Journeys of Descent
In our work, we seek to draw on different cultures, stories and mythologies. You can often find common patterns and motifs in stories from different cultures - even though, on the surface, those cultures may seem to be very far apart.
Here are some examples of stories of “descent,” taken from different cultural traditions.
The Sun-God Re
The Egyptians believed that, every night, the sun-god Re descended at sunset into a vast Underworld called the Duat, where he fought the forces of evil. At one point in the night, he is mysteriously united with Osiris, the God of the Underworld. Finally, he is reborn into the world at sunrise.
The pyramids contained burial chambers for the pharaoh. It has been suggested that the chamber was designed to represent the Duat or Underworld; with the king’s body, lying in its sarcophagus, representing Osiris. The king’s own journey from death to new life paralleled that of the sun-god. The king’s spirit (known as the ba) descended at night into the pyramid, like the sun sinking in the west. At midnight, his spirit was reunited with his body and received new life from it (as the sun-god was regenerated through its union with Osiris). But the king’s spirit then had to leave the body, and follow the sun-god through the Duat, to be reborn again at sunrise.
To see this in psychological terms: this is the classic model of a spiritual journey through an “underworld” to a final "rebirth.” At the same time, the journey through the Duat revitalizes the god, and restores life and energy to the world. In other words: the world is healed – another theme in Descent.
(Top two images: from inside the Great Pyramid; and the star-covered ceiling of the burial chamber of King Unas)
The Mysteries of Isis
The Mysteries of Isis were religious initiation rites performed in the cult of the goddess Isis in the Greco-Roman world. They originated sometime between the third and second century BCE. The mysteries drew, to some extent at least, on ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices.
By undergoing the mystery rites, initiates signalled their dedication to Isis. The rites were seen as a symbolic death and rebirth. There is an account of an initiation rite in the Latin novel, The Golden Ass. In it, the initiate Lucius undergoes a ritual purification before descending into the innermost part of Isis's temple, where he has an intense religious experience: he travels to the underworld and to the heavens, sees the sun amid darkness, and approaches the gods.
Egyptologist Jan Assmann claims: “We are dealing here with a katabasis, i.e. a ritual descent into the underworld … In the initiation of Lucius, the voyage through the underworld stands for a symbolic death, followed on the next morning by his resurrection as the sun-god …”
The so-called Egyptian Books of the Netherworld, which include the journey through the underworld, were used to decorate the walls of tombs. The idea was that they would act as guides for the dead in the afterlife. Assmann suggests the texts may have been used for the instruction and initiation of the living in Egypt as well. The idea is controversial, however.
Images are from the temple of Isis in Philae, Egypt.
Recital of the Occidental Exile
Recital of the Occidental Exile is a work by the Sufi philosopher Yahya Ibn Habash Suhrawardi (1154-91). It tells the story of a man who takes a journey to a city whose inhabitants are oppressors; they throw him in a deep pit, in a state of “darkness upon darkness.” He can only find freedom in his dreams at night. One day a messenger arrives who urges him to escape and return home. He endures a difficult journey but finally, he encounters a “Great Sage” on Mount Sinai, who tells him he has to go back to “prison,” as his time there is not complete – but with the promise that he will one day return forever to “paradise.”
The recital is a parable about humanity’s “exile” from the divine. The character’s sense of “alienation” is countered in the story by his transcendent vision of the divine “home.”
You could read Descent in this way: the characters have fallen into an “abyss.” They encounter a messenger or “shadow” who is calling them “home.” They go on a journey - which is also a journey of healing, from a state of alienation, to the vision of a world reborn.
Images: Anselm Kiefer, Man Under a Pyramid (1996), and Walhalla (2016)
The Descent of Inanna
Inanna is an ancient Mesopotamian goddess. The Sumerian poem, The Descent of Inanna (c. 1900-1600 BCE) tells of the journey of the goddess to the Kur, the Underworld. The Kur is described as a dark, cavern located deep underground; life there is "a shadowy version of life on earth". Inanna plans to visit her sister Erekshigal, the Queen of the Underworld – and perhaps steal her power. She passes through seven gates. At each one, she is forced to remove a piece of clothing or jewellery, thus stripping her of her own powers. When she arrives in front of her sister, she is naked.
She appears before the seven judges of the Underworld, and she is condemned for hubris. She is turned into a corpse and hung on a hook. She is finally rescued – but the guardians of the Kur drag her husband Dumuzid into the Underworld to take her place and be punished in her stead. Dumuzid is eventually permitted to return to earth for half the year, but only if his sister Geshtinanna takes his place in the Underworld. Like the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, this event is used to explain the changing of the seasons.
Syliva Brinton Perera sees Erekshigal as a nature goddess – and the story itself as an “initiation process into the mysteries”. She also sees it as a “paradigm” for women, pointing them the way to recover the “power and passion of the feminine” (which has lain “dormant in the underworld” under five thousand years of patriarchy) - and to rediscover “the experience of unity with nature and the cosmos”. This is how one of the characters in Descent understands her own purpose and role in life. We have given her the name “Inanna.”