Friday, July 12, 2019


John C. Stephens, Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019. Pp. 175. ISBN 9781476674513. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Alhena Gadotti, Towson University (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review is an ambitious project attempting "to clarify the ways in which [otherworld journeys] give expression to religious experience" (p. 2). John C. Stephens devotes an Introduction and seven rich chapters to this challenging topic, but, while his erudition and genuine fascination for the subject matter emerge throughout, Stephens is only partially successful in achieving his goals.

The book opens with an introduction that lays out the theoretical foundations of the study (pp. 3-16). In it, Stephens describes the various forms of religious awareness upon which the rest of the book is organized. In Chapter One, on "Ancient Cosmogonies" (pp. 17-26), Stephens discusses a few creation stories to illustrate "how the three-fold view of the universe is embedded in various ancient and medieval" traditions (p. 17). This tripartite division—heaven, earth and the realm of the dead—is the landscape within which many of the mythological narratives Stephens discusses take place.

Chapter Two, titled "Numinous Otherworldly Journeys" (pp. 27-47), investigates journeys during which the protagonist experiences a numinous event, while Chapter Three, on "Mystical Otherworldly Journeys" (pp. 48-67), considers both mystical journeys and mystical visions. Chapter Four (pp. 68-91) focuses on "Journeys of Spiritual Transformation", while Chapter Five examines the "Courageous Journeys in the Face of Death" of famous heroes from antiquity (pp. 92-106). Chapter Six surveys "The Journey to Philosophical Wisdom" (pp. 107-122) by focusing on the Myth of Er and the Dream of Scipio, while Chapter Seven looks at "The Journey to Moral Awareness" (pp. 123-148). The book ends with some conclusions (149-156), chapter notes, a short bibliography and the index.

Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature is an accessible book. Stephens' prose is engaging, and his research interests and intellectual curiosity are clearly apparent throughout. The chapters are usually well-structured, and Stephens routinely ends them with a short summary that reviews the main points he addressed. Furthermore, the author's erudition in the scholarship of the history of religion is evident not only in the introduction, but also in the individual chapters, where he often connects the main points he is trying to make to the broader scholarship about the issue—for instance in his discussion of the numinous in chapter two.

Where this book falls flat is in the content. When scholars write books outside their field of expertise, there is always the possibility that some areas might be better discussed than others. Stephens' knowledge of classical religious practices is naturally very good, but he is on shakier grounds when he investigates the Near Eastern material. This might be because he relies on older scholarship, but, on some occasions, he simply misunderstands the meaning or the function of the document(s), or both. These content mistakes hinder some of Stephens' arguments and undermine the book as a whole. They also present a challenge for the uninformed reader. While Stephens never explicitly states for whom this book is written, one imagines that it must be directed to an undergraduate audience as well as the general public. If this is the case, then none of these people have the necessary tools to detect the numerous content issues the book presents.

Thus, for instance, in Chapter Two, Stephens reviews stories depicting journeys in which the protagonists have a numinous experience—an encounter with the sacred perceived as a manifestation of the divine, in clear opposition with the profane. Instead of approaching the topic chronologically, Stephens opens with a detailed discussion of Odysseus' journey to Erebus and his encounter with the souls of the dead depicted in Odyssey Book IX. While his summary of the story is accurate, Stephens fails to mention that rather than a proper descent, Odysseus' was a summoning, or nekyia. This distinction is worth making, since it changes the nature of the story for the purposes of Stephens' argument.

Even more troublesome, however, are Stephens' discussions of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian material. In regards to Egypt, Stephens states that "the so-called Pyramid Texts reveal that immortality was reserved only for the pharaoh upon death" (p. 44). This statement is not entirely accurate, since Pyramid Texts have also been located in the pyramids of queens.1 Furthermore, the Pyramid Texts were not meant to ensure the pharaoh's immortality, but to ensure that his soul reached the afterlife safely. In the Old Kingdom, when these texts were first written down, such afterlife was located in the heavens, and the king is often described joining the heavenly gods, like Ra.

While these may look like minor quibbles, more serious is Stephens' misunderstanding of the Mesopotamian material. First and foremost, Stephens addresses, albeit in passing, "the heavenly ascent of kings Shulgi and Ishbi-Erra of Ur" (p. 45). While he does not provide any references, I assume he refers to two administrative documents recording the death of these rulers. Shulgi's death is recorded in an administrative document of uncertain provenance that reads as follows: "19 female slaves, 2 female slaves at two-third output, for seven days. Their (total) output: 142 1/3 female slaves for one day that Shulgi ascended to heaven…".2 As for Ishbi-Erra, who was king of Isin, and not Ur, another administrative document from Isin mentions "the great lamentation, when the king ascended to heaven".3 To be clear, neither document records an otherworldly journey of the king. Both simply refer, in euphemistic terms, to the death of the ruler. The nature of his heavenly ascension is a matter of debate, and a journey to the 'heavens' cannot be excluded. However, no mention is made of a numinous experience, as Stephens seems to imply.

Similar content and related interpretive problems can be found in Chapters Three, Four and Five. The story of Orpheus' journey to the netherworld to rescue Eurydice depicts a numinous experience and not a mystical one, even if this myth became one of the foundational tales of Orphism (pp. 53-55).4 To be sure, Stephens recognizes that sometimes distinguishing between the two experiences can be challenging. Nevertheless, since Orpheus' case seems to cross the border between the numinous and the mystical, it might have been worthwhile to make this point more clearly.

In Chapter Four, both Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld and Ishtar's Descent to the Netherworld are poorly treated, and neither exemplifies a journey of spiritual transformation undertaken by a deity—the main topic of the chapter. As for Inanna's Descent, Stephen's treatment is lacking for various reasons. Firstly, Stephens' understanding of the story relies on out-of-date translations. This leads him to identify Inanna's rescuers, the kur-gar-ra and the gala-tur-ra, as "two tiny, fly-like creatures" (p.75), rather than members of Inanna's cultic personnel. 5 In addition, the name of the queen of the netherworld is Ereshkigal, and not Erishkigal (i.e. p. 74). Secondly, it is incorrect to conclude, as Stephens does, that "by means of conducting a successful descent and return to the land above, Inanna extends her divine power" (p. 75). It is generally assumed that the purpose of the trip was nothing more that an attempt on Inanna's part to destabilize the cosmic order by bringing life into the realm of the dead.6 This is confirmed not only by the description of Inanna sitting on Ereshkigal's throne (l. 166), but also by the gods' accusations that Inanna wished for something that was not hers (ll. 193-4 and parallels). Regardless of the reasons for her journey—most likely an aetiological explanation for the cycle of the planet Venus—Inanna is not successful, despite what Stephens claims.7 She is killed, and, once she is revived through Enki's intervention, she still has to provide a substitute before she can return to the land of the living.

When it comes to the Akkadian version of the story, Ishtar's Descent, the content errors further abound: Ishtar does not travel to the netherworld to reunite with her husband (p. 76) but to steal Ereshkigal's throne; Ishtar's absence does not stop the crops from growing, but humans and animals from copulating; this story most likely echoed its Sumerian antecedent in regards to Dumuzi/Tammuz's fate, since the latter is mentioned in a ritual context at the end of the composition. With him Belili, his sister who shared with him a netherworld destiny, also appears, further supporting the idea that Ishtar needed a substitute to leave the netherworld, contrary to what Stephens states (p. 77). Even if the reader could overlook such mistakes, it remains the case that neither Inanna nor Ishtar undergoes a spiritual transformation. Rather, the goddesses experience a lucky escape by the hands of the trickster god Enki/Ea. As such, these myths do not fit within Stephens' classification.

The biggest problem of Chapter Five is Stephens' discussion of Gilgamesh' underworld journey (pp. 95-99), since a journey to the underworld does not exist in the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are two descriptions of the netherworld in the story: the prophetic dream Enkidu has on his deathbed (Tablet VIII) and the description of the shades of the dead that Enkidu relates to Gilgamesh in Tablet XII. Stephens, however, interprets Gilgamesh's journey at the edge of the world to visit the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim, as a journey to the underworld. This is not so. Although Stephens is correct in attributing to Ur-shanabi a role akin to the Greek Charon and to the Waters of Death a nature similar to the Styx, the hero of the Mesopotamian flood myth does not reside in the land of the dead.8 Although Gilgamesh does journey to an 'otherworldly' realm, he does not visit the netherworld. As such, Stephens' misunderstanding of the story is yet another example of his limited grasp of Near Eastern literature.

Stephens is on stronger footing in the final two chapters of the book, where he discusses philosophical wisdom and moral awareness by using pertinent examples to illustrate his points. Particularly interesting is Chapter Seven, devoted to "The Journey to Moral Awareness." In it, Stephens introduces the concept of an otherworldly judgment by investigating such documents as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which developed from the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, as well as other relevant documents from the major monotheisms of the time. The "Conclusion" provides a very useful overview of the book and summarizes the main points in an effective manner. It strikes a good balance and allows the casual reader to fully grasp the scope of the volume.

Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature has tremendous potential and, at least in certain areas, J. C. Stephens succeeds in proving his arguments. At times, however, he does not—either because of his lack of knowledge, outdated references, or both. The topic of otherworldly journeys is an exciting one. This book demonstrates, however, that such a topic might not be suitable for a cross-cultural examination of such a limited scope by an author whose area of expertise does not include the ancient Near East.


1.   The most recent and comprehensive discussion of these complex documents is James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2015.
2.   Translation adapted from Mark W. Chavalas (ed.) The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation, New York: Routledge, 2006.p. 66.
3.   For an analysis of these documents see Piotr Steinkeller, "How Did Šulgi and Išbi-Erra Ascend to Heaven?" In Literature as Politics, Politics as Literature. Essays on the Ancient Near East in Honor of Peter Machinist, ed. by David S. Vanderhooft and Abraham Winitzer, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013, pp. 459–478.
4.   A recent book on the Orphic Gold Tablets is Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, New York: Routledge, 2007.
5.   The literature on these beings is extensive. See, for instance, Ilan Peled, Masculinities and Third Gender: The Origins and Nature of an Institutionalized Gender Otherness in the Ancient Near East. AOAT 435. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2016.
6.   See, e. g., Francois Bruschweiler, "Les voyages des dieux Sumériens dans le Kur." In Voyages et Voyagers au Proche-Orient Ancien. Actes du colloque de Cartigny 1988, Leuven: Peeters, 1995, 23-31; Charles Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia. Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod, London. and New York: Routledge, 1995, 19 and fl. Penglase argues erroneously that Inanna is successful in her mission.
7.   Wolfgang Heimpel, "A Catalog of Near Eastern Venus Deities." SMS 4/3 (1982): 10-22, 10.
8.   Andrew George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 501.

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