Mapping the Underworld: Space, Text, and Imaginary Landscapes in Antiquity

The Lesche of the Cnidians (c. 450 BCE) was a rectangular building; in the Sanctuary of Apollo, to the north edge of the sanctuary. (Photo via Perseus Project).

The Lesche of the Cnidians (c. 450 BCE) was a rectangular building; in the Sanctuary of Apollo, to the north edge of the sanctuary. (Photo via Perseus Project).

One of the foremost painters of the mid 5th century BCE, Polygnotus, was allegedly commissioned by the Cnidian people to paint a clubhouse at Delphi. One of the themes was Odysseus’ ascension into the underworld, described in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey (the so called  νέκυια). However, Pausanias (10.28-31) reports that the painter took many liberties and mixed together a number of myths about the persons and places within the realm of Hades. The painting was his most famous work and garnered many gawkers. One wonders if whether part of the popular draw of Polygnotus’ work was its vivid depiction of the unknown, providing–as it did–a map of things to come after one passed from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

An 1892 reconstruction of the Nekyia at Delphi reported by Pausanias (Image via Wikimedia).

An 1892 reconstruction of the Nekyia at Delphi reported by Pausanias (Image via Wikimedia).

The topography of the underworld is something that has fascinated both authors and audiences for centuries. In Book 6 (l.264-678) of Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld, past monsters and miserable humans, and arrives at the river Styx. Both Aeneas and the reader are then transported by Charon along the river, before encountering various distinct regions: Tartarus (a place for guilty shades), Elysium (a place for blessed shades), and a kind of limbo space for shades that have fallen into a gray area.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the underworld (c. 1625), National Museum in Gdańsk (Image via Wikimedia).

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the underworld (c. 1625), National Museum in Gdańsk (Image via Wikimedia).

What is noticeable about both Homer and Virgil’s depictions of the underworld, is that they had to use words (oral or written ones) in order to produce a visual space for their listeners to traverse. It was later up to the discretion of Polygnotus to draw the words of Homer (and add some of his own), just as many students must simply imagine the path of the river Styx in their minds as they translate the Aeneid in class. These personalized mental maps can often wildly differ from person to person. A great example comes from my colleague Rob Ketterer, who had a student in his Virgil class draw the Underworld as he read it:

Drawing done by Sam Connet for Rob Ketterer's Virgil Class c.2005.

Drawing done by Sam Connet for Rob Ketterer’s Virgil Class c.2005.

In fact, reading aloud to my students and having them draw a map as I speak is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to them that we all experience space differently. For example, on the first day of my Caesar class, I read the first few famous paragraphs to my students and asked them to draw a map of what they heard.

“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third… The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae…One part of these, which it has been said that the Gauls occupy, takes its beginning at the river Rhone; it is bounded by the river Garonne, the ocean, and the territories of the Belgae; it borders, too, on the side of the Sequani and the Helvetii, upon the river Rhine, and stretches toward the north…” (trans. McDevitte & Bohn)

Drawing of Caesar's Bellum Gallicum 1.1 by Jacob Flatness, Classics Major at University of Iowa (With his permission).

Drawing of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum 1.1 by Jacob Flatness, Classics Major at University of Iowa (With his permission).

As my students (and even I) remarked: This is a hard! Accordingly, what must the listeners in Rome have envisioned as they listened to these yearly reports from Caesar on the strange land to their North in the mid first century BCE? Assumedly, many inhabitants of Rome had previously put something akin to “there be dragons” across the Alps on their mental map. This impresses upon us a central reason that we tend to use portable or stationary maps to conjure models of the world around us: they are better than words alone at recreating a uniform, representative space. However, these two media work best in tandem: text and image together. Just think back to the last time someone gave you verbal directions and you didn’t have an iPhone map handy. Everyone verbalizes and writes about space differently, but maps can provide a communal touchstone.

Screenshot Map of Caesar's Gallic War (See interactive one here) made by Sarah Bond, but using as a base the KML file created by the DCC commentary. Check it out here.

Screenshot Map of Caesar’s Gallic War (See interactive one here) made by Sarah Bond, but using as a base the KML file created by the DCC commentary. Check it out here.

It is tough enough when the lands depicted have actually been traversed and surveyed, but what about fictional lands? How are authors supposed to communicate their fictive worlds to their audience?

David Lynch created a number of paintings for the In The Trees art exhibition in LA. (Image via Welcome To Twin Peaks).

David Lynch created a number of paintings for the In The Trees art exhibition in LA. This map of Twin Peaks is one of them (Image via Welcome To Twin Peaks).

The answer is of course that maps help to immerse the reader or listener. In his book Pictorial Maps (1991: 14) Nigel Holmes reported that David Lynch drew a map to help with his pitch: “Before showing the pilot script of his revolutionary show Twin Peaks to executives at ABC television, director David Lynch drew a map to give them an idea of where the action would unfold.” And just last week, an annotated map of Tolkien’s drawing of Middle Earth was found. The author famously planned every minute detail of his books. This included highly detailed timelines and maps of a world that did not exist, but which he brought to life for his readers through a mixture of illuminating prose and cartographic drawings. The ability of maps to make fictive spaces real is perhaps why I love playing with the interactive Middle Earth project so much.

Top left corner of the Tolkien map. (Photo from Blackwell’s Rare Books, Via CityLab).

Top left corner of the Tolkien map. (Photo from Blackwell’s Rare Books, Via CityLab).

As per usual, I have digressed. Let us return back to our stated subject: mapping the underworld. The most recognized instance of “infernal cartography” coming into vogue occurred after the publication of Dante’s Inferno, finished by the Florentine author in the early 14th century. Between 1450 (notably the beginning of the printing press) and 1600, drawings of hell became all the rage, particularly among Renaissance architects, cartographers, and artists. Architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Antonio Manetti in particular set out to try and figure out the actual dimensions of the underworld. The Renaissance was a time of innovation and attempts to understand one’s place within the cosmos, but it was also a time of print making. Suddenly, maps and texts could circulate faster than ever before. Moreover, the unknown did not just lay to the West in the form of the “New World”, it lay below, in the lands of the underworld that were oft written about, but for which there were few (if any) living witnesses to. Illustrations such as this one, by Botticelli, brought the terrifying words of Dante to life for the masses.

Sandro Botticelli's famous drawing (c.1480) of Dante's Inferno. (Image via Wikimedia).

Sandro Botticelli’s famous drawing (c.1480) of Dante’s Inferno. (Image via Wikimedia).

There are many more historical examples of how text and image worked to conjure infernal topographies for readers, but I would like to suggest that the phenomenon goes beyond demonstrating humanity’s desire to bring order to the haunting lands that may or may not exist in the afterlife. These maps can also help us to understand what we in the field of Digital Humanities call the “spatial turn.” Simply put, they show us that there is nothing new about our desire to understand both the fictional and the non-fictional spatially. Just like the printing press of 1450, the internet has provided us new technological tools and modes of representation with which we can now represent our cosmos. While the maps may differ from person to person and decade to decade, humanity’s use of both text and maps to chart what we fear the most is something that is here to stay. And at least now I know what to expect at the end of the river Styx…

Drawing of John Milton's Cosmology by Walter Clyde Curry, a student of Milton (Image via Cari Gibson et al.).

Drawing of John Milton’s Cosmology by Walter Clyde Curry, a student of Milton (Image via Cari Gibson et al.).

5 thoughts on “Mapping the Underworld: Space, Text, and Imaginary Landscapes in Antiquity

    1. sarahemilybond Post author

      There is a great book on early modern constructions of “the night” and I have begun to think about the tension in Roman law between night and day. I will have to think more, but it’s a great topic!

      Reply
  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #16 | Whewell's Ghost

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