What many psychologists, psychics and astrologers call the Underworld Journey is any intense emotional and psychological experience which brings you face to face with deeply buried aspects of your psyche, subconscious fears and complexes — and strengths and gifts — which can no longer be ignored.
Sometimes astrology, especially Pluto affecting planets in your birth chart, can be a trigger, as it is now for people born early in Capricorn, Cancer, Aries and Libra. Sometimes life events conspire to start the journey. It’s not something you can handle in an afternoon; in fact, the full cycle can sometimes take years. But most people emerge from their journey having gained important and life-changing psychological insights, as well as powerful psychic and spiritual gifts.
Many cultures’ myths describe the archetypal Underworld Journey, including the Greek and Roman stories of Pluto/Hades’ abduction of Persephone and the creation of winter, and the Grimm’s fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel.” However, most agree that the most psychologically insightful and useful Underworld Journey myth was contained on the 5,000 year old clay tablets, which tell the story of Sumerian goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Goddess of Love, and her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. The story and its psychological meanings are available in several books.
Each step of this myth is like a chapter in a guidebook of how to successfully complete your voyage to greater psychological health and well being, full of tips and warnings about what will be required of you, and how you can meet each challenge successfully. Before Inanna begins what she knows is a dangerous journey, she arranges for the god of wisdom to rescue her after 3 days if necessary. Then, dressed in her most impressive crown, royal robes and jewelry, she sets off to see her sister.
The nasty surprises begin at the first of 7 gates she must pass on her way to the Underworld. She introduces herself, and the gatekeeper is unimpressed. She plants her hands on her hips and announces that she’s the Queen of Heaven. The gate guard yawns and tells her she must have taken a wrong turn because she’s come to the wrong place. Thus Inanna receives the first lesson of the Underworld Journey: your real-world accomplishments, your titles and income, your designer clothes and fancy car, don’t mean diddly on this trip. Not only that, but in order to even pass the first gate Inanna must surrender her most potent symbol of authority. At subsequent gates she has to leave behind other parts of her outer self. When she finally enters her sister’s throne she is naked, bent and humbled.
Psychologically speaking, this means that in order to even meet the hidden parts of your psyche, what Jungian psychologists call your shadow self,represented by Inanna’s sister, you must set aside the masks you wear for the world, and allow yourself to be “naked,” or free of assumptions, preconceptions and judgments. It also emphasizes that most of the skills you learn in order to cope with the everyday world simply don’t work and won’t help on this journey.
After several intense and painful experiences, Inanna is finally freed, thanks to the intervention of the God of Wisdom. On the path returning to the upper world, Inanna rediscovers, one by one, the things she discarded at each of the 7 gates. Each time she pauses to decide whether to keep the skill, belief or symbol of success, or leave it behind, in the process she discovers that even the few she chooses to bring back with her now have different meanings and functions. But, most important, when she re-emerges into her sunny courtyard, Inanna realizes that she is not only Inanna, she now is also her sister Ereshkigal. She has actually reclaimed a part of herself, and in doing so has become whole, wise, powerful and empathetic in a way impossible before she made the journey.
If you enter into your own difficult journey wholeheartedly, and seek out the help of someone you see as wise and willing to watch out for you, you will begin to see what Inanna saw. You have to be willing to leave behind preconceptions and grapple with difficulties, armed with only your true self to depend on. You also have to be willing to accept and integrate what you find hidden in your psyche – if you are prepared to walk this path, you will emerge from the experience wiser, more complete, and very, very happy to see sunshine again!
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