In ancient Greek cult-practice and literature, a nekyia (ἡ νέκυια) is a "rite by which ghosts were called up and questioned about the future," i.e., necromancy. A nekyia is not necessarily the same thing as a katabasis. While they both afford the opportunity to converse with the dead, only a katabasis is the actual, physical journey to the underworld undertaken by several heroes in Greek and Roman myth.

In common parlance, however, the term "nekyia" is often used to subsume both types of event, so that by Late Antiquity for example 'Olympiodorus...claimed that three [Platonic] myths were classified as nekyia (an underworld story, as in Homer's Odyssey book 11)'.[1]


Questioning ghosts

A number of sites in Greece and Italy were dedicated wholly or in part to this practice. The Underworld communicated with the earth by direct channels. These were caverns whose depths were unplumbed, like that of Heraclea Pontica'.[2] The most notable was the Necromanteion in the northwestern Greek town of Ephyra. Other oracles of the dead could be found at Taenaron and Avernus. Such specialized locations, however, were not the only places necromancy was performed. One could also perform the rite at a tomb, for example. The gods associated with the nekyia rite include Hades and his wife Persephone, as well as Hecate and Hermes (in his capacity as psychopompus - one who escorted souls to Hades).

The Odyssey

The earliest reference to this cult practice comes from Book 11 of the Odyssey, which was called the Nekyia in Classical antiquity. Odysseus was instructed to 'make a journey of a very different kind, and find your way to the Halls of Hades...across the River of Ocean'.[3] There he consults the soul of the priest and prophet Teiresias about the means to return home to Ithaca, in a setting of 'ghosts and dark blood and eerie noises, like a canvas of Hieronymous Bosch'.[4] He sacrifices a lamb into a pit in order to let Teiresias drink from its blood, and meets and talks to the souls of dead heroes.

'The story of Odysseus's journey to Hades was further accounts of such journeys undertaken by other heroes', although it is clear that, for example, 'the katabasis of Heracles in its traditional form must have differed noticeably from the Nekyia'.[5]

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus features the use of tombside nekyiai in his Persians and Libation Bearers.


C. G. Jung used the concept of Nekyia as an integral part of his analytical psychology: 'Nekyia...introversion of the conscious mind into the deeper layers of the unconscious psyche'.[6] For Jung, 'the Nekyia is no aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis...its object the restoration of the whole man'.[7]

Jolande Jacobi added that 'this "great Nekyia" interwoven with innumerable lesser Nekyia experiences'.[8]

Night sea-journey

Jung used the images of the Nekyia, of 'the night journey on the sea....descend into the belly of the monster (journey to hell)', and of '"Katabasis" (descent into the lower world)'[9] almost interchangeably. His closest followers also saw them as indistinguishable metaphors for 'a descent into the dark, hot depths of the unconscious...a journey to hell and "death"' - emphasising for example that 'the great arc of the night sea journey comprises many lesser rhythms, lesser arcs on the same "primordial pattern"',[10] just like the nekyia.

The post-Jungian James Hillman however made some clear distinctions among them:

The descent of the underworld can be distinguished from the night sea-journey of the hero in many ways… the hero returns from the night sea-journey in better shape for the tasks of life, whereas the nekyia takes the soul into a depth for its own sake so that there is no ‘return.’ The night sea-journey is further marked by building interior heat (tapas), whereas the nekyia goes below that pressured containment, that tempering in the fires of passion, to a zone of utter coldness… The devil image still haunts in our fears of the unconscious and the latent psychosis that supposedly lurks there, and we still turn to methods of Christianism – moralizing, kind feelings, communal sharing, and childlike naivete – as propitiations against our fear, instead of classical descent into it, the nekyia into imagination… (Only) after his nekyia, Freud, like Aeneas (who carried his father on his back), could finally enter ‘Rome’.[11]

Cultural references

  • 'Thomas Mann's conception of the nekyia draws extensively from "the doctrines of the East...Gnosticism, and Hellenism"'.[12]
  • Jung considered Picasso's 'early Blue the symbol of Nekya, a descent into hell and darkness'.[13]
  • Nekyia is also a popular name assumed by numerous art projects and performance or music groups.

See also


  1. ^ Gary A. Stilwell, Afterlife 92005) p. 11
  2. ^ Felix Guirand ed., The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1968) p. 164
  3. ^ E, V. Rieu trans., The Odyssey (Penguin 1959) p. 158-9
  4. ^ M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (Penguin 1967) p. 164
  5. ^ E. Rohde, Psyche (2000) p. 244
  6. ^ C . G. Jung, Analytical Psychology (London 1976) p. 41
  7. ^ Quoted in D. R. Griffin, Archetypal Process (1990) p. 118
  8. ^ J. Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol (London 1959) p. 186
  9. ^ C. G. Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious (London 1944) p. 131, p. 156, and p. 220
  10. ^ Jacobi, p. 187
  11. ^ James Hillman, Dream and the Underworld pages 88, 168, 206 01 July 1979 NY HarperCollins Publishers Inc ISBN 13: 9780060906825 ISBN 10: 0060906820
  12. ^ E. L. Smith, The Hero Journey in Literature (1997) p. 343
  13. ^ R. Penrose/J. Golding, Picasso 1881/1973 (London 1973) p. 81

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Look at other dictionaries:

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