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Descent to the Darkness

by Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.

One of the most important themes in mythology is the descent into the underworld. This is a crucial and very misunderstood part of the hero’s journey—when the hero dies, descends to the underworld, and earns the right to be reborn again.

The story of the descent to the underworld appears in every mythological tradition because it is an essential part of our development as humans and as spiritual beings. It reminds us that in order to express the light, we must be willing to embrace the darkness as well. The story of the descent of Inanna is one of the earliest surviving examples of this myth, coming from Sumeria, and dating back to around 3000 B.C.

Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth realized something was amiss in the land, and that she would have to descend and visit her sister, Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. Inanna, knowing how dangerous this journey could be, instructed her servant, Ninshubur to wait for her for three days. If Inanna did not return in three days, Ninshubur was to go find help.

Inanna prepared for her journey by dressing in all of the garments and jewelry of her high office; however, as she descended to the underworld she passed through seven gates, and at each gate she was required to remove one article of clothing. By the time she had gained entrance to her sister’s realm, she was humbled and naked.

When Ereshkigal set eyes on her sister, she flew into a rage, and killed her. Inanna was a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, which Ereshkigal hung from a hook on the wall.

Three days passed, and so Ninshubur searched for help. She contacted Enki, the God of Wisdom and Water, who took dirt from under his fingernails, created two mourners, gave them the food and water of life, and sent them to the Underworld to rescue Inanna.

When the mourners arrived, they found Ereshkigal in deep despair. She moaned “Oh! I’ve killed my sister!” and the mourners replied, “Oh! You’ve killed your sister.” Ereshkigal wailed, “Oh! I feel so much pain!” and the mourners replied, “Oh! You feel so much pain!” Each time Ereshkigal expressed her pain and grief, the mourners agreed, reflecting it back to her.

Eventually, Ereshkigal’s pain subsided, and she was so grateful for the mourner’s presence that she asked what she could do to repay them. The mourners requested the return of Inanna’s body. Ereshkigal agreed, but with two conditions: first, Inanna must return to the surface accompanied by a demon from the Underworld; second, Inanna must send someone down to take her place in the underworld.

The mourners agreed to Ereshkigal’s terms, and fed Inanna the food and water of life. Accompanied by a demon, Inanna ascended back to the surface.

The power of this myth is immense. From time to time, each of us must journey to the underworld and confront those aspects of ourselves that we deny and repress. Periodically, we must allow part of ourselves to die, and mourn that death, before returning to the surface accompanied by a reminder of the darkness. And we must accept that we must eventually send another aspect of ourselves back to the underworld.

This is one of the most fundamental cycles of life: birth, death, and rebirth. In order to grow, we must die, a little, from time to time. We see this truth in every aspect of nature: in order to experience Spring we must first live through the bleakness of Winter.

We know it is time to descend when we hear the Call. Some event, some awareness makes us recognize that our lives are out of balance and that it is time to accept our responsibilities and confront our shadows.

For Inanna, the Call was her realization that the crops would no longer grow and that the land would soon be barren. When we hear the Call, it can take many forms; however, we always hear the Call when we experience the death of a family member or someone close to us.

When we mourn the death of a loved one, we are not grieving for them; we are grieving for ourselves. The true essence and spirit of our loved ones can never die or be destroyed; death is simply a transition. We mourn the death of that part of our identity that was defined by our relationship to our loved one.

I have found this myth to be a powerful and supportive tool in grief counseling. It provides a context for us to abandon ourselves to our pain and our grief, knowing that there will be an end to the grief, and that we will return once more to the surface.

The challenge is that in our society, we are encouraged to be happy all of the time. On the whole, we do not encourage, support or understand how essential it is for each of us to descend to the darkness on a regular basis, to withdraw and acknowledge our shadow.

As a society, we are unfamiliar with how to cope with grief or mourning, both when we experience it ourselves and when we encounter it in others. We’re expected to mourn the death of friends and family and little else. We rarely appreciate how essential it is to mourn our own deaths; to recognize and mark the passing of the person we once were, as we shed our old identities and grow into the person we will be.

We are a society of “fixers.” When we encounter someone who is in descent, someone who is experiencing and expressing the painful emotions of depression, grief, fear and sadness, the most common reaction is to attempt to cheer them up. If these emotions persist for more than a few days, we’re told that we have a severe medical condition, and require mood elevators and anti-depressants to restore us to a socially acceptable level of emotional stability.

Now, let me be clear: I am not talking about chronic depression or mental illness. These are serious conditions that require the care of a psychiatrist or licensed mental health professional, and these conditions do seem to improve when treated with medications that help to balance the chemistry of the brain.

I do feel, however, that as a society, we are far too quick to turn to medication to “treat” our natural cycles of expansion and contraction. Because so few of us are raised in environments where we are encouraged or supported in exploring all of our feelings, most adults have decades of experience stuffing and suppressing their painful emotions. When these emotions finally burst free, it can take weeks, even months for them to run their course—after all, they represent a lifetime of shadow that has been ignored, avoided, repressed and denied.

When we don’t have a map to explore these feelings, we look for ways to avoid them. We turn to alcohol or drugs (both prescribed and otherwise) to numb the feelings so that we can function in society. This only increases the amount of suffering that we experience and makes it even more difficult for us to grow. We stagnate in our life cycle, fearing change. Because we cling to the past, we are not able to experience our future.

What we really need is to learn how to embrace the pain, to surrender to the powerful emotions of grief, regret, loss, despair and sadness. The only way for us to heal these emotions is to experience them fully. Once these emotions have been expressed, we’re free to return to the light. We simply need to understand the importance of this process, and seek support and assistance from others who truly understand how to facilitate this powerful healing.

Ereshkigal’s mourners didn’t try to fix her. They didn’t suggest she get out into the sunshine more, or see a movie, or take an aerobics class. They didn’t belittle or dismiss her pain. Instead, they listened to her. They heard her. They acknowledged her pain. And by being present for her, by honoring her pain, her grief, her process, they helped her to find her way out of the depths of her own underworld. They provided a truly supportive and healing response.

The only way we can provide this healing support for others is if we are willing to confront our own darkness. If we are afraid of our own shadows, we cannot hold a space for someone else’s shadow. Remember, the Universal Law of Relationships states that our partners are our mirrors. We can only embrace in others what we embrace in ourselves.

The myth of the descent of Inanna provides a powerful map for how to explore this process in our own lives.

First, we hear the call. We notice that our lives are out of balance. We feel stuck, trapped, and dissatisfied with the direction of our lives. We recognize and accept that in order for us to grow, in order for us to express and embody the next phase of our path, we must go within and explore the darkness.

We create a space and time for this journey, and we set our intention clearly. We find a trusted friend and ask them to hold the space for us. Our friend will remain on the surface, waiting for us, and will make sure that we return safely from our journey. If we have not returned after three days, our friend will intervene, but for at least three days, our friend will not interfere in the process.

Now, we are ready to begin our descent. This process is different for everyone. Some people meditate; others journal; some work with sound or movement. Whatever your method, it’s important to treat this process as a sacred journey (because it is). As you pass through each gate, you will lose more of your defenses until you finally arrive in the underworld naked and humbled and completely vulnerable.

When we arrive in the underworld, we die. Those parts of us that no longer serve us, our masks, our false identities are utterly destroyed. In the underworld, we may experience the death of one or more of our dreams. We may allow our identity in relationship to a parent or family member to die. In every case, we are simply releasing long-held ideas and perceptions about ourselves; however, we often identify with these ideas very powerfully. When they are destroyed, it can feel as if we are being destroyed as well.

After this act of violence, we experience a flood of emotions. It is time to grieve, to mourn the death of these aspects of our self. In this process, we are at once the victor and the victim. We experience Inanna’s pain at being killed, and we experience Ereshkigal’s grief and regret both at the loss of her sister and at the fact that her rage is what destroyed her sister in the first place.

We can also take on the role of the witness, and become the mourner who supports us in exploring and expressing our grief. Our friends can also assist in this process in the role of the mourners, so long as they simply honor our pain and do not attempt to fix it.

Once we have completed our grieving process, we are reborn. But before we can return to the surface, we must embrace and honor our shadow. In order to return to the light, we must bring some of the darkness with us. We must choose one small part of ourselves that we have disowned or rejected and accept it, allowing it to accompany us back to the surface.

Although there are times in our lives when we have no choice but to descend, we can always choose to descend voluntarily. The more familiar we become with this process, the more we are willing and able to mourn the passing of those ideas about our identity that no longer serve us, the more balanced our lives will be.

Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit for a FREE Report on creating Amazing Relationships.

©2006 Kevin B. Burk, all rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article in your publication, web page, or eZine (which you may do for free!), click here for details.


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