The ultimate journey

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

2 July 2009

Triumph over death is a constant theme among great poets and writers through the ages. From the Ancient Greeks to modern day authors, the journey to hell is a constant source of material for universal literature.

My wife has set a condition for going back to the theatre with me. I have to be quiet during the show, keep my pedantesque-philological comments of the you-do-realise-that-this-is-a-reference-to-the-myth-of-Phaeton type for after the performance, and let her listen to the actors in peace. As one has to make immense sacrifices for conjugal peace, the other day we went to see The Star of Seville and I wasn´t allowed to say anything. So, I find relief in my blog - this local pub of our times - with you, who have not had to suffer my philological musings for a long time (unlike my wife).

I am not talking about whether or not it is by Lope. I am focusing on a scene at the end of the play when Sancho Ortiz thinks he is in hell. It is incredible how such a successful and intense scene can be achieved using this ancient imagery. But it is possible. The descent to the world of the dead, the katabasis, is as old as the literature of the Ancient Orient, three millennia before Christ, and yet it is still a favourite resource among storytellers: Woody Allen´s Deconstructing Harry comes to mind. But there are a good number of stops on the way: let´s remember a few here.

The first katabasis we have is that of Ulysses, who goes to Hades twice in The Odyssey to discover his destiny. Homer takes and perfects an earlier tradition because the journey to the world of the dead is the supreme journey of a hero, the most difficult. Hercules’s last mission was to bring the Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards hell, back with him. A successful return from Hades, i.e. a victory over death, is reserved for only a chosen few. Others, such as Theseus and Pirithous, who went down to abduct the wife of Hades, Persephone, failed in their attempt and had to stay there forever. Orpheus also went to Hades in search of Eurydice and because he looked at her before he should have done, he lost her for the second and final time. There is debate about whether or not the first version of the myth had a happy ending, but there is no proof. However, the tragic ending has been a good source of poems, paintings and operas.

Another great ancient descent is that of Aeneas in book VI of the Aeneid. As always, the journey to the world of the dead brings with it knowledge about the world of the living: once there, the Trojan hero sees the future of Rome. Virgil could not be the best poet had he not excelled Homer.

The geography of ancient Hades is always unclear, as corresponds to the "undiscovered land from which no traveller returns". However, some features are always there: a frontier of water (the Acheron, the Styx), a good number of paths and tracks that threatened the traveller with getting lost, a guide, (Hermes, Charon), hellish monsters, meadows for the blessed, terrible places of torment for the damned and many intermediate places with deceased with all kinds of destinies. From potholing to eschatology, there is only one small step: death.
In the same way that Christianity has paradise for the blessed in heaven, the descent to the underground world was left to the damned. However, the endless visions of hell described by Christian writers come from the ancient katabasis. Like Aristophanes in his comedies or Plato in his myths, Christians use the poetic tradition of the journey to Hades to transform their characters with a vision of life after death. He who goes there and returns a different man.

And modern poets still play with this image, which clearly shows how the threads of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem are woven together: Virgil guides Dante in his visit to life after death. The conceptual metaphor of death as a road that continues that of life is the basis of an age-old image: "nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita. E quanto a dir qual´ era, è cosa dura / questa selva selvaggia e aspra e forte / che nel pensier rinnuova la paura! / Tanto è amara che poco è più morte." You will recognise these verses 1,000 years later and Gilgamesh himself, well equipped with a Sumerian-Tuscan dictionary, would have known what they referred to 4,000 years earlier.

From Espronceda’s The Student of Salamanca to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, to take two easy examples, the katabasis appears again and again because it is based on an image of death as a journey that continues to offer any epic poet or his novelist heirs an array of narrative options (e.g. Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and, of course, Apocalypse Now). What´s more, I would say that it is in the blood of any great poet to make his hero travel to Hades and become a new Homer, finding out the secrets of life in life in life after death.

My wife managed to escape all this in the theatre the other day. But on the way home, she let me tell her and I would like to think that she listened, although I didn´t look at her while I was speaking just in case. I thought that was the error Orpheus made - looking at his wife to make sure she was listening to him.

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