The Psychic Descent

The Underworld in Greek mythology is a dark, mysterious realm inhabited by the shades of the dead. The Greeks believed it was an actual place located under the earth and/or across water. Hades emerges from under the earth to abduct the Kore; Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey has to cross water to get to it. But the Underworld is not just a quaint attempt on the part of the ancient Greeks to explain where we go when we die. It is so much more than that. The Underworld speaks to us as metaphor for the dark, hidden spaces in our psyche.

Sometimes trauma is thrust upon us through no fault of our own. Before we fully grasp what has happened, we find ourselves being sucked into a deep, dark chasm with no apparent way out. We are abducted into our own depths, a descent which can be terrifying. We feel utterly alone, desolate, isolated, and abandoned. This is our underworld.

Study Figure for Hell By John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Study Figure for Hell By John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This psychic space we inhabit feels like a death. And in many ways it is. A part of us is dying. But just like Persephone who is abducted into death and who transforms her experience into new life, we are presented with the same opportunity through our psychic descent. We have a choice. Do we opt to stay in this death-like psychic state and allow circumstances to overwhelm us? Or do we opt to actively re-frame our experience to emerge as stronger and wiser beings, as better versions of ourselves?

Persephone’s consumption of the seeds of death speaks to us as metaphor for assimilating or internalizing what is learned during tenure in the Underworld and its use as a catapult to higher knowledge. Similarly, while we are in this death-like, psychic space, we can use the time wisely by learning who we are and what we can become. 

Time spent in the underworld can be transformative, a period of psychological and spiritual growth. It has the potential to be a fertile time in our lives, a time for introspection and gestation, a time for being instead of a time for doing. We can forge new meaning out of the trauma by creating a better self as a response to experiences that hurt. Although we don’t necessarily welcome our abduction into its depths and are overjoyed to emerge, once we begin to recognize the potential for growth the underworld presents, our fear of it can diminish. 

Persephone’s visits to the underworld are regulated. Ours are not. We don’t know what circumstances or hurdles will send us plummeting into our own depths. But how we react when we are down there is up to us. If we understand the pain we are experiencing has purpose and potential, we can better tolerate it. Easier said than done, I know. But it may be some consolation to remember there is no growth without pain; there is no birth without death. The birth of the new emerges from the death of the old. By exercising agency and choosing to assimilate the knowledge garnered from our psychic excursion into the depths, we can emerge as wiser, stronger beings who are better equipped to handle life’s challenges. 

In my next post, I will address the issue of Persephone's voice and the important role voice plays in healing from trauma.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar