Originally published Women on Nature (2021)
An anthology, edited by Katherine Norbury & published by Unbound, London UK
To learn more about Daniela Sieff & her work go to: https://danielasieff.com/
Photo by Christina Nixau / Shutterstock
It is late afternoon and overcast when I bolt. The rough and messy moorland of Devon opens before me, and my lungs expand to breathe in the widening expanse of space and air.
I am on a retreat in the middle of Dartmoor with two dozen other women. It is the heart-child of three crones: Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst, teacher and author, Ann Skinner, a voice and mask coach, and Mary Hamilton, a dance and movement educator. The week offers an opportunity to drop into the shadowlands of our unconscious minds and bodies, and to explore this inner terrain. Our work is guided by the myth of Persephone's descent into the kingdom of Hades.
One day, Persephone - goddess of the Spring - is picking flowers in a meadow when the surface of the earth splits open and Hades, Lord of the Underworld, emerges in his golden chariot. Seizing Persephone, he urges his horses to leap across the river Styx - the threshold that divides the land of light from the realm of darkness - and drags the terrified maiden down into his kingdom.
"When Persephone's mother Demeter discovers the abduction, she beseeches Zeus to intervene. There can be no Spring without Persephone and Hades is ordered to return her to the light. But no sooner have her feet touched the ground than Persephone reveals that she has eaten pomegranate seeds from Hades' orchard, and so is bound for ever to his realm.
A compromise is reached: for nine months of each year Persephone will dwell on the surface of the earth, and for three months she will reside in its dark interior as the wife of Hades and Queen of the Underworld.
On this particular afternoon we are to use Persephone's time in the underworld as inspiration. If we hold this image in mind while allowing our bodies to dance, what might we discover in our own inner darkness? Are there unlived parts of ourselves which are ready to take shape? When we stop moving, we are encouraged to write or paint; the hope is that what began to take form in our bodies might find more definition on paper. I do not want to paint or write. I am feeling hemmed in and claustrophobic from journeying into my underworld. I want to be away from the retreat and out in the light. I want to feel living earth under my feet, and wind on my skin.
It is at this point that I bolt.
A dull light wraps the moors in a shadowless veil. Wild ponies and sheep are dotted across patches of grass, triggering timeless memories of prehistory, when humans were just another creature inhabiting the wilderness. I start to run, and with each stride my foot finds a velvety cushion of ancient turf. A sense of freedom, joy and wonder fill my being.
After a while, I come to a stream. A couple of miles beyond, a rugged tor rises dramatically towards the sky. I had followed this path on previous days, and turned back at this point rather than cross the water. This afternoon, however, something feels quite different. The tor calls to me.
I am torn: a part of me is keen to answer the call and explore new terrain, but an inner demon has taken up his customary perch on my left shoulder, and he counsels me to remain safely on familiar ground.
'You don't really want to cross the stream,' he purrs in a seductive whisper, 'There's no bridge and no stepping stones, let alone a chariot of gold.' And he goes on: 'You won't get across without wading through the water. Your shoes will get soaked. Your socks will become soggy. If you run with wet feet you'll get blisters. Anyhow, it's nearly time for the evening meal. If you keep going you'll miss dinner and go to bed hungry. You've run far enough now. Be sensible. Turn
I ignore my demon's whispered warnings and pick my way cautiously through the cold water.
On the other side of the stream the ground begins to rise, whereupon the demon moves inside my body and starts bombarding me with a new list of objections: 'Your lungs are burning.Your legs feel like lead.You are jarring your back, which is just starting to recover from a whiplash injury. Really... be sensible. STOP. NOW TURN BACK.'
I ignore his objections and run on.
At the base of the tor the path steepens and I slow to a walk. As I start to climb, I become aware of massive boulders poised around the rim of the summit. Their leaden surface sucks light from the overcast sky and leaches colour from the grass. The murmurings of the wind are muted by their bulk. It is as though the world is turning towards darkness and death.
Carved and fractured by millennia of frost, rain and wind, three groups of boulders stand apart from the rest.Taking on the form of mythical sentries, they appear as Dartmoor's answer to Cerberus, the ferocious triple-headed hound belonging to Hades. To the left of the path are what appear to be a Razor-Beaked Turtle and a Fire Breathing Vulture. To the right, a Sabre-Toothed Bear. They stare down at me, daring me to approach, warning me to keep away.
Surrendering to my trepidation, I begin to perceive these creatures as my fears. Frozen to the spot and trembling, I wonder what to do. Should I heed their warnings and turn back? Or should I accept their challenge and walk onward? As the debate gathers momentum inside my head, I become aware that my feet have taken their own decision, and I am walking nervously forward.
On reaching the summit, light, colour and the murmurings of the wind flow back into the world. Much to my surprise, I am standing in a grassy hollow which is crowned by an irregular garland of boulders. The granite has weathered differently on this side - rather than being jagged and fractured, it is rounded and smoothed. Life, in the form of lime-green lichens, flourishes on its surface. Gazing out through the gaps between the rocks, I see bracken moorland and autumnal woodland, tufted meadows and furrowed fields, unruly hedges and roughly hewn walls. Browns and purples, greys and greens spread across the land in a mess of shapes, textures and experiences. Taking in this expanding view, I sense that when I enter willingly into the kingdom of my fear, its shape shifts and I glimpse the world with new understanding.
After spending some moments marvelling at the transformation, I detect the chattering of voices. A group of hikers is approaching the summit by a different path. I am not yet ready to re-enter the everyday world, so I walk a small circle of reverence around the crown of the tor and quietly head back the way I came. As I descend between the sentries, I turn and bow to the Razor-Beaked Turtle, the Fire Breathing Vulture and the Sabre-Toothed Bear and, silently, thank each of them for their gift.
On my way home, I hear the swirling flow of the stream before I see it. Halfway across its chilly waters, I reach below the surface to pick up a stone that is speckled with seeds of pomegranate red. Then, alighting on dry land with soaked shoes and soggy socks, I relax, relieved to be back on more familiar ground. However, just as I start to wonder whether I might find some leftover supper, the setting sun discovers a gap in the golden pink clouds of dusk, and there, on a bank of grass ahead of me, stretching away from my left shoulder, is my shadow.
Daniela F. Sieff, is an author and scholar. She has a doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of Oxford, and an active interest in the dynamics of emotional trauma and its healing. Daniela completed the leadership training with the Marion Woodman Foundation, and is author of Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma: Conversations with Pioneering Clinicians and Researchers (Routledge 2015). She is currently working on new books. For more information, visit www.danielasieff.com