Womb and Tomb: the Undiscovered Country

Imagine this: you are walking with your tribe across the plains of the Savannah. Predation is a fact of life; you are surrounded by carnivores, and you are your kind are walking meat snacks.

Especially if one of you stops walking…

What do you when one of your own stops moving, becomes inanimate*, falls to the ground? What do you with death, especially when carrion hunters abound?

This is conjecture, but I for one wouldn’t want to attract the attention of hungry monsters.

I would want to hide the meat…

*[in-animate, from the Latin anima, “a current of air, wind, air, breath, the vital principle, life, soul”]


100,000 years ago, we have records of intentional human burial.

The site in question is in Israel, specifically at the site of Qafzeh, where 15 Homo Sapiens were found in a cave. This was ritualistic, as many pieces of red ocher (as well as ocher stained tools) were found near the bodies [further info: Smithsonian Institute, link: https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/burial/qafzeh-oldest-intentional-burial].

In other words, Grave Digger might be the worlds’ second oldest profession.

Which makes sense; life and death, or as comparative mythologists/anthropologists like to call it, Womb and Tomb, appear to be the two most human stories; the Womb is love and sex…the Tomb is what follows.


Birth implies a descent, a passage out of darkness, into light.

We are born (barring Cesarean section babies) headfirst.

The so-called ‘Nekyia’, or more precisely ‘Katabasis’, describes a continuation of the process, only here we go from the light, back into the dark.

This is a technical distinction; Nekyia refers specifically to summoning the dead, i.e., ghosts. It can best be translated as necromancy, but in its broadest sense, it has also come to mean any underworld journey, assuming it is a two-way trip.


In Sumeria, Innana made the descent to visit her sister.

In the Greek world, we have Persephone, Heracles, Odysseus and Orpheus (and if you’re feeling satirical, I highly suggest the Roman Nekyia of Mennipus, which is decidedly tongue-in-cheek).

In the Americas, Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué made their way through Xibalba in the Popol Vuh.

In India, the sage Markendaya had his own Nekyias, both in dealing directly with Death (Yama) and finally, at the End of Time.

And in an extra-Biblical tradition, there is the Harrowing of Hell, in which Jesus Christ descends to liberate the Patriarchs (who were sent to Hell by virtue of having not been Christian, a rather odd epistemological paradox).

This is a very, very short list.


Katabasis is a broader term, which means any descent, be it military, psychological, or spiritual.

So, when we bury our dead, does the journey end? Or is the Katabasis just the beginning?

How important is ritual preparation to ensure the safe journey?

The answers to these – and many other questions – can be found by studying religion.

One could argue that religion, in all of its manifestations, is really just our way of dealing with the “Undiscovered Country”, the afterlife as Shakespeare describes it in Macbeth:

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of? 
-Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, Bill Shakespeare


The take-away?

Bill didn’t have a lot of faith.

But that’s beauty of the Undiscovered Country:

It doesn’t care what kind of ride you think you’re getting on.

The point is, as soon as you took your first breath, you got in line.

Your ticket was prepaid, bought buy some hidden, mysterious booth master(s).

Like it or not, it’s got your name and number in bold print.

And there’s no easy way to cut in or out.

So, to quote the late, great Bill Hicks:

Enjoy the ride!

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour Glass, by Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1671. Tessé Museum, Le Mans, France.

One thought on “Womb and Tomb: the Undiscovered Country

  1. What a fascinating piece! I will have to remember the term “Nekyia.” Underworld journeys appear in so many mythologies, and it’s nice to have a term that links this diverse group of tales. I wonder if it has to be specifically the land of the dead or if any otherworld counts? I’m thinking of Pwyll from Welsh mythology who trades places with Arawn, king of Annwn for a time. Then there’s Kōga Saburō in Japanese myth, who travels through some sort of underworld (but I’m not sure if it’s Yomi, the official land of the dead) and experiences a kind of rebirth as a serpent on returning to the living world.

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