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Ode to the Underworld: Nekyia, Katabasis, Shadow Work, & Dark Nights of the Soul

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“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” -C.G. Jung

As the fall turns to winter and stupid Daylight Saving Times makes 7 p.m. feel more like 2 a.m., I naturally feel the inward pull. I crave more time alone and find myself making a descent into myself for more quiet and solitude. I find myself making certain foods and rearranging things in my apartment as if preparing myself for a journey alone.

The word “underworld” often makes people uncomfortable, and rightfully so. In a society where we do our best to ignore and avoid the darkness and the idea of “hell,” the term doesn’t exactly make people jump for joy. Like many kids growing up in the 80s and 90s my first image of the underworld or descent began with “The Neverending Story” and the Swamp of Sadness. The tearful pleads of Atreyu begging Artax not to let the sadness consume him, still make me want to cry. Basically, the horse dies because he gets sad, if that isn’t a devastating reminder not to feel a bad emotion, then I don’t what is.

However, mythologies and stories across the world have characters that go into the underworld or make a descent. In scholar Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, the descent into the underworld occurs during the second phase of initiation that includes trial and quest, death, and descent into the underworld. These series of events occur right before the revelation and rebirth of the hero. In ancient Greeks this process of descent into the underworld was called the “katabasis.” Etymologically it comes from katabatos a combination of kata meaning “down” and bainein “to go, walk, or step). For them katabasis and descent also includes an ascent or going back up. If this did not happen it was just death, like poor Artax.

Some of my favorites stories of the descent and underworld are of the course the ones that involve female characters. (More on those at another time, and the differences between the masculine and feminine descent processes, though my favorite book on this topic is Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Brinton Perera) Perhaps one of the most famous goddesses of descent is Persephone who was pulled down into the Underworld by Hades or raped, though in some versions she willing went with Hades below. Other mythologies include Sedna, an Inuit tale of a woman who drowns and parts of her body become the sea mammals. However, my favorite is the Sumerian tale of Inanna, a true heroine and wild woman who enters the underworld to serve her kingdom and then becomes a master of both the upper and underworlds and everything in between. (More on her here)

Psychologically, going into the underworld has a very clear purpose, to initiate and integrate the polarities with us, but also to explore the unconscious or shadow aspects of self. C.G. Jung named this process after the Greek word nekyia from the Odyssey. It is a time to remember the union of opposites inherent in ourselves…our darkness and light, above and below, inner and outer. The descent process and nekyia process is in Jung’s words, “descent into the dark world of the unconscious.”

The unconscious being the things about ourselves that we don't we don't know...everything we are not consciously aware of. Often because they are aspects of ourselves we have forgotten or repressed as we were told on some level they were appropriate or good. This journey into the unconscious may also bring us face to face with our shadow, and I won't attempt my own words as Jung say it best,

“The shadow goes by many familiar names: the disowned self, the lower self, the dark twin or brother in bible and myth, the double, repressed self, alter ego, id. When we come face-to-face with our darker side, we use metaphors to describe these shadow encounters: meeting our demons, wrestling with the devil, descent to the underworld, dark night of the soul, midlife crisis.”

While Jung used the term nekyia and katabasis interchangeably, psychologist James Hillman had a clear distinction. For him, Nekyia was “night sea journey” while the katabasis was the journey to the lower worlds. However, both Jung and Hillman believed it was helpful to have a guide and be led downwards as it can be scary to face the shadowy underworld alone.

St. John of the Cross is credited with the term “Dark Night of the Soul” that has inspired psychologists and theologians alike. While he speaks specifically to an existential experience of the soul on the path to divine union and spirituality, I feel it honors the painful feeling separation from oneself and creator. An experience many of us feel on our spiritual journey to wholeness that often takes us to the underworld and the unconscious. Jung believed the Dark Night of the Soul was a borderline experience or spiritual emergency in the words of Stan Grof, that was a necessary part of the coming to wholeness.

Fear of entering the underworld and unconscious is normal, it takes courage as the dark nights of the soul can be long (especially in the winter). It may feel like death as we have no idea what we will encounter, however, the past several years I have become underworld enchanted and now, few things intrigue me more than the inner workings of my own psyche. I think of myself as a soul spelunker who enjoys exploring the depth and complexity of my being. I find it endlessly fascinating to understand why I do the things I do an attempt to reveal and encounter the parts of myself I don’t yet know through the unconscious.

Even though I am nourished by the descent, I still get nervous of what might come up, what parts of myself I haven’t paid attention to that will start screaming. What elements of my shadow that I have disowned and then may have to come face-to-face with. Then I hear the voices of Persephone, Inanna, and Sedna, reminding me that the descent isn’t just into the darkness, it is into intimacy itself.

Without witnessing our innermost core we can hide from ourselves and others. For me, the meaning of life stems from this exploration…what we need, who we are, what we hide. The place of this exploration the unconscious and the beautiful treasures that await below are our life’s work. It can be a painful process or full of beautiful mysteries, but an imperative journey to take if we are ever to become fully ourselves. And if we are really lucky with our time below, we may even perhaps become friends with the Swamp of Sadness.

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