What?!? Yes, it’s all true. No matter what you've been told, or read, the ‘katabasis’ of in Odyssey 11 is not an actual katabasis!
A katabasis is a descent. In this context it’s a descent into the Underworld, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. And there are a bunch of famous katabases that we all know and love: Herakles going down to steal Kerberos, Orpheus heading down to rescue Eurydike, Theseus and Perithous’s attempt on Persephone. But, Odysseus isn't one of them. Katabasis stories involve physical travel into the Underworld, not realistic religious rituals. And the dead are not used as intermediaries. Odysseus's so-called 'katabasis' does involve a religious ritual and he interacts with the dead.
Odysseus starts in the living world, he digs a pit in the earth and pours his offerings into it. The dead rush up to greet him. This all shows that Odysseus is performing a necromantic rite, but there is a little bit more. So, let’s have a look at the actual necromancy itself (Homer’s Odyssey 11.20-47). This translation is from the Chicago Homer, where you can also find the original Greek.
We beached our ship when we got there, unloaded 20
the sheep, and went back ourselves along Ocean's stream
until we reached the place Circe had described.
“There Eurylochus and Perimedes held the sacred victims,
and I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh,
dug a pit a cubit's length this way and that, 25
and poured a libation to all the dead about it,
first with milk and honey, thereafter with sweet wine,
a third time with water, then sprinkled white barley groats upon it.
I repeatedly entreated the helpless heads of the dead,
that when I got to Ithaca I'd offer a cow that's not yet calved, 30
my best one, in my palace, then I'd fill the pyre with good things,
and that I'd sacrifice separately, to Teiresias alone,
a solid-black ram, that stands out among our sheep.
After I'd implored with prayers and vows the tribes of corpses,
I took the sheep and cut their throats 35
and the cloud-dark blood flowed into the pit. Up out of Erebus
they gathered, the souls of the dead who'd died,
brides, young men never married, old men who'd suffered much,
tender maidens with hearts new to sorrow,
and many wounded by bronze spears, 40
men killed in battle, holding armour stained with gore.
They stalked about the pit in throngs from one place and another
with an awful screeching, and green terror seized me.
Then at that moment I urged and ordered my comrades
to skin and burn the sheep that lay there slaughtered 45
by ruthless bronze, and to pray to the gods,
to mighty Hades and dread Persephone.
Offerings to the Olympic gods were (usually) upward focused. Sacrifices were burnt with the smoke rising up, and prayer conducted with arms raised into the sky. It makes sense that it happened this way – the gods are up, so offerings need to go up. So too with Underworld gods, except they are down and the offerings need to go down. In this section of the Odyssey, Odysseus digs a pit with his sword, and pours his offerings into it – including the blood of his sacrifice – and they sink down through the earth to the Underworld gods. The same thing happens in historical supplication to Hittite Underworld gods, where there is evidence for temporary, downward facing altars made by digging a pit in the earth. Sometimes this happened on a riverbank, and there’s evidence that pits might have been dug out with daggers (see Collins 2002, linked above). While there’s a strong link here, there’s a stronger link to Greek necromantic rites.
Odysseus is told, by Kirke, to go and find answers about his journey home from a dead seer, Tiresias. The place she sends him to matches the location of the Oracle of the Dead near the Acheron, in Thesprotia. Pausanias, much later of course, tells us that Homer knew that he was writing a description of the site at Ephyra (Od. 10.508-514):
But when you drive through Ocean with your ship,
there will be a rough headland and groves of Persephone,
tall poplars and willows losing their fruit. 510
Land your ship at that spot, by deep-eddying Ocean,
but go yourself to the dank house of Hades.
There Pyriplegethus and Cocytus, which is a branch
of the water of the Styx, flow into Acheron
Much later Pausanias (1.17.5) says that Homer had been to the Nekyomanteia here and used it in his description:
I think Homer had seen these places and boldly ventured to describe Hades’s realm in his poem and further named the rivers after those in Thesprotia.
Of course, ‘Homer’ himself doesn't say anything on the subject, but the topographical and archaeological evidence suggests that where Odysseus goes is indeed the location of the historical Oracle of the Dead. Homer could have included this because there was a cult of Hades close by (but that’s a story for another time).
Although this is only a short exposition of the issue, the two main points certainly illustrate that Odysseus doesn't descend into the Underworld. He isn't described as being in the Underworld, but the dead are described as rushing up, out of the Underworld, to him. And the site described by Homer is the site of an Oracle of the Dead.
(Plato's) Socrates, in Cratylus, argues that Persephone should correctly be called something like Pherepapha (404c-e), because her real name (cited, confusingly, as Pherrephatta, shows that she is wise:
For since things are swept along (φερόμενα), wisdom is the power to grasp (ἐφαπτόμενον), comprehend, (ἐπαφῶν), and to follow (ἐπακολουθεῖν) them. Thus it would be correct to call this goddess ‘Pherepapha’ or something like that, because of her wisdom, that is to say, her power to comprehend what is being swept along (ἐπαφὴ τοῦ φερομένου). (Plat. Crat. 404c-d, trans. Reeve.)
Fear, Socrates explains, leads to wilful errors of naming and the employment of alternative spellings in an effort to disguise the true meaning of the name. The correctness (or, more accurately, the incorrectness) of Plato’s etymology does not alter the point: people were afraid of the goddess and changed her name to make her somehow more palatable. Persephone is near-interchangeable with Kore, and the chorus of Euripides’s Helen calls Persephone the ἀρρήτου κούρας (‘unspoken girl’ Eur. Hel. 1306-1307; cf. fr. 63 (Kovaks)); these all add up to the same affect: renaming the goddess changes her power in some way. Rudolf Wachter argued that the ‘original’ name we should look for is more like Φερρῶφαττα (with either an omega or omicron in place of the epsilon), for which there are nine attestations. Seven of these are found on fifth-century Attic vases, by individual painters. This shows an etymology with ‘she who threshes ears of corn’, but this does not directly presuppose a Frazer-esque Corn Maiden. Perrophatta is not an embodiment of corn, but an intermediary between Demeter and the people, ensuring agriculture – her mother’s gift – is received. When Pherrephatta retreats beneath the earth, seeds also retreat. Here, both goddess and seeds mature and grow, before sprouting forth to bring life to the people. In this incarnation, Persephone is not a submissive and deferential divinity, hiding behind her mother or husband. She is an active participant in the life-cycle of grain, and therefore of the earth and its population.
There is an interesting parallel her to Hades, who is also mention by Socrates (Crat. 403a), although here we find Hades being renamed as another god - Plouton. Hades was an absent god - he's almost absent from cultic life (the notable exception is his cult in Elis). The etymology of 'Hades' points to something like 'unseen one' or 'the invisible'. Although Hades is obviously not the only god who is unseeable to mortals, since many Olympic gods appear invisible, and are often not directly seeable in cult as well. But other gods make themselves invisible and Hades is (nearly) always invisible. Not, I should note, imperceptible, but that under certainly conditions (namely, being alive) he is concealed. One may see him clearly but only after death.
This reputation might have been perpetuated by his mythic 'cap of invisibility' - first found in Homer, when Athena uses it to hide herself from Ares (Il. 5.8.44-845.) According to pseudo-Apollodoros, the Kyklopes gave 'Plouton' (note the renaming) when he gave Zeus the thunderbolt and Poseidon the trident, which would mean that it was an inextricable part of his character (Bibl. 1.2.1.). Hesiod also mentions the cap, but here it does not make the wearer invisible, but cloaks him with the νυκτὸς ζόφον αἰνὸν (‘awful gloom of night’ Sh. 227.). Night and darkness are well associated, particularly in Homer were dying heroes are described as having night or darkness descend upon them or cover their eyes (e.g. Hom. Il. 5.659). The juxtaposition between dark and light is the same as the juxtaposition between the living and the dead: the living man sees and the dead man is shrouded in darkness. Darkness is a natural attribute of invisibility. The Underworld - and therefore Hades - is shrouded in darkness, and the dead are invisible to the living.
Fear may have much to do with the unnaming and renaming of both Persephone and Hades, and they are both stifled of (or stifling of) mortal senses: Hades cannot be seen, and Persephone cannot be heard - this is an obviously simplistic view of naming (unnaming, renaming), but I wanted to get some of these basics down quickly, because in the next few posts I am going to go into some more detail on various aspects of Persephone and Hades (and particularly their unnaming and renaming), so I would be interested to hear any initial thoughts before those posts come out.
I am currently in the process of putting together a short article titled Were There Mystery Rites for Demeter Chthonia in Hermione? (which does what it says on the tin), and I have been reading over some of the research I have done on other Demetrian cults with (potential) Underworld provenance. The vast majority of these come from - surprise surprise - our old friend Pausanias, and two of the more interesting ones related to Persephone's abduction.
Persephone's abduction is a pretty interesting story, and the traditions that run outside what's presented in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter are particularly so. Pausanias offers several different accounts that share common elements, and the main crossovers relate to the traditions associated with Phigaleia (Paus. 8.42) and Thelpousa (Paus. 8.25.)
In Phigaleia, the local version tells of Demeter being raped by Poseidon after Persephone's disappearance. She fell pregnant and had a second daughter - Despoina, 'the Mistress'. Mourning for Persephone and feeling rather wrathful, Demeter retreated into a cave, dressing herself in black. With Demeter's retreat came the inevitable death of vegetation, livestock, and eventually the population. Zeus sent the Moirai to convince Demeter to set aside her anger, and restore the fertility of the land. She did so, and the Phigalians declared her cave-hideaway a sacred site, erecting an unusual statue in her honour:
Pausanias mentions that this unusual statue was burned, around the start of the fifth century BCE. Some time after the loss there was another period of barreness, and the Phigalians went to Delphi to find out why. They were told to dedicate a second statue to Demeter:
Arkadian, Azanian acorn-eaters,
By addressing the Arkadians as 'acorn-eaters' the response resonates with their claim to be the most ancient Greek people - that is, they lived on acorns before Demeter gave them the gift of agriculture, which she had now rescinded because they failed to properly venerate her. There is a lot to say about this 'oracle' alone, but what I want to draw out here is how 'anyone of intelligence with a good memory' would know why the original wooden statue was made in such an unusual way - and the answer can be picked out of the oracle: 'stallion-mated Deo'.
Demeter was raped by Poseidon in another local version of Persephone's abduction as well. Here, in Thelpousa, Demeter tried to rebuff Poseidon by disguising herself as a mare. In response, he turned into a stallion and then raped her. She has two cult epithets here - 'Erinys' because of the fury and anger she felt following the violation, and 'Louisa' - because after she set aside her grief and anger she bathed in a local river.
The horse plays a significant role in the Thelpousan tradition, and its cryptic inclusion in the Phigalian tradition shows a connection (at least to Pausanias) between the two cities. In Thelpousa, Demeter and Poseidon's forced union produces two offspring - the horse Arion and a daughter, whose name cannot be known to the uninitiated. Following the Phigalian tradition, Pausanias calls her Depsoina, and says she was the most worshipped divinity in the region. A daughter of Demeter, with a descriptive pseudonym, whose true identity is hidden to the uninitiated is a familiar trope, but Pausanias quite clearly differentiates between Despoina and Kore (who is unequivocally equated with Persephone by way of Homeric revelation), but he does not give Despoina a(nother) name. Persephone is directly relevant to Despoina's birth: her disappearance facilitates Demeter's rape.
Assuming that a reader of Pausanias's work will start at the beginning and read though to the end, they will have read the Thelpousan tradition, involving the horse-disguises, first, so they would know about this before getting to the Phigalian version and the oracle. This presents an interesting flattery into the text: a reader, who quite recently read the Thelpousan account, will recognise the horsey trope in the Phigalian account and count themselves in the intelligent and good-memoried class of people who understand exactly why the horse is being employed at Phigalia and the link to Telpousa. The stories are told far enough apart that it won't be immediately apparent to the reader why they remember the horse-related story of Demeter and Poseidon.
Or, perhaps I am giving Pausanias a little too much credit...
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.