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The Descents of Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus

Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus all attempt the katábatic descent, wherein ‘an extraordinary protagonist … [aided by] a god, … travels alive to the subterranean world of the dead with a well defined purpose and with the intention to return (irrespectively of whether his purposes or the return are fulfilled)’, as mapped by Campbell’s schema. From this, the purpose, success and consequences of the journey can be delineated, and ultimately, whether ‘love conquers death’.

Poynter’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1862).


Heracles’ descent is imposed upon him by Eurystheus, in which he must capture Hades’ three-headed hound, Cerberus, and despite Heracles’ success, illuminates the difficulty of the katábatis, for ‘Eurystheus never contrived a harder labour’. Heracles’ ‘call to adventure’ is thus externally imposed upon him, with the elixir to be captured being Cerberus. Heracles is aided by Hermes in surpassing the descent-threshold, for Hermes ‘conducted [Heracles] to the underworld’, and guided Heracles against the ‘harmless wraith’ despite its appearance. The apotheotic event then is Heracles’ meeting with Hades, to which he then leaves with the stolen Cerberus. The ascent-threshold then is Heracles’ wrestling with Cerberus at the gates, by which Heracles successfully detains Cerberus and returns home. This in itself is the successful journey; however, in the Underworld, Heracles meets the spirit Meleagros, whose sister is Deianeira, whom Heracles marries. This second elixir, Deianeira, must be taken over a new ascent-threshold, a river, but here, where there appears to be divine assistance, Nessus, the centaur offers to help them cross, only to rape her. Achilles kills Nessus, but before dying had convinced Deianeira to take his blood as love potion. Deianeira becomes jealous of a young maiden, and thus uses the centaur’s blood, thinking it would reconcile her and Heracles, but it was actually poison, and Deianeria killed herself in her melancholy. However, it is only Heracles’ mortal portion that perishes, for Zeus takes Heracles’ god-likeness to Olympus, where he married Hebe, yet this failure is only post-katábatic. However, this illuminates a problem with Heracles’ katábatis: Heracles’ status as a sort of superhero, a super-man, means this cannot properly be considered katábatic in the same way as Orpheus or Theseus, for he is not an ‘ordinary protagonist’, and Heracles’ humanity fails like Orpheus and Theseus, leaving only his godlikeness to ascend. This is the pessimism of Heracles’ descent: if man transcends his finitude, the incommensurability between man and god collapses, and man is no longer man, such that, although Heracles becomes renowned as Greece’s greatest hero, love cannot really conquer death for Heracles and Deianera, and both Heracles and his proper elixir, Deianera, perish, unable to be reunited, and the katábatis ultimately erodes. The ultimate consequence of Heracles’ descent is the pathos of the heroic experience of virtuous suffering for higher reward.


Theseus’ descent is, unlike Heracles, not imposed upon him out of punishment, but informally imposed upon him out of allegiance to Peirithous, and an anger at the gods, but similarly produces ambivalent consequences for the katábatic descent. Peirithous has helped Theseus capture Zeus’ daughter, Helen, and the reciprocity of their allegiance constitutes the basis of Theseus’ ‘call to adventure’: to help Peirithous capture Zeus’ other daughter, Persephone, but she is also Hades’ wife, and Queen of the Underworld. Unlike Heracles’ descent, there appears to be no assistance to Theseus and Peirithous- they wander around Tartarus before the apotheotic moment, when they sit down on a rock, which they are then bound to as Hades’ punishment. However, assistance comes thereafter when Heracles comes upon them- Heracles is able to free Theseus, but the ground shakes when he attempts to free Peirithous, and Peirithous is thus left in the Underworld, for his crime is too great. Thus, Theseus short-cuts the heroic schema, returning home having failed to have captured the elixir of Persephone, and returning without Peirithous; whereas Heracles had only failed post-katábatis, having captured his elixir(s), only for the elixir itself to kill him. Theseus’ descent appears markedly bereft of the love which occupies the hearts of Heracles and Orpheus, for it is not the only time Theseus has captured women (e.g. Ariadne), and there is no indication of a love for Helen. Apollo, Calasso argues, provides the ideal, ultimate sacrifice for Admetus, whereby Apollo ‘took his love to an extreme where no human after him could follow … [when he became] the prostitute of his beloved, … one of those beings, ‘considered the worst of all perverts’’. Yet no such properly sacrificial element is within Theseus’ descent, even being considered perhaps comedic. For ‘Orpheus’ failure, … Theseus’ foolish entrapment, and Heracles’ encounter with Cerberus’, are only discussed alongside each other by Diodorus to suggest the difficulty of the katábatic journey. The ultimate consequence of Theseus’ descent is the emphasis on impiety against the gods, and the punishment that ensues.


Oprheus’ descent is perhaps a demonstration of ‘love conquering death’ despite katábatic failure. Orpheus’ ‘call to adventure’ arises from death’s taking of his wife, Eurydice, the elixir. Like Theseus, Orpheus’ transgression of the descent-threshold is absent of guidance. The apotheotic moment is Orpheus’ encounter with Hades, in which Orpheus’ playing of the lyre moves Hades, to which Hades allows Orpheus to take Eurydice; however, Orpheus’ test is ‘not looking back’ when ascending, which Orpheus fails, and Eurydice returns to Hades. One tends to read Orpheus’ descent as if ‘in spite of the failure recorded, a possibility exists of a return of the lover with his lost love from beyond the … threshold. It is always some … slight yet critical symptom of human frailty, that makes impossible the open interrelationship between the worlds; so that one is tempted to believe, almost, that if the … accident could be avoided, all would be well.’ However, the accident cannot be avoided, for it is inscribed in man’s finitude, as in Heracles’ mortal portion. Orpheus’ katábatis appears to be a failure; however, possible redemption comes thereafter, for in Orpheus’ resigned death at the hands of the Maenads, his soul may reunite with Eurydice’s in the Underworld. In Ovid’s account, by discussing Orpheus alongside Pygmalion, Ovid suggests eventual success: Orpheus loses Eurydice and rejects the women, whilst Pygmalion loses love for women altogether; Orpheus aims to regain the woman through song, whilst Pygmalion aims to regain his love for women by fashioning an ideal; and their arts are successful. However, most literary accounts of Orpheus’ descent are marked in failure, and his success is limited to ‘his persuasion of Pluto and/or Persephone to surrender his wife … [which] forms the basis and essential element of the myth in every extant account, demonstrating the supernatural force of the singer’s music’. The pessimism returns in Diodorus’ account which compares Orpheus’ descent to Dionysus’, ‘[f]or the myths also relate that Dionysus led up from Hades his mother Semele’, where the finitude of man is made clear once more in that ‘He gave her a share in his immortality and called her by a new name, Thyone’. Dionysus has to make Semele divine, a radical ontological transformation, which is not the case for Eurydice. Thus, Orpheus’ katábatic failure is directly related to their deaths. Orpheus’ descent thus combines Heraclean pathos with Thesean piety, yet there remains the Ovidean chance of redemption.

Wroe, quoting Bacon: ‘For as the works of wisdom surpass in dignity and power the works of strength, so the labours of Orpheus surpass the labours of Hercules’, such was the beauty of Orpheus’ playing that the torments of hell are suspended, rationality returns.’

Heracles’ and Theseus’ descents are imposed upon them, formally and informally, whilst Orpheus’ is imposed by love. Heracles’ descent is ‘successful’ insofar as his failures are post-katábatic, whilst Theseus shortcuts the katábatic journey without the elixir, and so cannot be said to be successful, and Orpheus fails in his and Eurydice’s deaths. Pathos and piety are ultimately insufficient, as man’s incapacity for ‘love to conquer death’ underlies all, for ‘if the mono-myth is to fulfil its promise, not human failure or superhuman success but human success is what we shall have to be shown’.


  • Bernabé, A, 2015, ‘WHAT IS A KATÁBASIS?: The Descent into the Netherworld in Greece and the Ancient Near East’, Les Études classiques, vol. 83, pp. 15–34.
  • Calasso, R, 1994, The marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Vintage International, New York, pp. 72–7.
  • Campbell, J, 2004 (1949), The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  • Clark, R, 1978, Catabasis: Vergil and the Wisdom Tradition, Grunder, Amsterdam, pp. 80–3, 120–9.
  • Diodorus, 1935 (30 BC), Library of History (Bibliotheca historia), translated by C.H. Loeb, voll. 303 & 304, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (‘Orpheus’, Book IV, 11).
  • Heath, J, 1994, ‘The Failure of Orpheus’, Transactions of the American Philological Association, vol. 124, pp. 163–70, 191–2.
  • Kerenyi, K, 1959, 1974, The heroes of the Greeks, translated by H.J. Rose, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 155–6, 177–82, 239.
  • Ovid, 1893 (18 BCE), The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated by H.T. Riley, George Bell & Sons, London.
  • Robertson, N, 1980, ‘Heracles’ ‘Catabasis’’, Hermes, vol. 108, no. 3, pp. 274–5.
  • Virgil, 1916 (29 BCE), Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, translated by H.R. Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library Volumes 63 & 64, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, (Georgics, Book IV).



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