In the Underworld, Context is Everything [Free]

In every culture across time that we know anything about, there is a story about the underworld. The underworld as a place for the dead, but also as a place of great mystery.

The Greeks had their underworld, kinged by Hades and queened by Persephone. In first telling’s by Homer and other “poets” of Greek stories, it was one big place of a beautiful meadow, but then it developed over time. Virgil, in the Aeneid, divided it into sections: a place for great humans and demi-gods [Elysium]; a place where souls died from love, often unrequited [The Mourning Fields, introduced by Virgil in Aeneid]; a place for punishing bad souls, including those who simply angered the gods, and the Titans [Tartarus]; a place for all the rest of us [Asphodel Meadow].

I emphasize Virgil here because, of course I do. But also, because of what he does in the Aeneid – which is develop the myth further than earlier versions by having Aeneas journey into the underworld accompanied by a sibyl. Virgil, in this telling, creates distinct places for specific kinds of souls and includes stories of punishments of bad souls in the telling. [Fun Fact: We do not “see” the punishments, but Virgil has the sibyl tell Virgil of some of the tales.]

Which is what Dante, of course, does, too, in his telling of his trip to the underworld, also accompanied by someone. [More on this in the next Dreaming with Dante.]

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld; Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630s

Telling, retelling. Casting a story this way and then that.

As a species, because we are worried/obsessed/curious about death, dying and what happens after we take our last breath, the idea of an underworld or otherworld is profoundly woven into all our stories, into our sacred stories, into our everyday life, even.

The stories embedded into my Italian DNA are deeply connected to both Virgil and Dante, Greek and Roman Mythology and the sacred stories of the Catholic Church. My stories are also deeply embedded in the story soil of Ireland [my mother’s side of the family], which is also steeped in Catholicism but also Celtic stories that the Catholics tried to wipe out.

The stories of the world and the underworlds of our ancestors are, in fact, deeply in us. These stories, also, that are woven into our cultures are also deeply in us. Not just in my mishmash body, but in the mishmash of cultures that I have been born into which is the U.S.

Image: Molded Plaque, Bearded Underworld God,
Babylonian ca 2000-1600 B.C

I imagine so many stories of so many underworlds circling, clashing in our cultural consciousness. Richly. The underworld of so many different religions and peoples – Judaism, Muslim, Celtic, Buddhism, Ashanti, Norse, Yoruba, Filipino, Aztec, Hattian, Hinduism, Hawaiian, Maori, all the stories of the Original Peoples of the U.S., all the stories of the Original Peoples of Australia. I could go on and on – the point being that we have cultivated story about the underworld and changed them with the change of times and the desire to change history, the change of colonialism and cultural genocides.

But they are all still here. In the memories of our ancestors that we still carry, without language, in our bodies. In our imaginations.

All of this to say this – we have been handed, told, transmitted, heard so many stories about the underworld, all from people who were trying to understand death and dying. Trying to explain mysteries.

But they are all still here. In the memories of our ancestors that we still carry, without language, in our bodies. In our imaginations.

All of this to say this – we have been handed, told, transmitted, heard so many stories about the underworld, all from people who were trying to understand death and dying. Trying to explain mysteries.

And it is important to remember that the stories have always been in relationship to the stories that came before them. Often as a way to usurp a culture after conquest, often as a way to oppress. But always in relationship.

I think here of all the undercrofts of cathedrals I explored in Italy. How catholic and Christian churches built church buildings on sacred land, often on temples or places of worship, in a physical attempt to claim sacredness. I think here of how Christianity has taken the sacred texts of another religion and claimed them – the “Old Testament” with the “New Testament” rather than The Torah and Christian Gospels.

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What does this have to do with dreaming?

Both Freud and Jung turned to mythology, to fairy tales, to speak of “the unconscious” and to speak of the unconscious as akin to the journey into the underworld. These ideas woven into the ideas of working with dreams ever since.

The underworld is woven into the history of modern western thought around dreaming and psychology.

In this way of thinking, just as “heroes” in some mythologies journey to the underworld, so must each person. Just as “heroes” face into the darkness of the underworld, so must each person face into their darkness. Just “heroes” must go on the “heroes” journey – sometimes as laid out by Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, so must each person undertake their heroic journey.

Freud famously named his complexes after Greek mythology – Oedipal Complex [a boy who feels sexual possessive desire for his mother and wants to supplant, i.e., kill, his father] and the Electra Complex [a girl who feels sexual possessive desire for her father and wants to supplant, i.e., kill, her mother].

I also think of Jung and how his studies in mythology informed much of his work. Let’s look at one example – the idea of the anima figure for men. For men, work with an anima figure – which in Jungian terms is the “feminine” side of a man – has four levels which open him to “emotionality”. The four levels are Eve [from the Garden of Eden story in the Torah], Helen [from the story of Helen of Troy in Greek mythology], Mary [from the Christian story of the virgin Mary, mother of Christ] and Sophia [whose name derives from the Greek word for wisdom].

Eve who brought Adam’s fall, Helen who drove men to war, Mary who is an ideal [Christian] of the height of virtuous woman and Sophia, the height of wisdom. A man working through these levels, according to Jung, will open more to his creative, intuitive, spiritual self and thus bring these qualities to his life. He also famously wrote that to be “possessed” by the anima was dangerous for men: “The anima is therefore forced into the inner world, where she functions as the medium between the ego and the unconscious…”

She functions, then, for Jung in this context, to be a little like Persephone.

Yaksha Relief: Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Possibly Deopatan 8th-9th Century

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We all know the importance of mythology and how we are still so influenced and led by these ancient stories – from all the traditions, not just Greek mythologies, of course.

But what has been becoming clear for me, in all these writings I am doing here, is that to adopt/adapt ancient stories to who we are now, to try to use them as maps for the human psyche, without the important step of contextualization, creates a dissonance and even harm.

Harm. Yes. Jung’s use of the “levels” of anima work – Eve, Helen, Mary, Sophia – harken to ideals of femininity and idealism of the feminine dating thousands of years. Mary, the virtuous virgin, as an archetype for men learning their own “virtuousness” and aspects of the feminine in the male psyche is, well…is dangerous.

The utmost layers of being virtuous in the feminine is not about sexuality. The lowest levels of the feminine is not about sexuality.

But femininity and sexuality were completely intertwined when Jung came up with these theories, when Freud came up with his. Sexuality and the feminine were inseparable for these two men – and most men of their generations in Western culture. [And, yes, still even to this day.]

This is one way the stories they pull into their theories are out of context based on their relationship to women and gender. And therefore, their relationship to the stories. And therefore, their relationship to the understanding of dreams, gender, personal mythology in dreams.

Which also extends to the journey to the underworld. This journey, for Freud and Jung, was about going into the unconscious to have encounters with archetypal figures, including the ones they called anima and animus. It was not about going into the underworld of death, the place where souls went. It was about going into the world of the unconscious and experiencing, hopefully, a rebirth and what Jung called individuation.

But even this, based on mythologies, is out of context. No hero in most mythologies were “changed” or “individuated” by their journeys to the underworld. Odysseus is completely unchanged after he speaks to the dead in the Odyssey. Aeneas, too, in the Aeneid. Even when Aeneas runs into Dido [a queen he took as a lover and who helped him, which he then abandoned; in the story, she commits suicide after he leaves], he does not “change” but offers only excuses to her.

How is the hero’s journey to the underworld really akin to the journey our dreams take us into? It is an easy to equate the two, an easy route, that Jung and Freud took, using mythology and story. It is not entirely untrue, in some ways, too.

But it is out of context to the stories themselves. Out of context and twisted to mean something, twisted to “fit” a theory. Which also brings the fullness of the “truth” of the theories, for me, into question.

Image:  Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustav Moreau,1864

Here’s another example – back to Freud’s Oedipal complex. The story of Oedipus in Greek mythology is not one of a boy who desired his mother. The story is this – an oracle tells Oedipus’ parents that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, they ask someone to take the boy into the wild and leave him to die. But Oedipus does not die, and is, instead, raised not knowing his own parentage, his own story. So, when, as a young man he ventures into the world to make his name, he encounters a man who insults him on the road, they fight, and he kills him [his father]. So, when, as he continues his travels, he hears that a Sphinx is terrorizing a city and that the one to solve the riddle of the sphynx will be crowned king and given the queen as his wife, he does so. He does not know that the queen is his mother.

To lay a complex on the psyche of young boys named after such a story is, well, completely dissonant and out of context to the story and the culture from which it came and the narrative of a young boy growing up in western civilization hundreds and hundreds of years after it was put into words.

To lay a complex on the psyche of young boys named after such a story is, well, completely dissonant and out of context to the story and the culture from which it came and the narrative of a young boy growing up in western civilization hundreds and hundreds of years after it was put into words.

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How then do we work with mythology, the mythology even of Jung and Freud, ancient stories, sacred texts?

They do and can still resonate for us and our dreaming. But.

But.

But our dreams want to open us to different narratives, different types of “journeys”. They want to teach us the truest stories of our deepest selves. Sometimes dreams use mythologies, movies, books, sacred text stories in order to help us – because those stories live in us and have resonance with us.

But what of the other stories our dreams want us to learn, live [or acknowledge we live], experience. To own as mythologies that are just ours. That may be a mishmash of story, just as we are each a mishmash of story, but that are still uniquely ours.

Next: Most Mythologies were Not Really Made for Us.

All Images Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art