I came across this beautiful description of the Sirens in Karl Kerenyi’s Gods of the Greeks (first published in 1951). It seems that far form being the evil seductresses often portrayed in literature, they were in fact guides of the souls to the underworld. Like the Sphinx, they symbolized the ultimate mysteries of life and death and the knowledge of fate:
“Any account of the Sirens must include a mention of Acheloos, the most revered of our river gods, to whom … is attributed the paternity of the Sirens … Acheloos had a lower body consisting of a serpent-like fish. But his head was horned, and one of the horns was broken off by Herakles. From the blood that dripped from the wound the Sirens were born: a birth similar to that of the Erinyes.
Our ancient painters and designers upon vessels depicted the Sirens not only as female beings, but sometimes as male and bearded. That the beings depicted are Sirens, either male or female, is shown by their having predominantly a bird’s body, to which a human head is added, and often also a woman’s breasts and arms. The talon feet are often very powerful, and sometimes end in a lion’s pads, as if to reveal a close kinship between Siren and Sphinx. The lower part of the body is sometimes shaped like an egg. …The distinguishing characteristic of the Sirens … is—apart from their birdlike shape—their talent for music; and this connects them with the Muses. They play on the lyre or on the double flute …
[There is] a close link between the Sirens and Persephone. It was told that the Sirens were companions of the Queen of the Underworld; that they were daughters of Chthon, the ‘depths of the earth’, and that Persephone sent them into this world. … By their art the bitterness of death is alleviated and disguised.”
Natural History Museum of Bern, Switzerland is currently running an exhilarating, colourful exhibition called “Queer – Diversity is in our Nature.” The thesis of the curators seems to be that the animal kingdom is rich and diverse with numerous examples of gender bending and gender fluidity. The exhibition’s ambition is to demonstrate the analogy between the biological and the social aspect of being human. The extreme male and female ends of the spectrum are divided by the whole rainbow bridge of glorious and multifaceted variety of phenomena. There is a clownfish, which can change its gender; there are also “gay” male sheep which are not interested in sexual relationships with females. There are no males among Caucasian rock lizards, whose females reproduce through parthenogenesis, which is not that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Albatrosses often relish “lesbian” relationships. The examples are endless. Animals challenge the conservative ideas of what gender or reproduction are. The human cultural labels are used tongue-in-cheek here and in the exhibition but nevertheless there is an air of ultimate liberation in the whole endeavor.
Since this is a natural history museum, naturally the spiritual aspect of queerness was omitted. Nothing was mentioned about religion and what effect it had on the collective judgement on any queerness. The exhibition is focused more on the celebratory, carnivalesque aspect of the diversity and the joy it brings to the world. This reminded me of the ancient and pagan approach to gender fluidity. After all, Greek myths abound in non-binary examples, such as Dionysos or even Athena:
“While Athena identifies as male, Dionysus vacillates between male and female gender performances and roles … His gender fluidity is unique to him amongst the gods, but it is not his only fluid quality; he is very much a liminal figure with continually shifting identities across a variety of traditionally power-saturated realms. He is both male and female, young and old. He is Greek and non-Greek, a god thoroughly embedded in the Greek pantheon, but with mythologies describing him, and his cult, as being newly introduced to the Greek world. He blends the divine, mortal and bestial worlds through his human/animal hybrid followers, the male satyrs and female maenads, while Dionysus walks the line between mortal and immortal. As one of the Olympians, he is unquestionably divine, yet he alone of the Olympians had a mortal mother. And in this liminal space of divine and mortal, he crosses the boundaries between life and death as the twice-born god, having been torn from his dead mother’s womb to be born again from the immortal thigh of Zeus.” (1)
I particularly resonated with the following conclusion of the author:
“Athena and Dionysus are not merely symbolic of how those who may not fit so well into the social structures can still be recognised, but rather they represent the fluidity that lies under the pretense of stability that is continually celebrated and must be continually reaffirmed as divine, natural, ideal and normal. Indeed, one possible conclusion is that if binary sex and gender were any of these things, they would not require such constant upkeep.“ (2)
Dionysos may be the first god who stood for the profound question of identity and its ever-shifting nature. The authors of the book view the question of identity from the perspective of quantum physics with its subatomic participles bearing multiple identities:
“All existence is entangled and unstable, as in undergoing continual, co-dependent transformations.” (3)
One of the most ambiguous and fascinating figures from the Greek myth is Hermaphroditus – a child of Hermes and Aphrodite. In Book Four of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he/she enters a spring, which is under the magic spell of the naiad Salmacis. Salmacis has fallen desperately in love with Hermaphroditus and wants to merge with him/her. As Ovid puts it, when Hermaphroditus emerged from the spring he/she was “a dual form that could be said to be neither woman nor boy, but seemed to be neither and both.” (4)
The author of the book draws an interesting analogy between the newly emerged Hermaphroditus and the primordial chaos, which in Greek myth preceded creation of the manifest world. Hermaphroditus thus embodies the primordial and protohuman forces of chaos. He/she has access to the source of existence with its inherent multiplicity and pre-duality. Erotic desire to merge with the loved one results in nothing less but “a cosmic shift,” concludes the author. (5) The boundaries our mind creates are permeable and unstable:
“Gender in this context is not only fluid and indefinable, but ultimately ceases to exist.” (6)
Plato’s text Symposium contains a famous myth about the nature of love and primordial humans. There were three genders at the beginning: the male one descended from the sun, the female descended from the earth and the hermaphrodite descended from the moon. The hermaphrodites were threatening the gods with their unlimited powers. Therefore Zeus decided to cut the round beings in two, thus implanting the desire to reunite with the lost half in each of them. I thought about that ancient myth while visiting the exhibition. In the exhilarating multiplicity, fluidity and blurred boundaries there is a desire for love and wholeness, which characterizes absolutely all expressions and facets of love.
(1) Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World, edited by Allison Surtees and Jennifer Dyer, Edinburgh University Press, 2020, p. 10
(2) Ibid., p. 13
(3) Ibid., p. 83
(4) Ibid., p. 93
(5) Ibid., p. 99
(6) Ibid., p. 105
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.
“One can certainly gain outer freedom through powerful actions, but one creates inner freedom only through the symbol.”
C.G. Jung, The Red Book, Liber Secundus, chapter XX
Chapter XX of Liber Secundus, the middle part of Jung’s Red Book, has got the title The Way of the Cross. This is the penultimate chapter, quite short compared to the upcoming final one. On a personal note, I am always quite astounded how the text of the chapter I am currently analyzing reflects the external events in my personal and also in collective life. Sometimes the synchronicity is very literal indeed like here when I encounter The Way of the Cross during Eastertime. The chapter starts with the following vision:
“I saw the black serpent, as it wound itself upward around the wood of the cross. It crept into the body of the crucified and emerged again transformed from his mouth. It had become white. It wound itself around the head of the dead one like a diadem, and a light gleamed above his head, and the sun rose shining in the east.”
For more detailed analysis of the symbolism of the serpent, I must refer you to the previous instalment of my series (https://symbolreader.net/2021/03/21/reading-the-red-book-32/). The image of a serpent wrapped around a staff is an ancient one. It is known as the rod of Asclepius, which features a single snake, and a caduceus with its twin snakes. Quite surprisingly, it also appears in the Old Testament. As Moses was leading the Israelites across the desert to the Promised Land:
“4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
John 3: 14-15
According to prisca theologia (ancient theology), which asserts that a single, true theological doctrine runs like a thread through all religions, Moses is included in a venerable lineage, a sequence of the sages presented in this order: “Enoch, Abraham, Noah, Zoroaster, Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, the Brahmins, the Druids, David, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, the Sibyls.” (1) This relates also to Gnostic beliefs, notably to such sects as the Ophites or the Naassenes, who revered Jesus as the serpent of wisdom. In Symbols of Transformation (CW 5) Jung devoted a lot of space to the symbolism of the cross and the serpent. He saw the cross as emblematic of “the tree of life and “the mother.” (2) Like the tree of life, the cross forms an axis, which the soul can climb to reach the divine. In the cross, the vertical (spiritual) axis is juxtaposed with the horizontal (physical) axis, which on the one hand stands for agony and suffering, but on the other is a symbol of the unification of the opposites. Jung continues in Symbols of Transformation on the unity of Jesus and the serpent:
“As a serpent he is to be ‘lifted up’ on the cross; that is to say, as a man with merely human thoughts and desires, who is ever striving back to childhood and the mother, he must die on the mother-tree…” (3)
For Jung, Christ was a symbol of the self. He continues the same passage:
“The archetype of the self has, functionally, the significance of a ruler of the inner world, i.e., of the collective unconscious. The self, as a symbol of wholeness, is a ‘coincidentia oppositorum,’ and therefore contains light and darkness simultaneously…. In the Christ-figure the opposites which are united in the archetype are polarized into the ‘light’ son of God on the one hand and the devil on the other.” (4)
Returning to chapter XX, Jung elucidates further why Christ is for him both a symbol of the self and of individuation. He says this about Christ:
“He did not simply teach what was knowable and worth knowing, he lived it. It is unclear how great one’s humility must be to take it upon oneself to live one’s own life. … . He would rather devise any trick to help him escape, since nothing matches the torment of one’s own way. It seems impossibly difficult, so difficult that nearly anything seems preferable to this torment. … He who goes to himself climbs down.”
In order to achieve individuation, one needs to renounce “the visible success” and the longing for power, including the power over one’s fellow human beings. This is a path of sacrifice.
In the vision cited at the beginning of the chapter, the transformed black serpent emerges from Jesus’s mouth, white and radiant. This serpent is the Logos, not a meaningless, rootless word, but a word that has acquired the status of a Symbol. Jung continues:
“When the way enters death and we are surrounded by rot and horror, the way rises in the darkness and leaves the mouth as the saving symbol, the word. It leads the sun on high, for in the symbol there is the release of the bound human force struggling with darkness.”
The final passages of the chapter are powerful remarks on the nature of the symbol. In Psychological Types (CW 6), Jung wrote extensively on the topic. Symbol creation is not a rational process. The human psyche has the so-called transcendent function, which results in symbolic formations. (5) The transcendent function projects the contents of the unconscious onto the physical world. The symbol thus created serves as a luminous bridge leading to psychological rebirth:
“The symbol is the middle way along which the opposites flow together in a new movement, like a watercourse bringing fertility after a long drought.” (6)
Only the transcendent function and its symbols can put a person on a path towards individuation. This is thanks to propensity of the symbolic function to leave “the path prescribed by collective norms.” (7)
Further on in the chapter we are discussing Jung says that symbol is like a word of power that arises unexpectedly “on the tongue.” This organic and spontaneous process resembles “the becoming of human life in the womb.” Symbols are birthed anew for each generation, since “the task is to give birth to the old in a new time.” The soul of humanity, which Jung likens in this chapter to “the great wheel of the zodiac” gives birth to new/old symbols at each turning of the cosmic wheel. As Jung puts it: “It belongs to the essence of forward movement that what was returns.”
At the very end of the chapter Jung briefly reflects on free will and fate. He seems to be saying that despite or against his will and intentions, “futurity grows out of me.” It is an organic process spurred on by the symbols arising from the depths of the collective unconscious. He postulates that the ancients used magic to compel and change outer fate while we the moderns need magic to “determine inner fate.” Magic can help move psychic life forward. In the end, Jung decides to visit a great magician, but that is the subject of the next chapter.
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.
(1) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin
Chapter XIX of Liber Secundus (part II of The Red Book) is called The Gift of Magic. The Soul wants Jung to accept the gift of magic represented by “a black rod, formed like a serpent-with two pearls as eyes-a gold bangle around its neck.” The serpent is one of those powerful symbols that accompanied Jung throughout all his life. He owned a ring with an image of a dark snake, which he described with these words:
“It is Egyptian. Here the serpent is carved, which symbolizes Christ. Above it, the face of a woman; below the number 8, which is the symbol of the Infinite, of the Labyrinth, and the Road to the Unconscious.” (1)
It was in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, where Jung dives deep into the symbolism of the serpent. (2) There he wrote the following about the snake, which he perceived as simultaneously the highest, most spiritual animal and the lowest, most material and chthonic one:
“… snakes are favourite symbols for describing psychic happenings or experiences that suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect.” (par. 291)
“It expresses his fear of everything inhuman and his awe of the sublime, of what is beyond human ken. It is the lowest (devil) and the highest (son of God, Logos, Nous, Agathodaimon).”(par. 293)
“As serpens mercurialis, the snake is not only related to the god of revelation, Hermes, but, as a vegetation numen, calls forth the ‘blessed greenness’ all the budding and blossoming of plant life. Indeed, this serpent actually dwells in the interior of the earth and is the pneuma that lies hidden in the stone.”(par. 386)
“Just as the serpent stands for the power that heals as well as corrupts, so one of the thieves is destined upwards, the other downwards, and so likewise the shadow is on one side regrettable and reprehensible weakness, on the other side healthy instinctivity and the prerequisite for higher consciousness.” (par. 402)
Cirlot perceived the serpent as “symbolic of energy itself—of force pure and simple.” Snakes are guardians of the deeps and of hidden treasures as well as guardians of the springs of life. (3) They may stand both for renewal and destruction. Because they symbolize pure energy, they are beyond good and evil and they can flow in both directions.
Returning to chapter XIX of Liber Secundus, Jung hesitates whether he should accept the gift of magic from the Soul. The Soul tells him that this kind of gift will require the sacrifice of solace. Jung will not be able to give or receive solace if he accepts this gift from the soul. He ponders:
“This means the loss of a piece of humanity; and what one calls severity toward oneself and others takes its place.”
The inhumanness of the snake of magic seems to worry Jung, but he knows he needs to accept the gift. He hold the rod and speaks to it, calling it “the messenger of the night”:
“Are you time and fate? The essence of nature, hard and eternally inconsolable, yet the sum of all mysterious creative force? Primordial magic words seem to emanate from you, mysterious effects weave around you, and what powerful arts slumber in you?”
The black rod of magic brings with it “defiance and contempt for men.” Image 127, which accompanies this part of the text, was described by Jung as “the inexorable wheel of the four functions, the essence of all living beings imbued with sacrifice.” The four functions he refers to here are thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. There is always one function that dominates the consciousness in each of us, according to Jung. This exact function needs to be sacrificed in the name of wholeness. Only then will its opposite function be liberated from the state of repression in the unconscious. If a thinking type sacrifices his or her intellect, his feeling function will be able to rise to consciousness. By the same token, the intuitive type is often too steeped in his or her inner life, too much future oriented, which means that his or her sensation is suppressed. Such an individual cannot live here and now and has difficulty living the simple life of the senses. Psychological Types, volume VI of Collected Works of Jung, contains a few examples of sacrificing the main function. For example, this is what Jung wrote of Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers:
“His most valuable organ was the intellect and the clarity of knowledge it made possible. Through the sacrificium intellectus the way of purely intellectual development was closed to him; it forced him to recognize the irrational dynamism of his soul as the foundation of his being.” (par. 20)
Image 127 shows how painful the sacrifice can be but the consolation is the caption above the painting – The Triumph of Love.
Next image – 129 is quite a striking portrayal of the black serpent. The creature seems to emerge from Kether, the topmost of the sephirot of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah, which symbolized the primal unity with God. White brilliance is the colour associated with Kether by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The luminosity and otherworldliness of the image is quite stunning even if Jung did not consciously choose to refer to Kabbalistic thought in the image. He writes:
“…we approach the overpowering, inhuman forces that are busily creating what is to come. … The tension of the future is unbearable in us. It must break through narrow cracks, it must force new ways.”
The luminosity is forcing its way into the sublunary realm. The serpent guarding the treasure is standing on the threshold between the unconscious and manifestation. The energy coils through its sinuous body.
“There is only one way and that is your way; there is only one salvation and that is your salvation. … What is to come is created in you and from you. Hence look into yourself.”
This though is not new in The Red Book. The path to individuation is the body of the snake arising from one’s unconscious. It is a solitary path with little comfort. It is the way of the Magician:
“In it Heaven and Hell grow together, and in it the power of the Below and the power of the Above unite.”
The extraordinary image 131, one of the most celebrated paintings from The Red Book, is accompanied by a magical incantation:
“The Above is powerful,
The Below is powerful,
Twofold power is in the One.
North, come hither,
West, snuggle up,
East, flow upward,
South, spill over.
The winds in between bind the
cross. The poles are united by the
intermediate poles in between.
Steps lead from above to below.
Boiling water bubbles in
cauldrons. Red hot ash envelops
the round floor.
Night sinks blue and deep from
above, earth rises black from
The luminosity of Kether is resplendent in the winter night, behind the dark tree of life set against indigo blue sky. This is followed by two more striking images and magical incantations. Image 133 could be the portrait of the solitary one, who sings the incantations:
“A solitary is cooking up healing potions.
He makes offering to the four winds.
He greets the stars and touches the earth.
He holds something luminous in his hand.
He is far from men and yet the threads of their fate pass through his hands.”
The solitary ends his incantation by abstaining from the role of a savior of humanity. He says instead:
“Now prove your worth by each
living for himself.”
Image 135 is a continuation of the visual narrative presented by the stunning imagery of this rich chapter. The inscription below the egg says:
“The fire comes out of Muspilli and grasps the tree of life. A cycle is completed, but it is the cycle within the world. A strange God, the unnamable God of the solitary, is incubating it. New creatures form from the smoke and ashes.”
In the footnotes, Shamdasani explains that in Norse mythology Muspilli (or Muspelheim) is the abode of the Fire Gods. It seems a new cycle is beginning with the snake and other creatures emerging from the roots of the burnt world tree. This is the mystery of the changeful, says Jung, and “the road is without end.”
(1) C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, edited by William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series: Princeton University Press 1977, p. 468
(2) Collected Works volume 9ii
(3) Juan Eduardo Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2001
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.
Arnold Böcklin (born in 1827) was a Swiss symbolist painter, whose work The Plague (1898) has recently emerged as the emblem of our moment in time. It seems that through his symbolist lens he managed to capture the timeless terror of epidemics. True symbolist art is able to achieve precisely that – to situate its creations in the eternal realm. The vibrant blood red colour of the woman’s dress in the foreground is juxtaposed with the blacks, browns and greens of death and decomposition. The whitish cloud of miasma behind the Death figure and the same bad air breathed out from the dragon’s mouth create a terrifying effect. Böcklin was criticized for his garish taste in colours but from the symbolist viewpoint his choices are fully justified. This emblematic image resembles a tarot card.
Death was the theme close to Böcklin’s heart – see his self-portrait with Death playing the fiddle below (1872). Not to mention that his Isle of the Dead (1880) remains his most iconic and famous work of all times. In it, a figure clad in white is standing over a coffin, also draped in white. Their boat is being solemnly rowed towards an island with cypress trees guarding the ultimate mystery.
Similar figures also clad in white are featured in The Sacred Grove (1886), which has a very special place in my heart. Who are these people walking in a sacred procession and bowing deeply before a sacred fire? Are they Druids or Ancient Greeks? Or are they simply emblematic of all silent nature worshippers of the times of Yore? There seems to be a temple behind the trees on the right as well as a white statue, which is not visible very well. I was lucky recently to see the original in a museum in Basel and indeed I was able to confirm that there is a statue behind a tree on the right-hand side. The sacred site seems to be situated on a marshland judging by the stone altar’s reflection in the water.
In The Sacred Teaching of All Ages by Manly P. Hall there is a passage describing the oracle of Jupiter in Dodona, which makes me think of the scene depicted in the painting:
“The oracle of Dodona was presided over by Jupiter, who uttered prophecies through oak trees, birds, and vases of brass. Many writers have noted the similarities between the rituals of Dodona and those of the Druid priests of Britain and Gaul. The famous oracular dove of Dodona, alighting upon the branches of the sacred oaks, not only discoursed at length in the Greek tongue upon philosophy and religion, but also answered the queries of those who came from distant places to consult it. The ‘talking’ trees stood together, forming a sacred grove. When the priests desired answers to important questions, after careful and solemn purifications they retired to the grove. They then accosted the trees, beseeching a reply from the god who dwelt therein. When they had stated their questions, the trees spoke with the voices of human beings, revealing to the priests the desired information. Some assert that there was but one tree which spoke–an oak or a beech standing in the very heart of the ancient grove. Because Jupiter was believed to inhabit this tree he was sometimes called Phegonæus, or one who lives in a beech tree.”
Giorgio de Chirico, the great Italian Surrealist, once declared that each of Böcklin’s works is a shock. One of the most shocking aspects of his oeuvre is perhaps the organic, extremely lifelike and lively nature of some of his paintings. For it was not only death that preoccupied him. His delightful Mermaids at Play (1886) are full of merriment and can be described as gently grotesque. A bewildered baby with a fishtail on the left-hand side is holding a little fish. The frolicking mermaids are not portrayed to be seductive or satisfying for the male gaze. On the contrary, they are being natural and relaxed in their bodily comfort. This puts Böcklin in contrast to many other nineteenth-century artists.
It is quite astounding that Böcklin’s artistic career developed simultaneously to that of the Impressionists. He really seems to have nothing in common with them. He must have picked his own secluded path through the dark woods. As an art critic George B. Rose wrote in 1917:
“Little good will come to you from outside. What will come to you lies within yourself. But what lies there!”
C.G. Jung, The Red Book, chapter XVIII (Liber Secundus)
Chapter XVIII of Liber Secundus is called The Three Prophecies. The title itself poses an important question of whether The Red Book is prophetic. In a book of dialogues dedicated to The Red Book by James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, the latter offers the following reflection:
“He [Jung] realizes around about 1917 that the prophetic tone, the prophetic language in which he wrote the first two sections of the text were given to him by this figure of Philemon, in other words, there’s a prophetic voice in him that is not himself. The issue then is one of differentiating being instructed by it without identifying with it. He did have a real career choice. He could have set up shop like Rudolf Steiner around the corner in Dornach and said, ‘This is the new revelation.’ I mean, gurus are two a penny in Europe in the 1920s—prophets of the new age, competing for the same clientele. He could have done that. But what then is interesting, what makes Jung Jung is, in a certain sense, the fact that he doubts his own visions and is more interested in the vision-making function than simply proclamation.” (1)
Jung chose the path of experience. He chose not to identify with the divine presence that was bestowing revelations on him. In a letter to Frau Patzelt, which Jung wrote in 1935, he emphasizes his reservations even more decisively:
“I have read a few books by Rudolf Steiner and must confess that I have found nothing in them that is of the slightest use to me. You must understand that I am a researcher and not a prophet.”
Though Jung touched the eternal in the experience that he described in Liber Novus, he decided not to proclaim it as the absolute truth. He decided against publishing The Red Book.
Chapter XVIII begins with a vision that Jung experienced on 22 January 1914, which he recorded in his black book. The soul asks Jung if he will accept whatever she brings to him without judgement or rejection. He agrees. The soul dives through the ages of humankind bringing him the worst atrocities: the annihilation of whole peoples, war, epidemics, and all kinds of “frightful feral savagery.” Jung accepts everything as gifts of the soul. But when the soul brings the treasures of all past cultures and “books full of lost wisdom,” he seems overwhelmed. No person can accept such an enormous wealth. It is wise to limit oneself and with contentment and modesty cultivate one’s own garden. Jung says:
“A well-tended small garden is better than an ill-tended large garden. Both gardens are equally small when faced with the immeasurable, but unequally cared for.”
The soul also brings Jung three prophecies – “ancient things that pointed to the future.” These are “the misery of war, the darkness of magic, and the gift of religion,” which all share the same capability of both unleashing and binding the forces of chaos. Before the First World War erupted Jung had had an overpowering vision of a flood that covered all Europe but was stopped by the Swiss Alps. He saw the sea of blood and a civilization turning into rubble. In the chapter that we are discussing Jung expresses the longing to know nothing because the memory of what he saw would not leave him alone. This is why it is so important, he claims, to keep a well-tended garden, because otherwise the depths of the collective unconscious, which contain everything, will swallow the individual. Therefore he declares that he wishes to discard “everything divine and devilish with which chaos burdened me.” He says that is is vital that an individual does not identify with the collective contents pressing upon the psyche:
“You should be able to cast everything from you, otherwise you are a slave, even if you are the slave of a God.”
Magic is the second gift that the soul brings Jung. In Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (CW 8) Jung wrote that “’magical’ means everything where unconscious influences are at work.” (2) In the same volume he referred to psyche as “the greatest of all cosmic wonders.” (3) He also said further that “anyone should draw the conclusion that the psyche, in its deepest reaches, participates in a form of existence beyond space and time, and thus partakes of what is inadequately and symbolically described as ‘eternity.'” (4) But still he concluded that we would never be able to determine whether that was the absolute truth. From the perspective of the conscious mind, any proclamation as to the nature of the unconscious psyche is conjecture. When Jung says that “magic is dark and no one sees it” in the chapter of The Red Book that we are looking at, he is hinting at the occult nature of the unconscious psyche and its workings.
But even such hedged statements about the nature of the psyche did not win Jung any favours with scientists or scientifically minded psychologists of his time and of our time. Lance S. Owens makes an excellent point when he says that Jung was disowned not only by science but also by religion of his time. He explains:
“… both fields share a problematic blind spot: They both think that ‘religion’ stands against ‘the secular.’ However, the historical record shows that these two defined themselves not just against one another but, simultaneously, against a third domain…. This third domain that they both rejected has been referred to by different names, but the most well-known are superstition and magic.” (5)
Magic is the dark, shadowy domain inaccessible both to science and the institutionalized religion. It is religion which is the final gift that the soul bestows upon Jung. The Red Book seems to ponder an important question what religion will be like in the coming Aion of Aquarius. The main themes of the Aion of Aquarius have been summarized by Liz Greene as “the union of the opposites, the interiorisation of the god-image, and the struggle to recognise and reconcile good and evil as dimensions of the human psyche” rather than “projected duality of God and the Devil” that has been prevalent in the current Aion of Pisces. (6)
The chapter is accompanied by Image 125. In his invaluable footnotes Shamdasani explains that the scene depicted in the image resembles one of Jung’s childhood fantasies described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. In it he imagined Basel to be a port and in his mind’s eye he saw a sailing ship on the waters of the Rhine. The image here shows Atmavictu in deep meditation (see part 30 for details about him). The Aquarian vessel on his head is being filled with divine prana or the water of the spirit, which emanates from the golden red solar mandala. It seems that the ship from the childhood fantasy sails on the border between divine and mundane reality. The orderly Swiss world below appears to be oblivious of the spiritual dimension depicted in the upper part of the image.
(1) James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book, Kindle edition
(2) par. 725
(3) par. 357
(4) par. 815
(5) Lance S. Owens, “C.G. Jung and the Prophet Puzzle,” in: Murray Stein and Thomas Arzt, editors, Jung’s Red Book for Our Time: Searching for Soul under Postmodern Conditions, volume 1, Kindle edition
(6) Liz Greene, “‘The Way of What is to Come’: Jung’s Vision of the Aquarian Age,” in: Murray Stein and Thomas Arzt, editors, Jung’s Red Book for Our Time: Searching for Soul under Postmodern Conditions, volume 1, Kindle edition
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.
At least for me, it has been a season for dystopian novels. After finishing Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel TheTestaments, I moved on to reread 1984. When a cruel new law was recently passed in Poland forbidding abortion in all circumstances without a scrap of concern for women’s dignity and in the name of Catholic fanaticism, thousands of women (and men) took to the streets. The images from Handmaid’s Tale sprung up all over the place.
In the rich symbolic tapestry woven by Margaret Atwood in Handmaid’s Tale, I was particularly drawn to the way it constellates the archetype of the wild woman. No matter how much violence and injustice was inflicted on Gilead handmaids, they always found a way to go on. Their red gowns served to mark them as fertile vessels and also as scarlet, unchaste women. But of course the colour red, being the wildest of all colours, means that ultimately women cannot be tamed. Blood is life itself in its fiery strength and glory. In Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red, the colour red is one of the narrators, who says this:
“Life begins with me and returns to me.“
It is not a coincidence that women’s strike in Poland also chose a red lightning bolt as its chief symbol.
In Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis I found an apt summary of the power of red in relation to women’s wild nature:
“The relation of the love-goddess to red dates back to ancient times. Scarlet is the colour of the Great Whore of Babylon and her beast. Red is the colour of sin. The rose is also an attribute of Dionysus. Red and rose-red are the colour of blood, a synonym for the aqua permanens and the soul, which are extracted from the prima materia and bring ‘dead’ bodies to life. … The stone … is the son of this whore. …”
Next to red, the second symbol quite ubiquitous in Atwood’s novel is the moon, described as “gigantic, round, heavy, an omen.” At one point Offred calls the moon “a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink.” She also says somewhere else:
“But I tell time by the moon. Lunar, not solar. I bend over to do up my red shoes;…”
In the TV series based on Handmaid’s Tale, the writers added another potent symbol to constellate the archetype of the wild woman. It was the black wolf which Offred encountered in the forest shortly before a powerful birth scene, in which she gives birth all alone in an empty house.
The third symbol was for me storytelling itself. The titles of both novels speak of bearing witness to events. In the first part the Handmaid tells her tale, while in the second part a host of female characters deliver their testaments or testimonies. It was Clarissa Pinkola Estés who reminded us of the power of stories to lead us back into our instinctual self – this forge of transformation. She said that through stories we can “pick up the path left by the wildish nature.” She also wrote:
“Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered.”
Women protesting in Poland showed a great deal of creativity – both visual and verbal – in the posters that they created for their marches. This is a narrative completely different to the dominant religious/patriarchal one. These words, these stories will overcome the tyrants.
Overall, wildness seems to be a singular factor that will always tear regimes down. I was gratified to come across a passage in Orwell’s 1984, in which Winston is happy that Julia has slept with a huge number of men as he hates purity and he wants everyone to be “corrupt to the bones” because this is what will bring the Party down:
“That was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.”
May the last word belong to Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“So, if women must, they will paint blue sky on jail walls. If the skeins are burnt, they will spin more. If the harvest is destroyed they will sow more immediately. Women will draw doors where there are none, and open them and pass through into new ways and new lives. Because the wild nature persists and prevails, women persist and prevail. It is this yearning that causes us to search for Wild Woman and find her. It is not as hard as one might first imagine, for Wild Woman is searching for us too. We are her young.“
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
The doll is a curious and polyvalent symbol. On the one hand, there is no shortage of creepy dolls in horror movies. Furthermore, in his Dictionary of Symbols, Juan Eduardo Cirlot speaks of dolls solely in the context of psychopathology and “a regression to an infantile state.” To add to this dark portrayal of dolls, they have been used to symbolize stiff social roles of women expected to behave and look in a certain way. In Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House the main character talks bitterly of her married life:
“I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll child. And the children in turn have been my dolls. I thought it was fun when you came and played with me, just as they thought it was fun when I went to play with them. That’s been our marriage, Torvald.”
Nevertheless, in ancient civilizations dolls played a magic role, alongside their socializing function. In ancient Greece, dolls were very popular as votive offerings and were found in large numbers near caves of the nymphs. (1) The word “numphe” in ancient Greek, which signified a female divinity on the one hand and a bride on the other, was also sometimes used to refer to dolls. On the one hand, nymphs were perceived as divine beings, who were “sexually desirable, free of familial restrictions,” but they also held patronage over bridal rites and female rites of social transition. Larson explains:
“The ornamentation … of the doll corresponds to the value placed upon conventional measures of female beauty, especially in the contexts of … wedding.” (2)
Also Marija Gimbutas mentions the role dolls played during the celebration of the pagan festival of Imbolc, known as Brigid’s Day:
“Her feast on February first, Imbolc, celebrated the first signs of spring and the lactation of the ewes, symbolizing new life. It was the day of purification and homage to the goddess. People poured milk on the ground as an offering and baked special cakes. Girls carried dolls in her image in procession through the town, and each house welcomed the goddess.” (3)
Clarissa Pinkola Estés offers as a very unique and beautiful perspective on the lost symbolic meaning of dolls. She approaches it through the tale of Vasilisa, who received a wooden doll as a gift from a dying mother. The doll proved to be of supernatural help to her as a voice of inner wisdom and intuition. In the absence of her mother, Vasilisa received guidance, comfort and nurturance from the doll.
“For centuries humans have felt that dolls emanate both a holiness and mana—an awesome and compelling presence which acts upon persons, changing them spiritually.
The doll is the symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self. Superficially, it is just a doll. But inversely, it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger soul-Self. In the doll is the voice, in diminutive, of old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows.” (4)
Although the dolls may symbolize soullessness, the healthy life of the psyche cut short by death or madness or the stifling social expectations towards women; they also stand for the wisdom and numinosity of the inner voice whispering to us from the depth of the heart.
(1) Jennifer Larson, Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore, Kindle edition
(3) Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, ed. by Miriam R. Dexter, University of California Press, 12 Jan 2001, p. 249
(4) Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Kindle edition
Support my blog
If you appreciate my writing, consider donating to support my work. Thank you very much in advance.
“I feel the things that were and that will be. Behind the ordinary the eternal abyss yawns. The earth gives me back what it hid.”
Liber Secundus, chapter XVII
Chapter XVII of Liber Secundus, the second part of The Red Book, has the title Nox Quarta (The Fourth Night) and is particularly dense and rich with meaning. It starts with Jung saying:
“I hear the roaring of the morning wind, which comes over the mountains.”
This sentence sets the tone for the entire chapter in that it invokes the Atman – the breath, the eternal soul, and the central task of individuation, which seems to be the integration of the individual soul with the collective psyche. The soul tells Jung:
“Airy passages should be built between all opposed things, light smooth streets should lead from one pole to the other.”
It is a task of individuation to go beyond polarities by breaking down the rigid barriers that the ego erects to divide them.
In this chapter Jung talks to the Cook and the Librarian again. Like a trickster, Jung throws a wild idea at the librarian, who finds Jung’s words rather bewildering:
“I: ‘’Allow me the indiscrete question: have you ever had an incubation sleep in your kitchen?’
L: ‘No, I’ve never entertained such a strange idea.’
I: ‘Let me say that you’d learn a lot that way about the nature of your kitchen. Good night, Sir!’”
It seems that at that point Jung had stopped caring about pandering to the closed-mindedness of the Librarian and decided to share his truth with him, no matter the reaction. This brings to mind the German saying “über den eigenen Schatten springen,” which literally translated means “to jump over one’s shadow,” that is to go beyond one’s limitations or do something that is out of character (seemingly). It seems that this necessary step on the way to individuation is illustrated by image 115 with its caption – “This is the golden fabric in which the shadow of God lives.” There is something animal-like in this shadow figure. The sun in the background symbolizes the light of the Self, the God within, who for Jung did not exist without its shadow side.
Following this the setting changes and Jung finds himself in a theatre. He is watching Wagner’s Parsifal. Wagner’s take on the myth of the Holy Grail is different than the classic version authored by Chrétien de Troyes. Liz Greene saw the story of Parsifal as a classic Leo myth, which incidentally was Jung’s Sun sign. She summarizes the classic story in her book Astrology of Fate. Parsifal lives in a forest with his mother. One day a group of knights pass through and persuade him to join them. At this point Parsifal is “clumsy and boorish;” Liz Greene compares him to an animal. At a crucial point Parsifal’s fate brings him to the suffering Fisher King, the protector of the Holy Grail, as summarized by Greene:
“The king in the story was wounded in the groin or thigh: he cannot procreate, for his manhood is injured. This is a thinly veneered image of castration. A vision then appeared to Parsifal, of a sword, a lance which dripped blood, a maiden bearing a Grail of gold set with precious stones, and another maiden carrying a silver platter. Students of the Tarot will see these four sacred objects as the four suits of cups, swords, wands and pentacles, and students of Jung will recognise the quaternity which symbolises the wholeness of the Self.”
The symbolism of the Holy Grail conveys the ideas of “wholeness, center, vessel and source.” (1) The pre-Christian legends of the Grail saw it as the vessel of the goddess, her “Cauldron of Plenty.” Since medieval times it has symbolized “a gradual process of psychic integration and transfiguration.” (2)
This first encounter with the Fisher King ended up in a failure for Parsifal, for he did not ask the only question he was required to, “Whom does the Grail serve?” (the implied right answer being that it serves the Self and not the ego). What Parsifal lacked at that point in the story was the ability to suffer and to feel compassion. But his return to the Grail Castle after a long quest and a lot of suffering proved fruitful. He finally asked the right question, which resulted in the healing of the King and the land regaining its fertility thanks to the Holy Grail.
Liz Greene explains how Wagner’s version of the Grail’s story differed from the classic:
“In the opera, the Grail King Amfortas received his wound from the evil magician Klingsor, at a moment when the king was rendered vulnerable in the arms of the seductive Kundry, …. Klingsor wanted to be a Grail Knight, but Amfortas refused him; so the magician castrated himself to make himself invulnerable to erotic temptation, and stole the spear from Amfortas in revenge. As a result of the wound and the loss of the spear, the Grail Kingdom lay in waste. Perhaps this gives us some insight into one of Leo’s dilemmas; for in the brightness and nobility of his aspirations he will not permit the lowly shadow, his own flawed humanness, entry. That rejected shadow strikes back from the unconscious through the disintegrating effects of uncontrollable eroticism. Amfortas languishes unmanned in the arms of Kundry; he cannot retain his ‘purity’ of vision, and he is thus a mockery, a soiled king who is no longer fit to guard the Grail and is wounded by his own gnawing guilt.”
In Psychological Types (CW 6), Jung also wrote about Wagner’s opera and the role of Parsifal, whom he called “nirdvanda, free from the opposites,” the redeemer “who unites the bright, heavenly, feminine symbol of the Grail with the dark, earthly, masculine symbol of the spear.” (par. 371).
Coming back to the scene described in the chapter, Jung suddenly realizes that Klingsor, the villainous magician, closely resembles him. The evil magician symbolizes the shadow side of Leo with their overblown ego. But then Parsifal enters the stage and Jung suddenly also sees himself in the knight, who at some point enters clad in the lion skin of Hercules.
Further in the chapter, Jung continues to tackle the theme of opposites. He asks:
“I presume you would like to have certainty with regard to truth and error?”
Yet, he says, being certain about one end of polarity leads to “resistance against the other.” But the truth is that “one cannot be enough for us since the other is in us.” Polarities are intertwined. The bigger the chasm we try to create between them, the worse the psychological consequences. Growth demands the acceptance of “the Other”. Jung will return to this mystical paradox and the necessity to transcend the either/or thinking in Seven Sermons to the Dead with their pronouncement of Gnostic wisdom.
Another issue Jung expands on at this point is talent. His advice is not to identify yourself with your gift. The essence of a talent is “extrahuman” – therefore it cannot be possessed by the ego – “he is never at the height of his gift but always beneath it.” Furthermore, by accepting the shadow side inherent in each talent, one can bear the gift “without disadvantage” of an inflated ego.
The chapter also contains a wonderful passage that affirms the need of darkness in the psyche:
“It is the most primordial form of creation, the very first dark urge that flows through all secret hiding places and dark passages, with the unintentional lawfulness of water and from unexpected places in the loose soil, swelling from the finest cracks to fructify the dry soil.
This silent, deep part of the psyche calls for salvation and it needs to be awakened, says Jung. He concludes:
“Nothing should separate me from him, the dark one. If I want to leave him, he follows me like my shadow. If I do not think of him, he is still uncannily near. He will turn into fear if I deny him.”
This dark nameless godlike figure, writes Jung, completes Christ.
The chapter is richly illustrated with images that tell their own story. The shadow image 115 described above is followed by image 117. Here we meet Atmaviktu – the breath of life, the creative impulse. He is trying in vain to stop the dragon from swallowing the sun. In Black Book 6 (quoted in the footnotes by Shamdasani) the soul tells Jung that Atmaviktu is “a kobold, a serpent conjuror, a serpent.” From the serpent, Atmaviktu transformed into Philemon, who was a towering figure in Jung’s life and his spiritual guru. More space will be devoted to him in future instalments of the series.
In Jung’s garden in Küsnacht there is a sculpture of Atmaviktu depicted as a kobold or a kabir, who symbolized the vital creative impulse for Jung. In Psychology and Religion (CW 11) Jung wrote about the Cabiri (par. 244):
“The Cabiri are, in fact, the mysterious creative powers, the gnomes who work under the earth, i.e., below the threshold of consciousness, in order to supply us with lucky ideas. As imps and hobgoblins, however, they also play all sorts of nasty tricks, keeping back names and dates that were ‘on the tip of the tongue,’ making us say the wrong thing, etc. They give an eye to everything that has not already been anticipated by the conscious mind and the functions at its disposal.”
Jung carved such a figure also on a stone in Bollingen – a kabir Telesphoros bearing the symbol of Mercury on his vest – with the following inscription:
“AION is a child playing—Wagering on draughts—Kingship of a Child
Telesphoros traverses the dark regions of this Cosmos
A flashing Star from the Depths
Guiding way to the Gates of the Sun and to the Land of Dreams” (4)
In image 119, Atmavictu is shown after killing the dragon. In the previous image (117) the dragon had devoured the sun. Now Atmavictu sets out to retrieve it from the dragon’s belly, but as Jung’s inscription says, the dragon “must not hand over the gold of the sun.” At the same time there are other suns falling from the dragon’s dismembered body. As Drob summarizes,
“We might say that the dragon swallowing the sun symbolizes a stage in the process of individuation in which the conscious ego regresses into the unconscious, remains for a time in its grip, and emerges a fully individuated self after it has been released.” (5)
Interestingly, we had already met Atmavictu in The Red Book. He was a figure, who helped Jung to murder the hero Siegfried, the symbol of the overblown ego.
Image 121 is a beautiful mandala with the philosopher’s stone in the centre. Jung’s own note on the image says that the stone “expands into space through four distinct qualities, namely breadth, height, depth, and time. It is hence invisible and you can pass through it without noticing it. The four streams of Aquarius flow from the stone.” Liz Greene comments that
“The astrological reference seems to hint at Jung’s understanding of the possibilities for humanity inherent in the new Aquarian Aion: integration of the individual personality with the Self, for which he came to view the lapis philosophorum of alchemy as a primary symbol.” (6)
The striking image 122 is yet another depiction of Atmaviktu. Liz Greene writes:
“This face, staring out at the viewer, floats bodiless against a backdrop of greyish stones, and is surrounded by ancient flint or obsidian knives and the fossils of ammonites and other prehistoric creatures. The colours are those of the earth: grey, rusty brown, ochre, and black. Both the image legend and the goatlike features suggest specific symbolic references to Saturn.” (7)
Jung himself describes the image as the “stony residue” of Atmavictu, who has returned to “endless history,” having completed his creation.
Finally, the beautiful image 123 portrays the water-bearer with the stream of water resembling the glyph of Aquarius. (8) The image legend states:
“This is the caster of holy water. The Cabiri grow out of the flowers which spring from the body of the dragon. Above is the temple.“
(1) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg p. 786
(3) Sanford L. Drob, Reading The Red Book: An Interpretative Guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus, Spring Journal Books 2012, p. 153
Before I continue my journey through Jung’s Red Book, I would like to draw your attention to an excellent essay by Lance S. Owens, The Hermeneutics of Vision: C.G. Jung and Liber Novus. You can download it here along with other interesting materials available at gnosis.org here.
Below you can find a collection of crucial excerpts from the above-mentioned essay. I hope this will help you to situate The Black Books (published last year) and The Red Book chronologically as well as gain an insight into Jung’s unique hermeneutic method. It all started for Jung on 12 November 1913, when his soul called to him, which resulted in him starting to chronicle his inner experience in a black notebook.
I. “First, there were six sequentially dated journals, known as the “black books,” which he began this night in November of 1913 and continued through the early 1920s. These journals might be best described as his primary and contemporaneous ledger of a voyage of discovery into imaginative and visionary reality, what he termed ‘my most difficult experiment.’ By 1915, as the magnitude of his experience penetrated him, he felt the need for a more formal and elaborate recording of the visions. With great artistic craft—employing antique illuminated calligraphic text and stunning artwork— Jung labored for sixteen years translating the primary record of his experience from the black books into an elegant folio-sized leather-bound volume: this is the famous but long-sequestered Red Book. Jung titled it Liber Novus, ‘The New Book.'”
II. “The key is immersion and involvement in the mythopoetic imagination: grasping the independent reality of imaginal voice and vision, and participating with it. I do not say ‘granting reality’ to the experience— that would imply the sovereignty of the granting observer. The shattering fact that Jung knew is that the ego sacrificed all sovereignty in the experience. The demiurge was deposed: daylight consciousness was not the sole creator of the real.”
III. “From the very beginning of his journey in November 1913, Jung struggled with an interpretive task: translating his imaginative encounters—his visions—into words. … Now he needed to give this experience firm form. This was an intensely focused and deeply considered interpretive process.”
IV. “I have mentioned very briefly two aspects of Jung’s approach to the interpretation of his experience —how he worked the stone in his roles as physician and as scientist. But there is another vital and complex issue that must be considered: Jung had received a revelation. …
He faces not only the hermeneutics of a vision, but of himself as hermeneut.”
V. “Behind the word ‘hermeneut’ resided a mythic and symbolic history of meaning. Jung knew it. Hermes was the interpreter of the words of the Gods to Men, the mercurial messenger imaged in his planetary aspect: a tiny celestial luminosity visible only occasionally in twilight hours between light and dark, on swift journey between the gates of the sun and the land of human dreams.”
VI. “… [A] mysterious mode of interpretation was mentioned in medieval commentaries. It was called anagoge. Its methods remained perpetually vague in many centuries of commentary. The Greek word itself means to lift up, or elevate. Hermeneutics in the anagogical mode cleaves all other approaches with a vertical axis: it reads mystical meanings. Here the hermeneut directly bridged above and below, thus witnessing the visionary fact veiled by words. Jung traveled that high way—the vertical axis—the ancient road of Hermes. Understood symbolically, in image of the hermeneut, he stood as nexus between inner and outer, hidden and seen, above and below, Gods and Men.”
VII. “Only those who had traveled the inner world, and been wayfaring men, could clearly recognize these ancient maps for what they were. To explain what he saw, he had to help others take the journey into psychic reality.”