Have you ever been lured by the darkness of a cave? It’s tempting, a call to our human curiosity to find what lies behind that dense sea of blackness. There you are, in front of the cavern’s mouth, wondering whether it is just a hole of rock and earth, or a sleeping giant, frozen in time, patiently waiting for a soul to satiate its perennial hunger by entering into its open jaws. You don’t know what you’ll find in that darkness. You think of those stories told since the dawn of humanity, the myths that shaped the mindset of our ancestors and that to this day remain a silent legacy that still affects the way we see the world. Almost all of them say the same thing: caverns are the gates to the Underworld, the kingdom of the dead, and all the creatures that dread the world of light and the living.
Rembrandt Peale, The Court of Death (1820)
Most mythologies have their own version of the Underworld: Hades, Sheol, Xibalba, Mictlan, Duat, Diyu, Helheim. These are just a few examples of the many versions of this realm of mist and gloom. If you dare to explore the abyss, you'll learn about the many heroes, deities, and demigods who have entered into this strange world for different reasons. Greek mythology has countless examples of characters who explored this realm: Persephone, Psyche, Odysseus, Orpheus, Heracles, Aeneas, and Dionysus, among many others. They all went into the depths of the Underworld, searching for someone or something, following their duties, or to transform themselves.
Jan Brueghel the Younger, Aeneas and the Sybil in the Underworld (1630s)
Their journey is also known as katabasis, which in Greek means ‘descent.’ However, Greek mythology is not the only one where you can find examples of this voyage into the unknown. In Egyptian mythology, for instance, after being dismembered, Osiris is reborn as the King of the Underworld. Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Mayan hero twins, go to Xibalba to avenge their father, who was murdered by the Lords of the Underworld. Even Christian tradition states that, after being crucified, Jesus went to Hell or Sheol to save the souls of all those who lived a righteous life but died before he came to save humanity.
Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante (1822)
Stories from the Underworld are rooted in mythology, but they don’t end there. Later on, Dante Alighieri went to Hell guided by Virgil as he searched for the love of Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. John Milton dedicated an entire chapter of his epic Paradise Lost to describing the sinister realm where Satan reigned after being exiled from heaven. Alice followed the white rabbit into the depths of the earth and reached the marvelous Wonderland. We are attracted by this descent, so we keep portraying it not only in literature, but also in art.
Francois de Nome, Hell (1622)
Why are we so attracted to this strange realm? Perhaps it’s a combination of fear and curiosity. You cannot see what lies beyond the shadows of that dark world, and that’s scary. It’s just like death: we know it’s there and that all of us will eventually go through it. It's our final destination, and uncertainty paralyzes us, yet we can’t help but wonder what lies beyond.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861)
Our thirst for knowledge and our imagination have led us to create different versions of that land that isn’t touched by light. Maybe there's nothing at the bottom of the cave leading to the Underworld, or maybe you'll actually find the voices of the souls trapped between the sphere of the living and the dead, gardens of bones and skulls, demons, monsters, and specters that hide from the dreadful touch of the sun. Or maybe you’ll find hidden treasures, only destined for those bold enough to accept the quest and face the terrifying beings that await there.
Hieronymus Bosch, Detail from the right panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, (1490-1500)
Just as these heroes and characters, you’ll face the katabasis alone, because not everyone dares to go beyond the threshold of the known world. But in this darkness, in this solitude, you’ll discover that part of yourself that would’ve never flourished beneath the light. The journey into the darkness of the Underworld is one of self-knowledge, of learning about the best and the worst parts about yourself. It won’t be easy. I might even be dangerous, but the journey will be well worth it.
Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone (1830-1896)
As most of these art pieces show, there is a katabasis, but there is also an anabasis, that is, an “ascent,” a homecoming or spiritual resurrection. Characters do not return empty-handed nor do they surrender to the shadows of the Underworld. Even Persephone, after being caught and turned into the Queen of this realm, eventually returns to Earth, bringing spring with her and beginning once again the cycle of life and rebirth in nature. Maybe this is what keeps calling us to defy our fear of the unknown, of darkness, and of death, and the reason why we keep depicting and remembering the stories of all those who dared to descend and came back with a valuable treasure, like riches, love, power, knowledge, or wisdom.
So, will you dive into this dark world?
If you’re intrigued by the way art depicts the most primal human emotions and questions, check out these:
William Blake's Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, by Eric Pyle.