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. 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]


Main article: Katabasis

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
The return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton (1891)
Norse paganism and Finnish mythology
Welsh mythology
Angel showing hell to Yudhishthira


  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