‘Sometimes you need an encounter with the dark to crack your old way of seeing apart.’ In 2011 I am sitting by a fire under the stars in the Hampshire woods, when a man in a bear mask emerges from behind the trees, ringing a bell. I jump and laugh. Not because his appearance is any way comic but because something ancient and mysterious has jumped out from nowhere and shaken me awake. It was the second Dark Mountain Uncivilisation Festival, and my life was about to take a radical new turn.
Many of the pieces in this book were first published by the creative project I stumbled upon that August night. I had been documenting grassroots changemaking in the face of ecological and social crisis, but as I sat round the festival fire listening to a Siberian tale. I realised that no one had been talking about the role of art and writing or the Earth in this seismic shift.
Most calls for responding to planetary breakdown are based on climate science, or behaviour studies. They are all tidy outer affairs, discussed in airless rooms. But the kind of shift needed to navigate times of collapse is a difficult inner change of form, requiring us to have our feet on the earth and hold fast as a conventionally-shaped world falls about our ears.
Now I know myths as a techne, as bridges that take us across chasms of time and place, that give us the reasons, steadfastness, language, helpers, clues about the kind of inner changes we need to make. For the last decade since that first encounter, I have been unearthing myths to see what they can tell us about our obligations to the Earth that succours us. Not the aspiring hero myths that bring glory to civilisations but the downward ones that connect us with the non-linear forces of the planet: Kairos who brings the intervention that cracks open our small worlds of time; Inanna who takes us down through the seven gates of the Underworld; the hamstrung Wayland who waits, slowly crafting his swan wings that will allow him to escape captivity; Ariadne who shows us the labyrinth is not a prison but a dancing floor.
But as the world falters, one myth emerged that spoke eloquently of the descent we needed to undergo: an upside down Cinderella story of a human girl and her struggle with the alchemical forces of love, beauty and justice. Her name is Psyche which means soul or butterfly, the creature that transforms itself from caterpillar to imago in the hermetic space of a cocoon. This book is shaped around the tasks she is set by the goddess Venus, which also became my own: an Underworld journey about leaving one way of life and forging another.
(excerpt from the title essay)
The window is open and a fresh breeze blows in. Here I am, living in a damp cottage on the edge of the kingdom, having travelled for a decade and stopped, having worked for a further decade and neglected this case. The sea bounces like a silver mirror on the horizon beyond the marsh. Why even look for links between these names? Because they tug at me. Something is missing and I know if I don’t solve these connections, I won’t be able to sleep.
Underneath every case you can find a buried woman. I don’t know if we need another story about how she got there with her throat slit, abandoned in a city skip, buried with her face down, her skull adorned with mammoth teeth and hemp seeds.
Maybe I’m looking for myself, or part of myself, hidden from view no story from my empire world, or psychology can reveal to me.
What is clear is that there needs to be a search, a kind of archaeology, for the pieces that lie missing beneath the storyline, like the sherds of a pot.
In the cities that lie beyond this house, there is a clamour for a new story to make sense of a world that is falling apart. But maybe what we need is not a new story with a beginning, middle and happy-ever-after end, but an ancient curvy one hidden beneath our feet. One that can give us instruction at a time of calamity. That can show us how to make moves in a culture that has become rigid and stuck.
Psyche and Venus
This is not a love story, nor a family story, the stories that underpin most Western literature, but a story about undergoing change. It’s about the tasks given to a girl who knows nothing, so she encounters the deal you make with life, and how you earn love if you pass the test. It is about a relationship between two female beings: one an ingenue who knows nothing and one who knows everything. The instructor is not the wise La Que Sabe, the bone-collector of fairytales whose territory is the desert, nor the wild demanding Baba Yuga of the northern forests but an alchemical goddess, the goddess of love and beauty whose husband is the smith Vulcan, though she sleeps with other gods. Eros her son, was fathered, it is said, by Mars, the god of war. But others say his roseate fast-spinning wings were bequeathed to him by Venus’ other lover, her fellow alchemist, Mercury.
The territory of change is a geography never taught us by our teachers and families, who follow the roadmaps of obedience and tradition (and their counter actions, rebellion). The alchemical territory is where the base of yourself and your relationship with life is radically altered because you have agreed to become a different kind of human being. To suffer, as the wily magus Gurdjieff once said, consciously. To change in this way you have to recognise you are working with materials that need refining – to undergo an inner process, symbolised by the transformation of lead to gold. To start you have to agree you cannot evolve unless you do the work. Human beings have to agree to evolve themselves, either because they belong to a culture that recognises the necessity, or because their individual soul pushes them towards such an undertaking. The latter, which is the normal route for people living in industrialised, individualistic societies, is a rocky road.
The alchemical territory is where the base of yourself and your relationship with life is radically altered because you have agreed to become a different kind of human being.
The purpose of the myth is to complete the tasks, or to go through the seven doors of the kur, or to bring back the fire in the skull to your dark sisters. Whatever tale you follow, work is required.
Eros’ wings touch you when you are young and romantic, full of lightness and possibility, then as age sours you and brings your feet into land, that fleeting moment goes and he departs. Alchemy brings the boy back into your life but not in the way you might imagine. To become a butterfly, to return to that lightness, you have, like Psyche, to undertake the tasks that demand courage and fortitude and openness to instruction, to learn from your heartbreak and small failures. The myth acts as a crucible for that kind of soul change in a time when such transformations are not admitted.
All archaic and Indigenous peoples have these forms of change embedded in their cultures, to break childish ties with family, to break open a fixed sense of self, to reveal the cosmic nature of life on this Earth, and what it demands in return. Their myths and prophecies remind them that there are consequences to not honouring life. And in these years, when I have been recording the cases on yellow paper on that wall, a litany of catastrophic consequences now surrounds them: climate change and deforestation. fires and floods, extinctions and a host of biblical plagues and locusts that currently beleaguer us.
The seeds Venus asks Psyche to sort before sundown are the ones that can be found inside the ruined larders of every civilisation, in the Fertile Crescent, across Europe, and now stored in vast silos across the world. Civilisations are dependent on these cultivated seeds. But when we sit down to eat bread or drink beer, hummus and dal, we do not see the arable fields that fostered them that now lie under flood water, drenched with fossil-fuelled pesticides and fertiliser. We have forgotten our original deal with the plants and the soil in which they are grown. We do not even recognise their green and golden forms, staggering under the summer heat, as our cars from the city speed by.
As agriculture advanced out of the Neolithic age, we knew we would lose sight of our contract with the Earth, unless we made reparation and rituals that still honoured the wild nonlinear planet. And for a long time, up to the time Metamorphoses was written, the mystery schools ran alongside the empires of the ancient world to remind its citizens of those obligations. Unlike the democracies on which Western governments are founded, they were open to everyone: to foreigners, to slaves, to women. Their initiations were not for the benefit of the state but to tend to the business of being alive and to the meaning of our brief human lives together on this Earth.
Ah, you might say, but these schools are all gone now. We have forgotten. Listen, you don’t need a mystery school to go into the Underworld, or to converse with chthonic gods. The stories are still here, like a map we trace with a nervous index finger, and then feel impelled to follow. And the writers are still here, reminding us, sometimes annoyingly, of our contract with the wild world. It is the writers who know you need the structure of a story in your hands, as you advance to the gates of Hades and face the threshing of the Underworld – a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within. The germination of the seed is the core of every spiritual practice and encounter. It is a metaphor for soul work, and it is also the physical seed itself: without these seeds, embedded in grain-based civilisations as we are, we perish. A deep relationship with these seeds remembers us: who we are as a people, and our place on the planet as a species.
These stories delve into deep time and put us back in touch with the shapes of the world when we were still kin to its breathing, with its cave paintings and kiva, longhouse and tumulus
These stories delve into deep time and put us back in touch with the shapes of the world when we were still kin to its breathing, with its cave paintings and kiva, longhouse and tumulus, the spirals on stones across the world. They lie hidden at our feet, in myths that break up our linear moment and stretch it outwards in all directions.
But mostly take us down into the dark.
Our 200-year-old industrial civilisation wants to keep the lights on, but millennia-old cultures don’t think like that. Because they know that dark matter is the primordial stuff of the universe, and this world of appearances is a brief moment in time. The dark is where everything is born, animal and human, where seeds burst their casings before they emerge in spring. This is what the seed mysteries tell us – the corn and the beans of the Hopi mesas, the barley of the Eleusinian mysteries, the wheat stalk in the solar chamber in NewGrange in Ireland.
Underneath the patriarchy, another body of knowledge remains that we sometimes unearth, like the Gaelic female poets buried face down, or women buried with hemp seeds and horses, swords and coloured skirts, on the far steppes of the North. We find it hidden, sometimes like this story, the kernel of the Roman writer’s novel, disguised as a fairy tale.
Apuleius depicts the goddess as a hussy and her son a naughty rosy-cheeked boy, but we know that this is a clever device: Apuleius, an initiate of many schools, is hiding a phial of quicksilver inside a ribald tale. Venus is a planetary force and Eros is the primal creator,, sprung from a silver egg at the beginning of time, who sets the universe in order. So she is not the shrewish mother-in-law, but the matrix of a dynamic between these stellar forces and the human Psyche.
Venus knows being beautiful is not enough, being high-born and a daddy’s darling is not enough, there is no beauty of soul unless it is transformed. You need to open the kist and find the ledgers on which are written what you need to look at, your lineage, your nation, the legacy of being human in an industrial empire and learn how to-put a crooked thing straight.
Can we break out of our individualism and listen to instruction about how to sort the seeds, how to honour the animals and the spring, how to enter and return from the Underworld? Can we resist the plaintive pleas of the souls of the Underworld, and steer our own passage? Can we take the coins into our mouths to pay Charon and the barley cakes for the three=headed hound of Hades? And can we then, finally do what every female being does in their infinite curiosity, disobey the order from our elders and betters, and open the box?
You need a strong memory and imagination to undertake these tasks, neither of which are ever encouraged by the village, city neighbourhood or nation state you find yourself in. We live in superficial times. The tasks ahead are all about depth and return. The older and more fixed you are the harder it is to fulfil them, but the richer and more rewarding also. When you are younger you feel you have more to lose, but when you are older, you lack desire and feel you have lived your life already. Either way it is tough. Either way, it’s not just about you. You don’t do the work for just you. That is what gives you strength, what stops you from despairing, staring down from cliffs into the foaming sea, or into the obsidian waters of the Styx.
You engage in these tasks to cohere the fragmentation of the collective you see and feel all around – its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. You do it to remember what was once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. You do it for the luminous planet that hosts you.
The work is exacting and challenging and can give you every shred of meaning you might have longed for in a world that has lost its way, but it comes at a high cost: the loss of a self you and everyone you know once knew.
My own search took me to many places on Earth, into inner and mythic landscapes, far away from everything I had once known and loved. But as I found out, this journey is not about going out or away. It is all about coming back.
After Ithaca is published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru Books, in association with the Dark Mountain Project. To order worldwide, please visit the Dark Mountain online shop
After Ithaca will be launched with Loss Soup and Other Stories by Nick Hunt this Thursday 19th May at Schumacher College, Devon and online on Thursday 26th May. All details and booking here.
Cover image: Immense as the Sky by Meryl McMaster. More about her work here: merylmcmaster.com
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling