To Hell! – A Journey into the Underworld of Antiquity

 “To Hell! – A Journey into the Underworld of Antiquity” is the provocative title of an exhibit currently at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. A joint project of the Antiquities Department of the State Museums and the Winckelmann Institute of Classical Studies at the Humboldt University, it is a refreshingly small show, filling little more than one room. The works are carefully chosen, juxtaposed with original illustrations by the contemporary New Zealand artist, Nathan Watson, and further augmented by ample texts, some videos, and an installation – altogether the perfect prerequisites for a thoughtful meditation on the subject.

The exhibit invites the viewer to reflect on the modern concepts and rituals of death and the after-life in contrast with those of the ancient world of the Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. As one approaches the exhibition area, two glass cases flanking an archway contain small siren figures. The placement of sirens – in Greek “entwiners” – as “gatekeepers” to the exhibit gives due honor to their menacing quality and also to the power inherent in these liminal creatures with bird feathers and scaly feet, and a woman’s head. Seduced into proceeding further, one passes through the archway stepping downward into the beginning of the exhibit towards walls painted an intense, erotic, hot red. One has entered “Hell.” The exhibit itself takes one to Hades, (re)familiarizing one with Hermes, Charon, the rivers Styx, Acheron and Lethe, Demeter and Persephone, Pluto/Hades, Heracles and Cerberos, and the Etruscan Charun as well. Included is also an “obolos,” the traditional payment for the ferryman’s services.

The stories are told and illustrated well and there is an excellent catalogue in which each piece is presented with a small in-depth analysis. But I question why we are once again presented with these same stories – if there are not other stories that are not being told? What is the socio-political message behind these mythological archetypes of notoriously patriarchal and in some ways misogynistic pre-Hellenistic (7th-4th c. BCE) Greece? And does not the constant re-telling of these stories that definitely contain very particular messages, perpetuate a way of thinking and feeling in our societies today? I visualize the many groups of school children who will be taken to this show, and perhaps even be tested on its content in the aftermath. Is it really appropriate that the following concepts should be presented without questioning: the moral authority of the male symbolized by the three judges of the underworld, Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos; the cult of the heroic death – the kalos thanatos; the benign nature of the goddesses once they have been subjugated to regulation by the male authority; the tendency for “unregulated” female figures – Hecate, Vanth, the sirens, the sphinx – to have dangerous aspects?

The three judges would have been pleased, I am sure, but I am not so pleased as I come upon the poster-sized illustration of Hades and Persephone. Hades is shown as an over-sized muscle-man, twice as big as “his” Queen of the Underworld at his side. She looks forlorn and powerless, physically and spiritually depleted. There may very well be some irony intended in this illustration but the images have their own power as they stand. And the picture unfortunately bears truth. At some point in pre-Classical ancient Greece, Persephone becomes a victim. At some point it becomes necessary to diminish her power and that of her mother Demeter, to establish firmly a power base which can only be maintained by use of force, and presumably in this case – rape.

Quite a few alternate stories have been proposed for the myth of Persephone. Among other deities, she has also been associated with the powerful pre-Olympian Triple Goddess, Kore-Persephone-Demeter, in which maiden, mother, and crone are one entity – the irises which in some versions she was picking were sacred to this Triple Goddess.  But even if one accepts the version that is presented here, there is evidence enough that she was a figure inspiring awe and respect on all sides. In the 5th c. it was even taboo to speak her name, so dreaded was she; in the Iliad she is described as “grim” and in the Odyssey Odysseus refers to her as the “proud,” “awesome” one, on his descent into the Underworld. Similarly, Hesiod in his Theogony calls her the “awful Persephone.” Was she really forced to descend into Hades, the realm of the “unseen”? Is it not much more likely that in an earlier period, before the rise of the quasi-democracy of the polis and the primary importance given to the concept of oikos, the household unit to which woman was completely subordinated, and even further back before the male aristocracy had established its primacy, that like her Sumerian sister, Inanna, she went down into the darkness of her own free will? And in doing this would she not have been  playing out an archetypal journey into the dark, that shadowy sphere of being into which we all must willingly or not periodically enter in the course of our lives?

Death and the dark, irrational side of things have long been feared; modern society has lost an intimate connection with the earth and the natural rhythms of life.  Many are the constructs that have been built up to explain and get a handle on it all. The chthonic, the erotic and the playful, as symbolized by Persephone – and perhaps also unwittingly by the exhibit’s color, red – have been forcefully brought under control. It is time to break through this out-dated paradigm. If only for the survival of our planet, Earth.

Further on in the exhibit the sirens again appear. A few centuries have passed. Their fierceness has diminished. No longer spirits of power, wings clipped, they now sit quietly mourning at the tombs of the dead.

I again pass by the beautiful vase with the figure of the Etruscan Charun. The goddess/demon Vanth, a psychopomp, spirit guide between this world and the next, is on the other side. But the vase has been placed so that she is facing the wall. She is a powerful goddess, said to be equal if not superior to Charun. But she is unfortunately not to be seen.

Catherine Framm 2007

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