Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Journey to the Underworld: there and back again

The vast body of works that make up the body of the Greek myths often offer dramatic conflicts, but it can be argued that perhaps the most challenging quest that any of the Greek heroes (and gods) had to undertake, was the journey into the Underworld, the domain of Hades, the god of the dead – a location that proved terrifying and inescapable to both mortal and immortal alike, as can be seen in the tales of Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, Herakles, and Odysseus.

Rape of Persephone by Rembrandt
Picture: Wiki Commons
These myths can be interpreted in various ways, including physical and moral allegory, and their functions can be seen as social, historical, ritual, psychological and existential, depending on who it is who’s doing the interpretation, and what their intent is. (Greek Mythology in Context: 9-13) To consider that the myths possess only one hard-and-fast interpretation is to lose sight of their plurality, and, ultimately, their legacy of fluid meaning, as each storyteller is wont to place his or her own spin on a particular tale. (And unlike the Judeo-Christian religions, ancient Greek religions were not constrained by the establishment of dogma in the form of enduring holy scriptures.) Varying accounts existed, as can see by the differences between Hesiod’s Theogony (Buxton: 44-48), the Homeric Hymns (Buxton: 49) and Orphic poetry (Buxton: 52).

The gloomy domain of Hades, according to Greek myths, where the souls of the dead – be they hero or commoner – went after death, was not a happy place; many of the dead suffered often gruesome punishment for how they behaved during life, for instance Tityos having his liver continuously pecked out by vultures (for having attempted to rape Leto). (Buxton: 208) One would have to be made of stern stuff to brave this grim realm and its denizens.

Persephone was the daughter of the gods Demeter and Zeus, and was beloved of her mother. Demeter was understandably grief-stricken when Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone with the view of making her his wife. Persephone herself was also filled with sorrow at her enforced marriage, and this state of affairs also had dire consequences for the world when Demeter became derelict in her divine duties. The world became barren, and the natural order was thrown out of kilter while Demeter searched for her daughter.

Yet the story of Persephone’s eventual return does tie in with a ritualistic interpretation of the myth. According to the tales, Demeter, disguised as an old woman, served the family of the king of Eleusis as nursemaid, and through her interaction (and eventual revelation of her true identity) founded a temple where her adherents were instructed in sacred rites and ceremonies linked to her worship. These are known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rites that may have related to immortality and rebirth.

One of the conditions of Persephone’s confinement to Hades was that if she (or any other immortal, for that matter) tasted food while she was there, she would have to remain forever. Though Hades eventually agreed to let Persephone return to her mother, Persephone had thoughtlessly consumed six pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, and a compromise had to be reached; consequently, for six months of the year, she could be with the gods above, and for the remainder, she had to return to her husband’s side. (Berens: 39-44)

The myth itself as aetiological function with regard to the origin of the seasons, but also takes on deeply religious significance in an hope for a better afterlife, as can be seen by the establishment of a doctrine related to life after death (the Eleusinian Mysteries). Through adherence to the mysteries, ordinary Greeks could aspire to happiness after death.

Death acting as a separator, is a theme prevalent in the myth of Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. Orpheus was a poet and was also viewed as the origin of the Orphic Mysteries, which offered hope of salvation to ordinary Greeks who wished for a better afterlife. (Buxton: 213)
After all, with so many myths spelling a future of doom, Hades was a place to be feared.

When Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was fatally bitten by a snake, he was filled with such sorrow that armed with his lyre, he braved Hades’ realm in order to win back his love. So moved were Hades and Persephone by Orpheus’ performance that they allowed him to return to the world above with his wife. Once again, a condition was applied to this boon: Orpheus was not to look upon Eurydice until he’d left Hades’ domain. As myths are wont to deal in tragedy, Orpheus was unable to prevent himself from looking upon his beloved before they reached the upper world, and she was swallowed up by the shadows, leaving Orpheus to succumb to an equally tragic fate when he was eventually torn apart by maenads. (Berens: 65)

Whereas the divine Demeter and Persephone enjoyed partial success in their endeavours to circumvent the power of Hades, the mortal Orpheus and Eurydice failed, undone by the depth of Orpheus’ passion. Perhaps here I could suggest that even love alone is not strong enough to overpower the finality of death, and those who don’t follow the conditions laid out by Hades to the letter, will pay the consequences.

The Underworld was not only populated by the shades of the dead, but also contained frightening creatures such as dread Kerberos, a monstrous, three-headed dog with a venomous bite. The hair on its head and back consisted of poisonous snakes and it had the hindquarters of a dragon and a serpent for a tail – quite a formidable beast to encounter. (Berens: 192)

And it was Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, who had the wherewithal to tangle with Kerberos when he completed his epic Twelve Labours in order to free himself of his services to Eurystheus (Herakles was doing penance for having killed his own children). (Berens: 191) This final task laid upon him encompassed bringing up Kerberos from the Underworld – a task suited only to those who were graced with heroic strength, as Herakles would go on to prove yet again.

However, Herakles did not go into this without preparation; he underwent initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and after his enlightenment, he was ready to be guided by Hermes into the domain of Hades. Once he’d descended to the lower realm, he was merciless and was ready to slay Medusa (though Hermes requested that he refrain from doing so). Apart from his primary task involving the hellhound, he took it upon himself to free Theseus but was unable to help Pirithous. Hades gave Herakles permission to bring Kerberos to the upper world, but only if he were physically capable of doing so. Not one to be held back by tests of his physical prowess, Herakles went on to prove that he was perfectly capable of the task, despite Kerberos putting up a struggle and biting Herakles for his efforts. Thus Herakles’ labours were ended and he was free.

In this case, I view Herakles’ descent into the Underworld as a task its giver was almost certain would doom the hero to failure, especially viewed within the context of how Persephone and Orpheus were not wholly able to succeed in their bids to free themselves. Herakles’ willingness to subject himself to oblivion could also be indicative of his state of mind – for surely he felt great remorse for having murdered his kin. Yet his labours could also be described as a crucible that shaped him as a hero, that final labour an allegory of how a mortal son of Zeus himself was mighty enough to defeat challenges cast his way in the Underworld, of excelling in this darkest of places.

Odysseus is another hero to have had his brush with the Underworld, though he did not descend as far as the others. While on his epic return journey after the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men spent time with the enchantress Circe, who had advised him to travel to the “gloomy land of the Cimmerians” (Berens: 240) until he reached the entrance of the Underworld.

There, Odysseus made a blood sacrifice of a ram and a ewe, and called up the shades of the departed in order to consult with the prophet Teiresias. He learnt many things about his destiny and the state of his loved ones back home, but he also got more than he bargained for when he consulted with the shades of dead heroes such as Achilles, Patroklos and Agamemnon. He lost his nerve and fled back to his ship and his men in terror. (Berens: 240-241)

What I gather from this is that there is a degree of transgression against one’s destiny that occurs the moment a hero overreaches himself into realms beyond that which is natural. So-called esoteric knowledge that lies in that liminal space which is locked against mortals comes with a high price, and in my mind the myth suggests how one who is arrogant in his sense of self can be cut down to size. The message is clear: death awaits us all; even the greatest hero can be reduced to but a whisper of his former self once he has crossed over between the land of the living and the dead, where all are made equal. This knowledge is the price that Odysseus pays for his folly for wanting to know his destiny before it unfolds.

Themes prevalent in all four myths vary between escape from forced marriage, as in the case of Persephone; a quest to overcome separation, as in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice; restitution for a great wrong, as in the case of Herakles; and a quest for knowledge, as in the case of Odysseus. The motivations for the quests are vastly different, as are the outcomes, but if one considers the Greek conception of arête (valour, excellence), it is perhaps clear that those who approach the obstacle armed with valour may have the better, while those who give in to doubt, like Orpheus, or who allow their terror to overwhelm them, like Odysseus, will find themselves bested by their situation. A moment of inattention resulted in Persephone travelling forever between the two realms. All instances can be viewed as cautionary tales; if you’re about to enter the Underworld, you had best be prepared.

The realm of Hades can be perceived the implacable final frontier all men face, that not even gods can always escape. Those who strive for excellence (arête) and succeed in transcending death itself, are therefore truly deserving of their place among the divine. By personifying this frightening place, the storytellers were able to frame their understanding using familiar symbols. By giving the Underworld’s ruler a name and a face, they suggest that Hades is someone who can be bargained with, that perhaps there remains a hope for those who have to tread this path. Especially within the context of reassurance, the heroes have gone before so that mere mortals can follow in their footsteps; mankind has prepared a way in which they can assure themselves hope for the inevitable, as can be seen by the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries and similar cults. Death might be the end, but all those who tread those dread paths are not always lost – though the consequences of failure may be dire.

Berens, E.M. (1880) The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Maynard, Merrill, & Co.

Buxton, R. (2004) The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Department of Classics and World Languages. (2011) Greek Mythology in Context. Pretoria: Unisa


  1. This is excellently told. I would want to have these myths contrasted either with a different non-Christian mythological system (for example the Mabinogion's tales of the harrowing of the Welsh hell, Annwn) or with the Christian myth of the harrowing of Hell by Christ. That's simply to indicate that the divine or heroic figure's transcendence of death plays a significant role in more than one culture. You could also have mentioned the role of the hero in the harrowing of hell in modern quest tales (Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, Ged and Lebannen in The Farthest Shore, to think of two examples not at all at random), but that might be a work of superogation.

    1. Thank you. As much as I'd have liked to go deeper, it was beyond the scope of the question our lecturer gave us. I really did enjoy writing this, and I look forward to future assignments.