The mythologies of the ancient Near Eastern cultures are an endless source of fascination and inspiration. The mysteries of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian arts hold symbols, images, and narratives that take us deep into the psyche of a desert/river civilization imbued with cosmic consciousness. Their myth cycle mirrors the cyclical nature of a river civilization, with the Nile’s yearly flood season bringing fertility and abundance to the people.
The goddess Isis represents this cycle through the narrative of her descent to the underworld to rescue her consort, Osiris, who dies and is reborn every year, just like the seasons. In the Isis myth, we find a rich source of inspiration for our art, but when we dig deeper into the archetype, we realize we are looking into the great ancient depths of the Divine Feminine Soul.
The Egyptian Isis was the heiress of the earlier Babylonian Ishtar, which was the heiress of the still earlier Sumerian Inanna. These goddesses were all powerful Queens – sovereigns of fertility, love, and magic. Their legends intertwine, revealing likenesses in patterns and themes whose echoes reverberate strongly in our modern concept of the heroic feminine.
They were goddesses of descent, transformation, and ascent, choosing to journey into the mythic underworld on sacred missions. The primordial Inanna descended in order to willingly sacrifice herself to her Dark Twin, Ereshkigal, a struggle from which she emerges reformed and re-empowered. Ishtar and Isis both descend in order to rescue their beloved consorts. All three myths are symbolic of the life/death/life cycle of fertility and the agricultural year, and remind us of the sacrifices necessary in order to propagate the cycles of productivity and abundance.
For modern women, these narratives ring true on an even deeper level. They remind us of our need to transform and transmute as human beings. We “sacrifice” old selves, old lives or out-dated paradigms in order to emerge into more evolved versions of ourselves. But like all heroic quests, we must journey into our own depths to find the power to rebuild the new Self. In those descents to our personal underworld, we encounter repressed parts of ourselves and face our Shadows, those Dark Twins who hold the keys to our transformations. We find strength we never knew we had and the courage to pass tests, face our fears, and emerge newly integrated into the light of the new realities we create. We return stronger, more creative, more intuitive, and empowered with our new discoveries. Just like the goddess.
The field of archetypal psychology works in exactly that way – by showing us that our stories are the stories of the goddess – and that even great goddesses were obliged to descend and pass the tests of the underworld in order to deepen their magic and integrate the powers of the Self. When we realize that these transformations come in cycles, we gain courage and hope as we engage the processes of self-evolution. As above, so below – our journeys mirror the great journey of the goddess, and by discovering this journey, we discover that her powers can also be ours.
A wonderful book that has informed my approach to dancing the Descent/Return Cycle is Descent to the Goddess by Silvia Pereira. The book vividly interprets the myth in light of the Jungian map of the psyche and presents a clear case for its therapeutic value for modern women by revealing the hidden likenesses between our interior processes and the eternal processes of the Divine Feminine.
As dancers, we often confront fear and insecurity as we engage our art form. When we delve deeper into our art, we delve deeper into ourselves, and come up against barriers to our evolution – be they physical issues, creative blocks, or the fear of being seen and judged by our peers. We need to find ways to engage our inner reality in safe and inspiring ways that put us into contact with our authentic, creative Selves. Dancing the great myths is a wonderful way to do this. When we dance in mytho-poetic reality, the movement of our bodies transmits the unfolding story of our heroic soul and its changes.
One way to dance our way through this myth is by aligning its narrative stages with a movement cycle musically engineered to place the dancer in an affective landscape that evokes the emotions of each stage of the story.
1) the Goddess awakens to the need to embark on the Journey
2) The Descent through the seven gates of the Underworld
3) the Dance with the Shadow
4) the Symbolic Death and Disintegration
5) The Re-integration
6) The Return.
In preparation for this mythopoetic Dance Shamanism experience, each woman is invited to consider what and how she most needs to transform at that given moment. Through reading and analyzing the myth, guided meditations, creative journaling, and a ceremonial opening, the mind and psyche are aligned to the work at hand.
The symbolic nature of the story becomes more personal and real when we consider that the actual Descent through the Seven Gates is a gradual divestiture of worldly attributes. Women are encouraged to reflect upon what they need to shed on this journey to the ground zero of the Self. What illusions, habits, or attachments impede our personal evolution?
In facing our Dark Twins, what virtues are revealed in surrender? Can we embrace this split-off part of ourselves? Can we heal her even as we allow her to heal us? Is the meeting a struggle, a dance, or both? When we enter the dark stillness, how do we empty ourselves in order to fill back up with hope and new potential? These are powerful issues for women that can be integrated on various levels and that reach deeper into the subconscious when they are danced ceremonially. They transform through creative expression, which heals and integrates on a much more immediate level. The result of the transformation is embodied - like the soul inscribing itself onto the physical canvas of the body.
The dance cycle is structured to allow spontaneity and improvisation to bring authentic expression to the forefront. Creative imagery is offered as a guide, as well as evocative suggestions and passages from the epic poem. The musical soundtrack is a powerful stimulus which is carefully constructed to promote immersion into the myth.
At the end of the dance cycle, women are encouraged to crystallize the results of their journeys by creating and incorporating statue figures that reflect their new states of being. The experience is wrapped up with a ceremonial closure and talking circle. There are usually many hugs, tears of joy and realization, and an amazing sense of lightness.
Participants tell me of how they change in the wake of the experience, that they find new courage and strength, renewed creativity, and deeper insight.
I can’t help but reflect on the significance of these essential therapeutic myths on a day like today - the Saturday before Easter, the Christian adaptation of the ancient mythic of descent and return. Easter is a Great Renewal after the character-test of Lent. Tomorrow, there will be feasting and celebration, a great release from the period of testing which carries so much weight in the collective consciousness.
The mythologies of descent and return reach to us throughout the eons and across multiple cultural expressions. They ring true for all of us, because we all have to die little deaths in order to resurrect to newer, nobler versions of Being. It’s the life/death/life cycle of evolution, and as cyclical creatures, women are keenly attuned to its rhythms.
To these rhythms is set the spiralling Dance of Life, twirling, unfolding and mirroring to us the universally therapeutic truth that our own cycles are the cycles of Nature, Goddess, and Cosmos.