Descent to the underworld
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.
One meaning of katabasis is the epic convention of the hero's trip into the underworld. 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 allows the term katabasis to encompass brief or chronic stays in the underworld, including those of Lazarus and Castor and Pollux.
Mythological characters who make visits to the underworld include:
- 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
- Egyptian Osiris (see also Egyptian Book of the Dead)
- The Magician Meryre in Papyrus Vandier (Posener, 1985)
- Adonis/Tammuz is mourned and then recovered by his consort/mother Aphrodite/Inanna/Ishtar
- The god Dionysus, to rescue Semele from Hades, and again in his role as patron of the theater.
- Heracles, for his twelfth labor, on which occasion he also rescued Theseus
- The god Hermes, to rescue Persephone from Hades
- Orpheus, to rescue Eurydice from Hades
- Persephone and Demeter
- Aeneas, to speak to his father in the Aeneid
- Theseus and Pirithous try to abduct Persephone; they fail, and only Theseus is rescued by Heracles
- Pwyll's descent into Annwn in the Welsh Mabinogion
- Preiddeu Annwfn, King Arthur's expedition to Annwfn as recounted in the Book of Taliesin
- Japanese mythology: Izanagi and Izanami in Yomi
- Mayan mythology: Hunahpu and Xbalanque: Maya Hero Twins
- Mahayana Buddhism: the bodhisattva Kuan Yin's descent into a hell-like region after taking on the bad karma of her executioner in pity
- Vedic religion: Ushas (dawn) is liberated from the Vala by Indra
- Hinduism: Emperor Yudhisthira descends into Naraka
- Ohlone mythology (Native American): Kaknu fights Body of Stone
- Yoruba mythology: Obatala, the Rising and dying god of Ile Ife, the Yoruba cultural centre
- Mongolian mythology: King Gesar launches invasion into the realm of Erlik to save soul of his mother.
- 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.
- Pilar González Serrano, "Catábasis y resurrección". Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie II: Historia Antigua. Volume 12, pp. 129–179. Madrid, 1999.
- Robert Graves. The Greek Myths, 27. k, which cites Pausanias' Description of Greece 2.31.2.
- 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