Dispatches from the Underworld

depth psychology Mar 03, 2021

Right now is a time of catastrophic loss. For myself, and I’m sure for many of you as well. Relationships, friendships, communities - nothing seems to escape the grasp of this otherworldly entity that is now sitting at our table, this wild god, pounding his dirt-encrusted fists, demanding offerings of meat and wine.

And if you’re fresh out of either, tears work just as well.

Reality, it seems, is less reliable than we thought. People who I thought would be in my life forever, simply gone. The heart-breaking medicine of this moment seems to all be pointing towards some collective grief which I, for one, was utterly unprepared for. 

The past few months I’ve been quiet. Often when life presents me with something unbearable, the only option, it seems, is to turn my attention, with lowered head, towards the earth and towards myself, and begin to listen. In this place it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with the rapid rate of sharing we now unquestioningly outpour every day.

The truth is that I’ve been contemplating a quality of darkness and grief that quite suddenly washed onto my misty shores. Odds are, you’ve also found your feet wetted by this very same tide. Odds are, you’ve lost a few things yourself. 

There’s no warding this off. No up and out, no transcending, no breaking through.  The only alternative is to embrace the mucky saunter down the twilight path, and to listen with sincere attention to the ponderous owl-speech beckoning from just beyond our view. 

It’s been rough, friends. There’s no way around it.

Perhaps, in words of mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw, we are in the underworld and we haven’t figured it out yet.

What I can say with full conviction, is that there is a potency in darkness. Deep within, there is a kind of chthonic fertility that our culture has manically organized itself around not feeling, not relating to, and not knowing, no matter the cost.

We will do almost anything to avoid going, even glancing, down there. And yet here we are. We are sitting with the bill.

For as the poet Antonio Machado says,

Mankind owns four things

That are no good at sea:

Rudder, anchor, oars,

And the fear of going down.

I fear going down. And by virtue of living in this amnesic culture, which each day staggers on bandaged limbs a few miles further away from an integrated definition of the word, so do you. So let’s not neglect our ominous guest any longer, even though all of us, painfully and often with much expense, still try.

We can witness our collective fear of the underworld in three ways:

  • The Cult of Youth

The first is in our culture’s tragic fixation on youth, showing itself in our collective fear of the old, of the sick, and of death. Anything which leads one down this gloomy road, anything which spells suffering or suggests the inevitable end of things, must surely be evil. No hero worth celebrating fell into the abyss and never crawled out, right? 

Wrong. The cult of the hero, originally, was a cult of the dead hero. The tradition of burial mounds in Indo-European culture, built to honor departed warriors, kings, and queens, paid homage to these afterlife heroes whose death can be seen as the ultimate fulfillment of a life well-lived. The Celts even kept their skulls to drink from.

In the Norse tradition, Odin only welcomed warriors who died bravely in battle into Valhalla. A long, peaceful, materially successful life did not grant access to a seat in his hallowed halls.

The Egyptian myth of Osiris celebrates a dead king, chopped to pieces by his jealous brother and scattered across the land. Osiris knew betrayal, pain, and loss. While technically resurrected by his beloved Isis, he remained as king of the underworld for all eternity. When the Pharaoh died, he was said to have “joined Osiris,” merging with the Death-King himself. 

It could even be said that the ancient Egyptians valued the underworld even more than this one. After all, it was those beneath, not above the ground in Egypt who were reverently referred to as “the living ones.” 

So we fixate on youth to assuage our fear of death, because death no longer has a place at our table. We have no underworld King to welcome us into the halls of the ancestors. In fact, any such place was excommunicated from our cultural psyche long ago.

Ask people today what happens after death, and odds are you will be greeted with a bemusing stare, and the even more bemusing answer of “nothing.” Such a reply inflicts a certain violence upon the soul.

  • The De-Souled World

Secondly, our allergy to the underworld can be witnessed in our rigid obsession with what is now called the rational-materialist worldview.

This frame of reality, descended from the Euro-Christian legacy of Descartes and other post-Renaissance thinkers, expelled any last vestige of an earth-based, inter-subjective, or animistic worldview from European consciousness. One of the many catastrophic results of this shift was the birth of the pseudo-religion of scientism and the worship of material, measurement, and physicality as the ultimate paragon of reality.

Science is great at what it’s good at, and painfully lacking in what it is not. To pretend otherwise is to insist on a world without the existence of the soul.

James Hillman referred to this history as the "de-souling of the world" — the fallout from the legacy of Descartes, which “required that subjectivities be purged from everywhere and everything except the authorized place of persons: the rational Christian adult. To experience otherwise was heresy and witchcraft”.

But if recent times have shown us anything, it is that reality is more unruly than it’s been made out to be. The underworld, like the soul, escapes measurement and quantification. Perhaps the only true unknown we have left as a culture is what happens on the other side.

The extreme medicalization of birth, death, and mental illness are but a few ways that we are clawing at the doors of the underworld, desperately trying to fit the unfathomable into the contents of a spreadsheet. Ask most people who have spent considerable time working in the systems that care for the sick, the dying, or the clinically confused. 

Odds are, they’ll confide in you a harsh truth: that we’re doing it all wrong. 

Death - whether our own, that of an entire species, or that of planetary ecosystems - remains the one, stubborn constant which shatters the illusion that science and technology will save us. 

Perhaps, as our world continues to begrudgingly challenge and shock us out of this millenia-old mindset, the rational-materialist worldview will itself pass away.  

  • Infinite Growth 

Thirdly, and most pressing, our avoidant dance with death can be seen in our civilization’s disastrous commitment to the ideal of infinite economic growth - damn whatever trees, rivers, or indigenous peoples get in the way.

I don’t need to tell you this. We know it in our bones, that within every news headline about the burning Amazon or the melting Arctic, our doom is being spelled between the lines. All this, to keep the mechanical “heart” of the global economy “alive."

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. No illusion could be more insidious and backwards, that our economy is somehow alive, vibrant, or robust, for our economy feeds on death.  

Our cultural gaze has been fixed on the ascending sun for so long, that now that its setting, our eyes cannot adjust to the gathering dusk. We’re still blinkering into this new reality, trying to make out the shapes that surround us. 

There’s a certain blindness here. A calcified inability to perceive the fading light in all its multicolored organic glory, and to take in the splendor of this fleeting day. All of this, simply to avoid facing the inevitable: that things die, and that we will die along with them.  

Chthonic. Meaning from beneath the earth, within-the-earth, the underworld. The word itself beckons us to get our shit together. The chthonic is not the sleeping soil, waiting to blossom fourth yet again come springtime. It is not the forgiving Earth-Mother Gaia, providing us yet another delightful meal to eat at the harvest celebration.

No, this is the earth that eats you. The chthonic is a place where souls go and don’t come back from. The chthonic lives within the earth, and within our psyche. And even though it is the land of the dead, it is very much alive. 

I have been fortunate enough to not have had much of death enter my life. Both my parents are still living. I haven’t lost a close loved one - to death anyway. I haven’t spent time around dying people, or witnessed a traumatic loss. I am not calling this in. Rather, I am pointing it out, as a sort of dispatch of where I have been slowly wandering for most of this past year.

I wonder: How would our culture be different if we made a place at our table for the end of things? If only we could enlist some part of ourselves to venture closer towards the River Styx, against our greater impulses. What dockside tales from the great beyond might Charon, the boatman, share with us if we kindly offer him a drink to warm his old bones against the cold?

In my own small corner of the world, I’m witnessing what I can only describe as a profound denial of the chthonic. New Age spirituality and the pseudo-wellness community has collapsed under its disowned shadow, often taking the form of a brazen refusal to accept that we are indeed facing a collective death portal, which the coronavirus has graciously escorted us towards.

Many have witnessed the loss of livelihoods, social circles, and in some cases, close friends and loved ones. For others, it may be easier to live in the delusion of false hero worship, or its shadowy twin, demonization of the scapegoat de jour

James Hillman said, “What one knows about life may not be relevant for what is below life. What one knows and has done in life is as irrelevant to the underworld as clothes that adjust us to life and the flesh and bones that the clothes cover. For in the underworld all is stripped away, and life is upside down.” 

Surely, someone must be at fault. Surely there is a plausible explanation for these otherworldly circumstances which have utterly upended our best-laid plans.

Some of us even had plans to ascend, or achieve some pristine, messianic escape from it all. Some people are so shaken by the dark visitor at their door that they cling to the last scraps of certainty they’ve managed to patch together, organizing their lives around anxiety, or assembling it into a leaky, untrustworthy vessel called “Trust the Plan.”

Yet I am here to say, and say clearly: the earth has other plans for you.

This has nothing to do with masks, vaccines, politics, or any other polemic that seems to be the freshest source of outrage (yet again, our fixation on youth and novelty.)

This has everything to do with the soul, and the unique ordeals that yours and mine are facing at this very moment. Find me a person who has not been affected by our current circumstances, or been dealt some form of loss, and I will find you a way back across the frigid river Styx.

We are living through a collective trauma. The word trauma has a long pedigree, starting with Greek and Latin, and going all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root, tere, which means to twist, rub, pierce, grind away, or separate. Thresh, thrash, thread, and tribulation are all descendants of tere.

All these words imply space being created within or through something, or something being removed. It is some kind of opening, much like a wound - the literal, medical definition of trauma. 

Now the question arises: with what does this new space become filled with? What exactly is being opened, and to where does this opening lead to?

The answer, by now, you may well have guessed.

Loss leads us down a damp, stone stairwell to the door of the underworld, which is called grief. We are a society riddled with trauma, and literally suffocating in grief in the form of a novel respiratory virus which fills lungs (long associated with grief in Chinese and other traditional medicine systems) with murky waters, which, for many Jungians and other dreamworkers, can often symbolize unprocessed emotions, pain, and deep feeling. 

I wish it wasn’t so. I’m not saying it's a good thing. I’m certainly not offering a way up and out, or trying to conjure lemonade out of a truly bitter moment in history. 

I’m simply trying to hold up a lamp, and with that light remind you of the path that we are all walking, together.

The King of the Underworld in Greek mythology was Hades, brother of the sky-god, Zeus. A far cry from the image of the vindictive devil we inherited from Christianity, Hades was known as a gracious, generous host for the dead. It was said that once in his kingdom, no soul ever wanted to leave because of his infinite intelligence.

Perhaps we are long past due to get acquainted with this old god, or whichever cultural mask he (or she) wears around the world. Perhaps we owe him an ancient debt which long ago our culture convinced itself it does not actually have to cover, despite the unparalleled amount of death now occurring across the planet.

But the old ones knew that each of us owes a debt to the beyond. They knew that a person or a society that denies this debt, denies life itself. Life itself is a gift, and everything that is given must also be paid for. Is it any wonder that Hades was also known as “the wealthy one”?

So now he is sitting at our table. We’ve had our banquet, plundering fruit and grain from his sacred cornucopia for centuries. He will try his best to remind us politely, first with a tap on the shoulder, then a tragic loss, then a new extinction, then a globally disruptive virus. But the fact remains. It’s our turn to pay up. 

Just how one begins to account for this immense debt is an inquiry that can span a lifetime. Many earth-based, indigenous cultures place a profound emphasis on giving back to the earth and offering hard-won praises just for simply being kept alive.

In the words of poet Robert Bly, 

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity

Is involved in letting us go on breathing,

When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief. 

Perhaps our blood, sweat, and tears can begin to symbolize something much more than our outward labors (service to the god of infinite growth,) and instead become humble installments of grief, slowly paying down our debt to the one to whom all is due.

If we indeed contribute nothing valuable but our grief, and if, in the words of Martin Prechtel, grief is merely praise inverted, then perhaps there is a mountain of gratitude hidden right beneath our feet.

Whatever area of your life that has been reduced to ashes, therein lies something of immeasurable value. I don’t blame you for not believing me. But I’d wager that if you lie down there next to the fire, and sleep in a bed of ashes for a while, you will discover something immensely valuable.

There’s one last thing. Whatever gold you find down there - it must be given away. 

I’m not the first person to say that the gift lies in the giving, and not in the thing itself. Life is not increased by keeping gifts to oneself, even if they were born during intensely private moments of loss. Hoarding the gift and locking away your suffering is dragon behavior, and we all know how that one ends. 

Because the odds are highly in your favor that someone, somewhere, desperately needs the very thing which was wrought from your unique journey of suffering. The treasure we pick up in our bleary-eyed scrounging down in the dust of the underworld has in it something needed by our souls.   

Even if you give it to the mountain’s whispered winds, to the hungry ocean, to the secret of the soil, or to the atomic appetite of the fire. Don’t for a minute, fool yourself into believing that you gave it to no one

For even more burdensome than grief is its heart-wrenching obligation: that we transform it into something imbued with so much life that the echoes of its fierce and tender song can be unmistakably heard by those listening far below.

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