Stephanie Pope essay, Descent, Alchemy & Falling A-part
myth and poetry

Scholarly Essay


Descent's Alchemy: The Imaginal Process of Falling Apart -Stephanie Pope

The ancients understood that nothing could be changed without first being annihilated.
                                                                                                                                 --Maggie Macary
                                                                             I'm climbing the tower down touching toes to the nose of cellar clay
                                                                                                         The Best Things -- Stephanie Pope

Shortly before his death Carl Jung commented that we are perhaps looking at the world from the wrong side. “We might find the right answer,” he says “by changing our point of view and looking…not from the outside, but from the inside” (Jaffé 216). James Hillman expresses the sense of this “inside” advantage we are seeking.

Outside and inside, life and soul…we have to see the inner necessity of historical events out there, inthe events themselves, where ‘inner’ no longer means private and owned by a self or a soul or an ego,where inner is not a literalized place inside a subject, but the subjectivity in events and that attitude which interiorizes those events, goes into them in search of psychological depths. (Healing, 24-25).

Looking inside for a depth perspective, then, does not mean looking inside of me or you but looking inside a subtle field created by attitudes that interiorize events in an in-scape, a landscape of images whose interplay appears to shape or mold our “sense” of reality or perception. In the reenactment of descent mythologies such as the Descent of the Sumerian Goddess Inanna, what we are seeking out by participation is a way to reconnect again to some sense of this “inside” depth or soul perspective because our soul-making has become so very lost in an identification to material life.

Active imagination, talking directly to the thing you are dealing with, was Jung’s way of allowing ego direct contact with what the inner psychic factors had to say. He derived this method from his understanding of the stages of alchemy, thinking of the psychological tradition of alchemy as the art of active imagination with materiality (von Franz 22). The alchemists project their own psychological depths into their materials. Thus, in the work was also the alchemist’s soul-making (Re-visioning 90). Alchemy, active imagination, and journeys of descent are ways to seek out what the soul wants. All three employ as their means imagination. Discovering what brings meaning to life, what enlivens and vitalizes life (for surely this is that to which the term soul-making refers) involves an imaginative process.

I remember during my own participation in the reenactment of the myth of the descent of Inanna to the underworld during February of 2002, how I felt the need to descend because I had become very disenchanted with the world I lived in. The world that I perceived no longer seemed related to the world living in me. Hillman suggests that what had happened to me in my soul-sense is soul loss; soul is lost in a literal perspective, its identity with material life. Soul like this is too coagulated with physical realities and needs to break down, fall apart, or be blackened by melancholic frustrations (Re-visioning 90). So my feelings of disenchantment were the black metaphor suggesting the need to transmute my natural viewpoint into an imaginal one.

The ancients seemed to understand this need in the soul’s viewpoint to free itself from its material and natural view of itself (Macary, “Why the Descent”). In the myth of Inanna’s descent Inanna (ego) moves inward and through seven entry points, relinquishing as she descends, a little more of her (ego’s) authority each time. Finally, she appears before her sister side (soul life) naked (stripped of ego) and condemned to the experience of mortification (death) and putrification (decay). It seems the ancients knew that soul-renewal requires a complete dis-identification to ego’s habits and attitudes that obscure a view to the psychic in-sides, those subtler voices speaking at the silenced edges, along the margins and in the gaps where meaning first leaves life. Macary writes

In the telling of Inanna and her Descent to the Underworld, we find all the essential aspects of the Descent Mythos. Inanna is incomplete in her knowledge and wishes to know of all things, even Death. She gradually disrobes as she passes through the 7 gates. At each gate she gives up more and more of her ego and power… She is touched by the eye of death and experiences the decay and darkness that is her opposite… but, by doing so, she is reborn….

Renewal happens in the depths and through a fantasy of falling apart. And, like alchemy, descent mythology recognizes in this “falling apart” the substantial nature of imagination as well as the imaginal aspect within all natural substances (Revisioning 91).
alchemical conjunction

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alchemical conjunction--the four small circles represent earth, air, fire, & water/the substances of nature.Therefore, the image is a good representation expressing this idea of the substantial nature of imagination while likewise containing the imaginal aspect within all natural substances. (Note: The writing on the steps, of which there are seven (that descend) are words connoting the stages of alchemical disintegration and transformation and correspond to mortification and deaththrough the seven gates of Inanna's descent

My imaginal “falling apart” begins in the antechamber to the underworld with the removal of my shoes. As I enter the underworld I am very conscious that I am barefoot. In stepping I step through the very matter I am grounded in. My shoelessness becomes the guide unmaking me in a movement from head to toe, from the realm of consciousness (the head place) down and in to the realm of the underworld (the realm of the unconsciousness) or “toe place”.

The potency to me of this move is in its depotentiating ability. It takes me out of my head logic and into the unknown no-where fictive space of psychic reality where symbolically I continue to “undress” ego by giving up the voice of its presence seven times in seven gestures of relinquishment. The crucial thing here for me is the realization that this movement does not take me away from the world of the living but more fully into the mattering world in which I find myself truly living. Renewal and rebirth are about living what matters by dis-covering it or disrobing the matter living in the soul unknown to the knowing mind.

Stan Marlan also talks about this movement from the head place to the place of our ground and matter by saying that when we do this it is as if we “put on the sandals of Hermes” (13).  By taking off our literal shoes we put on our psychic ones.  According to Linney Wix, a psychotherapist in the area of play therapy, this is like stepping backwards (13). One undoes oneself by way of symbol (this backward walk of Hermes) and reunites to the living, dark ground or prima materia of the psyche in a work against nature.  This means it is as if one dies in ones material and natural view. The imaginal view takes over. And Hermes is guide. This makes the psychological movement not only regressive (an undoing) but also a movement toward the possibility of renewal in greater psychic complexity. Also, this opens the way to a more mature psychological viewpoint capable of dealing with life from a soulful and deeper dimension of regard.

Now, both the alchemical process and imaginal soul processes work within minimal space and indicate that the soul “is not moved by our moving through it” (Revisioning 93). It is we not it who require changing, the closed space, and its heat of oppression expressing pathos, for this reminds us that the idea of interiority refers to psychological space (a realm of depth) apprehended through inwardness of image. We apprehend this idea by way of an image of vertical descent (94).

        alchemy 2   symbolb alchemy symbol alchemy 9
a work underground ie in the depths; the alchemical vas ; the idea of interiority, ascent and descent

Alchemy’s image for minimal space is the vas, the closed vessel. The descent offers the image of Inanna (ego) descending through seven gates bearing the names authority, perception, communication, compassion, power, creativity and manifestation. This is our subtle body containing our faculties of subtle mind. It tells us that ego’s voice (our very presence) already carries and intends, like sound intends an echo, another consciousness at the boundary between where the audible and unspeakable meet. This is the imaginal consciousness guiding us throughout our experience in soul’s zone of re-visioning ego through images of death, decay, and rebirth.

     From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
      From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below
      From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.
Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth ( Wolkstein 52)
alchemical virgin

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Perhaps it is this image of the open ear that first gives me my sense of enclosure and also disclosure as I move from the antechamber into the temple chamber of the underworld to undergo a reenactment of Inanna’s descent that day in February. By following in the path of the ancients I was discovering/dis-covering the way of Psyche’s own motion, a motion  never moving outside of itself (Marlan 17). I was turning---turning around my own turning that turns out to be a re-turning of and to the idea of me in my own ground of being. My rebirth that day happened in the flame of a still desire.

I live in the flame
of a still desire
I flicker there
a not-lived love
Shadowing these likenesses
living beyond the ear of my own speech

                    - A Still Desire, from Like A Woman Falling

It is this motion, this pivoting around the axis of a self existing in the midst of its own dissolution, that makes the moment of renewal and rebirth possible. This is the moment, Hillman says, where you awaken within the idea which is you (17).

                                                         Works Cited

Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Connecticut: Spring Publications, Inc., 1983.

 --- Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper Perennial, 1975.

Jaffé, Aniela. C. G. Jung: Word and Image. Bollingen Series XCVII: 2. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Macary, Maggie. “Why Study the Descent”. Myth and Culture, 1996-2002. June 16, 2002.

Marlan, Stan. Fire in the Stone” The Alchemy of Desire. Ed. Stan Marlan. Intro. Stan Marlan. Illinois: Chiron Publications, 1997.

Pope, Stephanie. “A Still Desire”. Like A Woman Falling. Scotsdale:Mythic Artist Press, 2004.

---“The Best Things”. MYTHoPOETRY, 2002. June 16, 2002. 

von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemical Active Imagination. Massachusetts: Shambala, 1997.

Wolkstein & Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper & Rowe Publishers, 1983. 

working with an archetype:

Evans Lansing Smith
Doorways, Divestures & the Eye of Wrath

short fiction:

Stephanie Pope
A Gentle Light
mythopoetics mythopoesis
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