Outside of Minecraft, earth – as in dirt and ore – is a common feature found throughout mythology and pop culture. But this crucial element somehow remains obscure. Could it be that we take it for granted? How often do we stop, look down, and ask ourselves, what lies beneath? How can something so ordinary be so important to pop culture and myth?
Our ancestors lived on the surface of the earth, just like us. Their perception of that ‘surface’ consisted only about as far as a farmer could plow his field. Anything below that was considered the ‘realm of the dead.’ Consequently, everything that existed deeper than the plowed field belonged to the ‘King of the Underworld’. The ‘King’ being whoever that particular culture dictated. Metal ore, gems stones, and deep minerals all belonged to the underworld, and hence, the dead.
So, if an ancient miner wanted those riches, they would have to satisfy the dead and the King to get them. A frequent occurrence in myth is a group of miners making offerings of human food to Hades or Pluto. This was believed to grant the miner protection against enraged dead and evil spirits who caused mine collapses. Also, the trade offerings ensured safe passage of the miners in and out of the caves with a common belief that cave entrances were doorways to the underworld.
Out of that rose another widely held belief. Evil fears the grave and anything to do with the earth. That deep dirt, in any form, represents being trapped in the underworld. It was a common superstition in the ancient world that evil cannot be killed, but it could be trapped. By using the materials from the underworld, ancient people trapped or weakened evil spirits. This material list grew over time. The ancients left a list of common materials in the myths they left behind.
The list of materials surrounds the four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Air, fire, and water are pretty straightforward and are clearly visible throughout myth and pop culture. For example, ‘sacred’ fire and ‘holy’ water are frequently used against vampires. The smoke of burning sage will repel ghosts and spirits. The list of dirt, minerals, and ore is much longer but is more obscure.
Sanctified earth of a cemetery or church is a common superstition in myth and pop culture. Vampires must return to their graves to rest during the day. The headless horseman cannot cross onto church property. Even Davy Jones must return to land occasionally. Evil cannot set foot on holy ground. Simply put, the dirt represents entrapment, even if it is for a short time.
Anyone with an interest in horror or ghost stories knows the value of salt. People have been using circles of salt for ages beyond measure. A blessing is not necessary for salt. The spreading of salt keeps away spirits and evil. Thus, the superstition often recurs in myth and pop culture. Examples of characters using salt include Hocus Pocus, Supernatural, Charmed, and much more. A salt buckshot hurts the living too. So, shooting an evil witch with salt buckshot will be a big bonus in the self-defense department. (I always imagined Supernatural‘s Sam and Dean’s gun was a +1 masterwork rifle.)
Semi-precious stones were believed to protect the living against evil spirits. The Romans commonly used jet in jewelry as protection. The common factor that these stones share is the color black, obsidian, onyx, kyanite, and tourmaline. These stones are commonly used for protection against spirits in the modern world.
Myths and pop culture frequently use silver, usually in the form of bullets. Silver bullets are particularly good against vampires and werewolves alike. However, silver is expensive and should be reserved for extreme circumstances only.
The cheaper alternative to silver is iron; which is why in Supernatural, Sam and Dean keep an iron fire poker handy. Iron won’t do the same amount of damage as silver, but it is a common ore and affordable. A lesser-known superstition is that iron also keeps fire and devils away. The heroes in those myths are often blacksmiths. Thus, iron is the best weapon against denizens of hell-fire.
At first glance, a mirror appears to be completely out of place in the materials list. It’s not. Ancient mirrors do not look anything like they do in the modern world. Ancient mirrors are large pieces of highly polished bronze or copper metal. This ancient mirror is the origin of the ‘Magic Mirror’ in myth and pop culture.
The metal of the mirror comes from the domain of the underworld. It was a widespread belief that mirrors could be used to speak to the dead; who held the power of knowing the past and the future. Speaking to the dead was considered necromancy and thus, evil. On the other hand, it was also believed that spirits could be trapped inside mirrors. A specific example can be found in the film The Brothers Grimm where characters mention trapping the spirit of a witch in a mirror-lined box. That is an actual superstition from myth. Unfortunately, due to the saturation of a specific fairy tale, the origin of this superstition has fallen into obscure knowledge, whereas in the ancient world, this was a daily fact.
The items on the list all represent the same thing: earth returns spirits to where they belong in the underworld. Part of the human condition is to bring order to the world we live in. The idea that “everything has a place” is part of that order. The items on this list bring security and peace of mind that we are not helpless when strange, unexplained things happen. Because, if we are the heroes of our story, we need these magic items to protect us from the evil and chaotic forces of our own human condition.
Read more in our Myth in Pop Culture series here.