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  • Persephone was rescued from the Underworld (for a little while) by Hermes, who brought her back to Demeter.
  • Eurydice was (almost) rescued from the Underworld by Orpheus.
  • Semele was rescued from the Underworld by Dionysus (with the help of Herakles).
  • Alcestis was rescued from the Underworld by Herakles, along with a bunch of other people.

It seems to be a common trope (at least in Greek mythology) for souls to be rescued from the Underworld, but only ever by a person or god who is still alive. So I'm curious: do any myths exist anywhere in Greek mythology of souls escaping from the Underworld on their own, or with the help of other dead souls? Any "prison break" myths of souls so slippery they escaped Hades and returned to the mortal world, or else who earn their release through a favor or deal with Hades?

And if not, do any other mythologies in that region (Roman, Egyptian, Phoenician, Sumerian, etc) have myths along those lines? Or was "you can't get out of the Underworld without help" an absolutely ironclad rule?

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I doubt that this has anything to do with Mediterranean cultures specifically. The myth of Izanagi/Izanami in Japanese Shinto is straightforwardly identical to the myth of Orpheus (only that the protagonists are gods in the Japanese myth).

Also Greek myths and other myths in the region could have been influenced by other previous non-Mediterranean cultures. In Mesopotamia there is the myth of Ishtar (one of the main goddess) that descends into the Underworld and gets trapped trying to find his lover and is later rescued by another person sent by Ea, another god. Other versions include somekind of periodic exchange similar to Persephone. The hero Gilgamesh also descended into the underworld to try to find his friend Enkidu.

Other similar stories from other parts of the world include the hero twins from Mayan' Popol Vuh and the hero Mwindo from Nyanga culture of Congo.

Note: I noticed that you included Sumer in your question, but I would not call Sumer a Mediterranean culture.

Edit: Concerning escaping the underworld without help, I guess the most well known case in Greek mythology is that of Sisyphus. After escaping death (Thanatos) once, Sisyphus ordered his wife to throw his death body in a public square. Sisyphus convinced Persephone that his wife was unrespectful and that he must go to the world of the living again to scold her. He did so, but did not return to the underworld and escaped. Of course, he was later killed by Zeus again and was punished for all eternity to push a rock on a hill up and back down again and again.

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  • It has to do with Mediterranean cultures because that's what I'm asking about. Japanese myths are interesting, but not relevant to what I'm looking for. I'm trying to find any instances in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Phoenician, Sumerian, or other neighboring mythologies. Sumer isn't directly Mediterranean, but it's close enough for my purposes. All your examples (Ishtar, Persephone, Gilgamesh, Mwindo, and the twins of Popol Vuh) were stories of LIVING people-or-gods going into the Underworld, while I'm asking specifically about souls escaping WITHOUT help from such living allies.
    – Nerrolken
    Sep 6 at 8:25
  • @Nerrolken I added the myth of Sysyphud, does that work for you? I will see what else I can find
    – Mauricio
    Sep 6 at 8:47
  • Yes, that's perfect! He escaped purely by his own guile, and successfully got back to the mortal world (at least for a while). If you've got any others, I'll take them!
    – Nerrolken
    Sep 6 at 8:55
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    @Nerrolken this probably does not count, but the monkey king Sun Wukong from legendary Chinese literature escaped underworld by erasing his name from the book of the dead.
    – Mauricio
    Sep 6 at 15:43
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Plato’s Republic includes the myth of Er, son of Armenius, in which Er avoids drinking the water of Lethe and so escapes from the underworld:

All the souls […] marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness [Lethe], which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness [Ameleta], whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. He himself [Er] was hindered from drinking the water. But in what manner or by what means he returned to the body he could not say; only, in the morning, awaking suddenly, he found himself lying on the pyre.

And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness [Lethe] and our soul will not be defiled.

Plato (c. 380 BCE). The Republic X. Translated by Benjamin Jowett (1888).

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Roman satirist Lucian of Somosata wrote of philosophers whose souls escaped from the Underworld. Names such as Plato, Socrates, even the founders of Stoicism which was popular in the second-century Roman Empire. They were angry with Lucian, who had placed himself as a character in this particular story. He had, in their eyes, insulted them and Philosophy herself. Of course Lucian denied this, and after meeting Philosophy and her followers Truth, Argument, and others, a trial was held in which our sharp-witted protagonist is vindicated. This is more in the realm of satire mixed with mythology, but I think that counts.

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Well, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is basically a manual for a deceased person to navigate the perils of the underworld to get to a place called "Double Ma'at" where the heart is weighed. But the journey to this place is full of monsters and demons. The deceased has to navigate this all by him/her self, with just the scrolls to guide. I guess that would qualify under your criteria.

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  • Unless I'm mistaken, that's more of a journey from one part of the underworld to another, correct? That's not an escape back into the mortal world.
    – Nerrolken
    Sep 3 at 6:57
  • AH, ok. I read "escape from the underworld" as "escape from the nasty realm" (called duat in Egyptian)
    – Codosaur
    Sep 3 at 7:49

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