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.”



Kidnapped by Depression

Sorrowing Old Man (“At Eternity’s Gate”) (1890) by Van Gogh for Depression post

Imagine a black sack thrown over your head. Imagine your arms and legs bound, your body injected with a drug that wipes out thoughts, flattens feelings, and numbs senses. This is depression.

Depression is called the dark night of the soul for good reason. Depression leads us into the night world, a world of shadows, emptiness, and blurry vision. You feel lost, lonely and alone, mired in the quicksand of sadness, vulnerable to thoughts of failure and unworthiness. “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” says a Talmudic expression. Through the lens of depression, the world is saturated with gloom.

One way to understand the lived experience of depression is to see it acted out symbolically in story form. Myths and fairytales show us the collective (and archetypal) universal patterns of the human psyche. I may have “my depression” and you, “yours,” but throughout the ages, worldwide, depression has plagued the human race.

The Rape of Proserpina (1621-22) by Bernini for Depression post One of the Greek Homeric hymns, the “Hymn to Demeter,” gives an early and vivid picture of depression. It tells the story of Persephone, Demeter and Zeus’s daughter, whom Hades, god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, falls in love with. When Hades asks Zeus’ leave to marry her, Zeus knows Demeter would never agree and says he would neither give nor withhold his consent. So, one day, while Persephone is gathering flowers in a meadow, the ground splits open and Hades springs forth and abducts her, dragging her down into his kingdom against her will. The unwilling bride screams to Zeus, her father, to save her, but he ignores her pleas. Demeter, a goddess herself, hears her daughter’s cries and also begs Zeus for aid, but he refuses to intervene.

Separated from her daughter, Demeter rages at the gods for allowing Persephone’s capture and rape. Her grief is “terrible and savage.” Disguised as an old woman, she roams the earth, neither eating, drinking, nor bathing while she searches for her child. During her time of mourning, the earth lies fallow.

“Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine.” “Hymn to Demeter,” translated from Greek by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

Ceres Begging for Jupiter's Help after the Kidnapping of Her Daughter Proserpine (1777) by Antoine-François Callet for Depression post As Demeter pines for her daughter, so too, during depression, do we yearn for a lost part of ourselves, for it seems that our spirited aliveness has deserted us, our appetite for living kidnapped and dragged down into the house of death. With our instincts blunted, we sink into darkness, and experience the desolation of barren landscape. Like the grieving Demeter, our enthusiasm lost, our life-giving energy depleted, we fall into despair. This feeling of isolation is a signature of depression and runs deep in those who try to articulate their condition and reach out for help.

As the story continues, Zeus’s mounting fear that if he does not reunite mother and daughter nothing will ever grow again on the land finally propels his intervention. He orders Hermes, messenger of the gods, into the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades is surprisingly gracious in agreeing to her return. Inconsolable during her stay in the underworld, Persephone has yet to eat anything. Before she leaves, Hades urges her to eat at least three pomegranate seeds. Distracted by her joy at leaving, Persephone does so – and thereby consigns herself to return to Hades for three months every year. Had she not eaten the fruit of the underworld, she would have been able to stay with her mother forever.

When we enter the space of depression, it seems we will never “get out,” but as the myth reveals, nature is cyclic. The myth of Demeter and Persephone originates in ancient fertility cults and women’s mysteries, and is associated with harvest and the annual vegetation cycles. Symbolically, for a quarter of the year, while Persephone is in the underworld, lifeless winter prevails. When she returns to earth, spring advances, a time of rebirth. But depressive cycles are not nearly as predictable as the seasons, and yet we might consider our time in the underworld as periods of incubation. While winter’s colorless landscape may suggest death, beneath the ground roots, seeds, and bulbs are dormant, not dead. They are busy with the business of storing nutrients for the coming season.

The Return of Persephone (1891), oil on canvas, by Frederic Leighton for Depression postFor plants, winter’s stillness is necessary before spring’s renewal. Depression, too, can be viewed as a time of going inward and down into the depths, and can be a generative and creative interlude during which the psyche renews itself in the slower rhythms of dark days. Many artists attest to depressive episodes that prefigure a creative breakthrough. An astonishing number of famous artists, writers, and statesmen as diverse as Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Winston Churchill, Hans Christian Andersen, Abraham Lincoln, and Georgia O’Keefe have described experiencing depression.

Little is written about Persephone’s life in the underworld, but one thing is clear, she does not die. Quite the opposite. She is given the honorific title Queen of the Underworld. This suggests her movement “to below” is one of transformation and the acquisition of special gifts and powers. Depression may feel as if parts of us have died, and yet is it possible depression opens us to another level of deep experience, one that matures us and brings new wisdom?

When depression drags us away from the lively day world, we might remember Persephone. The darkness of the underworld may provide a special quality of illumination not possible in the glaring, horn-honking, digitally-frenzied daylight. To consider depression as an expression of loss, grief, mourning, and inevitability of mortality is to bring it into the realm of the human heart. We are more than our genetic predisposition and our biochemistry; we are conscious creatures capable of discovering light in the darkness.

If myths allow us to look into “the heart of the matter,” then neuroscience allows us to peer into the actual matter of our brains. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has made it his life’s work to investigate brain (neuro) plasticity, and how we can improve our wellbeing through the development of certain skills, including meditation.

In his groundbreaking book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them, Dr. Davidson and his co-author Sharon Begley offer an in-depth view of how our brains respond to different emotions and provide strategies to help balance or strengthen specific areas of brain circuitry.

Schematic of brain regions that showed significantly different association with amygdala in control versus depressed individuals for Depression postThe experience of depression differs from person to person. With the aid of fMRI imaging, Dr. Davidson has been able to pinpoint dysfunctional areas of the brain and correlate them with patient’s symptoms. Under the subheading “A Brain Taxonomy of Depression,” Dr. Davidson identifies three subcategories of depression. One group of depressed patients had difficulty recovering from adversity while another group had difficulty regulating their emotions in a context-appropriate way. The third group was unable to sustain positive emotions. Different patterns of brain activity were noted for each group.

Dr. Davidson is optimistic. His book offers a questionnaire to help readers figure out their emotional “style” and gives exercises that build skills to improve brain functioning. Sufferers of depression need hope. Dr. Davidson’s excitement about what he is learning in the laboratory is palpable and his hope contagious.

Archetypal myths and brain science may seem disconnected, but each presents its own form of wisdom, one through images and story, the other through investigatory science. Demeter’s suffering, the barren land, Persephone’s descent into darkness lodge in our imagination and dreams and recommend that we look into our own lives to discover the source of our grief. Neuroscience advances our knowledge of brain anatomy and its relationship to our feelings and emotions. Each perspective provides a potentially valuable way to examine and understand our experience of depression.

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.”