The Underworld

The Underworld


For depth psychology (the psychotherapeutic tradition of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and related thinkers), the underworld is a rich symbol of the unconscious realm that we enter every night in our dreams. The notion of a world located beneath the surface of the earth where the souls of the dead and certain types of spirits exist is a widespread theme in ancient and modern world religions. The basic idea of an underground realm of the dead probably derives from the custom of burying corpses beneath the earth. Although less-than-inviting realms, the underworlds of the ancient Mediterranean peoples from which Western culture derives (e.g., Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians) were not the realms of torture and punishment that the underworld became in Christianity and related traditions. A less widespread but nevertheless common subtheme in world religions is that this underworld dimension can be reached through a tunnel or opening that leads underground. Many myths relate the stories of heroes who enter the underworld to rescue a beloved one, to gain the gift of immortality, or to accomplish some other heroic task.

In the contemporary world, the underworld has come to be viewed psychologically rather than literally, as a symbol for the unconscious. This is particularly the case among thinkers of the Jungian tradition. It is easy to see how the story of a hero entering and reemerging from the underworld might be viewed as a symbol for our nightly journey through the world of sleep and dreams. Furthermore, ethnographic reports indicate that association of sleep and dreams with death is widespread in human culture. In many different religious traditions, but particularly in the West, the heroic journey to the underworld realm of the dead is not infrequently pictured as taking place in a dream state.

The personal unconscious is, in a sense, the burial ground of one’s past. However, far from being dead, this past continues to influence us—to “haunt” us, so to speak—in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. As we wrestle with our psychological patterns, especially under the stimulus of the therapeutic process, we attempt to “resurrect” our buried past and subject it to closer scrutiny. In fact, a large part of the therapeutic process in depth psychology is conceptualized as making the unconscious conscious—entering the underworld and, like the hero of traditional mythologies, bringing some long—buried part of the self back to the realm of light.

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