A Visit to the Underworld

Below are excerpts from three of my favorite Underworld journeys from mythology, which also informed my own Underground scene in To the House of the Sun:

  • Book Six of Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas comes upon the shade of his father, who is amazed to see his son, still alive, visiting the land of the dead;
  • Tablet Seven of Gilgamesh, where Enkidu, near death, recounts the dream of the Underworld he just woke from;
  • A Tachi Orpheus myth from central California; beyond the story itself, its placement within the named landscape of California seems close to the Dindsenchas stories of Celtic myth



But in the deep of a green valley, father
Anchises, lost in thought, was studying
the souls of all his sons to come—though now
imprisoned, destined for the upper light.
And as it happened, he was telling over
the multitude of all his dear descendants,
his heroes’ fates and fortunes, works and ways.
And when he saw Aeneas cross the meadow,
he stretched out both hands eagerly, the tears
ran down his cheeks, these words fell from his lips:

“And have you come at last, and has the pious
love that your father waited for defeated
the difficulty of the journey? Son,
can I look at your face, hear and return
familiar accents? So indeed I thought,
imagining this time to come, counting
the moments, and my longing did not cheat me.
What lands and what wide waters have you journeyed
to make this meeting possible? My son,
what dangers battered you? I feared the kingdom
of Libya might do so much harm to you.”

Then he: “My father, it was your sad image,
so often come, that urged me to these thresholds.
My ships are moored on the Tyrrhenian.
O father, let me hold your right hand fast,
do not withdraw from my embrace.” His face
was wet with weeping as he spoke. Three times
he tried to throw his arms around Anchises’
neck; and three times the Shade escaped from that
vain clasp—like light winds, or most like swift dreams.

Meanwhile, Aeneas in a secret valley
can see a sheltered grove and sounding forests
and thickets and the stream of Lethe flowing
past tranquil dwellings. Countless tribes and peoples
were hovering there: as in the meadows, when
the summer is serene, the bees will settle
upon the many-colored flowers and crowd
the dazzling lilies—all the plain is murmuring.
The sudden sight has startled him. Aeneas,
not knowing, asks for reasons, wondering
about the rivers flowing in the distance,
the heroes swarming toward the riverbanks.
Anchises answers him: “These are the spirits
to whom fate owes a second body, and
they drink the waters of the river Lethe,
the careless drafts of long forgetfulness.
How much, indeed, I longed to tell you of them,
to show them to you face to face, to number
all of my seed and race, that you rejoice
the more with me at finding Italy.”

“But, Father, can it be that any souls
would ever leave their dwelling here to go
beneath the sky of earth, and once again
take on their sluggish bodies? Are they madmen?
Why this wild longing for the light of earth?”
“Son, you will have the answer; I shall not
keep you in doubt.” Anchises starts and then
reveals to him each single thing in order.

“First, know a soul within sustains the heaven
and earth, the plains of water, and the gleaming
globe of the moon, the Titan sun, the stars;
and mind, that pours through every member, mingles
with that great body. Born of these: the race
of men and cattle, flying things, and all
the monsters that the sea has bred beneath
its glassy surface. Fiery energy
is in these seeds, their source is heavenly;
but they are dulled by barmful bodies, blunted
by their own earthly limbs, their mortal members.
Because of these, they fear and long, and sorrow
and joy, they do not see the light of heaven;
they are dungeoned in their darkness and blind prison.
And when the final day of life deserts them,
then, even then, not every ill, not all
the plagues of body quit them utterly;
and this must be, for taints so long congealed
cling fast and deep in extraordinary
ways. Therefore they are schooled by punishment
and pay with torments for their old misdeeds:
some there are purified by air, suspended
and stretched before the empty winds; for some
the stain of guilt is washed away beneath
a mighty whirlpool or consumed by fire.
First each of us must suffer his own Shade;
then we are sent through wide Elysium—
a few of us will gain the Fields of Gladness
until the finished cycle of the ages,
with lapse of days, annuls the ancient stain
and leaves the power of ether pure in us,
the fire of spirit simple and unsoiled.
But all the rest, when they have passed time’s circle
for a millennium, are summoned by
the god to Lethe in a great assembly
that, free of memory, they may return
beneath the curve of the upper world, that they
may once again begin to wish for bodies.”

Anchises ended, drew the Sibyl and
his son into the crowd, the murmuring throng,
then gained a vantage from which he could scan
all of the long array that moved toward them,
to learn their faces as they came along….

from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum



[He struck me and] turned me into a dove.
[He bound] my arms like the wings of a bird,
        to lead me captive to the house of darkness, seat of Irkalla:
to the house which none who enters ever leaves,
        on the path that allows no journey back,
to the house whose residents are deprived of light,
        where soil is itself their sustenance and clay their food,
where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers,
        and see no light, but dwell in darkness.
On door [and bolt the dust lay thick,]
        on the House [of Dust was poured a deathly quiet.]
In the House of Dust that I entered,
I looked around me, saw “crowns” in a throng,
        there were the crowned [heads] who’d ruled the land since days of yore,
who’d served the roast [at the] tables of Anu and Enlil,
        who’d proffered baked bread, and poured them cool water from skins.
In the House of Dust that I entered,
        there were the en-priests and lagar-priests,
there were the lustration-priests and the lumahhu-priests,
        there were the great gods’ gudapsu-priests,
there was Etana, there was Shakkan,
        [there was] the queen of the Netherworld, the goddess Ereshkigal.
Before her sat [Belet]-seri, the scribe of the Netherworld,
        holding [a tablet], reading aloud in her presence.
[She raised] her head and she saw me:
        “[Who was] it fetched this man here?
[Who was it] brought here [this fellow?]”

from the translation of Andrew George




A Tachi had a fine wife who died and was buried. Her husband went to her grave and dug a hole near it. There he stayed watching, not eating, using only tobacco. After two nights he saw that she came up, brushed the earth off herself, and started to go to the island of the dead. The man tried to seize her but could not hold her.

She went southeast and he followed her. Whenever he tried to hold her she escaped. He kept trying to seize her, however, and delayed her. At daybreak she stopped. He stayed there, but could not see her. When it began to be dark the woman got up again and went on.

She turned westward and crossed Tulare Lake (or its inlet). At daybreak the man again tried to seize her but could not hold her. She stayed in the place during the day. The man remained in the same place, but again he could not see her. There was a good trail there, and he could see the footprints of his dead friend and relatives. In the evening his wife got up again and went on. They came to a river which flows westward towards San Luis Obispo, the river of the Tulamni (the description fits the Santa Maria, but the Tulamni are in the Tulare drainage, on and about Buena Vista lake).

There the man caught up with his wife and there they stayed all day. He still had nothing to eat. In the evening she went on again, now northward. Then somewhere to the west of the Tachi country he caught up with her once more and they spent the day there. In the evening the woman got up and they went on northward, across the San Joaquin river, to the north or east of it.

Again he overtook his wife. Then she said: ‘What are you going to do? I am nothing now. How can you get my body back? Do you think you shall be able to do it?’ He said: ‘I think so.’ She said: ‘I think not. I am going to a different kind of a place now.’ From daybreak on that man stayed there. In the evening the woman started once more and went down along the river; but he overtook her again. She did not talk to him. Then they stayed all day, and at night went on again.

Now they were close to the island of the dead. It was joined to the land by a rising and falling bridge called ch’eleli. Under this bridge a river ran swiftly. The dead passed over this. When they were on the bridge, a bird suddenly fluttered up beside them and frightened them. Many fell off into the river, where they turned into fish. Now the chief of the dead said: ‘Somebody has come.’ They told him: ‘There are two. One of them is alive; he stinks.’ The chief said: ‘Do not let him cross.’ When the woman came on the island, he asked her: ‘You have a companion?’ and she told him: ‘Yes, my husband.’ He asked her: ‘Is he coming here?’ She said, ‘I do not know. He is alive.’ They asked the man: ‘Do you want to come to this country?’ He said: ‘Yes,’ Then they told him: ‘Wait, I will see the chief.’ They told the chief: ‘He says that he wants to come to this country. We think he does not tell the truth.’ ‘Well, let him come across.’ Now they intended to frighten him off the bridge. They said: ‘Come on. The chief says you can cross.’ Then the bird (kacha) flew up and tried to scare him’, but did not make him fall off the bridge into the water.

So they brought him before the chief. The chief said: ‘This is a bad country. You should not have come. We have only your wife’s soul (itit). She has left her bones with her body. I do not think we can give her back to you.’ In the evening they danced. It was a round dance and they shouted. The chief said to the man: ‘Look at your wife in the middle of the crowd. Tomorrow you will see no one.’

Now the man stayed there three days. Then the chief said to some of the people: ‘Bring that woman. Her husband wants to talk to her.’ They brought the woman to him. He asked her: ‘Is this your husband?’ She said.- ‘Yes.’ He asked her: ‘Do you think you will go back to him?’ She said: ‘I do not think so. What do you wish?’ The chief said: ‘I think not. You must stay here. You cannot go back. You are worthless now.’ Then he said to the man: ‘Do you want to sleep with your wife?’ He said: ‘Yes, for a while. I want to sleep with her and talk to her.’ Then he was allowed to sleep with her that night and they talked together.

At daybreak the woman was vanished and he was sleeping next to a fallen oak. The chief said to him: ‘Get up. It is late.’ He opened his eyes and saw an oak instead of his wife. The chief said: ‘You see that we cannot make your wife as she was. She is no good now. It is best that you go back. You have a good country there.’ But the man said: ‘No, I will stay.’ The chief told him: ‘No, do not. Come back here whenever you like, but go back now.’ Nevertheless the man stayed there six days. Then he said: ‘I am going back.’

Then in the morning he started to go home. The chief told him: ‘When you arrive, hide yourself. Then after six days emerge and make a dance.’ Now the man returned. He told his parents: ‘Make me a small house. In six days I will come out and dance.’ Now he stayed there five days. Then his friends began to know that he had come back. ‘Our relative has come back,’ they all said. Now the man was in too much of a hurry. After five days he went out. In the evening he began to dance and danced all night, telling what he saw. In the morning when he had stopped dancing, he went to bathe. Then a rattlesnake bit him. He died. So be went back to island, he is there now.

It is through him that the people know it is there. Every two days the island becomes fall. Then the chief gathers the people. ‘You must swim,’ he says. The people stop dancing and bathe. Then the bird frightens them, and some turn to fish, and some to ducks; only a few come out of the water again as people. In this way room is made when the island is too full. The name of the chief there is Kandjidji.

from A. L. Kroeber, Indian Myths of South Central California
also found in Mircea Eliade’s
Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World