Using myth: a focus on Katabasis

In the EACWP 1st. pedagogical conference in Paris (Nov, 2012), Linda Lappin offered a workshop in which she brought to light the essential material of several of her literary works and academic research: the hero’s journey behold through katabasis, the descent to the underworld. The Etruscan (2004) and her recently published novel Signatures in Stone (2013) dig into this myth

Linda Lappin teaches writing and composition at the University of Rome La Sapienza and creative nonfiction writing for the USAC study abroad program hosted at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo. Her novels include The Etruscan (Wynkin de Worde, 2004), Katherine’s Wish, about the life of Katherine Mansfield (Wordcraft, 2008) and Signatures in Stone, a Bomarzo mystery forthcoming from Caravel Books in 2013. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

Using myth: a focus on Katabasis

Linda LAPPIN (Italy)

In our creative writing workshop focusing on the myth of katabasis held at Aleph- Écriture during the 2012 Pedagogy Conference of the European Association of Creative Writing Programs, we first examined the concept of katabasis viewed through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s research on the monomyth. We next read and discussed four short pieces, two poems and two prose passages dealing with katabasis in very different ways. In the final phase, the participants proceeded to write their own katabasis narratives using the prompt which appears at the end of this text.

Phase 1. Presentation of Material: Defining Katabasis

There was a very remote time in human history when the only way we knew to make sense of ourselves and our world, to transcribe emotions and experience, or to transmit knowledge was to tell a story, to conjure an archetype or create a symbol. The myths, symbols, and stories that sprang from our imagination in those distant days are some of the most powerful and enduring creations of world culture, and they still reverberate in our minds today, in our unconscious, in our dreams, and in the stories we keep telling and retelling.

The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, dedicated his life to studying the myth of the hero in cultures all over the globe. From this immense body of material, he extracted a single formula which he defined in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as the monomyth charting an itinerary of quest and initiation culled from the great mythologies, legends, folklore, fairy tales, and religious narratives of the world, from Osiris and Prometheus to Buddha and Christ. Campbell summed the monomyth up as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

He then identified a series of phases in the hero’s journey: The Call to Adventure, The Road of Trials, The Goal or Boon. These three phases may also be described as Separation/Departure, Initiation, and Return, and are in turn divided into several minor phases, or we might say, plot variations. The study of this formula and its application in analyzing or constructing the plots of fictional or nonfictional narratives offers endless possibilities to the creative writer as well as the literary critic.

For the purposes of today’s workshop, we will be examining one of the early phases in the formula: Katabasis, or the hero/heroine’s descent. The archetypal story-pattern of quest and initiation is among the basic structures of fiction— from fairy tale to bildungsroman to adventure tale— as well as of nonfiction, such as travel writing and memoir. In that story-pattern, the act of katabasis, the descent to the underworld, wherever that may be located for the individual writer, is a key moment in the quest.

According to Campbell, the hero or heroine’s descent to the underworld is often preceded by a “call to initiation” and separation from family and home environment. This “going down into “ entails journeying into the deeps of the earth or into the depths of oneself, leaving the sunlight and the familiar terrain it shines upon to wander in darkness. It is a time of solitude and doubt; mourning and danger; anguish, fear, alienation, often estrangement from what we hold most dear: our sense of who we are. Thus do the mythic figures of Ishtar and Cybele; Gilgamesh, Aeneas and Ulysses enter the gates of the underworld; thus does Dante trudge through the freezing circles of hell in l’Inferno; thus does Marlowe journey up the Congo River in search of Mr. Kurtz, guessing where the rocks and shallows lie which might tear open the hull of his boat. Although we may not be deprived of our dominant sense of sight as we make our way through the murky underworld, we will be required to rely heavily on other senses, just like Marlowe: hearing, smell, intuition. Very often we require a guide, a map, precise instructions, a goal, to help get us out again, such as the golden branch Aeneas plucked from a sacred tree to use as his passport to Hades.

In this shadowy subterranean realm, the protagonist undergoes tests and trials and may be imprisoned or enslaved. He or she will encounter allies and enemies, lose a possession or receive a gift, find a treasure, discover his or her true origins, acquire knowledge, achieve liberation for him/herself or for another, ultimately to return to the light of day, transformed, and ready for a new stage in the journey to selfhood. It is easy to see how this formula underpins many fictional narratives from westerns to science fiction. It also appears disguised in many memoirs, too, in which quest, conflict, resolution, and transformation are the key the phases of their narrative structures.

Psychologists tell us that these journeys to the underworld are explorations of the individual or collective unconscious where we may encounter repressed and buried instincts, desires, emotions, secrets, and unacknowledged needs. It is the realm of chaos and the irrational, and yet a source of creative and vital power. It is home to what depth psychologist C.G. Jung called the Shadow, the dark side of the self that we cannot easily recognize because it contains repressed, negative and unfavorable aspects of ourselves which must be integrated into our greater self to achieve full realization of our inner nature.

For the ancient Romans and Etruscans, the underworld could be entered through caves, tunnels, and caverns. In other traditions, however, the inner realm of chaos and treasures need not necessarily be “under the ground”  —it may be beneath or across the sea, in a desert or forest, enclosed in a mountain or located at the top of a beanstalk. It is, however, outside the realm of immediate perception, hostile to human life, and often accessed by a magic entry existing within the ordinary world: In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, that door to the other world was behind old clothes hanging in a closet. As Rene Daumal writes in his allegorical novel, Mont Analogue, the door to the invisible must be visible.

In classical literature, the journey to the underworld sometimes requires preparation: instructions on what to do or not do, on when to be silent or to speak, and things to bring along: coins to pay the ferryman, oat cakes to throw to the ferocious three-headed dog Cerberus so that it will not tear the seeker to pieces. Sometimes an object or device is needed to find your way back again like the thread given by Ariadne to Theseus to lead him back out of the labyrinth in the myth of the Minotaur. Before penetrating into the other realm, there is usually a boundary to overcome (a river to cross, for example), and a gate keeper to be dealt with through cunning, negotiation, or combat. Once we get past the guardian, the journey may progress in stages. In the Mesopotamian myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld, the goddess was required to shed her veils and garments at each successive gateway until she reached the bottom stark naked, symbolizing that she had attained essential truth. Once we are all the way down we discover a world operating under its own laws.

The place may be extraordinarily beautiful, but somehow uncanny; or horrible and life-threatening with manifestations of extreme temperatures or a menacing landscape. It may contain an uncontrolled proliferation of natural forms relating to death, disease, and fertility as in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, or it may be strewn with treasures. It may be desolate or teeming with creatures human or otherwise, crowded with dead people and objects vanished long ago. Or it may take the form of an absolute deprivation, containing absolutely nothing.

As we manoeuvre this terrifying environment, we may encounter a helper to prepare us for the confrontation with the reigning entity: The Shadow. In classical literature the shadow was the Minotaur, Pluto, or other inhabitants of the underworld. It may also be a person, an animal, a form of addiction, self- destructive tendency —a fear— disease, an unpleasant side of ourselves, your evil twin. Whatever or whoever the shadow may be, it must be dealt with before we can go up again. Confrontation with the shadow is a dangerous undertaking that marks the hero’s or heroine’s initiation. At the resolution of this confrontation, we will receive a boon: power or knowledge to take back up again to the world we have left behind where we will emerge transformed.

Phase 2: Readings

The texts chosen for reading and discussion were two poems by A.E. Stallings dealing with the myth of Persephone taken captive in the underworld, “Hades Welcomes His Bride“ and “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother,” both contemporary reworkings of classical myths For the two prose passages, I first read a section of my own novel The Etruscan, in which the main character, a feminist photographer from the 1920s, slips, falls, and loses consciousness in an Etruscan tomb, only to wake up and find herself partially undressed in the presence of a strange man. The second reading passage was from Paul Bowles’ extraordinary story, Allal, influenced by Moroccan tales, in which a young man descends into the consciousness of poisonous snake after smoking kif, only to be trapped there, with very dire consequences for both himself and the snake.

Phase 3: The Writing Phase

Using the prompt below, we wrote short passages of descent. The workshop participants included Marina Gellona of the Scuola Holden, author of one of my sources and expert in fairy tales which spring from the same matrix as myth. More than a simple workshop, this was a seminar in which we all learned something new.

Writing prompt: write your own myth of katabasis

Using elements in your immediate environment, write a narrative of descent based on the patterns just discussed. It is important to emphasize that we need to feel free when working with myths, as indeed ancient writers did. If the exercise below seems schematic, you may vary, transgress, elaborate, or reduce as you wish.

  1. Create a character and the circumstances though which he or she finds himself alone, separated from family or community. Give him or her a goal to reach, a quest to fulfil, a problem to solve.
  2. Imagine the portal to your underworld. Situate it within something ordinary. In E.M. Forsters’ short story, The Celestial Omnibus the hero finds himself transported to literary heaven by a bus that leaves each day from the square at dawn.
  1. The portal is guarded by someone or something so that it is not immediately visible or perhaps not easily accessible. Identify and describe the guardian and give your seeker a means with which to deal with him/her/it. The guardian may simply be “an inability to see,” an obstruction due to a barrier in the outer world, or an inner barrier in the protagonist’s psyche
  2. Narrate the journey further down (or across or through), describing the passage across the threshold of the underworld. Focus on the moment of transition. What sense perceptions or landmarks signal entry into the other realm at the moment of transition? What concrete details might serve as the objective correlative of his/ her emotions?
  3. Describe the landscape of the underworld.
  4. Create an encounter with a helper or guide in any form.
  5. Meet the Shadow. Describe his/her physical appearance. What makes him or her so fearsome?
  6. Narrate the conflict and find a resolution. What gift or boon is given or withheld?
  7. Bring your character back into the light of day. How does he or she look at the world with different eyes?Author’s note:My research on myth and creative writing techniques was partly made possible by a career development grant from University Studies Abroad Consortium of the University of Nevada through which I was able to attend the Muses’ Poetry Workshop in 2011 organized by the Athens Poetry Centre in Athens Greece. I would like to thank them now for their generous aid.


Bowles, Paul. The Short Stories, New York: The Library of America, 2002. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1968.
DeNicola, Deborah (ed). Orpheus and Company: Contemporary Poems on Greek

Mythology. Hanover: University of New England Press, 1999.

Gellona, Marina. “Alone in the Wild Wood,” Acts of The Second International Conference on Creativity and Writing of the EACWP, University of Jyväskylä, 2010,

Kossman, Nina (ed). Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. OUP, 2001.

Lappin, Linda. The Etruscan. Galway: Wynkin deWorde, 2004. Kindle:

Lappin, Linda. Genius Loci: The Writer’s Guide to Conjuring the Soul of Place (forthcoming)

May, Adrian. Myth and Creative Writing. London: Longman, 2011.
Perera, Sylvia Brinton. Descent to the Goddess. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1981 Stallings, A.E. Archaic Smile. Evansville: The University of Evansville, 1999.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Los Angeles: Michael Wiese Publications, 2010.

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