of this in folklore.

Of particular interest are the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, the "people of the Goddess Danu," also called the Sidhe. Originally an aristocratic, warrior race of heroic proportion, they dwindled in size after retreating underground, to become the Daoine Sidhe (theena shee) or diminutive faeries if Irish folklore. Most of the "gentry," or aristocratic, trooping faeries, are said to be of this type. Like the Scandinavian elves, they are depicted as particularly fair of complexion and hair. According to Lady Wilde, in "Ancient Legends of Ireland (Ward & Downey, London, 1887)," they are categorized as "cave fairies." In addition to their now-familiar practice of abduction of and hybridization with surface humans, their name, "Tuatha (tribe or people) de Danaan" holds a strong resemblance to the Egyptian name for the underworld, the Tuat. It is generally thought that the term "fairy" or "faerie" has it's origin in the earlier French term "fay," or the Latin "fatae," but the possibility of an older origin, as hinted at by the Tuat/Tuatha connection, may in fact bear further examination; for did not the "PHARAOHS" believe that they would journey through the TUAT on the way to their places in eternity?

The hills and glens of Ireland are also said to hide the remnants of at least three vanquished races: the Firbolgs, the Fomorians, and the Nemedians. All are ancient enemies of the Tuatha de Danaan, and were driven underground by the latter in the distant past, where they then dwindled in size (genetic diversity?) at an even earlier time than did their conquerors. The Fomors and the Firbolgs are probably the origin-race of many of the "bogeys" and pookas (bucas), goblins and hobgoblins, Scottish trows, and other malevolent, sometimes shapeshifting beings which seem to bear strong resemblance to the Scandinavian trolls, being perhaps a smaller variant. The etymological connection between "trows" and "trolls" is obvious, and reflects the sequence of both legendary and historical migrations to the British Isles, as well as the wars between each newcomer group with the currently ensconced one. Each group of faeries and goblins can be viewed, of course, as the dethroned, exiled gods of an earlier, defeated human culture. The question is, what were these "gods," which still exist in the popular imagination today? Were they symbolic pantheons or archetypes, or living beings which predated man on this planet?

3. The New World.

Native American cultures had similar beliefs in an extensive layered realm of caverns which was hidden beneath their feet. This murky world was believed to be inhabited by both human and humanoid beings, and by a variety of monsters and demons. Most tribes or nations had their own traditions of subterranean "little people," as well as other motifs, including reptilian or serpent-like humanoid beings. In addition to this, many tribes believed that they had themselves emerged from a mythical underworld, ages before.

The Mescalero Apache have many of these beliefs. One of their oldest sacred traditions states that they came from the "Old Red Fire Land," before the "Great Flood." This land was said to be in the distant eastern (Atlantic) sea, and was destroyed by a combination of deluge and volcanic cataclysms. Escaping through "great caverns" and tunnel-systems, the ancestors of the Apache came to high mountain lands far to the south, where they built new cities. A series of misfortunes there, however, eventually drove them northward. This is nearly identical to the origin story as related in the Mayan Chilam Bilaam, and brings to mind both Mayan and Aztec origin myths. The Aztecs said that the had originated in a land called "Aztlan," obviously synonymous with Atlan or Atlantis, the destruction of which they also escaped. After this, they ended up in a cavern-world called "Chicomoztoc," or the Seven Cavern Cities of Gold," where they lived for some time before emerging again into the surface world.

In addition to believing in a vast, nine-layered underworld filled with strange beings, the chief god of the Maya, called Itzamna (meaning "iguana house"), was depicted as an anthropomorphic lizard, snake, cayman, or dragon. The underworld dwellers were a mixture of human, reptilian, and other animal characteristics, and the rain-god Chac was a long-nosed, fanged humanoid creature very similar to the Egyptian Set. The underworld, called Xibalba, is the location of most of the action in the Popol Vuh, a priestly epic of the Maya. In the Popol Vuh, two semi-divine brothers, Hunapuh and Xbalanque, have to journey into a realm of horrors beneath the Earth in order to defeat those who are enemies of their father and his family, and to their own ascendance to power. In Xibalba, they come into conflict with Zipacna, a crocodile-headed monster, Seven Macaw (who is bird-headed) the maker of earthquakes, and other familiar forms. An interesting event occurs when, seeking vengeance by destroying the lords of the underworld, the brothers devise a way to pick out the twelve lords of Xibalba from identical "mannikins," or robot/ushabti-like figures. The twins eventually defeat their underworld rivals, and take over the rulership themselves, bringing an end to human sacrifice as part of the deal. These events preceded and made possible the "modern" epoch of time.

The Hopi of the desert southwest, descendants of the mysterious Anasazi people, have an equally strange tradition. They believe that as a people, they migrated from a series of previously-extant "worlds," usually interpreted as "ages" or "epochs;" but these are also seen as subsequent cavern-worlds, each one lower than the next, each one eventually abandoned and destroyed in turn. While still in the murky "third world," the Hopi ancestors came into contact with the mysterious "Ant People," an ectomorphic race or species which greatly resemble the gala of Sumerian myth. At some point they also came into conflict with the "Serpent People," and like other tribes, their underworld mythos is filled with cataclysms and floods. At least one of their previous worlds was said to have been "in the east," and combined with the flood element, is very similar to Apache and Aztec traditions.

The Choctaw (Cha'ta) people of Mississippi also have a myth of underground origins. They believe that their ancestors emerged from the Nanih Waiya Cave Mound, a fifty-foot-tall natural geological formation which is hidden in a swampy forest area, approximately a mile and a half east of a better-known, artificial mound and tourist site. The hill has several natural openings, some of which have been "sealed up" (the Park Service seems to have no good explanation for this), and it is said by the Choctaw to be the entrance to a vast underground realm. One legend has it that, in ancient times, the Choctaw were invaded by a race of red- and blond-haired, white-skinned giants, who bore "sharp clubs," (swords?) and axes, and wore an extra, thick skin (chain or leather mail?) which made them impervious to arrow, spear, and warclub. Add the touch that some of these Nahullo, or giants, "had horns," and these white invaders sound suspiciously like wandering Norsemen.

Whatever their origin or identity might have been, these invaders drove the Choctaw into hiding, and the Indians went into the cave mound for several generations. The world beneath the mound was a large series of caverns, through which a river or rivers ran (the Nanih Waiya cave mound sits squarely at the headwaters of the Pearl River). Some traditions indicate that it went on to connect to other "worlds," or underground places. Staying underground for many generations, the Choctaw emerged to wage a form of guerilla warfare on their enemies, eventually winning, by using darts coated with a poison made from mushrooms found in the caverns. Victorious, they emerged again into the sunlit world.

One tradition holds that this emergence of a generation of people who had been born underground is the basis for the mound origin myth, and that in fact the Choctaw had arrived centuries earlier, after leaving a "sunken land" which had foundered in a distant western ocean. After many wanderings and travails, they arrived in the southeast, where they found the natural cavern mound which would later serve as a place of refuge. But other Choctaw beliefs dispute this, claiming that not just the Choctaw but the Muskogee, Cherokee, and Chickasaw peoples emerged from the mound as well, having all been one people in the underworld.

Today the Choctaw still believe that a variety of strange supernatural beings either inhabit the cave-mound, or dwell in the wooded hills that surround it. One of these is the Shampe, a hair-covered, manlike giant who has a terrible odor, and who stays underground during the day. The Shampe is a sort of Sasquatch, but the underworld connection is there. Also present are the Kawana-kasha, (Kowi Anukasha), also called Bohpoli (stone-thrower), a type of supernatural and mercurial dwarf; these live within not just the woods of Mississippi, but within the cave-mound itself. Like the Norse dwarves, they are the hoarders of vast knowledge. The mound is also the home of "giant serpents," and perhaps a host of other beings. Among the latter is the Nalusa Falaya, or "Long Black Being," who is humanoid yet slides on his stomach "like a snake." His pointed ears only accentuate his reptilian appearance. Another variant is the Nalusa Chito, "Big Black Being," who emerges from underground dens to capture women and children, presumably for supper. But this abduction scenario is by now a familiar one, and is very similar to the abduction and changeling accounts of Celtic and Scandinavian traditions, which were often for purposes of maintaining genetic diversity. The goblin "Ho'koklonote' she" is a shapeshifting creature believed to haunt the region, and is very similar to the Pooka or Buca of the British Isles. So are the "Nalusa" twins, for that matter.

As has been demonstrated, many similarities, or perhaps identical descriptions, exist for the underworld inhabitants of myth and folklore. This underlying cohesion may have resulted from an "archetypal stew" which long-simmered in the imaginations of men and women; and as will be demonstrated in the next section, this has resulted in some very interesting and imaginative works of fiction.



Part One: European


1. Wagner.

In Richard Wagner's operatic re-telling of the Volsunga Saga, he takes the audience on a tour of the German version of the Norse underworld. In the Nibelunglied, he tells the story of the theft of the Gold of the Nibelungs, a race of Dwarves from Nibelheim, which is the Norse Nifleheim, complete with it's hidden knowledge/technology and imprisoned Powers of death and darkness. The dwarf Alberich (a variant of the older Norse/Icelandic Andvari) and his kin are miserable underlings and errand-boys for deeper, more mysterious beings. They are the same type of transitional beings which the underworld gods of other cultures sent to the surface world on dark errands, and as such remind us of the Sumerian and Egyptian "artificial" (genetically-engineered) forms, and of the same beings as created by the Hebrew "Nefilim," or "Fallen Ones," which were rebellious angels/titans/jotun-trolls. The similarity between the Hebrew plural noun Nefilim and the Norse Nifleheim is perhaps more than coincidental. Knowledge and power in the Wagnerian opera take the form of a magically wonderous "ring" of dwarf or faerie gold, "Das Rheingold."

Addition obvious similarities include "giants (jotuns/trolls)," and semi-reptilian beings like Fafner (Norse Fafnir), who begins as a humanoid titan and is transformed fully over time into a cave-dwelling dragon. Wagner's opera-cycle is essentially a re-telling of the Volsunga Saga, with other elements borrowed from Norse traditions as well. The value of examining Wagner's work lies in the fact that it provides a bridge between ancient Nordic mythical traditions, and later literature which used similar motifs. These will be examined at length very soon.

2. Dante Alighieri.

Of equal interest is the earlier work of Dante Alighieri, in particular that part of his Divine Comedy called the Inferno (The Project Gutenberg Etext of Dante's Inferno, August 1997, Translanted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). In this tale, Dante is taken on a personal tour of the netherworld by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil, and it is revealed that, like most mythic traditions, Hell is multi-layered, in this case with ten levels arranged in a conical fashion which diminishes in diameter as it descends. These concentricities are designated areas of imprisonment and punishment for specific types of sinners, and are the abodes of giants, harpies (another psuedo-bird/reptile form), horned demons, and so forth. The similarities between these forms, those of Greek Erebus and Tartarus, the Sumerian tradition, and even the of the Oni of Japanese Jigoku, are readily apparent. The deeper the descent, the colder the conditions become, so that sulphurous and hot, rainy, misted, and frozen conditions are all presented, as in the Norse, Greco-Roman, and Hebrew (Apocryphal) traditions. At the ultimate, frozen bottom of this happy land is Satan himself, frozen solid in a lake of ice, awaiting the day of judgement. This is reminiscent of the Norse and Greek cavern worlds, with regions and rivers of fire and ice near or adjacent to one another, where the Jotuns and Titans lay imprisoned in chains of darkness and entropy, only able to send out their underlings to work their will upon the Earth.

3. Jules Verne.

Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, apparently based upon hollow-earth theories, rumors of underground tunnel systems, and the latest scientific thought of his time, was also filled with levels of increasing complexity and diversity, fire and ice, and was inhabited by the "latest twist" on ages-old underworld reptilian themes--the dinosaurs. These creatures, for Verne's purposes, replaced dragons, nagas, trolls and goblins as the denizens of the depths. While this did not do justice to the rich heritage of traditions available to draw upon for such a work, Journey to the Center of the Earth, may well be the first truly modern novel to take on the subject of inner or hollow-earth mysteries, an inhabitants. It was the first to utilize both scientific principles and the latest scientific theories and discoveries as fundamental elements of the plot and storytelling. It still fell far short of the scope of later works on the subject, however.


4. George MacDonald.

In the 1880s, George MacDonald published The Princess and the Goblin in Britain. Drawing mostly from "faerie" and "goblin" traditions of the British Isles, he spun a magical tale of a mysterious and secret underworld, inhabited by inbred, deformed dwarves called "goblins." Dwelling in a veritable maze of tunnels which seemingly underlay the countryside, these beings shunned the daylight like their Scandinavian and British Isles counterparts. They also shared their folkloric cousins' interest in abducting and interbreeding with surface humans, as in the case of Princess Irene, who attracted the attention of the King and Queen of Goblin Land as a suitable match for their "reptilian-" appearing son. This "goblin prince" was himself the result of a liaison between his underworld father, and a surface woman whom he had kidnapped, and who had eventually perished. Undertones of this sort run throughout the book, as in the Goblin-Queen's hiding of her shameful "deformity," a very human set of toes on each of her feet which spoke of human genetics somewhere in the mix. Like the kobolds of Germany and the knockers of Britain, the goblins were heard to tap and knock deep in the mines by human miners, when they would dig too close to their homes. Like the Nefilim, like the faeries, and like the underworld gods of the middle and far east, MacDonald's goblins had also bred an army of genetically-mixed, deformed animal creatures, which combined the traits of mammals and reptiles, much like the Pazuzu, or the Egyptian Ammut.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien.

Another British author whose work contains "cavern-world" themes is J.R.R. Tolkien. Like MacDonald, he drew on Norse, Germanic, and Celtic folk and mythic traditions for much of his cosmology. His "orcs," or goblins, are essentially the "dark elves" and trolls of Scandinavian myth, and he also took his version of the dwarves from the same folk traditions. In Norse myth, there seem to be two camps of dwarves, one dark, swarthy, and hostile (like Andvardi / Alberich), the other reclusive, but not so nasty. Tolkien's "dwerrows" or dwarves fall into the latter category. His "elves" are similar to the Scandinavian variety, but actually more closely resemble "the gentry" of Ireland, the aristocratic Tuatha de Danaan. Like the Danaan, they also exhibit idealized "Aryan" or "Nordic" attributes. Deep mountain tunnels and hidden cavern palaces are the haunts of orcs, elves, and dwarves alike.

He also made reference to the "mound folk, " in this case the undead (similar to Scandinavian "draugs" or revenants), and to "trolls," who, like their Norse counterparts, cannot stand the light of day. His hill-burrowing hobbits were modeled in some respects after both the 'trooping faeries" of the British Isles, and the "solitary faeries" such as leprechauns and cluricauns (see the in-depth works of Lady Gregory, Lady Wilde, and Katherine Briggs, on the "faerie" or fairy topic), and the brownies (who also have hairy feet like hobbits--and hairy hides in general).

His orcs in particular are generally reptilian in appearance, yet humanoid, and "Gollum," a hobbit who has been horribly mutated by the "radiation" of the One Ring, is definitely amphibian or reptilian in aspect. Here is an echo of Alberich again, in Gollum's lust for the ring, and here also is the hint of "technology," i.e., ancient and mysterious magic, which can genetically alter living beings for evil or unknown purposes. One side-effect of the ring is the extreme prolongation of Gollum's lifespan (another underworld "secret," that of immortality, as in the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu). Throw in cavern-dwelling dragons guarding "treasure," (i.e., secret knowledge), and the archetypal symbolism is complete and in fact predictable. He uses all of the aforementioned underworld themes in his books The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Silmarillion (all published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Co.).

Part Two: North American

The twentieth century brought a host of new writers, each mixing fantasy, science, and myth to some degree, all drawing on the wealth of lore and folktales which had come before. Most of those whose works reached a wide audience were American writers, working for the "pulp" (so-named for the low quality of paper they were printed on) magazines like Weird Tales, Amazing, Argosy, and many others. After publication in these periodicals, a select few, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, went on to successful book publication of their serialized "pulp" features. The writers to be examined here were more or less divided into two camps: those who wrote about hidden cavern-worlds and tunnel-systems and their inhabitants, and those who dreamt of grander concavities in the form of hollow moons and planets.


1. A. Merritt.

In 1923, A. Merritt first published his excellent work The Face in the Abyss, which was reprinted in the October 1940 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (the source here). In this fast-paced adventure tale, a group of American treasure-hunters search for a lost treasure in the Peruvian Andes, and find a "lost race" instead, the survivors of "Yu Atlanchi," an ancient Aryan/Atlantean colony which has retreated into caverns and chasms beneath the Andes. In addition to the lost treasure of the Incan king Atahualpa, the hidden people have another secret or two: they are worshippers of a subterranean entity called the "Snake Mother," and are guardians of a bottomless cavern abyss which is overlooked by a cliff-face of solid gold, which has been formed into the likeness of a gigantic and Satanic face, reminiscent of the frozen Satan of Dante. Add to all of this some remnant dinosaurs, flying, intelligent "serpents," and a half-snake, half-woman entity, and the age-old reptilian-underworld connection is complete.

2. H. P. Lovecraft.

Another well-known writer of pulp fiction who has not only stood the test of time, but has amassed huge legions of readers and fans, is Howard Phillips Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island. Writing mainly for Weird Tales, Lovecraft created a somber and terrifying universe of eldritch horrors, ancient and alien intelligences masquerading as demons or dark gods, most of them locked away or imprisoned beneath the earth or under the sea (like the Nefilim, Titans, Jotuns, and so forth). From their deep prisons they supposedly still haunt mankind, sending forth genetically-altered underlings and unhuman fiends they have created, to work their will upon the surface world. All of this is of course very, very familiar. There is a direct parallel here with the Hebrew's imprisoned Nefilim, and their partially-human or partially-animal, genetically-engineered offspring, as described in the Apocryphal books of Enoch, and of the Sumerian underworld rulers, with their robotic, reptilian, or otherwise genetically-altered humanoid slaves.

Lovecraft described a variety of underworld fiends and horrors, such as dog-headed humanoid ghouls from the depths of the Earth (Pickman's Model, Arkham House, 1939, 1945), and eons-old invertebrate horrors lurking in a forgotten cavern world beneath Antarctica (At the Mountains of Madness, Arkham House, 1963), and many others. In The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft introduces the arch-fiend of his cosmology, a buried horror of humanoid yet squid-headed configuration, of titanic size, who sits buried in a sunken city in the depths of the Pacific ocean and directs all manners of horror by means of telepathy and messengers sent to the surface world. The parallels to Anubis, Thoth, the Ammut, the Pazuzu, the Greek Gorgon (an underworld creature), and so forth are apparent.

There has been some speculation that Lovecraft believed what he wrote to be true on some level, due to his descriptive dreams of "abductions" by beings he referred to as "night-gaunts," winged, reptilian humanoids without facial features who sound suspiciously similar to the Galatur or Gala of the Sumerian KI-GAL. His fiction, he believed, was in some way influenced by "revelations" he received during these "dream-abductions," which is a very familiar story to those who study the modern "UFO Abduction" phenomenon. But perhaps more prolific on the theme of subterranean races and horrors was Lovecraft's friend and contemporary, Robert E. Howard.

3. Robert E. Howard.

Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, in 1906, and grew up to live in the oil-field town of Cross Plains. He only lived a scant thirty years, dying by his own hand in 1936. But during his thirty years he was one of the most prolific short-story and novella writers of his day, filling the pulps with characters which have long-since passed into popular culture as icons or stereotypes. His most-famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian, has been redefined and over-simplified for the world as Conan the Barbarian; but despite the distortions and over-simplifications of non-prose media (not to mention the input of other writers who missed the character entirely), the mighty Conan is still popular today. Howard is largely credited with the invention of the genre of "sword and sorcery" adventure fiction (even though Fritz Leiber coined the term), a claim which seems to be accurate. Although Conan met and dispatched his share of subterranean horrors, it was Howard's other fiction which seemed to concentrate on those themes so common to the underworld tradition.

Dog-headed humanoids, reptilian "toad" gods, unspeakable monstrosities from wells, pits, and endless catacombs, all of these and more flowed from his mind with a raw, emotive power. In Worms of the Earth (Weird Tales, Nov. 1932), is seen one of his favorite themes, which deals with a "lost race" which has lived for ages underground, mutating into something no longer human, yet longing for human genes, and the destruction of humanity. Other stories, like People of the Dark (Strange Tales, June 1932) and The Children of the Night (Weird Tales, April-May 1931), deal with the "racial memory" of ancient races of stunted subhumans who have retreated underground, to evolve into serpentine form. In The Valley of the Worm (Weird Tales, Feb. 1934), the story is that of Niord, a wandering "Aryan" tribesman of eons past, who comes face to face with an ancient, underworld horror which must be destroyed, in the form of a massive, sentient worm-like being from the depths of the Earth (a dragon or serpent god), and its hair-covered, faceless, humanoid servant, reminiscent of both satyr and sasquatch. Tellingly, the latter plays the pipes of a Pan or other cave-dwelling satyr.

Perhaps Howard's greatest "underworld" tale, however, came from his "King Kull" or "Kull of Atlantis" series of stories. In The Shadow Kingdom (Weird Tales, 1929), Kull, usurper-king of Valusia, becomes aware of the fact that most of his councilors and government officials have been "replaced" by imposters, which are revealed to be agents of "the-snake-that-speaks," or serpent-men. These are reptilian humanoids from a cavern/tunnel underworld, who have the power to assume the appearance, and the place, of any man or woman in the daylit, human world. They were identified by their inability to speak a specific series of syllables, a "code phrase" which human beings could use to weed them out and kill them. All of these themes go back to the most ancient underworld traditions, the "abductor-changeling-reptilian" servants of evil all rolled into one. This exact theme has also become prevalent in the conspiracy and UFO literature of the 1990s, where some would have us believe that not only is it true, but it's "newly revealed" or discovered; but the archetypal roots for the idea stretch back for millennia, and even pulp fiction has used it with great effectiveness.


4. Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Perhaps the most well-known of American fiction writers to approach the Hollow Earth or underworld topic was Edgar Rice Burroughs (September 1, 1875 - March 19, 1950),. The creator of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs was highly-prolific, writing on a myriad of topics, and of a myriad of worlds. His straight-forward, slightly Victorian adventure-writing style made him the undisputed favorite writer of fantastic fiction in his day. His first novel was set on Mars, and from there he ranged from the jungles and lost cities of Africa, Asia, to Central America, and the back-alleys of Brooklyn, to the planet Venus and "Beyond the Farthest Star." However, his hollow earth endeavors began with "At the Earth's Core," written in 1914.

Burroughs begins by taking a pair of adventurers--Abner Perry, inventor, and David Innes, business partner, on a "maiden voyage" of the tunneling transport, "The Iron Mole." However, something goes wrong with the contraption, and after a near-death experience miles beneath the crust due to extremes of heat, they eventually find conditions in the machine returning to normal, and they break out into an unknown world. This is "Pellucidar," as they name it, the interior of the hollow earth. Obviously inspired by the non-fiction books of John Symmes, William Reed, and Marshall Gardner, Pellucidar is a land of eternal sunshine, with a small central sun ever at high noon. It has openings at both poles, and a lush, tropical terrain, with a land extent far beyond that of the outer world--for it is a world inversed, with landmasses which roughly correspond to our ocean areas, and vice-versa. Other interesting touches to the series (in Tarzan at the Earth's Core, 1929) include an expedition by dirigible, through the north polar opening, probably inspired by the real-world journey of the dirigible ZR-1 in 1924 (Popular Science, December 1923), which was mounted by the U.S. Government in order to discover the myth or reality of the "polar continent" (or "opening?"). The results on the real expedition however, were never made public. There is also an interesting "pendant world," a moon which revolves around the central sun in perfect synchronous motion with the rotation of the Earth itself, thus casting its shadow continually over one dismal region, the "Land of Awful Shadow" (Land of Terror, 1944). Another strange side-effect of Pellucidar is that it's inhabitants do not age, much like those of fairyland, or the Sumerian underworld of the gods. This is either due to the fooling of the "biological clock" of the body (it's always set at noon), or to protection from cosmic radiation which reaches the surface world.

Burroughs wrote five books (one of them a group of four novellas), mainly telling of the adventures of stalwart Americans and Europeans in a world which is not only in the stone age, but is in fact inhabited by dinosaurs, gigantic mammals, and strange unhuman races. Humans are indigenous as well, and some are soon taught the ways of the "wiser" surface men, and under Innes, form a benevolent empire. Before raising cries of "white colonial oppression!" however, the reader must understand the inspiration for forming allegiances and empires in the land of the eternal sun: There are enemies to vanquish, enemies which fragmented stone-age tribes cannot defeat unless they combine their forces and their determination.

These enemies include the Mahars, a race of "rhamphorhynchus," or intelligent pterandon bipeds, which feed on human flesh. These creatures, not only telepathic, are capable of mesmerizing nearly any human being into submission before having him or her for lunch. They are all female, and reproduce by means of something called "The Great Secret," a form of cloning or other reproductive technology. Here we see another incarnation of the nagas and the utukku, complete with an emphasis on reproduction. These reptilian overlords--er, ladies--have in their employ another group, a bunch of sub-human louts called Sagoths, hairy and barbaric, who raid human villages to supply victims for their scaly mistresses. Here of course is Enkidu again, or Sasquatch, or Grendel.... Other interesting races in Pellucidar include the Horibs, reptilian humanoids who also feast on humans, "little men," and the Gorbuses, who live in underground caves. Throw in a load of dinosaurs of every description, along with human-animal hybrids, and Burroughs has created an archetypal paradise of adventure and terror, fun for young and old alike. The books in the series are:


1. At the Earth's Core (All-Story, 1914)

2. Pellucidar (All-Story Caval, 1915)

3. Tanar of Pellucidar (Blue Book, 1929)

4. Tarzan at the Earth's Core (Blue Book, 1929)

5. Back to the Stone Age (1937)

6. Land of Terror ( 1944)

7. Savage Pellucidar (Amazing Stories, 1963)

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Article copyright (c) 2000, Wm. Michael Mott

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