Descent into the Underworld

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DESCENT INTO THE UNDERWORLD . Narratives the world over tell of descents into the underworld. Many traditions include myths connected with journeys to the "otherworld" undertaken by both human and suprahuman beings. Experiences of such journeys are especially common in the shamanistic traditions, but they are also found in association with various ecstatic religious phenomena and various heroic and visionary contexts within a great number of cultures.

An important differentiation can be made between the descent with no return (accomplishing the due of human mortality) and the descent with return made by heroes, shamans, and other extraordinary humans. The imaginary experiences with return could fulfill different objectives: to explain the cosmic subterranean topography, to rescue someone from the realm of the dead, and to expose the punishments and sufferings in the otherworld with a moral purpose. The descent into the underworld, particularly to the kingdom of the dead, is one of the central themes in myths explaining the cosmic order, the limits and possibilities of the human being, the relationships between gods, and human relationships with god or the gods.

But the descent into the underworld is also a powerful imaginal and, on occasion, stereotyped literary motif. In the European traditions, due to the influence of the Homeric Nekyia (ninth book of the Odyssey ), the descent (Greek, katabasis ), an imaginary motif is present in major literary and artistic works despite the cultural, chronological, and religious differences between contexts and authors (between, for instance, Vergil's sixth book of the Aeneid and the Inferno in Dante's Commedia ). Such a literary motif is also found in the Middle Eastern traditions from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Book of Enoch or the isra of Muammad. There are cross-relationships among all of these literary traditions. Christ's descent into hell and medieval Christian literature developing the topic of the descent and the description of hell have, therefore, a long literary tradition.

The beliefs concerning descent into an underworld inhabited by spirits and supernatural beings could be based in part on experiences in which the soul is believed to leave the body during a state of altered consciousnesssuch as trance, sleep, or near-death experiencesor during the visions and hallucinations associated with these states. The content of such experiences, however, is determined to a large extent by the cultures and traditional beliefs of the persons undergoing them, but these phenomena also have remarkable similarities in different cultures and ages, a fact that encourages intercultural comparisons.

The Roads to Death: Topographies of the Descent

Beliefs concerning the descent into the underworld are often connected with the concept of a three-layer cosmos, according to which the human world is located midway between the realm of spirits above and the realm of the dead belowthe "underworld." The underworld itself may also be thought of as divided into layers. In certain Asian, European, Mesoamerican, and Oceanic cultures, for instance, the underworld is believed to be divided into as many as nine layers. Mayan cultures recognized nine levels of the underworld, and some funerary temples reproduce a descent in nine phases. Scandinavians called the ninth and lowest level Niflhel.

These cosmic levels are often believed to be connected to one another by a cosmic tree or mountain, which is frequently believed to be located in the north. In inner and northern Asia, India, and northern Europe, the "center of the world" is found in the north. The cosmic tree that connects the levels of the cosmos also acts as a path of communication among them. The Vasyugan Khanty, the Maya, and the Scandinavians, for instance, believe that it has its roots in the underworld. In the shamanistic tales of Siberia, the opening leading to the underworld is represented as lying at the foot of the cosmic tree or at the foot of its counterpart, the shaman's tree. The Altaic Turks, on the other hand, locate this opening at the "center of the cosmos" and describe it as a "smoke hole." Many northerly peoples locate the opening to the different cosmic levels in the North Star that shines at the center of the world and symbolizes supernatural stability and eternity.

In all cultural traditions the most important part of the underworld is the realm of the dead. Most of the traditions describing the descent into the underworld are in fact concerned with visiting the dead, though this realm may be described differently in various cultures. In some cultures of the East, in central Asia, and in ancient Greek religion, for instance, it is described as the palace of the sovereign of death or as a mighty dwelling place. In ancient Scandinavian folklore it is a great hall, whereas in the Finnish epic it is a large living room. Among the hunting peoples of Siberia, it is conceived of as a yurt village, in the Celtic culture it is in an insular location, and in ancient Greek tradition Hades (the realm of Hades, the god of the underworld) seems to be described as a palace. Despite the variety in representations, however, many of the concepts surrounding the realm of the dead and the roads to entrances are similar in all parts of the world.

Belief in a local opening and a road leading to the underworld are common in the cultures of Europe, Asia, America, West Africa, Melanesia, and Polynesia. On the west side of Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, for instance, one finds the Black Rock, from which the souls of the dead are thought to set off on their journey to the otherworld. Volcanoes, such as Etna, or caves, such as that of Lough Derg in Ireland, mark the beginning of the road to hell or purgatory, as in medieval Christian literature. In the ancient Greek imaginary topography, subterranean entrances to the realm of Hades are not uncommon (more than fifty are testified in the ancient sources), and sanctuaries could be located in caves or entrances to the underworld: the best-known example is the Nekyomanteion (oracle of the dead) at Ephyra.

One of the universal features of such a road to the underworld is darkness. This is why the Yakut shaman has disks representing the sun and moon sewn onto clothingto provide light on the route to the otherworld. The road is also dangerous, fraught with difficulties and preternatural obstacles that only an initiate or a spirit being can overcome. In Finnish folklore such obstacles include a great eagle, a snake, a fiery pond or waterfall, and a river bristling with swords. Similar obstacles are also found in the mythologies of the Middle and Far East, of classical antiquity, and of the Germanic peoples, and they were also cultivated in the Christian vision literature and art of the Middle Ages. According to the ancient Germans and the Yakuts of Siberia, the dead had to be equipped either with shoes or a horse to protect them on their difficult journey.

Traditions familiar in both Asia and Europe tell of a stream surrounding the realm of the dead that must be crossed on a ferry or by a narrow bridge made dangerous by swords, or they speak of a wall surrounding the underworld over which the soul must leap. In ancient Greek mythology the ferryman Charon helps the dead cross the labyrinthine underworld waters and enter the realm of Hades. But Charon, as a literary and iconographic motif, is found even in Western Christian literature and arts (e.g., in the Sistine Chapel), despite the religious changes produced in the idea of the underworld by Christianization. It could be used as an example of the plurality of beliefs about the underworld that coexist in a culture or a religion and that encourage the microanalysis of cases, contexts, and points of view.

Another widespread concept connected with the underworld is that of the beast or dog that guards its gates. Examples include the Greek Kerberos, with its three heads; the Scandinavian Garmr, a huge and bloody monster; the Babylonian Nedu, with its lion's head, human hands, and bird's feet; and the Egyptian Ammut, the watchdog of the underworld god Osiris that has the body of a lion, the front limbs of a crocodile, and the rear limbs of a hippopotamus.

The Shamanic Initiation and the Descent into the Underworld

A journey to the underworld under the helpful guidance of the spirits is the cornerstone of the classical shamanism of Siberia and inner Asia, and corresponding practices connected with the activities of a seer or an ecstatic healer are found in other parts of the world as well: in North America, in Oceania, in the folk religion of Indochina, among the early religions of Europe, and especially in the various religions of South America. One typical feature of this type of otherworldly journey is the use the shaman makes of ritual techniques intended to induce ecstasy.

Where there is a belief in an underworld, it is not uncommon for people to have chance experiences of descending into it during sleep or trance. In shamanistic cultures such spontaneous experiences were interpreted as proof that the spirits had selected a candidate as a future shaman. According to a Nentsy myth, a woodcutter suddenly found himself on the back of a minryy bird, from which he fell through a hole into the underworld. There he wandered from the dwelling of one spirit to that of another and had to recognize each in turn. He was then cut into pieces and put together again, after which one of the spirits guided him back to the earth's surface. This experience was taken to be the initiation as a shaman, particularly in view of the dissection and reassembling of the body by the spirits.

Chance visions, pains, and torments were interpreted as the shaman's sickness and were taken as signs of a person's candidacy as a shaman. While learning to use the drum and sing the shaman's songs, the candidate withdrew from the normal life of the community, fasted, and sought contact with the spirits. A journey to the underworld, experienced through visions and auditions, was a prerequisite for initiation. The central element of this journey was the experience of rebirth. The reports of such initiation visions prove that the initiate's experiences were shaped by the shamanistic tradition of the community in question. The older shamans interpreted the candidate's experiences in such a way as to channel them toward accepted, traditional patterns. During this initiation period the new shamans became familiar with that part of the spirit world to which they would later journey during shamanic séances.

A number of the peoples of inner Asia and southern Siberia referred to the shaman's journeying to the underworld as "black." This seems to be a reference to the fact that the underworld contained not only the abodes of the dead but also the dwelling places of various disease-causing or otherwise dangerous spirits. In order to be an accomplished shaman, one had to know the roads leading to these places and be able to recognize their inhabitants. This made it all the more important for a candidate to study the topography of the underworld during the initiation period. In the more northerly regions, this study was conducted under the guidance of special spirits, usually zoomorphic spirits of nature.

The Descent as Shamanic Ritual

The ritual descent into the underworld takes place during a shamanistic séance, in the course of which the shaman describes in song the stages of the journey. In northern Siberia and the Arctic regions in particular, the actual transfer to the otherworld was thought to coincide with the highest point in the shaman's altered state of consciousness and was indicated by loss of external consciousness. The shaman's soul was then thought to have left the body and to be traveling in the otherworld in the form of an animal or accompanied by benevolent spirits.

The visit to the underworld was sometimes portrayed through performable means. The journey of the "black" shamans of the Altaic Tatars to Erlik Khan, the lord of the underworld, was expressed not only in song but also in mime and movement. The shamans gave detailed descriptions of the stages of the journey and the meeting with Erlik Khan. First they rode southward, climbed the Mountain of Iron, on whose slopes lay the fading bones of unsuccessful shamans, and then descended through a hole into the underworld. They next crossed the sea of the underworld by an extremely narrow and dangerous bridge and arrived at the dwelling of Erlik Khan. At first the lord of the underworld was angry, but as the shamans offered him drink and sacrifices, he became benevolent and promised to fulfill the shamans' wishes. The shamans then returned to earth riding on a goose.

When descending into the underworld, the shaman tried to solve problems that were thought to be caused by the spirits. The reasons for the journey to the underworld thus depended on the sorts of spirits living there and on the way they were thought to influence human life. If an illness was believed to be caused by a loss of soul, it was the shaman's task to fetch the patient's soul from the malevolent spirits who had stolen it. Other typical reasons for descending into the underworld were to acquire knowledge concerning the future, the weather, lost objects, or persons; to meet the spirits who assisted at a birth; to meet the keepers of the game during a period of famine; to escort the soul of a sacrificial animal to its destination; or to accompany the souls of the dead to the underworld. For example, the initiatory vision of the Nganasani shaman Sereptie Djaruoskin reveals that he knew the roads leading from the foot of the shaman's tree to the spirits responsible for every kind of sickness, to the main guardians of the game, and to the spirits who provide protection at births.

If the soul of a dead person should fail to go to the underworld but instead keep disturbing the peace of the living, the shaman was called upon to play the role of psychopomp (guide of souls). Indeed among the Nanay (Goldi), the Altaic Turks, and the Nentsy, escorting the soul of the dead to its new abode was one of the shaman's most important tasks. After a death, the Nanay arranged a festival, during which the shaman caught the wandering spirit and placed it on a cushion specially made for the occasion. A big clan memorial festival was then held, and the shaman escorted the soul of the dead to Buni, the clan's own kingdom of the dead. On the way the shaman and the soul in keeping were assisted by the spirit Buchu, who knew the way, and the bird Koori, who carried the travelers to the underworld on its back. At the séance during which all this took place, the shaman expressed the stages of the journey with dramatic effects, giving instructions to the assisting spirits and expressing in song the horror and relief over the difficulties along the way. As described at such séances, the road to Buni included eighteen stages that had special names and generally known features. The most difficult task along the journey was crossing the river separating the living from the dead. The shamans could tell when they had reached their destination from strange footmarks, the sound of dogs barking, and other traditional signs.

In modern shamanism (and in neoshamanism), because of undergoing the process of adaptation to the modern world and global society, some of the classical themes of the descent into the underworld are objects of redefinition and psychological interpretation (using, for example, the Jungian and New Age concept of shadow as explanation). The descent into the underworld has become an inner experience of combat against a personal alter ego. The cosmic topographical implication and the social interest of the shamanic exploit are transformed in a private experience without social or cosmic relevance.

The Heroic Descent and the Orpheus Theme

The journeys to the underworld undertaken by shamans and mystics typically involve visions experienced during trance. There are, however, myths and tales in parts of the world that tell of journeys to the underworld undertaken by humans or gods without the aid of ecstatic techniques or powers. Visiting the underworld was thought to be one of the standard deeds of mythical heroes. The heroes descending into the underworld need not necessarily be human, for Ishtar makes the journey in the Akkadian myth, Lemminkäinen's mother does so in the Finnish tradition, and the Mayan twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque descend into Xibalba (the realm of the deities of the death) in the Popol Vuh.

The reasons for the descent were many. One of the most popular was the rescue of a relative or loved one who had died young. But the journey also could be undertaken to search for immortality, knowledge, or some special favor, to escort the dead to their final resting place, or to receive initiation in the mysteries of the underworld. Here exists a close parallel to the reasons given for the shaman's journey.

A test of strength between love and death is the basis of the legends and myths in which one left behind in this world follows the beloved or relative "to the land of no return." And when the result of the journey is positive, the inexorable law of mortalitythe power of Thanatosis overcome by the power of Eros. The best-known representative of this type of narrative is the Orpheus theme, various forms of which are found not only in Eurasia but also in North America, Oceania, and Melanesia.

In Vergil's version, in the fourth book of the Georgics, perhaps the best literary expression of the classical myth (because the Orphic versions, included in Katabasis of Orpheus, have unfortunately disappeared), Orpheus sets off for Hades in search of his wife Eurydice, who has died young. With his songs and his music, Orpheus relieves the suffering in the underworld and wins the favor of the gods. Eurydice is promised to him on condition that he not turn to look at her on the road up. The impatient Orpheus breaks his vow and loses his wife. Despite the negative result of the katabasis, for the followers of the Greek mystery cults who use the name of Orpheus as a sign of identity this underworld exploit is a demonstration of the possibility of acquiring knowledge that can defeat death. The Orphic initiation offers the wisdom to find the appropriate path in the underworld journey and the knowledge of the correct descent that is inscribed in the Orphic-Dionysiac gold lamellae (sheets) found in a number of burial sites in Greece and southern Italy.

A negative result is also obtained by the god Izanagi in his underworld search for his twin sister and wife Izanami in the realm of Yomi as reported in the Japanese Kojiki. The episode explains a cosmic division into two layers, upper and lower, ruled by the twin gods, a provisional arrangement changed by the following generation of gods.

Greater happiness befalls the heroes of the Polynesians, including the Maori of New Zealand, who rescue their loved ones by deceiving the spirits trying to prevent their escape. In one Maori narrative, Hutu follows Pane, who has died of love for him, to the underworld. There Hutu entertains the spirits, having them sit on the top of a tree that has been bent over and fastened to the ground by a rope. When Hutu lets go of the rope, the spirits are hurled into the air, and he escapes with his beloved.

In addition to spouses or lovers, the main characters in these tales may also be people who are attached to one another by some other tie. For example, there are stories among the Indians of North America that stress sibling attachment. The Tatars of the Sayan steppes tell the story of Kubaiko, who goes to look for her brother in the kingdom of death ruled by Erlik Khan. After carrying out the superhuman tasks imposed upon her by the princes of death, Kubaiko receives the body of her brother and brings him back to life with the water of life. The story gives a long description of the state after death and the punishment of sinners. The torments inflicted in Hades to the enemies of the gods (Sisyphos, Tantalos, Tityos) are described in the story of Odysseus's journey to the land of the dead. But because the goal of the hero is not to rescue someone but to obtain information, the episode seems more an invocation followed by a vision than a descent.

The related idea of the death and resurrection of a god lies behind certain invigoration rites. There is a myth connected with the Akkadian Ishtar and her Sumerian counterpart Inanna that describes the descent of the goddess into the underworld, probably to try to subjugate that realm. On her way, Ishtar takes off her clothes and her ornaments as she passes through the gates that lead to Arallu. On reaching her destination, she dies, and the earthly vegetation wilts. When the gods sprinkle her with the water of life, she recovers and returns to earth.

The Heroic and Initiation Descent: Immortality and Apotheosis

In some cases a hero penetrates the kingdom of death to gain immortality. One of the oldest known examples is the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh crosses the waters of death and reaches the land of eternal life. There he finds a plant that guarantees immortality. But a snake snatches it from him on his return trip, and he is forced to accept mortality for humankind. The account of Gilgamesh's journey has been compared to the account of Herakles's visit to Hades and Odysseus's Nekyia. But Odysseus refuses the immortality promised to him by Calypso in order to to maintain his own identity. Herakles reaches apotheosis (the transformation into a god) after a number of exploits (crucially the visit to the garden of the Hesperides), not simply after his victorious return from the underworld, when he brings with him the watchdog Kerberos and delivers Alcestis and Theseus.

The pursuit of immortality is also part of the tradition woven around the Polynesian trickster and culture hero Maui. Maui believed he could make himself immortal by crawling through the body of his giant grandmother Hine-nui-te-po. Hine-nui-te-po wakes as Maui enters her mouth and, closing her mouth, kills the intruder. This swallowing motif, also found in the story of Jonah and the great fish, is quite common in traditions concerned with initiation and takes both mythical and ritual forms. It is found in the Finnish folk epic, in which Väinämöinen enters the belly of a giant sage who had long been dead. Väinämöinen descends to the underworld in the role of a sage to seek knowledge and incantations. In this respect he is reminiscent of a shaman. A similar seeking journey is made by the Scandinavian god Odin, who is described as having ecstatic powers.

Further reasons for traveling to the underworld include the search for some special object, as in the descent of Psyche, or the mere satisfaction of curiosity. In each case the journey is described as extremely dangerous and difficult, with its success depending on special conditions: the travelers should not eat any food offered in the underworld, nor should they look back on the return journey, lest they fall under the power of the spirits giving chase from below (which happens to Izanami in the Japanese myth and Persephone in the Greek myth).

In some cultures, a main reason to endure the descent is to demonstrate the supernatural condition of the traveler, a recognition of his or her extraordinary or divine nature. The katabasis of Dionysos, with the rescue of his mother Semele, shows without a doubt to his followers the power of the god over death. And then Dionysos, like a sort of mystic Hades, could offer to those who had endured the initiation into his mysteries the liberation from death: the Dionysian path (difficult to distinguish from the Orphic path) to overshadow the mirage of common underworld destiny as it appears in the words inscribed in the golden intiatory lamellae.

In a similar way, some Christian theologians explain Christ's descent into the underworld as a complete victory over hell, overcoming the power of evil and rescuing the "saints of the Old Testament," highlighting the new alliance that changes the foundations of the cosmic topography with the descent. The complex theological implications of the episode have been understood in different ways in the various Christian denominations (a number of which discarded the cosmic implications of the descent, simply understood as a paraphrastic reference to the act of dying). But the iconographical possibilities of the episode have been widely exploited in art and literature, especially in the Middle Ages and in Oriental Christianity, due to the values of glory and sovereignty that underlie the episode and the classical and oriental imaginal implications of the descent into hell.

The Visionary Descent with Moral Purposes

Visions of descending into the underworld are a part of the traditions of the religions of the Middle East and the ancient Mediterranean world, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. The visit in question is usually to the kingdom of the dead, and one of its main themes is the observation of the torment awaiting sinners in the other world, along with the judgment of souls. The moral purposes of the journey are evident and serve as arguments to reinforce the belief in the ethical mainstream proposed by these religions.

One of the earliest records in the Greek tradition of the transformation of the literary heroic descent into a descent with moral purposes is the Platonic myth of Er, related at the end of Plato's Republic (c. 380 bce), in which the visions of the postmortem destiny had a propaedeutic purpose in the philosophical way of life proposed by Plato. Earlier accounts about the punishment in Hades for amoral or criminal attitudes certainly existedfor instance, in the Nekyia painted in the fifth century bce by Polygnotos in the Cnidian Lesche at Delphi (and described by Pausanias)but in Plato the description had a moral purpose.

Multiple examples of the imaginal and moral effectiveness of these sorts of visionary descents exist in the ancient world. The Book of Enoch relates a descent into the Sheʾol that shows the diversity of the ideas about the underworld in Hellenistic Judaism. The judgment of the dead in an Egyptian papyrus of the first century ce describes how Setne Khamuas, a high priest of Memphis, descended into the halls of Amenti under the guidance of his son Si-Osiris. In the Christian Apocalypse of Peter (c. 135 ce), the visions detail, in an explicit and meticulous way, the terrible punishments of the sinners. These themes were particularly popular in the Christian literature and art of the Middle Ages, and the descriptive and imaginal possibilities of the journey were exploited in Christian countries. The popular medieval English mystery play The Harrowing of Hell is an example of this, although the most accurate and famous artistic expression of such beliefs is Dante's Commedia (1321).

But these descriptions of journeys into hell (and eventually paradise and other locations) repeat beliefs that are familiar from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern traditions, and the relationships between authors and religious traditions are difficult to trace. The influence of a literary tradition that overcomes religious backgrounds using identical imaginal resources is undeniable, but the final purposes of the descriptions are also significant. For example, Aeneas's descent in Vergil's sixth book of the Aeneid, Christ's descent into hell in the Gospel of Nicodemus, the visions exposed in the Iranian Ardā Wirāz Nāmag, the journey described in the Book of the Scale, or other descriptions of the isra of Muammad had specific religious significance within each religious tradition.

The visionary descent appears also in Far Asian traditions. The ascetic practices known as gyo, practiced by Buddhist priests in Japan, sometimes led to trances that included visions of journeys to the underworld. Some of the visions were of an initiatory nature and had structural and thematic similarities to the shamans' visions. In the Nihon ryōiki a priest called Chikō, while feigning death, found himself accompanied by two messengers on the road to the underworld. The road led westward and finally to a golden palace, the door of which was guarded by two terrible beings. Three times the messengers ordered Chikō to clasp a burning hot pillar so that his flesh was burned and only his bones remained, and three times the spirits put him together again. They finally sent him back to earth, ordering him to renounce the sin of envy. In addition to such reports of initiatory trials, the Japanese narratives also contain revelations of the sentences passed by the king of the underworld and the horrors awaiting sinners. One type of narrative, which has parallels in the Chinese tradition, tells of persons descending into the underworld to save one of their relatives from the torments of hell. Such descriptions of the judgment and punishment of sinners could serve as a moral warning to lead a virtuous life, but they could also be used as a meditation resource (e.g., the visonary visit to the realm of the punished during the meditative practice with bhava chakra in Mahāyāna Buddhism).

The theme of visionary descent experienced a renewal in European tradition with Emanuel Swedenborg's (16881772) description of a supposed visit to the underworld in his De coelo et ejus mirabilibus, et de inferno, ex auditis et visis (Heaven and its wonders and hell from things heard and seen, 1758). He proposed a Christian esoterical topography of hell and an angelology, in which the torments of the sinners are transformed in an inner postmortem experience of the evil committed in life. Swedenborg is useful as an early example of the modern prevailing tendency to the interiorization brought about by the loss of imaginal fascination of the heroic motif of the descent. (The powerful 1998 iconographical adaptation of the classical descensus in Vincent Ward's film What Dreams May Come is perhaps an exception.) In fact, the descent into the underworld seems to be of little interest in the theological speculations and ritual practices developed in Christianity in particular and in the world religions in general, excluding perhaps some shamanic contexts.

See Also

Judgment of the Dead; Shamanism; Underworld; Visions.


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Anna-Leena Siikala (1987)

Francisco Diez de Velasco (2005)