I have been reading The Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane, which is a dazzling exploration of the author’s daring travels into the bowels of the earth. He devotes space to mining, caving, cave painting, Parisian catacombs, glaciers of Greenland, nuclear waste, and also to mythical explorations, which are of greatest interest to me. This is no light fast-paced reading; rather it is often an onerous task, which matches what the author says about the time in the underworld:
“Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.”
He also argues that our language is deeply biased against the nether regions:
“In many of the metaphors we live by, height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’. ‘Catastrophe’ literally means a ‘downwards turn’, ‘cataclysm’ a ‘downwards violence’.”
He calls the underland “a fascinating and terrible place, and not one that can be borne for long,” a place where all language is crushed, where the unbearable weight of rock and time turn bodies into stone.
But the two most fascinating passages that I am going to quote below are devoted to the myth. The first one talks about the five Greek rivers of the underworld. Perhaps nowhere else can you find a better metaphor for the various roles that the unconscious can play than in the haunting image of the five rivers of Hades.
I. “Starless rivers run through classical culture, and they are the rivers of the dead. The Lethe, the Styx, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus and the Acheron flow from the upper world into the underland – and all five converge in a welter of water at the dark heart of Hades. The waters of Lethe are the waters of amnesia, from which the shades of the dead must drink in order to forget their earthly existence. The Greek word lethe means ‘oblivion’ and ‘forgetfulness’; it is countersaid by the Greek word aletheia, meaning ‘unforgetfulness’, ‘unconcealment’ and also ‘truth’. By means of the Lethe, Aeneas is able to travel to meet the ghost of his father – one of the many souls that throng the flood – in the great katabasis of Book VI of the Aeneid. Charon, the ferryman, carries souls of the newly dead across the Styx; he requires, for safe passage, an obol, or coin, to be placed on the lips of the deceased in order to pay for transport to the underland. The Phlegethon is the river of heat, of flaming fire and boiling blood, which is thought to flow in coils and spirals, descending into the depths of Tartarus, the abyss of the damned. The Cocytus is the coldest of the five, the river of lamentation, scoured by freezing winds, hardened in places to ice. Where the Cocytus runs, its currents call out constant cries of pain as they tumble over rapids and swirl around bends. The Acheron is the gentlest of the starless rivers, the river of woe, over which Charon also plies his trade. It runs so deep into hell that at times it is made synonymous with it, as when Juno says in the Aeneid, ‘Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo’, ‘If I cannot get the gods above to change their minds, I will appeal to the River of Hell.’”
Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey
The second quote refers to a crucial mythical tale of the Western culture – the Kalevala, which was a source of inspiration to Tolkien. Here the main hero descends to Tuonela, which is the Finnish name for the Underworld, immortalized by a magnificent composition by Sibelius called “The Swan of Tuonela”:
II. “The Kalevala is a haunting epic that has preoccupied me for some years, obsessed as it is with the power of word, incantation and story to change the world into which they are uttered. Its heroes are language masters and wonder-workers – and the greatest of them is called Väinämöinen, whose name translates memorably as ‘Hero of the Slow-Moving River’. Partway through the poem, Väinämöinen is given the task of descending to the underland. Hidden in the Finnish forests, he is told, is the entrance to a tunnel that leads to a cavern far underground. In that cavern are stored materials of huge energy: spells and enchantments which, when spoken, will release great power. To approach this subterranean space safely Väinämöinen must protect himself with shoes of copper and a shirt of iron, lest he be damaged by what it contains. Ilmarinen forges them for him. Clad in these insulating metals Väinämöinen approaches the tunnel mouth, which is disguised by aspens, alders, willows and spruce. He cuts down the trees to reveal the entrance. He enters the tunnel and finds himself in a deep ‘grave’, a ‘demon . . . lair’. He has stepped, he realizes, into the throat of a buried giant called Vipunen whose body is the land itself. Vipunen warns Väinämöinen not to bring to the surface what is buried in his caverns. He speaks of the ‘grievous pain’ of excavation. But Väinämöinen will not listen to Vipunen. He sings of his conviction that the power buried underground should be returned to the surface…”
Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey