Goddesses of the Underworld
Evans Lansing Smith argues that each myth “involves circular images of destruction and recreation, the breakdown to elementals followed by a breakthrough into realms of new form”. This may be imagined as a labyrinth; an alchemical process; an apocalypse; or as a ”regression to the womb-tomb of the Goddess, where rituals of death and rebirth ensue”. Myth may be seen as “a model of the death and renewal of the individual (ontogenesis), of the world (cosmogenesis), and the text (poesis), as well as a metaphorical image of the task of reading and interpretation (hermeneusis)”.
This process of breakdown followed by breakthrough is reflected in Descent:
Through the journey, the individual characters begin the process of healing
There is a vision of an Earth reborn
The writer (Ishmael) can begin to write again. (On the “hermeneutics” of the text, for the author and the reader/spectator, see The Drama of the Lost Word.)
The play culminates in a ”regression to the womb-tomb of the Goddess, where rituals of death and rebirth ensue”.
Here, the writer David Calcutt discusses how some of the myths of the Goddess, which have informed our story:
Our work on the play began with Dante’s Divine Comedy, and research into a number of mythic stories of descent into the underworld. This led me to the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna, written in cuneiform around 4000 years ago, which tells the story of that goddess’ journey into the underworld.
One of the epithets of Inanna in Sumerian mythology was the “Queen of Heaven” and further research revealed that she was regarded as the goddess of all life. In later mythologies she would appear as the Babylonian Ishtar, the Egyptian Isis, Aphrodite and Venus in Greek and Roman mythology, and the Virgin Mary as she was conceived in early Mediaeval Christianity. In these later avatars she is also the mother/lover who rejoices in the birth of her son, whom she cradles in his swaddling clothes, and later mourns his violent death, as she cradles his body in its grave-shrouds.
So, the Goddess as she appears in the play is, for me, a composite of all these figures, a kind of primeval Goddess of All Life and Death”, a manifestation and embodiment of the energy that animates creation in its cycle of Birth, Growth, Death and Rebirth. Or, as the poet Dylan Thomas powerfully puts it:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer”
In the play, the Goddess is central. She is the driving force of the whole drama, and the climax of her appearance at the end is the revelation of this. In this sense, above all else, it is her story we are telling – which is perhaps the only story there is. - David Calcutt
PERSEPHONE was the goddess queen of the underworld, wife of the god Hades. She was also the goddess of spring growth. Once, when she was playing in a meadow, she was seized by Hades, and carried off to the underworld as his bride. Her mother Demeter despaired at her disappearance, and searched for her throughout the world accompanied by the goddess Hecate.
When she learned that Zeus had conspired in her daughter's abduction, she was furious, and refused to let the earth fruit until Persephone was returned. Zeus consented, but because the girl had tasted of the food of Hades - a handful of pomegranate seeds - she was forced to forever spend a part of the year with her husband in the underworld.
Her annual return to the earth in spring was marked by the flowering of the meadows and the sudden growth of the new grain. Her return to the underworld in winter, conversely, saw the dying down of plants and the halting of growth.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation rites held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, based at the sanctuary of Eleusis in ancient Greece.
In the image, Demeter stands at the left; Persephone on the right. Each goddess extends her right hand toward a nude youth, thought to be Triptolemos, who was sent by Demeter to teach men how to cultivate grain. The original marble relief was found at Eleusis.
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