THE notion of the underworld as a prison place in which the dead are confined has given rise in many different centers to the thought of some daring mortal who breaks the law separating the two worlds, and visits the home of the dead, winning through by power of love, or sheer bravado and physical might or challenge, or by favor of the gods. The Descensus Averni is a widespread myth. Its earliest literary form meets us in pre-Semitic Babylonia in the story of Tammuz and Ishtar--now so well known that no extended narrative is here necessary. A fairly close parallel to the Ishtar episode is found in far-away Japan, where the goddess Izanami died and her spouse Izanagi descended after her, broke the taboo concerning preservation of darkness (which is an element in so many cycles of folklore unconnected with the Descensus),
[1. For the story, see most conveniently Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels, pp. 121-131.]
and with difficulty escaped to the upper air, pursued by the revengeful goddess and her minions. The retirement of the love-goddess Ishtar in Babylonia to the underworld is also paralleled by that of the sun-goddess in Japan, though it is "the rock-cave of heaven" in which the latter hides herself, and so brings darkness, as the absence of Ishtar brings lack of desire, on earth. Hercules' famous exploit of descending and baling Cerberus, the snake-haired dog guardian of the shades who would fain return, to the upper air is in keeping with the hero's hardy and daring nature. The Babylonians having conceived so early the notion, it is not to be wondered at that the Mandaeans, who took over so much of Babylonian custom and mythology, should take over in the descensus Averni the exploit of Manda-da hayye. Of course the Vergilian story of Æneas' descent at once recurs to the mind, as well as that of Vergil's imitator and disciple Dante.
But the idea is not confined to peoples so far along in culture. Maui, the culture hero of New Zealand and the South Sea, made the dread journey to meet his great ancestress -
[2. Aston, Shinto, p. 93.
3 Ib., p. 100.
4. NSH., vii. 147.]
the lure here was merely material, a fish hook and to get fire. The Etoi, a people of Africa, know of the same venturous enterprise with the taboo of eating ghost food, which connects the story in thought, though hardly in origin, with the Greek myth of the ravished Persephone, and with a story of quite different purport in Babylonia. Among some New Guinean peoples there are chosen mortals that make the journey and return in safety. Omaha Indians regard it as possible for the living, in a swoon, to visit the dread regions of the dead and return unscathed. But these are the exceptions, and only heroes and gods, and even they under specially favoring auspices, like the command, behest, or permission of the chief god, visit the dead and are able to reascend from "The Land of No-Return."
[6. Westervelt, Legends of Maui, pp. 23, 48, 68 ff.
7. Talbot, In the Shadow of the Bush, pp. 240, 336.
7. Seligmann, Melanesians, pp. 655 ff.
8. Fletcher and La Flesche, 27th Report, etc., p. 589.]