Descent Into The Underworld

28 Aug

We all know i’m writing a Dieselpunk Opera so there’s no point being coy about it. We all know i won’t actually begin making music for some time (months) but in my spare time i work out the stories (although as i already have 2 out of 3 it’s going a bit faster then i expected) and ideas for the music. So ideas and tangents it leads me on are fair game for this blog.

The most interesting tangent i have run across required me to refresh myself on Inanna, a Sumerian goddess who descends into the underworld and which is a favorite myth of mine. It prefigures most other known myths and certainly all other underworld descent myths. The progression of the meme from the Sumerian Inanna to the Babylonian Ishtar,  the Greek Orpheus, the Norse Baldar, the Welsh Pwyll, the Hindu Sāvitrī, to up to andf including the Christian Jesus is fascinating. Mythological memes are beautiful to behold make their way through the viral legends of history.

Thus today, i’m going to touch upon this subject visually only and feature some great works of art depicting the various Greatest Descent Into The Underworld Hits of all time.

There wasn’t even painting yet when Inanna descended to the Underworld to either rescue a sister, brother or attend a funeral.

Ishtar IS Inanna, just changed slightly as Babylonian culture became dominant. the stories are almost identical.

Orpheus is of course the most famous, descending into the underworld to rescue his dead love Persephone.

Orpheus in the underworld, Jan Brueghel the Elder 1594

Later, the Romans reworked the Persephone story and had Zeus, at her mother Demeter’s request send Hermes to the Underworld and successfully rescue Persephone.

The Return of Persephone, Frederick Leighton

Heracles (Hercules) also went to the Underworld, but unlike almost everybody else who did it to rescue a lost loved one, he did it just to kick the giant dog gaurdian’s ass, prove he was a bad ass and cross it off his bucket list  12th labor as part of his sentence for being driven mad by Hera and killing his wife and children.

The Twelve Labors of Heracles, The Capture of Cerberus, Jun-Pierre Shiozawa

Hermod (Hermóðr) went to the Underworld to bargain for the return of Baldur, who was killed by Loki and whose death would begin the chain leading to Ragnorak, the last battle of the gods.

Hermod pays respects to Hela

Pwyll became surrogate Lord of Anwyn for a year and a day. Now technically Anwyn is OTHERwordly as opposed to UNDERworldly, but it is, or at least became synonymous with a land of the dead. While this became even more pronounced when Christianity showed up, Anwyn as an otherworldly place of souls was already well in place so it counts.

A fantastic painting of an Underworld rescue by Jeff Pellas, of all things my old college roomate during the year and a half i actually went to college:

“Untitled” (Intaglio) by Jeff Pellas

And of course, we would be criminally amiss not to include history’s current most popular visit to the Underworld:

The Descent into Hell, Jacopo Tintoretto


Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to “Descent Into The Underworld

  1. Lawrence

    August 30, 2012 at 12:05 am

    Great article! But how about Heinonymus Bosch portrayal os the Underworld? where from no rescue is possible?

    • paulms

      August 30, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Bosch does not portray a Descent into the Underworld, where someone travels down and returns.


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