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  • Writer's picture The Faerytale Apothecary

Caught in the Descent



I thought it was a one time deal, that I had answered Ishtar’s call, recognised theneed for a descent into the Underworld, whispered her name like a spoken spell, alerted myself to the fact that I get to choose how I adorn myself on the way out again.

But perhaps in all this I am still only at the first gate.

Have I spent my whole life here even? Is birth actually the gateway? Is what we think of as real life a terrible and tortorous realm of darkness and shadow? Have we been reading all those myths wrongly?

Ishtar/Inanna, Persephone and Psyche - when we are told of their individual journeys into the Underworld, through choice or coersion have we got it backwards? They are not leaving the human realm to travel elsewhere but travelling to the human realm from elsewhere.

How would any of this change the way we live in the world? If we flipped a myth over, reversed the places. It’s an interesting challenge. How comfortably could we sit in the discomfort it would bring to the surface, unable to hide from the cold reality of where we find ourselves.


There are so many stories to anchor to this year, we can read them as prophecies almost.

medicine trust story storytelling red nose

I left where I live in Bath for the first time since March a couple of weeks ago. I smiled on arrival at Bristol train station to see the graffiti from the film Twelve Monkeys then felt disturbed by the possible implications of it. Life story and mythic story are blurred these days. The Twelve Monkeys though aren’t responsible for unleashing a deadly virus that kills so many and forces the remaining population underground as we are led to believe but instead are responsible for releasing the wild, what we have held captive.

Maybe the graffiti artists were cleverer than I thought.


Because this feels such a strong part of it all. Our continued fascination with, how we are held captive by, the Underworld. How there seems to be such a craving, particularly amongst women I feel, for the darkness, the nakedness, the rawness of being. Not just that but for the wild, and not even just that for increasingly we are only seeming to meet the wild in tamed and sanitised, restricted ways.

The Feral is what screeches to us.


Working with the story of Vassilisa the Brave/Lovely/Fair/Bold shows me this more and more. We have forgotten our Feralness, the sweet smell of us, the sharp musky tang of us. Baba Yaga will kindly show us how to reclaim it, if we have the courage to be met by her. That is the beauty for me of Vassilisa. I confess, I struggled with what I perceived as her passivity, she seems to accept being treated badly by her step family, doesn’t seem to protest to her father at all. But my world exploded in the space between the words. When Vassilisa meets Baba Yaga for the very first time, when she stands silently waiting to be inspected, she is not afraid of what Baba Yaga will find in her. Baba Yaga doesn’t or not only enquire of her intellectually, want to know the purpose of her visit, more importantly she sniffs her out, smells the Feralness of Vassilisa’s first menstruation and is well pleased at what she finds. Coupled with the fact that Baba Yaga’s three faithful servants of Dawn, Day and Night have personally escorted Vassilisa through the forest, acted as Gatekeepers for Baba Yaga and Guardians for Vassilisa and we see how the two of them are facets of the same thing.

The Wild or rather Feral Woman.

But where is she inbetween maiden and crone?

She splits into two, the Obedient Mother and the Wicked Step-mother.

The Gentle and the Fierce.


No wonder we are continually called out by the Underworld. Our dark sister will have no rest until we meet face to face. Which brings us back to Ishtar. She continues to circle, her name a pulse on the wind about our ears. I am no longer sure if she is Queen of the Heavens or Queen of the Dead, she sits on both shoulders now.

Ishtar and Ereshkigal.

They have a root in each other, interwined on our breath, out tongue, our sense of taste. Try it, say them, see how they feel, where do they call down to in you? What pulses deep in your abdomen when you speak them? These Queens of the Immortals and the Discarded. For what are the dead to us these days but what no longer has a use.

Or so we think.

This is not how the world is anymore. We cannot keep throwing down the garbage shute what no longer fits nice and neatly in our lives and sing tralala pretending it doesn’t exist while the rotting refuses to stop showing up.

I think of other stories.

I think of the American Werewolf in London – the dead friend decays as he reminds the protagonist again and again of his obligation.


How have your dreams been lately?

Are they shocking? Vivid? Forceful?

They call us to action, these so personal of stories, our own mythology clear and strong. James Hillman says they are the Nekyia, our individual gateways to the Underworld. But the Nekyia are also what are sought out, the ghosts that can tell us of the future to come. For they share the same “royal road.” Hang out at the Gates of Ivory and Horn, the place where “deals are struck, ideas are exchanged, plots shook on between true dreams and counterfeits.” **

Are we lost and swirling – caught between story and ghost and dream?

Good I say, for this is where we find the treasures, in the dark caves.

I propose we take Joseph Campbell’s challenge a step further, the dark caves of treasure are just the beginning places, the lure, the bait, the trick to entice us in. We need to dig deeper and further than we ever have before. We need to gather our army of Twelve Monkeys as we face the Gatekeepers of the Seven Gates of the Underworld and un-tame our wild feral selves.

But don’t be in any rush to come back up, this is a place that needs to be luxuriated in, relished and chewed over slowly.

If we don’t?

We will just keep finding ourselves back at the beginning. Or rather continually stuck in an Underworld of our own nightmare making, caught in the market place of shady deals. We don’t leave by gathering back our crown and precious jewels, we ascend into the sphere of the Immortals by being quite content in our tarred and feathered skins.

An inspired by little story creating for you:

1. Think of a time in your life where you found yourself all alone. Perhaps there was a problem you needed to solve. How would this be if it were expanded into an epic quest, seen as a private myth?

2. Bring into this little story an ordinary everyday object that can act as a portal to the Underworld.

3. Like all good portals, it has a Guardian, a Gatekeeper, how are you to gain entry from it?

4. How is it to stand on this threshold as you pass into the Underworld? How does it feel, what is it like?

5. What does your Underworld look like once you are fully in it?

6. Here you will meet the Shadow of the Underworld, it’s King or Queen, are they fearsome to you?

7. But don’t worry, for just before you reach them you encounter a Helper Spirit, a Guide that is there for you.

8. Let the story carry you where it wishes to take you without judgement or looking to the outcome, let it wrap itself around you.

9. Eventually though, you will find treasure and with it, you will make your way back to the portal and back to your everyday world.

10. How does this experience change the you that first began this quest?

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