Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature

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John C. Stephens
  • Jefferson, NC: 
    McFarland & Company
    , February
     183 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John C. Stephens traverses the realm of religious experience in his survey of otherworldly travels in Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature. Drawing from Near Eastern, Greco-Roman pagan, and Judeo-Christian traditions in addition to medieval Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature dating up to the 9th century C.E., Stephens explains how journeys to the heavens or the underworld “extend far beyond the boundaries of a single historical or cultural milieu” (15). Stephens’ goal is one of clarification. He examines how otherworldly journeys “give expression to religious experience” (2) while questioning how such journeys manifest six types of religious experience. This work does lack a sufficient survey of existing scholarship and would benefit from more dialogue with other research on its subject.

The book begins with an introduction followed by seven chapters and a conclusion. Stephens defines “religion” and “myth” in the introduction. Religion, Stephens argues, cannot be simply defined, therefore leading him to formulate a definition. Stephens understands religion “as a system of symbols consisting of myths, doctrines, rites, ethical ideas, social institutions and inner experiences all of which are related to the realm of the sacred cosmos” (10). Stephens’ discussion of “myth” and his definition of the term “as a story that clarifies humanity’s relationship to the sacred cosmos” (13), finds solid footing throughout the remainder of the work since the preceding chapters explicate the various ways in which humankind experiences the divine.

The cosmology of the ancient world occupies the first chapter. The three-fold universe, or the perception that “the universe is divided into three separate and distinct zones or spheres” (17) each of which is “populated by its own gods and goddesses” (17), enlightens the reader to a common thread between Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Hebrew, and even Norse creation myths; each culture reflects this three-fold cosmology. Stephens achieves his goal to showcase the common cosmological backdrops for otherworldly journey myths especially in regard to the manifestation of religious experience. Creation myths found in texts like the Babylonian Enuma Elish (17-19)  or Hesiod’s Theogony (22-24) validate Stephens’ argument.

The remaining chapters each focus on one of six types of religious experience. In chapter 2, Stephens’ treatment of numinous experience, or “contact with divine beings existing in a world beyond this one” (47), in otherworldly journeys deserves commendation, but the author’s inclusion of the Hebrew prophet Elijah raises questions. After reading the first book of Kings, one does not know Elijah’s journey after he is no longer on earth; one is left to assume that Elijah will experience the divine yet the details of what divine entities Elijah faces remain unknown. This begs the question whether this story best represents numinous experience.

Chapter 3 centers on mystical experience. Stephens emphasizes that mystical experience, while typically focused on the transformation of one’s inward self, often overlaps with numinous experience. Stephens applies Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to show that the cult’s origin myth is numinous. Its theology, Stephens writes, takes a mystical turn. While Stephens identifies overlap between the numinous and mystical, his work could benefit from a clearer connection to how practice influences an inward mystical experience. He explains that “ascetism and vegetarianism” (54) help the Orphic initiate separate from one’s Titanic nature, yet more clarity is needed as to how action results in a closer experience of the divine.

The fourth chapter focuses on spiritual transformation, which signals a “spiritual death and rebirth” (71). Stephens parallels this type of transformation with the motif of the “dying and rising gods” (73). As evidence, he cites the story of the Sumerian goddess Innana and her journey to the underworld, yet this connection could benefit from further development in terms of its relationship to spiritual transformation. Another key point in this chapter is the plurality of religious adhesion in the ancient world exemplified by Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses tells the story of a man named Lucius, his transformation into a donkey, and his eventual initiation into the mysteries of the goddess Isis (85-89). This story strengthens Stephens narrative since it portrays a character’s many transformations through various religious paths.

Chapter 5 surveys otherworldly journeys in the face of death. This chapter explains that one facing death can experience the sacred. In the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf,” the reader meets a culture where survival in the memory of one’s people overshadows the finality of death; Beowulf’s actions lead to his heroic status. In contrast, Stephens uses the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh to show that only through the acceptance of mortality could Gilgamesh come close to the sacred. Stephens’ juxtaposition of these two stories gives a unique and creative look at how death can function as a way for humankind to face the sacred.

Chapter 6 covers the philosophical experience of the sacred. Stephens illustrates how individuals like “Plato believed that philosophy represented the gateway to eternal life” (121). Stephens’ treatment of Plato’s Myth of Er demonstrates this point. Er witnesses how the soon-to-be reincarnated souls that possessed wisdom chose good lives, while others without this ability could not make such a wise choice. Stephens then explains that Roman writers, like Cicero, developed Plato’s ideas, but added a political facet to the story. Philosophic wisdom, for Cicero, must be used for the betterment of the state to “insure true immortality for the individual in the next life” (122).

In chapter 7, Stephens discusses morality. He provides numerous examples of reward and punishment from the Judeo-Christian tradition. A strongpoint of this chapter is the inclusion of the Zoroastrian Menok. In this text, the evidence for punishment in the afterlife, depending on the judgement of the deceased’s soul, falls in line with the notion that morality could play a vital role in the condition of the soul after life. The examples cited in this chapter successfully portray how deeds affect one’s afterlife figure into multiple religious traditions.

Stephens concludes with a recapitulation of each chapter’s key points. While this freshens the reader’s memory after perusing a plethora of primary texts, it does leave the possibility for more. One must find a balance between succinct review and too much summary, which tends to dominate the author’s conclusion. Topics for further investigation or pending questions for future research also remain absent. Nevertheless, Stephens produces a commendable work that merges primary sources surrounding otherworldly journeys from different geographical locales and historical epochs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah S. Eckert is a doctoral candidate in the History of Early Christianity at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
July 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John C. Stephens is Adjunct Professor of Religion at San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, CA.


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