A new book on otherworld journeys in antiquity

Whenever a new book on our favourite subject (Otherworldly journeys) appears, it is worth noting. John C. Stephens’ new book has ‘Medieval’ in its title, but it actually has more to say about the period from the archaic to late antiquity. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, however; we reproduce below Eileen Gardiner’s critiques, from the Medieval Review, which describe the book as ‘more impressionistic and descriptive than rigorously analytic’.

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Stephens, John C. Journeys to the Underworld and Heavenly Realm in Ancient and Medieval Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019. Pp. viii, 175. $49.95. ISBN: 978-1-47667-451-3.

Reviewed by Eileen Gardiner
University of Bristol and Italica Press

This book aims to “examine the ways in which religious experience became articulated in otherworldly journey narratives originating in the ancient West and early medieval Europe” (2). John C. Stephens relies on a wide variety of texts: ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Jewish, and Early Christian. Although claiming to include Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythological literature from the “early period up until the 9th century CE” (15), medieval coverage is limited to Beowulf and the Eddas of Snorri Sturluson (13th C).

With principles derived from theologians, philosophers, and sociologists, such as Émile Durkheim, Rudolph Otto, Mircea Eliade, and William James, Stephens defines six categories of religious experience. He devotes a chapter to each, seeking to “clarify the ways in which these narratives [of otherworldly journeys] give expression to religious experience” (2). Stephens begins with a brief introduction outlining his strategy. This is followed by chapter 1, “Ancient Cosmology,” where he looks at three systems: Ancient Near Eastern, Greco-Roman, and Norse. His Ancient Near Eastern texts include the Babylonian narrative of Enûma Eliš, the Egyptian Heliopolis myth, and the Hebrew Bible, all of which describe the formation of a sky above and an earth below without reference to an underworld, the main focus of Stephens’ thesis. For the Greco-Roman world, he examines Hesiod’s Theogony, where he finds Tartarus, the underworld created for the punishment of the old gods, the Titans. For Norse cosmology he relies on the Sibyl’s Prophecy from the Poetic Edda. 

With chapter 2, Stephens begins in earnest to examine otherworld journeys according to these six categories of religious experience: numinous, mystical, the experience of spiritual transformation, the experience of courage in the face of death, the intellectual apprehension of the sacred, and the experience of moral judgment before god. chapter 2, entitled “Numinous Otherworldly Journeys,” provides a detailed description of the underworld journeys of Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, then shifts to “Ancient Near Eastern Traditions,” to briefly discuss the Egyptian Pyramid and Coffin texts, the heavenly journeys of the Mesopotamian mythical figure Adapa and the Sumerian King Etana, and of the Old Testament Prophet Elijah. Stephens defines numinous as “having contact with divine beings in a world beyond this one” (47), although for Rudolph, who coined the term, [1] the quality of the contact–of the experience–must be holy, but without either moral or rational implications.

In chapter 3, “Mystical Otherworldly Journeys,” Stephens describes mysticism as “an inner psychological event” (48). He explains that “whereas numinous experience involves contact with supernatural beings existing outside oneself, mystical experience…typically involves finding the divine within oneself, either deliberately or through various means such as asceticism or spontaneously without any preparation” (48). Examples detailed in this chapter include Orphism and Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, Jacob’s Vision in Genesis 8, the Gnostic “Allogenes the Stranger” and “Ascension of Isaiah,” the Conversion of Paul in Acts 9.1-9, the writing of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, and the visions of St. Perpetua, the 2nd-century, North African Christian martyr.

Chapter 4, “Journeys of Spiritual Transformation” acknowledges that “spiritual transformation often springs from…numinous and mystical experience” (68) but is intrinsically connected to “conversion.” The unfortunate example of religious conversion showcased here is from Lucian of Samosata, a 2nd-century Roman satirist. He tells of Peregrinus Proteus, a Cynic philosopher, who converted back and forth between Christianity and paganism, before finally committing suicide, hardly a tale of religious conversion. Associating conversion and transformation experiences with fertility cults of rebirth and regeneration, Stephen’s further examples include the Sumerian Descent of Inanna and the Babylonian Descent of Ishtar, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and the Egyptian Myth of Isis and Osiris. The most successful example in this chapter is the conversion of Lucius from Apuleius’s Metamorphosis or The Golden Ass. A final example describes the Norse myth of Baldr’s descent into the underworld.

“Courageous Journeys in the Face of Death” (chapter 5) outlines how the development of the notion of an immortal soul provides for the possibility of a better afterlife and enables the individual to face and accept death, sometimes for the good of a community. Stephens’ examples of this type of religious experience include the Epic of Gilgamesh, whose hero discovers immortality in the underworld but cannot bring it back to this world, and Beowulf, whose hero escapes mortality by becoming a hero. The author cites these two works as providing examples of apprehending the sacred through face-to-face encounters with death.

The Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s Dream of Scipio are the examples presented in Chapter 6 entitled The Journey to Philosophic Wisdom. The former describes the embrace of philosophy as the gateway to eternal life, while the latter extends philosophical wisdom to its application in bringing about political change in this world.

In chapter 7, “The Journey to Moral Awareness,” Stephens describes “ethical action [as] an outward expression of one’s inner apprehension of sacred reality” (123). He uses numerous examples from Egyptian, Zoroastrian, and Judeo-Christian traditions.

More impressionistic and descriptive than rigorously analytic, Stephens has brought together a wide-ranging collection of otherworld journeys in this slim volume. By far most of them are underworld rather than heavenly journeys, and despite the volume’s title, hardly any of them are medieval. However, the greatest difficulty with this volume is its attempt to pose questions to ancient texts based on contemporary spiritual philosophy and theology. Encounters between heroes and mythical beings in the underworld are not originally described as religious experiences, numinous or mystical. Fertility myths do not concern individual transformations. Unlike medieval visions of heaven and hell, this literature, by and large, does not reveal the state of consciousness of its heroes and does not describe conversions either to a new set of moral principles or to an advanced realm of enlightenment, both of which characterize a contemporary understanding of religious experience. Definitions of mysticism are notoriously difficult, [2] and while Stephens definition in chapter 3 may stand, it does not enable a distinction among any variety of psychological events, nor does it encompass the notion of the uniative experience with the divine, which is often an essential characteristic of mystical experience. Stephens is on more solid ground when describing otherworld travelers as achieving moral or philosophical awareness, and although such awareness may often come about as the result of a religious experience, even of a conversion, these are not religious experiences as James, Eliade, or Otto would have understood them.



1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 5-7.

2. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings 1902-1910 (New York: Library of America, 1987), 342-344.