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Rebirth and Renewal: The Underworld Journey as a Heroic Beginning

by Imelda Wistey

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Carl G. Jung

 

In the archetypal hero’s journey, the katabasis, or journey to the underworld, is an iconic component for the hero’s process of transformation. The underworld, of course, can be an actual underworld, or it can be interpreted as a state of darkness for the individual. Many mythological tales from around the world speak of the underworld journey not only as a realm of the dead but also as an environment of knowledge and discovery. In this post, I will talk about how the underworld journey is a process for rebirth and renewal to usher in new beginnings.

 

Transformation

The concept that the hero has to undergo trials to attain a semblance of enlightenment goes hand in hand with the underworld journey. Joseph Campbell mentions in the monomyth that this underworld journey is the “crossing the threshold” into the “belly of the whale.” However, I also like to think of the katabasis as more of a state of unknown that heroes must venture into in order to experience the symbolic death and rebirth into required knowledge and understanding before setting off to complete the rest of their tasks. It’s only after encountering this dark unknown that a transformation and rebirth of the hero can happen.

The unknown reflects the underworld journey inward into the place of one’s own fears and shadows, haunting even the most optimistic adventurer. These shadows reflect the mythical aspect of the human condition: the repressed, often frightening elements of the psyche. The shadows, according to C.G. Jung, also symbolize “natural attempts to reconcile and reunite opposites within the psyche,” and naturally “heal the split” within one’s soul.[1] In many stories, the underworld may be a cave, a forest, or even an otherworld. But these are just placeholders for the actual delving into the shadowy realms of our souls. These places are symbols for the powerful transition that happens that is not exactly of our world. It is a world that mainly exists for pivotal self-reflection. Metaphorically, by being in the dark alone, it’s impossible not to face yourself. This is why, symbolically, the underworld journey is so important to the heroic transformation[2]. The hardest thing for people to do is to actually look at themselves, to really look and peer into the depths of their souls. People will avoid facing themselves because it is painful. It’s easier to ignore or dull the pain with outside distractions. In the underworld lies truths that cannot be hidden because within the dark, everything can come to light. This is where the underworld journey can take flight. Being courageous to look at the darkness within allows for a conscious transformation to take hold, a death of the shadow and rebirth into a new way of living.

 

Returning to Self

Because there are countless heroic experiences that happen in stories and in our lives, the transformation part of the heroic journey is a cyclical process. There are so many unknowns in this world that the only “known” thing is returning to self. Each transformation is another layer peeled, bringing you closer to your magical, authentic self. Yes, you are magical! Own it!  Little victories happen often if you let yourself take the time to acknowledge them. Unfortunately, for many of us, we don’t like to celebrate the little successes because we know there is still more to be done, more mountains to climb, rivers to cross, and monsters to defeat. But it’s important to take a moment after the underworld journey to admire yourself and accept that you are an amazing individual, even with those dark moments. If we don’t realize that we are constantly transforming, traveling into our own underworld journeys and coming out reinvigorated and wiser, then we don’t give ourselves the credit for striving and thriving in a world that can sometimes be unforgiving.

 

A New Beginning

You’re never the same person that you were yesterday. This change allows you to venture deeper into your being and grant you time to reconnect with your authentic self. This is a time of reprieve, a time after being submerged completely in the River Styx (not dipped by the heel, because, well…you know…) to unify your sense of self once more. The process of beginning again, albeit countless times, is a catharsis, a cleansing to start again on the next task and the next trial with full speed ahead. Each plunge into the dark abyss of facing yourself and all your fears will only lead you closer to recognizing the profound strength that already exists within the entirety of your being.

 

So much to muse about with the transformations of underworld journeys! Let me know your thoughts! Tweet me @imelda_corazon using the hashtag #heromusings and I’d be more than happy to continue this discussion further.

 

 

[1] Carl G. Jung (1964) 90. Jung is great in understanding the psychological importance of myth and mythmaking.

[2] (Spoiler!) In Black Panther, both T’Challa and Erik “Killmonger” take a shamanic “journey” by dying into the otherworld / ancestral plane to see their ancestors and are then “reborn” back into this world with greater understanding. In doing this, they also face themselves and recognize truths that only this underworld “journeying” could reveal to them.

 

A bit about the columnist:

Imelda holds a Masters degree in English Literature with an emphasis in heroism and narrative. Her interests relate to the power of narrative in storytelling: how stories within mythology, fairytales, and legends, from different cultures and time periods, written or spoken, are all interrelated on the basis of human experiences. She primarily writes stories that portray the hero’s journey as she believes the journey of the hero is the journey of what it means to be human. You can follow her #heromusings on twitter @imelda_corazon. Visit author page