Why we love underworld stories: An introduction


I love stories about the underworld. I was first introduced to underworld stories from the Classics. Both Virgil and Homer depicted descents into the underworld in their famous works the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Then there are the myths about Persephone and Orpheus. In college, I wrote a paper about Seneca’s satirical approach to underworld tropes when he dragged Emperor Claudius at the mercy of Hermes into the depths of the underworld.

In college, I also was introduced to Dante’s Inferno and fell in love with it also. It became an interest of mine to research this theme and I wrote more than one paper on the topic. One focused on the separate but similar tradition of medieval Christian vision literature. I took a medieval Latin class and did a paper on the tropes common in vision fiction and touched a little bit on why we find these stories so fascinating.

The beginning of the medieval Christian vision tradition begins with St. Paul’s Apocalypse. St. Paul’s vision is the first huge influence on the medieval vision because it so vividly describes the torments of sinners. In St. Paul’s Apocalypse, St. Paul reports his vision of heaven and hell that he refers to in 2 Corth. 12:1-4. He sees three different souls separated from their bodies and their fates when they are judged. This works detailed punishment of those that are assigned to hell laid fertile ground for the medieval imagination and traditions. Sinners are dipped in a river of fire, some up to their knees, others up their naval, or eyebrows depending on the degree of sins that they committed. There is a group of sinners that always broke their fasts early and suffer a Tantalus-like punishment by being set before a stream of water and an abundance of fruits.

The next work that influenced the genre of visionary literature was Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. In Gregory’s fourth book he tells three stories about ordinary people that had gone to hell. One of these men is Stephen, who became ill and died. He saw the torments of hell but when he was brought before a judge, it was discovered that they had the wrong Stephen and really had meant to get Stephen the Smith. Stephen was then allowed to return to his body and the death of the Smith soon after gave evidence that the vision was true. He also reports the story of a soldier that became ill at the same time that Stephen had died from the plague. The soldier reported that he saw a bridge that ran over a river of filthy water. On the other side of the bridge, there was a sweet-smelling meadow and people dressed in white. There were also large mansions built for those that dwelt there. When a sinful person tried to cross they were cast into the water. Here the soldier saw this Stephen being fought over by angels trying to keep him on the bridge and devils trying to drag him into the water, but the soldier was brought back to life before he could see Stephen’s fate.

He also reports the story of a soldier that became ill at the same time that Stephen had died from the plague. The soldier reported that he saw a bridge that ran over a river of filthy water. On the other side of the bridge, there was a sweet-smelling meadow and people dressed in white. There were also large mansions built for those that dwelt there. When a sinful person tried to cross they were cast into the water. Here the soldier saw this Stephen being fought over by angels trying to keep him on the bridge and devils trying to drag him into the water, but the soldier was brought back to life before he could see Stephen’s fate. These stories affected the development of the rest of the genre.

These stories affected the development of the rest of the genre. Gregory established three new things in the genre. First, the practice of ordinary people, and not just saints having visionary experiences. Second, he made verification through outsides sources a standard convention of the tale. He also started the story line of seeing contemporaries or people you knew being punished or exalted in the vision.

Then Bede told his Vision of Drythemlm. Drythemlm, awakes from his vision of Hell, surprising all his family who thought he had died, and straightaway separates his fortune into three parts, one for his children, one for his wife, and one part for himself, which he donated to the poor. Drythelmlm becomes a monk, and for the rest of his life serves his penance. This reversal of his character is explained by what he experienced in his vision of Hell. Drythemlm said he entered into the depths of hell. He saw people being tossed back and forth between and burning fire and a freezing cold blizzard. These people had procrastinated their repentance and finally confessed at death. They can be helped by those who do masses and works for the dead. Then he enters deeper into hell and sees people caught in a black flaming fountain, where devils torment them. He is left alone and accosted by devils until his guide saves him. He is then taken to a paradisiacal meadow but finds like the first group that this is only a waiting place for those that are not yet perfected for heaven. He then sees the briefest glimpse of heaven and wants to linger but his Guide then leads him back to life.

After relating the vision, Bede reports that for the rest of his life Drythelmlm would dunk himself into cold water often, even when the ice was frozen over the lake. When people would comment on his strength to withstand the cold. He would reply “I have seen greater cold.”