What is the Underworld?
“On this day I will descend to the underworld. When I have arrived in the underworld, make a lament for me on the ruin mounds. Beat the drum for me in the sanctuary. Make the rounds of the houses of the gods for me,” the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna declares in one of the oldest written accounts of an underworld journey. The goddess removes her adornments and finally her ego itself as she is transformed into a hunk of rotting meat, hung on a hook. Her final ascent back into the world of the living is made possible only by the help of others: a fly, whom she declares sacred and gifts “the beer house and the tavern”, her underworld sister Ereshkigal, and finally the sacrifice of her lover Dumuzi. The underworld is not the land of the individual. Inanna must shed every piece of jewelry and clothing that identifies her as special in order to enter. The underworld is woven with contaminated culpability and messy mutual aid. And it is in this biotic slush that beings bump and clump into the multicellularity of new mythologies. The underworld is a womb where the above world is gestated, as demonstrated by Persephone’s creation of the seasons. The harvest depends on her ability to yearly follow the seeds deep into the ground. Persephone, too, as connected with the Eleusinian mysteries, only finds her own fecundity in her descent, conceiving the son Zagreus also known as the vegetal god Dionysus. Dionysus in turn will circle back to his origins when he is torn apart by the Titans and mulched back into the world of soil from whence, he came. Orpheus plays his most transcendent music after his failed attempt to save his lover from the Underworld. The mission then was not a rescue but a mentorship in songs that outlive the individual singer. After his own dismemberment, his head is said to have continued singing as it floated down the river to Lesbos, inaugurating a tradition of Orphic hymns where anyone could step into the role of the poet-hero. Anyone could pick up “the head”. The underworld taught Orpheus that true creation requires us to relinquish ownership.
But I want to return to an even earlier underworld myth. One that predates human heroes. One that even predates trees. 500 million years ago plants drifted from the sea to the shore to dryland. These are not the plants you would recognize today. They had no root systems. Luckily enough, fungi were already intimate with the soil and over tens of millions of years acted as surrogate root systems for the plants that would slowly develop into the forests and food-bearing crops we depend on. While plants have their own rhizomatic networks they are still only able to access water and nutrients within a tight radius. Mycorrhizal systems that enter into their rhizomes act to extend these networks, connecting older trees with kin, and uniting diverse arrays of vegetal, fungal, and microbial communities. Ninety percent of plants depend on their fungal helpers. The connection is so strong that endophytic fungi are vertically transferred to the newer generation through seeds. When the fungi live in the very seed that will become a tree, their role lives somewhere between midwife, parent, lover, and friend, helping the tree to tap into the rich nutrients of the soil and the community of other beings that constitute an ecosystem. Put more simply, fungi taught plants how to enter into the underworld. And it was only in the underworld that plants learned how to make community. Community that bridges differences: in species, in age, in biosemiotic language. Fungi taught plants that survival isn’t about individuation. It’s about becoming radically involved. So involved that you let your friends into your very genetics, into your root systems.
Fungi taught plants how to root into ecosystems and into relationship. Funny then that they have emerged into popular culture when we seem so desperately in need of an underworld journey ourselves. But I want to reframe underworld journeys as something more ecological, more involved, than the simplistic psychological story of personal initiation. A real underworld journey is not a journey somewhere else. It is a journey into your landscape. And into the intimate realization that you are constituted by hundreds of relationships: the food you eat, the friends that support you, the weather systems that shape the flavor of your days. I’m not demonizing stories of ascent. They have their place. Deep time’s seasons are longer than human lifetimes. Perhaps whole civilizations have followed spores upwards on the wind. But it seems now that we are being invited into a descent that delights in mess, darkness, ferment, and most importantly, delights in involvement.
If fungi have taught me anything, it is to get involved. To behave interrogatively with my environment. Why does the Russala mycelia support the Monotropa uniflora without receiving anything in return? I’m not sure. But I know that I have benefited from the stories of people who do not know my name and have never received explicit nourishment in return. I have eaten fish from seas I have not fed my tears. Let me give gladly remembering the underworld lesson of giving demonstrated by Dumuzi's sacrifice, the flow of carbon and minerals through the mycelial filaments. Giving doesn’t believe in a logic of fair transaction. It believes in the connectivity itself. The fungi that connect forests confuse our ideas of a solitary self. They say a self flows between species. Between worlds. A self plants itself in another being's seed. A self doesn’t stay still. It fruits up into the world above as a mushroom, pretending individuality, only to sporulate, seed clouds, fall as rain, and sink back into the underworld of the dirt in order to sew the world, invisibly, quietly, back together.
Like fungi and plants, we are co-becoming with our ecosystems. Ecosystems that are ruptured, polluted, and confused by our culture’s deracinated idea that you can live without a root system. But if we are going to survive, we are going to need to tie our roots to other roots. Resilience ecology tells us that landscapes with more biodiversity, more overall connectivity, are better able to withstand natural disasters and climatological pressures. We are going to need to drop below human exceptionalism into the underworld of symbiotic co-creation.
This autumn, as the leaves go liquid and then soften into soil, I’m asking the fungi to teach me like they taught plants 500 million years ago. Teach me how to root into a specific place. Teach me how to create connections so feral and far reaching they make me resilient with otherness. Teach me how to flow into the whole forest.
My book The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine is now available for pre-order from all online booksellers here and from my publisher Inner Traditions.
My multi-teacher eight week course with ADVAYA on Rewilding Mythology is now open for registration.
This has been the free version of my newsletter. If you choose to support the paid version of this newsletter, you will receive two newsletters a month featuring everything from new essays, poetry, excerpts from my upcoming books and projects, mythic research, reading lists, poetry, book reviews to ecological embodiment exercises, playlists, personal updates, and generally a whole lot of funk and texture.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude by how many of you have showed up here (and throughout the past year across platforms). As someone struggling to balance chronic illness (and just how expensive it is to be sick in America) with writing, know that you are very practically keeping me alive, keeping me afloat. Thank you deeply. I love you all so much.