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Katabasis or catabasis (from Greek κατὰ "down" and βαίνω "go") is a descent of some type, such as moving downhill, the sinking of the winds or sun, a military retreat, or a trip to the underworld or from the interior of a country down to the coast. The term has multiple related meanings in poetry, rhetoric, and modern psychology.

A trip to the coast[edit]

The term katabasis can refer to a trip from the interior of a country down to the coast (for example, following a river), in contrast to the term anabasis, which refers to an expedition from a coastline up into the interior of a country.

The main meaning given for katabasis by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)describes "A going down; a military retreat, in allusion to that of the ten thousand Greeks under Xenophon, related by him in his Anabasis":

1837 DE QUINCEY Revolt Tartars Wks. 1862 IV. 112 The Russian anabasis and katabasis of Napoleon. 1899 Westm. Gaz. 17 May 4/1 Little space is devoted to the Anabasis; it is, as in the story of Xenophon, the Katabasis which fills the larger part.

— OED - katabasis

In the opening of Plato's Republic, Socrates recounts "going down" to the port city of Piraeus, located south of his native Athens. Several scholars, including Allan Bloom, have read this first word, kateben ("I went down") as an allusion to Odysseus' journey into the underworld.


In poetry and rhetoric, the term katabasis refers to a "gradual descending" of emphasis on a theme within a sentence or paragraph, while anabasis refers to a gradual ascending in emphasis. John Freccero notes, "In the ancient world, [the] descent in search of understanding was known as katabasis",[1] thus endowing mythic and poetic accounts of katabasis with a symbolic significance.

Modern psychology[edit]

In modern psychology, the term katabasis is sometimes used to describe the depression some young men experience.[2] Author Robert Bly proposes in his book Iron John: A Book About Men several reasons for the "catabasis phenomenon", amongst them the lack of Western initiation rites and the lack of strong father figures and role models.

Trip into the underworld[edit]

Katabasis is the epic convention of the hero's trip into the underworld.[3] 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 Odysseus's descent to the underworld. However, katabasis can also refer to a journey through other dystopic areas, like those Odysseus encounters on his 10-year journey back from Troy to Ithaca. Pilar Serrano[3] allows the term katabasis to encompass brief or chronic stays in the underworld, including those of Lazarus, and Castor and Pollux. In this case, however, the katabasis must be followed by an anabasis in order to be considered a true katabasis instead of a death.


Main article: katabatic wind

Air cooled by a glacier flows down the glacier and generates wind movement known as a katabatic wind. In Antarctica, katabatic winds perpetually flow off the Antarctic plateau and are channelled through mountain passes and down steep glaciers to the oceans. They blow at storm force year round.[4]


  1. ^ Freccero, John (1988). The Poetics of Conversion. Harvard University Press. p. 108. ISBN 0674192265. 
  2. ^ Jung's 1932 Article on Picasso
  3. ^ a b Pilar González Serrano, "Catábasis y resurrección". Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie II: Historia Antigua. Volume 12, pp. 129–179. Madrid, 1999.
  4. ^ Climate: The South Pole Stanford Humanities Lab, Retrieved 2008-10-01

Further reading[edit]

  • Rachel Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945, EUP, 2005. On modern examples of katabases, or descents to Hell.