The story of the journey of death and rebirth is an ancient mythic motif, repeated, time and again, throughout human history. This Easter, we celebrate the descent into and return from the underworld by our culture’s most recent mythic hero Jesus Christ, but Inanna’s story, oldest written account of this ancient archetypal motif, goes back 6,000 years.
Why does this particular story have enough appeal to keep it viable for so many millennia?
I tend to agree with Carl Jung – the story is a metaphor for human maturation. As we go through life our egos create stories about who we are. The stories help us get our bearings amid all the other personalities around us. They ground us in identity. Often childhood experiences are very frightening and confusing. They require strong sure anchors against which we can lean and survive, for even well-protected children have trouble grasping abstract concepts of consciousness, time, space and god. Early on, they make assumptions based on limited information, which often become concretized as Truth.
We humans need concrete simple ideas to see us through our comings of age. But, as we grow and mature those original assumptions about who we are and the way the world is may no longer defend and serve us. In order to deal more realistically, we need new information. Acquiring it can result in the death and dissolution of old personas. Suffering may ensue, but then, phoenix-like, a new creature emerges from the ashes of the old. This process of life-death-rebirth continues throughout life as each individual steps closer to authenticity.
There’s more. The life-death-rebirth story of the heroine/hero’s journey also echoes the seasonal progression of our planet and the yearly growth cycle of the plants that nourish and sustain us. Hermetic wisdom teaches, “as above so below.” We can also say, as without, so within. David Abram makes a grand case in Becoming Animal that our patterns of thought, the ways we think are metaphors for natural phenomena like geography and weather.
Anthropologists have argued for a long time over what defines us as human beings. I think it is our talent for metaphor. Metaphor allows us to imbue language with meaning. Etymology tells us the origin of the word lie in the Greek words μετά (meta), “between” and φέρω (pherō), “to bear”, “to carry” – to carry between. A metaphor transfers meaning from one thing, idea, concept, person, word, etc. to another – what device could be handier for the tribes of nomadic people to which our ancestors belonged? Imagine how quickly the first stories spread amongst the tribes.
The descent into the underworld with it subsequent return involves “carrying between”. Someone enters another world and comes back carrying a wisdom gift. We do this every night in our sleep as we dream. Childbirth can be seen as another such journey for both mother and baby. The parallels between the story of the heroine/hero’s journey and the events in our manifested lives are many. This includes the miraculous transformation of our own bodies as cells switch out over time, until every seven years ago we are reborn, made anew in our old image. Even the stars echo this cycle – maybe the star-dust in our bones embeds this archetypal memory in our bodies.
How ere it be, the descent and return holds many truths for us; multiple lessons that apply to every aspect of our interior and exterior lives. Perhaps the most profound gift it offers is the knowledge that death and life are inextricably linked together – one unified phenomenon. For me that knowledge draws death’s sting – not the fear, which is built into my body and designed to keep me safe; not the grief of loss – these remain, but bitterness, confusion, resentment, anger, the endless “why” have all disappeared.
That static silenced, I hear more clearly. The deep bass notes and sound of the drone have become part and parcel of the symphony. Without them no harmony exists. Without them no hint could reach our ears of celestial music spun from spinning spheres.
* Note to artists: Spring Equinox painting is by Susan Clark. After searching many websites I still couldn’t find you – if you object to my re-blogging – please let me know. Ditto for the unknown artist of music of the Spheres. Whoever you are I think its gorgeous. Thank you both for your lovely, evocative work.