7 Classical Heroes Who Visited the Underworld

Aeneas * Odysseus * Orpheus * Dionysus * Heracles * Psyche * Theseus

Virgil has Aeneas descend with the sibyl into the underworld at the Sulphur-ridden crater of Avernus near Cumae to speak to his dead father. Odysseus makes it as far as the banks of the River Charon. However, Orpheus succeeds in charming Pluto and Persephone with his music and almost succeeds in extracting his lover Eurydice from the gates of Hell but on his return to the light gives birth to a mystery religion complete with a transformational initiation rite, hymns, and a priesthood who remain poor outcast wanderers, renouncing their taste for meat and women.

Dionysus’s descent feels like an earlier episode in this same half-understood Orphic religion, though dance replaces music and Dionysus is successful in rescuing his mother Semele and placing her in the heavens. Hercules is in Hades on a mission to steal the hound of hell (Cerberus), but again seems to follow in the spiritual footsteps of Orpheus by descending into the underworld via Eleusis and its mystery cult.

Looking beyond the Aegean, and this list of seven, are the much older stories of Gilgamesh’s journey to Hell and the Sumerian-Babylonian goddess Inanna’s descent.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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