Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.23

Annalisa Tasso, Pylai Aidao: Un percorso iconografico e letterario sulla diffusione del tema delle Porte dell’Ade da Oriente a Occidente. BAR International Series 2524.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2013.  Pp. v, 98.  ISBN 9781407311425.  £24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Georg-August-Universität (

According to its title, this book wants to present a kind of encyclopedic overview on the theme of the ‘Gates of Hades’ in ancient cultures ranging from the Near (or Middle) East to the Mediterranean West; after dealing rather cursorily with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Phoenicia (p. 1-9), however, it devotes most of its space to the conceptions of the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans.

The short introduction (p. iii-v) hails the ‘Gates of Hades’ as a unifying topic of all these cultures and stresses that modern research has done much to rediscover the pervasive influence of the oriental cultures on the Greeks (and Etruscans) also in the area of underworld conceptions (while older views had regarded the Greek conception as a fundamentally original one). It seems rather curious, however, to cite as a paradigm for this change of perspective Martin Bernal’s controversial book Black Athena. Tasso might have done better by sticking to the groundbreaking studies of Walter Burkert (The Orientalizing Revolution, 1992) and Martin West (The East Face of Helicon, 1997), which she mentions only very briefly in a footnote.

The first substantial chapter (“Geografia dell’Aldilà): il mondo oltre la porta,” p. 1-25) presents (in a first section) a survey of underworld conceptions in Egypt (p. 1-3), Mesopotamia (p. 3-5) and Phoenicia (p. 5-9). All that is said here seems to be a synthesis from secondary reading and no fruit of original research on Tasso’s part. Already here she is fond of pointing out parallels (or models) of later Greek notions, but at least in some cases her desire to detect the same underlying ideas seems to go a bit too far: on p. 5, e.g., she equates the “Garden of the Sun” found by Gilgamesh during his quest for immortality not only with the pastures of Geryon (which, moreover, she regards as closely connected with “pastures/prairies” of Hades), but also with the island of Calypso, the land of the Ethiopians and the Garden of the Hesperides, and Gilgamesh’s ferryman Urshanabi both with Odysseus traversing Okeanos to reach the Land of the Dead and Charon, the ferryman of the Greek Underworld. I am not sure that all these equations are very helpful.

The second section of the first chapter deals with the Greek (p. 9-17) and Etruscan (p. 17-25) notions of the underworld. Here again, some equations and convergences Tasso proposes seem debatable. Is the luminous abode of the gods really that close to the dark world of the dead (p. 9)? Are the Islands of the Blessed more or less the same as the island of Geryon, that of the Hesperides, that of Calypso and that of Circe (ibid. and p. 10 and 12)? Did the Pillars of Hercules really change their location with the development of Greek knowledge of the West (p. 9)?1 Is Heracles’ means of transport (the “Cup of the Sun”) to reach Geryon really comparable to Gilgamesh’s means of transport to reach Utnapishtim (p. 10)? Are the Ethiopians mentioned in Homer the same as those in Herodotus (p. 12), who himself actually presents at least two different sorts of Ethiopians in his books 2, 3 and 7? When dealing with the location (or locations?) of the underworld in Homer, Tasso sometimes also tries to fit in testimonies from other sources, e.g. Hesiod and even Aristophanes (p. 13) – it would be better to keep all these texts apart, for otherwise we may easily get a blurred picture. When discussing psychopompoi (escorts of the souls of the deceased) on p. 14-5, Tasso also includes among them the goddess Hecate and the Dioscuri, but fails to give convincing evidence for this.2 She then turns to post-Homeric (and post-Hesiodic) conceptions of the underworld (p. 15-17), discussing “Orphic” beliefs and Aristophanes and prudently acknowledging that it is not always possible to decide if Aristophanes invented something himself for comedy’s sake or took over notions that had newly developed in the 6th or earlier 5th century.

When turning to the Etruscans, the source material changes significantly: we can no longer rely on texts, but have to turn to paintings and statues found in funerary contexts. In these, Tasso seems much more at home than with Greek texts, and so we get a good overview about the Etruscan source material; on the other hand, interpreting pictures or statuary is bound to be much more speculative than eliciting information from texts.3

The second and longest chapter (p. 26-65) discusses ‘ways of entering Hades’. A first section deals with “Ingressi naturali” (p. 26-33), giving a survey of all the places in the Graeco-Roman world where – according to various traditions or mythical stories – entrances to the underworld were supposed to be. Not all of these “reports” should be taken entirely seriously, e.g. that by the Lucianic Menippus who claims to have descended into Hades from the swamps of the Euphrates (p. 30) – this sounds rather like a satirical ad-hoc invention. It is also not altogether clear to me why Tasso treats ‘sacrificial trenches” as “passaggi naturali” (p. 31), as she herself acknowledges that they were “in molti casi” (perhaps one might even say “usually”) created by humans.

The second (and much longer) section of this chapter is concerned with “Ingressi a carattere architettonico” (p. 33-59). Here at last we get to the topic of the “Gates to Hades” proper.4 Tasso now gives a very detailed survey of the depiction of the Gate of Hades on Greek vases, distinguishing (which is helpful) three modes of artistic representations of it (p. 37): 1. by a single column with an architrave on top of it, 2. by just a single column, and 3. by two columns with an architrave on top of them.5 There follows a detailed catalog (p. 38-45) of all known Greek vases (35 in all) on which such depictions can be seen in chronological order (though occasionally this order is disturbed: G5 and G19 should be placed after G23, and G26-28 should be placed before G24). A further subsection (p. 45-59) discusses depictions of “false/fictive doors” found in funerary contexts in Etruria, but also in Lydia in Asia Minor (we get extensive details of the archaeological evidence for both regions) and considers that these, too, may be interpreted as “Gates of Hades”. Tasso also distinguishes four types of these doors (p. 57-9).

The final section of this long chapter is concerned with “Ingressi spirituali” to Hades (p. 59-66), i.e. mental (shamanistic) ways of crossing into the underworld. Things get again more questionable, however, when Tasso tries to make also the Greek symposion a locus of communication with Hades, by drawing parallels with the institution of the marzeah in the Levant (p. 60-1); she is more successful in establishing connections between the marzeah and Etruscan symposia (p. 61-2). I am, however, even more at a loss why this section includes abductions of mortals by divinities to otherworldly places (p. 62-5) – how can these be conceived as or connected with “Ingressi spirituali” to Hades?

A short conclusion (p. 66-8) consists mainly of a summary of the preceding chapters. There follows a list of abbreviations of names of ancient authors (p. 69) and of titles of journals and collections (p. 70), a list of Etruscan tombs with artistic representation of the “gate” theme (p. 71-73), a collection of very helpful (but sometimes of rather poor quality: e.g. fig. 12, 13, 19, 55) illustrations of the pictures and reliefs discussed in the text (p. 74-86), and, finally, a full bibliography (p. 87-98).

Misprints are rather few. I mention just two possibly misleading ones: p. 2, read “Apophis” for “Aphopis”; p. 3 n. 27 and 4 n. 34 (and in the bibliography), read “Röllig” for “-ing”. More serious are some wrong or mistaken notions concerning factual details. Examples: already in Homer, Okeanos is a circular stream surrounding the whole of the inhabited earth, and this is not an idea of the Milesian pre-Socratics (p. 10). It is also not quite true that beyond Okeanos there is nothing (ibid.): in Odyssey book 11, Odysseus crosses Okeanos and lands on its opposite shore (near the abode of the Cimmerians) to find the entrance to the underworld. To cite Virgil’s Aeneid as confirmation to Geryon’s closeness to the Gates of Hades (p. 11), is useless, because in Aeneid 6, Geryon is dead and thus met as a shade by Aeneas on his way to the underworld. To say that in Homer Hades is situated “within a kind of island … situated beyond Okeanos” (p. 13) seems to confound the entrance to Hades as it is located in Odyssey 10 and 11 with Hades itself. Tasso also has a strange way of citing passages from Apollodorus’ Library, namely combining the two systems of quotation in use (e.g. p. 10 n. 122: “II, 5, 106” should either be “II, 5, 10” or “II, 106”).

Despite these deficiencies (and those mentioned further above), this is a useful book for everyone who wants to take a comprehensive look at the notion of the “Gates of Hades” in Classical Antiquity: all the material is here, though in a number of cases it would have merited (and needed) more careful and differentiating treatment.


1.   One can make a case that the Pillars of Hercules were once and for all identified with the Strait of Gibraltar, as soon as Greek explorers discovered it at some point in the 6th century BC. See H.-G. Nesselrath, “Halb- oder Falschwissen über die Klassische Antike und seine Folgen: Der Fall Atlantis, oder: Robert Sarmast, Sergio Frau und die Säulen des Herakles,” in: P. A. Di Pretoro / R. Unfer Lukoschik (Hgg.), Die Antike in der heutigen Welt, Kolloquium über das Klassische an der J. W. Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a.M., München 2009, 65-83; id., “Le colonne d’Ercole: un confine mitologico e il suo significato nell’antichità) classica,” in: Eikasmos 22, 2011, 133-149.
2.   On p. 15, Tasso backtracks a little, saying that the Dioscuri are helpers of souls to brave the journey into the underworld, “almeno per l’ambiente etrusco”; but Etruscan and Greek beliefs about the Beyond can be quite different, as this book itself is going to show further on.
3.   Occasionally a little inconsistency has crept in: on p. 24, the change of the imagined voyage to the underworld from horseback or horse-cart to ship is first dated to the first half of the 6th century and then “confirmed” by funeral frescoes from the 5th century.
4.   Here, Tasso claims, that the “Gates of the Sun” mentioned in Odyssey 24.12 ‘coincide’ with the entrance to the underworld – this seems mistaken, because Homer says quite clearly that the souls of the slain suitors led by Hermes “pass by (not through) the Gates of the Sun” (παρ' Ἠελίοιο πύλαςἤϊσαν) before they arrive on the “Meadow of Asphodel”. Likewise I find her comparison of these gates with the “Gates of Heaven” and the “Gates of Horn and Ivory” as misleading or at least (once again) blurring the point.
5.   There is an inconsistency on p. 37: first, Tasso claims that on a number of vases Heracles, Athena and Cerberus are situated “all’interno dell’Ade”, but three paragraphs below she states that “soli i personaggi ctoni” are depicted beyond the Gate of Hades, which would, of course, exclude Heracles and Athena.

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