Symbolism of the Cave

A well-known passage from Plato’s Republic describes how a group of people, chained to the wall of a deep cavern, spend their entire lives looking at the shadows dancing on the cave wall in front of them. The captives are oblivious to the source of divine light behind them. The shadows are synonymous with illusory objects spun by the goddess Maia, as the Hindu would probably say, while the light symbolizes the true and real world of eternal forms. In Plato’s universe, what we take for real are mere shadows.

William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 51

The allegory of the cave was also popular with Neoplatonists, notably with Porphyry, author of the treatise “On the Cave of the Nymphs.” When Odysseus, the “complicated” (polytropos) man who wandered and was lost, finally arrives in Ithaca, the first place he visits is the Cave of the Nymphs. For Porphyry, “a cave is a symbol of the sensible world because caverns are dark, stony, and humid.” Here the Naiades are busy clothing the incarnating souls into bodily forms. It would seem that for Plato the cave was a place one ought to seek freedom from whereas for Porphyry it was a reservoir of gigantic generative powers as well as a place of initiation. In his Science and Religion in Archaic Greece, Roger Sworder also says that in Homer ”this Ithacan cave is symbolically transformed into the whole earth.” In the Odyssey, as Sworder elaborates “the southward path leads to mortal death, the northward path to immortality.” Thus, Odysseus’ and Athena’s passage through the southern entrance of the cave brings his spiritual rebirth. Although Plato and Porphyry claim it is necessary to seek flight from the cave, it seems that the generative Earth-born energies of caves are affirmed by Porphyry.

William Blake’s illustration showing the Cave of the Nymphs

In Man and His Symbols, Jung referred to caves as “a place of meditation and of the mystery of transformation from the earthly to the heavenly, from the carnal to the spiritual.” For Jung the cave was an alchemical vessel, a symbol of the unconscious, where transformative processes can brew in peace and concealment from the unwanted eye. The unconscious is a dark place, where our daylight orientation methods become unreliable. Entering a cave has been traditionally associated with incubation and introspection for the depths of the unconscious psyche are indeed cavernous.  

Symbolically, caves have been associated with the womb or as Erich Neumann wrote in The Great Mother:

“To this world belong not only the subterranean darkness as hell and night but also such symbols as chasm, cave, abyss, valley, depths, which in innumerable rites and myths play the part of the earth womb that demands to be fructified.”

Some American Indian tribes believed that “mankind was born of embryos which matured within underground caverns,” says The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. In Book 19 of The Odyssey (transl. by Emily Wilson), Odysseus “narrowly escaped the winds and found a refuge, mooring his ships in Amnisus, beside the cave of Eileithyia.” This was the Cretan goddess of childbirth, daughter of Hera and Zeus, who in Cretan myth was also born in a cave. Near the cave of Eileithyia many votive offerings were found by archaeologists.

In this connection, pre-historic cave paintings can be recalled. As Jean Clottes states, prehistoric peoples saw the cave as “a place crawling with spirits and animal forms…” (1). Caves were consequently felt to be “places of power, a power that could be attained and made use of.” Perhaps this could explain the mysterious hand markings found in prehistoric caves, for example in the Argentinian Cueva de los Manos. Caves were “liminal points of contact with the supernatural,” concludes Clottes. Similarly in Tibet, some features of the landscape, including sacred caves, were believed to possess “gnas” or power. (2) 

Elaine de Kooning, “Torchlight Cave Drawing V

Especially fascinating was the role caves played in Egyptian cosmology. Cave-like spaces were constructed there because the area lacked natural caves. The Egyptians believed that the live-giving inundation of the Nile had its source in a cave. (3) Egyptian temples incorporated the imagery of the underworld through construction of restricted dark “caves.” Similarly, so many Catholic churches not only house crypts but were sometimes built near a cave, Lourdes being a prominent example. Black Madonna statues are often to be found in these hidden recesses of the Christian temples.  Caves, where prominent teachers would meditate, were also frequent foundational elements of Tibetan temples and monasteries such as Potala Palace.

Theotokos of the Caves (Kyiv School of Icon Painting)

Cave symbolism naturally incorporates a full circle of life, as caves were also traditional places of burial. They were also believed to be entrances to the underworld, which the Ancient Egyptians called “the Swallower of All.” In German, the words Höhle (cave) and Hölle (hell) are closely related. In Greek myth the entrance to the Underworld was known as Charon’s cave. Also novelists are not blind to the dreadful symbolic dimension of the cave. There is a short story by Haruki Murakami called “The Wind Cave.” In it, a 12-year old sister of the narrator dies of a heart disease. Some time before that a family had been hiking around the caves of Mount Fuji. At one point the children found a narrow passage and the girl decided to explore it. She was gone for a long time, which made the boy increasingly uneasy. At the end of the story, when the sister had already died, the narrator’s thoughts return to the cave incident: 

“At that time, a thought struck me: that maybe, even before the doctor at the hospital officially pronounced her dead two years later, her life had already been snatched from her while she was deep inside that cave. I was actually convinced of it. She’d already been lost inside that hole, and left this world, but I, mistakenly thinking she was still alive, had put her on the train with me and taken her back to Tokyo.“

William Blake, Skeleton of Urizen from A Small Book of Design

The terrifying symbolic quality of caves is conveyed in another short story, by a Korean writer Bora Chung. In her story collection called Cursed Bunny, one of the scariest bears the title “Scars.” A young orphan boy is thrown into a cave by the villagers. He is preyed upon by a monster:

“Flashing sunlight or suffocating darkness, the blinding sky or the damp and moldy air of the cave, water as cold as ice or sticky humidity and feces – there was nothing in between for the boy and no foretelling of what would happen when. It came to the boy once a month, pierced his bones, and sucked at his marrow.”

Thoughts of death also accompany modern explorers of caves. I found the following passage dedicated to potholing (extreme caving) very striking:

 “The language of extreme caving is often openly mortal and tacitly mythic: stretches of passageway ‘dead out’, one reaches ‘terminal sumps’ and ‘chokes’, the furthest-down regions are known as ‘the dead zone’. But over time I saw that – as with extreme mountaineering – there was another aspect to the thanatos at work. Divers and cave divers often describe their experiences in terms of ecstasy and transcendence. ‘I have had such beautiful moments in the water,’ says the British diver Don Shirley, who dived below 790 feet in Boesmansgat. ‘You are absolutely, completely in a void, like being in outer space . . . You get to the point where there is no God, no past, no future, just now and the next millisecond. It’s not a threatening environment – just total serenity.” (4)

That is perhaps what sages and hermits looked for in caves as the most perfect spaces for meditation. Whatever caves mean, their fascination has been with humankind since the beginning. 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. His mother’s name was Maia, which has an apt resonance with the Hindu goddess mentioned at the beginning. In symbolism there is perhaps nothing more stirring for the imagination than the cave.

Clarence White, “The Cave”


(1) Jean Clottes, “Ritual Cave Use in European Paleolithic Caves” in : Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves

(2) Mark Aldenderfer, “Caves as Sacred Spaces on the Tibetan Plateau” in: Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves

(3) Stuart Tyson Smith, “The Chamber of Secrets: Grottoes, Caves and the Underworld in Ancient Egyptian Religion” in: Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves

(4) Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey


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Reading The Red Book (45)

“The one God, to whom worship is due, is in the middle.”

C.G. Jung, Black Book 5

“I knew how frightfully inadequate this undertaking was, but despite much work and many distractions I remained true to it, even if another possibility never …” wrote Jung in the Epilogue to The Red Book. These final words will remain forever unfinished and so will Liber Novus. Great Renaissance artists such as Donatello or Michelangelo often left their works “non finito” for an array of reasons, partly due to external annoyances but, perhaps more significantly, stemming from their refusal to deliver an imperfect work. Pieta, an example of sublime perfection, was the only sculpture that bears Michelangelo’s signature. He chiseled, “MICHEL ANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENT FACIEBAT.” Faciebat being an imperfect aspect of the past tense, which could be rendered as “was doing” in English as opposed to “did” or “has done.”

Pieta with Michelangelo’s signature

Kafka’s The Castle similarly ends in mid-sentence, and like The Red Book, was published posthumously presumably against the author’s wishes. One could argue that such great creative endeavors have an existence independent of their authors: they simply will push up through the soil towards the light, no matter the resistance.

Appendix A to The Red Book contains a mandala called Systema munditotius (The system of all worlds), drawn by Jung in 1916. Jung published it anonymously in 1955, having removed some of the astrological glyphs, which appeared in the first sketch (see both below).

Jung believed the diagram to be directly connected to the teachings of Philemon expressed in The Seven Sermons to the Dead. He thus commented on it:

“It portrays the antinomies of the microcosm within the macrocosmic world and its antinomies. At the very top, the figure of the young boy in the winged egg, called Erikapaios or Phanes and thus reminiscent as a spiritual figure of the Orphic Gods. His dark antithesis in the depths is here designated as Abraxas. He represents the dominus mundi, the lord of the physical world, and is a world-creator of an ambivalent nature. Sprouting from him we see the tree of life, labeled vita (“life”) while its upper counterpart is a light-tree in the form of a seven-branched candelabra labeled ignis (“fire”) and Eros (“love”). Its light points to the spiritual world of the divine child. Art and science also belong to this spiritual realm, the first represented as a winged serpent and the second as a winged mouse (as hole-digging activity!). — The candelabra is based on the principle of the spiritual number three (twice-three flames with one large flame in the middle), while the lower world of Abraxas is characterized by five, the number of natural man (the twice-five rays of his star). The accompanying animals of the natural world are a devilish monster and a larva. This signifies death and rebirth. A further division of the mandala is horizontal. To the left we see a circle indicating the body or the blood, and from it rears the serpent, which winds itself around the phallus, as the generative principle. The serpent is dark and light, signifying the dark realm of the earth, the moon, and the void (therefore called Satanus). The light realm of rich fulness lies to the right, where from the bright circle frigus sive amor dei [cold, or the love of God] the dove of the Holy Ghost takes wing, and wisdom (Sophia) pours from a double beaker to left and right. — This feminine sphere is that of heaven. — The large sphere characterized by zigzag lines or rays represents an inner sun; within this sphere the macrocosm is repeated, but with the upper and lower regions reversed as in a mirror. These repetitions should be conceived of as endless in number, growing even smaller until the innermost core, the actual microcosm, is reached.”

Jung painted the mandala before he wrote Scrutinies, the third part of The Red Book. He said its meaning was unknown to him at the time. Liz Greene writes that the Systema can be viewed as “a cosmological map,” which shows “the place of the human microcosm within the greater macrocosm.” (1) Abraxas is the ruler of the lower, bodily realm of incarnation while Phanes presides over the upper heavenly or spiritual realm.

Liz Greene offers a detailed analysis of the diagram. She draws our attention to the lion-headed serpent, who is visible in both hemispheres of the painting. This is Chnoumis, often featured in ancient magical amulets, like the one below.

This deity symbolically reunited the spiritual realm with the corporeal realm. The crowned lion’s head stands for the solar spiritual principle while the serpent refers to the manifested world. Similarly, the Eros principle “indicated the capacity of Eros to bridge spiritual and instinctual realms.” (2) The intermediaries between the spiritual and earthly realms are the daimons. All of these are crucial elements of Jung’s cosmology depicted in the Systema.

The left hemisphere of the mandala is connected with darkness while the right hemisphere is that of light. Symbolically, the left side was always the “sinister” one (Latin word “sinister” means simply “left”). In the Last Judgement the wicked where sent to the left, i.e. to Hell. In Christian and Rabbinical thought, the left side was dark, female and unconscious.(3) In his diagram Jung placed the Black Moon on the left together with the Full Moon as a symbol of opulent mother earth. On the right he placed the Celestial Mother and the Sun God. This is totally in agreement with the cosmology delineated in the Seven Sermons. The divine feminine has both dark and light aspects – she partakes both of the earth and of the heavens. It is also important to note, says Greene, that “there can be darkness in Phanes’ domain, as there can be light in the domain of Abraxas.” For Jung, light and darkness partake in equal measure of upper (spiritual) and lower (bodily) realms.

Appendix B contains commentaries written by Jung on chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Liber Primus. As Shamdasani points out in his introduction to The Red Book, “this manuscript indicates the amount of work he put into understanding each and every detail of his fantasies.” Jung writes about Salome, who represents the principle of Eros and her father Elijah, whom he connects with Logos. The fact that Salome is blind means for Jung that Logos has subjugated Eros. Salome asks Jung for help: his task is to free the erotic and the feminine and give her vision. We may argue that The Red Book is the voice of Eros – the unconscious feminine soul – speaking through Jung.

Another interesting interpretative passage refers to the scene in which Salome declares herself as the mother of the “I” speaking in The Red Book. Jung muses:

“There is a child in each of us; in the elderly, it is even the only thing still alive. One can have recourse to the childlike anytime, on account of its inexhaustible freshness and adherence. Everything, even the most ominous, can be rendered harmless through retranslation into the childlike.”

Not only did he introduce the terms extroversion and introversion, it is also Jung who is believed first to have used the term “inner child” in psychology. On the one hand, it symbolizes the youthful, animating force of creativity, its formative and positive function supporting growth and opposing stagnation. The child emerges from the unconscious to bring a change into the conscious life. Yet sometimes Jung uses the term inner child negatively to denote the clinging herd instinct, lack of individuality and fear of solitude. Rejecting collective norms requires growing up and giving up childlike attitudes. As Jung remarks here, “Eros demonstrates to the I the impossibility of being a child.”

Albrecht Dürer, “Putti Dancing and Making Music”

Because the whole of The Red Book may be regarded as a manifesto of seeking the middle path between the extremes of the opposites, Jung yet again treats us to one of his typical paradoxical statements:

“Essentially, the good needs to be regarded as an inherently no-less-dangerous principle than evil.”

One-sidedness is never desirable in the Jungian world.

Finally, Appendix C to The Red Book contains a passage from Black Book 5 devoted to the cosmology of the Seven Sermons. Here Jung appears to be speaking directly to the reader as the voice of the Soul:

“I, your soul, am your mother, who tenderly and frightfully surrounds you, your nourisher and corrupter; I prepare good things and poison for you. I am your intercessor with Abraxas. I teach you the arts that protect you from Abraxas. I stand between you and Abraxas the all-encompassing. I am your body, your shadow, your effectiveness in this world, your manifestation in the world of the Gods, your effulgence, your breath, your odor, your magical force. You should call me if you want to live with men, but the one God if you want to rise above the human world to the divine and eternal solitude of the star.”

The soul speaking through Jung admonishes us not to fear or escape from Abraxas, for the pain and disappointment of incarnation are inevitable. The star god, the one true god of the middle way, who is independent of Abraxas, can only be reached by going through earthly suffering connected with the terrible Abraxas so that the human “ransom” is repaid. Only few of us reach the state of “absolute individuality,” through which the endless Pleroma (the collective unconscious) becomes concentrated into a shining star – “the point that contains the greatest tension” and is “immeasurably small.” Such an individual can be compared to a small sun that can emit fire. Jung concludes:

“You yourself are a creator of worlds and a created being.”

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, “The Sun”

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

(2) Ibid.

(3) The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

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Shiva and Parvati: the Birth of Kali

I have across a fascinating version of the birth of goddess Kali. In this myth she came to the world as a result of Parvati’s anger, which she shed and transformed during her spiritual practice.

Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mount Kailash where a yogi receives the Ganges from Shiva, Cleveland Museum of Art

After Parvati married Shiva, she moved with him to the icy caves of the Himalayas to pursue the life of asceticism. They lived on the mountain Kailasa close to the lake Manasarovar (lake of the mind):

“If Shiva’s principal function was destruction, hers was preservation and reconstruction, thus offsetting his violence. She had a calming, civilizing influence on Shiva. Under the soothing effect of her charming presence, he changed his wild, rude, and often mad behavior.

Many comparisons are given in the Puranas to show this interdependence. Shiva is the sky and Parvati the earth; Shiva is the ocean and Parvati the shore; Shiva is the sun and Parvati the light. Parvati is all qualities, and Shiva the enjoyer of all qualities. Parvati is the embodiment of all souls, and Shiva the supreme soul itself. Parvati is all forms, and Shiva the thinker of the forms. Parvati is speech and Shiva meaning.

The representation of the lingam and yoni also points to an aspect of this interdependence. As a great yogi, Shiva accumulates great sexual potency that must be released in creation so that it will not be utilized for destruction. … Shiva is the figure for moksha or liberation and Parvati for dharma or righteous living in the world.

One day Shiva teased Parvati about her dark color. In a fit of temper she went to the forest and started tapas in order to change her color. Seeing her intense austerities, Brahma came to her and asked her to take another form and rid the world of the two demons Shumbha and Nishumbha, who had been reincarnated and were terrorizing the world.

Acceding to this request, the goddess Parvati shed her dark skin and became fair in color. In this form she came to be known as Gauri, the radiant one, the shining one, the fair one. Her dark outer skin took the form of Kaali, the virgin goddess, with the luster of a black rain cloud. Kaali held the conch and discus of Vishnu as well as the trident of Shiva, for she had the strength of both. Gauri told her to go with Brahma to slay the demons.”

From Vanamali, “Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother”

Dakshineswar Kali Temple, Kalkota

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Annie Ernaux

“There is this need I have to write something that puts me in danger, like a cellar door that opens and must be entered, come what may.”

Annie Ernaux, Getting Lost

Annie Ernaux has won the Nobel prize in literature this year. So far I have read two books by her, The Happening and Getting Lost. I will definitely read more. The subject matter of her writing is her own life, especially its most painful aspects, which she describes with utmost truthfulness. In her books the reader receives a full-blown confession told with a somewhat cold precision. To explain the way she writes, she quotes Michael Foucault, who said that “the highest good is to make one’s life a work of art.” She has turned her living into writing, albeit without killing its pulsating vitality in the process. An encounter with her prose has been a shattering experience.

What she decides to share with the world, and this is what makes her writing so fresh and original, has probably never been shared with such candidness in any memoir. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” as Kafka famously wrote. Her writing definitely has had that effect on me: as if her honesty could penetrate the shadow or the parts of the psyche I, her reader, have suppressed and disowned. I am reminded of a curious social game that the characters played in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. At a party thrown by Nastasya Filippovna guests were supposed to confess publicly the most evil act they have ever committed. Nobody dared to expose themselves completely. Annie Ernaux, however, writes without any such qualms. And because she is so daring and truthful, I, the reader do not feel the need to judge her. Perhaps this is a too far-fetched analogy if I quote Krishnamurti here, who said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” Reading Annie Ernaux equals observing how her life and her passion unfold. There is no need for evaluation, no need to pass ethical judgments. Just first-hand experience.

In conclusion, I would like to offer you a passage from an article I came across in The New York Review of Books. I include the link, though there is a paywall. There Sigrid Nunez also ponders the theme of Ernaux’s raw honesty:

“‘I have always wanted to write the sort of book that I find it impossible to talk about afterward,’ Ernaux writes in Shame, ‘the sort of book that makes it impossible for me to withstand the gaze of others.’ This calls to mind Orwell’s famous dictum that the only kind of autobiography to be trusted is the kind that reveals something disgraceful about its author. At the end of Getting Lost, Ernaux speaks of ‘this need I have to write something that puts me in danger.’ Here I thought of her countryman and fellow autobiographer Michel Leiris, who likened literature to bullfighting and for whom the only writing worth doing demanded that the writer be a matador, willing to risk being gored. The means to this end, as stated in a preface to his confessional memoir Manhood (1939)—’To expose certain obsessions of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain shameful deficiencies or dismays’—are central to Ernaux’s literary project.”

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Number Three and Its Mysteries

Three is intimately connected with the myth of the goddess and with the three main phases of the moon – waxing, full and waning, corresponding to the three phases of a woman’s life – maiden, mother and hag. Pythia sitting on a tripod and pronouncing her oracles forms a direct expression of the sacred lunar number three. Mari, an ancient goddess of the Basques, dwelled in caves and was called out three times by her devotees if they required a prophecy. (1) The primordial, pre-Celtic goddess Morrigan, who symbolized birth, life and rebirth/transformation, similarly to the Minoan snake goddess, was also associated with the number three but rather than crystallizing into three forms she kept shifting between different modes. (2) Perera writes:

“Typically, the Morrigan is a figure of Fate and the female wisdom of serpent, raven, flowing waters, and blood. As birthing, destroying and regenerating aspects of the whole life process she represents sight from the pleromatic perspective – the cosmic eye, which sees from the matrix underlying and beyond opposites uniting what is below and above, past and future, the snake’s and bird’s-eye view. … she is thus the prophet of destiny.” (3)

Henry Fuseli, “The Three Witches”

Triads of Ancient Greece are well known – The three Moirai or Fates pronounced on the past, present and future; there were also the three Erinyes, the three Graces, not to mention Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the Underworld. Of the three realms – the sky, the upper world and the underworld – the latter was presided over by the dark goddess, who was sometimes identified with the hag from the original goddess triad. She could also be perceived as independent of the three goddesses, who were identified with the waxing moon (Cora), full moon (Demeter) and the waning moon (Hekate). But there were also three days of lunar darkness, when the moon was in its invisible phase. These were the three days when Jesus lay in his grave and when Inanna was kept in the underworld by her dark sister Ereshkigal. The thrice great Hermes was the only God permitted to move freely between the three realms. No mysteries were off-limits to him.

Hermes and the Triple Goddess, via

The primordial goddess was triune, which means that the triad stood for unity rather than diversity. Similarly, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity emphasizes the unity of the godhead. The Hindu Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, is also referred to as the Triad of Unity. In symbolism, the number three is also identified with unity and synthesis imposed upon duality and its inherent conflicts. (4) The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols states:

“Three is regarded universally as a fundamental number, expressive of an intellectual and spiritual order in God, the cosmos or mankind. … Another notable group of three is the holy monosyllable om, comprising the three letters AUM, matching the three states of manifestation. … in alchemy, too, there were three elements employed in the Great Work, sulphur, mercury and salt.” (5)

But it is in the Kabbalah that we find the ultimate elucidation of the symbolism of number three. The third sephirah of the Tree of Life is Binah – the Great Mother, who represents “the female potency of the universe.” (6) She is Marah, the Great Sea and the Great Womb through which life is manifested. The yoni, the vesica piscis, the cup or chalice and the outer robe of concealment are her symbolic repository. (7) As it was in oldest goddess triad, also here there are two aspects of Binah: the dark sterile mother (Ama) and the bright fertile mother. Binah is the archetype of form associated with the planet Saturn but at the same time she is “the principle behind all moon force.” (8) She draws from the higher Sephirot to create form. I found the following explanations of Dion Fortune very illuminating:

“It must be remembered, however, that life confined in a form, although it is enabled thereby to organise and so evolve, is much less free than it was when it was unlimited (though also unorganised) on its own plane. Involvement in a form is therefore the beginning of the death of life.”

Elsworth Kelly, “The Mandorla Form” (i.e. vesica piscis)
Illumination by Hildegard of Bingen – The Universe

Hence the Sorrow associated with Binah and with Saturn, the lord of constriction. “Form disciplines force with a merciless severity,” adds Fortune, thus explaining why Binah is part of the Pillar of Severity – the left side of The Tree of Life. Virgin Mary is frequently cited as associated with Binah, as Dion Fortune explains:

“Binah, the primordial formative influence, the parent of all form, is behind and beyond manifesting substance; in other words, is ever-virgin.” (9)

Binah is the mother of forms but herself she is not of this material world. She is the virgin prime matter, the formative and shaping impulse, she is the archetype, which is the form that will build the reality. She is the root archetypal substance, yet unmanifested, therefore pure and virgin. Her colour is black.

Meinrad Craighead, “Crow Mother over the Rio Grande”

Binah is associated with Understanding, coming from her sorrow and compassion:

“The word Marah, which is the root of Mary, also means bitter, and the spiritual experience attributed to Binah is the Vision of Sorrow. A vision which calls to mind the picture of the Virgin weeping at the foot of the Cross, her heart pierced by seven swords. We also recall the teaching of the Buddha that life is sorrow. The idea of subjection to sorrow and death is implicit in the idea of the descent of life to the planes of form.” (10)

Virgin of Sorrows – an Orthodox icon

Hence the idea of Christianity, muses Dione Fortune further, that woman is the root of all evil because she brings the suffering inevitable in incarnation. Yet Binah itself, as was pointed out above, is not part of the manifested reality. This is the essence of the symbolism of number three: it stands for divine order. It is this divine triple order that brings about the manifest reality.

C.G. Jung’s repeatedly postulated that matter, this world, partakes in divinity. In his essay “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity” he wrote:

“‘Creation’ in the sense of ‘matter’ is not included in the Trinity formula, at any rate not explicitly. In these circumstances there are only two possibilities: either the material world is real, in which case it is an intrinsic part of the divine ‘actus purus,’ or it is unreal, a mere illusion, because outside the divine reality. The latter conclusion is contradicted firstly by God’s incarnation and by his whole work of salvation, secondly by the autonomy and eternality of the ‘Prince of this world,’ the devil, who has merely been ‘overcome’ but is by no means destroyed—and cannot be destroyed because he is eternal. But if the reality of the created world is included in the ‘actus purus,’ then the devil is there too—Q.E.D. (11)

Quaternio was one of the central concepts in Jungian psychology. Jung postulated enriching the Christian Trinity with the fourth missing element – the feminine, the earth, the shadow/devil. Four was also the number of incarnation and structure. It made the mandala complete and thus allowed the cycle to return to the beginning, standing as such for both creation and destruction. Yet it seems that in the primordial trinities, that is the triple goddess of the ancients, or the Trimurti and Tridevi (three primordial goddesses – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati) of Hinduism, the feminine and the shadow are palpably present. In conclusion, it appears that only the Christian Trinity would need the enrichment prescribed by Jung.


(1) Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses

(2) Sylvia Brinton Perera, “The Dark Irish Goddess Morrigan,” in: The Moonlit Path: Reflections on the Dark Feminine, ed. by Fred Gustafson

(3) Ibid.

(4) Juan Eduardo Cirlot, The Dictionary of Symbols

(5) Jean Chevalier, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols

(6) Dion Fortune, The Mystical Kabbalah

(7) Gareth Knight, A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism

(8) Ibid.

(9) Dion Fortune, The Mystical Kabbalah

(10) Ibid.

(11) C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East (CW 11), par. 290


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Reading The Red Book (44)

“Don’t be afraid to suffer – take your heaviness and give it back to the earth’s own weight.”

R.M.Rilke, “Sonnets to Orpheus”

We have almost reached the end of our journey through The Red Book. This post summarizes the final passages of Scrutinies. There is one more post due, which will be devoted to the appendices attached to Liber Novus.

After he spends four days in solitude, Jung is approached by a man wearing a turban, who looks like “a wise doctor.” The stranger says he brings joy and the art of healing that he learnt from women. He says to Jung, “I bring you the bliss of paradise, the healing fire, the love of women.” Jung acknowledges the danger of such a temptation with “women, books and ideas.” (1) In that moment the stranger morphs into Philemon, who compares Jung to Osiris. Philemon says that Jung will experience dismembering – he will be blown apart and scattered to the winds. It is hard not to think here of Jung’s psychology and its widespread appeal. Yet it often seems that the fragments of Jung’s knowledge are present all over the place while not many of us have access to or interest in the entirety of his work. Philemon also acknowledges the amazingly fertilizing quality of Jung’s psychology, comparing it to the inundation of the Nile:

“You will be a river that pours forth over the lands. It seeks every valley and streams toward the depths.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “The Nile”

Philemon also brings a metaphor of the Tree of Life, which will be embodied by Jung:

“You will hold the invisible realm in trembling hands; it lowers its roots into the gray darknesses and mysteries of the earth and sends up branches covered in leaves into the golden air.
Animals live in its branches.
Men camp in its shade.

It will stay green for a long time.
Silence abides in its treetop.
Silence in its deep roots.”

Jung understands in that moment that his path leads through devotion and love, and so he must remove the unnecessary ties that bind him with others. Only through solitude will he attain his “stellar nature” through connecting with the great mother:

“If I am bound to men and things, I can neither go on with my life to its destination nor can I arrive at my very own and deepest nature.”

At night Philemon approaches Jung again. He wears an earth-coloured robe and holds a silver fish. This well-known symbol of Christianity is a harbinger of the arrival of the most imposing figure – Christ himself. Philemon expresses his devotion to him and says that people “have learned no lesson from your awe-inspiring life.” To live like Christ, explains Philemon, means “to take their own life into
their own hands, faithful to their own essence and their own love.” Thus Christ is presented here as a symbol of individuation – the one who teaches people to live “without imitation.”

Edvard Munch, “Golgotha”

A subsequent encounter with Philemon bewilders Jung. He overhears the old magician speaking to the dead again and bestowing on them some horrible truths about the dark God:

“But the serpent of the God wants human blood. This feeds it and makes it shine. Not wanting to murder and die amounts to deceiving the God. … The God grows strong through human murder. The serpent grows hot and fiery through the drenching flood. Its fat burns in the blazing flame. The flame becomes the light of men, the first ray of a renewed sun, He, the first appearing light.”

Here Jung seems to be anticipating his later concept of God’s shadow, evil aspect. Jung resisted the notion of God being summum bonum – all good. Philemon also seems to ponder here the renewal and rebirth inherent in an act of destruction. But at this point the atrocities that accompany the birth of God are too terrifying to Jung.

This is followed by Jung’s repeat encounter with Elijah and his daughter Salome. Elijah is very distressed because he had heard that one God had died (this is the echo’s of Nietzsche’s influence). Jung confirms the news joyfully:

“Do you not know that the world has put on a new garb? That the one God has gone away; and that in turn many Gods and many daimons have come to man?”

In order to appease Elijah, who is still inconsolable, Jung says that the multitude of gods have sprung one from the one God, who has disintegrated into many. The soul has embraced this multiplicity, adds Jung. The multiplicity is captivating, says Jung. He admonishes Elijah and the spirit of monotheism that this old prophet stands for:

“That is your old and ingrained mistake, that the one excludes the many.”

In contrast, Salome says that “being and multiplicity” appeal to her.

Next Jung describes difficult dreams and the feeling of torment that besieged him. His soul visits him one night, offering consolation. She says that she has sent tormenting dreams to Jung so that his mind will turn to the Gods. She adds that Gods need humans as much as humans need the Gods because “the Gods need a human mediator and rescuer.” This seems to elevate the ontological status of humanity. Jung remarks:

“There is no longer any unconditional obedience, since man has stopped being a slave to the Gods. He has dignity before the Gods. He is a limb that even the Gods cannot do without. Giving way before the Gods is no more.”

This open defiance is not to the soul’s liking. She asks the lower and the higher Gods what they think of that and they both express outrage. They attempt to frighten Jung by sending him a dream, in which he is a horned devil. But Jung’s resolution is not broken and so the soul brings their message to Jung:

“The Gods give in. You have broken the compulsion of the law.”

Jung seems to have achieved freedom from one last bondage – that of the soul bound to the Gods. At this point in his interpretative guide to The Red Book, Sanford L. Drob notices the resonance of Jung’s insistence on the special status of humans in divine plan. He quotes from Jung’s letter to Reverend Erastus Evans (written in 1954):

“In a tract of the Lurianic Kabbalah, the remarkable idea is developed that man is destined to become God’s helper in the attempt to restore the vessels which were broken when God thought to create a world. Only a few weeks ago, I came across this impressive doctrine which gives meaning to man’s status exalted by the incarnation.”

As Drob explains, Jung refers here to the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun ha olam, namely actions that humans can take to restore and repair the world.

David Ligare, “Landscape for Baucis and Philemon”

The final visionary encounter in Scrutinies takes place in Jung’s garden. Here Philemon is revealed as an incarnation of Simon Magus. Philemon says:

“Simon and Helena have become Philemon and Baucis and so we are the hosts of the Gods.”

Rembrandt, “Philemon and Baucis”

This is a rich statement that deserves long pondering. First of all, Simon Magus, as Ribi explains, was presumably a father of Gnosticism. (2) Ribi writes:

“Accounts of Simon’s life emphasize that he had a consort named Helena. Later critics asserted that Helena was a prostitute whom Simon had purchased in the Phoenician port of Tyre and then liberated. Simon told the tale differently, adding a mythic or archetypal dimension. He proclaimed that in Helena he found and liberated a deific feminine power hidden within physical creation. Helena was a manifestation of the divine Sophia (Wisdom); through her mediation, Simon had met the primal Epinoia. This term, Epinoia (imperfectly translated by the words “thought” or “conception”), appears often in subsequent Gnostic mythologies as the title for the first feminine emanation manifest within the primordial mystery of divinity.”

Here the parallels between Christ and Mary Magdalene are not to be overlooked. Similarly to Mary Magdalene, also Simon and Helena were vilified by early Christians. Further, rather than blindly obeying the Gods, Philemon and Baucis as well as Simon and Helena suggest a radically different relationship with the divine. Humans offer the gods hospitality as “hosts of the gods.” What is more, Satan (here named “the worm”) also has his place in the Garden. The divinity of darkness must be acknowledged. Philemon speaks to the shade of Christ, who is also present in the scene:

“Recognize, oh master and beloved, that your nature is also of the serpent. Were you not raised on the tree like the serpent? Have you laid aside your body, like the serpent its skin? Have you not practiced the healing arts, like the serpent? Did you not go to Hell before your ascent? And did you not see your brother there, who was shut away in the abyss?”

Christ acknowledges that what Philemon says is the truth and then adds what are the last words of Jung’s Red Book:

“I bring you the beauty of suffering. That is what is needed by whoever hosts the worm.”

The suffering and mental anguish that Jung endured while The Red Book was being created is once again mentioned in the Epilogue which he wrote in 1959 and added to the volume. One may argue that creating Liber Novus granted him healing unity amidst the dismemberment that his soul was going through in those dark years.

M.C.Escher, “Snakes”


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

(2) Alfred Ribi, The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis

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​You may have heard of two magical triangles, one of black, the other of white magic. The origins of that legend are impossible to fathom. The white magic triangle is said to include Lyon, Prague and Turin, while the black one is composed of San Francisco, London and Turin. Thus Turin becomes the focal point of both triangles. I have written about this fascinating city and its interplay of light and darkness here.

This year I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Lyon, the ancient capital of Gaul. The symbolism of light permeates its history and symbolic expression. Before the Romans founded the city they called Lugdunum, the area was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The meaning of the name Lugdunum is not completely clear. It may be connected to the Celtic god Lugh (Lughus) represented by a raven; it has also been suggested that the name means “Mount of Light.” (1) Undoubtedly, right at the beginning the magic of whiteness and blackness were intertwined in Lyon.

Lyon, Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls – the federal sanctuary of the Three Gauls

Lugdunum was a pivotal city for the Romans as the capital of the three Gauls. It was the place where the emperor was worshipped in an elaborate ceremony that took place annually in August, at the height of summer with the Sun in Leo. The modern name Lyon may come from Lugdunum but its connection with the word “lion” is undeniable, though not confirmed by linguists. Nevertheless, the likenesses of these beasts are ubiquitous in the city, starting with its coat of arms. Lyon was also a major cult place of Cybele, about whom I have written here. It is worth pointing out that already the Romans associated the city with the lion and used it as the emblem of the city. 

Lyon – coat of arms

France in general has long been connected with the symbolism of the lion. Specifically, Marianne – the female personification of the French Republic – is often depicted with a lion. She also wears a Phrygian cup, which connects her even more with Cybele, whose homeland was Phrygia. 

Statue of Marianne in Lyon

Different periods of history are co-present in the magical city of Lyon, located at a confluence of two rivers – the male Rhone and the female Saone. This bears the symbolism of flowing together of opposites and the Sacred Marriage of Heaven and Earth.

Nicolas et Guillaume Coustou, “La Saône et le Le Rhône” Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon

No wonder then that in Roman times the most worshipped deity of Gaul was Mercury, who stands for the union of opposites as well as being the god of magic. 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)

At the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon I was struck by the large number of Mercury artefacts and especially by a silver goblet with Gallic Gods dated to 1st century AD. Here is the detailed description from the museum:

“On the sides of the ovioid swelling can be seen from left to right, successively, a tree with a tuft of mistletoe, a wild boar, a seated man holding a purse in his left hand, the right hand picking up coins from the table: this is Mercury, identified by his two familiar animals, the tortoise and the raven … Further on, an eagle is perched on a mound and a snake winds itself around a tree. A man is seen, finally, reclining on a couch. … he is wearing a torques around his neck, …, his left arm supports a horn of plenty. Behind him is outlined a stag. In the god with necklaces, it is generally agreed we should see the image of Cernunnos, the horned god whose symbol animal was the stag.”

Mercury stele from the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon

Cernunos shares with Mercury the chthonic and psychopomp associations. I pondered the Mercurial vibe of the city when I heard about the most famous features of the old town – the so-called traboules (Latin trans – cross, ambulare – move). These are secret covered passageways, originally used by silk merchants, who thus transported their wares in full protection from the rain. Here are just two examples:

Just round the corner from the Gallo-Roman museum and its adjacent Amphitheatre another landmark of the city is located. The Fourvière Basilica, overlooking the city from a hill, is visible from all corners of Lyon. Its whiteness is quite blinding and it has a white statue of Madonna on the main altar. The main architect was Pierre Bossan, who started his work in 1872. He was heavily influenced by the mystical Lyonese painter Louis Janmot. Bossan’s vision was to create “the palace of the most powerful of queens” – the Virgin Mary. (2) The sheer amount of Byzantine decorations, frescos, etc. is quite staggering. The most beautiful was the mosaic depicting The Council of Ephesus (AD 431), during which it was decided that Mary would be called Theotokos – the God bearer, thus emphasizing her divine status.

Council of Ephesus as depicted in the Fourvière Basilica
The entrance to the Basilica
The Black Madonna of Fourvière 

But what attracted me most in the Basilica was the Black Madonna – the Lady of Fourvière , also known as Notre Dame des Graces, housed in the side chapel. Her cult as well as the Baroque chapel date to the times before the current Basilica was erected. The statue is dated to the late 16the century. (3) When her chapel was ravaged by the Protestants in 1793, a gardener hid the statue. She was restored to her place in 1900 and crowned by the archbishop of Reims. The women of Lyon donated their own jewellery for her diadem. The magnificent crypt of the Basilica houses a large number of Black Madonna statues and paintings from around the world and a mosaic of seven deadly sins. The counterpoint to the dark crypt is the figure of Saint Michael aiming a spear at the dragon. As Gambier explains,

“… if we draw an imaginary line downward from the spear, we find the dove of the Holy Spirit on the keystone of the high church, the white virgin of the main altar, Saint Joseph dying under the altar of the crypt and the mosaics of the seven deadly sins of the crypt: an impressively concise link from the heavens to the earth and sinful humanity.”

Louis Janmot, “Poem of the Soul”, 18 paintings via

Lyon’s most famous festival is the 8 December Fête des Lumières. Then the monuments of the city become illuminated at night, creating the most fantastic and bright colours and shapes. The origins of the festival are religious. When a plague tormented the city in 1643, the gentry of Lyon made a petition to Mary to save the city. It was successful and the plague ended on 8 September – the Nativity of the Virgin. 8 September 1852 was chosen to inaugurate a 5.6-metre tall golden Virgin statue on the Fourviere Basilica. Unfortunately, the work was not finished due to flood and so the feast was postponed until 8 December – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Festive illuminations were planned for that day but they had to be cancelled due to heavy rainstorm. When the rain subsided, the city dwellers took to the street with self-made lampions, candles and oil lamps thus inaugurating the first festival of light. (4)

For me the best parts of the City of Light were its dark and hidden corners. Like silk moths, which are nocturnal creatures, the city spins its best tales under the cover of darkness.


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(1) Gerald Gambier, Discover Lyon and its Historical Heritage

(2) Ibid.

(3) Gerald Gambier, Fourviere: A Symbolist Basilica

(4) Gerald Gambier, Discover Lyon and its Historical Heritage

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Reading The Red Book (43) – Seven Sermons to the Dead

We have now reached the seventh and final Sermon to the Dead, which you will find in the third section of The Red Book called Scrutinies. The dead come to Philemon and ask him to “teach us about men.” This sermon addresses the most portent of questions: who are we, humans, and what is our relation to divinity? We learn that an individual is a gateway. Through us humans passes “a procession of the Gods.” In every “eternal moment” new Gods come and go. Human do not create gods but they should be open to receiving them and let them pass through their gateways towards embodiment.

RWS Tarot – The Star

The Star is the most significant symbol that appears in the sermon. For Ribi, it stands for “the transcendental particularity of a person—the expression and symbol of the eternal in the individual, which stands superior to mortality and provides orientation and hope through the vagaries of life.” (1) Wanderers and navigators have been guided by the stars for centuries. In a similar way, “consciousness navigating its unknown darkness takes its bearings from the scintillations of psyche’s imaginal forms.” (2) An individual is a microcosm with all the stars of the universe encompassed within the dark skies of the psyche.

Gerhard Dorn, a sixteenth-century alchemist frequently quoted by Jung, wrote that in every man there is an “invisible sun.” Divinity and its light permeates everything – the underworld and the upper world. Agrippa von Nettesheim, author of Three Books on Occult Philosophy (1533) spoke in this context of the world soul – a “certain only thing, filling all things, bestowing all things, binding, and knitting together all things, that it might make one frame of the world.” (3)

Wilhelm Kotarbinski, “Evening Star”

The transcendental light of the world soul unites psyche and matter, planting divine sparkles (scintillae) in both. As Jung wrote,

“Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing. The synchronicity phenomena point, it seems to me, in this direction, for they show that the nonpsychic can behave like the psychic, and vice versa, without there being any causal connection between them.” (4)

In other words, in a miraculous moment of an archetypal constellation, the archetype that is ripe in the psyche materializes and becomes part of reality. These are the precious moments of synchronicity in our lives. But for such an incarnation to occur, gods need humans so as they can pass through the gateway of manifestation. The true kingdom of god is the individual soul or as Meister Eckhart put it, “God himself is blissful in the soul.” (5)

In the seventh sermon we also meet Abraxas again. As previously indicated, this terrifying deity stands for the physical drive, the carnal fire, the ultimate creative and destructive force of the psyche. As Hoeller explained, Abraxas is “the fiery force which acts as the primeval union of the opposites at the foundation of psychic life.” (6) After the sermon is over Philemon tells Jung, “What is time? Time is the fire that flares up, consumes, and dies down. I saved being from time, redeeming it from the fires of time and the darkness of time, from Gods and devils.” The dominion of the fiery god Abraxas, who personifies Time, loses its power in the face of enlightenment or in the event of death. In order to be like Philemon – “the eternal fire of light” and to step out of the transience of being and out of the domain of Abraxas– an individual has to become someone who is – like in Hinduist Tat Tvam Asi – Thou Art That, You are one with the Absolute. Only when Abraxas’ influence stops, can the light of the star take over and an individual can become one with the eternal.

Jung is now approached by “a dark form with golden eyes.” The mysterious figure says Jung can call him “death that rose with the sun.” He reminds Jung that death begins in the midst of life. He tells Jung:

“You will go to men as one veiled. Your light shines at night. Your solar nature departs from you and your stellar nature begins.”

Thus the fate of Jung seems to be sealed – he will bring the dark wisdom of the unconscious into the light.

In a final vision, brought to Jung by the dark one, Jung saw “the night, … the dark earth, and above this the sky stood gleaming in the brilliance of countless stars. And I saw that the sky had the form of a woman and sevenfold was her mantle of stars ….” Philemon asks the celestial mother to take Jung as her son. This, however, proves to be only possible after a period of solitude and purification that Jung must undergo. On that note Philemon disappears.


Footnotes to The Red Book offer more in-depth analysis of the significance of the last sermon to the dead. There Shamdasani quotes extensively from the Black Books – Jung’s private journals named after the black covers; these journals were actually the prima materia of The Red Book, so their colour is very apt. In the Black Books, Jung recorded a conversation with his Soul, who asked him if he wants to receive three or seven lights. He chooses seven lights. The Soul teaches: “The first light means the Pleroma. / The second means Abraxas. / The third the sun. / The fourth the moon. / The fifth the earth. / The sixth the phallus. / The seventh the stars.” The celestial mother and the sky are encompassed by the symbolism of the Star, adds the Soul. What is more, the six lights taken together form a bridge to the seventh light of the Star. This resonates with the Egyptian mythology, where the goddess Nut, who personified the starry night sky, had Geb, the Earth, for her husband. From their union Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys were born. One of Nut’s epithets was “She Who Holds a Thousand Souls.” (7) The mysterious great goddess of the star, who appeared in Jung’s vision, could also be associated with the Seven Sisters, that is the Pleiades star cluster. She could also be Binah, the Great Mother of the Kabbalah, who is associated with Saturn and the colour black. As the dark womb that gave birth to all, she reminds me strongly of the Black Madonna. In her mantle shine a million stars, each one unique and assigned to each and every one of us upon our birth.

Our Lady of Guadalupe


(1) Alfred Ribi, The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis

(2) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg

(3) quoted by Alfred Ribi

(4) C.G. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (vol. 8 of CW), par 418

(5) C. G. Jung, Psychological Types (vol. 6 of CW), par 418

(6) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead

(7) M. M. Meleen and T. Susan Chang, Tarot Deciphered: Decoding Esoteric Symbolism in Modern Tarot


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Between Hermes and Mnemosyne: Jung and Warburg

In the part of Homeric Hymn to Hermes, in which Hermes and Apollo exchange gifts, Hermes sings about the origins of the gods:

“And the first of the gods that he commemorated with his song was Mnemosyne, Mother of Muses, for the son of Maia was a follower of hers.”

In his Hermes, Guide of Souls, Karl Kerenyi equates the goddess Mnemosyne with the source. He writes:

“She is memory as the cosmic ground of self-recalling which, like an eternal spring, never ceases flowing.”

Kerenyi adds that Mnemosyne is Hermes’ daimon of fate; for he has no choice but to carry memory “as inherited knowledge of all primordial sources of being.”

Dant Gabriel Rossetti, “Mnemosyne”

One such son of Hermes, possessed by ancestral memory, was C.G. Jung, another – Aby Warburg. The latter – Jewish German art historian, born in 1866 (nine years before Jung) – had a lot in common with the Swiss psychiatrist, though the two never met. As the war was approaching, both him and Jung had dreams of the continent engulfed in blood. (1) As Schama puts it,

“Beneath the smooth marble façade of classicism, there was, Warburg had discovered early in his career, a primal energy, periodically suppressed and controlled by rational discourse, but always capable of boiling up from its deep sources and engulfing civilization.”

The scholar, argued Warburg towards the end of his life, must go beyond logic towards magic, in order to confront the symbol and its pulsating, primal and pagan underpinnings. Symbols are never rational. In the case of Warburg, and possibly also in the case of Jung, this bold assertion was preceded by a period of psychotic depression.  Warburg spent five years in a clinic for the mentally ill on Lake Constance in Switzerland, not too far from the birthplace of Jung.

But before his time in the clinic, Warburg had made a journey to New Mexico desert in order to observe and experience the work of symbols among Hopi Indians. Such a journey was not a usual practice for the theoretically-oriented scholars of that era. Warburg was especially interested in “the snake dances, in which the Indians, each August, threw live snakes at serpentine images of lightning to ensure the harvest rains.” (2)

In 1923, after a few years of being incarcerated in the Swiss clinic, he delivered a lecture on the Hopi rituals and thus declared his return to sanity. He said during the lecture that both primitivism and modernity share the same symbolic bedrock. He also asserted that all cultures are connected through “the archive of memory.” As Schama concludes,

“By declaring the permanence, the timelessness, of delirium, Warburg won his release from the asylum.”

Giorgio de Chirico, “Eternity of the Moment”

In 1927, two years before his passing, Warburg started to compose an atlas of pictures which he called Mnemosyne. It was a collection of images that were thought to demonstrate the endurance of symbolic forms since antiquity until our times. Today Warburg institutes carry on his unfinished work. What Schama marvels at, is the atlas’s “eloquence of peculiarity.” He compares it to “a … mosaic of discrete pieces of our nature from which a coherent image might emerge.” Because God is hidden in the details, as Warburg famously said.

a panel from the Mnemosyne Atlas

Link to Warburg Institute in London:


(1) Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

(2) Ibid.


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Painting the Sun

I. “Turner’s favourite colour was yellow. He spent hours studying its myriad iterations, using more yellow pigments than any other …

Turner admired yellow’s optical power. Bright and warm, it jumps out at us from a distance and forces itself on the retina … Turner believed that yellow was the foremost of the three primary colours because it was the closest to white, to light, and therefore to the sun. … Though he wasn’t a straightforwardly religious man, Turner was a lifelong worshipper of nature. The whole world, he thought, was bathed in a divinity that originated in the sun.

In his unfinished “Norham Castle, Sunrise” (c. 1845) Turner didn’t paint a solar orb directly but invoked it with a cloud of lemon-posset yellow. For all its lyrical beauty, the painting has a curiously destabilizing effect on the eye, oscillating uncomfortably between visibility and invisibility. … That is because Turner’s sun and sky are insoluminant – they are equally bright, which creates mayhem in the visual system. To the part of the brain that mostly processes luminance the sun is invisible, but to the part of the brain that mostly processes colour it is easily distinguished from the blue sky around it. … his sun overwhelms our visual apparatus just like the real one.

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The most potent of all Turner’s suns is “Regulus” … More arson than artwork, “Regulus” is almost too incandescent to look at. When it originally went on display in London, critics advised the public to shield their eyes to avoid injury … In one sense Turner hadn’t simply painted the sun but recreated it… He, like Prometheus, had stolen fire from the gods and so become divine in his own right.”

James Fox, “The World According to Colour: A Cultural History”

J.M.W. Turner, “Regulus”

II. “The elements of visual art have long been held to be color, shape, texture, and line. But an even more basic distinction lies between color and luminance. Color can convey emotion and symbolism, but luminance alone defines shape, texture, and line. ‘Colors are only symbols,’ Pablo Picasso once wrote. ‘Reality is to be found in lightness alone.’

A monochromatic rendering of “Impression, Sunrise” reveals that Monet painted the sun at exactly the same luminance as the gray of the clouds. If he had rendered it in a strictly representational style, the sun would have been brighter than the sky by a factor too large to have been duplicated with pigments. If he had made the sun lighter—which is closer to the way it would appear in reality—it would have lost its quavering luminosity and would have seemed, paradoxically, less bright. Rather than appearing as a source of light, the sun would have looked like a cutout affixed to the clouds. By rendering the sun the exact luminance as the sky, Monet achieved an eerie effect: his orange sun appears to pulsate across the
grayish-green water.”

Margaret Livingstone, “Light Vision” via

Monet, “Impression, Sunrise”

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