Therapist, trainer, writer









Woman, body, earth and spirit: Journeys of descent through myth, embodiment and movement practice

Chapter from Spiritual Herstories, ed. Amanda Williamson and Barbara Sellers-Young

by Linda Hartley

Thirty years ago I was impelled on a journey to a place I named, like many who have gone before me, the Underworld (Eliade 1964: 24, 211; Hultkrantz 1988: 35-6; Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 15; Johnson 1976: 68-9): a realm of soul, a psychological terrain that is terrifying to encounter and devastating to inhabit for any length of time. I did not intend or wish to make this journey, and certainly I suffered greatly during the five years that I remained bound to this realm. Yet I knew that some part of me went willingly, even ‘volunteered’ to make what is undoubtedly a dangerous excavation into the deepest regions of the human psyche.

At that time I was engaged in a training programme in a transpersonal psychological therapy, which made extensive use of guided imagery (Assagioli 1965: 145) and active imagination (see for example Storr 1983: 21; Chodorow 1991: 34). The way these methods were used, and at times misused, propelled me to open to too much light and darkness, too quickly. In the physical world, the forces of gravity and levity constantly interact with the tendency of water to form a sphere, creating spirals in all living forms (Schwenk 1965: 13); so, too, the laws of psyche require interaction of the vertical dimension of spirit with the horizontal embrace of human relatedness in the world. The natural spiral of growth that results from this enables us to gradually integrate experiences of height and depth within the realm of lived relationship with others. But the thread of the spiral had broken and I plummeted between heaven and hell, with no way to connect to others and to life from these extreme states. Misguided therapeutic interventions and lack of holding played a significant part.

I was also a student and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, and at this time had spent more than twelve years immersed deeply in the study of dance and somatic movement practices. I felt well embodied, experiencing a nuanced connection between mind, sensation, feeling, movement and the subtle motility of body tissues. I lived in and from my somatically sensed experience, felt at home in my body, grounded, in good relationship with the earth. I had worked hard to reach this place.

The descent to the Underworld undid all of this. Although there had been a period of ‘preparation’ – a gradual descent with periods of mild depression and anxiety, and sometimes a rapid spiralling between the heights and depths of feeling – when it came, the fall came suddenly, and once it began it could not be stopped. Within one long night of descent I lost touch with the feeling of somatic connectedness; the grounding, support and resource of my embodied self was no longer accessible to me. My heart was the portal through which I experienced falling through ‘the crack between the worlds’.[1] I saw a crystal green light in my heart, and its brilliance burnt away all that I had been – in my inner vision, my body was reduced to charred ashes. All that remained of me was the shining emerald light in my heart centre.


Figure 1: Root (photo: Linda Hartley)  

But I could not function from this place. Old trauma had been activated and I ‘decompensated’ – a term I learnt many years later during my studies in somatic trauma therapy (Rothschild 2000: 80). Plunged into this experience with full consciousness of all I was feeling was both agonising and revelatory. In the weeks, months and years that followed, ordinary living became difficult, even impossible. Friendships were lost, work had to be abandoned, social connections dissolved as I entered a slower, timeless world, out of step with those around me.  

Without my hard-earned resources of somatic knowing and embodied presence to anchor and orient me in life, I was falling – through the depths of the earth-womb-Underworld, and beyond, out into empty space.  As if I was travelling back in time, before even conception – back to the Bardo (Sogyal Rinpoche 1992: 103, 287) between death and rebirth. It was an acutely painful and terrifying experience.  


Figure 2: Rock. (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)    

At times the only sense I had of my body was of streams of energy flowing through me, with nothing of substance to hold me together. I experienced white-hot energy moving up my spine. My solar plexus was a dark, open wound through which all the energies of the city could enter, and there I felt terror. My heart was a deep chasm, full of grief and a raw pain that was both physical and emotional. For five whole years I cried every day – not the weeping of gentle tears, but a violent sobbing that wracked my whole body in waves of motion that seemed to dislodge the tissues, fluids and energies, dismantling holding patterns. It left me vulnerable, transparent, barely able to leave my home. To do so I had to ‘steel’ myself; in a state of heightened awareness of my inner experiencing, I could track the creation of muscular tensions into holding patterns as defence against the impossible vulnerability of this unboundaried state. [2] Each day they had to be created anew; old habitual patterns could no longer be relied upon.

Was I experiencing the rising of Kundalini energy, or a descent into the re-awakened terror of a baby in distress? Or both? Through staying present to what was actually happening, rather than resorting too quickly to narrative or explanation, I have come to recognise that infant trauma and energetic phenomena can express through the same pathways of movement, gesture and sound, so that one might sometimes be a gateway to the other (Adler 1999: 185; Hartley 2001: 72-3; Hartley 2015: 307)  

The opening in therapy to feelings around the deaths, in my early life, of two people I loved had triggered the descent; with this, earlier experiences of loss came to the surface. I was re-living what Winnicott called the ‘unthinkable anxieties’ of the infant (Davis and Wallbridge 1981: 58). Living in the world as an adult from this perspective was nigh impossible; all the pieces of stuff that made up the city of London were separating, the ‘glue’ that held them together gone, so that I could see all the bricks, beams, wires, glass and metal, nuts and bolts that had gone into creating the structures around me. On the underground – in the days when I still tried to travel there – it was as if I could see behind the masks of ‘being okay’, ‘doing fine’ that people wore, to witness instead the quiet despair, sadness, pain or anger that lay not far beneath the surface. With my own mask stripped away, my own pain was acutely visible to me.

The sense of my heart scraped raw was insistent. I could not read a newspaper or listen to news of suffering in the world without dissolving into tears. I began to understand what my spiritual teacher meant when he described compassion as ‘suffering with’, but in my vulnerable state I knew I could be of no help to others.   

Death was with me everywhere. I knew the world of the dead more intimately than that of the living. During my descent I had a vision of a black vulture and the name ‘God’s Angel of Death’ came. Years later, I recognised this same vulture as the ‘Guardian of the Threshold’. Paradox, I came to learn, is at the heart of this journey.  

In the years that followed I would have to learn again, this time with deepened and more conscious understanding, what the embodied state meant and offered at developmental, psychological, relational and spiritual levels of experience and learning. And out of this learning eventually came the writing, teaching and practice that has filled my professional life since this time. [3] Without this journey of descent I would not know what I know, would not be quite who I am today. The force of the encounter with the Underworld to un-make us is only resolved when we are re-created and can bring back to the world - like the shaman who is dis-membered and re-membered during his or her initiatory ordeal - the gifts of the Underworld (Halifax 1982: 92; Hartley 2001: 185-215). The gifts recovered there may include embodied knowledge, wisdom, and initiation into paths of healing or the creative arts. As Perera describes, these channels: ‘[P]ermit working at the edge of the collective in order to process the intensities most people cannot bear; and both permit the transpersonal waters to flow in individual patterns.’ (Perera 1986: 87)  

 Encounter with and immersion in what I came to call the deep feminine, or the ground of being, underpinned the lessons of my own journey. Much of the knowing that emerged felt wordless, but I strove to find words, in my writing, teaching and therapy practice, that might point towards the knowledge and wisdom that body, deep psyche, earth and spirit can yield. These wordless knowings informed me about embodied presence, and about the healing of the wounds to the feminine within each of us. This became a foundation of my understanding of healing and therapeutic work.

As I entered the path of descent, the word ‘initiation’ came spontaneously to mind, as the part of me that went willingly acquiesced to the destructive forces that acted upon psyche and soma. At the same time, there was a painful struggle within another part of me that was terrified and resisting every step of the way. I needed to resolve this conflict in order to find a coherent way to be with myself in the process of disintegration. Was it initiation, or breakdown, or both? I could identify with the dissolving body, like a caterpillar in its cocoon, and feel only the fear, loss and pain of this; or I could surrender to the dissolution of the old form, and welcome the new that was soon to emerge.

The new did emerge. A small moment, yet a momentous one, signalled that I had returned. I woke up one morning and felt different. I felt myself fully present, centred within myself: I had a sense of a core, a place to be, a witnessing centre, and I felt embodied again. I had not felt like this for five whole years. Somehow it was so simple, and yet the change was profound. I had been re-born and I could begin to re-build my life again.


Figure 3: Earth-sky (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)

 The Sumerian myth of Inanna-Ereshkigal: the Journey of Descent

During the depths of this process, a wise friend gave me a copy of the book Descent to the Goddess, by Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera (Perera 1981). I read the book from cover to cover, drinking it in as if it were the elixir of life. It offered the guidance I was seeking, a way to begin to understand and hold the many dimensions of experience that felt chaotic and confusing whilst in the midst of them. I felt my experience had been witnessed through Perera’s writing. Later I came across the translation and commentary of the Sumerian myth of Inanna, by Wolkstein and Kramer (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983); reading and studying Inanna – Queen of Heaven and Earth deepened my understanding and offered orientation on the path.

Myths tell the tales of the gods and goddesses, archetypal patterns that are played out through our individual and collective lives ….. [They are] the way by which human beings ….. attempt to make containable and meaningful the harsh and often inexplicable experiences of life. Myth makes sacred, and returns us to the path of our soul. (Hartley 2001: 115)

Modern depth and archetypal psychology, as developed by Carl C. Jung, has profoundly influenced transpersonal and humanistic approaches to psychotherapy and dance movement psychotherapy. Mary Starks Whitehouse evolved her approach, now called Authentic Movement, [4] by integrating her work as a dance therapist with insights from Jung’s research into the archetypal and mythological foundations of the psyche. Pioneers such as Whitehouse, Woodman, Chodorow, McNeely and Conger have shown us that myth and archetype are sourced in the instinctive, organic body, and can become known through dance and movement expression, as well as somatic bodywork and psychological work (Whitehouse 1999: 73-101; Woodman 1982,1985; Chodorow 1991; McNeely 1987; Conger 1988).

Inanna’s story is the oldest recorded version of the descent of the Goddess, and goes back five thousand years and more. It is rooted in a matriarchal time when Goddess-worship was widespread, and womanhood honoured and revered, although the hymns of Inanna suggest a threshold, her status shifting under the growing authority of the male Gods of the rational Upperworld (Wolkstein and Kramer 1983: 61-2, 159). We are similarly poised at a threshold today, with the absolute dominance of androcentric patriarchy waning and the feminine voice again rising within contemporary culture, society, politics and religion (Whitmont 1983). Maybe it is for this reason that the myth of Inanna speaks so deeply to many contemporary women (Perera 1981; Hartley 2001). We are threshold creatures, harbingers of a new balance between masculine and feminine modes of being and doing, ready to listen to Inanna’s call and learn from her experience of the descent to the Underworld, as we chart our individual and collective paths towards wholeness.

Inanna is experienced and eminently competent in the ways of the Upperworld of Heaven and Earth – she is a Queen, erotic lover, mother and Priestess of the Mysteries. Unlike the patriarchal daughters of the Greco-Roman myths, such as Psyche and Persephone, she is not enchanted, tricked, raped or abducted to the Underworld. She goes willingly - out of her own free choice and will. Dressed in her fine royal garments she proudly approaches the gates of the Underworld, the Kur, and demands to be allowed to enter. Her reasons are to witness the funeral rites of the husband of her dark sister, Ereshkigal, who is grieving (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 55). Inanna sets out on a dangerous journey from which most do not return, in order to meet her dark side, her shadow energies, all that has been unacknowledged, denied or repressed within her psyche and by the Upperworld of reason and order.

We each set out on this journey when we seek to become whole, more fully who we are, through the work of uncovering the lost parts of ourselves, of our experience – all that is hidden, unknown, unacceptable and unexpressed. However we do this – through therapy, meditation, prayer, yoga, dance, writing, gardening, dream-work, conscious relating, and many other ways – by choosing this path we follow in the steps of Inanna to meet our dark sister, to bring to consciousness our buried shadow side, and thus integrate the deep feminine into our worldly way of being.  

The myth of Inanna is complex, multi-layered and has many twists and turns which I cannot cover fully within the scope of this chapter,[5] but I will outline a few themes that have special relevance.

There are seven gates to the Kur (the Underworld), and Inanna approaches dressed in her seven royal adornments, symbols of the seven holy me (powers) that have been bestowed upon her (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 12-27). At each gate she is commanded to take off one of her garments, until she stands naked before Ereshkigal. Perera suggests that the stripping of the garments at each of the gates represents the seven chakras (Perera 1981: 61); we can imagine that this ritual of stripping bare symbolises the spiritual practice of purification, where the rise of Kundalini energy through the chakras (Leadbeater 1927: 118-9) effects the clearing of the ‘density of personal history’ (Adler [6]), of attachment to ego and personality. Upperworldly (ego-centred) trappings must be surrendered. In the journey of descent, this is exactly what happens. Ideally, as the myth shows us, this will occur gradually, gate by gate, according to the readiness of the initiate. Lack of readiness, understanding, holding and witnessing can lead to danger, excessive suffering, and potential psychosis.  

Once in the Underworld Inanna must subject herself to the will of her dark sister, initiated by her into matter and the Mysteries of Ereshkigal’s realm. She is to be made conscious of her inner suffering and the dark side of the feminine, and is condemned to death by Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal, too, is made conscious through the presence of Inanna, who brings light to her dark realm. A mutual awakening of the two sides of the Goddess, of our feminine nature, can occur through their meeting.

The Kur

Figure 4: The Kur (photo: Linda Hartley)

Ereshkigal’s pain and isolation is witnessed, and the possibility of transformation is opened to her. Inanna is witnessed too, her journey held within the awareness of her servant Ninshubur. Before descending, she instructs Ninshubur to seek help if she has not returned within three days, and this the faithful servant does (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 61). She is the empathic witness who grieves for her mistress’s fate, but also takes compassionate action to secure her release. Calling first, inappropriately, to the patriarchal Sky Gods who wish to have nothing to do with Ereshkigal’s realm or the wilful Inanna, Ninshubur then turns to Enki, God of Wisdom and the Waters of Life. Enki has integrated the fluid, empathic, feminine side of his nature, and knows the ways of the Underworld; thus he can initiate Inanna’s revival and return.

But Inanna can only return if she provides a sacrifice in her place, and the galla, demons, accompany her as she emerges from the Underworld to secure her replacement. It is her former consort, Dumuzi, who is chosen, as he shows no grief for her suffering, no reverence towards her, and sits proudly on Inanna’s throne as she returns to her temple. The usurping male ego, or the animus-driven personality of the woman, must now be humbled and initiated. Unlike Inanna, Dumuzi tries every trick to escape his fate (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 74). He is full of fear, and does not go willingly. He is the part of us that resists the destructive forces that are necessary to the Great Round, the creative cycle of life, death and rebirth.

In the final stage of the myth of Inanna’s descent, it is the sister of Dumuzi, Geshtinanna, who brings about the eventual transformation of Inanna and completes her initiation. Geshtinanna, full of grief at her brother’s fate, offers to take his place in the Underworld. Inanna’s compassion is awakened by her sacrifice, and she allows her to share Dumuzi’s fate; each will spend just half the year in the Underworld, thus ensuring that spring will follow winter, and the endless cycles of life, death and rebirth will continue (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 89). In psychological terms, when we keep the passage to the Underworld open through our committed practice, staying connected to the stirrings of our inner life, we can integrate unconscious content into consciousness and thus move towards greater wholeness.  

Embodied practice and the journey of descent and return  

On my first reading of the myth of Inanna-Ereshkigal it resonated deeply with my experience. As I continued to explore and be moved by it over many years, I found ever deeper and subtler connections. As well as offering guidance on my personal journey, I found resonance with the practice of Authentic Movement with which I was engaged, and in the somatic balancing of inner-focussed attention and outer-focussed activity. The myth seemed to speak to, and perhaps emerge from, deep organic sources (Conger 1988: 185; Jung 1980: 173): in particular, from the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), which maintains psycho-physiological balance and relationship between our upperworldly self and the stirrings of the unconscious psyche – between our doing and our being (Hartley 2004: 163-5). The myth offers a map for maintaining the cycling between these worlds, and our autonomic nervous system is the embodiment of this process.   

My personal practice of Authentic Movement had been an important resource during the years of immersion in, healing, and return from the Underworld experience. Moving, through this embodied practice, through the layers of fear and grief to the heart of my pain was healing and transformative. I began to explore the myth in workshop and retreat formats, using Authentic Movement and somatic explorations of the ANS to embody themes from the journey of descent and return. In particular, Authentic Movement offers many parallels.

Authentic Movement and the myth of Inanna  

Firstly, before we close our eyes and enter our inner world of sensing, feeling and imagining, moving closer to what may be dark and unconscious within us, we establish relationship with the external witness (represented by Ninshubur in the myth); she will sit to the edge of the movement space, maintaining safe boundaries and calling us back to upperworld consciousness when it is time. The presence of the witness enables us to maintain connection with our upperworldly self during our descent, even as we surrender this for a prescribed time. In the Discipline of Authentic Movement [7] this means the gradual cultivation of a compassionate, non-judging internal witness, a centre of clear awareness from which we can witness our experiences even as we surrender to the flow of impulses from within (Whitehouse 1999: 53; Adler 1999: 122; Adler 2002: 3-58). The witness function, both external and internal, is essential to this discipline, as is Ninshubur to Inanna’s safe return.    

Gate I

Figure 5: Gate I (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)

Inanna is allowed through the gates of the Kur one at a time. At each gate she must surrender another piece of her worldly adornments as she descends deeper into the Underworld. The mover in Authentic Movement practice often finds there are ‘gates’ or thresholds through which she passes as she deepens to herself, allowing impulses to arise into movement from deepening layers of the psyche. The first moment might be when she commits to enter the space as a mover; a discernible shift happens within her attention and her embodied presence as she makes this choice, as if the journey has already begun. William Segal writes, in describing what he calls ‘the force of attention’: “Through the simple act of attending, one initiates a new alignment of forces.” (Segal 1987) A threshold has been crossed, a new quality of perception and experience entered into.  

As the mover makes eye contact with her external witness, witnesses the empty space, hears the bell ring, and closes her eyes, she might feel another threshold has been crossed. Some movers find that specific recurring gestures or movement patterns signal that the process is deepening. At other times it might be a period of stillness, or perhaps of sounding, that heralds a further descent, another gate passed through. The external witness can track these changes as her own attention is drawn deeper with the mover’s deepening connection to herself; or the witness may feel invited to ascend again, perhaps towards the end of the moving time when the work has been done and the mover is beginning to surface. Several such transitions, descents and ascents, may occur during a movement session.  

The myth of Inanna tells us that we do not make this journey just once, arriving at some kind of exalted state of integration, a happy-ever-after situation! Like the Goddess of the Great Round, the one who presides over the natural cycles of life-death-rebirth, we must keep cycling through these realms, keep the passage between our upperworld self and our deep unconscious open. We are meant to descend again and again, so that we can keep nourishing ourselves in the source and ground of the deep feminine – that essential part of us that knows life-in-death and death-in-life consciousness, and the necessity for perpetual change and renewal. And so we keep returning to the commitment to close our eyes and enter the movement circle, or to our journal to record our night dreams, or to a favourite poem, or to the beach or the mountains or our garden to be close to nature and nourished by it.

Somatic sourcing of the cycle of descent and return

In this cycling process, we are supported in our practice and throughout our daily lives by the reciprocal activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS. This system regulates cycles of rest and activity, of inner- and process-focussed attention with outer- and goal-oriented activity. A healthy psycho-physiological balance requires that we go fully into each aspect, alternating inwardly-focussed states of restful digestion, processing, recuperation and preparation, with states of outer-focussed attention which support physical and mental activity, play, challenge and the meeting of goals, ambitions and the necessities of living in the world. Each supports the other (Hartley 1995: 250-6; Hartley 2004: 163-5).

The ANS functions, by and large, beyond our conscious control, and maintains balance within an optimal range. It can become imbalanced through, for example, trauma, prolonged or extreme stress of all kinds, habitual dominance of one or other of the branches and repression of the other, and psycho-social conditioning which prevents us from fully entering states of deep, recuperative rest and embodied outward expression of internal impulses. Such imbalanced patterns may have been laid down during early childhood, and often have roots in peri-natal or pre-natal life.

In somatic explorations of these two dynamics, we might work directly from the anatomical pathways of nerve tracts and originating brain areas, to embody the tissues of the ANS. Through the process of embodiment developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Cohen 2008: 157), we visualise, sense, and feel the tissues within us, then allow this felt-sense to inform movement and dance expression, embodying the qualities of each branch in creative ways. In this way we learn directly where we feel supported to express each aspect and where there is inhibition. Methods such as touch, breath and voice might be used to facilitate fuller embodiment of the cycle between sympathetic and parasympathetic modes. Creative dialogue between the two parts, drawing their ‘characters’, music that supports the qualities of expression, and energising games or relaxing meditations might be used.  

For some, entering the dark and unknown realms of psyche and soma can be difficult, frightening; for others it may be the challenge to act in a fully embodied way, to express creatively and spontaneously, that is inhibited. Natural cycles of rest and activity are interrupted: one person may be constantly ‘on the go’, until they eventually collapse; another might sink into depression and be unable to act with agency and fulfil their needs and desires in life. Many other manifestations become apparent, which affect both physical and psychological health.

Returning to the myth, we may feel resourced in our descend and return once we have found a more balanced cycling within the ANS: the descent to the Underworld (of the unconscious psyche and the felt-sensed body) becomes less frightening and eventually enjoyable when supported by the presence of an external and internal witness; and in the return we might find fuller expression and agency in the world when we are consciously embodied and fully present to our experience.

Gate II

Figure 6: Gate II (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)  

Balance and integration of masculine and feminine in the myth of Inanna

Inanna’s story also speaks to the relationship and integration of feminine and masculine energies within each of us.  The Courtship of Inanna  and Dumuzi and Other Hymns (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 29-49, 91-110) - which we can imagine were sung at her temples on holy days dedicated to the Goddess - show her in a fruitful marriage with her shepherd-husband Dumuzi, rejoicing in her sexuality and erotic play, a woman in command of herself and in good relationship with the youthful masculine. But Inanna is challenged to a deeper integration of masculine energies, both the empathic-creative-relational and the patriarchal-dominant-bullying.  

The myth suggests that Ereshkigal’s husband, Gugalanna, has been killed and Inanna goes to accompany her sister in her grieving for him. Gugalanna had the bullish qualities of the dominant patriarchal male, so we see Inanna at the beginning of the story engaging with this aspect through her association with Ereshkigal.

After Inanna’s descent and her initiation into the dark realm by Ereshkigal, she is impaled on a hook on the wall, and here she would have stayed had it not been for Enki, God of Wisdom and the Waters of Life, who initiates Inanna’s return. Enki is the creative, empathic, playful male who has undergone his own initiation; he is not afraid of Ereshkigal’s realm, and can help Inanna (Hartley 2001: 166). He creates two small servants, the kurgarra and galatur, from the dirt beneath his fingernails: everything is useful, significant on this journey; nothing cannot be turned towards healing and the quest for wholeness. In our movement practice we give every small detail of the movement experience our attention, and value each moment, no matter how small and insignificant it might at first appear to be. Thus healing can arise from many sources.

The kurgarra and galatur crawl beneath the doors of the Kur and enter Ereshkigal’s realm to find her weeping and moaning, in agony with what seem to be the pains of labour – the birth of consciousness we might assume, as Inanna’s appearance in her world has brought to light her dark sister’s hidden pain, just as our own pain is made conscious as we descend to deeper layers of the psyche. They empathise with her suffering, and she responds to their attentive witnessing of her distress. Once acknowledged, no longer in isolation, Ereshkigal can transform; she finds gratitude within herself and allows the little servants to take Inanna’s corpse and bring her back to life. Here we see the powerful effect of empathic relating, so crucial in the Discipline of Authentic Movement, as well as the practice of psychotherapy and counselling. A mover who has been witnessed with empathy and compassion can begin to heal those places in herself that have been relegated to the dark, unacknowledged and isolated from human connection; and she can gradually internalise these qualities to become a compassionate witness to others.

Through the intervention of Enki, we see Inanna initiated into the creative side of the masculine. She must now confront the masculine in its inflated, patriarchal shadow aspect once again, but from a deepened place within herself.  The return journey is not easy; she emerges from the Underworld with the galla, demons, at her heels, seeking a substitute to take her place. It seems right that it is proud Dumuzi, Inanna’s consort, who is the one strong enough to be taken as the sacrifice (Perera 1981: 81-4). In the tradition of matriarchal cultures where the lover/consort/king was cyclically renewed (Whitmont 1983: 54-5), the human representative of this role replaced by another (a practice still reflected in modern democracies), Inanna chooses Dumuzi as the one to take her place in the Underworld. She has been empowered, through her ordeal, to initiate the transformation of the inflated masculine. As Ereshkigal first did to her, Inanna fastens upon Dumuzi ‘the eye of death’. In the realm of myth, this can be seen not as an abuse of power, but as an archetypal necessity and an act of compassion – tough love, we might say.    


Figure 7: Return (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)

As women, and men too, undergoing this journey, we understand that all the characters in the myth represent parts of our own psyche. And so it is our own masculinised ego that needs to be cyclically dipped in the well of deep feminine wisdom, in order that masculine and feminine within us can find their right place and relationship to each other.

As the story of Dumuzi’s capture and descent to the Underworld comes to a close, it is the great love and compassion of his wise sister, Geshtinanna, that completes the process of initiation. Her love and compassion gather together and unite the masculine and feminine in their light and dark aspects. The mandala is complete.

I love this myth. After thirty years of living with it, it still teaches and reveals new insights. But even more significant than what it teaches is all that will forever remain a mystery. I do not know the language of ancient Sumer, or its culture and religion. I can barely imagine what it must have been like to live in an age when the feminine and women were deeply honoured and respected, a Goddess was worshipped above all the Gods, and human beings experienced themselves as part of, and not separate from and above, the natural world and its laws. I perceive this myth through the lens of a contemporary woman trained in somatic and psychological therapies, dance and Buddhism. Even so, I can imagine that the intuitive resonance I feel may be close to the experience of the ancient Sumerians who worshipped Inanna as their Goddess. Perhaps they danced and sang to her, or even moved in spontaneous circles, each expressing their own relationship to the Goddess and their experience of the journey to meet their inner being.

Each time I offer this workshop, brave groups of women are called to gather together and open their ‘ear to the Great Below’ (Wolkstein & Kramer 1983: 52), to listen to the call from the Underworld, to Ereshkigal’s cries, as they journey to meet themselves. Magic happens, every time. The body and the soul know what is needed, where in the cycle each woman is placed at that moment and what she needs to encounter for her next step of the journey. I am endlessly awed and grateful for the privilege of witnessing these encounters.

Somatic sourcing of archetypal journeys – Lilith and Eve

Out of the Inanna workshop and my ongoing personal journeys, other themes began to emerge and suggest themselves into somatic explorations using creative bodywork and Authentic Movement. I gathered them into a series of workshops called Woman, Body, Earth and Spirit. The second workshop I developed came out of a period of illness ten years after the initiation of the descent described above. A growth had been found on one ovary and cancer was suspected.

I sat in the local hospital reception, waiting for my turn to see the consultant. He was running late. I picked up a magazine and found an article on witchcraft in Africa, which I began to read with increasing horror. Women were still being brutally punished and exiled for committing what the judges determined were acts of witchcraft. Most likely they were unorthodox, independent, strong, creative women - healers, visionaries and artists. That this medieval barbarism was still happening in the twentieth century was shocking to me.

As the consultant was very late, I was able to finish reading the article. When I was finally called into his room he had little time left for me. He told me he would like to do a laparoscopy, but first wanted me to sign a consent form agreeing that he could remove the ovary if he was unable to make a visual diagnosis; and agreeing that he could remove the other ovary too. And whilst I was ‘under’, he might as well take out my womb as well, just to be on the safe side! I did not sign the form.

On my way home from the hospital, feeling shocked and upset, a deafening noise from under my car slowed me down almost to a halt. I was on a roundabout, my car’s exhaust pipe broken and clanging wildly against the road. Miraculously, I looked up and saw a garage nearby with a sign announcing ‘exhausts fitted while you wait’! I watched my car being winched up and the ailing exhaust pipe falling down from its underside, looking for all the world like a rusty metallic fallopian tube with its nest of eggs dangling at the end. How easy it was to take it off and replace it with a shiny new one. But that would not happen to my ovaries; no replacements were on order. I never went back to see the consultant.   

Instead, a trusted practitioner told me about a healer who was especially gifted in working with cancer, and on the day I should have been in hospital with the impersonal consultant ripping out my female organs, instead I was driving down to Devon for my first appointment with Carol Everett. Whatever was wrong with my ovary, she enabled a natural healing process to occur; and my psyche and spirit, too, absorbed the healing that poured through her over several sessions. Carol was definitely one of those ‘witches’ who would have been burnt, or ducked in the village pond, in past centuries, or even today in Africa. I am deeply grateful for the healing she facilitated for me.

Around this time, I came across the story of Lilith, an early Judaeo-Christian version of the dark Goddess, historically portrayed as witch and demoness (Koltuv 1986). Lilith was the castigated and outcast dark feminine. Like Ereshkigal, her light aspect dwelt in her upperworldly sister: Eve was the socialised and relational side of the feminine, in her role as Adam’s wife. [8] Exploring the energies of the ovaries as I was at the time, and of the two ‘seasons’ of a woman’s lunar menstrual cycle, I could see reflections of Lilith and Eve’s qualities embodied in the ovaries, fuelled by the cycling of hormones through the body. One half of the menstrual cycle brings us closer into relationship, more loving, more amenable to contact and connection, as the body prepares for a possible pregnancy. Once that possibility passes, and the inevitability of menstruation is apparent, a woman’s nature transforms; she is less relational, more focussed on her own creative work beyond childbearing, she may seek time alone, be less accommodating. Lilith rises.

Two seasons

Figure 8: Two seasons (photo: Linda Hartley)

In my notes at the time of exploring this story, and healing my own body, I wrote:

The occluded wisdom of a woman’s body is symbolised by the outcast Lilith – banished because she knew the name of God [9]. She had secret knowledge. Our female organs embody this knowing.
Women’s ovaries and uterus are routinely surgically removed. They represent the unpredictable and uncontrollable power and mystery of a woman’s body, which patriarchal perspectives have feared or envied, and oppressed.
Menstruation becomes taboo, just as women’s Lilith-power became taboo - feared, shunned and deemed evil (unclean) by the patriarchy.

During this period of healing I created for myself prayers, meditations and somatic exercises, which involved my ovaries and womb, the moon, my soul and my creativity. Here is one; you might like to try it:  

 ~ Sitting beneath the full moon, imagine her bright light pouring down through your crown chakra, cleansing the pineal and pituitary glands, the third eye ~ Let it flow down through your throat, inspiring your voice and your creative expression
~ Feel it pouring into the dark cavity of the chest, illuminating your heart with its brightness
~ Let the moonlight flow through your solar plexus area, softening and cleansing the hard, fearful feelings and dark thoughts that are clung onto, washing them away
~ Feel the bright light of the moon pour down into your ovaries, nestling like pearls in the centre of the sacred pelvis; let them bathe in pools of bright moonlight, healing sickness and sorrow, so that the seeds of new life may grow and blossom. Stay with this for a while, allowing the healing, illuminating light to fill the ovaries and overflow
~ Let it flow through the fallopian tubes and into your womb, home and hearth and earth of the body. Let light from the moon fill your womb, banishing darkness, healing pain and sickness, so that it may be fruitful
~ Allow the bright stream of light to flow down through your vagina and into the earth, connecting moon and earth through your woman’s body
~ The moonlight touches to the core of the earth, draws the earth’s energy up through the soles of your feet and the tail of your spine, into your body, into your womb, and up to your heart. Let earth and moon energy meet in your heart, seeding new life, new creativity.

I learnt much from my body and from the story of Lilith and Eve. I discovered that when my Eve-energy dominated for too long, Lilith’s suppressed needs would express in irritability, depression, criticism of myself and of others. When Lilith-energy became overly dominant, Eve’s needs would express in physical problems, as Lilith drove me to stress and exhaustion. As with Inanna-Ereshkigal and the autonomic nervous system, a mutually enhancing balance and reciprocation is needed for both psychological and physical health.

I began to offer workshops to women who wished to explore the Lilith-Eve dichotomy of women’s nature, and the embodied experience of their ovaries as sources of creativity and relationship – to self, to other and to the deep feminine that is the ground of our being. We used the somatic embodiment practices of Body-Mind Centering® to access deep, subtle, cellular connection with the ovaries. Allowing them to communicate their knowledge and wisdom through inner listening and dialogue, the expression and integration of the energies they held would then be supported through writing, drawing, dancing and verbal sharing. Again, Authentic Movement practice offered a way to deepen to the feelings, sensations, images and insights that arose through the body sensing process, letting the unconscious – the ‘occluded intelligence’ (Pirani 1991: 227) that is held within the body - express through movement, gesture, stillness and sound.  

La Loba – Wolf Woman, Bone Woman  

The La Loba journey did not have such a clear beginning. It seemed to emerge, piece by piece as the story itself describes, from various impulses: my love of the clarity and beauty of our human skeletal structure; thousands of hours embodying the forms of T’ai Chi Chu’an, until I could hold every part of my body in awareness simultaneously, and feel how energy flowed through it all; many inner and outer journeys through desert and wilderness; a dream of three wolves – one black, one white and one red (reflecting stages of the alchemical process); time spent pursuing night dreams, engaging in somatic explorations, uncovering poems, being in nature; and finally discovering, through Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ wonderful writing, the story of La Loba (Estes 1992: 27).  

The story of La Loba tells us how we can re-connect to the Wild Woman who lives in the depths of each one of us. She appears in many forms. They are not the conventional forms of feminine beauty, but they express the freedom of the female soul being herself. In the ancient stories of the bone people (Estes1992: 27) she is Wolf Woman, Bone Woman, The Gatherer. Her work is to gather bones, especially those of wolves, and when she has assembled a whole skeleton she sits by the fire and waits for the song to arise. She sings over the bones, and life is revived; breath returns, the wolf leaps up and runs away. And as she runs, she transforms into a young woman, laughing and free. Wolf-woman is resurrected from the dried out bones.

Gathering the bones

Figure 9: Gathering the bones (photo: Linda Hartley)

Connection to Wild Woman does not mean losing control – though sometimes we might; or going around in dirty rags – though Wild Woman will wear what she chooses and not what fashion dictates; or letting go of our responsibilities – though we may need to let go of some of them, in order to care for ourselves well. Connection to her means living a life of deep integrity, honesty, love, care for what really matters; it means knowing and acting upon what is true for us, living from values that are close to our nature and give our life meaning; being connected to the deep instinctual wisdom of body and psyche; not allowing ourselves to be controlled or manipulated by others, having the inner strength to resist psychological oppression. It means being nourished by the deep stream of the life force – the ‘river beneath the river’ (Estes 1992: 31) - which connects us to a sense of purpose and direction, enables us to follow our unique and individual path as woman, express our own creativity through the forms that most vividly convey the essence of our being, whilst feeling connected to, and part of that which is greater than us. Wild Woman is not any of this, but she underlies all of it, and more.

The story speaks to the practice of gathering together the lost parts of ourselves – through remembering our dreams, dancing, writing, painting, meditating, singing, digging the earth, walking, healing – all the many ways that we seek to connect to our inner self and feel our instinctive and authentic nature. It inspired another workshop, which emerged out of a series of journeys - into the desert, the wilderness, the underworld, the crack between the worlds, the abyss; through loss, grief, illness, and moments of inspiration. After several cycles, losing and finding La Loba again and again, I was happy to be calling her once more in the wonderful and wild place of the Norfolk coast where I now live. The women who come to these workshops have been called by La Loba, and responded to her call – choosing to honour, find, or re-discover her within themselves.  

When I moved to Norfolk to be near to this wildish part of the English coastline, part of me was unsure of taking this step, wanting to hold onto a life that had served me well. Another part knew that this phase of life had come to an end - knew it had become too small, narrow, too structured and hemmed in; I could see no future, no life ahead of me. This part of me was seeking open space and wilderness, a chance to start anew. My heart, soul, spirit kept pulling me back to places that resonated with this inner need, seeking a new home, sniffing out the good soil in which I could plant my roots, even whilst my mind, and my ‘professional self’, kept doubting this folly, choosing for convenience and the familiar, no matter how empty and painfully dry it had become.  

When we listen to those inner stirrings, intuitions, the vaguely felt longing for something with as yet no form, we are listening to La Loba. When we take tentative steps to bring to life our vision or desire, we are on her trail. When we feel dryness of body and soul, loss of vitality, of energy, of motivation; when we feel depressed and fallen from our path, we may have lost our connection to La Loba - she may be out of sight, out of hearing. We must follow her down into the rubble left behind after all has been destroyed, to recover our sense of who we are and what we are here to do. Forgetting why we are here, we forget how to love and care, how to play, create, how to simply be and enjoy life, and how to delight and inspire others.  

We all know La Loba. She is our ground of being, our feminine soul, the deep feminine within us. She is the Wild Woman within all women, the deep source that informs all of who we are, our life, our actions, our passions and loves, our creations. When La Loba/Wild Woman guides us, we know how to resist being constrained or controlled or seduced or manipulated. We know what to do and when to do it; we know what to hold onto, what to let go of, what to change. We feel the right moment to give and the time to receive.

When we lose this inner knowing, we must travel again into our depths, and sometimes out into the wild places of the earth, to find Wild Woman, trusting that her presence will bring transformation of whatever ails us. As Estes writes: “[W]omen’s flagging vitality can be restored by extensive “psychic-archaeological” digs into the ruins of the female underworld.” (Estes 1992: 3)  

It is certainly hard to stay connected to her when we feel pressured by work, family, and the demands and stresses of a modern society that generally does not acknowledge or encourage the quality of Being that is Wild Woman, but emphasises Doing and Achieving. So first we must acknowledge the ways that we lose sight of her – acknowledge that we do lose our connection to her at times, that this is understandable, and that we can regain connection as soon as we begin to call her name.

There are many ways in which we, as women do this: we dig in the earth, we walk and we write poems, we dance or sing, we chart our dreams, we meditate or do therapy, we climb mountains, we love deeply, and we long. When we feel longing deep in our soul, we are calling La Loba. Longing is an expression of our soul seeking renewal and reconnection.

As I walked the beaches and saltmarshes near my new home, attuning to the rhythms of sky and sea, the spaciousness of wilderness within and around me, I began to realign with my new situation. I felt in the presence of La Loba again. Near the sea, near to a wild place, old wounds could heal and new life begin to unveil itself.   

The urge to collect was almost overpowering. I wanted to gather every stone on the beach and take it home! Each one told a story, held an image, spoke of beauty and meaning. I wanted to remember them all. Not possible of course, so I began to select stones with holes in them. [10] These stones showed me the Circle, the Void, the Container, the Wound, Loss - Perfection and Imperfection, Form and Emptiness. All of these speak of soul and spirit, hint at the presence of La Loba, Wild Woman, the deep feminine. From the beaches I gathered stones with holes in them, and slowly grief and pain began to transform, just as the bones La Loba collects transform, into new life.   

When I found the exquisitely shaped bone of a seal’s pelvis I felt the sea had gifted me with something perfect, and the urge to collect the Holey Bones could cease, at least for the time being. The pelvic bone spoke to me of root, of the sacral centre, of deep knowing and connection. And of beauty. It travels with me every time I teach, and gathers within it the stories of the people who come to explore their own embodied journeys with me.  

Bone, as Estes describes, has carried the symbolism of that which cannot be destroyed (Estes 1992: 35) for cultures throughout history. Bone is the seed-spirit from which new life can always be restored. When we feel weak, frail, exhausted, about to give up, it is to the work of gathering bones that we need to turn.  

Bones are the ‘bedrock’ of the body (Juhan 1987:91-3), the part of us that is closest to the substance of the earth, containing the minerals of the earth’s rocks within it. In our bones we feel the pull of gravity most strongly, and our bones endure. They take longer than any other tissue of the body to be renewed, and after life and consciousness have left, bones can remain for thousands of years. They hold the story of our life, our herstory. All of our life experiences have shaped our skeleton into its unique form; the joys and pleasures, the hurts, loves, losses & disappointments we have endured shape themselves into our bony architecture. In the bones we also discover ancestral memory, ancient wisdom and knowledge.   

The bone-seed represents the indestructible spirit, that which is left when all else has been destroyed, the essence which holds the potential for new life to spring forth (Estes 1992: 33-4). The spirit is that which endures, that which cannot be destroyed no matter how much hurt or damage has been suffered. When we have the bone-seed, life and vitality can always be restored.  

In La Loba workshops, women are invited to connect to the embodied experience of their bones through somatic work, dance and movement; and to their personal stories of loss and deep longing through inner reflection, writing, drawing and sharing of their experiences. Then we gather the bones and sit round the fire, waiting until the song comes to us.  


Figure 10: Singing over the bones (photo: Linda Hartley)

From the places in our lives of loss and dryness, of not knowing what to do next, of exhaustion and disconnection, we sink down to the place of deep longing, to the place of soulfulness, love and desire for new life. And we listen. We listen for the song that will bring the dry bones back to life. Anything might emerge – a joyful dance or soulful singing, laughter or tears, a painting or a poem. Or maybe the sense of a new body – furred and four-legged, with pricked up ears and a bushy tail - might emerge from the heap of dry white bones!  

Listening, as Inanna does, and attending to the stirrings and the call of our inner life – our needs and desires, our body feelings, our pain and despair, our hope and longing - we will find the way to revive our spirit. The story of La Loba invites psychic excavation to find the lost bones of our story, then a period of deep listening, waiting until we know the song that needs to be sung. To me, La Loba feels like a love song to life itself. Like the myth of Inanna, it speaks of the cycles of life, death and rebirth, and the way to be attuned to them through psychological and somatic journeying.

When I offer the La Loba workshop, it always feels celebratory. There will be moments of pain but in the end, as the women find their instinctive self, rooted in the body, there is joy and love and the expression of feminine power. Women dance and they howl and they love to feel their own wolf-nature. This nourishes the soul deeply.

Attending with somatic sensing and soulful feeling, the organic nature of the body comes alive with psychic meaning, and the connections between myth, archetype and the bones of ancient story – both personal and collective – become known. Other themes emerge as I continue to explore and develop these connections.  


Figure 11: Rooted (photo: Irmgard Halstrup)

Concluding words: the deep feminine, the return of the Goddess and a fragile world

 Archaeological research has uncovered much evidence to show that ancient cultures worshipped a Great Goddess, were gynolatric and matriarchal, and prescribed to beliefs that humankind was in participation mystique with the natural world (Whitmont 1987: 42) – not separate from or superior to it, as modern men and women often feel, but an intimate part of the whole. Perhaps this has engendered the custom of associating nature, the body, natural cycles of life-death-rebirth, and the earth itself with feminine qualities and with women. In order to be initiated into the dark feminine, the Mysteries of the Goddess of the Underworld, Inanna is impaled in matter, incarnated. After conception, the seed of new life is embedded in the womb; and again at death the body is returned to the earth. It is hard to escape the association of women and the feminine with matter, earth and the laws of nature.

However, myth, psychic journeying and somatic experiencing also reveal the intrinsic interlacing of spirit with matter in embodied or immanent spiritual experiences, and the importance of this in a woman’s life.

The tendency towards gynolatric consciousness and matriarchy was global, just as the later tendency towards androlactric values and patriarchy has been; both have strengths and qualities, and both have failings too, as any polarity which dominates and loses healthy relationship with its counterpart will have.  

There will likely be exceptions, but we can see a general movement from matriarchy, through patriarchy, towards a new consciousness, which can potentially marry and transcend both, the creation of which we are in the midst of today (Hartley 2001: xiii-xxv). Familiar patriarchal structures are being challenged in many ways and walks of life, and there is increasing demand for relational, humanitarian, gender-equal and ecologically sensitive values and practices to be integrated into, and even the foundation of, contemporary social, cultural and religious life. We are clearly in the midst of a profound shift. The outcome is not yet certain; there still exist many bastions of the old ways that cling onto power even more firmly, and often brutally, as their hold is threatened. The rise of so-called IS (or Daesh), for example, gives a glaring reflection of one of the more shameful eras of medieval western patriarchy, when Christian crusaders behaved very much as IS fighters do today. We are certainly on a fragile threshold.

The movement towards equality for women and other groups suppressed by patriarchy is essential in this period of change, as is care of the the natural world. We need to reclaim what is positive within both matriarchal and patriarchal value systems and modes of consciousness, in order to move forward towards a perspective and practice that is embracing of all.  The telling of Woman’s Story is important. And so too is the telling of the stories the body can reveal. Listening to our somatic experience, to the inner life of the psyche embodied in cells, fluids and tissues, is a path among many which can support a closer connection to self, to others, to our communities, to earth and to spirit. Closer connection engenders more respect, empathy, compassion, love and creativity.

In this chapter I have described some personal journeys into the inner world of psyche through somatic explorations and mythic storytelling. The psyche embodied is a rich source of learning, growth and healing, and can lead us towards connection with what I have called the deep feminine. And personal healing can open doorways towards healing - making whole - within ever-widening spheres of community and environment.  


[1] See Eliade 1958: 64-6 for Shamanic symbolism of this passage.

[2] Wilhelm Reich and his followers have researched and documented this process in depth and detail (Reich 1970; Lowen 1976; Johnson1994)

[3] In Servants of the Sacred Dream I describe the journey of descent and some of its teachings. This and my other writings can be found at

[4] I will return to Authentic Movement later.

[5] For in-depth explorations see Wolkstein & Kramer (1983), Perera (1981), and Hartley (2001).

[6] Teaching seminars during Authentic Movement retreats: Italy 1993-4.

[7] For information about the specific approach called the Discipline of Authentic Movement, developed by Janet Adler, see

[8] For an in-depth discussion of Lilith, see Koltuv 1986, and for a briefer summary, Hartley 2001. See also Pirani 1991.

[9] Uttering the ‘ineffable name of God’ implies Lilith’s prior intimacy and knowledge of God as His consort. See Koltuv 1986: 23.

[10] Known as Holey Stones, Odin Stones or Hag Stones. See Accessed June 30th 2016./ Hag Stones Holey (also known as Odin Stones or Hag Stones) are literally


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