The mythic theme of descent to the underworld is virtually universal. The hero journeys to the underworld to confront the monster, then returns with the prize. That the hero must go down into the depths to battle the dark forces seems written into the very fabric of human psychology.
During a vacation to Belize a few years ago we toured the cave systems that were used by the Mayans for their ritual sacrifices. The guide told us how the priests would bring their captives into the caves and trek to the sacred center of the caves to offer their victims to the gods of the underworld.
As we waded through cold, chest-deep water, feeling our way through the dark, the guide said, “Look at those rock features high above and think what they would have seemed like to a doomed captive in the flickering torch-light. For the Mayans they would have seemed like the looming figures of gigantic demons watching their every move.”
It was convincing.
Then in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last September I was struck with the ubiquity of caves. Here was the cave in Bethlehem where St. Jerome lived. It was next to the cave of the Nativity. Here was the great doorway to the underworld at Caesarea Philippi. There was the cave where the shepherds sheltered, and there was the greatest cave of all, the cavern of Christ’s tomb.
All these caves echo the myths of the underworld. Orpheus descends to rescue his beloved Euridice, and Theseus goes down into the caverns beneath the palace of Minos to confront the Minotaur. Adonis is rescued from the underworld by Aphrodite and Semele by Dionysius. Hercules, Hermes, Persephone, and Odysseus all penetrate the dark realm of death.
In fact the mythic theme of descent to the underworld or katabasis is virtually universal—cropping up in myths from Mesopotamia and Mongolia, Egypt, Finland, Wales, India, and Japan. The hero journeys to the underworld to confront the monster then returns with the prize—the quest object, the loved one, or enlightenment. The hero’s ability to enter the realm and overcome is proof of his extraordinary, godlike power.
Joseph Campbell called this stage of the monomyth “the belly of the whale.” Like Jonah, the hero goes down into the depths, overcomes, and rises triumphant. What interests me is how often the same katabasis occurs in popular culture. Film writers understand implicitly if not explicitly that the hero must descend into the underworld. Luke Skywalker goes underground in his quest of self-discovery on the planet Dagobah. Aragorn must go through the Paths of the Dead to win the victory, Indiana Jones enters the cave to find the Holy Grail, and Neo in The Matrix zooms into the dark underworld not with Orpheus but Morpheus.
The examples can be discovered wherever a good story is told. A primeval cave, however is not always necessary. A symbolic underground will do. Stop for a moment and remember how many films have the monster, the madman, or the demon lurking in the basement of the house. How many action heroes crawl through a secret tunnel, a sewer or ventilation, elevator shafts, and while we’re searching for symbolic settings, think how many screen writers place the climax of their urban adventure in the subway… “the underground.”
It is not coincidental.
This universal theme of katabasis illustrates the power of myth in the human imagination. That the hero must go down into the depths to battle the dark forces seems written into the very fabric of human psychology. This is the way the world is. This is the way we are. This is how we learn. This is how we become human—by facing the dark of Moira and confronting the Balrog. As the hero goes down to the subterranean realm he goes down into himself, for the monster Tiamat, the Leviathan who lurks in the depths, is lurking in his own heart.
One of the sicknesses in our modern society is that we have developed an obsession with avoiding such a dark journey. We do everything we can to push it away. We entertain ourselves to death instead of facing death. We invest huge amounts of time, money, and energy constructing a Disney-fied utopia where everything is shiny and smiley, twenty-four-seven. But as the psychiatrist Scott Peck observed in The Road Less Travelled, when we do everything we can to avoid suffering, we end up with greater suffering.
The myths from ancient Egypt to modern Netflix, from Greek heroes to superheroes hammer home the truth that we must “all go into the dark,” and in this Eastertide we are reminded that Christ the Hero also went down into death, not only on the cross, but into the gates of hell like Aragorn, Orpheus, and all the other great heroes.
C.S. Lewis once observed that he was not disturbed by the similarities between Christianity and pagan myth. He would have been more worried if there were not similarities. He would also not have been concerned about the echoes of the Christian myth in popular culture. Does Batman in his bat cave point to Christ who conquered the underworld? Of course, and that is nothing to be embarrassed about.
For it is in the myths both ancient and modern that our stories are told, and it is in those stories that there is hope for a renewal of the faith. For those who have come to love Luke Skywalker, or Frodo, Spiderman, Batman, Neo, or Indiana Jones may one day recognize that greater hero who came down and took the form of a slave so that he might overcome Death’s Dream Kingdom and burst forth on the other side.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Aeneas and the Sibyl” (c. 1800) by an unknown artist, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.