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Journeys to the Underworld in Classical Literature and Culture


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Catharine Edwards
  • Assessment: two 2500-word essays (25% each) and a 48-hour online examination (50%), with a 60% attendance requirement

Module description

Greco-Roman conceptions of the underworld represent it as strictly for the dead, a place from which there is no return. Yet the story of a living hero daring to descend to the underworld - and to come back - features already in Homeric epic. Odysseus makes the perilous journey to Hades to interrogate the ghosts of his companions, also encountering, most poignantly, his dead mother (Odyssey 11).

The underworld descent and return was familiar enough in fifth-century Athens to become the stuff of comedy in the hand of Aristophanes, whose Frogs centres around the journey of Dionysus to the Underworld (which turns out to be full of feuding tragic poets). Descent to the Underworld is appropriated to philosophic ends by Plato in his Phaedo. Virgil offers a Roman reworking of Odysseus’ journey in his Aeneid, where Aeneas goes down to the underworld and, guided by the ghost of his own father, is given foresight into Rome’s future (bk.6). Virgil had already narrated a rather different underworld journey in his account of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Georgics (bk.4). Despite the tragic ending of the story, Orpheus’ journey is a testament to the power of art to overcome death. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, a radical reworking of the epic form, gives his own version of Orpheus’ journey (Met.10-11). This module will explore these diverse underworld-journey narratives to interrogate the relationship between myth and literature in Greco-Roman antiquity.

What exactly is at stake in these accounts of descent to the underworld? Can we usefully detach myths from the literary contexts in which they are recounted? What is the relationship between these underworld narratives and religious beliefs (insofar as these may be deduced from, for instance, evidence relating to Orphic cults)? We will also investigate the relationship between these texts, looking at intertextuality. What happens when Virgil reworks Homer? How far is Ovid’s Orpheus (or Virgil’s) a figure for the poet himself?