We Are In The Underworld And We Haven’t Figured It Out Yet

Jul 15 · 9 min read

by Martin Shaw

As both a mythologist and wilderness rites-of-passage guide I am frequently asked to comment on climate change, collapsing stories, and what on earth to say to our kids about the future. I am no kind of pundit, so choose my words sparingly and carefully. What follows is a few thoughts.

***

The real horn being blown at this moment is one some of us simply cannot hear. Oh, we see — the endless television clips of crashing icebergs, emaciated polar bears, and a hand-wringing David Attenborough — but I don’t think we necessarily hear.

Climate change isn’t a case to be made, it’s a sound to be heard.

It’s really hearing something that brings the consequence with it — “I hear you.” We know that sensation, when it happens the whole world deepens. If we really heard what is happening around us it’s possible some of it may stop. From a mythic perspective, seeing is often a form of identifying, but hearing is the locating of a much more personal message. Hearing creates growing, uncomfortable discernment. Things get accountable.

I worry I have been looking but not hearing.

When I hear, I detect what is being disclosed specifically to me at this moment of shudderation and loss. What is being called forth? Whatever it is, I won’t likely appreciate it.

We remember that the greatest seers, the great storytellers, the greatest visionaries are so often blind. Listening is the thing.

In ancient Greece, if you needed wisdom greater than human you went to the market square of Pharae in Achaea and created libation for Hermes, god of communication, messages, storytelling. There stood a statue of the bearded god. After burning incense, lighting the oil lamp, and leaving coin on the right of the deity, you whispered your question in its ear. Once complete, you swiftly turned and left the sacred area with your hands over your ears. Once out, you removed your hands, and the very first words you heard were Hermes speaking back to you. You curated these insights into your heart, pondered and then acted on them.

You didn’t see Hermes, you heard Hermes. You listened.

It’s said that in ancient Greece the deaf were shunned through their supposed lack of capacity to hear the gods. That was considered dangerous.

Isn’t it interesting that the enquirer to Hermes kept their ears blocked till they were out of the market square, so as not to be assailed by idle, above-world chatter and think it divine? I wonder if we may be asking the question to Hermes but removing our hands too early.

As a storyteller I have noticed when an audience is profoundly absorbing the import of a story, they close their eyes to do so. It deepens the encounter. Anyway, onto my main thought:

I think we are in the Underworld and haven’t figured it out yet. Both inside and outside us.

The strange thing about the Underworld is that it can look an awful lot like this one. It’s not situated in those esoteric graphs and spiritual maps we study, it’s situated as a lived experience.

I recently saw a mist suddenly descend on my garden, it just rolled in out of nowhere. Everything changed, just like that. Very quickly all appeared different: no shrubs, no apple trees, it was a foreign landscape. The dead felt usefully closer, the silence deeper. In just a moment, the Underworld seemed present, as an atmosphere rather than concept, a tangible, seasonal shift not a distant idea.

This world can be Otherworld, Underworld, heavenly, hellish and all points in between. It can still be Arcadia, Camelot, Eden almost. That’s why it’s confusing. We still get to go on holiday, drink wine, watch beautiful sunsets. We still pay insurance and kids still go to college. But there is something happening. An unravelling. A collapsing, both tacit and immense in scale.

We are frightened and we do not know what will happen next.

And into that fraught zone drifts quite naturally the Underworld. This is not the dayworld, this is the nightworld we are entering. It’s not a mistake or aberration, it is fitting with the times.

But we are still using dayworld words. This is why so little works.

When we move into Underworld time, mythically the first thing to go is often the lights. This is a shadowed or even pitch-black zone of encounter. Nothing is how it seems on the surface of things. We have to get good with our ears. So to repeat, our eyes alert us to the wider situation, but it’s our ears that alert us to the personal, the particular, the micro in the macro. This tends to be when the heart is alerted.

And there’s just more of the Underworld about. Its tactile, tangible attributes. We have Penthos (Grief),Curae (Anxiety) and Phobus (Fear), those gatekeepers of the place roving ever more readily amongst us. Either chronic or acute, acknowledged or not, they are present at our table. So what happens when the underneath, the chthonic, the shadowed material starts to become more and more visible in our lives?

We start to fess up.

The Underworld is a place where we admit our red right hand. We give up the apotropaic.

An apotropaic act is when you ritually ward off evil. When you claim innocence unduly you are attempting a similar, unseemly act. Keeping your hands clean. So we could entertain our own hypocrisies for a while. That would be suitably sobering. When we start to remove the scaffold of smoke and mirrors propping up our lives, what is left? That is part of an Underworld etiquette.

I also have to say something deeply unfashionable: it is not relentless self-absorption that makes us realise our interior mess is directly mirrored outside ourselves. That’s not vanity, that’s attention. It’s not hubris, it’s horrifying clarity. If you don’t attend to your soul’s vitality with intent, then suppressed it’ll run you ragged. They are not above catastrophe to get your attention.

Soul seems more dangerous to talk about than sex, violence, death or money these days.

As many nerve endings as there are in a body, are the messages attempting to issue forth between place, animal and person in regards to climate change. I think we should forget the rest and attend to ours. Staggering spiritual repair is called for. It is not just those bad white men in power that did this. We all did.

I believe something will crawl back out of the Underworld. It will. It always does. But it may not be us.

The Underworld chews up soundbites, gnaws on the feeble marrow of platitude, pummels certainty or sweeping predictions into the greasy darkness of the cave to gobble later.

The Underworld speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

So being that’s where I think we are, I suggest we should develop a little etiquette. Hold a little paradox, to speak out of both sides of our mouths.

In the Underworld, even a spirit takes on more than one form.

In Roman such spirits were called — di manes, or in Greek — theoi cthonioi. One being can have several bodies, all communicating things a little different. The one fixed position erupts into the polyphonic many. A stuck position, a one sided position, is child’s play where we’re headed.

So with those standpoints vivid in mind, I’m going to ask us to hold two, seemingly contrary positions at the same time. That we could deepen into both.

1. Stop Saying That The Earth Is Doomed

You may be doomed, I may be doomed, the earth not so much.

And anyway, do you have any idea how offensive that is to the gods? To any amount of offended magics? Especially to your children? To the perpetual and ongoing miraculous? In the Underworld, such grand protestations reveal a lack of subtlety. Even hubris.

And who are we, with our unique divinatory access, that we seem to have information withheld from everything else in all time and space. And now, now we are suddenly cleaving to the “facts” of the matter? Facts don’t have the story. They have no grease to the wheel, they are often moribund, awkward clumps of information that can actually conceal truth, not promote it.

I’m not even asking for hope or despair, I’m suggesting responsiveness to wonder. To entertain possibility. And to deepen.

Cut out the titillation of extinction unless we are really are prepared to be appropriately stupefied with loss. To stop trafficking in it just to mainline a little temporary deep feeling into our veins as we post the latest Ted Talk on social media. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, doesn’t mean that rivers, deserts and ice floes don’t daily communicate their flogged and exhausted missive, but there’s an odd twisted eroticism, a Western Thanatos that always comes with excessive privilege. And let’s be clear, most of us reading this are excessively privileged. I think some of us are getting off on this. That it-all-will-end assists some poignancy to a life deprived of useful hardships. Not ever knowing appropriate sacrifice is not a victory, it’s a sedative.

But when we prematurely claim doom we have walked out of the movie fifteen minutes early, and we posit dominion over the miraculous. We could weave our grief to something more powerful than that. Possibility.

Let the buck stop with you. Where is your self-esteem if you claim the world is doomed with you still kicking in it? How can that be? What are you, chopped liver? Is that really your last word on that matter? I’m not suggesting a Hercules complex land on your shoulders, but if ever you longed for a call to action this is the moment. And, at the very same time:

2. Approaching The Truth That Things End

Dancing on the very same spear tip, we accept our very human response to things ending. We don’t like it. We loathe it. The good stuff at least. Though it is a historical inevitability, a biological place-holder, could we start to explore the thought that earth may appropriately proceed without us? Without our frantically curated shape? Could our footprints become pollen that swirl up for a moment and then are gone? I’m not suggesting we are anything but pulverised with sorrow with the realisation, and our part in its hastening, but I persist.

I’m offering no spiritual platitudes, no lofty overview, but for once we stop our wrestle with god and feel deeply into the wreckage of appropriate endings.

That even, or especially such catastrophic loss requires the most exquisite display for the love we did not know how deeply we loved till we knew it was leaving.

I think even to operate for a second in the Underworld without being annihilated we have to operate from both wonder and grief, at absolutely the same time. One does not cancel the other out, it is the very tension of the love-tangle that makes us, possibly, a true human being.

Notice I said approaching, not accepting the truth that things end. That’s to swift a move, too fraudulent, too counterfeit, too plastic. Approaching is devastation enough.

This terrible, noble counterweight is what we are getting taught. But it doesn’t end there.

There in that very contrariness something gets forged: something that is neither-this-nor-that, a deepening, the blue feather in the magpie’s tale, the Hermian move to excruciating brilliance through the torment of paradox, the leap of dark consciousness that we, in the name of culture, are being asked to make. The thunderbolt that simultaneously destroys and creates.

These are grand turns of phrase I’m using but I don’t apologise. You’ve been in love once or twice, you know what I’m banging on about.

I once heard that to become a sovereign of Ireland you had to attach a chariot to two wild horses. One would lurch one way, one the other. You revealed your spiritual maturity and general readiness for the task by so harnessing the tension of both that a third way forward revealed itself. The holy strain of both impulses created the royal road to Tara. A road that a culture could process down. I’m talking about something like that. That’s Underworld character.

And such sovereigns were not defined by what they ransacked, what they conquered, but how they regulated their desire, how they attended to the woes and ambitions of their steeds for a third way to reveal itself. Under great pressure and with immense skill.

The nightworld is where we are.
I say it. I say it till we may hear it.

And in that darkness, we remember what we love the most.

That itself is the candle.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2019

Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist and teacher. Having led the Oral Tradition and Living Myth courses at Stanford University, Dr Shaw leads the Westcountry school of myth in the UK. An award winning author, recent books include The Night Wages, Wolf Milk, Courting the Dawn:Poems of Lorca, and a conversation and essay on Ai WeiWei, Myth in Real Time.

www.drmartinshaw.com

www.cistamystica.com

www.schoolofmyth.com

Martin Shaw

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Dr. Martin Shaw is mythologist, author and storyteller, and founder of the WestCountry School of Myth.

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