By Jody Gentian Bower
Many have written about the “descent” story in which a woman (sometimes a goddess ) is forced to journey underground to a dark and dangerous place. The archetypal images for this story can be found in the mythical descent journeys of the Greek goddess Persephone and the Sumerian goddess Inanna, as well as the story of Psyche, the mythological character whose name now stands for our own deepest self.
In her book The Long Journey Home: Re-Visioning the Myth of Demeter and Persephone for Our Time, Christine Downing states that the story of Demeter and Persephone may be “the myth for [women], as the Oedipus myth may be the myth for men.” Downing finds that the Demeter/Persephone story frees women “from being defined by the roles of mother or daughter . . . through the transformed understanding of human relationships and of death” from a female perspective. The first and most important task for a young woman is to get free of her mother so that she can become an adult—and the primary task for a loving mother is to let that daughter go.
Sylvia Brinton Perera, author of Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, believes that Inanna’s descent to the underworld realm of her powerful and dangerous sister Ereshkigal also provides perspective on the full meaning of life. To embrace femininity entirely means to embrace the dark, wild, and dangerous aspects as well as the queenly, loving, and mother-like aspects. Perera thinks the story speaks to men, too: she says that the story of Inanna and Ereshkigal gives us all “a description of a pattern of psychological health for the feminine, both in women and in men.”
Betty Meador expresses a similar view in Uncursing the Dark: Treasures from the Underworld. Inanna’s story, she says, “seemed to me the very substructure of the meaning of femaleness, the rock-bottom facts of women’s relationship to the primal material world.” Meador maintains that the story shows how a woman can learn how to love herself and live in a way that honors that self.
And finally, another perspective on the descent story is offered in Carol Pearson’s latest book, Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within. Pearson argues that the “descent” into difficult times can be the catalyst that awakens a woman to her full potential.
But there is another path that many women follow instead, the path of the wandering heroine or, to use the Greek word for her, the aletis. This story has been told and written about for millennia, yet it has received remarkably little scholarly attention; most people interested in heroines either write about the “descent” story or attempt to adapt Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Quest model to fit a female protagonist instead of a male one. I have sought to remedy this omission, first with my dissertation on Recurrent Motifs in Women’s Narratives and then with my book Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.
The aletis follows a very different path from that of Inanna or Persephone. Instead of descending to meet the dark goddess, she goes out into the world. She is not abducted away from her childhood; instead, she consciously chooses to leave it, knowing that she cannot be the person she is meant to be if she stays at home. At some point she travels alone into the wilderness, where, instead of a dark goddess, she encounters a witch who puts her through various tests and teaches her, as does Baba Yaga in the story “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” proper discernment—the ability to distinguish what needs to be saved and nurtured from that which needs to be discarded. A modern version of this story is told in the novel (and subsequent film) The Devil Wears Prada, in which the exacting magazine editor Miranda Priestley (note the name: “Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestley” invokes the sacred) sets her young assistant Andrea a series of near-impossible trials. When Andrea is able to pass all the tests, Miranda helps her to gain her dream job, that of an investigative journalist, for which she now possesses the necessary skills.
Like Vasilisa and Andrea, when the aletis has learned what she needs to know from the witch, she moves on, often again and again, searching for the place where she will be free to express herself in the world as she wishes. But this story is not just about her needs. Once she is able to be herself fully, she often has a transformative effect on her community, which realizes that the thing she ran away from, the thing she will not accept, needs to be changed.
When I presented my dissertation, Chris Downing asked me why I was so drawn to this story and not to the descent story that she loves. The question provoked a months-long exchange between us on Skype and by email in which we dug into the question of “Why do some women seek out the goddess in the cave, while others go looking for the witch in the forest?”
The answer, we came to see, lies in different experiences of childhood. When a girl child is born, the expectation is that her life is going to follow a certain path. She will remain at home, protected by good parents, a virgin in body and in experience, until she and they feel that she is ready for the next step in life. She may choose college; she may choose to marry; she may choose to enter the workforce. She has control over her own sexual initiation, which is not traumatic, and marries for love. Children usually follow, and this experience, too, is enjoyable for the most part. Her pains and sorrows are part of the norm, as well—difficult teens, marriage squabbles, deaths in the family, presumably in that order.
But not every girl grows up in ideal circumstances and has an ideal life. Many a girl finds that her wishes for her life are not honored by others. She is not protected and cherished during childhood; perhaps her sexual initiation comes too early, violently, or without her consent; and she may be forced into (or unconsciously accept) marriage with the wrong person. She has no control over her life—until, if she is fortunate, a moment comes when she has had enough and leaves.
The psyche always seeks wholeness, seeks balance. I suspect that girls who grow up in the first, ideal sort of setting are more attracted to the descent into the dark and scary cave, while girls who are forced to grow up in less than ideal circumstances are more likely to dream of wandering free through a beautiful forest. Both seek a full experience of life by provoking (perhaps unconsciously) the very experiences they have been denied. Because what has been lacking in their lives is very different, their paths are different, too.
In fact, the women who write about the goddess descent report that they had supportive parents. Downing told me that she had what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls a “too-good” mother. Her mother was loving and supportive of Downing throughout her life and gave her a wonderful role model of feminine strength to call upon. Meador states in her book that her childhood nanny was “a good mother” to her who “lived from the feminine.” Dara Marks, a mythologist and Hollywood script doctor who conducts workshops on the descent journey, stated in a lecture I attended that she was fortunate to have received good parenting as a child.
When I asked why she was so drawn to the descent story, Downing replied that she reached a point in her life where she needed to know more about “the depth of things.” Meador describes her own search for the dark goddess as “a down-going excursion away from the intact emotions of ‘normal’ life, a ride on waves of disorientation, despair, and chaotic turmoil.” They needed more than the positive face of the feminine that they saw in their mothers while growing up or reflected back in their fathers’ eyes as those fathers gazed with love upon their daughters. They needed to know about the entire range of possibilities open to a woman, both the beautiful and the horrible. They needed to integrate the “dark” feminine qualities to move past polarity into wholeness.
The aletis, in contrast, has not received optimal parenting. Instead, she usually is left to get through whatever childhood troubles she might face on her own. And often those troubles are terrible ones: incest, abuse, death of loved ones, loss of family and home. At a young age, the aletis becomes fully acquainted with the dark reality of life and death. She feels alone and unfriended and trapped. In other words, she grows up in Ereshkigal’s cave.
The aletis has always known the dark goddess. She has no need to seek “Her” again. What she needs is what the more sheltered girls have been able to take for granted: the freedom to walk in the sun as herself. She goes out in search of that freedom. She goes out to celebrate and live her uniqueness. She goes out to revel in a solitude where no one else tells her who to be.
Protected girls don’t feel a push to leave; in fact, the opposite is true. Downing said to me that the idea of going anywhere by herself was terrifying; even when she craved a new adventure, she essentially had to be “abducted” to have one, just as Persephone is abducted by Hades. I surmise that this is why nice girls are so drawn to the “bad boys” their parents warn them against—they are instinctively seeking a kind of abduction away from the safe home they’ve lived in until now, the home that is so comfortable and loving. Unconsciously, such a girl senses that it is in the underworld realm of the bad boys that she will have the chance to find her real strength.
Conversely, the “descent” story may appeal to those women who have found themselves without warning in the Underworld. The death of a child or husband, a life-threatening illness or accident, financial reversals, rape, divorce, a family member who becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol or commits a crime—many things can cause an abrupt, catastrophic change in a woman’s life. The stories of Persephone and Inanna may provide powerful insights for a woman who has lived a charmed life until she was suddenly abducted “underground” against her will.
But the aletis, who from an early age has had to endure many trials, does not need to be abducted to know the darker side of life. Lyndall, in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, laments that “we fit our sphere as a Chinese woman’s foot fits her shoe . . . we know that we are compressed, and chafe.” As Belle sings in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, the aletis wants adventure, she wants more than a provincial life, so much more than what others think she should want. Jane Eyre complains that “women . . . need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do,” and keeps leaving until finally she finds the life that fits her.
The aletis refuses to conform to societal notions of what she should be. For her, the idea of leaving is less frightening than the idea of staying. If she has been abandoned by parents or by fate already, she sees nothing to fear in being alone. If she has never been supported in her dreams, she knows that her best chances for the future she desires lie elsewhere. Leaving may be an act of desperation, but it is also an act of hope. And so the aletis steps out boldly into her new life by herself, and the girl who has grown up in the cave of the dark goddess reads her story and says, “I could do that too.”
Jody Gentian Bower earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with a Depth Psychology Emphasis in 2012 from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story (Quest Books, 2015) and teaches classes on myths and archetypes in the movies and television, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Mahabharata, and the works and ideas of James Hillman and Rick Tarnas through a local extension program and the local Clemente Course, a program designed to bring the humanities (literature, art, history, and philosophy) to people living in poverty. She speaks on topics related to her book and on cultural mythology, and advises authors on how to write a believable female protagonist. A lifelong activist for women’s rights, the environment, and the prevention of child abuse, she currently is at work on a book about a “nonheroic” approach to social activism.