Personal Underworld

A Personal Reflection of Descent with the Archetypes

“Eleanor Roosevelt said it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.
I say I would rather uncurse the dark.”
Poet, Judy Grahn

            This is my final class at Pacifica.  I started my journey at Pacifica when I was thirty-five years old and in about a month, I will be forty.  This is the time frame when Jung says most people go through a great transition that is often called a midlife crisis.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I now recognize that coming to Pacifica was a voluntary step into the descent of the midlife experience. I was happy with where I was in life but for some reason, I decided to pursue the crazy, far-fetched goal of a doctorate.  Like Inanna, I heard a calling and started my journey to the underworld.  

Going back to school didn’t make any sense, it was just something I decided one day to go for and talked to my family that agreed to support my decision.  My husband and I had been happily married for more than a decade, we owned a house in the mountains, had great neighbors and friends, we both held master’s degrees in our perspective fields, I had a good-paying job that I enjoyed, and after years of infertility – I had a son and was surprised to find out I was pregnant with our second child the same week I started Pacifica.  I had reached high noon and it was a good place to start the descent.

I exceeded the goals from my youth and was pursuing something I had previously felt was out of reach. Jung explains midlife with the image of the rising and setting sun. “After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illumine itself” (Jung, 109).  As an educator, it makes sense that to illumine myself, I would choose to go back to school.  Since midlife is a time of reflection, it would seem like it is a journey one should take alone.  However, “the journey into the unconscious – encountering, befriending, and integrating the shadow is not to be undertaken lightly” (Brewi and Brennan, 261) and I have learned that it is helpful to have guidance from people with experience and from the archetypes.  “Any descent I know or have heard of is disorienting, emotionally battering, depressing, full of anguish, shame, envy, and despair … May the telling of this myth of Inanna’s descent be a map for the initiate, a light of hope to those in the grip of despair and an orienting matrix to the climbers now ascending from the underworld’s dark torment” (Meador, 45).  Myths help us to see that we are not alone, that we are part of a larger world soul, and that others have grown and so can we.

There are many ways to approach the midlife transition but it seems the easiest is to enter the stage without resistance, seeking guidance from outside sources and mentors.  It is natural to want to resist midlife.  “Just as a childish person shrinks back from the unknown in the world and in human existence, so the grown man shrinks back from the second half of life.  It is as if unknown and dangerous tasks were expected of him; or as if he were threatened with sacrifices and losses which he does not wish to accept; or as if his life up to now seemed to him so fair and precious that he could not do without it” (Jung, 106).  Pacifica taught me to turn to the archetypes when I need understanding, guidance, or relief and included a library of archetypes with which to explore.  

While on the path to find myself through education, I had another, more extreme, transition into the underworld.  Education was still climbing but this was a true descent.  Like many marriages in midlife, mine suffered turmoil as we reevaluated our lives.  After a long period of tension, I discovered my partner since I was fifteen years old and the father of my two very young children was engaged in a long-term affair and using illegal drugs.  I was devastated but also liberated.  For the first time ever, I was my own.  I wasn’t my parents’ child or husband’s wife – I was myself, for myself.  Instead of dressing to please others, I chose clothes I enjoyed and made me feel good.  When I cleaned the kitchen at night, I did it because I liked waking up to a clean kitchen and I knew it would be clean when I woke up – it was for me and me alone and it was new and exciting and wonderful.  But that was only a brief reaction before the realization of divorce and custody and single income hit hard and again, the descent continued, and I considered staying with my husband and identifying heavily with Persephone.

Up to this point, I had been turning to the Amduat to model individuation, but I turned to Persephone for answers during my involuntary descent.  It felt harsh and cruel and violent like the rape and abduction of Persephone by Hades.  The descent with my marriage began before the violent psychic wound of the separation and included several gates of loss and pain as I was stripped and bowed low.  During the eight months of the affair and before, the relationship with my husband was strained from caring for two small children, each of us trying to build our careers, and my studies taking so much time and effort.  Also, the monthly trips to school that, because my daughter was nursing, also required my husband or mother to go to care for the kids during the day and caused great resentment from him.  School became a source of contention and I tried not to do any school work or reading at home.  I couldn’t make him love me and I blamed myself until I learned about his secret life.  Finding out was like seeing the image of a puzzle after working on it so long, it hurt but it made sense.  I was wounded deeply but had a decision to make – did I stay with Hades, the man that wounded me, in the underworld or return to my mother’s home like Persephone?  What was best for me? For my kids? I turned to Persephone.     

The thing that drew me to Persephone is that her mind is unknown.  I can’t help but wonder if she ate the pomegranate seeds on purpose, if she chose to stay with Hades but claimed it to be an accident to appease her mother.  Her transition is more like getting married and moving out of adolescence, but I felt like my choices in life were like her choices of Hades or Demeter – Queen of the Underworld or beloved child.  I literally felt like I could continue to live in hell with my husband but keep a nuclear family for my children or return to my family and friends who had become estranged as I isolated myself in my misery.  I read about Persephone a lot during the months I lived in limbo, not knowing if I would struggle with my Hades to stay married.  Persephone didn’t feel right though.  Staying with Hades was the unknown and the other was an attempt at return.  I was struggling to stay with the known life of Hades or setting off on my own.  I didn’t want to return to my life before I married my husband, living with my parents (and now two kids); I sought freedom. Also, Persephone doesn’t meet a shadow or encounter growth.  She stays in limbo between the two worlds. “Looked at psychologically, this woman is not taking responsibility for her shadow, nor is she taking into account the reality of her situation and then taking action to care for herself.  In renouncing that responsibility, she also renounces her own guilt and her own self-destructive activity” (Woodman, 32-33).   I realize that Persephone is not a successful archetype for me in this situation.   She is stuck between being her mother’s daughter or husband’s wife but not her own person.  I reflected on the first weeks of separation when I felt such great independence and realized Persephone’s lack of independence is not what I want from life and so, I moved on.

Inanna is the next archetype that deeply resonated with me relating to my transition and situation with my husband.  She hears a call and enters the underworld willingly.  “Inanna is an image of a mature, acculturated woman who voluntarily makes her descent.  Persephone, on the other hand, provides an image of descent through trauma and victimization.  Inanna is an image of a heroine and Persephone of a victim” (Hannan, iii). I had been wounded but I didn’t want to be a victim, I wanted to become stronger through my wounds.  Persephone and Inanna enter the underworld physically and return by the aid of an other but that is where the similarities end.  Inanna plans her descent and so prepares for her return if she should get stuck in the underworld.  Persephone does not choose descent and so has no plans for how to return.  While Inanna is helped by others, it is her actions and planning that is the cause for rescue.  Persephone is not just a victim, she is also passive.  She is taken down against her will and it is only through her mother’s will that she is returned.  Inanna’s maturity and strength made me see why Persephone was not a suitable match, she does not transform.  Inanna has wisdom.  She not only descends willingly, she does so with knowledge, with intention, and with safeguards.  Once Inanna is in the underworld, she faces judgement and death by her older sister, her shadow side, Ereshkigal. 

For me, the confrontation with the shadow and return to the upper world is the most important distinction between Persephone and Inanna.  One could argue that as Queen of the Underworld part of the year and young maiden the other, Persephone is the shadow half of the time, ego the other.  There is no union of the two and no growth – without growth, without change, she is the queen of the only thing that doesn’t change, the dead.   Like Persephone, I had been stuck in the underworld.  I had been torn down and left as rotting meat on a hook and I was searching for how to rise.  The Amduat which guided me so well into the voluntary descent of school, didn’t help me to see how to rise, especially from the involuntary descent.  It helped me to reach out to people, but I couldn’t follow Re’s ascent, I was blocked – stuck on a hook.  Inanna finally gave me a workable way to rise even though we would have different endings. I could not reconcile with my husband, but his descent is very much like Dumuzi’s descent, first into nature and then into the family feminine.  Like Inanna, I did not climb out of the underworld unscathed and like Inanna, my story doesn’t end with a return to the upper world.  “The galla, or demons of the underworld, cling to her side as she ascends from the underworld.  The journey back to the upper world can be disorienting, and like the return of the repressed, demons may accompany a woman until she has learned how to integrate, accept, and live with her new consciousness” (Hannan, 202).  Inanna’s story ends happily as she has an elevated status, she experiences growth and alignment, and she reconciles with Dumuzi.  It isn’t her outcome that mad her story happy.  It is that in the end, she was whole, she would be okay with whatever life held because she knew her own strength. 

Since I want to rise like Inanna, I need to learn from how she faces the shadow and rises.  “From a psychological perspective, Inanna’s privileged and entitled position is achieved at Ereshkigal’s expense, just as everyone’s sense of self is created through defining what one is not, which creates the shadow” (Hannan, 195).  To face the shadow, Inanna must be humbled, stripped naked, and bowed low.  “All that Inanna had achieved on earth weighs against her when she meets the woman at whose expense Inanna’s glories had been attained” (Wolkstein and Kramer, 158) just like when we are faced with our shadow side.

I don’t know if I could have had a full midlife transition without the added trauma of divorce.  To face my shadow, I had to be stripped completely.   I had to lose my attachments, to my marriage, to my identity, to my home, and even to time with my children.  I started this paper wanting to show how Inanna is helping me to rise from the underworld, but I am still in process.  It was only a couple weeks ago I was finally able to accept that I may only get to be with my children half of the time.  This attachment is what almost kept me in the underworld with Hades.  Time with my children was the hardest attachment to let go of and it is still difficult but letting go has made it easier.  Since I am no lost that final attachment, I can move forward without fear of loss.  The last line of the poem reads, “Holy Ereshkigal! Great is your renown! Holy Ereshkigal! I sing your praises!”  To rise, it is necessary not to just face the shadow, not just accept the shadow, but to praise the shadow.  For example, to lose my attachment to time with my kids, to have that stripped down, I had to embrace my shadow.  Since my children have been born, I have made them my top priority, even to the detriment of my other relationships.  Mom was my main identity.  I was many other things but always mom first, until now.  Since I can’t have my kids with me all the time; I was forced to realize I like the weekends I get to be on my own.  I like being an adult and doing things independently.  Just walking along a street is different because I am only responsible for my own well-being.  I had to admit that I enjoy my time without the kids.  I plan things for those times and if they were with their dad more, I would do even more with MY time.  That was a shadow aspect for my personality I had to praise to allow me to accept whatever outcome the court decides for custody.   

Meador wrote that the woman ascending has become a new mixture of Inanna and Ereshkigal, she must hold her same roles in her fuller way.  She has been transformed by her ordeal and can see clearly with the “cutting eye of death, which bores through superficiality, sentimentality, and manipulative self-serving” (107).  The woman has lost her innocence and faith in others and must navigate the world with loving kindness and skepticism.  “Ereshkigal symbolizes the instinctual and primitive level of the psyche that gets tamed by developing a civilized ego” (Hannan, 194) and by embracing that side of ourselves, we are embracing that which society deems inappropriate.  Sylvia Perera wrote about the women that have thrived in patriarchy, that have had successful personas, tend to be “filled with self-loathing and a deep sense of personal ugliness and failure when we can neither meet nor mitigate the superego’s standards of perfection” (11).  To embrace the feminine, for these women, is to embrace the shadow and to negate that which made them who they are in a patriarchal society. 

For now, I do not have an answer but will take my cue from those that have gone and studied before me.  Meador says the answer is to “tap the creative gift she brought from below and invent ways to present her newfound awareness … Hopefully she will find other travelers on the same road to accompany her on her way” (108).  I will give praise to Ereshkigal and embrace my shadow and my feminine and find good friends to travel the journey with me.  I learned to lean on my friends and family and be the person they can lean on in turn.  I learned to be my true self because that is the self that the true friends love; the Inanna that contains Ereshkigal, the Re that holds Osiris, and the conscious reunited with the unconscious.  To Ereshkigal be praised, to my Pacifica experience be praised, and to the next half be praised.

Works Cited

Brewi, Janice, and Anne Brennan. “Emergence of the Shadow in Midlife.” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. By Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: Putnam, 1991. 260-61. Print.

Hannan, Hollie. “Initiation through Trauma: A Comparative Study of the Descents of Inanna and Persephone: (Dreaming Persephone Forward.” Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2005.  

Jung, C.G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1955. Print.

Meador, Betty. Uncursing the Dark: Treasures from the Underworld. Wilmette: Chiron Publications, 1992. Print.

Perera, Sylvia Brinton. Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Inner City Books, 1981

Woodman, Marion. Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride: A Psychological Study. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009. Print.

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