BMCR 2021.03.08

Mapping the afterlife: from Homer to Dante

, Mapping the afterlife: from Homer to Dante. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 384. ISBN 9780190670481 $85.00.

Table of Contents

If the subtitle of Emma Gee’s fascinating study suggests the book’s chronological scope, it does little to suggest the book’s true range: rather more, and rather more varied, authors and texts are considered than such a ‘classical-traditional’ subtitle might imply. The sources do indeed range from Homer, especially Odyssey but also Iliad, to Dante, principally Commedia and within that chiefly Paradiso: moving as it were from wartime to peacetime, as if the book constructs an allegorical or analogical model for the reader’s own journey, per Gee’s teleology, to ‘psychic harmonization’ (below). Many of the ancient Greek and Roman texts well known as bearing on ‘the afterlife’ are there: beyond Homer, a typical / typifying Heldenschau that includes Plato’s Republic 10 / ‘the Myth of Er,’ Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Virgil’s Aeneid 6, and more. But there are also many others, including other texts from such prominent authors (thus, e.g., Plato’s Phaedrus and Phaedo) and works that may be off many readers’ beaten paths; some of those are overtly Underworldly, like Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae and the Orphic Gold Leaves, while others form the armature of Gee’s argument, especially geographers like Pomponius Mela, Ptolemy, and Strabo as well as later-antique commentators like Calcidius, Macrobius, and Servius.

Particular readings aside, then, a great interest of the book is its careful and yet adventurous gathering of materials under cover of the general argument: Gee seeks to ‘map’ ancient—and classical-traditional—imaginations of the afterlife as constituting spiritual ‘geographies’ whose purpose is to reconcile human experience with metaphysics: “[t]he afterlife journey becomes an attempt to harmonize the soul with the universe” (5).[1] Gee’s interpretive framework, or at least frequent point of reference, for this ‘mapping’ is Jungian, premised especially on Carl Jung’s hypothesis of a ‘universal’ or ‘collective unconscious’ with which individual consciousness is to ‘merge.’

Although this affiliation is not developed explicitly or at length, it structures the volume: Jung’s Symbols of Transformation, which in 1956 represented in revised form his foundational Psychology of the Unconscious (1911-12), provides epigraphs for Gee’s Introduction (“The unconscious … is universal,” etc.; 1), the theoretically crucial and richly rewarding Intermezzo (“Just as the sun … so man,” etc.; 156), and the Conclusion, which is prefaced by Jung’s affirmative notion that “every descent is followed by an ascent” (324). That Jungian notion is key to Gee’s interpretation of afterlife myth as a psychological symbol: “the afterlife represents a search for harmonization, for a resolution into a state of one-ness, a progression from poikilia,” essentially variegation in life, “to symphōnia,” conceived as unity in afterlife. Since “[t]his can never take place in ‘real’ life … we need the landscape of the afterlife to express it,” such that “[t]he function of afterlife myth is to convey psychic possibility” (all 324).

Gee’s overall argument centers on that interpretation of afterlife myth. Although I am not persuaded that such a mapping of ‘psychic harmonization’ is the function or purpose of any given example of afterlife myth, I am persuaded that it can be mapped onto many of them, with allowance made for changes from genre or tone. That seems especially the case when examples are put—as Gee puts them—in context of contemporaneous and traditional understandings of ‘science’ including ‘mapping,’ but it also sheds light on other aspects of the texts in question. At its core the reading is analogical: a map is not the space mapped,[2] and thus afterlife myth is not necessarily a text’s literal truth but may be figurative for other things. As a result, illuminated in particular are the texts’ own analogies, other metaphors, and meaningful images of other types.

For example, in one chapter Gee gathers several strands of scholarship—mythical, musical, mathematical—to clarify the complex implications of Plato’s ‘spindle of Necessity’; she makes special reference to Timaeus’s description of the ‘world soul’ before pointing to similar afterlifelike meanings in other dialogues: a good demonstration of how different texts may be interpreted as ‘mapping’ similarly shaped spaces for meaningful imagery. As another striking example of that possibility, Gee develops an ingenious and compelling reading of Proserpina’s ekphrastic tapestry in Claudian’s De raptu, arguing that it “may be a realization in art of a common metaphor describing the shape” of both the spherical earth or universe and the oikoumene as per geographers like Strabo (77). As a kind of running sidebar to her focus on afterlives, then, Gee well emphasizes how such traditions of shaped space—of the shapes that are imagined for space—deserve their own consideration, separate from the confusions introduced by interpreters’ recourse to their own ‘common sense.’

That third chapter in particular (“Proserpina’s Tapestry, Strabo’s Cloak”) is a judicious tour de force, one I can imagine assigning separately. Although I would regret separating any piece of the book from the overall argument, most of the chapters do stand on their own and would be productive, provocative reading for advanced undergraduates and beyond. With an eye to readers new to the topic, I would say that one value of the book is its continuous demonstration of method: although the argument is expressly teleological, it is always made possible by exegesis and never allowed to obscure the details of the text or, for that matter, the deeper currents that mark a given author. The distinctive character of authors is preserved, even emphasized, by Gee’s attention to their variations on more general or widespread themes; true for recognizable authors like Plato and Cicero, I found this true as well for vaguer-seeming voices like those behind the Orphic Leaves: drawn along by the argument, I felt the personality—the psyche?—of esoteric and ‘scientific’ texts, which can often seem distant or cool, more deeply.

In connection with science, techne, and other esoterica, a few interconnected quibbles or perhaps more precisely specifications. Much of the material is technical indeed, and while Gee’s prose is lucid—and while the chapters include helpful summative conclusions—not all of the texts or separate afterlife myths are summarized; some are discussed piecemeal in several places, with no single complete introduction. Readers new to the topic(s) may wonder about the myths themselves, separate from Gee’s interpretations; thus, for example, Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ is not really outlined as a story but rather mined for its metaphysical and imagistic details, and Dante’s Commedia is looked at closely in parts but overall referred to somewhat off-hand, as if its—complex—story is assumed to be familiar. That should not be allowed to detract from Gee’s argument, but it might send, again, new(er) readers to other sources for more basic information or orientation; naturally there are many such sources on ancient Underworlds and other afterlife myths.[3] In a way similarly, the indices confirm this impression, seeming largely for readers, scholars, already well familiar with the primary sources: a detailed index locorum, and a rather thinner general index with, to me, surprising omissions; e.g., Jung/ianism, for all his/its significance, is not to be found, and nor is the crucial concept of ‘psychic harmonization.’ (One must know instead to search, cross-linguistically, for ‘harmony, soul as’).

Of course, it is no criticism to say that a work is intended for the scholarly community (and the price in cloth reflects this). Those specifications aside, this is indeed a fascinating, well-argued study that sheds much light on spaces both well-trod and too rarely interconnected. For me personally, it has illuminated parts of Underworld myths I believed I understood, and will certainly play a role, if in sections, in repeated courses on ancient depictions of afterlives.


[1] Cf. 155: “the goal of alignment between the soul and the universe.”

[2] Cf. Umberto Eco’s satire of same, “Dell’ impossibilità di costruire la carta del impero 1 a 1.”

[3] E.g., David L. Pike’s Passage through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds (Cornell University Press, 1997) plus Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworlds of Modern Urban Culture (2001), Rachel Falconer’s Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945 (Cambridge, 2005), M. Thurston’s The Underworld in Twentieth-Century Poetry: from Pound and Eliot to Heaney and Walcott (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); with more thematic remits, e.g., Michael G. Cooke’s “The Descent into the Underworld and Modern Black Fiction” (The Iowa Review, 1974, 5.4: 72-90), and Holly Blackford’s The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (Routledge, 2012); more specific to Classics / the ancient world, J. L. Calvo-Martinez’s “The Katabasis of the Hero” (in V. Pirenne-Delforge and E. Suárez de la Torre, eds., Héros et heroïnes dans les mythes et les cultes grecs, A. Rousselle, 1995, pp. 165-86), Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy (Princeton, 2001), Fritz Graf’s and Sarah Johnston’s Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (Routledge, 2007), Stamatia Dova’s Greek Heroes in and out of Hades (Lexington Books, 2012), Radcliffe G. Edmonds III’s Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets (Cambridge, 2004), Sarah Iles Johnston’s Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (University of California, 2013), George A. Gazis’s Homer and the Poetics of Hades (Oxford, 2018), Juliet Harrisson’s (ed.) Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World (Routledge, 2018), and Judith Fletcher’s 2019 Myths of the Underworld in Contemporary Culture: The Backward Gaze, (which I reviewed for BMCR 2020.01.48).