Thursday, August 1, 2019


Gunnel Ekroth, Ingela Nilsson (ed.), Round Trip to Hades in the Eastern Mediterranean Tradition: Visits to the Underworld from Antiquity to Byzantium. Cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, 2. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xvii, 397. ISBN 9789004375963. €137,00.

Reviewed by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Round Trip to Hades provides a sampling of the rich and varied katabasis tradition, ranging widely across time and space. The volume derives from a conference held in 2014 at the University of Uppsala, although not all the papers at the conference are in the volume, which also incorporates papers not in the conference.1 Many of these journeys to the underworld follow familiar paths that include the canonical Homer and Vergil or the non-canonical texts of the so-called 'Orphic' gold lamellae, which have become a regular feature of modern scholarly discussions of the underworld. However, the volume also traces a path, less familiar at least to Classicists, that runs from Lucian to Byzantine Christian texts. The essays are arranged in roughly chronological order, but I here discuss them more thematically.

The chapters by Graf and Cullhed/Schottenius Cullhed bookend the volume with broad surveys of the material, focusing mostly on the usual suspects of epic katabases from Gilgamesh to Dante. In "Travels to the Beyond: A Guide," Graf examines the genre of the nekyia, noting that it usually contains a first-person narrative and aims to change in some way the life of the audience in this world. He sees this genre as one highly self-conscious of its own tradition, regardless of whether the nekyia is written in poetry or prose. In addition to the epic tradition, he looks at the Christian tradition from Paul to Dante, as well as the Orphic tradition, which he aptly characterizes as "a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of combinations of hexameters and myths that at specific moments condensed into a poem" (23). While Graf explores the generic features, the "Epilogue: Below the Tree of Life," by Eric Cullhed and Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, focuses more on the guiding metaphors and emotional affects of the descents to the realm of the dead. Starting with the evocative tale of the 'Man in the Well,' who, beset on every side with dangers and facing eventual death, nevertheless enjoys the honey dripping into his mouth, they survey the way stories from Homer's nekyia to the 15th century Apokopos by the Cretan Berghadis provide powerful metaphors for the experience of death. Rather than providing satisfaction at knowing what is to come in death, these stories evoke the fear and uncertainty of death, but the authors argue that such experiences serve the audience more like a vaccination, a little taste of the suffering to prevent a more crippling experience of fear and uncertainty.

Two essays address the Homeric nekyia from the perspective of material remains. In "Hades, Homer and the Hittites: The Cultic-Cultural Context of Odysseus' 'Round Trip' to the Underworld," Gunnel Ekroth explores the ways that the necromantic ritual in Homer differs from the sacrificial practices in the material record, resembling more early Hittite rites, but probably transmitted as a literary topos rather than an actual ritual practice. Wiebke Friese likewise points to the discrepancies between the Homeric text and actual oracular sanctuaries, where various mediating divinities such as Trophonios, but not the dead, were consulted. On the contrary, in her archaeologically focused approach, she suggests that Homer's famous account "influenced the invention and spatial formation of particular cults, rituals, and sites" (217).

The chapters by Ivana and Andrej Petrovic and by Annie Verbanck-Piérard explore some particular features of well-known katabaseis. The Petrovics provide a careful close reading of the descriptions of the underworld in Hesiod, arguing convincingly that the two descriptions of Tartaros differ in that one is focalized by the Titans, descending for punishment, and the other by Iris, descending at Zeus' behest to bring aid from those imprisoned below. As they note, this essay is part of their larger project on bound gods, so the focus of the essay moves from the descriptions of the underworld to the different bindings and imprisonments in Tartaros. Verbanck-Piérard offers a survey of the evidence for Herakles' descent, insisting that the iconographic evidence be considered not just as illustrations of texts, but rather as "an independent configuration of mythic material" (163). She notes that most of the iconographic evidence is concerned with Kerberos—a striking figure to depict —and that there are really no depictions of Herakles fighting Hades or residing dead in the underworld himself. The bit with the dog remains the most popular throughout the ages, although there are a few representations of Herakles freeing Theseus or engaging in the Eleusinian Mysteries as a preliminary to his descent.

Several essays look at the ever-intriguing gold lamellae, whose enigmatic references to the soul's journey to the underworld never cease to fascinate. In "Introducing Oneself in Hades: Two 'Orphic' Formulas Reconsidered," Scott Scullion argues that the claim to be "the child of earth and starry heaven" should not be taken to imply divine lineage but merely as a claim to come from the world above the underworld. He also proposes that the feminine form of καθαρά belongs, not to a female deceased or grammatically feminine soul, but rather to Persephone herself, the pure Queen of the Underworld. While many of his arguments against previous readings are well taken (especially the idea of the feminine soul), his claims are not entirely convincing, especially because of his failure to account for the archaeological evidence of female skeletons in the graves with many of the tablets. Herrero distinguishes two modes of gaining understanding that appear in katabatic evidence, the gradual process of learning (mathein) and the sudden leap of experience (pathein). The vertical leaping imagery in several of the lamellae can thus be read as an extraordinary experience that contrasts with the more measured horizontal process of learning in an extended journey through the underworld. This rich study offers a number of useful perspectives, from the spatio-temporal to the cognitive developmental, that help to illuminate the range of evidence Herrero analyzes. In "From Alkestis to Archidike: Thessalian Attitudes to Death and the Afterlife," Sofia Kravaritou and Maria Stamatopoulou treat a variety of evidence—epigraphic, archaeological, and textual—from Thessaly, including the gold lamellae from Pherai, Pharsalos, and Pelinna. They point to the contrast between the literary evidence (mostly Athenian), which portrays Thessaly as the wild home of centaurs and witches, and the epigraphic evidence, which shows a fairly standard range of cults and practices (with a somewhat surprising dearth of magical evidence such as curse tablets). Perhaps most useful is their handling of the other grave goods from the Pelinna tomb, especially their photos that show, not only a bowl with an egg motif but also the figurine of a comic actor on an altar; this treatment should help lay to rest the error perpetuated in the scholarship from the limited publication of the tomb that the figurine was that of a maenad. All of these essays for the most part appropriately treat 'Orphic' as a rather vague label, rather than as implying a certain set of 'Orphic' doctrines about the afterlife.

The most unusual katabatic path in the volume is that which leads from Lucian to the Byzantine Christian material. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath provides a summary of Lucian's greatest katabatic hits in "Down There and Back Again: Variations on the Katabasis Theme in Lucian." The essays by Nilsson and Marciniak both show "how central Lucian was to the production of prose in Byzantium," (325) with Nilsson examining the Progymnasmata of Nikephoros Basilakes, as well as the Lucianic dialogue entitled Timarion. Marciniak also looks at the Timarion, along with other Byzantine satirical katabases such as the Against Hagiochristophorites and the Mazaris. Both essays show how these katabases are used to comment, in a Lucianic mode, upon Byzantine society. Several other essays explore the Byzantine ideas of the underworld, from Thomas Arentzen's "The Virgin in Hades," which argues for seeing the Virgin Mary as an agent herself in Byzantine texts rather than merely a Christological figuration, to Henry Maguire, who explains how Byzantine ideas about the power of icons to evoke the reality of demonic beasts as well as divine saints answer the question, "Why did Hades Become Beautiful in Byzantine Art?" In "From Hades to Hell: Christian Visions of the Underworld (2nd–5th centuries CE)," Zissis D. Ainalis provides a brief summary of important texts, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Vision of Paul, and the Life of St. Macarius the Roman.

A few other essays take their own path. Sarah Iles Johnston points to the difference between the horrific returns from the dead in modern literature and the neutral or even positive returns in antiquity. After surveying the different modes in the tales of Sisyphos, Orpheus, Protesilaos, and Iolaos (back from the dead); Asklepios, Alkestis, and Pelops (resurrection) ; Semele, Hippolytus, and Memnon (shift to immortality); and Castor/Polydeukes and Aithalides (half-life), she speculates that Christian doctrines of the resurrection of the body create a fear of a body coming back, not with its own soul but an evil spirit. Adrian Mihai, admitting that the Academic and Stoic philosophers he surveys tend not to be interested in the round trips of the volume's theme, provides an overview of the ideas of afterlife in thinkers such as Xenokrates and Herakleides of Pontos in "Hades in Hellenistic Philosophy (The Early Academy and Stoicism)" . Mihai uncovers some intriguing material about celestial destinations for the dead, despite his insistence on the Christianocentric equivalence of Tartaros with Hell and of Hades with Purgatory. Pierre Bonnechere takes a very different perspective in "The Sounds of Katabasis: Bellowing, Roaring, and Hissing at the Crossing of Impervious Boundaries," focusing on the auditory effects described especially at the liminal points of the journey; his study of the soundscape makes one wish that the passing mentions of the smells (or stench) of the underworld in the essays of Johnston, Graf, and Ainalis might have been developed further to provide a sensory study to complement the affective and emotional focus of the Epilogue.

The volume as a whole thus brings up ways in which shifts in philosophical and theological ideas affect the picture of the afterlife, as well as the role that emotion and genre play in the katabasis tradition.2 One drawback to the wide temporal and cultural scope is that many of the essays primarily provide summary surveys of the material rather than focused analyses of particular points, while others provide detailed analyses of a particular text with little connection to the wider tradition. Nevertheless, the collection can serve as an introduction, particularly to Classicists unfamiliar with the rich Byzantine traditions, as a brief tour of hell, a journey there and back again in the tradition of the katabasis narratives themselves, while for specialists some of the close studies yield intriguing insights into these complex materials.

Table of Contents

Round Trip to Hades: An Introductory Tour - Gunnel Ekroth and Ingela Nilsson, pp. 1–10.
Travels to the Beyond: A Guide - Fritz Graf, pp. 11–36.
Hades, Homer and the Hittites: The Cultic-Cultural Context of Odysseus' 'Round Trip' to the Underworld - Gunnel Ekroth, pp. 37–56.
Divine Bondage and Katabaseis in Hesiod's Theogony - Ivana Petrovic and Andrej Petrovic, pp. 57–81.
Introducing Oneself in Hades: Two 'Orphic' Formulas Reconsidered - Scott Scullion, pp. 82–102.
Pathein and Mathein in the Descents to Hades - Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, pp. 103–123.
From Alkestis to Archidike: Thessalian Attitudes to Death and the Afterlife - Sofia Kravaritou and Maria Stamatopoulou, pp. 124–162.
Round Trip to Hades: Herakles' Advice and Directions - Annie Verbanck-Piérard, pp. 163–193.
Hades in Hellenistic Philosophy (The Early Academy and Stoicism) - Adrian Mihai, pp. 194–214.
Following the Dead to the Underworld: An Archaeological Approach to Graeco-Roman Death Oracles - Wiebke Friese, pp. 215–239.
The Sounds of Katabasis: Bellowing, Roaring, and Hissing at the Crossing of Impervious Boundaries - Pierre Bonnechere, pp. 240–259.
Down There and Back Again: Variations on the Katabasis Theme in Lucian - Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, pp. 260–272.
From Hades to Hell: Christian Visions of the Underworld (2nd–5th centuries ce) - Zissis D. Ainalis, pp. 273–286.
The Virgin in Hades - Thomas Arentzen, pp. 287–303.
Why did Hades Become Beautiful in Byzantine Art? - Henry Maguire, pp. 304–321.
Hades Meets Lazarus: The Literary Katabasis in Twelfth-Century Byzantium - Ingela Nilsson, pp. 322–341.
"Heaven for Climate, Hell for Company": Byzantine Satirical Katabaseis - Przemysław Marciniak, pp. 342–355.
Many (Un)Happy Returns: Ancient Greek Concepts of a Return from Death and Their Later Counterparts - Sarah Iles Johnston, pp. 356–369.
Epilogue: Below the Tree of Life - Eric Cullhed and Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, pp. 370–384.


1.   Disclaimer: I saw earlier versions of the papers by Johnston and the Petrovics, but I was not involved in the conference in any way.
2.   The volume is fairly well produced, and the minor typos and other errors are never so egregious as to confuse the sense. It contains a subject index, but an index locorum would have been a welcome addition.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.