Monday, March 26, 2018


Pierre Bonnechère, Gabriela Cursaru (ed.), Katábasis dans la tradition littéraire et religieuse de la Grèce ancienne. Actes du Colloque de Montréal et de Québec (2-5 mai 2014), Vol. I. Les Études classiques, 83 (2015), special issue. Namur: Société des Études Classiques, 2015. Pp. 464. ISBN 0014-200-X. Pierre Bonnechère, Gabriela Cursaru (ed.), Katábasis. [Proceedings of the international conference "Katábasis, the Descent to the Underworld in the Ancient Greek Tradition and Religious Thought," Montréal; Québec, May 2-5, 2014, Volume II]. Cahiers des études anciennes, 53. Laval: Institut d'études anciennes, 2016. Pp. 189. ISBN 1923-2713.

Reviewed by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen (

Version at BMCR home site

Open Edition

These two volumes contain the proceedings of a conference on the notion of katabasis. After an introduction by the two editors ("La catabase dans le monde grec entre son passé et son avenir", 3–13), Volume I begins with a contribution by Alberto Bernabé ("What is a Katábasis? The Descent to the Netherworld in Greece and the Ancient Near East", 15–34), which gives an informative overview of the (literary) phenomenon of katabasis (defined as "a tale of the journey to the subterranean world of the dead led by an extraordinary character while alive that has a determined purpose and is keen on returning", 17), its "types of narrative", its contents and motivations and remarks on successful and failed katabaseis, before looking more closely at the "paradoxical katábasis" of Orpheus (25–6) and examining "mutual influences between the katábasis and other similar texts" (26–31).1

Two contributions are devoted to the failed katabasis of Theseus and Peirithoos: Jan N. Bremmer ("Theseus' and Peirithoos' Descent into the Underworld", 35–49) discusses the context in which the oldest poetical version of this katabasis was produced. He also looks at the remains of the play Peirithoos (by either Critias or Euripides), but concludes that the available evidence yields rather little. Stamatia Dova ("Theseus, Peirithoos, and the Poetics of a Failed Katábasis", 51–69) provides more details about this tale, but is compelled to use later sources (like Plutarch and Pausanias) for this, which may be a questionable procedure, because it is by no means certain that these authors faithfully represent the earlier versions of the tale.

In "The Nekyia's Catalogue of Heroines: Narrative Unbound" (69–99), George Gazis offers a new interpretation of Odyssey XI 225–329, plausibly highlighting how the stories about the heroines Odysseus meets during his visit to the entrance of the underworld are shaped by these heroines' own perspectives. Not all of Gazis' assumptions, however, are borne out by the text.2

Marie-Claire Beaulieu ("Ulysse et l'Hadès brumeux : catabase et anabase dans l'Odyssée", 101–115) discusses the use of the notions of "fog/mist" and "darkness" in the Odyssey and their association with liminal or otherworldly spaces, like the island of the Phaeacians, the "Port of Phorcys" (where Odysseus re-enters Ithaca) with its "Grotto of the Nymphs", but also the realm of the gods or the dark Underworld. Her summarizing conclusion, however, that "Odysseus has traversed the dark and foggy world of the Dead as well as the world of the gods shrouded in magical mists and finally […] come back home" (113) seems more than a bit exaggerated, as Odysseus only ventured to the entrance of Hades, just as he only liminally touched the world of the gods when staying on Circe's and on Calypso's islands.

Marco Antonio Santamaría Álvarez ("The Parody of the Katábasis-Motif in Aristophanes' Frogs", 117–136) gives a very readable account of the katabasis motifs that Aristophanes uses and parodies in Frogs as well as of his probable models. He ends with the intriguing suggestion that Dionysus' Aristophanic katabasis "can be viewed as a reedition of that of Heracles" (133) and that Aeschylus, whom Dionysus takes back into the upper world, here resembles Theseus as a sorely needed patron for Athens (134).

Sara Macías Otero's contribution ("On the Threshold of Hades: Necromancy and Nékyia in some Passages of Greek Tragedy", 137–153) is the only one that carefully characterizes Odysseus' venture as necyomantic (though she, too, sometimes speaks about Odysseus' "katabasis": 137, 138, 142, 143). She provides detailed comments on Aeschylus fr. 273a Radt (Aeschylus' version of Odysseus' necyomantic ritual), on Orpheus' katabasis as represented in Eur. Alc. 357–362, on Heracles' katabasis as (probably) the theme of Eur. fr. 371 Kannicht and of Eur. Herc. 606–621, and she ends with Heracles' envisaging another katabasis in Eur. Alc. 850–854, which, however, is not carried out, because he manages to snatch Alcestis from the grip of Thanatos at her grave.

In "Les chemins de la catabase. Paysages des dieux, paysages des hommes" (155–174), Yann Leclerc delineates two basic types of "katabatic landscapes" in the "real" world: a "coastal environment" with a rocky promontory, dark woods and a cave (like the Acherusian Cape in Bithynia or Cape Tainaron), and a "lake environment" with (again) surrounding dark woods and a cave entrance (like Lake Avernus). Why, however, Leclerc also includes the place where Hylas was abducted by nymphs among such environments remains unclear (at least to this reviewer).

Daniela Bonanno ("Jouer avec les dieux : la katábasis de Rhampsinite dans l'Hadès (Hdt., II, 122)", 175–192) assumes —in the wake of François Hartog—that the katabasis of the Egyptian king Rhampsinitus as described by Herodotus contains elements that reflect Greek notions of the Beyond (175). As she is, however, unable to ascertain which elements of the story are Egyptian and which actually Greek (189), the results of her interpretation remain rather speculative.

Daniel Ogden's contribution ("Katábasis and the Serpent", 193–210) is, in spite of its title, not particularly connected with the katabasis theme, but rather presents a plethora of evidence for serpents and serpentine figures connected with the underworld. He concludes (207): "The ancient Underworld was infested with serpents. Their primary functions were to be symbolic of the depths of the earth, to guard the ghosts […] and […] to torment them […] in some contexts […] the Underworld was, metaphorically at any rate, a serpent in itself."

Monique Halm-Tisserant ("Les dessous de la katábasis : effets spéciaux et machineries ?", 211–235) tries to build a case for arguing that "katabatic" rituals, like the consultations in the sanctuary of Trophonius or the Bacchic rituals condemned by the Roman Senate in 186 BCE, were "underpinned" by a certain machinery designed to make people experience psychosomatic effects to render them more susceptible for oracular revelations. Despite her valiant efforts, however, it remains largely a matter of belief to accept the suggestions made by Halm-Tisserant or not.

Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal ("The Rape of Persephone in a Berlin Papyrus", 237–260) meticulously (but not without some glaring mistakes of translation from Greek and in sometimes rather unidiomatic English) compares the Rape of Persephone (a catabasis?) as it seems to be depicted in a Berlin papyrus ("seems", because the papyrus is in many parts badly preserved) with other versions of the story and concludes that it combines elements from a number of different versions, among them an Orphic one.

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III ("'When I Walked the Dark Road of Hades': Orphic katábasis and the katábasis of Orpheus", 261–279) presents a noteworthy case against the wide-spread assumption that there once was an Orphic Katabasis (allegedly written by Orpheus) in which a first-person-narrator Orpheus described his own descent into Hades. Edmonds convincingly argues that these two notions should be kept apart: there is no reliable evidence that an Orphic katabasis ever featured Orpheus himself, while the known versions of the story of Orpheus' descent to reclaim his dead wife were written by other poets.3

Renée Koch Piettre ("Remonter d'une catabase burlesque à une ἄνοδος cosmique. À partir du jeu de mots d'Héraclite (fr. 15 D.-K.) sur Hadès et αἰδοῖα", 281–298) begins soberly enough with pointing out (and also rather successfully solving, up to a point) the substantial difficulties in the text of the Heraclitus fragment cited in the title. After that, however, she too speculatively tries to provide a larger context of this fragment by freely associating other Heraclitus fragments. The only real connection to the katabasis theme is in the context Clement of Alexandria provides when citing fr. 15.

In "The Myth of Er: Between Homer and Orpheus" (299–311), Francesc Casadesús Bordoy characterizes the final myth of Plato's Republic as a combination of Homeric and Orphic notions of the Underworld, leading to a new conception in which only the soul who has let herself consistently be led by philosophy is finally able to escape the cycle of reincarnations and embark on a "liberating anábasis to the heavenly gods" (310). 4

In "La catabase aérienne de Thespésios : le statut du récit" (313–328), Renaud Gagné presents the final myth of Plutarch's De sera numinis vindicta as a kind of rewriting of all previous katabasis depictions ("une refonte de toutes les catabases précédentes", 319), showing how Plutarch manages to combine the two great models of divine punishment, i.e. the punishing of descendants for crimes of their ancestors and the punishment of crimes in the afterlife.

In a wide-ranging and convincing analysis ("Traditions of Catabatic Experience in Aeneid 6", 329–349), Miguel Herrero De Jáuregui elucidates "which characteristic features of the catabatic traditions [...] were used and reinterpreted by Vergil to depict Aeneas' experience" (346). Notable are the frequent comparisons of Vergilian details with features found in the Orphic gold-tablets, which is not meant as showing that they were sources for Vergil, but that they represent traditions that he knew of.

Hedvig Von Ehrenheim's contribution "Death and Ascent of Hyakinthos in Sparta: Ritual Mourning and Feasting" (351–364) is rather tangential to the theme of katabasis (as Hyakinthos' death is not really a katabasis as defined, e.g., by Bernabé in this volume), elucidating the unique features of the Spartan Hyakinthia (i.e. their combination of mourning for an untimely death with rejoicing over an ascent into heaven) in comparison with other festivals of the ancient world focussing on a temporary reversal of the social order.

Philippe Swennen ("Anabase et catabase dans les représentations indo-iraniennes archaïques", 365–384) tries to apply the notions of katabasis and anabasis to tales centering on the Indian divinity Yama and its Iranian counterpart Yima, which are, however, very different from each other and contain elements of katabasis and anabasis only if one understands these terms very loosely: while Yama chooses—in what Svennen calls a "catabase inaugurale" (375)—the way of death for himself and creates a kind of underworld for humans, Yima hides them (while they are still living!) in a gigantic cave from which they will come out for the final battle between Good and Evil.

There follow two contributions taking the katabasis theme into Christian surroundings, Matthew R. Anderson ("The Curious Voyage of Christ: Katábasis, Anábasis, and the New Testament", 385–396) describes how in post-New Testament Christian literature the three days between Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection were filled enormous "katabatic" activity (preaching to the dead and liberating the righteous ones among them) and discusses the possible role of an ambiguous passage in the First Letter of Peter (3:18–22) and the Christian rite of baptism for these developments. Pierluigi Piovanelli ("Katabáseis orphico-pythagoriciennes ou Tours of Hell apocalyptiques juifs ? La fausse alternative posée par la typologie des péchés et des châtiments dans l'Apocalypse de Pierre", 397–414) retraces the discussion about the models of the catalogue of punishments of sinners in the afterlife in the Apocalypse of Peter and comes to the conclusion that this text has indeed selectively appropriated Greek (Orphic or Pythagorean) ideas for its depiction of punishments in the Beyond.

The volume closes with two papers on the later reception of the katabasis of Orpheus. Joseph Vietri ("Sir Orfeo, Death and Katábasis", 415–426) discusses the "Middle English lai Sir Orfeo, written around 1325" (416), which contrary to its ancient predecessors, ends happily with "king" Orfeo successfully bringing his wife, Queen Heurodis, back from the realm of the fairies, into which she had been abducted. Jean-Michel Roessli ("La catabase d'Orphée dans la poésie portugaise de la Renaissance", 427–444) presents a survey of Portuguese poetry of the 15th and 16th centuries (by Duarte de Brito, Diogo de Brandão, Luís Vaz de Camões, and a few others) in which Orpheus' descent into the Underworld to bring back his wife is evoked.

Volume 2

After a brief introduction by the editors (1–7), Jonathan S. Burgess ("Localization of the Odyssey's Underworld", 15–37) surveys a large number of attempts to localize the underworld (or rather its entrance) where Odysseus consulted the Tiresias and met a number of other shades, without, however, stating a clear preference of his own. He regards Odyssey XI as a combination of necromancy and katabasis and has no problem with regarding this book as a unit without interpolations.

Gabriela Cursaru answers the question contained in the title of her contribution ("Le Proème de Parménide : anabase et /ou catabase ?", 39–63) by trying to show that Parmenides' Proem describes neither one nor the other but a voyage into a different level of truth and reality where "up" and "down" do not really matter.

Adrian Mihai ("Le Descensus ad inferos du néoplatonicien Damascius à Hiéropolis", 65–81) discusses Damascius, Vie d'Isidore fr. 131 Zintzen = fr. 87 A Athanassiadi, in which Damascius relates a descent into the Plutonion (a subterranean space below a temple of Apollo) in Phrygian Hierapolis, followed by a dream in which he saw himself transformed into the god Attis for whom the Mother of the Gods celebrated the Hilaria. In opposition to other researchers Mihai detects here not a tale of death and resurrection, but of conversion to philosophy.

Bonnie MacLachlan ("Ritual Katábasis and the Comic", 83–111) enumerates a number of locations in Magna Graecia where material related to the abduction (katabasis?) of Persephone was found in connection with material pointing to performances of comic plays. After presenting additional material for such connections between the chthonic and the comic and for Dionysiac motives found in funerary contexts she discerns a particular Western Greek penchant for serio-comic drama—but what about the many examples of parody and travesty of tragedy in Athens? Also her claim that this penchant "can be attributed […] to the presence of playful inversions and comic components in […] chthonic rituals, including funerals" seems somewhat specious.

Thierry Petit ("Sphinx et katábasis dans la peinture de vases", 113–150) discusses vases (found in funerary contexts) on which a sphinx is depicted together with humans and proposes (plausibly) that the sphinx is presented here as a guardian of the route into Hades or as psychopompos of the dead coming into the Underworld.

Valérie Toillon ("Dans l'antre de Dionysos ? Le « satyre » du cratère du Louvre G485", 151–189) offers a new interpretation of the scenes (the most mysterious of which is a satyr lying in an extended position in what seems to be a grotto or subterranean space) on the vase mentioned in the title as an ensemble which may depict "an adolescent's initiatory and religious experience […] in which the descent [katabasis?] into a cave and an experience of death played an essential role".

If there is a major criticism that might be raised against this collection it it the fact that the thematic coherence of the two volumes (both within themselves and with each other) is rather feeble. Many papers do not deal with „katabasis proper" (i.e. with the voluntary descent into the underworld of at least one still-living being with at least the intention of returning alive) but with a number of phenomena somehow connected with undeworld and afterlife. That said, specialists will find many things of interest here related to the ancient imaginary on death and what comes after it.

Contents of Volume II

Pierre Bonnechere et Gabriella Cursaru, Katábasis. Introduction
Jonathan S. Burgess, Localization of the Odyssey's Underworld
Gabriela Cursaru, Le Proème de Parménide : anabase et /ou catabase ?
Adrian Mihai, Le Descensus ad inferos du néoplatonicien Damascius à Hiéropolis
Bonnie MacLachlan, Ritual Katábasis and the Comic
Thierry Petit, Sphinx et katábasis dans la peinture de vases
Valérie Toillon, Dans l'antre de Dionysos ? Le « satyre » du cratère du Louvre G485


1.   Curiously, Bernabé has no problems with treating Odysseus' calling upon Tiresias in Odyssee XI as a katabasis, although it is never explicitly said Odysseus ventures beyond the threshold of the Underworld). Bernabé is not the only author in this collection who considers Odysseus' adventure a real katabasis; see also Bremmer; Dova; Santamaría Álvarez; Casadesús Bordoy; Burgess).
2.   His claims (75–78) that Odysseus is the very first to whom Tyro reveals that Poseidon lay with her, as a result of which she bore Pelias and Neleus; but Tyro, while still alive, must have told at least her sons of her encounter with Poseidon, because in mythic tradition Pelias knows that he is a son of Poseidon (see, e.g., Apoll. Rhod. Arg 1.13). Likewise, he seems to misunderstand Od. 11.285 when he claims that Neleus is presented here as ruler of Orchomenus (that is Amphion, mentioned in v. 284) and that "Chloris established her own rule in Pylos" (85); he himself points out that βασίλευε can be understood differently by comparing Il. 6.425.
3.   Edmonds' claim, however, that "As an Argonaut, Orpheus predates the Trojan War by a few generations" (264) is erroneous: Among the Argonauts were the fathers (e.g. Peleus and Telamon) of the heroes (e.g. Achilles and Ajax) that fought against Troy.
4.   The notion of katabasis does not play an important role in this contribution, although the author might have considered at least briefly that Er's "katábasis" is quite special: Unlike other human "katabatai", Er does not descend bodily but only his soul (like that of a shaman) visits the Beyond.

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