There are those who get very excited about Greek words.
They can mean many things, you see: and when one translates Greek one has to be a master at reading context to work out what the Greek writer meant in the first place.
We call it love. That’s the only one-syllabled alternative our language will provide.
The Greeks chose this word to mean a love of a father for his child; and of the child or their parent. It is love without strings, unselfish, voluntary love which does not ask for anything in return.
It is altruism: Wikipedia’s author of its agape entry uses many fine brushes to paint its meaning: “divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love”.
I wonder at three syllables with such a sophistication of meaning. It is incredibly seductive, as is the concept it embodies.
Greek words. A world of meaning in a few syllables.
What an achievement, then, to encapsulate an underworld of meaning in the same way.
The journey to the underworld is named in Greek: it is called Katabasis.
It can signify a walk in the valley of the shadow of death. But katabasis can also mean moving downhill; it can be the sinking of the sun, or the abating of wind. It can signify a military defeat, or even a journey to the coast from central regions.
Katabasis is part of the cycle of rise and fall on which the universe turns.
The word has shades. At its darkest it is rather final, but moving in a gentle gradient downwards is an alternative reading.
I love this because I have had a small descent over the last few days, across a very minor river to weigh a few organs and see if I have been found wanting.
It is nothing beside those who lose those they love, or lose their health; it has not been a cataclysm on the scale of a lifetime.
It has just been about five very grim days, and I managed to gather my skirts and flee this little Underworld without looking back.
The original Orpheus was a poet and musician of breathtaking talent. He made it past the gates of death with a firm grip on life and played and sang in front of Hades and Persephone, and even made the guardian of the gates, that three-headed dog Cerberus, cry and cover his great big doggy ears.
His talent was enough to secure passage out of the darkness, not only for him, but also for his wife, had he not looked back.
From classical to topical: today, as auditors watched, I and a group of small children grappled with the katabasis of a bouncy ball.
Yes: in the epic adventure “Little Pig’s Bouncy Ball”, by Alan Baron, we tackled the story of Little Pig, who threw a ball over Dan Dog’s head. The ball bounced down the hill and far away, and Dan Dog ran after it.
Little Pig waited. And when Dan Dog didn’t come back, she became distraught: Tabby Cat came along and Little Pig burst into tears and informed him that Dan Dog had taken her ball; Tabby Cat just hugged Little Pig. And he cried too.
And so it was with a procession of friends who heard the news and joined the commiseration.Five of them in all. They cried. They bawled. they screamed. There’s this great picture at the climax of the story of this bunch of animals bawling inconsolably, because Dan Dog allegedly stole Little Pig’s ball.
And then Dan Dog came back. Phew, he said, that ball went a very long way.
And there’s a moment when all the friends realise they have been looking at this whole thing the wrong way.
And then, everyone falls about laughing.
The final moments of the story see Dan Dog throwing the ball over the animals’ heads: and the ball bounces down the hill and far away….
Now that’s what I call katabasis.
Because with this descent there is a Dan Dog to retrieve the situation; and a group of friends to hug the anxious. The perfect recipe for handling the descent with equanimity.
While I’m not sure who my Dan Dog is, I can tell you who the friends are. They are the friends in my life: those I see every day, and those who come to see me here in cyberspace, to pass the time of day and talk.
Your words and gestures have helped me walk through my small, temporary underworld.Thank you. I find myself buoyed up by the wave of goodwill; and elated by the idea of that big bouncy ball, bouncing down the hill and far away.