Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What is a descent myth?

If you've read anything about The Descent, you know that it's about Lanny, the heroine of the trilogy, going to the underworld to beg for the return of Jonathan, the man she had wronged by drawing him into her eternal punishment. I knew from the very beginning, from when I was just starting to piece the story together, that it would end this way. Her dilemma is made all the richer by because the only way she can get to the afterlife is with the help of Adair, the man she fears (and loves) the most, the only one with the ability to access the magical world.

Underworld myths abound throughout all the cultures of the world. These myths are meant to teach us several lessons, foremost being the finality of death. At the same time, these myths are often highly romantic, sending a hero or heroine into the underworld on an impossible quest: to bring someone you love back to the land of the living. We're probably all familiar with the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. The story that sparked my imagination was actually about the wife of a general (Roman, I think) who went to the underworld to beg for the return of her husband, who was being kept by the goddess of the dead. Or something like that: I'd heard it a long time ago in a class at Johns Hopkins from a poetry professor and by the time I decided to use it in the trilogy, many years had passed. I didn't know the exact story the professor had cited and he seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. I was able to find a few myths that fit the general story but was not able to trace it back to the exact story. 

If you're unfamiliar with underworld myths, here are the two most famous ones to get you started:

Persephone’s story is the most famous of all the underworld tales and one that is full of love: love of the dark lonely god Hades for Persephone, the love of a mother for her daughter. Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, so that she would be his bride. Demeter petitioned Zeus on her daughter’s behalf, and Zeus determined that Persephone could return as long as she had not eaten the food of the dead. While Persephone had refused to eat for most of her time in the underworld, she slipped up once, eating six pomegranate seeds. Zeus makes a King Solomon-like decision by allowing Persephone to split her time between the world above and the underworld. Every time Persephone is in the underworld with Hades, the mourning Demeter covers the earth in cold and snow, explaining the changing of the seasons.

·       The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is the inspiration for my book The Descent. When Eurydice, wife of the famed Greek minstrel Orpheus, dies, Orpheus goes into the Underworld to convince Hades and Persephone to let his wife return to him. His songs move them to grant his wish, with a catch: during their trip to the surface, Orpheus cannot look back at his wife. If he does, she must remain in the Underworld. You know what happens next: at the last minute, Orpheus’ curiosity wins out (can you blame him? The Greek gods are a notoriously tricky bunch) and he turns around, only to see his wife's shade disappear.

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