Tag Archives: underworld

The Ways of the Underworld

“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect
They may not be questioned”

These lines have been in my head a lot in recent days. Partly because of the Dark Goddess book I’ve been reading. The words have settled on me with a weight that I cannot ignore, a sense of presence and truth that overrides everything else that has been going on for me. The ways of the underworld are perfect…

It’s been a tough few weeks, and my blogging about what’s happening has been fragmentary. Partly this is because I only tend to write about things when I’ve properly processed them and think I have something useful to say. Partly because I’m not the only person caught up in this and I can’t check in about what it’s ok to say, because that’s part of the problem. I am not the only one to have taken a sudden and very intense underworld journey.

My own journey has taken me through issues of what happens when my most basic needs aren’t met or respected. I’ve been into the darkest places of PTSD triggering. I’ve questioned everything. I’ve stared into a future that looked like no kind of future at all. I broke down, and wept and broke until there came a point where I could break no further, and breakdown shifted, dramatically and gloriously into breakthrough and healing.

It was a bloody tough journey, but there was no way of getting from where I was to where I am now without something on that scale. The ways of the underworld are perfect. Terrible, terrifying, but also perfect.

At the time of writing, it’s left me in a strange place of simply having to trust to that perfection. I’m not the only person on an underworld journey, and the shape of my future may depend a great deal on how others emerge after walking their own dark roads. I can’t do that for them, or with them. All I can do is wait and trust, that what is happening is what needs to happen. That’s not easy either, and so I come back to those lines, over and over – the ways of the underworld are perfect, they may not be questioned. All of this is beyond me, bigger than me, and I get no vote in a lot of it. All I can do is surrender to the process, and accept it, and wait.

But, that’s actually a choice, that’s not simply passivity. There have been choices all the way in this journey. Letting go is a choice, fighting is a choice, belief is a choice. Even hope is a choice and often it’s hard to see that those are things you are choosing. But they are. My recent journey has revealed them to me as deliberate choices, over and over. The choice to get up, again, to move again no matter how much it hurts. The choice to love and trust and hope no matter how irrational that seems. I write this from a place of peace, settled into that irrational love, hope, trust combination, accepting the perfection of the journey in all of its emotional brutality and challenge.

The instruction to be quiet isn’t a knock-back, or a denial of the experience. It comes to me as comfort. Quiet, Nimue, the ways of the underworld are perfect.

Underworld journeys

I choose the dark road to the underworld, and I set out singing. In my head are songs of the land, songs of the seasons and it is good to share them with the road as I travel. I am not afraid of this road, I have walked here before. I know the broken hearted songs of grief and loss and I will sing these too because grief is love and this is what it takes to head down into the darkness.

Let me be clear – I am not singing to make a bargain with any underworld deity. I am not here for them and whether their hearts are touched or not by my songs is of no consequence to me. I do not come to the realm of the dead for the sake of the dead. Of course I am glad to comfort who I can but I am not here to argue with death or to plead for an exception.

I am here for the living. It happens sometimes that grief is so dark and deep a river that the current of it pulls a person down into the realms of the dead. When love of the dead is stronger than anything remaining in the living world, a person can forget themselves and become a shade.

I bring my songs. I sing of life, landscape, love, foolishness, fondness. I sing the trials and challenges, the hopes and fear. I wrap my living breath around melodies, shape words softly in my mouth. I sing the songs I sang as a child, and new ones learned specifically for this journey. I sing the songs that are part of my life and I pour my aliveness into them. It is the best magic I have. I walk, and I sing.

I have made no promises to look ahead and never look back. Not that it matters. This is a dark place and I would not see much anyway. I sing of trust and of the future. I sing of reasons to feel and hope and I keep walking. I will not get lost here, my song is a thread of life to hold me connected with the living world and I can follow these notes and words back to myself at need. There will be a path because I insist on it.

I trust that you hear me. I trust that the breath of life and magic sung into the darkness will sustain you, guide you, enable you to follow me. I trust that I can walk us both back up from the depths and into the living world again, and that we will emerge together, alive to each other and singing the same songs.

Cyclical Living

The way we focus on the wheel of the year in some pagan traditions can make it tempting to try and shoehorn all life into the solar narrative. I’ve griped about this one before. There are however some good and helpful lessons to take from the idea of the wheel of the year. Cyclical living can be considered in much more abstract ways.

We can picture life as a straight line, a journey from point to point. Viewed this way, each experience is a line, a village we will only pas through once, a view we will not see again. In many ways, linear thinking makes it harder to learn, because it reduces the idea that there is anything to learn. If we’re always moving forwards, whatever we get, it won’t be this. With a linear life view, all losses are permanent, all ends are absolute. There is no way back.

A cyclical view allows a very different way of thinking. If life has tides and seasons, things come round again. The corn dies to the scythe, the leaves fall, but come the spring there are new corn stalks pushing up, new buds coming. They may not be the same leaves, but they grow on the same trees. Each turn of the tide is its own, unique moment, but the ebb and flow are continuous, moving seamlessly from one stage to the next. If we view life as ebb and flow, as cycle, as change that holds constancy and constancy that is full of change, then there is every reason to learn from each turn.

I have experienced death in life more than once along the way. Not just the death of loved people, but the death of things within me. Hopes, dreams, ideas, beliefs, sense of self. If I believed at any point that those deaths were absolute, I’d have long since gone crazy. The linear life view would have broken me long ago. But I have a cyclical sense of things. Even when there is winter in my soul, I do not completely forget the existence of spring. When something dies, I do not entirely forget that death is part of the cycle. The moon waxes and wanes. Tiny plants grow on the corpses of fallen giants. Life has a startling ability to continue, and this is as true within as without.

There are stories in the Wiccan tradition about death and rebirth – The Descent of the Goddess – following Persephone into the underworld, and back into the daylight, knowing that the underworld part of the saga awaits. There aren’t any neat Druid/Celtic parallels that I can think of, although there is Taliesin, dying to Cerridwen and being reborn. There is Blodeuwedd who is flowers, and then woman, and then owl. That story has always spoken to me. I think about Rhiannon’s story of loss and trial and eventual release. These are cycles of descent and change, of suffering and transformation. They aren’t as clear as the Persephone narrative.

Going down into the darkness is part of life. Into the darkness of loss and uncertainty, of pain, disease, fear, depression. There are those who talk about the darkness inside the cauldron, the place of potential, waiting to be gestated, imagined into being, born into the world. There are warmer and happier way of understanding ‘darkness’ but for me, each cycle of descent is a narrative of pain and terror. Something dies. There are days of crawling through dark places with no sense of direction, and days when I just lie there and whimper, inside my head. The outside may appear to be functioning, but that’s not always indicative.

The process of emergence is not like watching a butterfly unfurling its wings. It is not the joyfulness of seeing a chick breaking free from the shell or a baby being born. But then, who can say what any of those things are like, from the inside? It’s a slow crawl, it is as bloody as the descent, and as fraught with difficulties. Sometimes the idea of being held in the darkness seems preferable, making a non-space, of not feeling, not doing, not allowing myself to care. That can feel like safety, while the idea of being vulnerable to feeling, to the scrutiny of light, is unbearable. Climbing back out of the hole, feeling like I have no skin on, nothing to protect myself with, does not seem to get any easier with practice. So far, I have always managed, sooner or later, to climb back out of the hole, hanging on to whatever tiny shreds of hope and inspiration I can find. Life is cyclical. There will be other holes, other long descents and arduous returns. Other journeys through dark lands. At least knowing this makes them less of a shock when they turn up.

I am making the trudge back from the underworld, again. I come back knowing that either one day I am going to shatter entirely and throw myself in the river, or I am going to have to find a way to be myself, hold some space that is mine, and have some place to sing the wilderness song in my soul. Sing with blood and teeth and mayhem. There has to be another way of doing things. And the wheel turns…