Katabasis. Go To Hell. Literally.

So this is a long post, and it ain’t all smiles and sunshine. It gets dark here, sons. In my previous post I told you how to slay a dragon. Nietzsche says, and I agree, that we must all become masters in the art of dragon slaying if we are ever to have any hope of achieving our full potential. Using Friedrich Nietzsches allegory of The Three Metamorphoses I discussed the slaying of the dragon and the rebirth of creative potential that occurs when the dragons corpse is left in our wake. However, as with all things, dragon slaying is not as simple as I may have represented it to be.

I may have skipped over the most important act that we must commit in the time after our personal demons are dealt with. It isn’t always easy to nonchalantly step over a dragons body and stroll on towards our objective, so there’s an important ritual to carry out in the space between asserting our freedom and deciding what to do with that freedom.

But first let’s have a quick recap to catch up: what am talking about dragons for? In the previous blog we considered how we are often oppressed in our personal lives by the expectations of our loved ones, the laws of society, the codes of conduct that have been set out by our culture, and also our own personal standards that govern how we value ourselves. These various dictums are usually externally imposed upon us, and thus feel restrictive and unfair. Like being kept on a leash. The clever German Friedrich Nietzsche elegantly characterizes these oppressive forces as a huge dragon named Thou-Shall, upon whose every golden scale is scribed a law that we are expected to obey. This dragon commands us to obey, which isn’t a problem unless you’ve got some goal in mind or some objective which you are pursuing. And let’s face it, we’ve all got goals, objectives and dreams. So for the dreamers, dragons like Thou-Shall are just obstacles to be overcome. To cut to the point, we’ve all got a dragon of some kind that we have to kill if we intend to keep moving forward. Sometimes the dragon wears friendly faces but nonetheless, when it commands us to obey, it’s time to man up and take down the beast.

But like I said, it’s no picnic. Those dragons are as much a part of our psyche as our will to resist its demands are. Once you’ve decided to think and act for yourself and resist the expectations that restrict you, you might feel an overwhelming sense of freedom. Casting off the shackles of society and responsibility is a liberating act and you’d be entitled to a few moments of elation, like a prisoner who finally bursts through the wall. Or a dog who chews through his leash. But usually what follows is a period of uncertainty, apprehension, loneliness and worst of all, doubt. After one is off the leash, some common questions to ask are:

“What will my parents think? What will my friends think? How will this go down with my boss? How am I going to handle such a huge change? Should I have waited? Am I ready? Could I have made more preparations? Can I afford to do this? Am I being selfish? Am I doing the right thing?”

What usually follows is a period of nausea, lack of enthusiasm, fatigue, feelings of dread and fear, heightened sensitivity, nervousness and potentially depression. This feeling of doubt and insecurity is perfectly natural and has the potential to be an enriching experience if you allow it. Slaying the dragon is a solemn act, full of significance and worth taking some time out to meditate on our journey thus far. Once the dragon lies dead, it is important that we spend some time with our grief. After all, what the dragon represented was a part of our lives for a long time. It’s death is a huge loss that we cannot help but feel. These days it’s common for people to promote an attitude of ceaseless positivity and optimism, but this is an unnatural state for a human to exist in. A smile that you have to paint on over your grief is essentially a wound. The optimists can sometimes make a smile into a scar. Of course we all prefer to feel positive, but to make that feeling of happiness and optimism genuine, you have to first spend some time on the dark side. The ancient Greeks knew this and they wrote a hell of a lot of stories about it. This theme of going down into the negative thoughts that we’d rather avoid is common to all of the mythologies that I’ve encountered, but the Greeks spoke of this theme so often in their stories that they even had a word for it:

Katabasis.

A common occurrence in the ancient myths and fairy tales is the descent into the underworld. The hero of the myth journeys to the underworld or to the Land of the Dead and returns, often with a powerful object or a loved one, or more significantly, with heightened knowledge and self-awareness. Katabasis is the word the ancient storytellers of Greece used for this journey. Katabasis means “descent” or “down-going.” It wasn’t only the Greeks who entertained the idea of the descent though. Time and again in myths, fairy-tales and religious parables from across the world, the hero undergoes a down-going, a trip underground into the muddy earth, a Katabasis. Odysseus* went down to the land of the dead and spoke to the ghost of his mother and his friend Achilles. Hercules went down to rescue Theseus from the Underworld. Theseus himself was only there because he went down in order to rescue Persephone. Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and forced into the underworld, it isn’t always our choice to go down there you see. Gilgamesh, terrified of death, sought for immortality in the Underworld. Odin went down to hang himself on the roots of Yggdrasil the World-Tree for nine nights. Odins son Baldr descended into Hėl and stayed there until his rebirth after the apocalypse. Jesus spent three days in Hell after his crucifixion in order to redeem the souls of the dead who had been previously denied heaven.

These few examples are an ancient and diverse representation of a number of different time periods and cultures. So the journey into the darkness is as old as the art of storytelling itself. It’s important to remember that humans are a storytelling animal. We love a good story, whether it’s in the form of a classic novel, a blockbuster movie, a quirky joke, or an entertaining anecdote. We’re addicted to stories. But it isn’t just the entertainment value of a well told narrative that gets us to pay attention, we use stories to convey the collective wisdom of thousands of years of human experience. Before we ever had science to explain the forces of nature, we had to use our imaginations. So we converted those forces which the universe throws at us into symbolic representations that we could easily comprehend, and put those symbols through a decent narrative. The thunder became Zeus’s anger. The sun and moon were dragged across the sky by chariots. Life itself was set in motion by the gods and death was a dark, shadowy land under the ground. A land where we all had to go and spend time in, even the heroes and demigods. Often the stories were describing the inner workings of the human experience and not merely the external forces of nature. The point of the stories which describe a journey into the underworld or into the earth is to remind us that it’s perfectly natural to spend some time in the dark. It’s essential, in fact, to get familiar with the ashes of the lives and dreams that we leave behind us. Life isn’t always a joy. It’s important that we make the most of our lives and try to be happy, but happiness is simply one of the many faces of existence. Sometimes life really is a nasty bitch.

The point of Katabasis is that we return out from the land of ashes stronger and wiser than when we went in. The heroes in the myths did. Odin gained knowledge of magical runes of power. Baldr survived the apocalypse after his katabasis. Odysseus got directions to find his way home after twenty years at war and at sea, but he also gained a newfound love of life. Gilgamesh didn’t gain immortality, but he gained a sense of peace and the ability to finally enjoy his life. Jesus redeemed the souls of those who suffered in hell and ascended into paradise himself. The hero always goes down to face his own grief and fear and emerges as a stronger and more contented individual, better able to deal with the struggles of life. Katabasis myths are often inspired by the sun, which descended into the underworld every evening and was born again the next dawn. And that’s the whole point. The sun always rises. Once you’ve spent some time with your apprehensions and fears, felt like crap for awhile and gained some useful knowledge or experience, you will inevitably reemerge back into the light and the land of the living. This is called “Anabasis.” It means an ascending or a rising.

But what’s it got to do with us, I hear you scream? We live in an age of denied grief. It’s socially unacceptable to express sadness or disappointment anymore. We are expected to maintain a positive mental attitude and wear a smiling mask when we feel grief. If we do express any negative thoughts, our friends and family immediately attempt to cheer us up, or else we are written off as whiners and moaners. This usually serves as enough to shut us up about what we experience, and we paint a phony smile on our mugs. If we do try to elaborate on what’s keeping us from being happy, we usually can’t pinpoint what the problem is exactly. Sometimes when we look down into our chests, all we see are ashes. People reject anything that might unsettle their good mood. This denial of our ashes comes naturally to us, because we’d all rather not see the sorrow, not face the beast, not have to go into the dark. We prefer to live above ground, in the world of air and sunshine. But happiness is only half of life. We’ve been denying our sorrow for centuries and it’s only now that we are beginning to realize that brushing grief under the rug has disastrous consequences. It’s no coincidence that young men are the prime candidates for suicide. Young men in their twenties are killing themselves off in droves, and it’s a tragedy that has impacted most of us in one way or another. Women are at it too, and I think that’s a product of the same denial of grief, but the number of successful suicide attempts are overwhelmingly male. I’m sure that many of us reading this have a hole in our life where there was once a person that we cared about. There are a number of reasons why I believe that young men are the ones giving into despair more so than women (lack of male role models, lack of initiation in society and manhood, lack of hopeful prospects, staring into a meaningless and nihilistic future, lack of support, the denial of grief, the struggle to portray a “happy-warrior” appearance) but I think that’s all better left to separate post. The signs all indicate that both our young men and women cannot always deal with what they experience when they undergo their Katabasis.

We’ve all been depressed at some stage. I’m not talking about the clinical psychological condition which is commonly referred to as Depression. I’m talking about the normal healthy human emotion of grief. The word Depression sets alarm bells ringing, but not everyone who feels depressed is sick. Sadness is not a disease and sad people do not need to be medicated and kept out of the sight of the smiling people. It’s ok to be pissed off. It’s normal to feel grief when something is lost. The stories of the Heroes journey to the Underworld serve as a blueprint for how best to spend time with our grief. When we descend into the darkness, we need to find the powerful weapon, or the useful knowledge that will point to the way out of the dark. We need to speak to the shades of the Land of the Dead, who remind us of why it’s better to return to the light. This is what the ghost of Achilles does for Odysseus, he reminds him of the reasons why it’s better to live in the world than to stay down there with his grief. Before that Odysseus was suicidal and wished to end his suffering by killing himself. Achilles saves Odysseus’s life by giving him a taste of what it’s like to lose everything sweet in his life. Those who give in to despair are the ones who remain in the underworld and do not succeed at Anabasis, the ascent.

So it goes with dragon-slaying. When we cut ourselves off from “The Group” by refusing to obey anyone’s laws but our own, it’s inevitable that we will encounter some pretty dark experiences and undergo a journey through a murky realm that we’d rather not be in. “Keep going” is what the wisdom of our ancestors says to us. Spend some time down there in your grief, in the Valley of Ashes, but don’t stop to rest. When one finds oneself in the underworld, don’t look up at the sky searching for the sun, there is none. No light shines down there. The time for light comes later, but while you’re down in your grief, you’ve got to get to know it fully. So keep moving through the shadows, and you’ll eventually find the stair that leads you back up into the light. And only when you’ve been down in the dark will you appreciate the warmth of the sun.

“Let us live, and in living, keep alive our hope for a world made better by our presence in it.”
-Joseph Brassey.

Footnote:
**Odysseus actually got directions to the Underworld from a witch. He was advised to sail west through the “Pillars of Hercules” which today are named the “Straits of Gibraltar”, the narrow gap of ocean between the southernmost point of Spain and the northernmost point of Africa. After passing through the Gates of Hercules, Odysseus had to sit down and wait while he crossed over the edge of the world, until he arrived on a beach. This allegedly was the location of the Underworld and would have meant that the Land of the Dead was in America. So where is Hell? It’s in America.
July 29, 2014. Dublin.

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3 thoughts on “Katabasis. Go To Hell. Literally.

    • Thanks for reading, my friend. If greek myth interpretation is your kind of thing I thing you might enjoy my analysis of Achilles. It’s my most recent post. Look forward to reading more of your stuff.

      Like

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