Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness

The Return of Persephone (1891) by Frederic Leighton for descent post

 

As the siege of global instability continues, many of us are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and despair. From the beginning of human history, upheaval and change have sent entire populations into states of helplessness, frustration, exhaustion, and fear. If you are currently being derailed by powerful feelings, please know you are not alone. Your feelings are not to be disregarded or dismissed. Our lives and our planet are being shaken by enormous shifts. The good news is that we have the capacity to adapt and transform.

When we feel powerless and overwhelmed, how can we reawaken our spirits, uncover new possibilities in intractable problems, and enliven our sense of hope? Where can we find new resources to meet the challenges of our time?

Echo and Narcissus (detail) (1903) by John William Waterhouse for descent blog postOur deep human past may hold the answers. Ancient myths—so crucial to every thriving civilization—remind us of who we have been, what we have learned, and how we have prevailed. Myths offer deep insight about human travails, illustrate the internal and external obstacles we encounter on the road to developing resilience and show where we can find help. Refined and retold over millennia, they are nutritive stories that feed us an infusion of trustworthy and eternal wisdom.

Imagine the world’s great myths as a vast library containing a record of human hardship and struggle, heroic undertakings and surprising rewards. Mythic stories depict archetypal, universal themes concerning our most basic instincts and emotions—fear, greed, bravery, family relationships, power, injustice, conscience, our relationship to nature and the natural world—situations and dilemmas not unfamiliar to our modern psyches. These myths survive, sometimes in the form of popular entertainment, and continue to absorb us.

They highlight issues that are still ripe in our lives. An entire industry exists to mine ancient myths for television and movie scripts. Consider how stories about family rivalries, sibling jealousy, corrupt leaders, dissolving empires, and alien invasions fill our imaginations. The old myths reappear in new forms, often so disguised we barely recognize them. Narcissism, a mental health diagnosis much discussed in public forums during the past four years, is a term derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. To return to the original myth is to understand the tragic and sorrowful story of a beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection in a spring and, unable to love others, dies pining for his own image.

The underworld and overworld. Both have always existed—in myth, dream, and reality. In our lifetimes we navigate each domain, the dark and the light. Lately, I’ve been investigating what the metaphor of descent, a common motif in myths, might reveal.

"Jona in the whale" (2010) by Janny Brugman-de Vries in Groningen, the Netherlands.Descent into the underworld appears in many myths as part of a transformative process that is an initiatory rite for our souls. “Katabasis” is the Greek term used to describe “going below.” To go below means to be separated from the daylight ordinary world. Symbolically, it signifies being cut off from one’s usual resources and helpers; it means finding a way to see and respond when the familiar falls away. (Imagine Jonah in the belly of the whale or Alice down a rabbit hole.)

Storyteller and mythographer Michael Meade reminds us that in the underground, in the darkness and unfamiliar territory of “below,” renewal occurs. Meade points out that in myths, going beneath the earth can be understood as gaining access to forgotten, secret or hidden wisdom buried in our depths. What may feel to us as “being in the dark” is a sacred space deep within us rich with new or cut-off energies.

“Wisdom can reveal the light hidden in dark times; but it requires that we face the darkness in ourselves. People may desire pearls of wisdom, yet most are unwilling to descend to the depths where the pearls wait to be found. Wisdom involves a necessary descent into the depths of life, for that alone can produce ‘lived knowledge’ and a unified vision.”—Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny

The depths in the subterranean basement of our unconscious are where archetypal and instinctual knowledge percolate. Think of seeds incubating beneath the soil, stirring with new life, or the multitude of invisible creatures at work preparing the soil for regeneration. Think of dream images that come in the midnight hours to awaken our curiosity and bring fresh insights to our conscious minds.

The Rape of Proserpine (ca. 1650) by Simone Pignoni (1611–1698) for descent blog postA classic Greek myth that features descent as one of its key motifs is the story of Demeter and Persephone. Attributed to Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” recounts the story of the rape and abduction of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. The myth has many variations and interpretations, but simply told, the story unfolds as follows:

One day while Persephone is picking flowers in a meadow, the ground beneath her begins to shake and splits open. From the crack in the earth emerges Hades, driving his horse-drawn black chariot. Hades, most powerful god of the Underworld, brother of sky god Zeus, kidnaps the young maiden and drags her into the depths.

In the above world, her mother, Demeter, grief-stricken, flies across the land inconsolably crying out for her child. As the goddess of harvest and grain, Demeter’s lamentations and rage at Zeus for allowing this event to happen cause a blight over the earth. Crops wither, fields go fallow.

Persephone’s cries for help fade. Soon the mother can no longer hear her daughter. In the Underworld, the daughter can no longer hear her mother. Here the descent is neither expected nor made by choice. It is a brutal act of male power and privilege. But does the story convey a truth? In life as in myth, we must separate from the all-embracing, all-protective mother love.

Persephone holding a pomegranate (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti As the story resolves, Zeus pleads with Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agrees but tricks Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed, an act that consigns her to have to return to live with him for one-third of every year as Queen of the Underworld.

The violent separation and ultimate reuniting of Demeter and Persephone have many dimensions: it can be seen as a story about the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, about maternal love that is too binding, and about a daughter’s need for maternal love juxtaposed to her need to discover her own resources and strength.

Our descent into the “below” might feel like death, as depression sometimes does. Life, energy, the ordinary world might feel forever lost and irrecoverable, but the great myths tell us otherwise. A descent is often followed by an ascent. When we return to the upper world, we bring with us new life. This is the meaning of Persephone’s reunion with Demeter.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone feels particularly relevant at this time. Many of us, myself included, are looking for wisdom to be garnered when we are plunged into darkness. Inhabiting this troubling new terrain, our vision must adjust. In the underworld, the future is murky and unknowable, but the myth is a reminder that the stolen daughter does not die in Hades—she escapes, matures, and thrives. She learns to see in the dark.

We are not given details about Persephone’s experience in Hades, except that she obediently serves her four months as Queen of the Underworld. What does she see below? What does she learn in the darkness? I’ve always wondered what riches, what gems, what secrets might be visible in the strata beneath the earth.

Close your eyes for a moment. What do you see in the dark?

Persephone is allowed to return to her mother for two-thirds of the year, her annual emergence generating the springtime renewal and flourishing of the land. Like the natural world, like history itself, we, too, experience cycles of flow and dormancy, depression and aliveness. We might take from this a lesson about patience with ourselves as we explore new, unfamiliar, and even frightening dimensions of ourselves in a world turned upside down.

The next time you feel the tug of despair or an encroaching mood about to pull you below, the next time you are tempted to lament our dark times, remember how the terrible winter of Demeter’s grief was followed Persephone’s re-emergence into the world, and with her, the blossoming of the trees and fields.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



The Imposter Syndrome and Your Hidden Self

The Pilgrim by Magritte for Imposter Syndrome blog post

Like many writers, I let my curiosity lead me to my next subject of exploration, and lately, I’ve been mighty curious about what’s commonly called the Impostor Syndrome. Leaving aside those afflicted with malignant narcissism, who doesn’t have moments when they feel like a fake?

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome refers to those who are unable to internalize and accept their success. Rather than owning their ability to achieve, they believe their success is due to luck or some other external factor, and fear they will be unmasked as a fraud. Men and women suffer equally from this debilitating condition. Minority groups, those raised in families that expect high achievement, and perfectionists are more at risk.

But let’s look beyond psychological origins and feel inside the experience itself.

Maya Angelou for Imposter Syndrome1. Secrets: “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” —Louise Glück

To be caught up in the Impostor Syndrome is to house a secret self we fear is inadequate. We are terrified we are phonies. We are terrified this fraudulent part, concealed beneath a competent exterior, will be revealed. Our inner dialogue proceeds like this:

“Only I know that within the shell of the person called X, whom everyone thinks is reliably bright and capable, is the woeful, cringing real “me.” Others may call me smart, intelligent, even a genius, but I know the truth; I know what they see is an invention, a made-up self.”

The burden of living with a split sense of self and the fear of being discovered requires constant vigilance and takes an emotional toll. Anyone who has kept a toxic secret knows the high cost it exacts. Hiding what shames us consumes energy and requires continual fueling to succeed. Fed by an internal pressure to prove our worthiness, by anxiety and anticipatory dread, we get caught in a frenzied loop that requires we succeed at ever-higher standards of excellence.

2. Culture

This effort to contain and disguise the hidden self corrodes from within; it’s like living with a criminal hiding inside our skin. We inevitably fail to meet our own perfectionist standards; we suffer depression, anxiety, and other common maladies of our time.

And surely it is the times, our contemporary culture, which has given birth to the Imposter Syndrome. A culture that places a higher value on power, authority, and financial accumulation than on enlightenment, kindness, or civic duty. After all, our psychological afflictions are only in small part due to physiological or inherited conditions, and are in large part culturally-conditioned. As in all things paradoxical, individuals create culture even as they are shaped by the culture they create.

One interesting way to consider what a culture values is to examine what it worships, and then compare that with our own set of values.

3. Gods and Goddesses

Birth of Minerva for Imposter Syndrome blog postIn the classical Greek world, a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with his or her set of attributes, dominated psychological, spiritual, and civic life. In contrast to monotheism with its allegiance to a single Father God that created and contains the All, the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus worshipped multiple deities. Athena, for example, born from her father Zeus’s head, was thought to be the Olympian goddess of wisdom, good counsel, and war. A Greek warrior going into battle might visit the Temple of Athena to ask for her assistance; if on a sea voyage, he might pray to Poseidon, the Olympian god of seas, earthquakes and drought. To ensure an abundant crop of corn, the petitioner would sing praises to Demeter. Love troubles? Appeal for Aphrodite’s help. Each god and goddess was valued for his or her specific talents. Together they represent archetypes, the deep structures in our psyches that are inherent potentialities in all of us. (See Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives and other work by Jean Shinoda Bolen.)

As we reflect on the variety of attributes and skills exhibited by the Greek gods, let’s take a moment to appreciate who else is inside us besides the God of Accomplishment. For if we pray to only one god and value only the driven part that accomplishes, we ignore and dishonor all the other deities that inhabit our being. We suppress their latent talents, vitality, and wisdom, which contribute to our wholeness and well-being. (For more on this, please see my recent PT blog post “Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?”)

In our deepest selves, we know we are more than our successes or our failures, and yet because we live in a society that supports and encourages competition, striving, and power through wealth, the Impostor Syndrome can easily take root. But we must understand and trust that we have other inner figures, archetypes—the ones that come to us in dreams and imaginings—who balance out the figure of the high achiever and who are not at her mercy. Exploring this not only expands our vision of who we are, it begins a marvelous adventure of befriending our unknown or lost parts.

4. Fairy Tale Wisdom

Willy Planck illustration for the Goose GirlIn fairy tales, the story often begins when the hero or heroine’s true self is ignored, mistreated, or unseen. As the story unfolds, a conflict is presented, and a rite of passage ensues. The journey undertaken by the hero/heroine is a soul journey of psychic development. In the familiar tale of Cinderella, an orphaned girl is taunted and shunned by the evil trio of jealous step-mother and step-sisters; if she is to develop and enter into life, she must venture out into the dangerous world and prove herself. In this tale, and in other stories like “The Goose Girl” or “The Armless Maiden,” one’s “outside” identity—that is, the raggedy ash girl or disabled amputee maiden—do not match the hidden radiance and goodness of the inner self. Here, the opposite paradigm to the Imposter Syndrome prevails.

A person possessed by the Impostor Syndrome assesses her worth through external validation, which never seems to satisfy the inner core of uncertainty. The wisdom of fairy tales, however, proposes that recognition and validation of the authentic and worthy self can never come from the “outside.” The tales suggest that we must undertake trials and challenges that affirm and confirm our creative power, must make friends with unknown parts of ourselves (these unknown parts often appear in these tales as helper animals or spirits), and reject the mistaken evaluation of others. Only then, when the Self recognizes its worth and does not demand acceptance and acclamation from others, can we truly embrace our integrity and accept our wholeness, shadow parts and all.

5. Helpful Exercises

a. If what you’ve read gives you the courage to explore, you might sit down right now and make a list of the qualities you value in people. What qualities would you want others to list if they were asked to describe you? How do the lists compare? What qualities are easy for you to own? Which feel out of reach? Insight? Clarity? Playfulness? Authenticity? Imagine you just finished a daunting project and instead of telling yourself, This was a success, you instead say, I did this with integrity. How would you feel?

b. Imagine yourself the hero or heroine of your own fairy tale. What challenges are you facing? List them. What are the obstacles to fulfilling your goals? Include psychological obstacles. What creatures, spirits, ancestors might appear to help you? What is the image you have of yourself once you are transformed? (Think of Cinderella—from ash girl to princess.) What would you like to become?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”