24 Mar What about the underground folk?
Since ancient times, when myths filled the earth with underground kingdoms inhabited by monsters and goblins, the idea of hidden realms beneath the surface has captured the human imagination. As with mythology of other kinds, the truths behind the stories include spiritual and psychological symbolism, ancient astronomy and seasonal lore, visionary and shamanic experiences, and much else. Here and there, scraps of archaic history and half-forgotten memories have found their way into the mix, for – whatever else may or may not be true about the realms beneath the earth’s surface – natural caves and caverns exist; so do underground structures built by human hands, and both of these have been inhabited by people, sometimes for many centuries at a time.
One example much cited by folklore scholars in the nineteenth century are the “hollow hills” of Irish legend, where the sídhe or fairy-folk live. Most of the fairy hills of Ireland are ancient burial mounds dating back to the Bronze Age and before, and their inhabitants are in one sense the ghosts of the people who built them, still remembered in Irish legend as the Tuatha de Danaan, the race that inhabited Ireland before the present inhabitants arrived and conquered them. Yet those same ancient people, according to archeologists, lived in earth-sheltered lodges that looked much like the tombs of their dead.
Victorian scholars of fairy lore drew on these and other parallels to suggest that survivors of the older race might have endured for centuries, hidden away in deep forests and inaccessible areas, camouflaging their traditional houses until only the keenest eye could tell them apart from natural hills. Much of the old fairy lore makes perfect sense when read as lingering memories of a Neolithic people: small, lithe, close to nature, armed with stone-tipped arrows and subtle natural poisons, by turns fighting and bargaining with their larger Iron Age neighbors. It may not be accidental, these researchers pointed out, that a common Scottish folk name for fairies is “Picts,” the name of the pre-Scottish inhabitants of northern Britain, or that Hawaiian legends cheerfully admit that the menehune, the fairy-folk of the Hawaiian islands, are descended from ordinary humans who reached the islands from the Marquesas chain long before the ancestors of today’s Hawaiians crossed the sea from Tahiti.
Yet whatever historical realities fed into legends of underground kingdoms, they became tangled up early on with material from many other sources. By the end of the Middle Ages, old Celtic and Germanic stories about “little people” living in hollow hills had been blended with Classical accounts of Hades, Christian legends of journeys to Hell, Arabic and Hindi tales that came west along the Silk Road, and much else. The result was a vision, half literary and half serious, of an earth honeycombed with countless caverns and tunnels and peopled with creatures as strange or stranger than the legendary inhabitants of fairyland.
The great Renaissance Hermeticist Athanasius Kircher (1601–80) gave a crucial boost to this process with one of his most famous and widely read books, Mundus Subterraneus (The Subterranean World, 1665). Trying to explain everything that was known of geology, including the source of volcanoes and the presence of metals in underground veins, Kircher postulated a network of underground passages through which fire, water, and air move, and a vast central passage from the north pole to the south, through which all the earth’s oceans ebb and flow – an image that also provided a boost to the later idea of a hollow earth.