Metaphorically, we may be drawn into Hades through the caves and empty places formed from our depression or despair. Grief and loss of meaning in our lives may also draw us into the Underworld. Or we may descend through a chasm that has been opened by a volcanic blast of buried feeling. Emotional catharsis may leave a dark hole through which we now must enter the Underworld to encounter soul, as in Jung’s experience. At critical transitions in the life cycle, when we need to relinquish one stage of life to enter another, we often find ourselves standing at one of the entrances to Hades. The most potent of these times is on the threshold of “midlife.” […]
Hades had three regions, as described in classical literature. Tartarus was the lowest region in the Underworld, where those who had committed great sins were eternally punished. Erebus was a middle region where souls of the departed, known as shades, would roam. (Often, the realm of Hades as a whole is referred to as either Tartarus or Erebus.) Finally, Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, the third region, was reserved for heroes or those chosen by the gods.18
Tartarus is the blackest sphere of Hades, where criminals receive eternal punishment. The greatest crimes are sins against the gods: betrayal, deceit, arrogance, or self-inflation — identifying oneself as a god. Tartarus (a polarity to Olympus/Heaven) is populated by those who have dared to enter the realm of the gods or compare themselves to a god or challenge the gods. In Tartarus, life is an endless repetition of futile tasks, a meaningless cycle of purposeless labours, and a continuous round of feeling incomplete and unfulfilled. Depression, complicated grief, compulsive behaviour, memory loss, despair, and meaninglessness are experiences of being in Tartarus. Trapped here in the lowest part of the Underworld are often the familial and ancestral shades, which seek redemption through us.
This is the place that collects the sediment and the undistilled feelings. This place far below consciousness, walled and barren, is the storehouse for some of our darkest emotions; it is the archetypal domicile of torment and powerlessness. Here, we may fall in the midst of our grief and loss or find ourselves during a depressive episode when life loses meaning and we lose faith. This is a place of total resignation to the gods. […] we are often pulled into Tartarus to reconnect with tortured and archaic feelings. However, like the hero Aeneas, we may also pass this place by, escaping the mire of ancestral shadows and, for the first time, psychologically differentiating the ancestral shadows from our own. Aeneas hears the cries of despair and the painful moans of the inhabitants in Tartarus as he journeys through the underworld. However he is guided away from the fork in the road which leads to Tartarus and continues on his way to the Elysian Fields to find his father.
Erebus is the section of the Underworld that the souls of the dead pass through to reach their resting-place. Erebus is the region of Hades where the disembodied souls resemble shadow or dreams pictures and are impalpable. In this land of shades, the inhabitants are shadows of their former selves, living off the blood and life force of others. Erebus is an image of a psychological state where what has died is either in transition or not yet consciously released. Individuals who are still in denial about what has died will wander aimlessly through this land of shades, draining the life force from those in their vicinity. Erebus is the state we visit in times of disbelief and denial of our loss — a place where we unsuspectingly identify with the dead. [Feeling] in limbo, disoriented, wandering aimlessly through Erebus, unable to let go and embrace a new form of being.
Elysium — sometimes referred to as the Elysian Fields or the magical Islands of the Blessed — is reserved for those who have pleased the gods during their lives. Heroes and initiates into the Eleusinian mysteries (rites that confronted and honoured death) are destined for this land. This part of the Underworld is idyllic, and its inhabitants live an afterlife blessed by the gods. In contrast to Tartarus or Erebus, Elysium represents the outcome of a more conscious relationship with Hades and with death.
The five rivers that flow through the Underworld are symbolic of the feeling life in Hades. These rivers are hidden below the surface of the visible world and carry unconscious feelings. The rivers are either toxic, polluted with repressed feelings unable to flow freely, or they are torrential, charged with the powerful force of pent-up feelings. These rivers are the Underworld waterways that separate the manifest world from the “otherworld” and symbolise the power of the repressed feeling life. […]
Descents to the Underworld
In Greek myth, there are many reasons to descend into the Underworld: to rescue a dead person, to win personal immortality, to acquire information, to receive a boon, to be reunited with a loved one, or even to try to conquer this realm.19 We have similar motives today: The descent to the nether world of psyche is necessary to reunite us with the dismembered aspects of the self. However, making this dangerous journey has always required instructions and a guide. […]
In the Aeneid, Aeneas is instructed by his father to undertake his descent to the Underworld accompanied by the Sibyl, the prophetess of Apollo, as his guide. She tells Aeneas what to do and reminds him how easy it is to descend but how treacherous it is to find the way back, stressing the need for inspired guidance and a reverent attitude when approaching the Underworld. The Sibyl also appeases the spirits whose lamentations could distract Aeneas from his task; he must remain focused on his path and not be detoured by assisting others or getting caught up in their destiny. This is a common theme of Underworld journeys: Pleas for help and the litanies of the dead seduce the hero away from accomplishing his goal.
The successful completion of the descent is dependent upon initiation, the proper instructions, and a guide to navigating the unfamiliar topography of the Underworld. A god or supernatural source often gives the instructions for approaching and traversing the Underworld. Likewise, a god or other divine manifestation — including the wisdom of the “higher self” — can serve as a guide or valuable escort. Initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries was helpful, too, because this experience familiarized initiates with the Underworld. The ego must prepare for this treacherous journey. During Jung’s descent into the unconscious nether world, he was guided by his active imagination and by his companion and Sibyl, Toni Wolff.
Entering the Underworld without adequate preparation or proper intent is extremely dangerous and foolish. Pirithous, with the help of Theseus, descends into Hades to abduct Persephone. Arrogance overwhelms the heroes during their journey, and they become caught up in mutual narcissism. Here, the motive of descent is to conquer and capture the contents of the unconscious. The inflated ego therefore falls victim to its own grandiosity. The descent of Pirithous and Theseus is the least successful of all, because they have no instructions or guides. They rely only upon their heroic skills and self-inflation, entering the Underworld through an illicit back entrance. Hades greets them and offers them seats next to him. However, the seats are the “chairs of forgetfulness,” so Pirithous becomes eternally stuck there, forgetting who and where he is. Lacking reverent intent and a guide, Pirithous is overwhelmed by the Underworld and falls victim to its retribution.
Jung offers a psychological interpretation of this hero’s fate:
“The conscious mind, advancing into the unknown regions of the psyche, is overpowered by the archaic forces of the unconscious.”21
In other words, the uninitiated hero without proper guidance or instruction is paralyzed by Hades. The forces of the Underworld overpower those who attempt to conquer it, for accomplishments, status, and power in the upper world are useless here; in fact, they are forgotten, as shown by the fate of Pirithous. While Heracles is on his last labour in the underworld he frees Theseus from the Chair of Forgetfulness and helps him to escape. Pirithous is unfortunately stuck eternally in Hades. Hades is unimpressed with ego accomplishments. The outcome of a Pluto transit is also contingent on our motives and intent. Pluto demands that something be relinquished so that new life can be conceived. The success of this process depends upon how well we honour the realm of Hades during this period.