The spiritual realm was real to pagan cultures. It’s a realm, that exists somewhat separated from our world, but at the same time, is part of everything around us, even part of ourselves. It’s part of the Great Spirit. There was no clear distinction between the material and the spiritual realm. When we study ancient cultures, we come to the conclusion that this spirit-realm was often referred to a place dark, cold, and often associated with the process of dying, but also of rebirth. These beliefs are deeply hidden in old traditions, customs and folklore. Let’s take a look at the myths of the Alps, for example. Here, it was Berchta, the Old Grandmother, that lead the Army of Spirits with Woutan during the Rauhnächte. These nights are “rough”, dark and brutal – and have given birth to so many traditions and beliefs, that one can hardly explore them all in ones lifetime. But where did Berchta come from? Her realm was a dark place, the Underworld. Sure, we have a hard time today imaging something that obscure such as a parallel dimension that exits separated from our world, and I don’t blame anyone for doing so. We’ve been taught to think rationally, and we’ve been taught to not believe blindly in things we can’t see. But these beliefs are ancient, and more importantly, were shared around the world, not just within Germanic tribes, or celtic ones. “The Underworld” was a real place and a real realm within a lot of so called pagan cultures. We know today, that the christian Hell is somewhat of a rather new version of the more ancient version of the Underworld. The Underworld was the spirit realm, spirits, ancestors, archetypes: They all went back to the source, the world of darkness, the void, the primeval state of all things. The Kabbalah has the term אין סוף for this state of being, Ayn Soph. In pagan cultures, this is the place of the forces of the Underworld. In many cultures, this place is free from good and evil, it’s simply neutral, although it contains a lot of negative, destructive energies – but there were acknowledged as necessary for rebirth or creating new things out of “the void”, the essence of the Rune of Uruz.
The spirits that live there are often called demons, spirits and amongst the three world religions, that are perceived as negative, frightening. That’s why there’s a lot of incense during the Rauhnächte. The smoke shall banish them all. But the demon as an entity is old. In ancient Greek Mythology, it’s the Daimōn, also known as δαίμων. It’s not necessarily a negative nor evil entity, it rather describes a state of being, or better said, a unique state of consciousness, one that has left the boundaries of the I behind, in order to see the beyond. So, it’s about the evolution, more or less, of conscious beings, as a daimōn can be many things, a nature spirit, an ancestors, and so on. It’s the realm of Hades. The Romans knew the Underworld as well, and it was ruled under the influence of Pluto. Somehow, the element of water does play an important role here, because in many mythologies, including Egyptian, Greek, Celtic and Germanic, this world is divided by a river. In Greek Mythology, it’s the River Styx, and in the Germanic version, it’s the River Gjöll. The water might be a symbol of life, or perhaps, “the source or spring of all life”. But that’s my speculation! Don’t take it as a fact. In what the Romans called “Germania”, it was Holda oder Berchta, later on known as Frau Holle, Grandmother Goose, in fairy tales. Holda’s realm could be accessed by her water well. The celtic tribes had many different terms for their versions of the Underworld as well, ruled by Morrigan or Nantosuelta. But their versions of the spirit realm are all somewhat related to each other and do not different too much at all. During Samhain, this realm was closest to the people.
Most of the american tribes all had their very own version of the Underworld. But the belief and the essential meaning of that spirit realm was very important to most of these tribes. Whether it was the Inka, Maya, Pueblo or Crow Tribes. Most of them indeed knew and believed in the Great Spirit, and that Great Spirit was the very essence of everything that exists. It was home to the spirits, and the spirits were part of that Great Spirit as well. The Underworld is an ancient belief in a spirit realm, that exists somewhat separated from our world, but at the same time, is the very essence of everything that exists. Hel’s realm is not only dark, but also life-giving. It’s about balance. The Spirits, the Dísa, Kachina, Svartalfar, whatever you call them, are an animistic spark of ancient beliefs that are indeed foreign to our modern way of understanding the world. But to understand these cultural and spiritual similarities point out the importance of nature, the cycles of nature, and the relationship of men to these forces. This spirit realm was very important, at times, necessary for our survival and wellbeing. Terms like Animism, Shamanism, or even Paganism hardly describe the profound complexity of these Myths. They’re barely touching the surface… beyond that, there’s way more mysteries than easy “straight out of a book” answers.