Thursday, September 17, 2009

Underworld Journeys

Every year at this time, around the Fall Equinox, another popular story about the underworld is that of Persephone, Hades and Demeter from Greek mythology.

One version of the story is that Persephone was a beautiful young maiden in the full flowering of her youth, beauty and fertility. Hades desires her, lusts after her, and one day while she is out wandering through a field picking flowers with some nymphs, he kidnaps her and takes her to the underworld with him. In this version, Demeter is distressed and outraged that Persephone has been taken by Hades.

In another version of the story, she is ready for the transition from girl to woman and desires Hades as her first sexual partner. She willingly goes with him to the underworld to explore the excitement of her newfound sexuality. In this version, Demeter does not want to let go of her daughter because she is not ready for her little girl to grow up.

In both versions, her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grains, demands her return. In one version, in retaliation, she withholds rain and the fruits of the harvest. In another version, she is so busy looking for Persephone that she forgets to nourish the crops. The distressed people who were deprived of their harvest implored Zeus, the leader of the gods, to intervene.

In both versions, Persephone eats seeds of the pomegranate, so when Zeus asks to have Persephone return above ground, Hades responds that Persephone had broken the rule decreed by the Fates that by eating or drinking in the underworld, she was bound to it.

Zeus, trying to bring peace, negotiates a settlement. Persephone will spend part of every year above ground, from the time of the Spring Equinox, when the planting is done, until the Fall Equinox, when the harvest comes. In between then, she goes back into the underworld with Hades. Thus, the significance of the turning of the seasons on the days when day and night are in equal balance.

In this story, the underworld journey signifies a necessary initiation for the person, where coming to grips with the unseen elements of growth, the interior excitement and evolution and indulging the taste for the hidden or forbidden fruits, are necessary for the awakening of the adult aspects of the person. Once a person has tasted these, they can never return to their previous consciousness.

A similar story, that of Ishtar and Tammuz from the Babylonian mythology contains a similar but different lesson, still with the transformation taking place in the underworld.

Yesterday's stories, about Robert Johnson and Tulough O'Carolan, also revolve around transformations through time spent in the underworld, as does the story of Thomas the Rhymer who may have been the inspiration for the Scottish story Tam Lin.

In each of these stories of underworld journeys, the person undergoing the journey comes back with some gift, or power that comes from venturing into the unknown, undergoing a trial and returning. Perhaps these stories are meant to encourage us to take these adventures when we are ready for our next stage of life, our next level of evolution.

The underworld may be scary to some precisely because it contains truths that are glossed over when we only skim the surface. There is a beauty and a power that comes in obvious forms and easily appealing appearances. And then there is another layer of beauty and power that comes from mining the powerful unseen currents of energy and insight that lie below the surface. The underworld adds complexity and subtlety and rewards us with insights that open our visions and enable us to access veins of talent that we did not know how to access before.

In the mythologies, the underworld is a place for the dead, and it is also a place for rebirth. Each time we evolve to a new level, our old self dies. And so our underworld journey continues.

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