(image, Inanna’s Return, found on Judith Shaw’s website)
The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the word ‘descend‘ as originating from the Old French around 1300 CE. It comes from de- “down” and scandere- “to climb”. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to descend, or make/experience a descent, as I’ve engaged in EMDR over the past several months. I think of my depression last year as a descent into darkness but it has been the active trauma work that has been a climbing down into the underworld where the work of psychological death and renewal happen. It began the moment I agreed to do EMDR work to help resolve the effects of the sexual abuse my father perpetrated when I was a child. Of course the effects of the sexual abuse are all tied up with countless other assaults that occurred during my teens and early twenties so I’ve actually been facing and processing decades of trauma.
Recently I picked up my copy of Descent to the Goddess: Way of Initiation for Women by Sylvia Brinton Perera. Perera is a Jungian analyst and wrote the book as an exploration of the Sumerian myth of Inanna and her willing descent to the underworld where she was pierced with the eyes of death and her body was hung on a meat hook to rot. Inanna went into the underworld to honor her sister, Goddess of the underworld, Ereshkigal, who was grieving the death of her husband. Inanna’s release and return are eventually secured when Enki, a bisexual god who often mediates between the world of the fathers and the feminine, sends beings down to the underworld to witness and honor Ereshkigal’s grieving. Being seen allows Ereshkigal to act with more empathy, and she decides to allow Inanna to be brought back to life and return to the upper realms. The analysis of the myth is thorough and complex so I’m only going to write about the aspects that hold the most energy in relation to my therapeutic process. My hope is that writing about it will assist me in the process of integrating the work I’ve been doing. In short, the myth symbolizes a journey towards wholeness for women (and the feminine of men and gender queer people) who have been cut off from feminine instincts and patterns due to the oppression of the patriarchy. Perera writes:
“The process requires both a sacrifice of our identity as spiritual daughters of the patriarchy and a descent into the spirit of the goddess, because so much of the power and passion of the feminine has been dormant in the underworld-in exile for five thousand years”
“In those depths we are given a sense of the one cosmic power; there we are moved, and taught through the intensity of our affects that there is a living balance process. . . And though shaken, even destroyed as we knew ourselves, we are recoalesced in a new pattern and spewed back into ordinary life”
Shaken. Destroyed as we knew ourselves. My experience of this work is a testimony to that description. When I am doing EMDR I often physically shake, sometimes violently. It’s as if all the fear and panic I couldn’t feel while being abused and assaulted rises to the surface of my body’s consciousness and I can now let myself experience the depths of physical and emotional pain. It doesn’t happen passively. I have to willingly reach way down inside myself and go to the places I’ve been avoiding and running from my entire life. Like Inanna, I have to make the descent with conscious intention. It takes immense courage and strength but also an active letting go. This act of letting go is quite literally going into the unknown while intensely fearing that I may not ever come out again. It feels like it might kill me but some small part of me believes I might be transformed.
Perera describes this encounter with Ereshkigal:
“From the perspective of what happens to Inanna in the underworld we an see that the forces which Ereshkigal symbolizes are those connected not only to active destruction but also to transformation, via those slow, cell-by-cell organic processes, like decay and gestation, which work upon the passive, stuck recipient even invasively and against his or her (their) own will. Such impersonal forces devour and destroy, incubate and bring to birth, with an implacable pitilessness.”
One of Perera’s anylsands described this underworld experience this way:
“a slow decaying of all the shoulds, a dying of the encasements of my life that has felt like rotting. I have had to accept that slowness and the descruction of what I thought was me. There is always the fear that once I sacrifice the old, social, competent me, I will be dead. Yet in this depressed place, where I have felt inertia in the embrace of uttermost matter, like cement holding me, there has been an unbinding of energy. It’s been so deep I lose my sense of time–only know that my nails have grown and need cutting again. It’s coming at everything slow and from below-not human and warm but detached. Below ideas of mean or not mean.”
Somehow I have been able to leave a bit of myself topside and this allows me to show up on a basic level in my life. This is the part of me that can reflect on the process I’m going through and the sense of timelessness and decaying described above are very familiar to me. Days go by, sometimes weeks, before I remember to do something important to my conscious life. Something like make an appointment for one of my kids or take a shower and wash my hair. I seem to only be able to find joy in the simplest of events. I feel like it should be my kids and husband who keep me from losing all sense of joy but my relationships with them are bound up in the transformative process I’m undergoing. Instead, it’s the signs of a change in season, the phases of the moon and the birds who visit my yard.
While much is happening deep within my psyche, my relationship to the outer world has become somewhat detached and callous. This appears to be part of the process of this descent. It allows me to see myself without being so caught up in society’s expectations of me. I feel less concerned about being what others consider appropriate and acceptable. I am breaking away from the patterns of patriarchal oppression that have held me captive for so long. Perera relates this mode of seeing to the Ereshkigal’s objective Eyes of Death and writes:
“This cool, objective eye is one basis-perhaps the left brain aspect-of feminine evaluation. It does not get deceived by responsible performance or willed achievement, but finds the ineluctable facts in process, the panoply of emotional vectors that give each moment life, and that pass as others crowd into the present, leaving the individual at the mercy of time and processes over which one has little control, but in which one may find a grounding if one can reverence change itself and find one’s own way to move with it. Such vision is transpersonal and a power that can protect…”
Much of this process is seeing me, my present and past, with new and more objective eyes. The trauma twisted my ability to see what was true. I blamed myself, shamed myself because I believed the lies of my father, my other abusers, and the patriarchy:
My body belonged to whoever wanted it and I should submit to the twisted desires or frustrations of any man. My body betrayed me by having sexual feelings and desires for the men who abused me. It was safer to leave my body and not allow myself to fight back or shake with fear. My worth was determined by my desirability, availability and productivity. If I wasn’t doing everything perfectly and keeping everything in order, then I was worthless.
The cold objectivity of sight I’m experiencing as a result of the trauma work is helping me shift the old beliefs that oppressed me my whole life, to seeing that my value and worth are innate. I was born perfect and innocent, terrible things happened to me that were not my fault and I was incredibly wounded. It’s as though I can see my beautiful self and perfection through the eyes of someone who sees the truth with great compassion and unconditional love. This sight hasn’t been integrated yet but I can access it and it’s transformative.
I will be continuing to write about my experience of descent via EMDR. The myth of Inanna’s descent is incredibly guiding and validating for me.