ABSTRACT

In my study, titled "Myths of the Underworld Journey in Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets: A Path Neither Simple Nor Single," I show how Plato, Aristophanes, and the creators of the gold tablets employ the traditional tale of a journey to the realm of the dead to redefine, within the mythic narrative, the boundaries of their societies in accordance with their specific perspectives and agendas. While scholars have often regarded the myths in these important texts as the relics of a faded ritual tradition or the products of ‘Orphic’ influence, I argue that the meaning of these myths can only be uncovered through a close analysis of the specific ways in which the author makes use of the tradition.

My analysis of the specific authors’ manipulations of myth provides a model of myth as an agonistic form of cultural discourse, a traditional language for the communication of ideas from the author to the audience, in which competing versions vie for authority. Each of these authors manipulates the traditional elements of the tale of the journey to the underworld in different ways to produce a narrative that puts forth the author’s perspective on the world, his understanding of the realities and idealities of the society in which he dwells. My study therefore provides not only insight to each of the texts studied, but also, through the comparison of the different uses of myth, a better understanding of the nature of mythic discourse in Classical Greek society.

The gold tablets portray the deceased on her way to the realm of the dead as a marginal figure, superior to the uninitiated masses that form the center of the society. Aristophanes, on the other hand, crafts his tale of the journey to the underworld in the Frogs so that he can redefine the boundaries of Athenian society to exclude the elements he sees as harmful and to unite the city in its hour of desperate need. Plato, in his myth in the Phaedo, manipulates the traditional elements not merely to depict the philosopher as superior to the unphilosophic masses, but to show forth a model of the cosmos that places the philosophic life not at the margins but at the center of society. I argue that the discourse of myth, for these authors, is neither a kind of sacred dogma nor a mere literary diversion, but rather a flexible tool that serves the wide variety of uses to which it is put.

In each chapter, I analyze the narrative presented of the journey to the underworld, taking the shared pattern of action of the otherworld journey as the basis for comparison between narratives. In each telling of this traditional tale, the story may be divided into narrative components of the obstacle that the traveller faces, the solutions by which he or she overcomes the obstacle, and the result which ensues. The selection of particular traditional elements for each component shapes the meaning of the myth according to the agenda of the author. I explore the ramifications of these selections for each text, and I argue that the wide range of uses for a limited set of elements and patterns demonstrates the flexibility of mythic discourse within the Greek tradition.