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The First Recorded Visit to the Realm of the Dead (in Western literature)

The first account we have of a living human making a trip to the realm of the dead in Western literature is in the Odyssey of Homer.  The Odyssey is about the ten-year attempt of the hero, Odysseus, to return home to Ithaca after the (also ten-year) Trojan war.   Many adventures and mishaps meet him en route.  At about the half-way point of the narrative, in book ten, he is on the island of Aeaea where he has encountered the witch-sorceress Circe.

At the end of his stay there he pleads with her that he desperately wants to get home.  She instructs him that he must first travel down to the “House of the Dead” and to the “awesome one Persephone” (i.e., the goddess who rules the underworld, with her husband Hades).   There he needs to consult with the ghost of Tiresias, a famous blind prophet, who has retained all his wits and prophetic powers in Hades.  This is an important point: the other dead (in other words, everyone else who has ever lived) do not have memories in the realm of the dead, or the power to predict the future: just Tiresias.  (Note: I’m only describing the perspective set forth in the Odyssey, not in other ancient texts.)

But this is an awesome and fearful task.  How can …

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The Body and Soul in Hades
My Graduate Level New Testament Course



  1. Avatar
    godspell  August 29, 2017

    What we see, again and again, is that the afterlife, the world we inhabit after we die, is a commentary on how people should live in this world. Not necessarily a punishment for sins committed. It may have nothing to do with you. The sins of others–like failing to bury you properly–could be responsible. What you describe here bears on the Greek idea of the polis. The polis must be well-ordered, people must adhere to certain rituals, war, while often necessary, disrupts the social order, which has ramifications that stretch beyond this world.

    Christianity was one of the religions that was much more centered on the individual. What you do, or fail to do, will determine your place in the afterlife. The pagan belief that you must be buried properly lived on in many Christian cultures–and yes, Christians probably made up the story of Jesus’ burial out of whole cloth, but many a Christian martyr never had a proper burial. They were still in heaven. Not limbo. The polis may fail, but you, as an individual, may still find redemption. Christianity, more than any other force, is responsible for the emphasis on individual conscience in the western world. Our own choices define us.

    What we call Christianity has many pagan ideas in it, not because they were cribbing them from pagan texts, but rather because most Christians were descended from pagans, and religious ideas that deeply embedded in a society don’t just die out when those people accept new religions. They become assimilated into the new religion.

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    bamurray  August 29, 2017

    So how different do you find the Greek of Homer from the Greek of the New Testament?

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    Stephen  August 29, 2017

    Are you planning to make a distinction in your scholarly work between sources that contain depictions of actual journeys to the other worlds, and sources that depict visions (or dreams) of them? I’m wondering how important to your project the actual journey is. (The reason I ask is because ancient cosmology is an interest of mine and these journeys are very revealing.)


    • Bart
      Bart  August 30, 2017

      I haven’t decided yet. Since all the stories are works of fiction, I’m not sure (genuinely not sure yet) how helpful the distinction is.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 1, 2017

        Does a dream or vision count as a work of fiction? Fiction implies conscious craft being applied to the telling of a story. Now I would think almost anybody recounting a dream or vision he or she had is using some measure of conscious craft to transmit it. You can’t simply put what you saw into the head of another person, even if you’re making a film. And most of the ancient stories we are reading today are the work of more than one person.

        But if I had a dream about the afterlife, and just told someone about it the next day, as best as I could remember it, I don’t think that would be fiction, per se. It wouldn’t be reality, either.

        And what is reality? Aren’t dreams and visions part of reality, at least for all sufficiently complex minds? Including many other species besides homo sapiens. When my dog’s leg jerked in sleep, and his eyelids quavered, I knew he was seeing visions of something. He could never tell me what it was he was seeing. There are no dog poets. But that doesn’t mean his visions were any less important.

        “To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

        I’d love to think death is a dreamless sleep. It would give me great peace to think that.

        But no living being can ever know that for sure.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 3, 2017

          Fiction is a literary form; a dream is a personal experience. You can certainly write fiction about dreams and you can dream about fiction. But I would say they are different things.

          • Avatar
            godspell  September 4, 2017

            Well, the word dream has multiple meanings, doesn’t it? The dreams we (and most warm-blooded creatures) have in REM sleep are a specific thing, to be sure. But they are deeply linked with the other kinds of dreams we have. One of which is fiction.

            You know, of course, that the Australian Aborigines refer to their afterlife as The Dreamtime. And that far predates any written record we have.

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    SidDhartha1953  August 30, 2017

    Elpenor is obviously not witless. He knows who Odysseus is and remembers that he was not buried. Did Homer think the dead lose their memories and wits over time or is that another inconsistency in the narrative?

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    mythosboy  August 30, 2017

    Tiresias maintains his full competence, but then he was a famous and somewhat transgressive prophet in life (including having spent time as a woman…): many of the rest of the dead retain some memories, though not all of them can be induced to speak: see Ajax for example. Presumably the long dead are harder to communicate with than Elphenor or the recently dead heroes of Troy. Homer’s Hades shares some notable similarities with Sheol of the Hebrews, and the realm of the dead as seen in the Epic of Gilgamesh. As well as real differences with later afterlife concepts found in both the Bible and in Pagan sources (re: Virgil in particular). I look forward to the further development of this idea, Dr. Ehrman.

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    mmns  September 1, 2017

    The water’s edge” to “the Ocean River’s bounds”, a realm of dark. The eye of the Sun can never flash his rays through the dark” Sounds like a black hole in our common parlance and understanding. Doesn’t it.

  7. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  September 8, 2017

    Hey Bart! I hope you did not forget about me! I have been busy with school and other things. I see you going way back! Blog about Plato’s writings of the City of Atlantis! Blog about what Plato says in that last paragraph and the story stops.

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