What is an Underworld Journey?

The Underworld is the land of the dead. That’s true enough. But it’s also so much more. Think about the most basic physical manifestations of the Underworld: mushrooms. Mushrooms the fruiting body of a fungus that lives below the ground, deeply interconnected by mycelium. And these mycelial beings break down dead things. They serve an essential function in our environment. They break down the material that once made up a living thing so that other living things can use it. This work is essential for the continuing of life on earth. Mushrooms facilitate allow the dead to shed and decay what is necessary for new life. This is a microcosm of the Underworld itself: death, yes, but also nourishment, transformation, creation.

A long haired person in the center of the frame faces away from the camera. They wear a witch hat and are wandering down a path in an autumn forest.
Image by monstera via pexels.

The Underworld is a secret hidden space of destruction and generation. It is caves, swamps, worms that wriggle in the deep and aerate the soil, mythical lands of the ancestors, dark nights of the soul, ego deaths. The Underworld is a place where souls rest, where deities rule, and a place where heroes journey. With such a legion of things the Underworld can be, what does it mean to be on an Underworld Journey?

(Interested in reading more about what the Underworld is? Check out my blog post “What is the Underworld?” here.)

This post is deeply informed by my own experiences with the Underworld. While I make reference to myth, this is not a scholarly consideration of the Underworld Journey. Instead, I’m exploring the question of how myth can inform our modern spiritual understanding of and practices around Underworld journeys. There are perhaps as many ways to experience the Underworld as there are people. My experience may not match your own, but I hope that it inspires you to begin thinking about your own experiences with the Underworld and why they matter.

The Underworld Journey in Myth

The Underworld journey is a story told in many cultures the world over. In an Underworld journey, the hero descends into the Underworld, is challenged to transform in pursuit of their goal, and then returns to the world of the living.

While the Underworld and the Underworld Journey is a mythic story that exists in cultures the world over, as a result of my own knowledge and experience, I will be focusing on discussing the Underworld Journey myths of Greek, Norse, and Mesopotamian origin. If you’re interested in exploring the Underworld myth of your own ancestral lands, or are perhaps just curious about multicultural experiences of the Underworld, the Wikipedia page on Underworld Journeys has a great list of myths from across the world. [1]

There are far too many myths of such delightful detail that it would be impossible for me to cover them here in any detail. And so, I will share sweet, sacred/sacreligious summaries of the myths with which I am most familiar, so that we can use them as inspiration for what exactly the Underworld Journey is in modern spiritual-magical practices. 

In sacred, loving, irreverent summary here are my favorite Underworld myths:

  • Persephone seeks nothing and finds power. Her mother’s dark night of the soul above, Demeter seeks communion and finds a new balance. 
  • Odin seeks insight and learns information he’d probably rather not know, and yet he courageously returns home, heavy knowledge in tow. 
  • Inanna descends to visit her sister and returns from the dead to find her lover joyous. 
  • Orpheus also seeks his love, but is issued an impossible challenge and loses her. 
  • Theseus seeks a bride where he is trapped by a flesh eating chair when Hades indulged to hear his request. He is rescued by Herakles, but leaves behind part of his behind. 
  • Herakles labors to atone for the murder of his wife and this final labor releases him.

These are far from the only Underworld journeys in myth, and they are by necessity cherry-picked from my own personal spiritual focus (because I’m not kidding you folks there are TONS of Underworld myths!). But they give us some examples from which to work from.

The Underworld Journey in Modern Spiritual Practice

In our own modern spiritual practices, Underworld Journeys can look many ways. As Emily notes in How to Tell If You’re On An Underworld Journey (which will be shared on this blog next Monday!), “There is an underworld inside all of us.” Your Underworld journeys will look different than my Underworld journeys. We all traverse and witness different parts of the Underworld in our journeys. 

There are some characteristics that will be common across them and we can look to myth for inspiration:

  1. A Descent, Followed by an Ascent
    A journey below, into the land of the dead is begun. This journey can be done intentionally and willingly (as in the case of Opheus, Theseus, Herakles, Odin, Inanna), or it could be unwilling (Persephone, and therefore also her mother, Demeter). There could even be unwilling portions within a willing journey (Inanna dies and her corpse is hung from meat hooks!). But either way, something draws you into the underworld. It could be part of the natural cycles of the seasons, when the leaves fall and the Underworld feels so near. It could be a result of a huge life change you’ve made. Or it could be the result of an illness, or just sheer burnout.

    Every Underworld Journey, however, has an ascent, a movement up and out of the Underworld and into the land of the living, carrying forward the wisdom of your transformation beneath. If there’s not an ascent, then it’s simply death.

    So if you find yourself in the middle of an Underworld Journey perhaps this will serve as some comfort: even if you do not currently see the path forward, up and out, into the land of the living, know that as long as you remain committed to living, that path will show up.

    Even in some stories of Greek myth the dead do not remain dead – the souls in Elysium may elect to return to life. [2]
  2. A Test, a Shedding, a Decay
    During her Underworld Journey Persephone, as the standard myth goes, is tricked into eating a pomegranate seed and having eaten the food of the realm, she cannot return permanently to the land above. This trickery is a test and like all tests there are consequences, pass or fail.

    The fact that Persephone “falls” for the trick might make it seem that she fails the test. But through this trick she sheds her identity of Kore and becomes something more – Queen of the Underworld. It’s a loss that engenders growth. I have said rather flippantly in the past, Kore isn’t sexy. Yet, Persephone remains a cultural icon, millennial after her myths were first told.

    The test of the Underworld requires a growth, a shedding of the old, in order to succeed. Inanna must shed her veils through the 7 gates and comes to stand naked and powerless, before Ereshkigal, ruler of the Mesopotamian Underworld.

    And sometimes those who enter the Underworld foolishly, find their test a punishment. Theseus enters the Underworld to ask Hades if he can marry Persephone, a foolhardy errand, to be sure. It is clear that while Underworld Journeys promise great lessons or power, but they are not to be undertaken lightly.

    Underworld journeys move us through tests of surrender in order to spark transformation. It’s a little bit like The Chariot card in tarot. You’ll succeed, but first you have to change the way you’re moving or shed the baggage you’re carrying with you. 
  1. Fertile Void
    Sometimes modern Underworld journeys look a bit different than the ones in myth. Astrologer Maeg Keane shared the term “fertile void” with me. A fertile void is a space outside of engagement with the “productive” and “linear”. A fertile void can be a period of deep rest and reflection. It can be a time where you engage only in what catches your interest, eschewing all that doesn’t. Fertile voids are realms that silently, slowly remake you, feeding you only what nourishes, leaving behind the rest.

    The fertile void is the winter snows that blanket decaying leaves before the sun’s light and summer’s growth return. The fertile void is a fallow period between active growing seasons. Sometimes the key to growth is just to rest.
  2. A Transformation
    Underworld journeys transform. They take the old and recycle it to feed new growth. How exactly the Underworld transforms the journeyer is unique, but it is clear from myth that journeys in the Underworld create a change in the journeyer.

    Kore becomes Persephone. Inanna find the courage to return to life and face those who refuse to mourn her.
  3. A Needed, but Inconvenient Truth
    Sometimes the Underworld functions, not like The Moon card in tarot, but The Sun card. It reveals truths we might want to overlook, but whose acknowledgement is vital for our growth.

    Odin enters Hel to seek a seeress and learns of his son’s death. A heavy truth, to be sure, but one which must be faced.
  4. A Return to Authentic Expression
    Because the Underworld facilitates the composting, shedding, and recycling of the brittle, old, and dead it often helps us move into a more authentic expression of ourselves. Whether you are shedding old expectations and rules that you no longer wish to live up to, old ways of relating, old habits, whatever, the Underworld can help you shed that and uncover the seeds of yourself that are begging to be nurtured underneath it all.
  5. A New Dawn
    As I noted above, true Underworld journeys include a return to the land above. But after sheltering, held in the dark for so long, it can be hard to face the dazzling light again. To return to the light requires conviction and courage. After so long in the dark, the light blinds. Once again, you are facing the unknown. Just as it took courage to face the dark of the Underworld, it requires courage to return to the light. As Diana Rose Harper points out, courage is literally “heart-ful”. Courage is the condition of being full of heart, committed to the work of the heart – the work of living. [4]

The Underworld is a shifty, changey space. It shifts and changes the worthy traveler in unexpected, but valuable ways. You’ve probably been through an Underworld Journey before, and if you haven’t yet you likely will in the future. 

In honor of our new workshop Underworld Overviews: Hearth + Home, Emily & I have been writing a lot about the world below. You can find more blogs in this series by clicking the links below:

What is an Underworld Journey?

–How to Tell if You’re on an Underworld Journey

-Lex’s Underworld Journey

–Emily’s Underworld Journey

To help you get a taste of the Underworld, to tune in and encounter this magical space, I created a Spotify playlist! This playlist will help you encounter the Underworld and move with its magic. Get the playlist here!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katabasis 
[2] The Greek Myths, Robert Graves.
[3] Personal Communication.
[4] https://www.instagram.com/p/CNvtIawnLic/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link 

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