Sunday, October 16, 2016


The Land of No Return

M.L. West (1937-2015), The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (1997; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), pp. 154-155:
An aspect of the soul's journey below that is frequently emphasized is that it is to a place from which there is no returning. 'The Land of No Return', Kur-nu-gi4, was already established by the Sumerians as a common name of the underworld. It was taken over by the Akkadians, either as Kurnugi or translated as erṣet (or qaqqar) lā târi. Ishtar determines to go down
To Kurnugi, the land [of no return]...
to the house whose entrants do not go out,
on the road whose travelling is of no returning.225
The same idea is expressed in the Book of Job: ‘before I go, not to return, to the land of dark and blackness'; 'I shall be going the road I shall not return'.226 In Greek we may refer once again to Patroclus' ghost's visit to Achilles. Give me your hand, it says, 'for I shall not come back again after this, once you have given me my due of the fire'. Hesiod describes how the fierce hound at the entrance to Hades' house wags its tail at those who arrive but will not let any of them out again.227

The theme that there is no return from Hades recurs quite frequently in later Greek and Latin poetry. Anacreon makes use of it in lamenting his old age. Hades is a fearful hole, he says, καὶ γὰρ ἑτοῖμον καταβάντι μὴ ἀναβῆναι, 'for one who goes down there is likely not to come up'. The formulation is closely matched in another passage in the Book of Job, yôrēd Šeɔôl lōɔ yacāleh, 'one who goes down to Sheol will not come up'.228 It occurs much earlier in the Hittite ritual text which I quoted above, where the anger of the god Telibinu is sent by spells to the underworld: 'what goes in does not come out again'. The ghost of Darius is summoned up by incantations, but he observes that it was difficult to get leave:
It is not easy of exit
by any means; the gods below the earth
are better at taking than at letting go.
The Sumero-Akkadian 'land of no return' finds a later echo in an epitaph by Antipater of Sidon: 'you have gone to the no-turn, no-return region of those below'. When Catullus pictured Lesbia’s sparrow going per iter tenebricosum, illuc unde negant redire quemquam, he was no doubt aware that he was using a traditional motif, but he surely had no idea that it could be traced back through oriental literatures for some two thousand years before his time.229

225 Descent of Ishtar 1.5 f., cf. Gilg. VII 176 f., Nergal and Ereshkigal (SBV) iii 1; Tallqvist (1934), 15 f.
226 Job 10.21, 16.22; cf. 2 Sam. 12.23.
227 Il. 23.75 f., Hes. Th. 769-73.
228 Anacr. PMG 395.10-12 ~ Job 7.9.
229 Aesch. Pers. 688-90, Antip. Sid. Anth. Pal. 7.467 (Gow-Page, Hellenistic Epigrams, 536 f.), Catull. 3.12; cf. Eur. H.F. 431, fr. 868, etc.; my Studies in Aeschylus, Stuttgart 1990, 121.
See also M.L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 388-389.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?