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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:

Lilith Piper descent goddess picture1.jpg

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.

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.

Harriet Ellis as the Goddess (Photo Lilith Piper) 2.jpg

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)

Photos on this page: by Lilith Piper, with Harriet Ellis as the Goddess

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