to the Darkness
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every
Relationship in Your Life.
for a FREE Report on creating Amazing Relationships.
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.