Descent Into the Underworld

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Descent into the Underworld

DESCENT INTO THE UNDERWORLD

DESCENT INTO THE UNDERWORLD . Narratives the world over tell of descents into the underworld. Many traditions include myths connected with journeys to the "otherworld" undertaken by both human and suprahuman beings. Experiences of such journeys are especially common in the shamanistic traditions, but they are also found in association with various ecstatic religious phenomena and various heroic and visionary contexts within a great number of cultures. An important differentiation can be made between the descent with no return (accomplishing the due of human mortality) and the descent with return made by heroes, shamans, and other extraordinary humans. The imaginary experiences with return could fulfill different objectives: to explain the cosmic subterranean topography, to rescue someone from the realm of the dead, and to expose the punishments and sufferings in the otherworld with a moral purpose. The descent into the underworld, particularly to the kingdom of the dead, is one of the central themes in myths explaining the cosmic order, the limits and possibilities of the human being, the relationships between gods, and human relationships with god or the gods. But the descent into the underworld is also a powerful imaginal and, on occasion, stereotyped literary motif. In the European traditions, due to the influence of the Homeric Nekyia (ninth book of the Odyssey ), the descent (Greek, katabasis ), an imaginary motif is present in major literary and artistic works despite the cultural, chronological, and religious differences between contexts and authors (between, for instance, Vergil's sixth book of the Aeneid and the Inferno in Dante's Commedia ). Such a literary motif is also found in the Middle Eastern traditions from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Book of Enoch or the isra of Muḥammad. There are cross-relationships among all of these literary traditions. Christ's descent into hell and medieval Christian literature developing the topic of the descent and the description of hell have, therefore, a long literary tradition. The beliefs concerning descent into an underworld inhabited by spirits and supernatural beings could be based in part on experiences in which the soul is believed to leave the body during a state of altered consciousness—such as trance, sleep, or near-death experiences—or during the visions and hallucinations associated with these states. The content of such experiences, however, is determined to a large extent by the cultures and traditional beliefs of the persons undergoing them, but these phenomena also have remarkable similarities in different cultures and ages, a fact that encourages intercultural comparisons.

The Roads to Death: Topographies of the Descent

Beliefs concerning the descent into the underworld are often connected with the concept of a three-layer cosmos, according to which the human world is located midway between the realm of spirits above and the realm of the dead below—the "underworld." The underworld itself may also be thought of as divided into layers. In certain Asian, European, Mesoamerican, and Oceanic cultures, for instance, the underworld is believed to be divided into as many as nine layers. Mayan cultures recognized nine levels of the underworld, and some funerary temples reproduce a descent in nine phases. Scandinavians called the ninth and lowest level Niflhel. These cosmic levels are often believed to be connected to one another by a cosmic tree or mountain, which is frequently believed to be located in the north. In inner and northern Asia, India, and northern Europe, the "center of the world" is found in the north. The cosmic tree that connects the levels of the cosmos also acts as a path of communication among them. The Vasyugan Khanty, the Maya, and the Scandinavians, for instance, believe that it has its roots in the underworld. In the shamanistic tales of Siberia, the opening leading to the...
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