Symbolism of the Wetlands

“I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. … My temple is the swamp.”


“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Wilhelm Kotarbinski, “Evening Star”

Ancient Egyptians pictured the afterlife as a field of reeds, a fertile marsh with islands emerging from a sea of rushes similar to the ones in the Nile Delta. It is not hard to see why the Egyptians appreciated the primeval and eternal atmosphere of the marshes, “untouched by human history or labour.” (1) Swamps are ideal places of contemplation as well as mindfulness: on the one hand a lower level of oxygen creates a feeling of dizziness, on the other one wrong step could have fatal repercussions, not to mention the need to look out for various primeval monsters that are believed to be lurking in marshes.

Vincent van Gogh, “Marsh with Water Lillies”

Every summer the marshes of the Nile Delta were flooded thus returning the valley to the “form of primordial waters.” (2) In autumn a fertile field was revealed as a sign of a new beginning which was, however, fraught with “predatory forces of annihilation” such as alligators on the hunt. (3) The new beginnings are always vulnerable and slippery, for all their vitality and emergence. (4)

Marshes continue to play a vital purifying role for our environment, acting as a bulwark against flooding and being able to absorb more carbon dioxide than forests. And yet their destruction continues, as more land is required for agriculture and human settlements, including numerous cities.

As Rod Giblett puts it,

“Wetlands are maternal as they give birth to new life and nourish it. They are environmental waters of nourishing milk, their living waters are the breast of the great mother, the earth, and they are the moist womb that gives birth to new life. Wetlands are also maternal as they are the tomb for decaying and dying matter that gives rebirth to new life. Wetlands as womb are the source of life and wetlands as living waters are the first source of nourishment, the first object of love and the first object to be lost in modernization, colonization, drainage, and ‘progress.’ (5)

Great cities such as London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, Venice, Mexico City, New Orleans and St. Petersburg emerged from the wetlands and their “womb of watery chaos, fecund and fertile.” (6)

Map of Tenochtitlan – the Aztec wetland city on the grounds of which Mexico City was built, printed 1524 in Nuremberg, German; via Wikipedia

But the mother of all swamp cities, argues Giblett, is Paris. Its original name – Lutetia – goes back to the Celtic word “lutum” – mud. The coat of arms of the city of Paris contains the Latin motto, “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” i.e. “it floats but does not sink.” The goddess Lutetia personifies Paris as “the Great Goddess swamp mother.” The city is celebrated for its “interior labyrinths, dangerous depths, and fascinating passages.” (7)

Coat of arms of the city of Paris

As more and more land was torn from the hands of the Great Mother of Swamps, the divine marsh of the goddess was reinterpreted as a slimy marsh and a dirty sewer. Unlike Ancient Egypt, modern cities wish to forget their marshy beginnings, relegating the swamp to the underworld.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly”

Similarly to Paris, the name London derives from the Gaelic “lunnd” (marsh). The darkness of London, its “black heart,” is a well-known symbolic trope. In most cities, the fringes of respectable society are referred to as slums, the demi-monde, while these rejected, “liquid and horizontal” elements contrast with the “solid and vertical” crystal city. (8) Yet a seventh of the world population continues to dwell in this “urban nether world” amidst our “cities of light soaring toward heaven.” (9)

London’s Crystal Palace, symbol of the Industrial Revolution, was destroyed by fire in 1936

Venice is perhaps the most famous wetland city, mainly because its origins are still visible whereas the marshy cradle of Paris or London has been suppressed and is largely invisible. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a protagonist imagines a marshland landscape just before the city of Venice was founded as “a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank— a kind of primeval wilderness- world of island, morasses and alluvial channels.” (10) There is symbolic ambivalence surrounding Venice, which has been described both as the holiest, the most sublime of cities on the one hand and the most sinful, hellish city on the other. This is because La Serenissima emerged from the marshes, which symbolize the unconscious with its dual nature of light and darkness, good and evil. The supernatural, the unconscious is palpable all over the place in this shimmering city built on water.

Gustave Moreau, “Venice”

The chaos of the primordial mother goddess of the swamps was overcome by the “mathematized space” of New York with its skyscrapers and the precise grid plan. Yet urban legend has it that the sewers of New York are inhabited by crocodiles. (11) Symbolically, the crocodile, like the swamp, links the energies of renewal and dissolution. (12) It is a liminal creature, as it inhabits the intermediate realm between earth and water. It is symbolic of viciousness and destructiveness and also of fecundity by virtue of its association with mud and water.

A deceased woman prostrates herself before the deity Geb in the form of a crocodile, image found in “The Book of Symbols,” p. 201

New Orleans is another fascinating American city built on marshlands. Unlike New York, it does not appear to be mathematized but rather it continues to exhibit its “amorphous boundaries” between land and water. It was born out of the womb of the great American mother of all rivers – the Mississippi. New Orleans is a city where the boundaries between the dead and the living are very fluid. The chaos inherent in the liminal space between land and water erupted when the hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the area. (13) Similarly, the periodic flooding of Venice is a reminder that mother goddess is forever ready to reclaim what is hers.

Because they may seem inhospitable and dangerous, the marshes and swamplands are a well-known symbol of the unconscious. The Jungian analyst James Hollis wrote:

“…it is the swamplands of the soul, the savannas of suffering, that provide the context for the stimulation and the attainment of meaning.” (5)

The ego with its obsession of control desperately tries to “flee the swamplands.” (6) Yet serving the external authority figures, by being worker ants in our adult lives, we have no more energy left to serve the soul, which thus falls into swamplike “desuetude,” Hollis argues. (7) Successful lives are so often built on the horrors of doubt, disillusionment and terrors lurking in the swamplands of the soul. Compulsion replaces life.

Throughout our lives, argues Hollis, we are repeatedly pulled into psychological swamplands. No one is exempt, no matter how much psychotherapy he or she has undergone. It is not possible to permanently inhabit a castle somewhere on the moral high ground:

“The great rhythms of nature, of time and tide, of fate and destiny, and of our own psyche, move their powerful ways quite outside our will.” (8)

This melancholic underpinning, the swamp of our soul, creates its own music, full of suffering and dismay. In a myth, the nymph Syrinx was pursued by Pan and managed to flee him by being transformed into marsh reeds. When Pan sighed with dismay upon the reeds, they produces a plaintive sound, which gave him the idea of constructing the first panpipes. Thus music rose out of the marshlands.

Joseph Noel Paton, “Pan Piping”


(1)The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg p. 120

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Rod Giblett, Cities and Wetlands: The Return of the Repressed in Nature and Culture, Bloomsbury Academic 2016, p. 13

(6) Ibid., p. 16

(7) Ibid., p. 38-47

(8) Ibid., p. 59-72

(9) Ibid., p. 77

(10) Ibid., p. 84

(11) Ibid., p. 155-156

(12) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg p. 200

(13) Rod Giblett, Cities and Wetlands: The Return of the Repressed in Nature and Culture, Bloomsbury Academic 2016, p. 184-193

(14) James Hollis, Swamplands of Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, Inner City Books 1996, p. 8

(15) Ibid., p. 15

(16) Ibid., p. 76

(17) Ibid., p. 124

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On Removing Racially Charged Images

The white domination – this tectonic plate that underlies the Western culture – is shifting radically, steering for a massive earthquake. I do not feel I possess the right to express my opinion on the subject; I would rather quote Wittgenstein’s famous words from his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I will only appeal to you to please watch Dave Chappelle’s monologue if you have not already:


Here in Switzerland we are following very closely what is going on across the ocean. We have also had a few Black Lives Matter marches as well as a raging national debate regarding a certain sweet treat. I realize this does sound trivial but I felt gratitude when Migros, Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain, removed the “Mohrenkopf” (“black man’s head” or “blackamoor’s head”) sweets from its shelves. The company had persistently refused to change the controversial name. But what’s in a name? Apparently quite a lot.

Words that we so casually use often have a complex and violent history that cannot be simply brushed aside. What lurks behind the name “Mohrenkopf” is not nice. In German “Mohren” was the term used to describe black people (later replaced by another ugly word – Neger, which is out of use now), while “Mauren” were the equivalent of the Moors, who conquered the Iberian Peninsula. Still, “Mohren” und “Mauren” stem from the same linguistic root, which is why the image of Saint James the Apostle cutting off the heads of Spanish Moors is embroiled in the bloody story of the word “Mohrenkopf.”

Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer, Patron Saint of Spain

Also some historic guilds featuring black people in their logos have been under fire in Switzerland. The Moor is a symbol of a Bern city guild and was the source of its name. The statue of the Moor (featured below) has now been covered with cloth.

Removing statues, changing names, banning sweet treats may be described as superficial solutions by some, but from my perspective the symbols of racial violence committed by our ancestors in not so distant past deserve to be removed. The unconscious feeds off the surrounding images, thus perpetuating the cycle of suffering. “Everything we know and feel and every statement we make … derive from psychic images,” wrote James Hillman in Alchemical Psychology. We are called to transform the symbolic dimension of the public space so that a new consciousness may emerge.

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Reading The Red Book (21)

I. “We spread poison and paralysis around us in that we want to educate all the world around us into reason.”

II.”The outer opposition is an image of my inner opposition. Once I realize this, I remain silent and think of the chasm of antagonism in my soul.”

C.G. Jung, “The Red Book” (Liber Secundus, Chapter VIII)

We have reached Chapter VIII of the second part of The Red Book. The title of the chapter is “First Day.” For Sanford L. Drob, this and the subsequent chapter are key to understanding Jung’s work. (1) What ensues here is a response to Nietzsche’s dramatic declaration “Gott ist tot.” Here God, Izdubar, whose name is the early erroneous version of Gilgamesh, is not dead but sick, and Jung commits to heal him. In the full page image that accompanies the chapter Izdubar’s enormous size is juxtaposed with a small figure of a worshipper by his feet.

Jung thus describes the towering god:

“Two bull horns rise from his great head, and a rattling suit of armor covers his chest. His black beard is ruffled and decked with exquisite stones. The giant is carrying a sparkling double axe in his hand, like those used to strike bulls. Before I can recover from my amazed fright, the giant is standing before me. I look at his face: it is faint and pale and deeply wrinkled. His almond-shaped eyes look at me astonished. Horror takes hold of me: this is Izdubar, the mighty, the bull-man. He stands and looks at me: his face speaks of consuming inner fear, and his hands and knees tremble.”

Another striking image serves to introduce this lavishly illustrated chapter. In it, as Drob describes it, “a primitive man holds a serpent over his head that bursts into a star. … a star in space is surrounded by a serpentine form…” (2) To me, this could be an image of individuation, since what rests coiled amidst the stardust unravels to its full incarnate potential on the earth.

Jung is absolutely enthralled with the ailing god from the East. He calls him “the beautiful and most loved one” and declares, “If my God is lamed, I must stand by him, since I cannot abandon the much-loved.” Here Drob quotes a crucial passage from Jung’s Psychological Types, published a few years after The Red Book was written:

“The sickness of God expresses his longing for rebirth, and to this end his whole life-force flows back into the centre of the Self, into the depths of the unconscious, out of which life is born anew.”

We must not let our gods die, for if we do our psyche will lose its vital energy. But gods are the forces to be reckoned with, says Jung:

“If the God comes near you, then plead for your life to be spared, since the God is loving horror. The ancients said: it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Jung points the finger at science as the poison that lamed the gods. When Jung tells Izdubar that the earth is round and reveals to him other facts of science, the god seems crashed and “overcome with suffocating fear.” Not only were the gods lamed by science, similarly humans “haven’t properly flourished and remain so dwarfish,” explains Jung to Izdubar. By conquering and focusing on “the outer things” we have lost touch with the depths of the psyche:

“Our truth is that which comes to us from the knowledge of outer things. The truth of your priests is that which comes to you from inner things.”

Jung laments that although science does contain truths, it has unfortunately “taken from us the capacity of belief.” Later in the chapter Jung states that the fate of the Logos (understood here as the logos of science) is that in the end it poisons us all. Drob emphasizes that nowhere in his oeuvre is Jung as critical of science as in Liber Novus. This may have been an important factor that prevented him from publishing the work in his lifetime. In Collective Works he preferred to cloak himself as an empiricist, which is ironic, since the academic psychology abandoned Jung precisely because of his incongruence with the scientific method. For Jung, the road to the depths of the psyche is not through intellect, or not only through intellect. Feeling, fantasy, creative imagination have all been amputated from psychology, which reduced itself to preaching at the altar of science. To further elucidate Jung’s view of science, Drob quotes yet another brilliant and pertinent passage from Mysterium Coniunctionis, the 14th volume of Jung’s Collected Works:

“Science is the tool of the Western mind and with it more doors can be opened than with bare hands. It is part and parcel of our knowledge and obscures insight only when it holds that the understanding given by it is the only kind there is.”

Crucially, for Jung there exists a higher understanding, which he refers to as “understanding through life.” This higher understanding cannot be  won without facing the gods. Towards the end of the currently discussed chapter, Jung gives us a stunning description of how a mere human encounters divinity:

“As I rose to the highest point and my hope wanted to look out toward the East, a miracle happened: as I moved toward the East, one from the East hurried toward me and strove toward the sinking light. I wanted light, he wanted night. I wanted to rise, he wanted to sink. I was dwarfish like a child, while he was enormous like an elementally powerful hero. Knowledge lamed me, while he was blinded by the fullness of the light. And so we hurried toward each other; he, from the light; I, from the darkness; he, strong; I, weak; he, God; I, serpent; he, ancient; I, utterly new; he, unknowing; I, knowing; he, fantastic; I, sober; he, brave, powerful; I, cowardly, cunning. But we were both astonished to see one another on the border between morning and evening.”

“The tempestuous force” of the god now lies paralyzed and helpless at Jung’s feet. Jung knows that if he does not heal his god, his life would break in half. Two beautiful images grace the ending of this chapter. A lone man stands under a firmament, his arms outstretched. The first light breaks in the horizon. A vague shape of an ancient column seems to sustain the starry vault of heaven.


The other painting is known as the Atharva-veda image; referring to one of the four sacred Hindu vedas or books of knowledge. In his footnotes to The Red Book, Sonu Shamdasani points out that it depicts a charm to promote virility, presumably to heal the ailing God. Hymn 4 in Book 4 of Hymns of the Atharva-veda reads:

“We dig thee from the earth, the Plant which strengthens and
exalts the nerves,
The Plant which the Gandharva dug for Varuna whose power
was lost.
Let Ushas and let Sūrya rise, let this the speech I utter rise.
Let the strong male Prajāpati arise with manly energy.”



What I found striking in this final image is what looks like the black sun or a black star at the top and a golden egg in the centre, connected with a dark thread. The symbolism of the black son is deep and deserves a separate consideration. Stanton Marlan wrote an in-depth treatise on the subject called The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness. I found one of his statements quite striking:

“The black sun might well be considered to express this paradoxical dimension of light and darkness and might ultimately be understood as an archetype of the non-Self. Like Jung’s idea of the Self, … [the black sun] also expresses a coincidentia oppositorum—a black sun that shines contains the paradoxical play of light and dark, life and death, and spirit and matter.”(3)

It is a potent image of regeneration – the dark light of the non-self (alchemical lumen naturae – light of nature) connecting with the centre of the psyche where a golden egg resides as a promise of rebirth.


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(1) (1) Sanford L. Drob, Reading The Red Book: An Interpretative Guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus, Spring Journal Books 2012p. 101

(2) Ibid., p. 102

(3) Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, Texas A&M University Press, College Station 2005, p. 148

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

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20






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The Innocent Weaving of Stories

“To begin with, it is not true that the Gods dwell only in the Heavens, for all things are full of the Gods.”


In this current season of Venus retrograde in Gemini I have been feeling a deep desire to return to familiar stories and places. It started when I reached for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which I read in the late 90s, and was struck by these words

“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.”


Rereading it I was struck how the idea of perceiving divinity in all the little things that surround us resonates with what the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus called sunthemata, that is “theurgic tokens in the material world” or the sparks of divinity shining through the material world. (1) The way Arundhati Roy’s novel is written can be described as a collection of sunthemata-filled moments weaved together by means of the logic of the heart, neither sequentially nor chronologically. The novel resembles a patchwork or rather a mosaic with every little colourful piece reflecting the divine on a miniature scale.


The epic scale does not convey larger truths than the loving care of life’s little fragments. I grew even more convinced of this whilst rereading a few short stories by Jorge Luis Borges as well as his fascinating conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari, I realized that the soul rejoices in brevity – luminous moments condensed in a tiny grain of divine presence. In Borges’s writing there is not a single comma which is out of place. He knew that being blessed (or cursed) with a desire to lean down his ear upon every single word meant that he would never be able to compose sweeping narratives characteristic of novels. Instead, his was the patient, loving work of Vermeer’s lacemaker, which I saw in the Louvre many years ago and found quite mesmerizing.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Lacemaker”

Working my way through Modern Masterpieces of World Literature, an online course offered by Harvard, I was struck by  a similar thought expressed by professor David Damrosch, who compared Borges’s talent for the minute with Franz Schubert’s Songs, which he is most famous for as a composer, though which he himself regarded as lss worthy than symphonies or operas. Needless to say, right now most of us do not even know that he composed larger opera. Yet the Lieder (Songs) granted him immortality.


Finally, in my sentimental journey to books that I loved long ago, I revived my obsession with Orhan Pamuk, specifically with his Museum of Innocence. Set in Istanbul, this is a story of Kemal’s obsessive love for Füsun. In one of the interviews Pamuk said that he sees himself as a visual writer rather than a verbal one, since his first chosen career was that of a painter. Now, he continued, he conjures up narratives by contemplating a series of objects and placing them all in a story, weaving the life of things with the life of the characters. This approach reached its peak in The Museum of Innocence. Kemal turns into a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his love for Füsun. She tolerates his frequent visits during which he steals various objects belonging to her. With that loot he builds a museum, a shrine dedicated to his lost love. His treasures include hairpins, a salt shaker that she touched and all manner of objects that remind him of their precious moments together. In the chapter entitled “The Consolation of Objects” his obsession reaches epic proportions:

“One palliative for this new wave of pain, I discovered, was to seize upon an object of our common memories that bore her essence; to put it into my mouth and taste it brought some relief.

[about a cigarette butt] I picked it up and rubbed the end that had once touched her lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my neck, and the recesses under my eyes, as gently and kindly as a nurse salving a wound. Distant continents appeared before my eyes, sparkling with the promise of happiness, and scenes from heaven; I remembered the tenderness my mother had shown me as a child…”


The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

Not only did Pamuk create a world of written fiction, but he actually established a museum in Istanbul called The Museum of Innocence. On the Museum’s website we can read:

“The museum presents what the novel’s characters used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”

The cabinets of curiosities, which were popular in the 18th century, were aristocratic collections of extraordinary objects. This desire for collecting acted as a precursor to today’s museums. Pamuk’s objects are ordinary in every way, and yet they become imbued with radiance, while they also bring back the spirit of the life in Istanbul in the 60s and the 70s.

The word “innocent” has at its etymological root the Proto-Indo-European “nek-” meaning “death” and Latin “nocere” – to harm; someone who is innocent does not do any harm and does not bring death.(2) The objects collected by Kemal and by Pamuk bring back the life of a certain epoch. They celebrate the innocence and purity of memories.

During the usual forty days of Venus’ retrograde motion we are reminded that in alchemy the philosopher’s stone appears in the retort after 40 days. Number forty is connected with purification; the biblical flood lasted forty days and forty nights, Christ was tempted for forty days in the desert, to mention the two most famous examples. Of course, our quarantine comes from the forty-day period when ships were not allowed to enter the harbour during the time of the Black Death in Venice.

What I perceive in Pamuk’s idea is the desire to recover the innocent purity of the soul, its childlike quality. On his museum’s website he also included A Modest Manifesto for Museums. He argues there that large museums represent the state, not the individual, which is “neither a good nor an innocent objective.” He asserts:

“This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.”

“The aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to re-create the world of single human beings—the same human beings who have labored under ruthless oppression for hundreds of years.”

Orhan Pamuk in Museum of Innocence

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Reading The Red Book (20)

“Neither good nor evil shall be my masters.”

C.G. Jung, “The Red Book”


Chapter VII of Liber Secundus, the second part of The Red Book, is called “The Remains of Earlier Temples.” It is preceded by a curious blue mosaic with two red egg-shaped images, which on closer inspection reveal two tiny figures encased therein. Sonu Shamdasani’s invaluable footnotes to Jung’s text reveal that this image was probably inspired by the mosaics Jung saw in Ravenna. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung wrote at length about his fascination with the mosaics and the the tomb of Rome’s Christian Empress Galla Placidia in Ravenna, which left him “deeply stirred.” When the city of Rome was ransacked  in 410, emperor’s sister Galia Placidia was captured and later married to king of the Visigoths. In 416 she was restored to the Romans and remarried. One mosaic in particular captured Jung’s attention:

“The fourth mosaic, on the west side of the baptistery, was the most impressive of all. We [Jung and Toni Wolff] looked at this one last. It represented Christ holding out his hand to Peter, who was sinking beneath the waves. We stopped in front of this mosaic for at least twenty minutes …

I retained the most distinct memory of the mosaic of Peter sinking, and to this day can see every detail before my eyes: the blue of the sea, individual chips of the mosaic, the inscribed scrolls proceeding from the mouths of Peter and Christ, which I attempted to decipher. After we left the baptistery, I went promptly to Alinari to buy photographs of the mosaics, but could not find any. Time was pressing this was only a short visit and so I postponed the purchase until later. I thought I might order the pictures from Zurich.
When I was back home, I asked an acquaintance who was going to Ravenna to obtain the pictures for me. He could not locate them, for he discovered that the mosaics I had described did not exist.

The memory of those pictures is still vivid to me. The lady who had been there with me long refused to believe that what she had ‘seen with her own eyes’ had not existed.

This experience in Ravenna is among the most curious events in my life. It can scarcely be explained. A certain light may possibly be cast on it by an incident in the story of Empress Galla Placidia (d. 450). During a stormy crossing from Byzantium to Ravenna in the worst of winter, she made a vow that if she came through safely, she would build a church and have the perils of the sea represented in it. She kept this vow by building the basilica of San Giovanni in Ravenna and having it adorned with mosaics. In the early Middle Ages, San Giovanni, together with its mosaics, was destroyed by fire; but in the Ambrosiana in Milan is still to be found a sketch representing Galla Placidia in a boat.

The Mausoluem of Galla Placidia

I had, from the first visit, been personally affected by the figure of Galla Placidia, and had often wondered how it must have been for this highly cultivated, fastidious woman to live at the side of a barbarian prince. Her tomb seemed to me a final legacy through which I might reach her personality. Her fate and her whole being were vivid presences to me; with her intense nature, she was a suitable embodiment for my anima.”


Galla Placidia

As Jung frequently reiterated, the inner life of the psyche was always equally real or even more real to him than all the external circumstances and events. Sanford L. Drob brilliantly points out that a lot of images in The Red Book are reminiscent of mosaics, “suggesting the process whereby fragmented psychical states are integrated and articulated into a united Self.” (1) 

Chapter VII brings back two old characters and introduces a new figure. Jung meets two men, who turn out to be quite unlikely travelling companions. They are Ammonius, the anchorite from the desert that we met in Chapter V, and the Red One or the devil from Chapter I of Liber Secundus:

“Both look at me frightened and make the sign of the cross. Their horror prompts me to look down at myself. I am fully covered in green leaves, which spring from my body.”

Jung’s transformation into a pagan creature covered in green leaves means that he has moved beyond the rigid, conventional hierarchies of faith. The anchorite and the devil seem here like grotesque caricatures of themselves. They have nothing to offer Jung any more with their “outlived ideas.” The Red One relates his stay in a monastery, where he stayed after he had converted to Christianity, but which only led him to develop an aversion towards the Christian faith. Perhaps what Jung seems to be saying is that “good” and “evil” are just fluid ideas, which can easily turn into one another. As such, they are inextricably linked.  The devil seems to need the church and vice versa:

Ammonius: “What can be done? Even the devil is necessary; since otherwise one has nothing that commands a sense of respect with people.”
Red One: “Well, I need to come to an arrangement with the clergy; or else I will lose my clientele.”

In the second part of the chapter Jung returns with his thoughts to the encounter with Death (chapter VI of Liber Secundus). After that solemn experience Jung felt a thirst for life rushing through him: “…the reek of the human animal streamed over me.” This feeling spurred on his transformation into a green man:

“But I was no longer the man I had been, for a strange being grew through me. This was a laughing being of the forest, a leaf green daimon, a forest goblin and prankster, who lived alone in the forest and was itself a greening tree being, who loved nothing but greening and growing, who was neither disposed nor indisposed toward men, full of mood and chance, obeying an invisible law and greening and wilting with the trees, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither good nor bad, merely living, primordially old and yet completely young, naked and yet naturally clothed, not man but nature, frightened, laughable, powerful, childish, weak, deceiving and deceived, utterly inconstant and superficial, and yet reaching deep down, down to the kernel of the world.”

Jung adds that his transformation occurred thanks to his rejection of “ideals.” Heroes fall and so do ideas. To live is more important than to be a slave to ideals. Anyone who believes he or she can live according to “ideals” is deluded or a downright lunatic:

“The ideal is also a tool that one can put aside anytime, a torch on dark paths. But
whoever runs around with a torch by day is a fool. How much my ideals have come down, and how freshly my tree greens!”

As the green man Jung is now also “beyond good and evil,” to quote Nietzsche, whose philosophy seems to permeate this chapter. Like “a merrily greening tree in a remote spring forest” he is away both from the world and the spirit. This fleeting moment of inner unity makes him think of the Buddha, who “finally gave up on rebirth, for he had had enough of crawling through all human and animal forms.” Jung also adds that he would rather be like a lion and “exist from my own force, like the sun which gives light and does not suck light.” Jung decides to go the East, where he will meet Izdubar (Gilgamesh), whose image is featured at the end of the chapter.


In his Dictionary of Symbols, Juan Cirlot summarizes the principal terms of solar symbolism as follows:

  1. a heroic image
  2. the divine eye
  3. the active principle
  4. the source of life and energy

He also adds a fifth symbolic dimension – the night sea journey, which is the sun’s hidden, invisible passage. The sun is in fact ambivalent: it is “resplendent” but it can also be black, “in which case it is associated with chthonian and funereal animals such as the horse and the serpent.” The image of solar hero Gilgamesh features green snake-like symbols in the background. Liz Greene insisted in her interpretation of The Red Book that these are astrological glyphs of the sign Leo, which was Jung’s sun sign. (2) Irrespective of whether Jung included the glyphs there accidentally or on purpose, it is absolutely ingenious that they would simultaneously evoke the Sun, the snake and the mosaic featured at the beginning of the chapter. In the wild man Enkidu the solar hero Gilgamesh met his dark alter ego while the Romans experienced the same confrontation when the Visigoths invaded the Eternal City.

C.G. Jung



(1) Sanford L. Drob, Reading The Red Book: An Interpretative Guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus, Spring Journal Books 2012p. 96

(2) Liz Greene, The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus: Daimons, Gods and the Planetary Journey

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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

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 21

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The Salon de la Rose † Croix

I. “A call to arms for the worship of beauty, the Salon de la Rose + Croix (R + C) was founded in Paris by … Joséphin Péladan. … The Salon aimed to transcend the mudane and material for a higher spiritual life …. Péladan consecrated the Salon in 1891 as part of L’Ordre de la Rose + Croix du Temple et du Graal, a fraternal secret society he ordained… The rose and the cross, whether in the form of images or words, conjoined by the symbol +, †, ×, or A Maltese cross, referred to the Catholic devotion of the esoteric order.

Sinuous lines, attenuated figures, and hieratic compositions characterized their artwork. Imagery was mystical and visionary in tenor and often depicted mythical, literary, or spiritual themes replete with arcane symbols, ethereal women, androgynous beings, chimeras, and incubi.

… proclaiming that art must be mystical, idealist, and in the service of ‘beauty.’ … He excluded history paintings, still lifes, rustic and domestic scenes, images of domestic and sporting animals, marines, and landscapes … [He] encouraged … to submit works representing legend, myth, allegory, dream, and literary narratives.

As the grand master of the order, Péladan assumed the title “Sâr Merodack”: Sâr  means leader in ancient Hebrew and Assyrian, while Merodack was supposedly … the name of a Babylonian king.”

… Regulation XVII [said]…: ‘No work by a woman will ever be exhibited or executed for the order.’ Nevertheless, women did exhibit surreptitiously under male names.

In one key respect, the Salons de la R+C fell short of what Péladan had initially envisioned, that is, to exhibit works by famous elder, proto-Symbolist crusaders, namely the triad of Puvis, Moreau and … Edward Burne-Jones. Well-established and aversed to the R+C’s cultish milieu, they refused Péladan’s invitation.

Vivien Greene, “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris 1892-1897,” Published by Guggenheim Museum Publication, 2017


Marcellin Desboutin, “Portrait du Sâr Mérodack Joséphin Péladan”


“In the Paris of the early eighteen-nineties, at the height of the Decadence, the man of the moment was the novelist, art critic, and would-be guru Joséphin Péladan, who named himself Le Sâr. … He went about in a flowing white cloak, an azure jacket, a lace ruff, and an Astrakhan hat, which, in conjunction with his bushy head of hair and double-pointed beard, gave him the aspect of a Middle Eastern potentate. … He informed Félix Faure, the President of the Republic, that he had the gift of ‘seeing and hearing at the greatest distances, useful in controlling enemy councils and suppressing espionage.’ He began one lecture by saying, ‘People of Nîmes, I have only to pronounce a certain formula for the earth to open and swallow you all.’

In 1917, Max Weber said that the rationalization of Western society had brought about the “disenchantment of the world.” Péladan, and those who took up his mantle, wished to enchant it once again.

Péladan was born in Lyon, in 1858, into a family steeped in esoteric tendencies. His father, Louis-Adrien, was a conservative Catholic writer …. The political views of the Péladans were thoroughly reactionary; they disdained democracy and called for the restoration of the monarchy. Péladan differed from many other occultists in insisting that his Rosicrucian rhetoric was an extension of authentic Catholic doctrine, which Church institutions had neglected.

What Péladan took from Wagner, above all, was the idea that art could assume the functions of religion. ‘The artist is a priest, a king, a magus,’ he proclaimed.

Back in the mid-eighteen-eighties, the Greek-born poet Jean Moréas, who coined the term Symbolism, had renounced the depiction of concrete phenomena; Symbolist writers, he declared, gestured instead toward a primordial Idea, which could be conjured by ‘pure sounds,’ ‘densely convoluted sentences,’ and ‘knowingly organized disorder.’ Michelle Facos and Thor Mednick, in their recent anthology ‘The Symbolist Roots of Modern Art,’ observe that the Symbolists undermined conventional modes of representation in an effort to ‘access the divine directly.'”

Alex Ross, “The Occult Roots of Modernism”


Poster for the First Salon

Fernand Khnopff, “The Blood of Medusa”

Fernand Khnopff, “Magician”


Jean Delville, “The Women of Eleusis”

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, “Orpheus in Hades”

Alphonse Osbert, “Songs of the Night”

Carlos Schwabe, “Pain”

Carlos Schwabe, “Day of Death”


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Gilgamesh: He Who Saw the Deep

If you happen to have some time on your hands, I strongly recommend that you take a look at Ancient Masterpiece of World Literature (, a  course which Harvard University is currently offering online free of charge. You can also pursue a Verified Certificate for a fee. Section 2 of the course examines the great Epic of Gilgamesh, He Who Saw the Deep, the oldest literary masterpiece, which was lost for 2000 years. The standard version of the epic was widely popular around 1200 BC in the ancient Near East, not only in Mesopotamia, where it was created. It was written in cuneiform script, which went out of use around 300 BCE. Consequently, the epic disappeared for centuries and was not found until the nineteenth century, when a group of explorers discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh, and most importantly the remains of the library of Assurbanipal, king of Assyria. The king was in possession of clay tablet with the Epic of Gilgamesh inscribed on them.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

What is is about The Epic of Gilgamesh that is so intoxicating to readers of all times? Rainer Maria Rilke referred to it as “the epic about the fear of death” (1) He considered it to be “among the greatest things that can happen to a person… I have immersed myself in [it], and in these truly gigantic fragments I have experienced measures and forms that belong with the supreme works that the conjuring Word has ever produced.” (2)

Gilgamesh from The Louvre

At the beginning of the epic Gilgamesh, despite being two-thirds divine and one-third human, can be described as an unevolved tyrant,  and a rapist, who claims the right of the first night from the brides of the city of Uruk. His human ancestry is rather dark, wince he is the son of a priestess and a male demon or Lil-lu, etymologically connected with Lilith. (3) In order to save the people of Uruk from the oppression of Gilgamesh, the gods decide to create Enkidu, who will be the hero’s equal and companion:

“Let him be a match for the storm of his heart,
let them vie with each other, so Uruk may be rested” (all quotes from the epic come from Andrew George’s translation)

Enkidu is a wild man-animal, covered in hair. He needs to be lured into the civilized world, trading his nature for culture. This task falls to a sacred prostitute or a hierodule, who makes love to him for six days and seven nights. As a result, Enkidu loses his animal nature but gains consciousness. In the meantime, Gilgamesh has a dream foreshadowing the overwhelming events that the arrival of Enkidu will entail:

“The stars of the heavens appeared above me,
like a rock from the sky one fell down before me.
I lifted it up, but it weighed too much for me,
I tried to roll it, but I could not dislodge it.”

Through his friendship with Enkidu Gilgamesh is able to fulfill his fate as a builder of the city but in order to achieve that he needs timber. He decides to go on an expedition to get cedar wood, which was coveted in the Near East because of its high quality. Enkidu tries to dissuade him, but in vain. The cedar forest is guarded by the mighty monster Humbaba, whom Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill, after which they proceed to fell the entire forest. Gilgamesh does not ask himself if complete deforestation is the right price to pay for building a grand palace in the city. The imperial ambitions of the king bring about the destruction of nature and the ensuing wrath of the mother goddess.


When the triumphant heroes return to Uruk, the goddess Ishtar becomes enamored of Gilgamesh but he spurns her in the most cruel and cynical fashion. What happened to the hero who in another myth (included in the appendix to the Epic) helped the goddess to get rid of intruders that had invaded her holy Huluppu tree and who received gifts from her in return? Kluger alludes here to the conflict between the solar god Shamash and the goddess Ishtar. Civilization and its masculine order meant overcoming the goddess and reducing her role. It was Shamash who had spurned Gilgamesh on his quest to fell the cedar forest and kill Humbaba. The goddess is scornfully “put in her place” by Gilgamesh. Furious, she approaches the god Anu:

“Father, give me, please, the Bull of Heaven,
so in his dwelling I may slay Gilgamesh!
‘If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I shall smash [the gates of the Netherworld, right down] to its
to the world below I shall grant [manumission,]
I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living.”

Ishtar is an all-encompassing goddess; she is life which includes death, she rules both the earth and the starry realm. This universality is captured in a marvellous hymn to Ishtar, which is quoted by Kluger in her book:

“Thou, all mistresses’ mistress, and all goddesses’ goddess, / Thee I implore. / Ishtar, queen of all lands, ruler of man, / Strong art thou, an empress high. / Thy name be hallowed. / Thou art the source of light for heaven and earth, / thou strong daughter of Sin. / Thou guidest the arms of the warrior, / And setteth the stage for the battle to happen. / Mistress whose splendor and greatness is beyond all the gods! / Star, thou, of the battle’s tumult, / Thou who bringeth discord in the midst of brothers who lived in / peace and harmony before, / Thou who betrayeth the covenant of friendship and love, / Mistress of the battlefield thou, who overturneth mountains, / Where is not thy name and thy commandments? / Thou art great, thou art splendid. / Strongest of all rulers thou, who leadeth kings by the rein like horses, / Who openeth the womb of barren women, / The men’s goddess, the women’s Ishtar! / Whose decision no one can predict. / Where thou lookest, the dead become alive again, the afflicted one rises from the sickbed, / And he who went astray finds the right path again, when he beholds thine countenance. / Irnini, glory, and grim lion thou, may thy heart find peace. / Thou, wild bull of fury, may thy soul be pacified. / Let thine eyes rest mercifully upon me. / Thou in thine radiance, look upon me with grace. / Ishtar is great, Ishtar is queen. / The mistress is full of glory, the mistress is queen. / Irnini, daughter of Sin, thou strong one, there is none equal to thee.”


Ishtar’s emblem was an eight-pointed star. This is pure speculation on my part, but couldn’t we perhaps see the star dream of Gilgamesh as a harbinger of Ishtar’s rage and the subsequent death of Enkidu? The slaying of the Heavenly Bull by the heroes enrages the gods. The following night Enkidu has a dream of Anu, Ea and Shamash deciding that he must die. The ominous dream comes true; Enkidu falls gravely ill and perishes.

Detail of a kudurru (stele) of King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC), showing a version of the ancient Mesopotamian eight-pointed star symbol of the goddess Ishtar (Inana/Inanna), representing the planet Venus as the morning or evening star. (via Wikipedia)

Gilgamesh falls in deep mourning. He sits by the body of his companion until a white maggot comes out of Enkidu’s nostril. He learns a bitter lesson about death:

“No one at all sees Death,
no one at all sees the face [of Death,]
no one at all [hears] the voice of Death,
Death so savage, who hacks men down.”

Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu (author unknown to me)

Gilgamesh decides to embark on a dangerous quest in search of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal after the great flood.  Utnapishtim’s name means “he who found life.” The journey is extremely dangerous, reminiscent of the descent to the underworld. Kluger remarks that Gilgamesh starts praying to the moon god Sin to save him, forsaking the sun god Shamash for the duration of this adventure. On his way to Utnapishtim’s dwelling he meets a Scorpion-man and a Scorpion-woman, who are guardians to the mythic mountain under which the sun (Shamash) sets every night.

The Scorpion people

Gilgamesh wants to learn from the survivor of the flood how to overcome death. Utnapishtim tells him how to find a plant that grows under water, which will give him eternal youth. Gilgamesh manages to obtain the plant but not for long. It is seized by a serpent and returned to the depths. The hero returns to Uruk empty-handed, seemingly defeated. According to Harvard scholars, this episode demonstrates “the limits of human life between the world of animals and the world of the gods.” Gilgamesh seems to have gained wisdom which he lacked at the beginning of the story. He has touched the divine and reached immortality, if only briefly. He has experienced the human pain of loss and death. As Kluger beautifully sums up:

“He picked up his life on earth again, accepting and including death. The two-thirds god submitted to human existence, and the one-third man experienced the divine.”

Equally importantly, Gilgamesh was not only the hero of the story but also its writer. He wrote his own story down and buried it in the city walls, thus finally achieving immortality, which he had been striving for in vain. At the end of the epic, Gilgamesh reaches the status of a wise king:

“The wisdom he received at the ends of the earth from the survivor of the Deluge, Utanapishti, enabled him to restore the temples of the land and their rituals to their ideal state of antediluvian perfection.” (4)

J.M.W. Turner, “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis”


(1) The Epic of Gilgamesh, A New Translation, translated with an introduction by Andrew George, Penguin Classics 1999


(3) Rivkah Schärf Kluger, The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh: A Modern Ancient Hero

(4) The Epic of Gilgamesh, A New Translation, translated with an introduction by Andrew George, Penguin Classics 1999

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“Epidemics and Society” by Frank M. Snowden

We all feel the portentousness of the current moment in history. I was struck recently by a short passage from The Guardian article, which said:

“… whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear.”

The root, original meanings of the word “crisis” was a decisive moment in the progress of a disease, when the patient would either start recovering or die. We cannot tell if our world will find a road to recovery. But perhaps we can gain wisdom by looking back through history. With that purpose in mind, I recently made my way through a 550-page-long book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present by Frank M. Snowden, published in October 2019. The author was recently interviewed by The New Yorker.  In that interview he said:

“…we need as human beings to realize that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere, that we are therefore inevitably part of a species, and we need to think in that way rather than about divisions of race and ethnicity, economic status, and all the rest of it.

We have to think that we have to work together as a human species to be organized to care for one another, to realize that the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us…”


According to Snowden, throughout history epidemics have touched and transformed all areas of human activity in a profound way. He describes them as the mirror, which shows human beings who they really are.

Starting with the fourteenth-century Plague, the dread that it provoked was connected with its extraordinary virulence, its swift progress through the body and the fact that it did not discriminate attacking the rich, the poor, the young and the old alike. Scapegoating and witch-hunting were inevitable results of the terror and deep psychological trauma (“mute despair,” as Snowden puts it) that the whole population felt. Apparently, the reason why cathedrals were dedicated to Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages was that she was viewed as the only redeeming power in the time of the Black Death. Her cult was especially important in Venice, where the Plague resulted in death of one third of the population. The Venetian Doge vowed to build a great church in St Mary’s honour and organize an annual procession in perpetuity. When the Plague receded, the iconic basilica of Santa Maria della Salute (Saint Mary of Health) was built at the entrance to the Grand Canal.

Yaroslav Gerzchedovich, Santa Maria della Salute (vintage edit)

I was quite struck by the fact that Italy was the first country to be ravaged by the pandemic because of its geographical location at the centre of the trade routes. The second wave of the Plague arrived from Asia aboard the ships headed to Genoa. The fact that Italy was the first European country to be so dramatically hit by COVID-19 seems to be a peculiar case of “traumatic replay.”

Before the Black Death arrived in Europe, the situation was hard, especially for the growing number of the desperately poor. The housing situation in cities, which were developing rapidly at the time, was dramatic. In the country, crop failures resulted in famine. But, as Snowden explains,

“The number-one priority for the upper classes and the central power was to keep up their luxury consumption and life style while little resources were invested back into the agricultural system. When they experienced declining incomes due to poor yields their immediate reaction was to compensate by further raising taxes and rents. This counterproductive reaction is partly to blame for the stagnating economy and the non-sustainable agriculture. For the above-mentioned reasons people were on the edge of starvation.”

Snowden posits that epidemic diseases are not random and that each of them has a sort of personality, which makes it uniquely suitable to the circumstances, where it occurs since “every society produces its own vulnerabilities.” He devotes long passages to the description of gruesome symptoms that the victims of each pandemic suffered, the Black Death and cholera being the most frightful, and coincidentally both being bacterial infections rather than viral.

Another name for the Plague, aside from the Black Death, was bubonic plague. A “bubo” was a large swelling of a lymph note that formed a hard mass under the skin. Buboes formed at a place where an infectious flea bite occurred and were a source of unbearable pain. Snowden continues:

“Having gained access to the blood, the bacteria release a powerful toxin that is normally the cause of death. It attacks tissues, causing blood vessels to hemorrhage, giving rise to purple, subcutaneous spots—the so-called tokens of plague. They earned this name because many people thought them to be signs, or ‘tokens,’ of God’s anger. Sometimes there is also gangrene of the extremities. This necrosis of the nose, fingers, and toes is one probable source of the terms ‘Black Death’ and ‘Black Plague.'”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death”

In those times the main measure of prevention was the so-called “quarantine,” which originated in the Venetian language and denoted the forty-day (quaranta) period when ships had to be isolated before the crew and passengers were allowed to disembark. As Snowden explains, the number was derived from the Bible:

“Its duration was based on Christian Scripture, as both the Old and New Testaments make multiple references to the number forty in the context of purification: the forty days and forty nights of the flood in Genesis, the forty years of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments, the forty days of Christ’s temptation, the forty days Christ stayed with his disciples after his resurrection, and the forty days of Lent.

While the Plague was a bacterial disease, a large number of extremely deadly diseases, for example smallpox, measles, AIDS or rabies, are viral. Snowden defines viruses as “some of the elements of life stripped to the most basic,” which again made me wonder how adequately it also describes the current situation, when life is stripped to essentials. In the case of a viral infection, the body is attacked from within. The book finishes with an account of the first SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus outbreak, which occurred between 2002 and 2004. Altogether it resulted in over 8000 cases worldwide and 774 deaths, spreading “easily and silently by air travel,” says Snowden, who wrote prophetically:

“SARS brought one of the finest publicly-funded health systems in the world to its knees in a matter of weeks. It has unnerved me to contemplate what the disease might do to a community without our resources and technologies.”

In the final pages of the book, he delivers a stark warning to the world utterly unprepared for the next pandemic. This is the world in which public health is a commodity and not a basic human right. He reiterates the point of epidemic diseases not being random:

“Epidemic diseases are not random events. As we have seen throughout this book, they spread along fault lines marked by environmental degradation, overpopulation, and poverty.”

I can subscribe to the thoughts expressed in the final paragraph of his book:

“If we wish to avoid catastrophic epidemics, it will therefore be imperative to make economic decisions that give due consideration to the public health vulnerabilities that result and to hold the people who make those decisions accountable for the foreseeable health consequences that follow. In the ancient but pertinent wisdom, salus populi suprema lex esto—public health must be the highest law—and it must override the laws of the marketplace.”

Jan Toorop, “The New Generation” (see the description of the painting here

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Reading The Red Book (19)

I. “… opening The Red Book seems to be opening the mouth of the dead.”

James Hillman in James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, “Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book”

II. “We need the coldness of death to see clearly.”

C.G. Jung, The Red Book

Opening of the Mouth – Tutankhamun and Aja, via Wikipedia

We have reached chapter VI of Liber Secundus, which is the second part of The Red Book. The title of the chapter is “Death,” and death indeed seems to be one of the central themes of Liber Novus. The quote above comes from a fascinating book of dialogues between James Hillman and Shonu Shamdasani, editor and cotranslator of Jung’s Red Book. In one of the first dialogues, Hillman stresses that it is the dead of the human history that have fired the imagination of Jung in Liber Novus. He mentions the Egyptian ceremony of the opening of the mouth, which involved an animation of a statue or a mummy in a symbolic ritual. This was “the quintessential Egyptian rite for consecration, deification, and the infusing of spiritual presence into matter,” which pointed to “the process of birth and rebirth.” (1) As a result of the ceremony, the mummy or a statue was able to breathe, speak and receive sustenance.

Jung’s psychology saw the soul as “suspended between a larger continuity,” (2) between the aeons that precede us and what we are leaving for future generations. In the soul history, “the voices of the dead,” (3) have a palpable presence, even if the overall tendency is to disassociate from the dead, to cut them off, repressing their haunting presence. I was struck by the following words of James Hillman, who sees this approach as an important tenet of Jungian psychology:

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying…” (4)

Not only do we have to look to the dead to answer the questions that are haunting us now, but we actually should reach to our own depths, slow down, find pause instead of constantly engaging in the maddening stream of daily life.

“Death” is another chapter in The Red Book, which is simply beautifully written. Shamdasani and Hillman also expressed their admiration for the language that Jung used in Liber Novus; a language free from psychological concepts and scientific jargon. Jung’s writing here is a raw expression of a direct experience of the inner depths. It is “a lyrical elaboration,” “an evocation.” (5) Jung begins:

“I strive to those lowlands where the weak currents, flashing in broad mirrors, stream toward the sea, where all haste of flowing becomes more and more dampened, and where all power and all striving unites with the immeasurable extent of the sea.”

Jung follows “his brother,” the sea, and finds Death standing on the last dune at the edge of the world. Jung says to the lonely figure:

“There is only one who stands this way, so solitary and at the last corner of the world. I know, you are ice and the end; you are the cold silence of the stones; and you are the highest snow on the mountains and the most extreme frost of outer space.”

The place of death is where inequality stops, where “all are one with another,” adds Jung. The vision that follows deeply disturbs Jung and is a premonition of the atrocities of the I World War. He sees a silent multitude of the dead “flowing past in an enormous stream” towards the surging sea, where they get dissolved “in murky clouds of mist.” Jung sees a sea of blood foaming at his feet and has a vision of the red sun:

“Blood and fire mix themselves together in a ball – red light erupts from its smoky shroud – a new sun escapes from the bloody sea, and rolls gleamingly toward the uttermost depths – it disappears under my feet.”

He calls the red sun the sun of darkness, “bloody and burning like a great downfall.” The image accompanying the chapter is that of a monster emerging from the depths, where the red sun glows.


Jung saw evil as something we are all engaged in. As Shamdasani said, “We are taking part in each murder. What happens in the collective is also taking place within us.” (6) Following the disturbing massive death scene, Jung engages in the subject of evil and virtue. He asks:

“But did you know what evil is, and that it stands precisely right behind your virtues, that it is also your virtues themselves, as their inevitable substance? You locked Satan in the abyss for a millennium, and when the millennium had passed, you laughed at him, since he had become a children’s fairy tale.”

He refers to vices and virtues as brothers. Evil and virtue, life and death must all “strike a balance in your existence” since “dying increases life,” he adds. For me, the quality of Jung’s writing that has always grabbed me is his ability to convey the unfathomable. You cannot explain Jung; maybe just hint at what he meant at best. The following sentence rings simultaneously true and deeply disturbing:

“Blood and murder alone are still exalted, and have their own peculiar beauty; one can assume the beauty of bloody acts of violence.”

The final vision of the chapter is Jung’s own death and first shy signs of rebirth:

“… I perish on a dung heap, while peaceful chickens cackle around me, amazedly and mindlessly laying their eggs. A dog passes, lifts his leg over me, then trots off calmly. … The ancients said: Inter faeces et urinas nascimur [we are born in urine and feces]. For three nights I was assaulted by the horrors of birth. On the third night, junglelike laughter pealed forth, for which nothing is too simple. Then life began to stir again.”

This takes us back to chapter 3 of Liber Secundus (One of the Lowly), in which Jung watched in horror as a poor trump died a wretched death. Now he, the “I” of The Red Book, lives through a similar woe.

Arnold Böcklin, “The Plague”

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(1) Aaron Cheak, “Thigh of Iron, Thigh of Gold: On Alchemy, Astrology, & Animated Statues,” in: Austin Coppock and Daniel A. Schulke, eds, The Celestial Art: Essays on Astrological Magic, Three Hands Press 2018, p. 227

(2) James Hillman in James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

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

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 20

Reading The Red Book – part 21

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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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