This is an essay assignment I do with my Enriched students when we reach to point in The Odyssey where Odysseus makes a journey to the Land of the Dead. Students read a selection of Land of the Dead stories from a variety of cultures. The object was to examine each tale for what it showed about the culture and how those people attempted to answer the question of what happens after death. Each group created a poster for the story those particular students were working with; a selection of their posters is below.
Every culture across time and geographic location has, through its myths and legends, attempted to answer the question of where one goes after death. In the universal (across time and location) myth of the descent into the underworld, the hero finds himself an explorer in the province of death itself. Readers follow the hero as he faces in depth what man himself so fears. The hero is humanity’s hope in overcoming death and understanding its meaning.
Your task: Your group will be assigned one of the tales of the Descent to the Underworld from the Leeming text. After reading the tale and discussing its significance with your group members, you are to write an essay in which you discuss what mankind can learn about the afterlife from both this story and from Odysseus’ journey to the Land of the Dead in Book XI of The Odyssey. What comfort and/or warnings are divulged in each of these episodes of the night journey of the soul? CD’s will come from both the stories you’ve read and the Leeming essay.
Your audience: Fellow members of the human race who seek comfort in the “knowledge” of what may (or may not) come after death.
Selections from Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero
by David Adams Leeming
1. Inanna (Ishtar) Babylonian/Sumerian
2. Wanjiru African
3. Jesus Christian
4. Kuan Yin Chinese
5. Kutoyis Blackfoot Indian (Native American)
6. Hermodr and Balder Icelandic
7. Izanagi and Izanami Japanese
Before beginning the essay, each group will read and discuss the tale’s relevance to the topic. Each group will create a poster that depicts the hero’s journey to the underworld and explain what beliefs of that particular culture are reflected in the tale. Present to class giving a brief summary and discuss your findings. Remaining groups will take notes on what is presented.
Hint: Do not merely relate that the culture believed in an afterlife… that goes without saying. Also, do not say that the culture believed in honoring the dead or respected the gods… again, it’s obvious or these stories would not exist. What specifics from the tales can you share about the rituals described?