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Into the Otherworld with Radcliffe G. Edmonds III

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In this extended interview, we are delighted to pose a number of irresponsible questions to Dr Edmonds. We receive illuminating and careful answers which, while taking due care not to exceed the scope of our limited evidence, nevertheless help flesh out our picture of ancient otherworld-journeying in a number of important ways. We ask:

  • How special was Egypt was in terms of ‘cultural bricolage’ in antiquity?
  • What are we to make of the structural and other similarities and differences between katabasis-practices among the ancient Orphics (see Episode 23) and the ascent-practices found in later antiquity?
  • Why do we see such a notable shift in our evidence from the ‘downward’-oriented otherworld journey – the katabasis of the bronze age and Classical periods – to the ‘upward’ orientation of the Hellenistic and later ascent-journey?

Interview Bio:

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III is a scholar of religions and Paul Shorey Professor of Greek and Chair of the Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies at Bryn Mawr College. He has published widely on numerous fascinating ancient philosophical and religious subjects, notably Greek mythology and religions of the ancient Greek and Roman world, ‘Orphism’ and Orphica, especially the ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, magic in the Græco-Roman world, erōs in Greek culture, Greek social and intellectual history, and Plato and Platonic philosophy.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Achilles hobnobbing with Medea in the Isles of the Blessed: Scholia in Apollonium Rhodium, Argonautica 4.814 = Ibycus fr. 291 = Simonides fr. 558.
  • Aristophanes’ joke about the celestial afterlife: Pax 832-833.


  • Beck argues that Saturn is the Mithraic sun: Roger Beck. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, volume 109 of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Brill, Leiden, 1988.
  • Walter Burkert. Das Proömium des Parmenides und die “Katabasis” des Pythagoras. Phronesis, 14(1):1–30, 1969 [and see Episode 20].
  • Radcliffe G. Edmonds. Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
  • Sarah Iles Johnston on guides in apocalyptic vs. passwords in theurgic ascent: Sarah Iles Johnston. Rising to the Occasion: Theurgic Ascent in its Cultural Milieu. In P. Schäfer and Hans G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, volume 75 of Studies in the History of Religions, pages 179–80. Brill, Leiden, 1997, pp. 186-7.