A Psychological Confrontation with Death
The Descent Experience combines a photoshoot with death meditations and myth reenactment to allow the participant to acknowledge their own mortality. The experience is structurally based on the Sumerian myth, Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld.
In the myth, Inanna passes through seven gates of death and at each she has to remove a piece of identity-signifying regalia. The participant mimics this by removing their own regalia, while also enacting guided movements representing the breakdown of individual identity that occurs while dying.
Art Experience Facilitation, Photography, Guided Conversation and Reflection
Samantha’s Descent, 2018
Site of her childhood home and present day herb garden.
I woke up much too early, went to Penn Station to catch an Amtrak train, and made my way to Samantha’s childhood home to facilitate her Descent. We had been emailing for the past month, and I started the process in the usual way: This is the myth. Choose your regalia. You’re down to explicitly discuss death?
The Myth: Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld
The Descent Experience began as a photographic project. I had been conducting death themed photoshoots when one of my models, the artist Virginia Conesa, recommended Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Brinton Perera. In the book, Perera uses Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld as a framework to discuss the value of confronting death to assimilate our shadow selves. While for me, contemplating death is primarily about reaffirming what is important in life and living in alignment with those values, this book and this myth provided a perfect foundation for the Descent:
Inanna, the goddess of heaven and earth, decides to visit her sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld. On her way, Inanna has to pass through seven gates. At each impasse she is required to remove one piece of her divine regalia, until she reaches Ereshkigal naked — without any markers of her identity. Here, vulnerable and described as meat, Inanna dies.
(If you’re interested in the full myth, a translation can be found HERE.)
Seven Layers of Regalia
The participant reenacts Inanna’s Descent by removing their own layers of regalia throughout the experience. When choosing regalia, I usually advise a mixture of practicality (what seven layers can all be worn at once?) and identity (what adornment represents you?). I suggest that each layer cover your entire body both so that removing a layer feels like shedding a complete skin of yourself, and to create visual distinction in the photographs of your Descent.
Sam chose jewelry from her grandmother, ripped pants she wore endlessly in college, and a handmade bodysuit bought from one of her favorite artists, among other things. Additional examples of regalia include a wig and shag-overcoat combination worn at music festivals, a dress worn frequently during a past marriage, and an oversized necklace gifted during the courtship phase of a relationship. Below the regalia, the participant can wear a nude slip, nude undergarments, or be completely nude— depending on the comfort level and desired vulnerability of the model.
Visuals and Somatics of Each Gate
I take photos of the participant during the myth reenactment to document their Descent. This makes it important to mark the transition between gates, not only psychologically, but visually as well. In addition to removing a piece of regalia, as the participant figuratively goes through each gate they transition to a different location and shift how they move their body.
The guided movements take the participant on an arc from being upright and solid in their identity, through the pain of losing their known self, to surrendering to death — they are loosely mapped to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and Gabrielle Roth's dance system, 5Rhythms (flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness). The movements are as follows:
Pre-Gate 1: Stillness – intact identity
Gate 1: Slow Walking – initiating descent
Gate 2: Flowing – releasing self
Gate 3: Staccato – resistance toward death
Gate 4: Chaotic – pain of ego loss
Gate 5: Flopping Motions – surrender
Gate 6: Crawling – last signs of life
Gate 7: Shavasana – death
Do You Want to Imagine Your Own Death?
The purpose of the Descent Experience is to create an artistic touchpoint for death acceptance. Thus the process includes explicit discussion of death. It begins with a reading of what happens to our physical bodies in the months leading up to death, and ends with a meditation asking how you would change your life if you knew when you would die.
Here’s an excerpt of mine and Sam’s discussion of the Descent where she reflects on the meditations and her father’s death:
Samantha’s Written Reflection
After her Descent Experience I asked Samantha the following questions:
What draws you toward contemplating death?
I’m drawn toward contemplating death partly because of my personal experience of having my father pass on, as well as having a close friend and mentor who had a near death experience. Also, though, I spend much of my time working with stewarding plant life and working with the earth, as well as trying to improve humans’ lives around me — so it feels necessary to examine the other side of that.
What would you change in your life if you knew when you would die?
I find myself thinking that there are a lot of things I’ve already been actively doing in my life since both the passing of my dad and the incarceration of my brother, which are the same things I would do if I knew my time was limited on earth. Such as taking time to be with my loved ones, nourishing myself and those around me, not being overcome by negative emotions, being kind as much as possible. And when asked what was most important to me — kindness — was the word I thought of which I was a little surprised by given that in the past I’ve been of the opinion that if you love someone you don’t have to be super nice — but I think that opinion is changing.
Do you want to bring anything from this experience into your life?
I definitely want to keep this with me — and subconsciously — I’m sure this experience will stick with me. I don’t often get vulnerable in a physical sense. Emotionally I do, but being stripped down and apart of the many layers I normally carry with me / on me — and coming to experience it as a whole body experience, emotional, physical, spiritual, felt so freeing. I think I will meditate on this for awhile to come and I’m excited to see how it manifests in my day to day life. I often say I feel as if I’ve been so many different people already in my short years of life — maybe this is the start of another. ￭