Here’s a piece I realized I never posted! I wrote this paper for the Myths of the Underworld course I took last year. It was the last of the incompletes I finished in the fall. As I post this, I am currently working on my very last grad paper! More content to appear on my website soon. Thanks for sticking around!
The underworld is a timeless element present in mythology and human thought. As seen in ancient mythologies beginning with the Descent of Inanna in 2000 B.C.E., “descent stories [reveal] the human quest for the kind of knowledge that adds to spiritual power” (Davis et. al 26). After undergoing a quest in the underworld, the hero returns to the daily world empowered. These underworld stories have recurred throughout the ages, continuing into modern day. James Hillman identifies that “myths are not simply part of the past . . . Myth lives vividly in our symptoms and fantasies and in our conceptual systems” (Dream 23). Therefore, it is no surprise that films, one of our most popular devices for modern storytelling and mythmaking, have presented the important myth of the underworld time and time again. In 2010, director Christopher Nolan released the film Inception, which adeptly depicts the underworld through dreams. As Nolan indicates, “[W]hen you’re talking about dreaming . . . you are talking about this universal human experience” (10). The dreamscape provides an excellent landscape for the underworld (which is also a universal experience), for “[i]t’s no secret that dreams belong to the underworld” (Hillman, Dream 2). The film was a box office success because of Nolan’s ability to bring viewers into the timeless and relatable realm of dreams, which connects us all to the deeper, mythological experience with the underworld.
Inception, which is, on the surface, a multi-layered story about a heist, touches on the elements of the underworld that we are familiar with from ancient mythology. The main character Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) has recently lost his wife and is coping with this tragedy, which is compounded by the fact that the authorities think he killed her. His overarching goal in the film is to return home to be with his children. In this film, a device called the Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous Device allows individuals to share dreams. Cobb works with individuals that are hired to go into someone’s dream to steal a thought. This is called extraction. The high-stakes job the film centers around calls for something different, something that only Cobb has performed before – inception. Instead of extracting a thought from an individual, a thought is planted in the individual’s mind. Working with dreams, which automatically call to mind the unconscious and represent a descent, director Christopher Nolan is able to develop a new story of the underworld, which involves a look at the depths of mind and the process of grief and loss, another component tied to the underworld: “Loss does characterize underworld experiences, from mourning to the dream” (Hillman, Dream 54).
The film opens in a dream that Cobb and his entered with a team for an extraction. During Cobb’s opening dialogue about dreams, he states, “Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate” (Inception). As he explains this, a character off-camera picks up a wine glass. The glass crosses the screen, briefly disrupting the image of Cobb. Only the glass itself, not the wine within it, can be seen. This is the first of many uses of the image of glass in the film. In Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman emphasizes the importance of this image:
Glass in dreams . . . presents the paradox of solid transparency; its very purpose is to permit seeing through. Glass is the metaphor par excellence for psychic reality: it is itself not visible, appearing only to be its contents, and the contents of the psyche, by being placed within or behind glass, have been moved from palpable reality to metaphorical reality, out of life and into image. 142.
Nolan uses this visual metaphor often in the dream world as a reminder that the reality viewers are seeing is in the purely psychic realm, not one of day-to-day living. Later in this same dream sequence, when the dream begins to disintegrate, shattering glass explodes across the screen.
In order to enter this shared-dream realm to perform extraction or inception, an architect is needed to design the dream world. Cobb’s team needs a new architect for the inception job, and he hires an architect student named Ariadne (played by Ellen Page). Her name immediately calls to mind the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. As in the myth, Ariadne’s role will be to guide the hero, Cobb, out of a labyrinth – in this case, the labyrinth is in his own mind. When everyone enters the shared dream state, other elements may unconsciously arise. Because Cobb is undergoing a psychological struggle, the image of his wife appears in his dreams. Unlike his real life wife, Mal, this shadow of her is often destructive. Ariadne is the only one on Cobb’s team that knows how deeply his suffering is affecting him. Therefore, like Athena for Odysseus on his way home, Ariadne also becomes Cobb’s “guide and protector” (Smith, Sacred 26).
Figure 1 Cobb’s drawing in Inception
When Cobb hires Ariadne, he has to show her how to navigate the dream realm. The first time they dream-share, she is unaware they are dreaming. They have a discussion on dreams, and as Cobb identifies that the mind “creates and perceives a world simultaneously” (Inception), he draws a simple sketch (figure 1) that calls to mind the path the hero takes on his journey (figure 2), as identified by Joseph Campbell (30). Cobb’s simple circular arrows around a straight line indicate a descent and a return, as does Campbell’s formula. This visual accentuates that although the film encapsulates many characters and a great heist adventure, the heart of the story is about Cobb’s heroic descent and return. Cobb then leads Ariadne to recognize that they are having this conversation in a dream. She begins to lose her calm and the dream erupts around them, again including the image of shattering glass to represent the break of the psychic realm back to the daily realm. After they awaken, Ariadne agrees to explore more of the shared-dream with Cobb.
Figure 2 Campbell’s monomyth (30)
While walking through the landscape that Ariadne is designing in the dream, she asks Cobb who all the other people are that are also walking around. He explains that they are “projections of [his] unconscious” (Inception). Although Ariadne is the dreamer, Cobb is the subject, so his “subconscious populates [the] world.” As Ariadne explores new architectural possibilities in the dream realm, she begins to play with gravity and the natural order of the world. She soon notices that Cobb’s projections are staring at her. Cobb explains that his “subconscious feels that someone else is creating the world” (Inception), and it arouses suspicion. He also explains to Ariadne that because it is his “subconscious [he cannot] control it” (Inception).
This pivotal scene with Cobb and Ariadne, which sets up the parameters of dream-sharing for the viewers, introduces key elements from depth-psychology. The dream persons that Cobb identifies as projections were discussed by Hillman in Dream and the Underworld: “The persons I engage with in dreams are neither representations . . . of their living selves nor parts of myself. They are shadow images that fill archetypal roles” (61). These shadows are representative of the unconscious, as Cobb has identified. However, as the scene continues, a specific shadow appears in the form of Cobb’s wife. Appearing as more than a mere memory, she fulfills the archetypal role of the anima. According to Hillman, the archetype “comes in the shape of this or that personal memory” (61), so it is fitting that Cobb’s anima appears as his wife. Furthermore, Jung identified the “anima as the personification of the unconscious” (Hillman, Re-Visioning 43). When Mal appears before Cobb in his dreams, she is all at once memory, anima, and unconscious, powerful elements to contend with in the underworld of the dream realm.
When Cobb first sees Mal in this dream, Ariadne is continuing to play with the architecture around them. She turns two very large mirrors, which reflect her and Cobb (a symbol of their shared journey), together across a bridge. With the touch of her hand, she shatters both mirrors across the bridge, again demonstrating that ability to see through. This time, the glass vanishes and the dream continues. What is present in the dream is more than what meets the eye. There is a reason Cobb continues to be haunted by his memories, his anima, and his wife. Ariadne later identifies, “[Y]ou’re going to have to forgive yourself, and you’re going to have to confront her [Mal]. But you don’t have to do it alone” (Inception). Her mythological role as his protector and guide is solidified when she makes this statement.
After this central dream, Cobb’s team begins to work on their heist job (to perform inception on a specific individual), and Ariadne prepares the architecture for the dream. Shortly before it is time for the team to leave for their heist, Ariadne finds Cobb, alone, connected to the Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous Device. Because of using this device so frequently, it is now the only way that Cobb can dream. Ariadne takes it upon herself to enter Cobb’s dream to see what he is doing in these dreams. She ultimately finds an elevator in Cobb’s dream and, much to his displeasure, descends to the basement level. This image of descent reinforces the notion of the underworld and dream. In the basement, metaphorically the deepest part of the unconscious, Ariadne sees Cobb’s memory of the night that his wife Mal killed herself. Mal was convinced that they were in a dream and that when she died, she would wake up.
After awakening from the shared-dream with Cobb, Ariadne insists on going with the team for the heist job since she is the only one who knows what he is dealing with in his subconscious. (Though she has designed the architecture for the dream world where the inception is to take place, it was not part of the plan for her to go with the team on the job). When the team, including Ariadne and Cobb, enters the shared-dream with the individual they are to perform inception on, a heavier sedation than usual is utilized. This will permit them more time in the dream realm and the ability to descend deeper by creating dreams within dreams (all necessary to successfully perform inception). The situation becomes problematic when one of the dreamers on the team is mortally wounded in the dream. Though dying typically wakes one up from the shared-dream, under this form of sedation the dreamer cannot awaken. Therefore, the mind will be lost in limbo, which is defined as “unconstructed dream space [filled with] raw, infinite subconscious” (Inception). Cobb explains to Ariadne that he and Mal were once trapped in limbo when they were exploring dreams within dreams. Though it was only hours in the real world, Cobb and Mal spent years in limbo together, losing track of what was real. As Cobb explains what this did to Mal, Ariadne understands that she “was just lost in the labyrinth” (italics mine, Nolan). This line, present in the shooting script but not in the final film, again emphasizes Ariadne’s mythological role.
The team descends deeper in the dream realm, continuing their job. Cobb’s projection of Mal appears in one of the deeper levels, shooting and killing another dreamer before Cobb can summon up the courage to stop her. With two individuals of the dream now trapped in limbo, Cobb decides to descend into limbo to bring them back. Because Cobb has been in limbo before, whatever he left behind remains there. Ariadne accompanies him to help him face Mal. When they descend into the realm of limbo, they are washed ashore by the ocean waves. As Hillman indicates, the “general geography” of the underworld gleaned from myth indicates that to descend to the underworld, waters must be crossed (Dream 17). Though the whole film embraces underworld and dream imagery, at this point we have descended into deepest realm of the unconscious, the darkest part of the underworld. Water also indicatesthat “the dreamer is in danger of being over-whelmed by the unconscious in an emotional psychosis, flooded with fantasies – no ground, no standpoint” (Hillman, Dream 153). This is the moment Cobb has truly entered the labyrinth that Ariadne must guide him through.
Cobb finds his projection of Mal – this image of both his anima and his guilt – in limbo. With Ariadne by his side, Cobb explains to Mal (and the audience) that he needed to convince her that her world was not real in order for them to escape when they were in limbo. However, as Hillman ascertains, “[T]he underworld perspective radically alters our experience of life” (Dream 46). Cobb never imagined that the idea would continue to grow, convincing Mal that the waking world they returned to was not real either. After telling his projection of Mal why he is responsible for her suicide, she asks him to stay with her this time. Like Nausicaa offering marriage to Odysseus, this “represents the familiar temptation of the hero to remain in the magic circle of the archetypal realm, rather than to make his way back into the normal suffering of human life” (Smith, Sacred 26). When Cobb refuses Mal’s plea, she stabs him. Ariadne shoots her, and as Mal’s projection dies in Cobb’s arms, he is able to tell her, “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. And now I have to let go.” He makes his peace, and Ariadne has guided him out of his inner labyrinth.
Ultimately, Cobb, Ariadne, and the wounded dreamers find their way out of limbo, and all of the dreamers awaken from the dream. In the midst of Cobb’s inner battle, the team successfully completed their job of inception. The heist is over, and as a reward from the man who hired them, Cobb’s name has been cleared with the authorities. No longer a suspect in his wife’s death, he is free to go home to his children.
In the film, all of the individuals who enter the realm of dream-share own a totem, an item that Hillman has identified as “keepers of our lives” (Re-Visioning 47). The totem is something individuals have created for themselves to be able to identify if they are dreaming or not. Throughout the film, Cobb uses Mal’s totem, a spinning top.
If he is in a dream, the top never stops spinning. When he is awake, it topples over. This helps Cobb differentiate between waking life and the dream realm. When Cobb arrives home, he spins the top on a table to make sure he is not dreaming about this long-awaited reunion with his children. Before he can see if the top has stopped spinning, his children turn to see him from the backyard. He walks through a doorway – a significant image that “marks the incarnation of the divine [back] into the mortal realm” (Smith, Sacred 32) – and embraces his children. The camera shifts over to the spinning top, but the screen cuts to black before viewers can see if it stops spinning. As the film ends, viewers are left with this question: Was Cobb dreaming?
After exploring the film as an underworld story, it is clear that Cobb was not dreaming in the final scene. Mythologically, he must return to his children after undergoing transformation in the underworld. As Evans Lansing Smith identifies, “The mythic journey . . . reminds us that there is a passage through death, and a return journey to be made” (Sacred 16). Just as Inanna returns after her descent to the underworld and Odysseus finds his way home, so too must Cobb. The Nekyia, which Jacobi defines as containing “life, death and rebirth” (italics mine, 179), includes both the descent and ascent. This is clearly represented in Cobb’s figure about dreams, which echoes Campbell’s figure of the hero’s journey (Figures 1 & 2). The trip to the underworld always includes descent to and from the underworld, which permits the “creation of new self out of decomposition of old self” (italics mine; Smith, Class). If Cobb fails to return from the underworld, the journey is incomplete.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.
Davis, Paul et. al. eds. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Ancient World, Beginnings-100C.E. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2004.
Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Print.
—. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Leonardo Dicaprio and Ellen Page. 2010. DVD.
Jacobi, Jolande. Complex/archetype/symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.
Nolan, Christopher. Inception: The Shooting Script. San Rafael, CA: Insight, 2010.
Smith, Evans Lansing. Class lecture. MS619: Myth and the Underworld. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA. 25 July 2012.
—. Sacred Mysteries: Myths About Couples in Quest. Nevada City: Blue Dolphin, 2003.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Mythology. New York: Laurel, 1959. Print.