Thursday, May 6, 2010

Descent Mythos


Today, in the twenty-first century, our blindness to the underworld appears to have intensified. Our culture’s aggressive denial of death is the complement to our equally aggressive pursuit of instantaneous transformation. Philippe Aries, who studied the evolution of western attitudes towards death, found that it took only 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century to uproot thousands of years of tradition. Death ceased being a commonplace, acceptable and social experience and instead became something "shameful and forbidden" (1974: 85). Baring and Cashford (1991: 159) point out that our attitude towards death had already undergone an enormous change much earlier, around 2500 BCE, when we lost the archetypal feminine perspective that acknowledges death-in-life which makes possible rebirth and transformation. Thus it is that contemporary people regard the slow, arduous journey into and through the underworld not merely as unwelcome, but as abhorrent....

Descent initiates the individual into a new role and a new relationship to life that is irrevocable. In fact, the individuality of descent might be evidence that humanity is moving beyond what Woodman and Dickson poetically describe as “Mother Mud” and “Father Law”—that miasmic and authoritative body of custom and convention that bind collectivities (1987: 181). Descent is a profound individuation process, which Jung defines as “fidelity to the law of one's own being” rather than the law of the collective, and the realization of our individual and unique wholeness (CW 17: 172, 173). It is a “high act of courage” that feels as inescapable as a law of God (175). Because individuation pits us against the collective, leaving us to sift through inherited values and beliefs to find authentic ones, it wounds. But that is not the end of it. To borrow Sylvia Perera’s lovely phrase, wounding creates “separations across which fresh passions can leap” (1981: 80). Trauma and passion are bedfellows.

The painful and forced separation of Demeter and Persephone is, of course, the trauma which sets the Hymn to Demeter in motion. We can see that Demeter’s hymn is the story of fresh passion created by two deep wounds, abduction and betrayal. Hades abducted the maiden but Zeus and Gaia were complicit in his action, Zeus by giving Persephone to his brother without Demeter’s permission and Gaia by “growing the narcissus as a snare for the young girl—a flower herself, as her mother says—instead of supporting Demeter against him, as might have been expected” (Baring & Cashford, 1991: 383). There is another erotic wound that is implicit in the Hymn, too, one that goes unmentioned: Hades’ longing for a consort and queen. Eros is a potent force throughout the Hymn; the visible passion of Demeter and the invisible passion of Hades are just two of many examples. Here, though, I will turn my attention to an even more ambiguous and possibly “invisible” force of Eros in the myth: Persephone’s passion in the underworld, as I first imagined it through reading the text and then as I danced it in a ritualized enactment of her journey.

To read more of this essay click here.

Excerpt taken from Embodying Persephone’s Desire: Authentic Movement & Underworld Transformation by Elizabeth Eowyn Nelson published to Mythopoetry Scholar Ezine vol. one January, 2010.

Professor Nelson is core faculty
PacificA Graduate Institute