Descent: sources and inspirations
The idea of a “descent” to the underworld is a familiar motif from classical myths and literature.
Our starting point for Descent was Dante’s poem, Divine Comedy, which follows Dante himself as he travels through hell, and encounters the dead; and then passes through Purgatory and ascends to Paradise. We decided to create our own story of “descent.”
Descent features four characters who go on a strange and mysterious journey. They have all been living through a terrible war, which has devastated the environment, and left them all suffering some kind of trauma. They are haunted by visions of things they have done, things they have gone through, things they have seen. There is a soldier, for example, who is haunted by the ghost of a woman he has killed in the war.
Their journey is in part psychological: the characters have to face their own fears and nightmares. We wanted a story that could be read on different levels – both mythical, and realistic. So you can’t be sure how much of what happens to the characters is real, and how much is in their imaginations.
We looked at other stories of “descent.” There is an epic poem from Sumeria, called The Descent of Inanna. In it, the goddess Inanna descends into the underworld until she stands in front of Ereshkigal – the “Dark” Goddess, queen of the Netherworld and the dead. Ereshkigal is like Gaia – the “Earth” Goddess, the mother of all life.
In our play, one of the characters is called Inanna. She imagines herself as a kind of priestess of an ancient cult; and she believes that, if they are all going to be healed, it is necessary for them to undertake this journey - to descend into the underworld, in order to encounter the “Dark” Goddess.
The play in fact climaxes in a meeting with the “goddess.” You could take this literally. But at the same time, the “vision” could just be happening in the characters’ imaginations. The encounter gives them new hope that they can be healed - and the earth can be reborn.
“No one should deny the danger of the descent, but it can be risked. No one need risk it, but it is certain that someone will. And let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent…” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation)
The characters in the play have been given significant names – drawn from myth or from literature.
It is as if, behind each character, there is a mythical “archetype.” It is also as if the characters are going through or re-enacting an archetypal, mythical pattern of experience. This reflects how the play is meant to operate on two levels: as a psychological story of real people who are going on a psychological journey, and as a mythical tale (of “descent” into the “underworld”).
Inanna in the play is a kind of “priestess” - or at least, that is how she sees herself. Here are the other characters and a bit about their names:
Attar, the soldier. Attar was worshipped in Southern Arabia in pre-Islamic times. A god of war, he was often referred to as "He who is Bold in Battle.”
Rachel, the doctor. The name appears in the Old Testament: "Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not." In our story, Rachel is a doctor tormented by her failure to heal a sick child.
Ishmael, the poet. The Biblical name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts. There is also a reference here to Ishmael, the narrator of the novel Moby Dick by Hermann Melville. The character in our play has lost the ability to write; words have lost their meaning for him.
There is also a “shadow” figure in the play: a mysterious child, who silently accompanies Ishmael on his "journey." Is this an orphan of the war? Ishmael's own child? Or a projection of his mind - his "inner self"?
In any case: Ishmael has to try to tell his story to this child - to make sense of everything that has happened. And so he keeps trying to put the story together, always starting with the words, "Once upon a time..."
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Images on this page:
Background: the so-called "initiation well" in Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal.
The so-called “Burney Relief,” believed to represent either Inanna or Erekshigal (c.19th or 18th century BC).