BMCR: Banner on Männlein-Robert, Seelenreise und Katabasis

Reposted from BMCR, a review by NSEA’s own Nicholas Banner on a new volume on heavenly journeys and tours of the underworld:

Seelenreise und Katabasis: Einblicke ins Jenseits in antiker philosophischer Literatur

Irmgard Männlein-Robert, Seelenreise und Katabasis: Einblicke ins Jenseits in antiker philosophischer LiteraturPhilosophie der Antike, 40. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. ix, 443. ISBN 9783110713152 $126.99.

Review by

Nicholas Banner, Trinity College Dublin.

This volume collects fourteen papers in German and English centred around the themes of the ‘soul-journey’ and katabasis from a 2018 conference. Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review. The papers are generally of high quality, with a welcome diversity of approach. The subject-matter happily strays from the book’s title: philosophy is well represented, but many of the papers concentrate on religion and even ‘magic’, and, while antiquity indeed predominates, the final paper deals with the early modern period. Indices locorum and nominum increase the volume’s usefulness. Overall, the book constitutes a valuable contribution to the study of the otherworldly[1] journey in classical antiquity and beyond. The following is a summary description of the papers which cannot do justice to a fairly long and very rich and varied volume.

The editor’s introduction lays out some of the main problems in interpreting accounts of otherworldly journeys and ancient katabasis-narratives, notably the lack of any agreed-upon interpretive framework for understanding what is going on—culturally or psychologically—when people claim to visit realms other than the mundane. She surveys some of the broad range of evidence for katabasis and soul-journeying, some of the approaches to these materials found in scholarship, and introduces the book’s contents.

Ioannis Kalogerakos’ contribution is an ambitious survey of different conceptions of the ‘otherworld’ and otherworldly journey in early Greek thought from Homer to Plato. It covers a lot of ground and interprets the evidence boldly. Kalogerakos begins with the concept of space or place (‘Raum’, τόπος) and the problems of mapping otherworldly places. He examines the late-archaic Greek soul-manipulators and journeyers, with some critical discussion of the contested category ‘shamanism’ in this context. Turning to the ‘topography’ of the Greek underworld, Kalogerakos discusses Odysseus’ Nekyia, ‘Orphic’ evidence, and evidence from Pherecydes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides. The rise of the celestial afterlife from the fifth century BCE is then discussed, along with Empedocles’ otherworldly topography. A final summary notes an ‘expansion’ of the otherworld in archaic and late-archaic thinkers into more and more ‘spaces’, from Pythagoras and Empedocles down to Plato.

Christoph Riedweg searches for clues about the Pythagorean view of the hereafter by reassessing the sparse pre-Platonic evidence for Pythagoras and early Pythagoreanism in light of the rather fuller evidence which we possess for Orphic beliefs.[2] A preliminary section discusses this comparative project, affirming the well-known interconnectivity of Orphic and Pythagorean movements; but Riedweg also brings in Pherecydes, Empedocles, Plato, and others to tease out probable Pythagorean afterlife-beliefs. Riedweg makes a number of admittedly-speculative, well-crafted arguments for Pythagorean beliefs in an ethicised afterlife located in several regions—Hades and Tartaros beneath the earth, and a probably-celestial ‘Isles of the Blessed’ reserved for good Pythagoreans—preceded by a judgement of the dead. There is human and animal metempsychosis. Pythagoras will have given detailed rules for what to do after death, similarly to the Orphics, presumably projecting these postmortem activities on a similarly-detailed otherworldly topography.

In an interesting paper, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui focuses on the ‘politics of the afterlife’ (81) in ancient Greece. Concentrating on the classical period, the author divides the discussion into three sections, based on tropes of political discourse well known from this very period, Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy (this last conceptualised more loosely than the other two). In this cultural sphere, ‘The realm of the dead is always depicted as a monarchy’ (83), dead aristocrats tend to have special afterlife-status, and there is not really much place for democratic themes except in the chorus of Aristophanes’ Frogs. This bare summary, however, leaves out a number of well-observed distinctions drawn from a wide range of ancient sources.

Gabriele Cornelli’s paper claims for the early Pythagoreans a doctrine of an individual soul and an ethicised cycle of reincarnations, doctrines which he conceptualises under four idiosyncratically-defined categories of metempsychosispalingenesisanamnesis, and koinonia. In conclusion he accords this set of doctrines the status of a first step in the development of the individual self in the west. The paper falls short in the editing department (there are long repetitions and the English should have been tightened up). Cornelli draws freely on a wide range of texts, from most of the usual suspects (see n. 2 above) to Plato and even the Theologumena arithmeticae. Many of the arguments in the paper are fragile, standing or falling on long chains of interpretive choices which will not find favour everywhere; but, that being said, any specialist of early Pythagoreanism should find something at least thought-provoking in this piece.

Alessandro Stavru argues for a particular permutation of late-archaic katabasis: a sojourn beneath the earth resulting in a change of status into a charismatic figure with special knowledge of the postmortem world that finds its usefulness in the mundane sphere. Having (perhaps too easily) argued that this topos was distinctive of early Pythagoreanism, he further suggests that, since we also find it in fourth-century comedy, we should add the comic poets to our fund of texts available for interpreting fifth-century Pythagoreanism. He then analyses Aristophanes’ CloudsBirds, and Frogs, seeking out genuine Pythagorean katabasis– and underworld-lore.

In a workmanlike piece of descriptive Quellenforschung, Mauro Tulli looks at Homeric and Hesiodic influences on aspects of the myth of the ‘true earth’ in Plato’s Phaedo. He identifies likely passages and themes (notably the Nekyia of Odyssey 11 and Hesiod’s account of Tartaros), detailing the different underworld rivers and their particular Platonic rewritings, along with the ways in which Plato goes beyond his sources, integrating a ‘vertical’ element into his eschatological cosmology.

In an excellent paper, Irmgard Männlein-Robert brings the (old but nowadays unjustly ignored) conceptions of astral religion and astral immortality to bear on Plato and the Old Academy. Her main thesis (196): when approaching the philosophical journey of the soul in Plato we are confronted with two closely-linked strategies, the philosophical rationalisation and remaking of older mythical topoi and the development of a distinctive and novel religious lexicon (‘religiösen Semantisierung’, her emphasis) drawing on the new astronomical sciences of Plato’s day and beyond. She argues convincingly for this dual thesis from the Phaedo, the Timaeus, the Laws, and evidence from the Epinomis and Heraclides Ponticus.

Gernot M. Müller looks at cosmology and post-mortem soul-survival in Cicero’s (mostly) later oeuvre. He addresses the opening of the De re publica, examining the ways in which cosmology is there ethicised and presented as a tool for practical thinking, read in conjunction with the stellar ascent-myth of Scipio’s Dream. He then adduces the discussion of the soul’s post-mortem survival in the Tusculans, finding here and in Rep. the therapeutic aim of enabling people to deal with the fears and challenges life (especially political life) throws at them (258). Finally turning to Cicero’s late works Cato maiorLaelius, and De officiis, Müller brings the dire political events of Cicero’s latter lifetime into the foreground, contextualising Cicero’s later discussions of the immortal soul in terms of his final political struggles.

Jan Bremmer’s contribution is a selective survey of ‘round trips to the Otherworld’, beginning with the Sumerian Gilgamesh-poem and finishing with a nod to the modern ‘near-death experience’. The paper has three main parts. The first describes near-eastern katabasis-legends, then the Greek katabatic journey from Homer through Orpheus, Pythagoras, and others, culminating with Plato’s Er. The second part concentrates on Plutarch’s eschatological myth in De sera. Finally, Bremer surveys select developments in the Christian apocalyptic tradition of ‘tours of Hell’ (and sometimes of Heaven). Some careful concluding remarks highlight a few developmental trends through this literature, including the switch from an underworld to a heavenly afterlife, a move toward soul-travel rather than bodily otherworld-journeying, and a ‘democratisation’ of the afterlife over time.

Jens Halfwassen’s interesting paper interprets the doctrine of the undescended self in Plotinus in terms of the phenomenology of noesis. Launching from the famous ‘Often, waking to myself’ passage of Ennead IV.8 [6] 1, he discusses the activity of the Plotinian nous (and thus of the undescended human self) as ‘absolute self-awareness’ (‘Selbstbewusstsein’: 307). A number of linked philosophical discussions follow. A final section discusses the historical context of Plotinus’ controversial doctrine, both backwards (Platonic precedents) and forwards in time (rejection by later Platonists, reverberations through medieval German thought and, later, Idealism). This paper interprets Plotinus very much through the lens of the thought of these same German idealists, an approach which may not please all historians of philosophy, but the interpretations on offer are cogent and worthy of consideration.

Volker Henning Drecoll gives an illuminating discussion of Augustine’s treatment of the exegetically-problematic interval between death and the bodily resurrection at the end of days: Where is the soul in the meantime? Beginning from Origen’s cosmically-located account of the postmortem ascent toward god through different spatial regions in Peri archōn II and III, Drecoll lays out how, by positing ‘spiritual-psychic places of experience’ (‘geistig-seelischen Erlebnisraum’: 324) for the postmortem soul corresponding to soul-faculties, Augustine despatialises his account of what the Latin scriptures call inferi and paradisus. Augustine’s ingenious account of why a spiritual body is necessary for the final instauration and visio dei is discussed. Finally Augustine’s account is again compared and contrasted with Origen’s, and with the teachings of Porphyry on the soul’s vehicle and postmortem destiny.

Dmitrij F. Bumazhnov reassesses the curious Book of the Holy Hierotheos, a Syriac work of the 6th century usually ascribed to Stephan bar Sudaili. Bumazhnov gives an excellent, stripped-down introduction to the text’s complicated history and to the salvation-theology of Evagrius Ponticus—a radicalised form of which underlies Stephan’s theory of personal salvation through noetic ascent toward god—and then introduces the dark, poisonous tree which the ascending intellect of the ascetic must confront and destroy at the roots. Bumazhnov updates earlier scholarly suspicions that this tree-image might stem from a Manichaean source with a number of parallels in Manichaean texts, demonstrating that many details of Hierotheos’ story of the nous’s ascent, descent, underworld journey, and struggle with the tree’s daimonic roots have strong Manichaean parallels (346).

Matthias Perkams discusses the seventh-century Syriac Christian work On the Reason of the Schools of Barḥaḏbšabbā, a member of the Eastern Church in Sassanian Nisibis. He introduces the text, its late-antique Sassanian context, and its genre, and then homes in on a section dealing with faculties of the soul and its ascent toward god. Perkams examines in particular the ways in which the human being can come to know God, who is surrounded by fairly strong conceptual constraints of formal ineffability and transcendence. Influences from traditional Greek philosophical concepts, Christian fathers, certain Rabbinic ideas, scriptural exegetical hermeneutics, and more are discussed in connection with the text, which emerges as an intriguing synthesis of all of these factors. An appended Syriac text-comparison with Sergios of ‘Rēš‘aynā will be useful to the Syriacist.

Jörg Robert brings the discussion of soul-travel into early-modern times, arguing for the period as a turning-point in the intellectual history of the soul-journey, wherein new intellectual forces—among them humanist textual criticism, developing religious pluralism, disenchantment (‘Entzauberung’) of religion, and destabilising technical developments—encountered authoritative ancient textual loci (Odyssey 11, Aeneid 6, Plato’s Myth of Er, Somnium Scipionis, and Lucian’s tales) to form a new ‘otherworld-aesthetic’ incorporating allegory, fiction, and religiosity in novel ways. Interesting discussions of Kepler’s Somnium, Kircher’s Iter exstaticum, and other texts bring out some of the complex dynamics at play, and this ambitious paper brings up a number of interesting approaches to this material which, as the author notes (387), constitutes a field ripe for study.

Table of Contents

Irmgard Männlein-Robert. Seelenreise und Katabasis: Literarische und philosophische Konturen einer Denkfigur 1
Ioannis G. Kalogerakos. Jenseits des Raums. Seelenreisen und Raumvorstellungen der Frühzeit 13
Christoph Riedweg. Pythagoreische Jenseitsvorstellungen—eine Spurensuche 35
Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui. Political Imagery in Ancient Greek Eschatology 81
Gabriele Cornelli. Bearing with Dignity Your Load of Inalienable Responsibility: The Movements of the Pythagoreans’ Soul between MetempsychosisPalingenesisAnamnesis and Koinonia 107
Alessandro Stavru. Pythagoreische Seelenreisen bei Aristophanes: Katabasis als transformativer Wissenserwerb 139
Mauro Tulli. Homer und Hesiod bei Platon: der Mythos im Phaidon 177
Irmgard Männlein-Robert. Die Seele und die Sterne: Zur Seele im Jenseits bei Platon und in der Alten Akademie 195
Gernot Michael Müller. Seelenlehre und Therapie. Das Fortleben der Seele nach dem Tod als Gegenstand von De re publica und Ciceros Spätwerk und seine Funktion 227
Jan N. Bremmer. Roundtrips to the Other World in Body and Soul: From Gilgamesh, via Plutarch’s Thespesios to Barontus 277
Jens Halfwassen. „Etwas von uns bleibt immer oben“. Zu Plotins Lehre vom nicht-abgestiegenen Seelengrund 305
Volker Henning Drecoll. Wo bleibt die Seele Augustin zufolge nach dem Tod? 317
Dmitrij F. Bumazhnov. Der „schlechte“ Baum im Buch des heiligen Hierotheos. Manichäische Bilder als Erfahrung des Intellekts während seiner kosmischen Reisen 335
Matthias Perkams. Die Reisen des Intellekts in der Ursache der Gründung der Schulendes Barḥaḏbšabbā (um 600) 355
Jörg Robert. Magie, Ekstase, Wissen. Athanasius Kirchers Iter exstaticum zwischen Seelenreise und Science Fiction 387
Index locorum 415
Index nominum 437


[1] This review generally translates the German Jenseits/Diesseits binary with ‘otherworld(ly)’ and ‘mundane’.

[2] The Pythagorean evidence includes Xenophanes 21 B7 DK; Ion of Chios 36 B4 DK; Herodotus on the Getae (4.94) and the long recension of Herodotus on the Egyptians, Pythagoreans, Bacchics, and ‘so-called Orphics’ (2.81.2).