The descent of Inanna – Part 2
Part 2 – The indignation of Erishkigal
In part one, I explored the myth ‘The Descent of Inanna’ as I studied it for transformation. However, for this posting I want to focus on Inanna’s sister – Erishkigal, the queen of the underworld. In the Inanna myth, I wondered why Erishkigal was so insulted and aggressive toward her sister, so I looked at her side of the story. Erishkigal’s story contains the same events as Inanna’s Descent but with the larger context – it becomes a different story.
It is interesting to me while researching for this piece, I read descriptions of Inanna’s motive for descent as varied as that she descended to try to steal her sister’s power and domain in a time of weakness (Erishkigal was recently widowed and pregnant) to that she was a caring sister, risking her very life to comfort her sister and give respect to her brother-in-law. The second could be why Inanna told herself she descended to the underworld but context shows that Inanna is neither a caring sister or respectful sister-in-law.
The Epic of Gilgamesh and the backstory of Inanna’s descent
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, another Sumerian myth from ancient Mesopotamia, Inanna becomes romantically interested in the hero, Gilgamesh and pursues him.
Gilgamesh refuses Inanna’s advances because he doesn’t want to be her next ex love interest. She was infamous for her love them and leave them ways (and also for being cruel and vindictive).
Inanna does not take the rejection or criticism well and she goes to her dad to seek punishment for Gilgamesh’s unkind words. She wants her father to send the Bull of Heaven (Erishkigal’s husband) to kill Gilgamesh for insulting her. Inanna’s father does not have sympathy for her, but instead agrees with Gilgamesh’s assessment of Inanna’s actions towards her exes and tells her Gilgamesh said nothing but the truth.
Inanna does NOT like it when she doesn’t get her way. Inanna basically throws a tantrum where she threatens her dad with opening the gates of the underworld and unleashing the dead on earth to cause chaos and destroy everything if he doesn’t do what she wants and punish Gilgamesh … so he sends the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. By the way, controlling the gates is Erishkigal’s job – not Inanna’s (no respect at all!)
When the Bull arrives on earth, his foot stomps are so great that the first opens the earth and kills 100 men and the second kills 200. He battles Gilgamesh and G’s friend, Enkidu and Enkidu kills the Bull of Heaven (Erishkigal’s husband). When Inanna arrives Enkidu insults Inanna and throws a piece of the bull’s leg at her. She has him punished for the insult through sickness and death (for the insult to her not for killing her brother-in-law).
So what does Inanna do after she has 301 men and her sister’s husband killed? She decides to go to the funeral and descend into the underworld. This gives us perspective now on why Erishkigal is angry at Inanna.
Erishkigal is in mourning for her husband, she is in the later stages of pregnancy, and her sister who is responsible for her husband’s death shows up at her door dressed in all of her finest, most regal and seductive embellishments – now I understand why:
‘When Erishkigal heard this,
She slapped her thigh and bit her lip.
She took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it.’
Erishkigal is indignant – she does not welcome Inanna as a sister because Inanna is the reason for the funeral and has the audacity to not only show her face but pridefully so with a crown, jewelry, and perfumes – not the appearance of remorse.
The rest of the myth is the same, Erishkigal has her sister stripped of her finery, bowed low, and unleashes her judgement on her. Inanna is reduced to a corpse which Erishkigal hangs on a hook and leaves.
Erishkigal does not dwell on Inanna. She punishes her and leaves her and goes about her life. When she goes into labor, the creatures sent by their grandfather to aid Inanna, comfort her and she rewards them. That’s it for Erishkigal’s involvement with Inanna. She is not angry at the creatures’ motives or that Inanna is released. The judges from the underworld do not want to release Inanna. Erishkigal is not mentioned again in the poem until the last two lines.
‘Holy Erishkigal! Great is your renown.
Holy Erishkigal! I sing your praises!’
The poem ends with Inanna placing her husband and sister-in-law into her sisters’ domain to pay for her actions and Erishkigal being praised.
So 300 unknown men, a brave warrior, Inanna’s brother-in-law, lover, and sister-in-law are all dead (or partly so) because Inanna was insulted by Gilgamesh and what does Erishkigal do? Nothing. She has her baby, pays her debt to the creatures, and handles her domain.
She does not pity herself. She does not seek further revenge on her sister or demand her return. She is in control of herself and does not let her sister’s nonsense effect her beyond when she is forced to directly deal with her. It’s not fair that Inanna goes unpunished and gets her way. It’s not fair that Erishkigal is denied her rightful wrath. But Erishkigal is a queen and above that petty trash. She takes care of her sister’s fallout and rules her domain. She knows life isn’t fair but she also knows her own responsibilities and power and lives her best life no matter what Inanna decides do.
The Descent of Inanna – Part 1
Inanna’s journey into the underworld as it relates to transformative growth
The Descent of Inanna is a Sumerian poem from over 3,500 years ago that tells the story of Inanna’s journey into her sister’s domain – the underworld. When I first encountered and studied this myth, it was in the context of my dissertation on transformative literacy. The myth was crucial for me in a time when I felt lost and needed to know how to move forward and create a new identity.
As I mentioned, my original research with Inanna was focused towards my work on transformative literacy (for more on this – check out my dissertation link). For this reason, the work I did was deep, but not wide – meaning I went very deep into the focus but did not look into different interpretations or for wider context for the poem. Part 1, this part of the writings on this poem is dedicated to that original, simpler research of the heroine, Inanna. With this research, I will discuss how Inanna is a representation of transformative growth and becoming a “whole person.”
The poem opens with the following lines:
“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.
My Lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.”
For the complete translation of the epic poem click the link below: http://people.uncw.edu/deagona/myth/Descent%20Of%20Inanna.pdf
At first glance, it appears the first three lines are a repetition, but when looked at more closely – it is seen that they go from general to specific.
From the Great above (she, the goddess, Inanna) opened her ear to the Great Below.
Individuation (becoming whole) is initiated by an individual seeking to define themselves and find their place in the world. Transformation is constant, but transformative growth begins with breaking down and creating definition. The first three lines, and then the next two lines help us to understand who Inanna is; they define the central character and action she will take in the story. The Great Above is earth – Inanna’s domain and the Great Below is the underworld – her sister’s domain and the place where none return.
The most important lesson I learned from Inanna was to prepare and the second most important lesson is to have people you can trust and be willing to rely on them. Before Inanna makes her descent into the underworld, she calls her trusted assistant and friend, Ninshubur. Inanna tells Ninshubur of her plan to enter the underworld and gives her instructions of what to do if Inanna does not return. (I won’t detail the plans since it will be revealed as Ninshubur follows the plans later in the poem).
It is only after Inanna makes the necessary plans to secure a return, that she gets all dressed up and leaves her earthly temples to visit her recently widowed sister Erishkigal in the underworld. She intends to attend the funeral for her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven, and see her sister.
When Inanna arrives at the gates to the underworld, this is how she appears:
As tall as heaven and as wide as the earth.
“On her head she wears the shurgarra, the crown of the steppe.
Across her forehead her dark locks of hair are carefully arranged.
Around her neck she wears the small lapis beads.
At her breast she wears the double strand of beads.
Her body is wrapped in the royal robe.
Her eyes are daubed with the ointment “let him come, let him come.”
Around her chest she wears the breast plate called “come, man, come!”
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.”
When Erishkigal hears that her sister is there to visit her in her finery, she is not pleased and she instructs the gate keeper to close the seven gates and allow Inanna to enter each gate, one at a time. At each gate, Inanna is to be stripped of one of the items she is wearing (each colored line represents one of the items that was removed) and not until she is completely stripped and humbled will she be allowed entrance.
This part is all a bit severe when looked at in the context of the poem alone. My research explained that Inanna is the light side and Erishkigal is the dark – that what benefits Inanna usually hurts Erishkigal and it is for this reason that Erishkigal is angry. However, the research also had other interpretations – like Inanna represented the conscious, known self that is metaphorically diving into her unconscious where she faces her inner demons to become a more complete and better version of herself. I don’t know what it really means or represents at this point – I just know Erishkigal makes her sister humble before she will see her and when she does see her, she unleashes her judgement and wrath and turns her into a disgusting piece of rotting meat which she then leaves to hang on a hook. HARSH!
At the time, the way I understood this part of the story is that it represented how when you face your inner self – it’s often painful and humbling because there are things we bury because we don’t want to face them or admit that they are a part of ourselves. When you are honest with yourself (really honest) and see yourself for your weaknesses and faults – you can become crushed by the shame, crushed by regret, or simply just crushed and feel like your insides are ripped out until you are nothing but meat – rotting away on a hook. (I was going through a painful time in my life and the image of rotting meat on a hook related heavily to how I felt inside.)
Inanna would have stayed on the hook if it had not been for planning and the loyalty of Ninshubur to follow through with Inanna’s plans.
After three days, when Inanna did not return, Ninshubur openly went into mourning (as instructed), but also began to aid Inanna in her return. Ninshubur goes to Inanna’s father, then grandfather, and finally to her other grandfather seeking assistance for bringing Inanna out of the underworld. The first two refuse to help Inanna and say that she basically got what she deserved (again HARSH), but the third has sympathy for Inanna and sends two creatures to Erishkigal. He instructs the creatures with how to bring Inanna back to life and back to her place on earth.
When the beings find Erishkigal, she is alone and in labor with a child from her recently deceased husband. Erishkigal moans with pain and the beings moan with her in sympathy, she cries in pain, and the beings cry with her. In this way, by being present and showing empathy for Erishkigal, the beings eased her suffering and gave her some solace in a difficult time. For their actions, Erishkigal grants them anything they ask for – which of course, they ask for the rotting corpse of Inanna, as instructed.
Once the little creatures get Inanna’s corpse, they sprinkle the water and food of life on her and she is again Inanna and has the ability to return home. But it isn’t that simple – Inanna can’t just leave – Inanna was judged and sentenced, she can’t just leave without payment – Inanna is allowed to go but she has to send someone to take her place in the underworld.
With my research at the time, I saw this story as transformation – Inanna is stripped (broken down and defined), she faces challenges and reaches a final “rock bottom,” and then she rises after a final struggle and triumph but she is different because she has demons with her – these demons are called gallas.
When I went through my difficult time, I felt stripped of my identity, stripped of the things I held dear, stripped of my possessions, my security, and basically I felt like I had lost my life. Believe me, it was painful and I felt the full weight of my judgements on my self, I felt shame and regret. I was angry and hurt, but when I didn’t feel pain, confusion, loss, and millions of other feeling I associated with Inanna’s experience to becoming a corpse on a hook, deep down, I had faith and I actually felt a bit of relief at being fully stripped and taken to my lowest point – I knew I would be like Inanna and rise again. I knew it had to get better – it really couldn’t get worse, could it?
Inanna rose – with her gallas. She met Ninshubur who cried with joy to see Inanna. The gallas were hungry – like when we have suffered, we often feel the need to unleash the pain. The gallas wanted to take Ninshubur into the underworld in Inanna’s place and Inanna refused.
Inanna next meets her son, then another son, and finally her beautician – all three were in mourning at Inanna’s death and rejoice when they see her. The gallas want to take them in Inanna’s place and Inanna refuses again and again because they are loyal.
Finally, Inanna sees her lover Dumuzi. Dumuzi is not in mourning, on the contrary – he is dressed finely and seated upon his throne. Inanna takes one look at him and her gallas descend on him. She not only returns from the underworld, she is more powerful than before because she uses her gallas (her experience) not to harm just anyone around her, but she guides them to punish the one that is disloyal to her. She is not controlled by her gallas – she controls them and aims them at her lover.
I wanted to be like Inanna – I wanted my pain, my experiences to give me strength, and to do that, I needed to learn control. From Inanna, I learned how to take something painful and through planning, help from others, and some hard work – it is possible to rise and return with more strength and power.
Thank you for reading – please leave me your feedback – I look forward to reading what you think.
Part 2 will look at the poem in the larger cultural context that includes the story – The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Please subscribe to get updates on new content.
The lack of Aphrodite in “The Sopranos”
The Sopranos was a series directed by David Chase about a fictional character named Tony Soprano played by James Gandolfini. In the show, Tony is the head of the New Jersey crime family. His position should make him Zeus, the boss and in control but the series shows that Tony is really a broken Zeus. In the first episode, he suddenly passes out while bar-b-quing making a dramatic explosion which leads him to go to the hospital for a series of tests (19:00-19:45). This event also coincides with the loss of the ducks that will be discussed later in the paper. When the tests conclude that nothing is physically wrong with Tony, he secretly begins therapy to attempt to end the panic attacks and regain control in his life.
For Tony, therapy is complicated. He doesn’t see himself as needing therapy and he is resistant to the idea of therapy. “They said it was a panic attack ’cause the blood work and neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here” (2:55-3:05). He is reluctant to seek therapy not only because in his line of work, therapy can be seen as a betrayal of confidence within the organization but also because he sees therapy as a crutch for weak minded people. He thinks that talking about feelings makes him unmanly. For a man that not only wants to but needs to represent Zeus, being weak and unmanly is unacceptable and leads to self-loathing. Therapy is not the cure for Tony, he needs Aphrodite to give him control and ease his sadness. Even though he is Zeus and he has a Hera, he needs Aphrodite, especially in his business where he makes his money off of thievery, the selling of sex and pleasure, and gambling. These trades need Aphrodite to balance the brutality, without beauty, a strip club is an ugly, sad place. Without something beautiful to protect, violence is also ugly and only for the gain of power. Tony is desperately seeking to have some beauty, something to protect, something to civilize his rage but as he seeks for his Aphrodite, he becomes more and more depressed with the frustration that he will not ever attain her.
Tony is diagnosed with depression; rage turned inward, and begins the combination of Prozac and therapy. Even though the show spans several years, for this paper, the focus will be primarily the first episode. The first episode is crucial to any television series because it is when the audience first “meets” the characters. Traditionally, mafia shows focus on the men, the mobsters, but “The Sopranos” also includes a strong female presence. However, as strong as the female presence is in the show, the lack of Aphrodite is just as strong.
In the series, Tony is surrounded by women: his wife, mother, daughter, sisters, strippers, girlfriends, and therapist. With all of the women that appear in the series over the years, Aphrodite does try to make an appearance but she is always just out of reach for Tony. After discussing some of the women in the show, I will use four points about the nature of Aphrodite that Dr. Paris makes in her book “Pagan Grace” to show that while Tony’s profession does not lend itself to happiness and well-being, it seems that Tony’s biggest problem is the lack of Aphrodite in his life. Dr. Paris explains in detail in writing how the loss of Aphrodite leads to depression but I liked this quote from class. “She is the smile personified” (Paris lecture). Aphrodite is connected to civilization, flowers, and of course, sex and its purpose. By showing how these four elements are represented, depression, civilized nature, flowers, and sex in the episode, I plan to show Aphrodite is not only absent but it is made a point of the show to demonstrate her absence.
Lots of women but no Aphrodites
After opening credits, the series begins with a shot of a naked female statue in the therapist’s office. She is metal, hard and cold, not in the least bit sexual and Tony appears uncomfortable. Next, the first female in the series is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco; Tony’s therapist enters the scene. She is attractive but she is not Aphrodisiac, more Athenian. She is wearing a tan pantsuit and puts her glasses on to show she is in therapist mode. She keeps her arms and legs crossed while they speak, further distancing herself from Tony and Aphrodite (1:40-3:50). Of the important women in Tony’s life, Dr. Melfi is the closest to Aphrodite. He does experience a longing for her but she rebuffs his attentions. Even in her personal life, Dr. Melfi struggles in the realm of Aphrodite. She is not in touch with the Aphrodite inside herself; she is always in the realm of the mind. She needs Aphrodite as much as Tony.
The second and third women are Tony’s daughter and wife, respectively. In a scene at the Soprano home, Tony is excited about a family of ducks that made their home in the family pool. This is one place Tony shows real joy but it is a break from his archetype, he walks into the pool wearing his robe, the reaction from the others shows how it is out of his character (5:15-6:04). It seems to make them uncomfortable. Also, as we see by the end of the episode, the ducks, just like Aphrodite are impermanent. As they walk into the house, his daughter and wife want things from him. His daughter, Meadow Soprano, played by Jamie Spiegler, informs him that she and her friend are late for school. Next, after a brief exchange to his young son, we meet Tony’s wife, Carmela, played by Edie Falco. Together, Tony and Carmela make an excellent representation of Zeus and Hera. In the first shot we get of Carmela with Tony, her body posture is tense, almost aggressive. She talks to him about familial, social obligations and makes a cutting remark about his extramarital affairs that is so subtle, it can almost be overlooked (6:50-7:16) but later in the episode, the extramarital affairs and loss of love is shown very clearly when Tony is in the hospital for tests (20:25-21:45). In many of the scenes with Carmela in this episode her priest is also in the scene (18:30-18:40). Carmela while not unfaithful like Tony has an unnaturally close relationship with her young, attractive priest that Tony insinuates may be seen as inappropriate. She wears fine clothes and jewelry but she is fierce in her ability to protect her position as Hera. She protects her family but is not loving toward her husband. When she hears a noise outside, she does not cower or look for help from the priest who is at her house watching movies, she grabs a large gun and walks outside to confront the cause of the noise, the daughter, Meadow (25:00-25:21).
In this first episode Meadow’s character is still not clearly defined because she is still figuring out her own place in the world. She is young and she battles with her mother for independence. Later in the series, we see Meadow try to find herself by trying on a variety of archetypes. She eventually becomes a college student interested first in pediatric medicine, then finally law. Eventually, in the series she does bring Tony some glimpse of the goddess and mild joy but in the first episode, she is moody and causes tension within the family.
The last and most dynamic woman to be introduced in the episode is Livia, Tony’s elderly mother. Dr. Melfi says that Tony describes her as a helpless old lady but also as a larger than life character. While she is Tony’s mother, there is nothing of Demeter in Livia and definitely an absence of Aphrodite. Her house is old fashioned, Tony has to knock several times before we hear the half fearful, half angry response from inside and she unlocks the locks to allow Tony entrance to his childhood home. She tries to feed him and when he refuses, she gives him food anyway. The conflict between Tony and his mother arises that he wants to have her move to a retirement community and she doesn’t want anything to do with it. She is completely resistant to any kind of change and shows major signs of depression herself. Her house is dark and stuffy. All the windows and doors are closed and locked. Her hair is disheveled, her robe is misbuttoned, and she is wearing worn, old styled slippers. She seems to be a Hestia figure but she is losing her capabilities for living in her own home. She rejects change and has an extreme fear of the outside world (14:46-18:30). Now to contradict the picture of helpless, fearful old woman, we learn that Livia also embodies another archetype. She reveals herself as one of the puppet masters of the mafia family. To most, she seems like just another elderly woman but it is her cunning that makes things happen within the family. Her cunning and position are only introduced in this episode but it is already clear to the audience that while she appears to be a Hestia, she is actually Athena in disguise. While she can no longer manage to make herself a meal without a catastrophe, she is able to plot and scheme all the way to trying to have her own son murdered. She is a major player and skillful manipulator. If any person in the series would benefit from Aphrodite, it would be Livia. It would go against everything she is to have Aphrodite in her life – she is the complete opposite and absence of Aphrodite. In fact, the archetype that Livia fits is that of the anti-Aphrodite, she is angry, loveless, depressed, and cruel.
The important women in Tony’s life are lacking Aphrodite but even the setting lacks the goddess. Tony works out of two places, an Italian meat market/deli and a strip club, The Bada Bing. In this episode there is a scene where the guys are having an informal type meeting in the club. It is bright outside and not busy in the club. The men are seated at a small table drinking; they are not in the same room as the dancers. They have a view of the dancers but they are turned away from them, they don’t notice them. When the waitress does come by with drinks, she is seen as an interruption and nuisance. For Tony and his crew, these women are not beautiful or even worth looking at; they are simply another form of income. The women are topless and dancing but their movements seem somewhat mechanic and out of tune with the music, like they are bored or drugged. Also, they are not really attractive but all this doesn’t matter because no one in the room is looking at any of the dancers anyway. Even in a place where the goal is to arouse men, the focus is not on the beauty or sexual attractiveness, it is about profit. This is a place of commerce, not beauty or grace.
The Unattainable Aphrodites
Aphrodite does attempt to enter the show. In episode twelve, we get a glimpse of hope for happiness for Tony. His life seems like it is adjusting with the therapy. Tony has encounters with a beautiful, Aphrodisiac woman named Isabella. In the episode, we learn that she is visiting from Italy and staying with the neighbors. She is graceful and attractive and Tony enjoys her company. The problem with this Aphrodite is that she turns out to not be real; she only existed in Tony’s mind. Dr. Melfi and Tony conclude that Isabella is the result of the need to alter Tony’s medication. It is interesting that Aphrodite appears here as not only fictional but a result of anti-depression medication. She is beautiful and graceful and just like a flower, impermanent.
Another brush Tony has in the series is Adriana, is Tony’s nephew, Christopher’s, fiancé. She is completely unattainable to Tony because of her relationship to his nephew. In episode fifty-seven, Tony talks about his desire to be with the young, pretty Adriana to Dr. Melfi. In the end, Tony recognizes that his desires can’t be acted on as it would destroy his relationship with his nephew and wouldn’t actually be possible. In the end, it is just like Isabella, the Aphrodisiac experience only exists in the mind. For a twist, Tony and Adriana end up in a car accident under questionable circumstances. The nephew and other members of the crew believe there may have been a sexual encounter and Tony has to deal with fallout from an unrequited encounter with Aphrodite, the closest he ever comes to the elusive goddess.
Depression and the lack of Aphrodite
Tony suffers from depression; he is a broken Zeus. His world is filled with ugliness and violence. He lacks beauty, civilized nature, and love. Through the series, Tony battles depression and the fallout from being a mob boss with the perceived weakness of having a mental illness. Even though Tony is depicted in scenarios where he enjoys being extremely violent and cruel (10:50-11:00); in reality the audience is made to have sympathy for him. The lack of Aphrodite, the lack of beauty and civilization causes Tony to continue to pursue the goddess but he never seems to reach her. This frustration causes him to have more and more sadness and self-pity.
Aphrodite, the civilizer
The world in which Tony lives is untamed. It is crude and uncivilized. Men settle conflicts with force and laws are regularly broken, not only as a rule of business but just in everyday situations. When Aphrodite is present, she must be protected. In order for Aphrodite to be protected, we must have rules and we must follow those rules. Tony is quick to anger; he uses violence to resolve issues in most situations. He is fierce and dangerous; he is arguably an Ares outside of the family setting. Ares seduces Aphrodite and protects her but Tony is an Ares without an Aphrodite to protect. Instead of being civilized and living in a way to protect the beauty of the world, Tony and his crew cause violence and destruction in almost every episode.
The Garden State
It is interesting that the setting for the show is New Jersey, the Garden State. Gardens are cultivated and organized. They are the safe version of Aphrodite. This combines the beauty and impermanence of flowers with the civilizing nature of Aphrodite. This is not Tony’s New Jersey. Tony’s New Jersey is not safe, it is not civilized, and it is not beautiful; it is hard and gritty. His New Jersey is introduced in the opening credits of the series.
The show starts with the view from inside the car. The car is crossing the bridge into city. Everything is hard and industrial. The scenery is old, dirty and dilapidated. Tony is driving the car. He is smoking a cigar and we see the progression from the New Jersey turnpike to Tony’s home. “The New Jersey Turnpike, at least the northern part, is an adventure. Its abstract expressionist shapes, strange lines and angles, concentration of various transport, kinetic energy and tumult, wildlife and history, the things you see from it, its concrete and iron and rubber, its noise and smells and speed, make it a thing of gritty beauty.” (HBO) This is a good description for Tony’s New Jersey. It is also most certainly a place that lacks Aphrodite. It lacks her beauty, it lacks her grace, and it lacks her civilizing nature (0:00-1:39).
Sex in Sopranos
The last important connection with the series and Aphrodite’s absence is with the representation of sex in the series. As I have previously discussed, Tony works out of a strip club. The women are treated as objects for sexual gratification but none of them are in any way Aphrodite. The sexual acts with the strippers are for commerce, they aren’t joyful, graceful, and certainly are not portrayed as beautiful or loving. The characters do not contain Aphrodite so neither does their sex. Carmela, Hera, has sexual obligations to Tony but that is not aphrodisiac, it is more out of duty than love or passion. When we see Tony in sexual encounters outside the marriage they are usually more violent than beautiful. Every woman he dates is psychologically damaged and depressed. The women all lack Aphrodite and end up doing Tony more damage than good, leaving him more depressed and further from the goddess.
This wraps up Tony’s sad state through the series, there is no love, no beauty, no grace, no compassion, no tenderness; basically no Aphrodite for Tony. While telling the story of a New Jersey crime boss we also learn what it means to lose a goddess. Her absence is felt through the entire series. The audience, while maybe unable to verbalize it as such root for the violent, sad man to have some Aphrodite in his life; an ease to his suffering. Tony can’t attain his goal of attaining Aphrodite, if Aphrodite appeared, things would be righted and there wouldn’t be a show. The only way the story could continue would be for the goddess to keep alluding Tony. As Tony would say, there is no happy ending for a mob boss.
Paris, Ginette. “Aphrodite, Ares, and Athena.” First Session. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpentaria, Ca. 4 Jan. 2015. Lecture.
Paris, Ginette. Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia. Dallas, Tex.: Spring Publications, 1986. Print.
The Sopranos. Perf. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Lorraine Bracco. HBO Home Video, 2001. DVD.
Page, Jeffrey. “The Sopranos.” HBO: Homepage. HBO. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://www.hbo.com/the-sopranos#/>.
Dante’s midlife transition: Learning to live and love
(I have been working on this one in my head and will rewrite it soon with new insights)
Transitions are part of life. Nothing in this world can remain unchanged partly because the world itself is in a constant state of transition. Transitions follow natural order – spring follows winter and caterpillars become butterflies. In nature, the only alternatives to change are stagnation, purification, and death. Humans are no exception to this rule but what about the inner world, the world beyond the biological, physical realities and laws? Fortunately, while these internal transitions may feel foreign and unknown, they too are natural and have a natural path to follow in order for growth to occur. When a person does not follow the natural order in psychic growth the result is the same, only psychological. A person can suffer psychological stagnation, purification, and death. However, unlike biological consequences, a person’s inner consequences are not fixed and while the person may seem “dead inside” they can be resurrected. In order to grow, a person has to find their individual purpose and to do that, they have to discover their individuality. The most true self, psyche, or soul is individual and the transition will have different revelations for different people but the journey to enlightenment will not change. The natural path to inner light is through the darkness.
For the first half of life, a person follows the natural path of life, moving forward and upward. Suddenly, they reach the top of the hill and from this new perspective, they begin to see things differently. The urge to continue up is challenged and a new direction is introduced. This transition sets the tone for the second half of life. When a person is at midlife, they look forward and face death and realize that their time is limited. They feel lost and don’t know which direction to go. If they continue to climb, they find themselves no longer making meaningful progress and stagnate. If they try to go back and live in the past, they see themselves as less than their former selves and putrefy. Finally, if they refuse to change, they face the worst fate of all, psychological death. Growth at this point means to move down and make a descent into the unconscious. Instead of onward and upwards the movement becomes inward and down. This transition is difficult. It turns everything upside down and inside out. Many people do not make it through this transition unscathed. Marriages, careers, and identities are in jeopardy at this point because the goals of the first half of life no longer seem the same. In the face of death, these world-based successes have different meaning and may lose importance. Creation is not without destruction and in order to grow at this point, some tearing down of ego and discomfort is necessary. The process is difficult but the rewards include continued growth and a life with meaning, love, and joy.
“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray” (59). This is the opening line to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Commedia, one of the most prolific pieces of poetry ever penned to paper. Dante wrote The Divine Commedia in the early 1300’s about the poet’s journey through all of the levels of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Dante describes in great detail the realms of the afterlife but the poem isn’t really about what happens after death. It is a guide to navigate the midlife transition and a warning of what can happen if a person doesn’t fully make the transition. The shades in the poem suffer or rejoice endlessly in their assigned places. Fortunately for us, we are still alive and capable of growth. We don’t have to remain stuck in purgatory or inferno. We can reach a psychological paradise. Just like Virgil guided Dante in his journey, Dante illuminates the way for the reader.
The afterlife can’t be known. The only way to attempt to understand it is to look at it as a reflection of life. Dante uses this reflective awareness to reveal how to love and how to live. Centuries before Freud and Jung gave us the vocabulary for depth psychology, Dante wrote about the midlife experience as he transitions from darkness and fear to light and love. His quest for knowledge of the afterlife is a metaphor for the quest for knowledge of the unconsciousness.
The time setting of the poem is no accident. Dante begins the story on Good Friday during his own midlife transition. In the Christian faith, Good Friday is the first day of the Easter weekend. It is the day that Jesus is said to have died for the sins of the world. This is considered the ultimate act of love. He sacrificed himself in order that Christians would have eternal life. The final day of the poem, Easter, is the day that Jesus is said to have risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. This mirrors Dante’s experience as well as the midlife transition all people go through. It is in this period that people experience a profound shift in the psyche. They are faced with their own mortality and it creates the need for a new way of being. All through life to this point a person follows the natural path, the “path that does not stray” only to find themselves lost in a shadowed forest. This period in life is often labeled as crisis because it can be jarring to have the world turned upside down. As Dante demonstrates through his poem, while the experience is jarring, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. With guidance, it is possible to illuminate the darkness to find the path to light and love.
In order to understand this transition, it is important to understand why it occurs when it does to people throughout recorded history. What is it about the late 30’s to early 40’s that makes people change their perspective so dramatically that a change of life occurs? Jung wrote that for a young person, it is not good to be too occupied with the self. When a person is young, they still need to climb up in order to grow. They are not ready to face the shadow. For a person to face the shadow, they need to have a strong ego. “The journey into the unconscious – encountering, befriending, and integrating the shadow is not to be undertaken lightly. Nor can it be undertaken at all until one’s ego development is strong enough and consciousness truly valued and secured” (Brewi and Brennan, 261). Around midlife, a person has an established identity. All the conditions ripen to this point and it is “a duty and a necessity to give serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illumine itself” (Jung, 109). What Jung so beautifully expresses using the metaphor of the sun, is this period of time is about shining a light on our inner selves. The thing about shining a light is that light creates shadows. The more light that is turned in, the more shadows are revealed. There are transitions through life but the midlife transition, by its very nature, is the point people are closest to their most creative (womb) and destructive (tomb) energies at the same time. Many people find themselves, like Dante, lost in a shadowed forest. The unknown and change are both scary and exciting. While the transition will be experienced differently by different people, the goal is the same – to find meaning beyond the natural functions of worldly successes.
Facing mortality does something to the psyche. Humanity is uniquely aware of the finite nature of existence but when the sands of time begin to be more plentiful on the bottom half of the hourglass, that awareness transforms. Time becomes so much more valuable and the question of wasting that time comes to the forefront. It is both a blessing and a curse to be aware that the time on this earth is limited. Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech to Stanford students after he had been given the diagnosis of terminal cancer. In this speech he told the audience “death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new” (2005).
Before the midlife transition time feels unlimited. The person before midlife is aware of their mortal status but when a person realizes that they are half way through this life; time takes on a whole new value and experience. Once a person realizes the precious nature of time they first look back to see whether they wasted their time. This is the time when they have to face their perceived inferiorities. If the person reaches this point and is not happy with how they spent their precious years, they may get stuck in a self-flagellating state similar to purgatory or refuse to turn inward at all and continue on a path of ignorance similar to the inferno.
This journey to the self is fraught with danger. Dante believes to get out of the forest, he needs to climb just like he had done through his life to this point. Virgil comes to him and tells him that in order to escape the forest, Dante will need to journey down. Dante can’t make the passage on his own, he needs Virgil to point the way and keep him moving. Like Dante, we find that this path should not to be taken alone – even though the journey is a personal one through the inner workings of the soul, we need guidance and support to make it through. This is why works like The Divine Commedia are so important because they help guide us through the treacherous journey from the pits of hell to the heights of paradise. Dante often has to be told to keep moving by his guide, Virgil. Without guidance, it is easy to get stuck in hell or purgatory – it is only through others that we can reach the final level of enlightenment which is knowledge, acceptance, and ultimately – love.
This poem illustrates metaphorically what happens to the psyche during and after the midlife transition. There are three distinct realms for the soul, three possible outcomes for the soul in and after midlife. The first possibility is that the person can refuse to transition. This person will continue to chase worldly pursuits. Without the light, without change, these people have no hope, they will stagnate and die. Their soul will suffer a type of inferno. The second possibility, as I have previously mentioned is purgatory. The shades from purgatorio no longer have a shadow because they are acting out their shadows through their punishments. The light created the shadows. They are acutely aware of their shadow but they fear it, they are unable to accept it. They spend their time looking back and punishing themselves over past transgressions. The final possibility, the desired outcome, is for the soul to reach paradise, love. This is where the person has successfully navigated the midlife transition, integrated the shadow, and learned how to love and live a life with meaning.
Dante uses the play of light and shadow as he travels from hell to paradise to explain concepts that psychology wouldn’t ‘discover’ for hundreds of years. To talk about these concepts, I must first define some terms as I have come to see them through Dante. The first and most difficult term is love. Love is the key to living a meaningful life. Love is something that is not easy to put into words, it is complicated and mysterious yet also incredibly simple. In the poem, love is simply light and acceptance. Since this poem is trying to illuminate the path to enlightenment and love, it makes sense that light represents knowledge, specifically the quest towards knowing the self. With light comes shadow. The concept of shadow in the poem follows the concept of shadow for psychologists today, it is the unconscious, our inferiorities and inflations. Last, I would like to define fear. Fear is as hard to define as love. It is the opposite of love, simple yet complex. Just as love is knowledge and acceptance, fear is ignorance and denial. It is fear that in the poem, just as in life, blocks the path to love.
Each realm of the afterlife has its own relationship to light and shadow as it pertains to this midlife transition. The first realm is the inferno. One of the most well-known lines from Dante’s poem are the words above the gate to the inferno “Abandon every hope, who enter here” (68). The inferno is a place of hopelessness. In this realm, there is no light, no shadow, and as a result, there is no personal responsibility taken by the shades and they are hopeless. Lack of introspection and responsibility diminishes hope. “By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them” (Maraboli, 37). Since the shades are past the point of change, they are without hope but we are alive. This represents the psyche when a person does not make the midlife transition. These people are without hope because without light, they don’t even know that they need to change. They lack knowledge and without knowledge, there can be no hope, just endless action. When the shades enter the inferno, they are judged and sent to a level for eternal torment. They do not even know themselves enough to know where they are to be placed for punishment and often refuse to accept responsibility for their fate. They are doomed to suffer from the unenlightened actions of life for all of eternity. The inferno is a place that isn’t just absent of love, it is a place for love betrayed. The sinners in the inferno failed to love themselves enough turn the light inward. Without this self-awareness, they were incapable of loving others because they didn’t have knowledge. They were absent of light and thus absent of love.
The next realm, purgatory, has light and shadow but not love. Love is light (knowledge) and acceptance. The shades of purgatory started the transition but became stuck. This is the only of the three realms that still allows for movement because this is the only realm where the shades place themselves. The shades have the power to move up or down the mountain of purgatory and even have hope to move into paradise. This is because these shades have light, they have knowledge. They are lacking acceptance not knowledge. Once a person begins the transition into midlife and turns the light inward, they rarely like what they see. Every person has ugly truths they do not want to bring into the light because the shadows those truths cast can become so overwhelming they crush the psyche. The shades that exist in this dimension can’t get over the past. Many of the shades in this dimension ask Dante to have people pray for them because they say this will help them move up the mountain. This is their biggest flaw, they are looking for acceptance from the outside instead of seeking it from within. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it is fear. The shades are afraid they are not worthy of ascension, they fear that they can’t be loved because they don’t accept themselves. They have seen the shadow, they have faced the past, but they have not accepted it. They may have also faced the future – the possibility that there is hope but again, they can’t accept it. In purgatory, the light, because it is absent of love leads to fear and rejection. Whether the light casts shadows on the past or the future doesn’t matter – it is the lack of acceptance that makes purgatory absent of love.
Purgatory is the most complicated of the dimensions. The inferno represents the absence of love, it is a place of betrayal and fear. Paradise is love, a place of knowledge and acceptance. Purgatory can be summed up easily by saying it is knowledge without acceptance but what that means is much more complicated. People in life become stuck, usually in the past but also in the future. A person stuck in the future loses sight of the here and now. They fear to move forward because of some future that doesn’t even exist. These people are passive in life, they are waiting for something to happen, and they do not truly live. Since they do not live, they do not love. Theirs is a life of purgatory.
The second way to live in purgatory is to know the past and not accept it. When writing about men at midlife, Levinson writes “If he is burdened excessively by his grievances and guilts, he will be unable to surmount them” (263). It is impossible to live tomorrow or yesterday – it is only possible to live today. The past has already happened, so in order to experience life and love it is necessary to accept it. This means to allow it to be as it is and move on. People stuck in the past are beyond passive, they are victims. They can’t get over the transgressions of the past and continue to see themselves as less than because of that past. This is the person that is still wounded by childhood abuse or angry at themselves for not pursuing a dream. They have the knowledge but instead of accepting these things they, like the shades of purgatorio, are doomed to relive these events over and over and allow themselves to be defined by them. Knowledge is the first step, turning the light inward, but knowledge without acceptance is as crippling and useless as knowledge without action. The key to accepting and overcoming the past is to embrace it and allow it to work for you. The purpose of shadow work isn’t merely to expose the shadow, it is to accept that the shadow isn’t separate from the self – it is a part of the self and has purpose and value. Often people find their greatest strengths in their perceived weaknesses. The shades of purgatorio have seen the shadow but they allow the shadow to crush them instead of integrating it to allowing for it to heal.
The final path is the one that leads to paradisio, to love. Paradisio is full of light, reflections, and acceptance. This is what happens when a person successfully integrates the shadow. The shades of paradisio know and accept the past so it doesn’t have power over them like the shades of purgatorio. Accepting the past doesn’t mean to condone it, it simply means allowing it to be as it is. It is only through light and acceptance that love can exist. Love is letting go of fear. When a person is able to know their true self, shadow and all, and accept themselves as they are, they will find to love themselves. Once a person can love themselves, they can love others. Love them in a way they deserve to be loved, completely, with knowledge and acceptance.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. Everyman’s Library. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Print.
Brewi, Janice, and Anne Brennan. “Emergence of the Shadow in Midlife.” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. By Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: Putnam, 1991. 260-61. Print.
Jobs, Steve. “‘You’ve Got to Find What You Love,’ Jobs Says.” Stanford University. 14 June 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
Jung, C.G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1955. Print.
Levinson, Daniel. “For the Man at Midlife.” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. By Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. New York: Putnam, 1991. 262-264. Print.
Maraboli, Steve. Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience. Port Washington, NY: Better Today, 2013. Print.