We don’t talk much about the underworld any more. The dark realms were such a strong undercurrent in pre-modern consciousness. There were so many stories. And ceremonies. Occasionally, even now, reminders surface. Little sparks and shadows that flicker at the edges of awareness, like the melody of a song that we dreamed long ago. But for the most part, we carry on as though it’s not there.
Society has trained us to be high-functioning in the middle world, now dominated by rationality, consumerism, and the institutions of modernity. Interestingly, though our culture is self-consciously secular, we still have robust traditions that encourage spiritual transcendence. Reaching towards the upper world remains a legitimate part of the human enterprise. But we no longer descend. At least not with clear intention or with the willingness to let the shadows instruct us. When we tumble down the rabbit hole it’s usually because we’ve tripped.
I want to make space in this blog for Persephone’s path – the descent and return. The soul journey often takes quite a few underground detours and I think it’s important to explore that terrain. But “detour” is the wrong word, already implying a bias. Instead, I suspect these are necessary adventures. On Persephone’s path I need to use night language, and the best way to do that is either to speak a poem or tell an old story. So here is a story from Northern Europe. It’s called the Erlkönig and I first heard Clarissa Pinkola Estés tell it.
There was a village at the edge of a forest. People there told stories about a supernatural being called the Erlkönig, who lurked in the forest at night to steal away the souls of anyone who happened to wander out into the woods. One night a man was riding home with his young son on his horse. They were tired. To save time, he decided to go through the forest. As they made their way through the woods, the boy became very afraid. He heard something, and told his father he thought it was the Erlkönig. His father reassured him, saying the Erlkönig did not exist, and all would be well. They rode on. Then the boy saw a figure coming closer, and again he warned his father. But his father said he was just imagining things and scaring himself with foolish stories and nonsense, and there was no Erlkönig. They rode on. But now the boy could see someone right behind them, reaching toward them, and he cried out in terror and the horse panicked and surged ahead at full speed and the man had to use all his strength just to hold on. When they arrived at their home the horse collapsed in exhaustion. And the man discovered that his son was dead.
I think of the man, the boy, and the horse as different aspects of the self. Because he operates purely in the world of rationality, authority, practicality, and the five senses, the man is not able to see the danger or to save his son. The boy – the part of the self that is emotional, open and transparent – is able to perceive the world of shadows and imagination, to see in the dark. The horse, representing nature and the aspect of the self that is connected to the earth, responds both to the boy and the danger.
Our culture trains us relentlessly to be like the man. But the story reminds us to stay connected to the parts of ourselves represented by the boy and the horse – to stay in contact with wonder and wildness. The story calls us not to transcend, but to something else…