What is a Galactic Underworld?
And why is this the name of my substack?
As this is the very first thing I’m posting to my substack newsletter, I thought it made sense to discuss the title: Galactic Underworlds. It’s one that, while perhaps intriguing and esoteric, may not be an obvious choice. To me, it’s a term that activates—imaginatively—some of the polarities at the heart of my writing: earth and sky, the seen and the unseen, the buried and the exposed, religion and its supposed opposites (science, modernity, the secular). Let me explain.
The Galactic Underworld
A galactic underworld is what it sounds like it would be: it’s the underworld of a galaxy. The term describes what is essentially a graveyard for stars. The death of a star can generate a massive explosion, and this can eventually become the source of new stars. So we could say that, in one sense, stars can reincarnate, or live on after their death in a new form. But a galactic underworld describes a spacetime where the remains of this explosion are housed. It is a “compact remnant of dead stars.” These “stellar remains” include not only neutron stars (the collapsed core left behind after a supernova) but also black holes.
The galactic underworld, at this point, is also a speculative figure. As a recently published article from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society describes it, the galactic underworld is a chart or a map of the “expected” remnants of dead stars—where researchers anticipate that such traces should be found. It’s a speculative recognition that the remains of the dead do not simply disappear, and so must be contained within some physical dimension.
Because the galactic underworld is in outer space (it’s beyond the earth) I suppose we could also think of it as an underworld in what we often to refer to as “the sky.” I am someone who tends to contemplate only the most ancient (so, typically described as “religious”) cosmological views. The first thing that came to mind for me—when I learned about the galactic underworld—was the fact that some ancient cosmologies held that the underworld (where the human dead reside) was connected to the skies. What united these realms, in many ancient imaginations, was water. Maybe because of this connection, or maybe just because the term “underworld” was showing up in a journal for the Royal Astronomical Society in 2022, the galactic underworld became much more intriguing to me—a non-astronomer (even the sort of scholar that astronomers typically distrust!)
The geography of the Ancient Greek underworld was marked by rivers, such as the River Styx. And one of the most common ways to enter the underworld, it was said, was by ferry. Many boats have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and the motive for this is typically ascribed to an expectation that these boats would be needed for travel in the afterlife. Scholars like Bojana Mojsov have argued that for many of the dead, their ultimate destination was the skies (where they would become one of the stars). They would travel through the waters of the underworld until they reached the waters of the heavens. This makes sense to me, as I’ve grown accustomed to thinking about ancient cosmology as biblical studies scholars have sketched it out for me: for these ancients the earth sits on top of water, and the sky that we see is a dome, or firmament, that holds back the waters of the sky. Why wouldn’t these primal waters be connected, even traversable, with the right sort of vessel?
I’m not trying to suggest that we read an ancient cosmology onto a modern scientific cosmology. I’m not suggesting that the earth is flat, and floating on water! But what I do find interesting is the way that an ancient figure like the underworld—charged with all sorts of ancient mythical potencies—finds its ways into modern scientific research. The astronomers’ use of the underworld was, most likely, just a way to concisely and inoffensively describe a container for corpses. And yet, perhaps unintentionally, their astronomical use of the term also reanimates another dimension of ancient underworlds: the cosmic, galactic, connection to the skies.
Underworlds of Imagination
I’ve spent my adult life, up to this point, thinking and writing about the “underworlds” of ideas. Terms that we use in mundane language—human, animal, life, death—are complex figures that are storehouses of what might seem like dead and discarded meanings. But, from time to time, ghosts from the underworlds of meaning come back to haunt us. Or, perhaps, to caution and protect us.
In my book Sister Death, I’m thinking about some of the buried—the subterranean—meanings of death. One of the primary things that I’m trying to draw readers’ attention to is that an ancient Christian idea—the belief that life and death are enemies, and that death is also an enemy of God—is often still at work in the way that many Americans think about, and reflect on, death. While I understand that this can often feel comforting in the violent onslaught of what goes by the name of “living”, I also believe that this understanding of death is problematic. Not only does it present death (and associated phenomena such as decay) as evil. More, it suggests that those who ally themselves with God are on the side of life, and their enemies are friends of (or agents of) death. Attention to these subterranean ideas can help us to critique, and maybe even strategically uproot, them. But it also allows us to explore what else resides there, buried even deeper, that might offer us a more potent view that’s been muted for centuries. When we begin to explore the underworlds of ideas, we can become archaeologists of our imagination.
I decided to call this substack newsletter Galactic Underworlds because, as I’ve noted, I’m interested in underworlds. I try to be an archaeologist of imagination. I’m also thinking a lot about underworlds, right now, because they are the subject of my next book project. I also appreciate the way that galactic underworlds are part of a scientific description of life in the galaxy. They are becoming part of how we describe our present realities, how we tell stories about life right now, in a modern scientific cosmology. I see the underworlds of ideas at work in the biggest stories we tell about ourselves, our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our dreams, and the worlds we live in. I refer to these stories as “biomythologies”: they fuse together a biological context and mythological frameworks. These biomythologies can be terrible and horrifying. They can tell us, for instance, that a deity created us to be either male or female, and that any violation of this order is a moral abomination. But they can also tell us that we have a physical, innate inner virtual condition—let’s call it a spirituality—that can tell us who we are, sexually, with a form of truth that no one else can violate.
I started this substack because I want to experiment with writing and thinking a bit differently. For the past decade or so I’ve been writing for specific outlets and publications, primarily scholarly and academic venues. I want a different sandbox to play in. But I also want to think with people (with you!) rather than alone. I’m fortunate to be on sabbatical right now, so I have time to dedicate to this experiment. At least for the next six months or so, I plan to post a short essay every week. If this galactic underworld of ideas sounds interesting to you, subscribe and join me for the adventure. And, if you have the time, leave a comment for me. What are your thoughts about, or associations with, underworlds?