Descent to the underworld

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The descent to the underworld is a mytheme of comparative mythology found in a diverse number of religions from around the world, including Christianity. The hero or upper-world deity journeys to the underworld or to the land of the dead and returns, often with a quest-object or a loved one, or with heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return, is a proof of the classical hero's exceptional status as more than mortal. A deity who returns from the underworld demonstrates eschatological themes such as the cyclical nature of time and existence, or the defeat of death and the possibility of immortality.[1]

Katabasis[edit]

One meaning of katabasis is the epic convention of the hero's trip into the underworld.[2] In Greek mythology, for example, Orpheus enters the underworld in order to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living.

Most katabases take place in a supernatural underworld, such as Hades or Hell — as in Nekyia, the 11th book of the Odyssey, which describes the descent of Odysseus to the underworld. However, katabasis can also refer to a journey through other dystopic areas, like those Odysseus encounters on his 20-year journey back from Troy to Ithaca. Pilar Serrano[2] allows the term katabasis to encompass brief or chronic stays in the underworld, including those of Lazarus and Castor and Pollux.

Mythological characters[edit]

Mythological characters who make visits to the underworld include:

Ancient Sumerian
  • Enkidu, in a tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, usually considered a later addition to the tale
  • Gilgamesh descends to the underworld to meet Utnapishtim in a quest for immortality
  • Inanna descends to the underworld with gifts to pass through the seven gates of the underworld
Ancient Egyptian
Ancient Greek and Roman
Judeo-Christianity
Norse paganism and Finnish mythology
Welsh mythology
Angel showing hell to Yudhisthira
Other

References[edit]

  1. ^ David Leeming, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 98 online; Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets (Cambridge University Press, 2004) passim; Death, Ecstasy, and Other Wordly Journeys, edited by John J. Collins and Michael Fishbane (State University of New York, 1995) passim; Bruce Louden, "Catabasis, Consultation, and the Vision: Odyssey 11, I Samuel 28, Gilgamesh 12, Aeneid 6, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and the Book of Revelation," in Homer's Odyssey and the Near East (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 197–221.
  2. ^ a b Pilar González Serrano, "Catábasis y resurrección". Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie II: Historia Antigua. Volume 12, pp. 129–179. Madrid, 1999.
  3. ^ Robert Graves. The Greek Myths, 27. k, which cites Pausanias' Description of Greece 2.31.2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Walter Burkert, Homo necans.
  • Janda, M., Eleusis, das indogermanische Erbe der Mysterien (1998).
  • Rachel Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945, (Edinburgh University Press, 2005/07)
  • World of Dante Multimedia website that offers Italian text of Divine Comedy, Allen Mandelbaum's translation, gallery, interactive maps, timeline, musical recordings, and searchable database.
  • Shushan, Gregory (2009) Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience. New York & London, Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-4073-0