Demeter mourning Persephone (Evelyn de Morgan, 1906)
The special promotional period for my poetry collection, UNDOING WINTER, ends this Friday, April 25th. To mark these final days, I thought I’d say a few words on one of the central themes of the book – katabasis, or “descent”.
From the Greek word for “down”, katabasis is a term beloved by psychologists and scholars (especially Jungian lovers like me). It refers to a downward journey – “a descent of some type, such as moving downhill, or the sinking of the winds or sun, a military retreat, or a trip to the underworld.” (See the Wikipedia article on katabasis here.)
The Easter holiday just passed celebrates a katabasis of sorts, and my favorite kind: the ancient story of rebirth, or return. Like Christ, many figures of myth undergo a journey into death, darkness, or despair, often in order to accomplish something superhuman – to resurrect a loved one, perhaps, or to bring a message of love and hope to mankind.
The titular poem in my collection, “Undoing Winter”, explores several other examples of katabasis. Perhaps the most obvious to fans of Classical myths is the story of Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture and mother of Persephone, a hapless maiden who was abducted in the bloom of her youth by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. As the story goes, Demeter in her grief defies the mighty Zeus, leaving the earth to languor in a perpetual winter so long as Persephone remains in her dark prison (spoiler alert: eventually Demeter wins her daughter back, though at a cost).
I faced the shining wrath of the sun
on your behalf
while you cried your soul away.
I made excuses to the earth and sky
and fed the peasants gravel.
Give it time, I said. She is composting.
Come again tomorrow.
Burney Relief / Queen of the Night
– from UNDOING WINTER* – Finishing Line Press
Ever the fan of layers, I wrote UNDOING WINTER with other versions of the descent in mind as well – specifically Orpheus (the mythic Greek musician/poet) and Inanna (Sumerian Goddess of Awesomeness), both of whom braved underworld trials in order to bring back lost loves.
Arno Breker, Orpheus en Euridike (reliëf 1944)
It should be no surprise that such stories hold a constant place in the repertoire of faith– (and art, for that matter! How many modern fictional heroes can you think of who manage to fight their way back from certain death – and at what price?) As mortal beings, we face the loss of loved ones and of self at every turn. The hope that there is life beyond death is naturally something that occupies our collective psyches.
Yet stories of resurrection needn’t always be taken literally, nor do they only belong in the realm of heroes and gods.
In psychological terms, katabasis can be a metaphor for depression. This, too, is one of the central meanings of UNDOING WINTER, both the titular poem and the book as a whole. Though for me, the journey in and out of clinical depression happens to be a lifelong condition, many people (most, even?) have or will experience the long dark night of the soul.
This, I think, is another reason why stories of katabasis are so eternal. Life is hard – so hard, sometimes, that giving up or giving in seems preferable. Like the heroes of myth, it often takes great will or faith to overcome the lure of the dark. Sometimes returning to the light hurts like hell. As lovers of stories, we’re not just hoping to hear that death is not the end of us – we’re looking for reassurance that we have it in us to survive.
Ultimately, “Undoing Winter” is about self-rescue. The poem gives homage to – and takes liberty with – a powerful archetype found again and again in our collective archives. The collection, UNDOING WINTER, carries the idea even further. In this arrangement, I hope to bring the reader into some dark places… echoes of where I have been, and what I have endured… but there’s a reason for it. I promise. Because, for me, katabasis is not just about the journey down. It’s about coming back… by tooth and claw, if necessary… to find we are stronger… better… more ourselves than ever before.
Want to show your support for UNDOING WINTER? Pre-order your copy today at Finishing Line Press.