On the Myth of the Descent

  • Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?  -- George MacDonald, Phantastes


    Many people, upon coming to the Craft, have what they call a “coming home” experience. That did not happen to me until about five years after finding the Goddess, when I read Raven Grimassi’s Ways of the Strega. However, by that time, I had learned things from the Goddess that I couldn’t square with the tradition set forth in that book; and, since subscription to the things set forth in the book was a requirement for becoming a part of that tradition, this made it impossible for me to go into the one community where I felt I truly belonged – even had there been someone in my area to initiate me, which there wasn’t. This was a sore spot with me for many years. At this point, I’ve come to terms with it, and can even see the benefits in having had to find my own way.


    One of the elements of that tradition that I could not accept was the Myth of the Descent. This myth is not unique to Grimassi’s tradition; I believe it was part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as Sumerian religion. Grimassi’s version can be found in more than one place on the web; it is lengthy, and I don’t want run afoul of copyright laws, so I will try and summarize.


    The Goddess seeks to understand death, and so descends to the underworld. To get there, she must pass through seven gates, giving up something she is wearing or carrying at each one until finally she enters completely naked. When she comes before Death, he is so taken with her beauty that he asks her to stay with him; but she refuses, saying that she does not love him. So, Death says that, since she will not embrace him, she will have to submit to his scourge, which she does; and upon being scourged she cries out, “I know your pain, and the pain of love.” At this point, Death raises her to her feet, initiates her and says, “Only thus may you attain to knowledge and joy.”


    There is more, but this is sufficient for present purposes. What has been unacceptable to me for so long is the notion that the Goddess, who, I believe, is herself eternal life, would somehow experience death. To me, the suggestion that the Goddess could experience death was a self-contradiction at the most fundamental level possible.


    This evening, something came to me suddenly during prayer. Christians speak of “death to self” while Eastern religions speak of eradicating the ego, but I suspect the basic experience toward which both strive is the same: to be so at-one with the Ultimate – however you conceive that to be – that it engulfs your consciousness. It becomes the reference point for everything, the beginning and the end of all thought, the meaning behind every action. Essential to this experience is the surrender of the conscious self, that part of us that seeks to establish its own wants and direct its own actions.


    Grimassi says something else that impinges on this subject. In the “Words of Aradia,” under the heading “Concerning the God,” he writes that the God is physical nature and that the Goddess is spiritual nature. What if, then, the Goddess in the Myth of the Descent refers not to she, herself, in her totality, but rather that spiritual part of ourselves while within its physical home? Inasmuch as she is spiritual nature, we, having our own spiritual nature, partake of her nature; and her descent in the Myth could be understood as our own. Thus, the Myth would be a statement that, in order to attain to knowledge and joy, we must surrender the trappings of self, i.e. surrender those aspects of self that keep us from full union with the divine. This is a painful process; but the love that calls us to her will not be denied, and this is the meaning of “the pain of love.”


    I do not by any means understand all the symbols of the Myth, interpreting it from this or any other point of view. But if the essence of the story is not so much the Goddess’ story as it is ours, and speaks of the necessity of laying aside the vanities that keep us from full union with the divine, then it fits (at last) within my belief system.

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