The literal and metaphorical frequently cross paths in the emerging language of our heating world.
We’re cooking the planet, high on coke, burning our boats, consuming tomorrow and so on. The more we fail to address the literal dimensions of climate change, the more graphic and resonant the metaphors seem to become. Rich territory indeed for depth psychology with its commitment to exploring individual and collective processes through metaphoric understandings, particularly those rooted in image, myth and the processes of nature.
The April CPA Newsletter leads with a photo of a crater newly formed by methane eruptions, entitled ‘Doorway to the Underworld’; a literally alarming image whose mythic title alludes to mortal terror, demonic forces, profound mourning, and the potentiality for rebirth. How apt that our earthy underworld erupts into view as a direct consequence of the plundering and burning of its fossil fuels. Here in Australia we are heading towards the underworld at a furious pace as planning approvals and Government funding is showered upon Adani’s proposed mega coal mine in Queensland. These plans for literal descent are producing mounting dissent. A recent newspaper headline refers to our dying Great Barrier Reef as the Great Barrier Grief. As our coral reefs become skeletons in the warming and acidifying oceans, dissent may tumble into a mythic descent.
In human psyche and society, myths are ever-present with their metaphoric worldviews interpreting, shaping and guiding our individual and collective lives. They speak many languages from religious to economic, ecological to political. Their shelf life varies. While contemporary cultural myths with their narratives about what makes a ‘good life’ can come and go, some ancient myths live on anchored in archetypal stories about change embedded in the processes of nature. Such myths knit together the great cycles of life, death and rebirth. We cannot take them literally but we can find sustenance in the wisdom of their narratives, especially in dark times when prevailing personal and cultural myths crumble beneath the weight of new circumstances, as is happening today.
When prevailing myths become unworkable or irrelevant, we enter a frightening and confusing terrain. Ginette Paris describes the transitional space between old myth and new myth as “a deadly zone” In this zone our imaginings of death, individual and collective, proliferate while we count the real world costs of our unravelling myths. Depth psychology can illuminate this space by articulating the mythic dimensions of world change and consciousness change. In relation to the challenges of climate chaos, a depth psychological perspective offers insight and compassion for what is at play in our psyches as we grapple with both the losses, and the clash and crash of worldviews. In such epic times the underworld’s doors open to reveal the rock bottom realities of sacrifice, death, grief and renewal. Myths of the underworld recognise the descent that those who are in dissent with the old myths can make on their way towards new life.
Mythic journeys of descent into the underworld have many tellings. They include stories of abductions, deaths, resurrections and returns, and initiatory tales of how you must die in order to be reborn with wisdom and maturity. The oldest recorded underworld myth recounts the story of the Sumerian Queen Inanna and her twin sister Erishkegal. It begins not with an abduction but a choice. Inanna, the beloved Queen of Heaven, chooses to descend to attend the funeral rites of the husband of Erishkegal, the much feared and shunned Queen of the Underworld. Inanna knows it is the right thing to do. What she does not know, until she begins her descent to the underworld, is that she will be required to pass through seven gates, at each of which she will be required to relinquish her trappings of power followed by every last remnant of her clothes. Inanna protests but ultimately chooses to submit to this stripping, so that she may honour the dead and perform the rites of mourning. When she meets her twin sister, she is naked and bowed low.
In today’s developed world, many of us have lived the life of Inanna with the royal privileges of water, power, transport and food available on demand along with endless consumer choices. Yet, just as Inanna knew that her twin sister’s underworld realm was being denied and disowned, many of us have come to acknowledge that our queenly lives are out of balance; high on costs to others and Earth, low in reverence for death and change. There are descents to be made and death rites to attend on the way to any initiation that strips away old myths about who we are and how the world works, so that new ways of living may be birthed The further we go, the harder it gets. Most of us are prepared to get to the first gate and put out the recycling. But our protests get louder when we have to strip off energy intensive lifestyles, relinquish privileged mindsets and meet the limits of personal autonomy.
Rites of passage are grueling. They shred customary values, habitual behaviors and cherished identities. Nothing less is required for a genuine growth in maturity, wisdom and an expansion of consciousness. Even when we choose descent, there is no avoiding feelings of powerlessness or the reality of death, as old protective beliefs die.
Inanna’s reunion with her abandoned and grieving twin sister in the underworld does not go well. Erishkegal is angry. Inanna is judged, killed and hung upside down on a meat hook. These days, climate change is hanging us all up to dry as we are brought face to face with injustice, disrespect, death, grief and individual powerlessness. Day after day, we witness species being lost, coral reefs dying, human death tolls rising and the lives of our children and grandchildren being endangered. We count and pay the costs of all that our contemporary cultural myths have denied.
Yet, at the same time life goes on in the Above World. When Inanna does not return from visiting the Underworld, her handmaiden, goes to Inanna's father gods for help. They refuse. They will not engage with the Great Below. Only Enki, the compassionate God of Wisdom will act. He creates messengers to travel to the Underworld from the dirt beneath his fingernails. The way out of our deathly predicament will most likely not come through heroic means but from small beginnings that proceed from compassion and humility – a humility rooted in Earth. New myths are seeded in the Underworld when we experience the value of getting our hands dirty, connecting to nature intimately, knowing where our food comes from and where our rubbish goes.
Ultimately compassion releases Erishkegal and Inanna from their polarized positions. When the humble messengers reach Erishkegal in her Underworld realm they respond empathically to her moans, so like the cries of a woman about to give birth. “Oh, oh my inside” Erishkegal wails “Oh, oh your inside’, the messengers mirror back. Their compassion and companionship softens Erishkegal’s grief and rage, and she offers these creatures any boon of their asking. They request Inanna's corpse and sprinkle it with the food and water of life. She is resurrected, healed and transformed, born anew from the womb of the underworld, through the witnessing of grief and the agency of compassion. Now initiated, Inanna can never again be innocent of death or place herself above the limits of life.
Today we live in initiatory times brought on by a surfeit of extinctions. In our world of climate change dissent/descent, honouring grief, bearing witness and offering compassion is crucial for our ability to sustain engagement, as individuals and as communities. The map that depth psychology offers for this transformation needs to name and support all the places of descent/dissent, so that we can, as consciously as possible, renew ourselves and our energy for life, even in the shadows of death.
Jungian analyst Christine Downing distinguished between the mythic ‘heroic quest’, which in so many ways has engendered our over-expansionist contemporary crises with its focus on slaying the enemy and stealing treasures, and the mythic ‘rite of passage’. While the hero journeys into the unknown to struggle and conquer, the initiate of the rite of passage submits to the universal rhythms of human, biological and ecological existence. The hero is motivated by adventure and possibility, while the initiate surrenders to the necessary constraints of nature. Without this surrender, our new cultural myths will repeat the blind spots of our old ones. Only through meeting death and participating in the processes of grief can we birth the consciousness that respects the parameters of life on Earth. Humility and compassion forges a more mature consciousness grounded within nature and community. From this ground, heroic impulses (which are equally part of us) can be contained and directed towards supporting the life of the world.
At a cultural level the need to distinguish heroic mythic underpinnings from initiatory ones is ever more relevant as climate change discussions become more focused on the possibilities of geoengineering interventions. If our interventions are fueled by a heroic impulse to conquer without being grounded in an Earth-centred humility, we will most likely increase the destructions founded upon Earth-denying myths. Just as at a personal level, so many dissenters have experienced how unsustainable the heroic position can be if it is not tempered by an initiation into the humility of being a small part of a systemic movement which we can never fully know, let alone control.
Towards the end of his life, Joseph Campbell wrote “the only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet – and we don’t have such a mythology”. He nevertheless believed that the new myth of our era, when it did emerge would give symbolic expression to individual maturation in a global society which relates positively to the world of nature and cosmos. We cannot individually concoct new myths. But they are emerging spontaneously from the unconscious in the darkness of these times, fertilized by the discoveries and consciousness that ecological crises press upon us.
Depth psychology understands the necessity of myth, and the healing that can come when we move from literal beliefs to symbolic understandings. We can support individual and cultural change triggered by global warming by telling stories and enlivening metaphors that resonate in this deathly zone of transition. We can hold the darkness of these times compassionately, honouring and witnessing the death throes morph into birth throes in times of profound and rapid consciousness change. We can also see through the literalising thrall of apocalyptic visioning to engage with the mythic work of apokalypsis, (the tearing away of a veil), which precedes an expansion of consciousness. The underworld doors are opening. Let us support the mythic descent of dissent in a move towards compassionate rebirth wherever it may find us.