A katabasis is a descent into the underworld, a journey to the realm of death. The word itself comes from the Ancient Greek κατάβασις, meaning “descent,” or “to go down.”
Several stories from Greek mythology describe journeys to the underworld, like when Orpheus tries to retrieve Eurydice, but these kinds of journeys are found in myths, religions, and literature all over the world, from the epic poem Kalevala in Finland to stories of the Maya Hero Twins in Mesoamerica, to tales of Coyote’s trips to the underworld in indigenous American mythology.
In these tales, journeys to the underworld are usually undertaken either to retrieve a lost person or lost item, or to get vital information from the dead. Often, the underworld is difficult to reach, and sometimes the traveler needs a guide to find it. Very often, the traveler is also given very specific instructions on what to do when they reach the underworld with the ominous warning that if they don’t follow the instructions, they will get stuck in the world of the dead.
1. Enkidu goes to the Netherworld
The Sumerian poem Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld is sometimes included as part of the more famous Epic of Gilgamesh, but it might also be seen as a sort of a prequel, or at least a different story featuring characters from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The story originated around 4000 years ago in Sumer, and starts out with the evocative line, “In those days, in those distant days, in those nights, in those remote nights, in those years, in those distant years.”
In the story, the hero Gilgamesh is given two magical items by the goddess Inanna. The items are called “the ellag” and “the ekidma” and might have been a war drum and drumsticks. For various reasons, the items are then lost and fall into Ganzer, the Netherworld, and Gilgamesh is very upset:
“My ellag has fallen down to the nether world—who will retrieve it for me? My ekidma has fallen down to Ganzer—who will retrieve it for me?”
Gilgamesh’s servant Enkidu immediately volunteers:
“My king, you weep; why does your heart worry? Today I shall retrieve your ellag from the nether world, I shall retrieve your ekidma from Ganzer.”
Enkidu is given strict instructions about what to do and what not do in the Netherworld to make sure he can return safely. However, he promptly ignores the advice, does everything he wasn’t supposed to do—including putting on clean garments, anointing himself with fine oil, and putting sandals on his feet—and gets stuck in the underworld. In the end, Gilgamesh must appeal to the god Enki who orders Enkidu to be returned:
“Open a hole in the nether world immediately, and then bring up his servant from the nether world!” He opened a hole in the nether world and brought up his servant with his breeze from the nether world.”
Back in the world of the living, Enkidu describes the netherworld as a gruesome place: “worms infest it like an old garment,” and “a crevice, it is full of dust,” but whether Gilgamesh got his beloved ellag and ekidma back is uncertain.
(Quotes taken from The Literature of Ancient Sumer, translated by Jeremy Black et al.)
2. Odysseus visits Hades
During his long and perilous journeys on the way home from Troy, Odysseus spends a year with the sorceress-goddess Circe. When he finally tells Circe that he wants to go back to Ithaca, Circe says he must first travel to Hades and speak with the spirit of the blind prophet Tiresias. Only Tiresias can tell him how he can evade the curses of the gods and find his way home.
Following the instructions given by Circe, Odysseus and his crew sail to the land of the Cimmerians, a place “covered up in mist and cloud” to find the River of Ocean, an area that borders the underworld. Here, Odysseus pours wine and sprinkles barley before sacrificing a sheep.
“I called upon the dead —
The spirits came
up out of Erebus and gathered round”
The souls of the dead are attracted by the sacrificial blood, and eventually Tiresias appears, telling Odysseus how he will return home, and how to avoid various dangers on his journey. Odysseus also sees his mother Anticleia among the dead. She can’t quite believe that he is there:
“My child? How did you come here through the darkness
while you were still alive? This place is hard
for living men to see. There are great rivers
and dreadful gulfs, including the great Ocean
which none can cross on foot
Odysseus is equally stricken at the sight of her, since she was alive when he left home, and worse, he finds out she died of grief, waiting for him to return.
“Three times I tried
longing to touch her. But three times her ghost
flew from my arms, like shadows or like dreams.”
(Quotes taken from The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.)
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3. Heracles and Cerberus
Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a human, and he is the star of many stories from Ancient Greece. In some of the stories, Heracles tragically kills his wife and children in a fit of rage induced by Hera. Once he regains his sanity, the Oracle of Delphi tells him that to atone for this crime, he must serve King Eurystheus of Mycenae for ten years and perform whatever tasks the king orders him to do. Eurystheus gave Heracles all sorts of impossible tasks, and one of those was to bring him Cerberus, the guard dog of Hades, described by the Greek historian Apollodorus as having “three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes.”
Going to the Underworld was no easy feat even for Heracles. First, to gain knowledge and protection, he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. After that, he traveled to a place called Taenarum “where is the mouth of the descent to Hades” and began his journey by entering a deep cave. On the way down, he met various monsters and ghosts and even wrestled a servant of Hades, breaking the servant’s ribs in the process.
Once Heracles reached the Underworld, he asked Hades if he could bring Cerberus with him, and was told that Hades would allow it, as long as Heracles was able to subdue the animal without using any weapons. Of course, Heracles succeeded:
“cased in his cuirass and covered by the lion’s skin, he flung his arms round the head of the brute, and though the dragon in its tail bit him, he never relaxed his grip and pressure till it yielded. So he carried it off and ascended…”
Heracles brought Cerberus to King Eurystheus (who was pretty much terrified of the dog) and then, according to Apollodorus, he carried the dog back to Hades.
(Quotes from The Library by Apollodorus, translated by J.G. Frazer.)
4. Hermod tries to retrieve Baldur from Hel
In Gylfaginning, part of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson tells the tale of how Hermod travels to Hel. After Odin and Frigg’s beloved son Baldur is killed (spoiler alert: Loki had something to do with that), all the gods are devastated. Frigg asks who wants “to gain all of her love and favor” by going to Hel to offer a ransom in exchange for Baldur. Hermod agrees to go on this dangerous quest, and Odin lends him his eight-legged horse Sleipnir so that Hermod will be able to find his way because the journey was difficult,
“he rode nine nights through dark dales and deep, so that he saw not before he was come to the river Gjöll and rode onto the Gjöll-Bridge; which bridge is thatched with glittering gold.”
The bridge to Hel is guarded by a maiden named Móðguðr who tells Hermod that Baldur already crossed the bridge and that he must keep riding downwards and northwards. When Hermod finally reaches Hel, the gate is closed, but Sleipnir jumps over it. Hermod finds Baldur inside, but Hel, the ruler of the dead, won’t let him go unless every living thing weeps for Baldur’s death. Hermod returns to Asgard with this message, but since not every living thing weeps for Baldur (spoiler alert: Loki had something to do with that) Odin’s son has to stay dead.
(Quotes from The Prose Edda, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur.)
5. Dante goes to Hell and back
In Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Dante describes an excursion through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It’s a journey where he learns many things about the nature of the world and the afterlife, about God and faith. Dante’s journey begins somewhere in Italy on the night of a Maundy Tuesday in 1300, right before the dawn of Good Friday,
When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.
And ah, how hard it is to say just what
this wild and rough and stubborn woodland was,
the very thought of which renews my fear!
In the dark wood he meets three terrifying beasts and is driven into a dark place “where the sun is silent.” Luckily for Dante, he meets the spirit of the poet Virgil who becomes his guide. Together they enter hell through a gate with the inscription, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”). Guided by Virgil (and later by the woman Beatrice, and the abbot and mystic Saint Bernard of Clairvaux), Dante travels through the concentric circles of hell where various sinners are suffering. (Several of the named sinners roasting in hell were Dante’s personal enemies.) After that, Dante visits Purgatory and the celestial spheres of Heaven, and is eventually allowed to return to the world of the living.
The final verse, when Dante finds his way back to the world, is one of my favorite bits of The Divine Comedy:
My Leader then, and I,
in order to regain the world of light,
entered upon that dark and hidden path;
and, without caring for repose, went up,
he going on ahead, and I behind,
till through a rounded opening I beheld
some of the lovely things the sky contains;
thence we came out, and saw again the stars.
(Quotes from The Divine Comedy, translated by Courtney Langdon.)