Descent to the Underworld

“Descent to the Underworld: The motif of numerous stories in the mythology and folklore of all peoples. The descent is usually made to rescue someone either abducted or rightfully dead, to find the answer to a question of discover a secret from the ruler of the underworld, or to seize some treasure. To partake of the food of the dead (or of fairyland in later folklore) prevents the visitor from ever returning. Among the most famous descent stories are the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone, and Heracles bringing of Cerberus up from Hades and his rescue of Alcestis. Also well known are the Babylonian story of Ishtar’s descent to rescue Tammuz and the Norse myth of Hermod’s journey to Hel to bring back Balder. There are similar tales in Hindu, Chinese, and Japanese writings, and among the Ainu, Melanesians, North American Indians, and Eskimos. Descents to Hell are common also in early Christian literature.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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