What Is The Underworld?

What Is The Underworld?

Gate of Hell, by William Blake

Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
Through Me Pass among the Lost People.
Justice Moved My Master-Builder:
Heavenly Power First Fashioned Me With Highest Wisdom and with Primal Love.
Before Me Nothing Was Created
That Was Not Eternal, and I Last Eternally.
All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here
(Dante’s Inferno, Canto III 1-9).

These words, inscribed above the archway of the portal to Hell in Dante’s Inferno are filled with gravitas, ring ominous, and seemingly warn of impending doom for the traveler who enters therein. This portal, however, leads to the greatest adventure ever undertaken by humans, the descent into Soul.

According to Aristotle, Heraclitus took Soul to be his first principle (De Anima, a2, 405a25). This means Heraclitus may have been the first depth psychologist, at least that we know of in our Western tradition. The main point is that Heraclitus emphasized the importance of the depth of existence by positing Soul as his archon, or first principle. He was the first thinker in the West that we know of to do so. Taking this into consideration, one must read his fragments with a downward gaze, peering through the entrance to Hades, and down into the Underworld.

in Fragment 54, Heraclitus states

The unseen harmony is better than the visible.

And in Fragment 123, he says

Nature loves to hide.

James Hillman discusses this idea of the hidden in his book, The Dream And The Underworld. Soul forever pursues the hidden, the invisible connections of existence. As we delve ever deeper for hidden connections (Truth), Soul grows stronger, deeper, and we more soulful.

…we may realize that the depth dimension is the only one that can penetrate to what is hidden; and since only what is hidden is true nature of all things, including nature itself, then only the way of soul can lead to true insight (p. 26).

So, depth = truth


Soul = depth


Soul = truth

Hillman suggests that Heraclitus, by implying such equations, foresaw the importance of an ontological and psychological hermeneutic, which has proven to be crucial to the work of Heidegger, Henry Corbin, and Hillman himself. Since, as Heraclitus believed, there is no end to depth (Fr. 45), all things inevitably become Soul (Fr. 36).

Pursuing depth will always lead one to the Underworld, ruled by Hades. The Ruler of the Dead is quite an interesting fellow. For instance, did you know that Hades is the god of the hidden wealth of the earth? One of the common names associated with Hades is Pluto, which is derived from ploutos, meaning “wealth.” Hades is god of all precious minerals and metals that are mined from the depths of the earth, for

The entire bulk and substance of the earth, was dedicated to father Dis [Haides] (that is, Dives, ‘the rich’, and so in Greek Plouton), because all things fall back into the earth and also arise from the earth. – Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.26

He is also responsible for the fertility of crops, since it was Spring when he released Persephone, the goddess of Spring’s bounty.

Furthermore, Hades is known as the god of funeral rites and mourning.

Of Haides it is said that he laid down the rules which are concerned with burials and funerals and the honours which are paid to the dead, no concern having been given to the dead before this time; and this is why tradition tells us that Haides is lord of the dead, since there were assigned to him in ancient times the first offices in such matters and the concern for them.” – Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5.69.5

The Underworld is the place of the dead, so Soul and death are intimately connected, since Soul always seeks the depths of the Underworld. We must not assume that Hades is an eschatological world, where souls go after death. The Underworld is a psychological reality in our lives right now. We travel there every night in our dreams. The Underworld is a shadow of our normal world of consciousness. It is very much with us constantly in our daily lives; it is simply hidden, since “nature loves to hide.”

Hillman says, “all soul processes, everything in the psyche, moves toward Hades” (ibid., p. 30). We are “dying out of life” (ibid.). We spiral out of life into the deep places of the earth. We move from the visible to the invisible; from the shallows to the depths of Soul. This is not referring to literal death! We are dealing in metaphors. What is the deepest, most hidden thing we know of? Of course, it is death. We live daily with the angst of knowing the certitude of its arrival. Death is invisible, but ever present.

Hillman has an interesting idea about the words on the archway of the portal to the Underworld.What is the hope we must abandon at the entrance to the Underworld?

Again, we can follow Heraclitus (fr. 27): “When men die, there awaits them what they neither expect nor even imagine.” The word translated here as “expect” is related in Greek to “hope” (elpis), so that the specific hope that is abandoned (Dante, Inferno 3) on entering the underworld perspective is the fantasy of daylife expectations and flesh-and-blood illusions. Souls in Hades are “incurable” said Plato. There is no alteration to be hoped for. Such hope would be to hope for the wrong thing (ibid. p. 43).

Hillman is here referring to the Jungian hope of wholeness, Jung’s process of individuation, where all disparate elements of the Soul are gathered into a unified central Self. The Underworld entities, spoken of in Greek mythology, are always plural. The Underworld is a place of myriad figures. Even individual dead persons were not referred to as singular (ibid. p. 41) in mythological writings.

It is also important to remember that our dreams are very closely related to death and the Underworld, for they have their origin in the realm of Hades. Memento mori.

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