Ancient word of the day: Nekyia

Ancient word of the day: Nekyia

Today’s ancient word of the day comes from Ancient Greek – nekyia or νέκυια. Nekyia has dual meaning and can be about ones inner journey into the unconscious in order to heal oneself from wounds of the past. The second meaning is the practice of questioning the dead in order to gain knowledge of the future. The νέκυια is associated especially with journeys to the underworld and descents into darkness as, counter-intuitively, a means of vision & prospect.

Nekyia in the Odyssey by Homer

In the Odyssey, The Nekyia is an evocation of the dead. It’s a sea voyage that Ulysses makes to the edge of the world and the land of the Cimmerians. This is a mythical and highly mysterious distant land of the north that’s always enveloped in the fog. He goes there to meet the seer Tiresias and to meet the souls of the dead.

The Shade of Tiresias Appearing to Odysseus during the Sacrifice (c. 1780-85), painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli, showing a scene from Book Ten of the Odyssey

Nekyia and Carl Jung

The concept of Nekyia was used by Psychoanalyst Carl Jung in his landmark psychological theory:

“The Nekyia is no aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis … its object the restoration of the whole man. Carl Jung

Picasso’s Blue Period paintings and Nekyia

Carl Jung saw Picasso’s Blue Period paintings as being intricately bound up with the idea of Nekyia.

Picasso’s blue period

A series of images…begins as a rule with the symbol of the Nekyia – the journey to Hades, the descent into the unconscious, and the leave-taking from the upper world. What happens afterwards, though it may still be expressed in the forms and figures of the day-world, gives intimations of a hidden meaning and is therefore symbolic in character. Thus Picasso starts with the still objective pictures of the Blue Period – the blue of night, of moonlight and water, the Tuat-blue of the Egyptian underworld. He dies, and his soul rides on horseback into the beyond. The day-life clings to him, and a woman with a child steps up to him warningly. As the day is woman to him, so is the night; psychologically speaking, they are the light and the dark soul (anima). The dark one sits waiting, expecting him in the blue twilight, and stirring up morbid presentiments. With the change of colour, we enter the underworld. Carl Jung 1932

Picasso’s blue period

Orpheus and the underworld…as it is above, so it is below

Mention the name Orpheus to almost anyone, and they will immediately say: “In the Underworld”—a phrase that is shorthand for a whole life of singing, and mystery, and love, and loss. It also suggests the dark. And it is right that it should, for Orpheus’s name, most scholars think, means darkness, the state of being orphaned or exiled, separation from light. Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld has been taken as a metaphor for many things, but at its most fundamental it is the journey of the seed in the earth: from light into dark, and up to light again.

Joseph Campbell

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind-whether in dreams, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

2 thoughts on “Ancient word of the day: Nekyia

  1. Some words really capture their own meaning. Just looking at this— I thought ‘straight from the bowels of middle earth…’ Not far off, in a way!

    1. Yeah it sounds really ancient and has a creepy, underworld sort of sound to it, I could see why you thought that! 🙂

Leave a Reply to Content Catnip Cancel reply