Symbolism of the Door

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Fernand Khnopff, “I Lock My Door Upon Myself”

My favourite master of symbolism, J.E. Cirlot wrote this on the meaning of DOOR in his Dictionary of Symbols:

“There is the same relationship between the temple-door and the altar as between the circumference and the centre: even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other. This is well illustrated in the architectural ornamentation of cathedrals, where the façade is nearly always treated as if it were an altar-piece.”

Among all everyday objects, the door seems to be steeped in sacred meaning. With a varying degree of consciousness, we frame our doors with sacred objects so that our shelter is protected. These rituals can range from affixing a mezuzah to the doorpost in the Jewish tradition to hanging a simple horseshoe above the door. Traditional Japanese gates called torii serve as heralds of the entrance to a Shinto shrine.

Psychologically, the doors with their sacred threshold mark a transition between the inner world and the outer world, the conscious and the wider unconscious realm, the profane and the sacred. They mark a transition from this life to the next, as can be observed in the tradition of placing the so-called false doors on the western walls of the Egyptian tombs. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the spirits of the deceased would leave through these doors.

False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu

While closing the door signifies protection, its opening may symbolize release and liberation. The dual significance of the door was beautifully captured by Gaston Bachelard in his classic work Poetics of Space (1958):

“But how many daydreams we should have to analyze under the simple heading of Doors! For the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open.”

The image of the door simultaneously evokes two seemingly contrasting notions – that of security but also the idea of stepping over a threshold towards the new and unknown wider reality.

Paul Delvaux, “At the Door”

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Egyptian Pyramids as a Symbol of Rebirth

“Scherzo – Sonata of the Pyramids” by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1909)

“Ancient Egypt was an agrarian society, and the Egyptians’ view of the world was determined in part by agricultural life along the Nile. Each year, spring rains in the Ethiopian highlands fed the source of the Nile and eventually raised the level of the river in Egypt above its banks, flooding the land on either side from June to October. Ancient records from the earliest Egyptian dynasties show that this annual inundation could rise as much as 4.4 m above the river’s normal level, turning much of the Egyptian countryside into vast lakes. As the flood receded, leaving behind fertile silt, new plants would spring to life on the highest mounds of earth that were the first to emerge from the waters of these lakes. 
From this annual experience, the beginning of life was linked in the Egyptian mind to the vision of a mound of earth emerging from a vast expanse of water. The Egyptians extended this notion to their understanding of how the world itself had come into being. One of the earliest Egyptian creation accounts envisioned the first place in the world as a mound of earth emerging from the waters of a universal ocean and the first life form as a lily growing on the peak of his primeval mound. An Egyptian thought the lily was a god, Nefertum, whose name means ‘perfect and complete.’ Nefertum was honored as a harbinger of the sun, which rose from the lily’s petals to bring life to the newly created world. The mound itself was also worshipped as a god, called Tatjenen, meaning ‘the emerging land.’
Early temples sometimes incorporated a mound of earth as an icon of the original site of all life. This could be a hill of earth or sand, but it also took the more permanent shape of a small pyramid carved from a single block of stone. A miniature pyramid of this kind was called a bnbn (‘benben’), a name that derives from the root bn, meaning ‘swell up’ or ‘swell forth.’ The benben was a concrete image of the first mound of land ‘swelling up’ from the waters of the pre-creation universe. As such, it was an icon not only of the primeval mound but also of the sun, which first rose from it,- the Egyptian word for the rising of the sun is wbn, which comes from the same root as benben.

Benben stone

From the beginning, therefore, the pyramid shape represented the notion of new life, emerging both from a mound of earth and in the light and warmth of the sunrise. To the Egyptians, however, the benben was more than just an image. Like the primeval mound, it somehow incorporated the very power of life itself, the force that made it possible for new life to emerge after a period of dormancy. With this viewpoint, it is not surprising that the Egyptians should also have associated mounds and pyramids with their funerary monuments. In the ancient Egyptian mind, death was not an end to life but the beginning of a new form of existence.
Like the primeval mound, Osiris represented the force of new life. His power was manifested in the transmission of life from one generation to the next and in the growth of new plants, the mysterious process that produced a living entity from an apparently dormant seed planted in the ground.
Osiris was also integral to the Egyptian understanding of the daily solar cycle. Each night the sun seemed to sink beneath the ground and die, yet in the morning it emerged again into the world, reborn to live once more during the day. To the Egyptians, this was possible only because during the night, the ‘dead’ sun had somehow received the power of new life. Two explanations of that process existed concurrently in Egyptian thought. In one, the sun reentered the womb of Nut, the goddess of the sky, at night, and was born from between her thighs again at dawn. In the other, the sun entered a netherworld, known as the Duat, there, in the middle of the night, it merged with the mummy of Osiris, lying in the depths of the Duat, and received from this union the ability to come to life once more. Together, these two explanations combined the role of mother and father in the production of new life.”
Allen, James P. “Why a Pyramid? Pyramid Religion.” In Hawass, Zahi, ed. The Treasures of the Pyramids. Italy: White Star, 2003, pp. 22-27.

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Reading The Red Book (18)

“The stars whisper your deepest mysteries to you, and the soft valleys of the earth rescue you in a motherly womb.”

C. G. Jung, Liber Novus

We have reached chapter V of Liber Secundus, which is the second part of The Red Book. The title of the chapter is “Dies II,” i.e. Day 2. Jung is still on the desert where he had met the Anchorite. He wakes up remembering a dream. He had dreamt of four white horses with golden wings, which pulled the chariot of the sun god Helios:

“A thousand black serpents crawled swiftly into their holes. Helios ascended, rolling upward toward the wide paths of the sky: I knelt down, raised my hands suppliantly, and called: ‘Give us your light, you are flame-curled, entwined, crucified and revived; give us your light, your light!'”


The Philosophical Tree pictured by Jung in Liber Novus

The chapter is accompanied by a striking image (above) of the Sun shining down on the desert and the Philosophical Tree. On the left a scarab is ascending towards the sun, on the right it is descending towards the earth. For the Egyptians, the dung beetle was the god Khepri, who emerged with the rising sun every morning. (1) He was associated with rebirth, while his name meant “to take shape” or “to come into being.” (2) As the authors of The Book of Symbols put it:

“… Khepri’s blackness also suggests that it is an invisible force that upholds solar energies, an unconscious that propels the consciousness into its awakenings and discriminated forms, creativity and perpetual motion.” (3)

Khepri and the rising sun

In Jung’s image, the Philosophical Tree appears to have roots both in heaven and earth, blooming in both realms. In his Alchemical Studies (CW 13, par. 316) Jung wrote:

“The tree corresponds to the passive, vegetative principle, the snake to the active, animal principle. The tree symbolizes earthbound corporeality, the snake emotionality and the possession of a soul. Without the soul the body is dead, and without the body the soul is unreal.”

Further on, in par. 333, he states that “a person whose roots are above as well as below is thus like a tree growing simultaneously downwards and upwards. The goal is neither height nor depth, but the center.”

The Alchemical Studies quoted above were written ca. ten years after the passages of The Red Book. It is in The Red Book where we find a record of Jung’s confrontation with the raw images that would in the years to come inform his body of work, including the whole alchemical corpus. Here we do not read about what the scarab meant conceptually but we watch how Jung encounters the mythical creature, worships it and paints it with most beautifully chosen words:

Dear beetle, where have you gone? I can no longer see you. Oh, you’re already over there with your mythical ball. These little animals stick to things, quite unlike us-no doubt, no change of mind, no hesitation. Is this so because they live their myth?”

Dear scarab, my father, I honor you, blessed be your work in eternity-Amen.

In this meditative chapter Jung prays to the sun, to the scarab and to the stone, which he calls “the ancient mother.” He is overwhelmed by the beauty of the desert:

“How beautiful it is here! The reddish color of the stones is wonderful; they reflect the glow of a hundred thousand past suns.”

Jung returns to the Anchorite Ammonius, but their final encounter does not end harmoniously. The hermit tries to tell Jung how he freed himself from “the awful predicament of spinning words” when he found Christ, the scripture and the peace of the desert. Jung begins to aggravate the Anchorite by suggesting that he would gain more wisdom if he were nearer people instead of living in the desert. The Anchorite seems to inadvertently absorb Jung’s pagan worship when he slips up and calls the sun “the glorious Helios” and lashes out at Jung calling him Satan. Jung tried to explain to him that religions do not differ “in their innermost essence.” This is why Christ is an echo of Osiris, to give just one example of many. Sanford L. Drob concludes:

“It is clear that Jung is here rejecting the Anchorite’s version of Christianity in favor of a more polytheistic paganism that incorporates elements of the dark side of divinity and the Self.” (4)

Not worried in the least about being called Satan, Jung leaves the Anchorite and devotes the rest of the chapter to the mystery of darkness and light. He says:

“He who comprehends the darkness in himself, to him the light is near. He who climbs down into his darkness reaches the staircase of the working light, fire-maned Helios.”

He has a vision of Anima Mundi, the world soul, permeating the whole existence, including the objects which the ignorant name inanimate. Not only that, he also says that our psychic life is reflected back to us by the material reality and nature that surround us:

“… things live their life, and that they live off you: the rivers bear your life to the valley, one stone falls upon another with your force, plants and animals also grow through you and they are the cause of your death. A leaf dancing in the wind dances with you; the irrational animal guesses your thought and represents you. The whole earth sucks its life from you and everything reflects you again.”

This passage spells a crucial difference between the Jungian psychology and the so-called scientific method. In psychology, the subject and the object are intertwined in a loving embrace. There is no separation. It is not possible to “study” another individual objectively as “a thing” that is separate from us. In order to find meaning, we must look inwards:

“The meanings that follow one another do not lie in things, but lie in you, who are subject to many changes, insofar as you take part in life. But if you change, the countenance of the world alters.”

This is one more crucial claim of Jungian psychology: the world will change if the psyche (consciousness) changes. The Anchorite, in Jung’s view, did not look at himself but looked outside and studied the Scripture. He was disengaged from his own psyche and this is why the desert “sucked him dry.” Jung thus concludes the chapter:

“I had to appear to him as the devil, since I had accepted my darkness. I ate the earth and I drank the sun, and I became a greening tree that stands alone and grows.”

Frida Kahlo, “Sun and Life”


(1) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg, p. 236

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Sanford L. Drob, Reading The Red Book: An Interpretative Guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus, Spring Journal Books 2012p. 93

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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book (part 2)

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17


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Jung on the Light of the Darkness

20200320_191950_2   The following passage from Jung’s Alchemical Studies (volume 13 of CW, par. 197) struck me today:

“They [alchemists, seekers after truth] discover that in the very darkness of nature a light is hidden, a little spark without which the darkness would not be darkness. … The light from above made the darkness still darker; but the lumen naturae is the light of the darkness itself, which illuminates its own darkness, and this light the darkness comprehends. Therefore it turns blackness into brightness, burns away ‘all superfluities,’ and leaves behind nothing but ‘faecem et scoriam et terram damnatam’ (dross and scoriae and the rejected earth).

Paracelsus, like all the philosophical alchemists, was seeking for something that would give him a hold on the dark, body-bound nature of man, on the soul which, intangibly interwoven with the world and with matter, appeared before itself in the terrifying form of strange, demoniacal figures and seemed to be the secret source of life-shortening diseases. The Church might exorcise demons and banish them, but that only alienated man from his own nature, which, unconscious of itself, had clothed itself in these spectral forms. Not separation of the natures but union of the natures was the goal of alchemy. From the time of Democritus its leitmotiv had been: “Nature rejoices in nature, nature conquers nature, nature rules over nature.” This principle is pagan in feeling and an expression of nature worship. Nature not only contains a process of transformation—it is itself transformation. It strives not for isolation but for union, for the wedding feast followed by death and rebirth. Paracelsus’s ‘exaltation in May’ is this marriage, the ‘gamonymus’ or hierosgamos [a sacred marriage] of light and darkness in the shape of Sol and Luna. Here the opposites unite what the light from above had sternly divided.”



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The Danaids, the Lernaean Hydra and Heracles

John William Waterhouse, “The Danaids”

According to the Greek myth, the Danaids, fifty daughters of Danaus, were forced to marry fifty sons of Aegyptus, a ruler of Egypt. Forty-nine of them killed their husbands on the wedding night. The forty-nine heads of the men were tossed into the marshes of Lerna. As punishment, the Danaids were sent to Tartaros, were they were ordered to endlessly pour water into a leaky pitcher. At least such is the official, patriarchal version of the myth told by the Greek conquerors.

For Robert Graves and J.J. Bachofen (1) the Danaids were water priestesses, who brought the precious gift of pure water from the delta of the Nile to the dry Peloponnese in Greece. Their ancient sanctuary was raided by the Greeks, as Robert Graves tells in his Greek Myths:

“After the second successful attempt, the Hellenic leader married the Chief-priestess and distributed the water-priestesses as wives among his chieftains.”

In Graves’ view, the Danaids were not pouring water into a leaky pitcher, but they were rather performing an act of sympathetic magic by ritual sprinkling the ground with water. The Greeks seemed to have “welcomed the gift of water but rejected the Danaids.” (2)

From the heads of the forty-nine men that got thrown into the marshes, the nine-headed Hydra, a symbol of the wrathful feminine, was born with eight mortal and one immortal golden head and black bile in her veins. Destroying her was one of the twelve labours of Heracles. Hydra was so venomous that not only her breath could kill instantly but the sheer smell of her tracks was deadly. Heracles lured the monster out of its cave with flaming arrows. First he tried to use brute force and clobbered her heads, but each time one was vanquished two more sprang up. Meanwhile, the goddess Hera sent a giant crab to nip at the hero’s foot and thwart his efforts further. Heracles killed the crab, which was subsequently placed in the constellation karkinos, i.e. Cancer. Heracles decided to change the tactics and asked his nephew Iolaos, who accompanied him, to burn the surrounding woods and burn each stump left by the freshly cut off heads with a torch so that it will not grow back. This cauterization of the wound to seal it had been recommended by Athena. Thus Hydra was conquered, her body, together with the immortal head, buried under a heavy rock.

Gustave Moreau, “Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra”

In times of crisis like the current one, when we are battling the many-headed Hydra, we can choose to understand the events in multiple ways. We can see Hydra as the symbol of the wrathful feminine wronged and violated by the patriarchal idea of progress ravaging earth and its resources. In the first part of Matrix Agent Smith says these words to Morpheus:

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.”

After killing Hydra Hercules used her black blood  to dip his arrows in. The same poisonous arrow was later shot accidentally, wounding the wise centaur Chiron. The wounded healer archetype is a reminder that we are all subject to suffering endemic to flesh and blood, we are all mortal. The hydra of epidemic can also be viewed as a natural phenomenon, raising its head periodically throughout history, with no one to blame, just as a manifestation of fate. To prevail in the current crisis, when we are wounded by the arrows of misfortune, we need fierce defensive measures, not brute force. This monster that we are facing cannot be clubbed to death. It can be neutralized with wisdom, consciousness symbolized by fire and co-operation. The immortal head of Hydra is golden, which means that in the dark swamps of our transgressions there is alchemical gold to be found. But we also need the patience, kindness and wisdom of Chiron. The arrow, which is a symbol of “the inner strength and unity deriving from correct use and development of the ‘killer instinct'” as well as “the evolution of aggression and desire into wisdom” (3) was used both by Apollo, the god of the sun and Artemis, the moon goddess.  The arrow is also connected with “mental, physical and spiritual focus” as well as “focused attention and spiritual maturity.” (4) A heart pierced by an arrow symbolizes suffering but also a conjunction, according to Cirlot, the author of The Dictionary of Symbols. Perhaps in times like this we can transcend our differences and dualities, not only those of gender. Perhaps a new sense of unity will be born.

Sandro Botticelli, “Pallas and the Centaur”

When I was younger one of my favourite books was Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez. There are numerous passages that I remember but I want to focus on this one describing how a character is confronted with the death of a loved one:

“Until then Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his family had conceived of death as a misfortune that befell others, other people’s fathers and mothers, other people’s brothers and sisters and husbands and wives but not theirs.”

What stayed with me from that book that I read so many years ago is the simple, immortal truth of solidarity in suffering. Paradoxically, a sense of oneness and community may arise from forced isolation and social distancing.

An image from “The Red Book”


(1) Johann Jakob Bachofen (born in 1815) was an early Swiss proponent of the prehistoric matriarchy, author of Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World

(2) Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

(3) The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, ed. by Ami Ronnberg

(4) Ibid.

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The Feminine and the Masculine Revisited

I have always believed that the concepts of anima and animus need to be updated for our times. According to Jung, the anima is the image of the woman in a man’s psyche, while the animus is the image of a man in the psyche of a woman. If the consciousness is feminine, thought Jung, then the unconscious will be masculine, and vice versa. The Jungian archetype of the Self, written with a capital S, spells out a pattern of development, in which the ego must be confronted with the contents of the unconscious in the name of wholeness. Excessive adherence to one side of any polarity will inevitably result in an enantiodromia, i.e. a process in which it will start turning into its opposite.

I have come across a very inspiring theory recently, which aims at adjusting Jung’s somewhat old-fashioned views of gender to our modern sensibilities. In his book Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche, Gareth S. Hill emphasizes that the masculine and feminine patterns transcend gender. He differentiates between four patterns that define all human activity: the static feminine, the dynamic masculine, the static masculine, and the dynamic feminine. A mature ego is able “to flow freely through the four modalities of consciousness that are based on those four fundamental patterns…,” he proclaims.


By the static feminine he understands “the impersonal, rhythmic cycle of nature, which gives all life and takes all life.” This orientation, being fatefully indifferent towards the individual, aims solely at “perpetuation of the species.” On a positive side, the static feminine will love us as we are, unconditionally, provided that we do not try to break away from the group. The negative expression of static feminine is, according to Hill, “smothering entanglement, an inertia of ensnaring and devouring routine.”

Th polar opposite of the static feminine is the dynamic masculine. In the ego’s development, it is activated when a child is trying to separate from the mother. Initiative, orientation toward a goal, progress, linearity are some possible expressions of this pattern. When distorted it brings about destruction of nature, rape, domination and violence.

In order to get away from this polarity, the ego seeks what Hill refers to as “fiery initiation,” which is connected to the third pattern, i.e. that of the static masculine. The static masculine is a tendency to create systems, order, hierarchies, laws and the government. When distorted, it results in tyranny, lifelessness, lack of spontaneity and rigidity. In order to solve the conflict between the static feminine and the dynamic masculine, the individual, “through a certain expenditure of effort, and performance to a certain standard, … qualifies for a particular status in society.” This is what Hill understands as the fiery initiation.

The compensatory pattern to the static masculine is the dynamic feminine, which Hill poetically compares to “the undirected chaos of the forest floor.” This pattern equates with openness to the unexpected, responsiveness, participation and the expansion of consciousness. In a negative sense, it may lead to addiction, suicide, chaos, despair and death. The image below illustrates the four basic patterns:


In order to overcome the polarity of the static masculine and the dynamic feminine, the ego seeks a watery initiation, which Hill understands as “the dark night of the soul,” which ultimately leads to a deeper and wider sense of the self. The rigid ego of the static masculine relinquishes control when confronted with the wild, dynamic feminine; and ultimately reconnects with the static feminine or the mysterious ground of being. The image below illustrates the flow of initiations according to Hill:


I believe that our civilization has reached the apex of the static masculine development. We are standing at the threshold to the watery initiation. The dynamic feminine has awakened both in its positive and negative expression. The more identified the societies remain with the static masculine order, in which fitting into the system is everything, the more eruptions will we see from the unconscious. We may expect more symptoms such as the social unrest and destruction, until the cosmic balance is restored. Hopefully, at the very end of a long and painful process, we will reach the static feminine – the Great Mother who will take us in her loving arms.

Vincent van Gogh, “Girl in the Woods”

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Ancient Roots of the Symbol


The book Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts by Peter T. Struck, published in 2004 by Princeton University Press, traces the ancient origins of the concept of a symbol. The author has this to say about the first occurrences of the word “symbol”:

“In its earliest instances, the Greek word… [symbolon] … has nothing to do with figurative or suggestive language. Formed of the verb… (put together), a symbol is one half of an object – usually a piece of cloth, wood or pottery – that is deliberately split in two and then allocated to the parties to an agreement. It is reassembled at a later time to verify the deal.”(p. 78)

However, already in Plato it can be noticed that the meaning of the symbol has evolved beyond its original material sense. Plato’s dialogue Symposium contains a myth about a proto-human, who at the beginning had four legs, four arms and four faces. This, however, threatened Zeus, who cut the creature in half. Plato writes:

“Then each of us is a symbol of a human, since we have been cleaved just like flatfish, two generated from one. So each person forever searches for the symbol of himself. (quoted after Struck, p. 79)

Thus, the meaning of the word “symbol” encompasses “both lack and potential wholeness;” (p.79), while it simultaneously creates desire, which is a result of want.

At the same time, i.e. around 300 B.C.E., the word symbol was used to signify a sort of token or password to authenticate and allow entry. It was used like this by soldiers and also by members of secret cults, notably by the Pythagoreans. It was a mark of secret identity, not open to all (p. 81). Thus, it created a feeling of community.

Further, the symbol was used very prominently in divinatory context. Omens were treated as signs left by the divine to interpret. “The omen provides our earliest secure attestation of a symbol that is an interpretable enigma,” says Struck (p. 96).

In addition, the word “symbol” carried with it the notion of “a coincidental meeting,” for example when a tortoise fell into the path of a newly-born Hermes, this auspicious encounter was called “a symbol” in the Homeric hymn to Hermes. While reading this, I was reminded of Jung’s concept of synchronicity interpreted as a “meaningful coincidence.”

By Unknown author – Hermes transforms the tortoise into a lyre, Public Domain,

By virtue of a strong association of the symbol with secret cults and mysterious omens, it can be concluded that “the power of the symbol is born out of the power of the secret.” (p. 102).

Struck moves on to discuss the enormous importance of the symbol for the Neoplatonists – Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus. For Porphyry, the symbol was “a point of intersection between divine and mundane realms.” (p. 218). In his essay “On the Cave of the Nymphs” he refers to the cave from Homer’s Odyssey as “a symbol.” For Iamblichus, the symbol is also “the central link between the divine and human realms, …, the node on which the transcendent can meet the mundane.” (p. 213). The Neoplatonists were inspired by a passage of the Chaldean Oracles, which said that the Nous or the mind of God “sowed secret symbols throughout the universe.” (p. 216). In order to evoke the presence of the gods in the human realms, “the earliest theurgists saw themselves as gathering these divine seeds (i.e. in the form of certain stones, herbs, gems, plants, etc.) in theurgic ritual.” (p. 216).

The theme of the divine communicating with humans by means of symbols is also pervasive in Corpus Hermeticum. The invisible divine principles are made visible by means of symbols. The One exists beyond ordinary language and thought, which means that symbols are our only chance to grasp the vital message of the divine realm. In symbols dwells divine presence, which gives them the power they have. Not only do symbols transform the practitioner, but they also raise him or her “to higher spiritual levels.” (p. 224)

According to another Neoplatonist – Proclus, the rays sent by the One penetrate down through the immaterial to the material realm. Struck offers a clear example of this emanation of symbolism:

“One ray, or chain, laves the transcendent heights of the One and manifests itself, very near its source, as the traditional Greek god Apollo. When this same ray continues downward and enters the realm of Nous, it brings into being the Platonic Form of the sun. At the level of Soul, the beam manifests as sort of sun-soul… Next … the beam brings into being the actual physical sun that we see in the sky. … [at the mineral level] it appears as gold.” (p. 231)

Thus the One has left its impressions on every existing thing. The divine signs, symbols, seeds or sunthemata, are visible all around us, even in the basest material things.

Symbolism is a golden thread that oscillates between spirit and matter. An old Greek meaning of sumbola was “the confluence of the waters,” a place where various rivers, streams and other waterways meet and flow together. (1) Through symbols we gain access to the creative and nourishing watery source of life. It is symbols which bring together (Greek sumballen – throw together) seemingly disparate cultural currents. When we realize that the One permeates All, we can notice symbolic connections that reach far and wide, beyond any kind of artificial borders and dualities. In Alchemical Studies, Jung spoke of “the living truth” of the symbols and their liberating quality:

“The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly and, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept; for the symbol not only conveys a visualization of the process but—and this is perhaps just as important—it also brings a re-experiencing of it, of that twilight which we can learn to understand only through inoffensive empathy, but which too much clarity only dispels.”

It seems that we can notice how the ancient understanding of the symbol as two parts coming together resurfaces in the idea of the symbol acting as a link between psyche and matter, the above and the below. The symbol seems to obliterate dualities in a display of One Wisdom.


Félix Vallotton, “A Ray” (1909)


(1) Rene Alleau, The Primal Force in Symbol: Understanding the Language of Higher Consciousness

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Reading The Red Book (17)

Saint Onuphrius, one of the Desert Fathers (via Wikipedia)

Chapter IV of Liber Secundus is called “The Anchorite. Dies 1” and relates the first day of Jung’s encounter with a hermit monk, who lives in the Libyan desert. While reading The Red Book I was particularly struck by all the passages in which Jung describes nature; they are always extremely evocative. He starts:

“On the following night, I found myself on new paths; hot dry air flowed around me, and I saw the desert, yellow sand all around, heaped up in waves, a terrible irascible sun, a sky as blue as tarnished steel, the air shimmering above the earth, on my right side a deeply cut valley with a dry river bed, some languid grass and dusty brambles. In the sand I see the tracks of naked feet that lead up from the rocky valley to the plateau.”

What follows is an encounter with “a haggard man” wearing a white mantle and holding a parchment, which Jung recognizes as a Greek gospel. The first topic of their conversation is language and interpretation. Jung is surprised that the Anchorite can occupy himself with just a single volume for the entirety of his time on the desert. The hermit berates Jung’s childishness. A book, he says, reveals something new each time it is read because “on the higher levels of insight into divine thoughts, you recognize that the sequence of words has more than one valid meaning.”

He proceeds to tell Jung that before he converted to Christianity he was a rhetorician and philosopher in Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander the Great, who, according to a legend, was inspired by a fragment of Homer’s Odyssey about an island called Pharos, lying off Egypt. (1) There the genius of Hellenism and the genius of Egypt met. The population of Alexandria was very diverse, predominantly Greek, Egyptian and Jewish, but with sizeable groups from people from all over the world. As Vrettos puts it, “the city was a universal nurse, …, nurturing each race that settled there.” (2) There the anchorite from The Red Book taught philosophy, both Greek and modern, concentrating on the teachings of the great Philo of Alexandria, the first Western esotericist. Philo was a Jewish thinker, whose aim was to harmonize the Torah with Greek philosophy. His writings, especially the doctrine of the logos, influenced early Christian writers, including the prologue to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In the Greek version of the Gospel of John in the beginning was not “the Word” but “logos.”

The concept of “logos” was first found in Heraclitus, who used it to refer to order and knowledge, though already in his philosophy there was already more to logos than simply “measure” or “word.” There exists a breathtakingly powerful short passage of Heraclitus, in which he ponders the unlimited nature of the psyche: “You would not discover the limits of the soul although you have travelled every road. So deep is its logos.”

Philo expanded the theory of the logos. He saw it as the principle of order in the world and the way God manifests himself in matter:

“It is the powerful word that gives solid consistency to the universe … It is synonymous with due measure and harmony, both in God, reconciling the contrasting attributes of mercy and justice …, and in the world, bringing together the different elements and neutralizing the forces of chaos. ….Philo links Sophia to a life-giving feminine maternal principle. In union with God, she generates the Logos and the cosmos.

…the Logos not only provides order to the world, but it also actively and constantly dominates and controls it, or even, when necessary, props it up internally. In fact, Philo goes so far as to say that ‘the most venerable Logos of the one who is put on the world as a garment’ … In this fashion the Logos comes to take the place of the Platonic ‘world soul’ in an extraordinary integration of philosophical notions and concepts.” (3)

It seems that for Philo logos served as an intermediary between God and the material world.

The Anchorite asks Jung to read the Prologue to John’s gospel. With the ardour of a new convert, the hermit argues that Philo’s logos was just a word, a dry concept, an abstraction, while John equated logos with Jesus, God’s “son in flesh.” The Anchorite seems to perceive pre-Christian philosophy as purely abstract intellectual exercise. He encourages Jung to “unlearn” everything.

Jung admires anchorite’s simple but full existence:

…The solitary seeks the sun and no one else is so ready to open his heart as he is. … In the desert the solitary is relieved of care and therefore turns his whole life to the sprouting garden of his soul, which can flourish only under a hot sun. … You think that the solitary is poor. You do not see that he strolls under laden fruit trees and that his hand touches grain a hundredfold. … He cannot tell you, since the splendor of his garden is so abundant. He stammers when he speaks of it, and he appears to you to be poor in spirit and in life. But his hand does not know where it should reach, in all this indescribable fullness.”

The final part of the chapter is Jung’s meditation on words and their danger to the psyche, whose depth they often seek to obliterate. He asserts the importance of finding new words, but first we need to shatter the old ones. The silence of the desert opens the soul to “the boundless,” while words often banish it. Silence allows us to “comprehend the darkness” and

“Through comprehending the dark, the nocturnal, the abyssal in you, you become utterly simple. … Peace and blue night spread over you while you dream in the grave of the millennia.”

Kay Sage, “Margin of Silence”

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Hermes in the Forest of Symbols

Hermes from Boccaccio’s “Primavera”

I. “…Hermesian reading is an open, in-depth reading, one that lays bare the metalanguages for us, that is to say, the structures of signs and correspondences that only symbolism and myth make it possible to conserve and transmit. To read, to find the depth of things—by looking in the right place.”

Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin

II. “It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and again it descends to the earth
and receives the force of things superior and inferior.”

The Emerald Tablet, transl. by Isaac Newton

From the Homeric hymn to Hermes we learn that “the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals,” “a bringer of dreams,” and “a watcher by night” was born in “a deep, shady cave” at dawn, when the first light was penetrating the darkness of earth’s womb. (1) Hermes felt right at home in this liminal space,  for he is the only planet which hellenistic astrology did not assign to either day or night. The luck-bringing part is hidden  in the very name of the god, since hermaion means “fallen fruit” or “windfall” while the discipline of hermeneutics is “all about bringing hidden treasures to light.” (2) The Orphics invoked Hermes as “a man-loving prophet to mortals” in one of their hymns. In Plato’s dialogue Cratylus, Socrates associates the name Hermes with language:

“I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter (ermeneus), or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.” (3)

As a god of language he welcomes all the fanciful etymologies of his name, including the Arabic “haram”, which means the pyramid and is apparently connected with Hermes. (4) Further, as we read in Faivre,

“Court de Gébelin, on the basis of a Celtic etymology, suggested that one read in ‘Mercury’ the words ‘sign’ (mere) and ‘man’ (cur). Thus he would be the signbearer, the marker, the lighter of beacons, the one who helps us interpret history and our own lives by giving us symbolic landmarks. His signs are never abstract or rigid – their mediating function reflects the nature of medicurrius or medius currens …—of that which ‘runs between,’ or ‘in the middle’.” (5)

The Celtic derivation makes a lot of sense since Hermes is a much older god than the whole Greek pantheon; he is undoubtedly ancient and primordial. Others derive his name from the Greek word herma which signifies a stone heap. In his essay “Hermes and the Creation of Space” Murray Stein quotes from Greek Folk Religion, a classic book by Martin Nilson, which was published in 1978:

“If our peasant passed a heap of stones, as he was likely to do, he might lay another stone upon it. … He performed this act as a result of custom, without knowing the real reason for it, but he knew that a god was embodied in the stone heap and in the tall stone standing on top of it. He named the god Hermes after the stone heap (herma) in which he dwelt, and he called the tall stone a herm. Such heaps were welcome landmarks to the wanderer who sought his way from one place to another through desert tracts, and their god became the protector of wayfarers. And if, by chance, the wayfarer found on the stone heap something, probably an offering, which would be welcome to the poor and hungry, he ascribed this lucky find to the grace of the god and called it a hermaion.”

Here we encounter Hermes as a patron of the crossroads, protector of travellers. Nilsson speculates that in ancient times stones were also used to mark burial sites. Stein draws a further conclusion that such a herm would then “mark a space that was a crossroad in a double sense, with one axis horizontal, another vertical.” Thus Hermes, guide of the souls, might have been born, a god who “stands at the edge not only geographically and interpersonally but also metaphysically.” (6) What is more, the ritual performed by the peasant can also be interpreted as an instance of primitive magic. Murray sees Hermes as the god who “marked the limit of consciousness.” This boundary between the conscious and the unconscious psyche is mercurial, always in flux, moving, flowing, unstable.

A guide and a messenger are the two most obviously archetypal roles of Hermes. He prefers to move along serpentine paths, always seeking to connect but never choosing the shortest route. As a patron of knowledge, he especially favours the wisdom that connects various fields and disciplines. In famous works of art, he is often shown standing at the edge, for example in Botticelli’s “Primavera.” As the god of wind (pneuma in Greek means both spirit and wind, we are reminded by Murray), he “commands the winds and clouds.” (7) He looks more like a sage in the painting than a light-hearted trickster and thief from the Homeric hymn. A hierophant, he is “dissipating the clouds of the mind and playing with them.” (8) On the right-side there is Zephyrus pictured in the act of kidnapping a nymph. Faivre sees him as “the breath of passion,” which “returns again to heaven in the spirit of contemplation,” symbolized in the painting by the figure of Hermes. (9)

Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”

Another famous portrayal of Hermes comes from the Mantegna Tarot created in the 15th century in Italy.

The decapitated head of Argus is what makes the image especially unique and what connects it to alchemy. Argus Panoptes was a many-eyed giant whom Hera asked to guard the white heifer-nymph Io, so that Zeus, who was besotted with her, could not kidnap her. Hermes was able to lull the ever-watchful monster to sleep by gently playing the flute. He then killed the giant with a stone.

Pinturicchio and assistants, Hermes Lulls Argus

To show her gratitude, Hera transferred the eyes of the faithful servant onto the peacock’s tail. Th myth illustrates the nigredo/putrefacion of jealousy and passion of Hera and Zeus, which is fixated (coagulated) by Hermes with a blow of a stone. In this way he integrates all polarities, leading to the creation of the peacock’s tail (cauda pavonis), which was an important stage of the alchemical opus. The emergence of the peacock’s tail in the alchemical opus heralded the imminent successful end of the work and the attainment of its goal.

Diego Velazquez, “Mercury and Argus”

According to Jung, Hermes played a pivotal role in the alchemical process. In Alchemical Studies Jung thus summarizes the role of Mercurius:

“The multiple aspects of Mercurius may be summarized as follows: (1) Mercurius consists of all conceivable opposites. He is thus quite obviously a duality, but is named a unity in spite of the fact that his innumerable inner contradictions can dramatically fly apart into an equal number of disparate and apparently independent figures. (2) He is both material and spiritual. (3) He is the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual, and vice versa. (4) He is the devil, a redeeming psychopomp, an evasive trickster, and God’s reflection in physical nature. (5) He is also the reflection of a mystical experience of the artifex that coincides with the opus alchymicum. (6) As such, he represents on the one hand the self and on the other the individuation process and, because of the limitless number of his names, also the collective unconscious. (par. 284)

As said before, Hermes is much older than the Greek God: as Hermes Trismegistus he is classed among the ancient, pre-classical sages or representatives of “prisca theologia (ancient theology),” which is a term first used by Marcilio Ficino, who translated Corpus Hermeticum into Latin. He is included in a venerable lineage, which is 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.” (10) The term prisca theologia asserts that there is a single thread of eternal truth running through the ages. The Italian Renaissance was a crucial moment with Hermes’s teachings erupting after a long time of his absence in the realm of the western civilization. In 1488 another pivotal work of art was created: a celebrated mosaic of Siena Cathedral. It shows Hermes Trismegistus and bears the inscription: “Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus Contemporaneus Moysii.” He is surrounded by pagan prophets, one of whom could be Plato, and five Sibyls.

Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic in Siena Cathedral

Pinturricchio, “Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom”, Siena Cathedral

Libyan Sibyl, Siena Cathedral

Who was the enigmatic Hermes Trismegistus, purported author of The Emerald Tablet? “Was he one, or many, merging /  Name and fame in one, / Like a stream, to which, converging /  Many streamlets run?” as wrote H.W Longfellow in his beautiful poem “Hermes Trismegistus”?

Augustus Knapp, “Emerald Tablet of Hermes”

The Greeks gave the name of Hermes to Thoth and renamed Khmonou, the place of his worship, as Hermopolis. This amalgam of Hermes and Thoth was referred to as “megistou kai megistou theou megalou Hermou,” “two superlative forms of ‘great’ followed by a positive form of the same word.” (11) Faivre says that the epithet three times great may suggest that Hermes-Thoth belongs to the three worlds, i.e. celestial, terrestrial and subterranean. Esoteric teachings of the Hellenistic era and beyond abound with different genealogies of Hermes, which are summarized in detail in Faivre’s book. It was believed in the Hellenistic era that the first Hermes was Thoth, who engraved his knowledge on stelae, which he proceeded to hide to preserve it from destruction by the Flood. What all the fantastical stories seem to have in common, is that Hermes was “the mythical creator of civilization, responsible for medicine, chemistry, writing, laws, art, astrology, music, magic, rhetoric, philosophy, geography, mathematics and much more.” (12) He was even a founder of cities, as can be read in the Picatrix.  Faivre includes his own translation of the pertinent passage from the Picatrix, devoted to Hermes:

“[According to the Chaldeans] Hermes was the first who constructed images by means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion of the moon. This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he was within it. It was he, too, who in the east of Egypt constructed a City twelve miles long within which he constructed a castle which had four gates in each of its four parts. On the eastern gate he placed the form of an Eagle; on the western gate, the form of a Bull; on the southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed the form of a Dog. Into these images he introduced spirits which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City except by their permission. There he planted trees in the midst of which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation. On the summit of the castle he caused to be raised a tower thirty cubits high on the top of which he ordered to be placed a light-house the color of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it returned to the first color, and so the City was illuminated with these colors. Near the City there was abundance of waters in which dwelt many kinds of fish. Around the circumference of the City he placed engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all wickedness and harm. The name of the City was Adocentyn.” (13)


Johfra, “Hermes Trismegistus”

Historians have proved that the Greek texts known as the Hermetica were written in Alexandria around the 2nd century CE. But the inspiration for the profound wisdom included in these texts may well be lost, perhaps still buried in the sands of the Ancient Egypt.

Is there a common thread of perennial wisdom that can be extracted from all the tales of the mercurial god? Hermes invites us to interpret the world in a plural way, says Faivre in his book. As a sage included in the lineage from Enoch to Sibyls, he may be viewed as “a catalyst for the union of reason and inspiration, the logos and the Sibyls, history and myth.”  In “a forest of symbols,” which is the Hermetic universe, he looks for “the hidden face and form in beings and in objects.” (14) He is the ideal mediator, who sees the supernatural in the carnal and vice versa. Faivre calls him an antitotalitarian god; his is “a philosophy of plural totality, which signifies a refusal to objectify the problems of the spirit (for example, of evil) into simplistic or abstract concepts that flatten the soul.” Looking  at his cadeceus we recognize Hermes as a god who is “capable of unlocking antagonistic dualisms” by mediating between “he body and the spirit, sky and earth, God and the World (this is anima mundi), passion and reason, the ego and the id, eros and thanatos, animus and anima, heaviness and grace, spirit and matter.” Seeing the divine magic everywhere means being able to “transcend the illusion of banality,” which is the ultimate gift of Hermes, says Faivre. There is passion in Hermeticism for the particular, the bodily, the individual; this passion is the antithesis of exclusion, abstraction, formalism, which shut the mind off from the outside world. With Hermes, says Faivre, we walk “the path of otherness, of living diversity, of communication of souls.” (15)

Vincenzo Cartari, Imagines deorum, qui ab antiquis colebantur : in quibus simulacra, ritus, caerimoniae, magnaq(ue) ex parte veterum religio explicatur, via,_qui_ab_antiquis_colebantur_-_in_quibus_simulacra,_ritus,_caerimoniae,_magnaq(ue)_ex_parte_veterum_religio_explicatur_(1581)_(14561939809).jpg

Engraving by Basil Valentine, read more about it here:

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(2) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.


(7) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction

(12) Gary Lachman, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus 

(13) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid.



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Little Women 2019: A Short Review

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, experienced both enchantment and wretched poverty in her early years. Her father was an intellectual and member of the Transcendentalist movement, which meant that little Louisa met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who apparently let her borrow books from his library. But at the same time the family was in financial ruin. Louisa vowed at an early age that she would not marry but will devote her life to being an author. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she was a suffragette and one of the first women to exercise a newly-acquired right to vote in Massachusetts.

Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig did a marvellous job adapting the classic novel to modern sensibilities, though perhaps the book itself was already infused with the feminist spirit of its author. On the one hand, the movie tells a story in a tender loving manner which utterly sweeps the viewer away emotionally. It is warm, comforting, at times powerful and moving, especially when the female characters open up about their disenfranchised position in patriarchal society. “I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for,” says Jo, the alter ego of the writer. It is love, though, that suffuses the movie; love which goes beyond the domestic towards the transcedent.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March

The narrative structure of the film is absolutely ingenious – non-chronologically postmodern, which perhaps gives the movie the utterly modern feel. The story goes back and forth between the little women’s childhood and their adulthood. It seems that the various strands of the story emanate from some kind of core, innermost heart space, occupied by “the tender narrator,”* who is both in and out of the story. The childhood scenes are suffused with sepia golden glow, while the adulthood is cold blue.

The postmodern spirit is also palpable in a meta layer added to the narrative by the director. This aspect deals with the act of storytelling itself and with our own deep need to turn our lives into stories. In my favourite scene, towards the end (spoiler alert), Jo rushes to the station to tell Frederic that she does not want him to leave. The audience are bracing themselves for an ultra-romantic ending when an interjection occurs. Jo is now discussing the ending of her novel with the (male) publisher. She tells him that she intends Jo to be an unmarried author, but the publisher would not have it. Jo must be married, otherwise the book will not sell; hence the romantic scene at the station. We, the audience, require all the creases to be ironed out: life is messy enough, and the stories should make up for it.



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