When Christians recite the Apostles' Creed they affirm their belief that Jesus descended into hell, although most of them probably have little more than a vague idea of what this phrase implies. At the beginning of the current era, however, and for centuries earlier, such a statement would have been meaningful to followers of many a religion which flourished in the classical world. In 1889 H. P. Blavatsky wrote that to speak of "anyone as having descended into Hades, was equivalent in antiquity to calling him a full Initiate." (Blavatsky, H. P., "The Roots of Ritualism in Church and Masonry, " Collected Writings, 11:91) The initiate who had made the descent into Hades became one of a distinguished company who had completed the same journey. As well as Jesus these included Attis, Dionysos, Enoch, Herakles, Ishtar, Krishna, Orpheus, and Persephone.
H. P. Blavatsky was writing in the context of the pagan Mysteries here. Their beginnings in ancient Greece are lost in prehistory, and not until about 500 A.D. were they snuffed out. In their prime they appealed to some of the greatest minds of all time. The descent into Hades was one of their secret teachings preserved in the form of ritual. In the Greek Mysteries, initiation connoted not a "beginning" as the word in Roman times came to mean (initia), but quite the opposite: a "finishing," a "making perfect," from the Greek telete, a "consummation" (teleo, to complete, accomplish). Those choosing to further their spiritual development through this channel were required to be of high moral caliber and to prepare themselves for it in prescribed ways. Initiation, then, was earned, not bought, as in later periods when the Mysteries became corrupted. Of all the rituals common to various forms of the Mysteries, such as baptism, sacred marriage, and eucharist, the descent into Hades seems to have had the greatest significance for the participants.
Hades, otherwise known as the Underworld, was the abode of the dead or, more accurately, of departed souls. It is necessary to distinguish between Hades the locality and Hades the god of the Underworld, the god of the dead. Hades comes from a Greek root meaning "unseen," "hidden," or "unknown." Relevant comparisons can be found in the Egyptian religion, where the equivalent of Hades is Amenti, meaning "hidden place" or "place of the hidden god," and in the roots of the word hell, which had a sense of "hiding" or "concealing." In mythology Hades was located under the earth, and the god Hades was the principal of the Underworld deities; hence the journey to Hades involved a descent. Symbolically, the downward direction is no doubt significant, but connected with at least some of the Mystery centers there was also an actual physical descent, say into a cave or underground chamber.
The early Hebrews designated Sheol as their abode of the dead, a subterranean place with several levels, each designed to dispense a certain degree of punishment or torture. In one form or another this concept persisted through the ages. The Latin languages adopted words related to infernus, referring to the world below, where the wicked are punished. In northern regions, words similar to the English hell were derived from Hel, name of the goddess of the Underworld in Scandinavian mythology. Although hell is usually thought of as a hot place and one to be feared, the northern Helheim, abode of Hel, ranged from a very cold world to sunlit meadows and was not necessarily one to frighten mortal hearts. Likewise, Hades in ancient traditions was not just a place where sinful souls were tortured. The Greeks saw it also as a gateway to a heavenlike existence. One road in Hades led to Tartaros where imaginative punishments were administered, the other, the righthand road, led to the Elysian Fields.
One of the earliest known journeys to Hades is that of the divine Krishna of India. An esoteric version is presented in the Kathopanishad: the visit of Nachiketas to Yama, Lord of Death, suggests the necessity for making the journey with full consciousness. The reward is immortality. This is a profound theme and no theosophical interpretation of the "descent" is complete unless its implications are taken into account.
Everything known about the religion of ancient Egypt points to the immediate afterdeath state as being pivotal in the spiritual quest. The litanies and rituals described in the Book of the Dead hint at the change in consciousness experienced by the individual at the end of each incarnation; and also by the initiate while still embodied. This feature exerted an important influence on the Greek Mysteries.
From the ancient Middle and Near East comes a rich collection of descent myths. One is that of Gilgamesh, hero of the Babylonian epic. Another is the colorful story of the goddess Ishtar who descended into Aralu, the Akkadian Hades; a Sumerian version is similar. Variations of the myth can be traced from there to the north and west. In Phoenicia the goddess Astarte and her consort Adonai appear in the principal roles; elsewhere these are identified as Venus and Adonis; in Asia Minor it is Magna Mater, the Great Mother Cybele, associated with her consort Attis; and so forth.
The famous Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated not far from Athens were the origin of most of the classical references to a descent into Hades, including Plato's. Their establishment is described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which dates from the seventh century B.C. — very early for a literary source. In it the story is unfolded how the god of the Underworld, Hades, abducted Persephone, daughter of Demeter. A simple tale yet one that sustained an important religion for two thousand years or more.
Also from classical sources are two examples from Greek mythology that have stood the test of time and are perennially fascinating. The most famous is the story of Orpheus who went to Hades to plead for the release of the soul of his dead wife, Eurydice. His beautiful music captivated the god of the dead, who granted his request on condition that if Orpheus looked back when leaving the Underworld, Eurydice must return to Hades. Orpheus failed to honor this rule of the spiritual path and his journey was in vain. In the Orphic Mysteries to which Orpheus lent his name, the descent theme was prominent. In a later phase of this religion, devotees were buried with small gold tablets on which were etched not only descriptions of the entrance to Hades, but also intimations of the mystic ritual to prepare the departing soul for its afterdeath journey. What originally had been a conscious and meaningful experience had by then become a mere formula; nevertheless these ancient tablets have served to indicate the nature of the Mystery teaching (Guthrie, W. K. C., Orpheus and Greek Religion, p. 171 ff., and Harrison, J. E., Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, ch. XI and Appendix).
A late example of the postmortem journey is the assertion in the Christian Apostles' Creed that Jesus Christ "descended to hell, on the third day rose again from the dead." There is no mention of this incident in the gospels, and the few references elsewhere in the New Testament are vague and not necessarily relevant. How, then, did the descent into hell find its way into the Creed? Among early influences was The Book of Enoch which describes a visit to hell, though not by Jesus. The most imaginative description of Jesus' descent is found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which is probably the main source for many later versions such as the popular medieval English mystery play, "The Harrowing of Hell."
Early church fathers, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, among others, regarded the descent literally and attempted to weave it into their theology. Probably from the second or third century onwards it was an accepted belief. Perhaps it was even cited as one of the Articles of Faith, but it does not appear to have been written into the Apostles' Creed until about the seventh century. H. P. Blavatsky suggested that the myth of Jesus' descent had been borrowed from the Mysteries (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 11:89), a view corroborated by the historian F. C. Conybeare, who wrote that "we may safely attribute to the influence of the old Orphic hymns and mysteries this class of Christian myth" (The Origins of Christianity, p. 286). Jesus' descent into hell receives little more than passing mention in later theology. An exception was a sixteenth-century Lutheran controversy around the question whether the descent of Jesus took place before or after his death on the cross (Schaff, Philip, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, in three volumes, 6th ed., 1:296).
The list could be expanded with the addition of such examples as the journey to the Land of the Dead by Quetzalcoatl, the great Toltec god, revered also by the Aztecs in ancient Mexico. Other Amerindian traditions are startlingly similar to Orphic and related teachings on the after-death states. Not only in ancient religions was the descent into Hades a universally popular theme. It is found in the works of the most honored authors in classical literature; for example, Homer, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Vergil, and Lucian; and long after the Mysteries ceased to be a living religious force it continued to attract writers of the quality of Dante, Milton, and George Bernard Shaw.
Having indicated the widely diffused and long-existing tradition of the descent into Hades, there remains the age-old puzzle: What is it all about? It is worth recalling H. P. Blavatsky's statement that symbols and mythological themes "have to be closely examined from all their aspects." In fact, she enumerates five keys of interpretation, spiritual, astronomical, psychical, physiological, and anthropological. Then she adds two more, the highest of them being theogony, the birth of the gods, and anthropogony, the origins of man (Blavatsky, H. P., The Secret Doctrine, 2:517; 1:363; see also 2:22n, 538). No single explanation of the descent into Hades, therefore, is likely to reveal its mystery — and mystery it was in more than one sense in ancient times. There are a number of possible interpretations, each of which may be valid in its own context, and the sum of which may help toward a better understanding of the myth. One frequent expression among the ancients is that hell is the physical body and the descent into incarnation is the imprisonment or death of the human soul. Plato and Blavatsky both employed this allegory.
In modern Christianity, the descent into hell as an actual event is seldom mentioned outside the Apostles' Creed and in at least one recent translation even this statement is camouflaged. The question is, if hell is strictly a place of torment, why did Jesus go there for three days? This problem must have been a thorny one in the minds of the early church fathers. They came up with the explanation that the purpose was to preach to all therein who had lived and died before that time and so had missed the opportunity for Christian salvation (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, vi, ch. 6). This theory probably derived from other traditions known to some of these writers: that the descent into Hades involved an obligation to do good works while there. It is a pity that they did not embody in their theology the idea that the descent marks the culmination of a long and arduous spiritual quest, the end of which is divinity.
There is little doubt that this Mystery rite involved a temporary death for the participants. The initiate Apuleius reported that "the delivery of her mysteries [of Isis] is celebrated as a thing resembling a voluntary death"; and when describing his own experience he wrote that he "approached to the confines of death, and having trod on the threshold of Persephone, I returned from it" (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, XI, 21, 23, Thomas Taylor trans.).
The initiate Plutarch put it another way: "At the time of death, the soul has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries" (Plutarch, Fragments, 178). He went on to discuss the close connection between the Greek verb forms teleutan and teleisthai, respectively "to die" and "to be initiated." If only Plutarch had been more explicit at this point! He did but reflect one of the admirable characteristics of the old Mystery religions: over the long span of their existence the secrets of the initiations remained inviolate. What little evidence there is to study, mainly guarded statements by initiates such as those just cited, indicates that they were allowed consciously to experience the immediate after-death state.
If one thing can be deduced with some certainty, it is that the descent into Hades was far from being an excursion for the inquisitive, with Hermes giving a guided tour of the Underworld. On the contrary, the experience appears to have been an ordeal and approached only by degrees. Its preparation alone was enough to discourage any but the most serious and dedicated. Psychologically, the candidate would be sensitized: first, through various purification rites; then subject to a strict diet for several weeks or months, ending with a fast. To this would be added several trials of moral purity and courage, and frightening but necessary warnings by the hierophant of the dangers involved.
When, finally, at the appointed time the Mysteries were celebrated, this mental, emotional, and physical preparation would have brought the individual to a highly receptive state. Various ceremonies would help intensify this condition and create an atmosphere wherein "candidates for initiation enacted the whole drama of death, and the resurrection as a glorified spirit, by which name we mean Consciousness" (Blavatsky, H. P., The Key to Theosophy, pp. 98-9).
At the lowest level, the experience no doubt included seeing the shades of departed friends. Plato spoke of those who "descend into Hades, allured by the hope of seeing and conversing with departed loved ones" (Plato, Phaedo, ??68a); to which may be added evidence suggested in early literature. In Homer's Odyssey, the hero Odysseus on descending into Hades met with his late mother as well as comrades who had fallen in the Trojan War. In the famous scene in Vergil's Aeneid (Book VI), the hero Aeneas goes down into the Underworld to seek the spirit of his father. In The Frogs of Aristophanes, the Mysteries are parodied, and a scene in Hades depicts recently deceased playwrights participating in a debate.
Those permitted to go beyond this stage of the Underworld would learn of the postmortem experience of the immortal aspects of the individual by taking the road to the right of the entrance to Hades, which led to lush meadows and a state of perfect happiness and peace. That the separation of the higher and lower aspects was known to Homer can be gathered from his description of Odysseus' visit to the Underworld, wherein dwelt the ghost of Herakles, while his unseen spirit was said to be residing in heaven (Homer, Odyssey, XI, ll. 601-04).
In Isis Unveiled it is suggested that this knowledge was reserved for the higher initiates:
. . . it was given only to the "perfect" [that is, the teletai, the full initiates] to enjoy and learn the Mysteries of the divine Elysium, the celestial abode of the blessed; this Elysium being unquestionably the same as the "Kingdom of Heaven." — 2:145-6
From remarks by Plato and others, the privileged initiates were also enabled to witness souls returning from the Elysian Fields after their allotted time, and preparing to go back to earth in a new physical body (Plato, The Republic, X, ??614 ff). For reincarnation was taught in the Mysteries, and described in Orphic terms as the "cycle of necessity."
The highest degree of initiation depended not only on arduous preparation by the candidate, but also on the presence of a hierophant — the high priest of the Mysteries. Only with his protection could the consciousness of the initiate be safely transformed to a deathlike state, leaving behind the physical body in a trance condition. In The Secret Doctrine this procedure is described in terms which are applicable to the experiences of Herakles and Jesus:
The initiated adept, who had successfully passed through all the trials, was attached, not nailed, but simply tied on a couch in the form of a tau . . . plunged in a deep sleep . . . he was allowed to remain in this state for three days and three nights, during which time his Spiritual Ego was said to confabulate with the "gods," descend into Hades, Amenti, . . . and do works of charity to the invisible beings, whether souls of men or Elemental Spirits; his body remaining all the time in a temple crypt or subterranean cave." — 2:558
Initiates were unafraid of dying, confident that their afterlife would be a pleasant experience. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter it is asserted: "happy that earth-born man who has beheld [the august Mysteries]! He who is not initiated and has no part [in them] does not enjoy the same happy lot when dead" ("The Homeric Hymn to Demeter," II, 11. 480-83). The playwright Sophocles and the poet Pindar both expressed an almost identical thought. Pindar added another line: the initiate, he said, knows the end of life; he also knows its god-given beginning (Pindar, Threnoi, fragment x.).
In passing, it is interesting to note the similarities between descriptions of the descent into Hades found in classical writings, and modern case histories of persons who have had near-death experiences — that is, those who, after a short period during which they were presumed dead, returned to ordinary consciousness and reported on what they remembered (cf. Ring, Ken, Seminar on "Near Death Experiences." The American Theosophist, January 1983). In the growing literature on this subject are cited phenomena which faintly suggest the initiatory experience. These include — an initial entry into darkness: this was characteristic of the descent; going through a tunnel: this is reminiscent of Aeneas' journey, and several pertinent references to caves in classical literature; seeing a bright light: a reminder of Apuleius' revelation in the Egyptian Mysteries, "at midnight I saw the sun shining with a splendid light" (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, XI, 23); meeting deceased relatives: a common experience recorded of Odysseus among others; losing the fear of death, and a change in personal attitude, wherein the individual has a greater sense of purpose in life and is more caring: as far as can be known such qualities characterize those who had partaken of the Mysteries.
The true significance of the descent into Hades is not to be measured by mundane results. These are but stepping-stones on the way to greater goals. The ritual is nothing beyond what it represents; the preparation for initiation is everything. Only when the necessary moral strength and purity have been developed will the required transformation of consciousness safely take place. The final initiation will mark the awakening into divinity which is the potential for all humanity.
(Condensed with permission from the Blavatsky Lecture delivered on June 11, 1983, at the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society (Adyar) in England, which Society has published the complete text. Mr. Davy is General Secretary of the Society in Canada and Co-editor of its bimonthly journal The Canadian Theosophist)
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1983/January 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)