BMCR 2015.10.34

Les Grecs aux Enfers. D’Homère à Epicure

, Les Grecs aux Enfers. D’Homère à Epicure. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2015. 332. ISBN 9782251445274. €25.00 (pb).


This book traces the development of two major phenomena in the Greeks’ conception of their underworld between the times of Homer and Epicurus: how they imagined the place (or places) where the dead would stay after death and what happened to their souls. The book is divided into four major sections corresponding to the phases of the evolution of these phenomena.

The first section (p. 15-102) deals with “L’âme dans les enfers homériques”. In the first chapter (“La localisation de l’Hadès”, p. 15-45), Jouanna starts by discussing the terms suggesting a subterranean localisation: Hades, Erebos, Tartaros (p. 17-23). For Tartaros, she rightly states that it should not be confounded with Hades “proper” (p. 19), but she wrongly claims (on p. 19) that Heaven and Tartaros are at equal distance from Earth—this may be the case for Hesiod ( Theogony 716ff.), but it is not for Homer ( Iliad 8.10-15), who says that Tartaros is “as distant from Hades [not from Earth] as Earth is from Heaven”; so Hades comes in between, and Tartaros is actually twice as distant from Earth as Heaven.

Next, Jouanna discusses passages that suggest a Beyond not under the Earth but at its outer confines. She interestingly argues that passages from Hesiod’s Theogony (736-738 and 807-809) may show that Hesiod in fact regards the Universe as a kind of inverted cone (p. 25) at the lower tip of which the roots of the Earth, the Sea and Tartaros converge. Other passages more clearly point to a western location, e.g. Hermes escorting the souls of the slain suitors to the underworld (at the beginning of Odyssey 24). Jouanna also rightly observes (p. 28) that we may have to differentiate between the entrance to the underworld (lying in the west) and the underworld itself (which may still extend below all of inhabited earth).

Things get more interesting with passages hinting at a special locale reserved for certain “deserving” human beings (p. 28-32): the “Elysian Field” for Menelaos in Odyssey 4 (vv. 561-9), and the “Islands of the Blessed” at the outermost reaches of the earth for members of the Race of Heroes in Hesiod’s Works and Days (vv. 167-173). However, I do not share Jouanna’s confidence (p. 30-31) that “Elysian Field” and “Islands of the Blessed” designate the same place, for these designations are not mingled by the poets.

Jouanna then surveys the ways in which humans are imagined to get into the Beyond (p. 32-41). As for still living people’s visits to the underworld (p. 35-41), Jouanna discusses the case of Odysseus in detail, pointing out some inconsistencies in the relevant Homeric passages. She then considers other cases of living humans venturing into the underworld (p. 41-45): Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus.

In the second chapter, Jouanna explores the geography of the Homeric underworld (p. 47-54) and concludes (rightly) that it remains rather vague. The third chapter (“Le peuple des morts aux enfers”, p. 55-63) starts with the notion of ψυχή, which (Jouanna argues) is applied not only to the dead (as Rohde and Vernant thought) but also to the living (p. 56-57). She then discusses how the dead whom Odysseus meets regain something like their former consciousness by drinking blood, which, however, does not make them “omniscient diviners” (a notion she toys with by probably over-interpreting Od. 11.147-8). She rightly points out that in two respects Homeric ideas about the dead differ from those found in other Greek sources: in Homer, the dead do not remain attached their graves, nor do they come back to haunt the living.

Chapter 4 introduces the divine inhabitants of the Homeric underworld (p. 65-89). After Hades and Persephone, Jouanna mentions Minos (p. 66), but it seems premature to call him a “juge des enfers” already in Odyssey 11, because there he does not really decide the fate of the newly arrived dead. Some secondary divinities follow: after the Kêres (p. 70) she turns to “Les triades infernales: Parques [= Moirai], Gorgones et Érinyes” (p. 71-77), but can Moirai and Gorgons really be considered underworld goddesses? The Moirai are nowhere said to live in the underworld, and, while the Gorgons dwell in the far west, this is not necessarily the same as an underworldly Beyond. There is some contradiction regarding the Erinyes: on p. 76, Jouanna states that they are aroused by a curse, while on p. 82 they become avengers after a family murder has occurred. Hecate is shown to have evolved from a rather charming goddess in Hesiod into one closely attached to the underworld later on (p. 77-82). Finally, Hermes, Charon and Cerberus (p. 82-89): Hermes Psychopompos first appears in Odyssey 24, but in a passage Jouanna regards as a later addition; Charon’s first appearance has traditionally been assigned to the epic Minyas (6 th century), but Jouanna mentions recent finds according to which his name already appears on objects dating to the end of the 7 th century (p. 85); Cerberus is already present in Homer and Hesiod, but Jouanna might have mentioned that his name is found only in Hesiod, not in Homer. The last chapter of the section discusses “Les grands damnés des enfers” (p. 91-97), to whom Jouanna also adds (with a question mark) Heracles (p. 96), but nothing in Odyssey 11 indicates that Heracles’ shadow is in the underworld to be punished. The conclusion of this long section rightly states that the Homeric underworld is mostly a study in grey and lacks distinct notions of good and evil.

The second section surveys the conception(s) of the underworld developed by the mystery cults between the 7 th and 5 th centuries BC (p. 103-182). In “Le monde infernal des orphistes” (p. 107-134), Jouanna discusses Orphic “cosmo-theogony” (p. 114-118), beginning with its presumable parody in Aristophanes’ Birds (vv. 693-704), and the most important recent witness of this cosmo-theogony, the Derveni Papyrus (p. 118-122). She then turns to one of the main aims of Orphism: to provide its adherents with access to a better underworld than the one that “normal” (i.e. uninitiated) people could expect (p. 122-131). In this context she presents two examples of the famous Orphic Gold Tablets found all over the Greek world, which were to serve as guides and passports to that better underworld (p. 126-131). Finally she comments on the difficulties of differentiating between Orphic and Dionysiac cults.

The next chapter of this section discusses how Orphic lore can be distinguished from Pythagorean (“Orphisme et pythagorisme”, p. 135-150). One of the main differences probably lies in the doctrine of metempsychosis (p. 145-49), which at least originally does not seem to have been part of Orphism. Jouanna goes on to conclude that for the Pythagoreans the underworld was not of much importance, as the souls only passed through it on their way to another incarnation (p. 149), but she has to acknowledge that this clashes with the report by Hieronymus of Rhodes (fr. 42 Wehrli) that Pythagoras during his own katabasis saw Homer and Hesiod being punished in Hades.

In Chapter 3 (p. 151-71), Jouanna describes the Mysteries of Eleusis (as far as we know them) and discusses the mythical figures that played a role in them: Persephone, her mother Demeter, the young Iacchus and his relationship to Dionysus, and Triptolemus (p. 155-65). Despite all existing sources the Mysteries have largely remained a secret (165-8), nor do we know anything precise about the beliefs held of by the initiates regarding the afterlife (p. 168-171). After a brief look at the Mysteries of the Kabeiroi on Samothrace (p. 171-3), Jouanna discusses the question whether a “judgement of the dead” played a role in these cults (p. 173-179): the first indications for this are found in poets of the fifth century (Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes). The concluding pages of the chapter and section try to give a picture of the Greek conception(s) of the underworld at the end of this century (p. 179-182): the dark and joyless Homeric Hades is still there, but besides it there now exist brighter alternatives.

The third section is devoted to “Les enfers de Platon” (p. 183-241). Its first chapter considers what Plato has to say about the judgement of the dead (p. 189-98) in the dialogues Phaedo, Gorgias and Republic and shows how his thoughts on it get more complex along the way. The second chapter discusses the geography of the Platonic underworld (p. 199-217). In the myth of the Phaedo (109b-e), Jouanna detects a tripartite division, with “true” earth representing something like heaven (but to associate this with the Platonic “monde des Idées” [p. 202] may be a bit rash), the hollows of it being “our” earth, and its interior the underworld. After discussing passages in which Plato seems to imagine a heavenly afterlife (although the picture remains vague: p. 205), Jouanna turns to his conception(s) of the underworld (p. 207-213) in the Phaedo and the Republic, which no longer contain the traditional Homeric/Hesiodean divinities. Finally she introduces some texts, which demonstrate the later reception of Platonic underworld notions (p. 213-217): the Pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante and Fénélon’s Voyage de Télémaque.

The third chapter (p. 219-227) turns to what happens to the souls after the judgement of the dead, showing how Plato’s conceptions in this field, too, evolved towards ever greater complexity. The last chapter discusses Plato’s thoughts about reincarnation (p. 229-241): Jouanna devotes much space (p. 230-238) to a passage in the Myth of Er (Rep. 616b-621b), but less to the treatment of (re-)incarnation in the Phaedrus (p. 238-239). The section concludes with brief remarks about how Plato’s ideas lived on (p. 240-241).

The fourth and last section (p. 243-272) considers—rather eclectically—how the notion of the afterlife fared with post-Platonic philosophers: Jouanna in fact demonstrates “La disparition de l’au-delà” (p. 247-260), as neither Aristotle nor Stoicism and Epicureanism entertained elaborate ideas about the underworld. Then, somewhat strangely (and contrary to the subtitle of the book, “D’Homére à Épicure”), we get a chapter on Plutarch, in whose work Jouanna detects a “retour des âmes aux enfers” (p. 261-272). To prove this, she concentrates on the “Platonic” myth of the dialogue De sera numinis vindicta, in which the description of a katabasis unfolds an even more elaborate underworldly geography than Plato’s. For Jouanna this proves the “présence obstinée et continue des idées traditionelles” (p. 272), but this does perhaps not enough justice to the originality that Plutarch certainly shows.

A brief general “Conclusion” (p. 273-9) sums up the contents of the four sections, followed by an “annexe” (p. 283-311) presenting a number of texts in translation (the relevant sections from Plato’s Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic and Phaedrus, but also a passage from Pausanias about the Cave of Trophonius), a bibliography (p. 313-320), and an “Index des passages cités” (p. 321).

The book contains some misconceptions and mistakes. Jouanna’s very brief remarks on the “Homeric Question” (p. 16) do not really do justice to this famous topic of classical scholarship. On p. 30, she calls the third race in Hesiod’s Myth of the Ages “la race de fer”—it is in fact the bronze race. On p. 57, she assigns certain statements by Achilles to Iliad 11 (“XI”), which belong to book 9 (“IX”). The “poet” Pherecydes (p. 94) is in fact a prose mythographer. On p. 101, the dead Achilles’ remark that he would rather be a poor living labourer than a dead king is wrongly assigned to the Iliad (it belongs to Odyssey 11). On p. 119 and in the bibliography the name of the co-editor of the Derveni Papyrus is wrongly given as “Trantsanoglou” (correct to “Tsan-“). On p. 152, the name of the Athenian Kerykes family is curiously spelt as “Kérices”. Ibid., Jouanna states that the Mysteries of Eleusis ended in 395 AD, “au contraire de l’orphisme and du pythagorisme”—should we really believe that Orphic and Pythagorean cults were still alive at that time? A fragment of “Pindar” (quoted p. 155 n. 23) belongs in fact to Sophocles (fr. 837 Radt). On p. 160, the historian Arrian is assigned to the 1 st century AD; he belongs to the second. On p. 164, Jouanna cites a French publication of 1950 for the number of “au moins” 112 Greek vases depicting Triptolemus; according to T. Hayashi, Bedeutung und Wandel des Triptolemosbildes vom 6. – 4. Jh. v. Chr., Würzburg 1992, there are at least 167. On p. 240, the Phaedrus passage about the soul’s bliss is 247d-e (not “274d-e”). On p. 261, Jouanna’s description of Plutarch’s Moralia as “une forme proche des dialogues platoniciens” is too inaccurate. The index lists Euripides’ Bacchae under Aristophanes and also contains some strange numberings (e.g. different systems of reference under “Diogène Laërce”). Throughout the book, Jouanna’s handling of references to relevant passages could have been more consistent: in too many instances, exact references are omitted.

Despite these criticisms, this is a very readable and informative book. After removal of the just-mentioned infelicities it might be useful to have it translated into another modern language to make it accessible to non-French speakers.