I have never doubted for a moment the universal importance of symbols and of myth. Myth-making like religion-making, like poem-making, like novel-making and indeed like science-making is quintessentially about making meaning. What separates the human animal from his brothers and sisters among other animals is this very thrust to meaning. We are meaning-making animals, and we weave our myths in the sciences as well as in the arts. I shall return to what I mean by this very loaded and controversial sentence when I get some time in a future post to explicate the nature of myth. Here, I wish to expatiate on the image or symbol or myth of the underworld. In this respect I am continuing my engagement with existential psychotherapy and with some little reference to the great contemporary psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Dr Irvin D. Yalom.
Here, I do not wish to discuss its meaning with reference to any notion of an afterlife at all. Rather, in the tradition of Freud and Jung and others I wish to discuss its reality, perhaps even its genesis, in mythology or in dreams or in both, whichever came first - or perhaps, indeed, they emerged simultaneously. For me it is the world of shadows where life is not life as we know it as Dr Bones McCoy used have it in the first great inimitable Star Trek. The underworld presents us with beings who live a very mysterious or shadowy life indeed. On-line encyclopedias put too much emphasis on the reference of this underworld to the afterlife, which to my mind is a sort of "Christian reading-back-into" the pagan myths. I could be wrong in this contention, but there it is nevertheless. If anything this shadowy world was more of a hellish place than a heavenly one to my mind. To that extent, it could certainly be a very dystopic reality, that is the direct opposite to a utopic reality. There conditions of life would be miserable and characterized by poverty, oppression, war, violence and/or terror, resulting in widespread unhappiness, suffering, and other kinds of pain, whereas the latter, Utopia, represented an ideal society, where justice and peace and equality ruled the day.
Sometimes the underworld is identified as "Hell" because Hell/Hades is thought to be under the Earth. Hence we read in many myths and in much of the literature of the world about the descent into the underworld. Such an image as this which occurs again and again is called a mytheme in the study of mythology, that is one of the most basic units in any study of myths. Here is what the WIKI says on this interesting topic:
The descent to the underworld is a mytheme of comparative mythology found in the religions of the Ancient Near East up to and including Christianity. The myth involves the death of a youthful god (or goddess: Persephone, Inanna, for instance) who is a life-death-rebirth deity, mourned and then recovered from the underworld by his or her consort, lover or mother. (See here: Underworld)The most famous story about the descent into the underworld is that of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. While fleeing from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), Eurydice ran into a nest of snakes which bit her fatally on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus travelled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following and in his anxiety as soon as he reached the upper world he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.
Thoughts on an Image:
The image of descent, then, or "going down" is very significant. As I write I think of the many resonances in my mind of what "going down" means: sexual, carceral, spiritual and philosophic. It is interesting to muse (I suppose that's the way one amuses oneself!) upon that famous Irish film "I went Down" (1997 - nearly 13 years ago - Good God, how time flies!) has the same resonances, too. That's the famous film that was directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Conor McPherson that starred Brendan Gleeson, Peter MacDonald, Peter Caffrey and Tony Doyle. If you haven't seen it, get your hands on it and feast your eyes - the photography is done by Cian de Buitléir - Éamonn's son. Anyway, it's no surprise that McPherson should use such a connotative title as after all he is an M.A. from U.C.D. no less. I seem to recall from my distant philosophical studies that a few of the Platonic classics begin with the words "I went down" or, at least, certainly contain that motif. "Going down" is all about purification, all about renewing one's spirit, all about dying, or at least learning from experience to come to terms with what dying and death is all about.
Okay. Let me talk about illness now for a while. I have recalled my own illness when I was forty already many times in these pages, so I shan't bother the reader with it here again. However, I will remind you that anyone who has ever been seriously sick, and who has recovered that they face the world anew. They begin to see things from a different perspective, from a different optic, from a different viewpoint. They begin to live each day as if it were their last, or perhaps better, as if it were their first (just a change in perspective again!) You only get one chance at life, and if it's nearly taken away from you, you begin to value it more dearly. And so our sicknesses and our illnesses bring us down, and we should not struggle too much against them, but go with them, and then when it is time, we then begin to fight back and recover. You see, our illnesses teach us many lessons. It is said that the great Romantic poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and most certainly poor young John Keats could have written volumes on the subject. The Illnesses of The Romantic Poets would make a great title for a book. I wonder has it been written yet?
And then, our dreams come into play here. I suppose, to some extent, we dream with greater intensity when we are sick. Ask anyone who has been in hospital, or who has gone under a serious operation. Most of them dream very clearly indeed. In other words, dreaming is all part of the "going down" into the unconscious. I have written many posts about Freud in this blog prior to thus and you can hit the link for him on the right side of this blog to read more about this great man, one of the major founders of modern civilization with the great theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, who refused to let the great doctor psychoanalyse him, as like Joyce with Jung, he was afraid his gift of genius might abandon him. Our dreams tell us much about our fears and when we write them down, dialogue with their images and their meaning we become stronger and stronger. We begin to be able to face our fears head on, begin to be able to face and indeed fight our demons - again this is the really deep meaning of the myth of St George's slaying the dragon. We all have to become our very own St George and slay our very own dragon. Or, once again, let me use another image or metaphor - we all have to become our own David and slay our very own Goliath. Indeed, this last image came to me in a wonderful dream after I had stood my ground against a bully six years back. When I awoke and wrote the dream, and dialogued with the meaning of the image, I confirmed myself in my actions. I grew stronger. A few nights ago I dreamt that someone who is close to me had died, but I knew that he had not physically died. What had died was what he represented in my dreams. In like manner, I have already dreamt about the deaths of my mother and father, long before either of them had or have died. (My father dies in 1993, RIP, and my mother is still alive at 93, though she is completely happily demented, and smiles all the time because every minute of the day is new to her as her memory is wiped totally clean!)
And so "going down" to the underworld is not that bad at all. It's like jumping in at the deep end of the swimming pool without knowing how to swim - the wrestling with the water is frightening, but if we think rationally and let go our fear, we become calmer and can manage a few stokes to eventually bring us to safety.
In short, ascent or descent in dreams, often express direction in life. Ascent represents aspiration and achievement; descent may represent decline or failure, or it may refer to the transition into unconsciousness. Stairs can stand for deliberate, step-by-step advances, escalators for steady progress, lifts for instant transitions. If dream ascents or descents are interrupted or reversed, this can imply a need for the dreamer to reflect upon his or her life, or to try to change the direction in which he or she is moving.