Symbolism of the River

J.M.W. Tuner, “Haridwar Kumbh Mela”

“I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong brown god,” so begins the third of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The divinity of rivers has been recognized by all mythologies since the beginning of time. For the Egyptians, the androgynous god Hapi personified the Nile and was called the Lord of the River Bringing Vegetation. In Hinduism the river is the goddess Ganga – she is the spout of water rising from Shiva’s hair. The Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world (over 120 million people), is held in four locations along the Ganges. The belief is that at these spots Vishnu spilt nectar of immortality from an urn, or kumbh. It was written in the Puranas: “Those who bathe in the bright waters of the Ganga where they meet the dark waters of the Yamuna during the month of Magh [roughly January/February] will not be reborn, even in thousands of years.”(quoted after The Guardian). The dates of celebrations are calculated according to the zodiacal positions of the Sun, the Moon and Jupiter. The incredible photos can be viewed here. Similarly, death and rebirth were also associated with rivers in Christian faith. Early Christians were baptized by total immersion in rivers, while in Judaism immersion is used as a rite of passage for converts.

Ganga and Shiva

Looking at the photos from India, one has to marvel at the symbolic power of the river, which stands for life itself, constantly changing, passing, flowing, moving forward, and yet somehow remaining the same – changing in time and timeless at the same time. Looking at a river, it is natural to fall into reverie and be transported to the other side of reality, like the dead were transported in Charon’s boat across the Styx.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, “Charon and Psyche”

William Wordsworth thus begins Book 9 of The Prelude:

“Even as a river,—partly (it might seem)
Yielding to old remembrances, and swayed
In part by fear to shape a way direct,
That would engulf him soon in the ravenous sea—
Turns, and will measure back his course, far back,
Seeking the very regions which he crossed
In his first outset; so have we, my Friend!
Turned and returned with intricate delay.”

Wordsworth’s words made me think of the famous Panta Rhei –  yes, everything flows, but sometimes, like the river, we also meander, retracing our steps, revisiting the past, returning to the source.

Sebastião Salgado, the Eastern Part of the Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, USA,

In a famous photo by Sebastião Salgado, the river’s source is bathed in supernatural light. The first streams that will become the mighty river first quietly percolate among the lofty mountain peaks, hidden from view and growing in power. Origins of great civilizations are invariably bound to rivers. According to the Genesis story, there were four rivers that flowed out of Eden. As C.G. Jung explained in Mysterium Coniunctionis (par. 276):

“…because it was the abode of the originally androgynous Primordial Man (Adam), the Garden of Eden was a favourite mandala in Christian iconography, and is therefore a symbol of totality and—from the psychological point of view—of the self.”

A Turkish carpet depicting a walled garden with the Four Rivers of Paradise in the Museum of Islamic Arts, Istanbul

It seems that the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics informs the symbolism of rivers in many spiritual traditions. On the Theosophy Trust website the author draws attention to the etymology of the word:

”The name ‘river’ comes from rivus or rive, indicating ‘a splitting asunder,’ a process not only recorded in geological history but in mythology as well. For if the river literally divides the earth and creates the canyon depths, symbolically it divides the world of the living from that of the dead.”

Hence the ambivalence of the symbol – the river brings life but also reminds us of change leading to death. In his seminal work “Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science” Rene Guenon relates the Pilgrim’s Way to the symbolic river of life and death:

“The journey can be accomplished either by going upstream towards the source of the waters, or by crossing over the waters to the other shore, or by going downstream towards the sea.”

He then proceeds to discuss each type of symbolism. In the case of going upstream, the river is identical with the World Axis. The celestial river such as Ganga descends to the world from celestial realms; in this way “the influences of the ‘world above’ are transmitted to the ‘world below’.” The four rivers of Paradise had their source at the foot of the World Tree, which itself is synonymous with the World Axis that links heaven and earth. These four rivers “spread the celestial influences” that concentrated at the source into the whole world.

When it comes to the symbolism of crossing the river, it is conceived either as an important transformation or transition in life, as death, as mentioned before, or as reaching Nirvana (“Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, hail!” – as the famous last words of the Heart Sutra translate). Guenon also compares descending with the current of the river towards the ocean as a journey towards Enlightenment. In The Book of Symbols, edited by Ami Ronnberg and published by ARAS, I found a passage from The Upanishads, which seems to enrich the symbolism of floating down the river of life:

“As a great fish travels along both banks, the nearer and the farther, even so a person travels along both states, the dream state and the waking state.”

The river seems to be an all-encompassing symbol, including life and death, wakefulness and sleep, language and silence, the upper world and the lower world, time and eternity, since everything, which lives and dies “partakes of the quality of riverness,” as The Book of Symbols summarizes.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne; Blue and Silver – Chelsea”

James Whistler, “Nocturne; Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights”

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The Musical Hamilton and its Symbolism

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The musical Hamilton is not only brilliant musically but it is also ingenious in the way it breaths life and energy into often lifeless historical and political themes. Its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a biography of Alexander Hamilton, a somewhat forgotten Founding Father, at the airport. Apparently, after reading just a few chapters, he was already imagining the hero’s life as a musical. Looking at natal charts of Hamilton and Miranda, I was immediately struck by how similar they are. Both have their Sun, Moon and Mercury in Capricorn. Hamilton had additionally Venus and Saturn in this sign, which makes him an incredibly strong representative of the Saturn ruled sign. Not surprisingly, ambition and “an endless uphill fight” are the main themes of his life and the musical. The main recurring theme “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…” is established in the first song (“Alexander Hamilton”). From humble origins he rises to become the right hand of George Washington, the founder of the Federal Bank and the 1st US Secretary of the Treasury. From “a diamond in the rough, a shining piece of coal” he transforms himself into a man he wants to be. His life ended prematurely when he died in a duel at the age of 49.

Alexander Hamilton/Lin-Manuel Miranda

Another crucial motif, so typical of the sign of Capricorn, is forging one’s own path, following the inner vision and ambition no matter the obstacles. Hamilton’s hunger for achievement possibly comes from a subconscious premonition of being out of time. Could he have felt that he would die young? Other characters keep asking him why he is writing “like he is running out of time.” In the song “My Shot” his line is: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” Miranda said that this notion of “the ticking clock of mortality” is what he shares with Hamilton most. Hamilton lived passionately, filling every waking moment with intense activity. In immense frenzy, he wrote 51 out of the 85 installments of the Federalist Papers. Writing is his unique talent and his way of giving perfect form to his passion and zest for life. When Barack Obama invited the cast of Hamilton to perform at the White House he reminisced:

“…seven years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda came to the White House Poetry Jam, and he took the mic and he announced that he and his musical collaborator, Alex Lacamoire that they were going to perform a song from a hip-hop album they were working on — and I’m quoting him, ‘about the life of somebody who embodies hip-hop — Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.’ And so we all started laughing, but Lin-Manuel was serious. And who’s laughing now?”

The appeal of the musical and its groundbreaking power has to do with diverse casting. In the original version, Hamilton is the man of colour singing hip-hop, but this can go even further since Miranda has said that he is open to women playing founding fathers in the future. As Obama commented: “And with a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women — (applause) — the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men — and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.” Finally, the choice of hip-hop to narrate grand historical events is evocative of Shakespeare, who was also inspired by the common speech of the street, which he turned into poetry.

In the last scene of the musical, Hamilton’s wife Eliza puts herself back in the narrative. She is the one to live and tell his story. She speaks out against slavery and expresses pride in what she sees as her greatest achievement to come: establishing the first private orphanage in New York. She ends by saying that she cannot wait to meet Alexander in the next life. There is some powerful symbolism at play here. First, the history baton is passed to a woman, now putting her in the centre. The mention of the orphanage, family, love are a signal that an astrological shift has occurred – from Capricorn to the opposing sign – Cancer.

The emphasis on Capricorn/Cancer polarity is a single most important astrological influence of our time. Astrologer Mark Jones spoke in an interview with Adam Sommer (https://player.fm/series/the-exploring-astrology-podcast-2394776/exploring-planetary-nodes-with-mark-jones) about the need of balancing “the Capricornian toughness, ambition, relentlessness and austerity with the Cancerian softness, empathy and sensitivity.” In his book Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes, Mark Jones explains that the evolutionary intention of the north node being in Cancer means that the soul is called upon to “recover the inner child and to allow the sensitive and expressive emotional nature to flow again unimpeded.”

It can be argued that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is an integration of Cancer/Capricorn polarity in a way how it infuses the rigidity of Capricorn with emotional and revolutionary freedom of hip-hop and how it promotes inclusivity. In 2018, Miranda published a delightful little book called “Gmorning, Gnight! Little pep-talks for me and you.” Wonderfully illustrated by Johnny Sun, this is a book of positive affirmations for mornings and evenings. Far from being monumental, these little fragments are always heartwarming and extremely reassuring. This is a welcome uplifting message in our time of excessive polarization.

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Moments experienced intensely: photography of Sebastião Salgado

“All my photos correspond to moments that I have experienced intensely.”

Sebastião Salgado, “From my Land to the Planet,” Kindle edition

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The movie Salt of the Earth (2015) directed by Wim Wenders and dedicated to the life and work of a renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado begins with a reflection on the origins of the word “photographer,” as “the one who writes and rewrites the world with light and shadow.” I was deeply touched by the exhibition of Salgado’s photography project “Genesis,” which I have recently seen in Zurich. His reverential method of working made a deep impression on me. A true artist is indeed the one who writes and rewrites our world, deepening and expanding our vision. I had seen his photos before and adored them but I had never taken the time to look deeper into the ways they were created.

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The first thing that strikes about his photography is of course the fact that the images are black and white. Genesis is Salgado’s latest project in which he photographed the unspoilt areas of the planet; all of his previous works were photos of people, often suffering, dying or toiling for little reward but nevertheless displaying striking dignity. The effect of the black and white, to my mind, is rendering the images more hauntingly archetypal, and thus touching the very core of our being. In the book From my Land to the Planet, in which the journalist Isabell Francq lends voice to the photographer, he also refers to the choice of black and white for his photos:

“… with black and white and the entire range of greys, I can concentrate on people’s intensity, their attitude, their gaze, without all this being disturbed by colour.

Of course, reality is not like this, but looking at an image in black and white, it gets inside us, we digest it and, subconsciously, we colour it. Black and white, this abstraction, is thus assimilated by the viewer, who then appropriates it. I find its power extraordinary.”

Precisely, each photo of his seeps into the unconscious, transforming the viewer from within. Once you let his alchemy work on you, you will keep seeing the images in your mind’s eye. At least that is what happened to me. The Daily Telegraph wrote that his is a God’s eye view of the planet. In Wender’s movie a South American native was convinced that Salgado is in fact an incarnation of Jesus who came back to the earth to be a witness of this native’s life and determine whether he is worthy of going to heaven or hell. This was told as a humorous anecdote but Salgado’s godlike perspective is an accurate description of his art. Another important element is the absolute totality of his images. I find these words of his striking in this respect:

“Totally integrated with his surroundings, the photographer knows that he is going to witness something unexpected. When he merges into the landscape, into that particular situation, the construction of the image eventually emerges before his eyes. But in order to see it, he has to be part of what is happening. That’s what photography is. At a certain moment, all the elements are connected: the people, the wind, the trees, the background, the light.”

Kalema camp, Ethiopia 1985

What I find particularly fascinating is Salgado’s own way from darkness to light during the span of his career. His initial projects showed famine, war, diseases, suffering, genocide and hard manual labour. Witnessing the genocide in Rwanda was his own nigredo, the dark night of the soul. He got depressed and lost his faith in humanity but he explained that he took these images because of a moral obligation to do so. In the project “Workers” he tracked manual labour all across the planet. Here is what he witnessed on Java:

“On Java, in a little paradise of beauty, I watched men cover fifty kilometres on foot, there and back, across rice paddies, clove-growing plantations and the tropical jungle, before climbing to an altitude of 2,300 metres, then descending another 600 metres on the other side, and going down into the crater of the Kawah Ijen volcano, a great producer of sulphur. Due to the toxic emissions, veritable clouds of poison, it was necessary to breathe entirely through the mouth and not the nose. As their sole defence, the workers stuffed a piece of material into their mouth; in the course of time, their teeth were completely ruined. Even though none of them weighed more than 60 kilos, each filled a basket with 70 to 75 kilos of minerals. They fixed two baskets at either end of bamboo cane and then climbed the 600 metres separating them from the exit to the crater. This took them about two hours, then they hurtled down the slopes of the volcano, to avoid being crushed by the weight of the baskets. It was extremely dangerous. Some of them dislocated their kneecaps. At the time, they received about $3.50 per journey. Afterwards, they rested for a couple of days in order to recover physically, so that by the end of the month, they pocketed just enough to survive.”

The Sierra Pelada Mines, 1980s

The Genesis project was his way of healing the wounded soul. “After having witnessed so much horror, I was now seeing so much beauty,” he says. Humans have managed to colonize more than half of the planet, yet still 46 per cent of the Earth has remained in the same state as at the time of the creation, almost intact. He did not work in Europe because here human intervention has been too extensive and too visible. Salgado’s aim was to show “the dignity and the beauty of life in all its forms and show how we all share the same origins.”

He travelled to Galapagos to trace the footsteps of Darwin and witness the land where the theory of evolution was born. There he had a moment of illumination looking at an iguana:

“… one day I was watching an iguana, a reptile that, a priori, appears to have little in common with our own species. But, looking closely at one of its front feet, suddenly I saw the hand of a Medieval knight. Its scales had made me think of a suit of chain mail, under which I saw fingers similar to my own! I had before my eyes the proof that we all come from the same cell, each species having then evolved in the course of time in its own way and in conformity with its own ecosystem.”

There were numerous memorable photos I would love to write about. The photos of the Nenets, an ethnic group native to northern arctic Russia, who live in very harsh climate and have very few possessions, leading a nomadic life with their reindeer, arrested me for long minutes. Salgado observed: “These people who live in cold climates survive with very little, yet their lives are as intense, rich and full of emotions as our own, perhaps even more so, as we multiply our material goods in an attempt to protect ourselves, so much so that we forget to live.”

The Nenets

Salgado was almost 70 when he finished the project Genesis. Despite his age, he had not stopped to throw himself physically into his subjects, notwithstanding the limitations of harsh weather conditions or in the case of all the previous projects grave physical danger. His passion and devotion were always maximal. He concludes:

“First of all, I encountered the planet. I had already travelled round the world, but this time I felt that I was entering inside it. I have seen the world from its highest points to its lowest, I have been everywhere. I discovered minerals, plants and animals, and then I was able to look at us, the human race, as we were at the dawn of man. This gave me much comfort, because going back to its origins, humanity is very strong, especially rich in something that we have now lost after becoming city-dwellers: instinct. The modern, urbanized world, with its rules and regulations, is constraining. It is only in nature that we can find a little freedom.”

There is something godlike about this man, who set out to replant the entire forest on the damaged land that he had inherited from his parents. Everybody said it was a crazy venture but together with his wife Leila he actually created the first national park in Brazil- the Instituto Terra. At the end of Wender’s movie Salgado blissfully explains how his life has turned full circle. When he was a boy the land in Brazil where he grew up was rich and fertile with extensive areas of forests and beautiful rivers. At the end of his father’s life the land was barren and damaged, but he breathed new life into it, bringing the original native forest back to life.

Salgado and his wife at the Instituto Terra (http://www.institutoterra.org/eng/midiaGalery.php#.XGCR5FxKjb0)

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The Seeds of the Sixties

“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’

‘It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.'”

From The Gospel of Thomas

Women’s Strike for Peace and Equality, New York City, 1970

While visiting a Swiss exhibition dedicated to women’s right to vote, which here in Switzerland was granted to women on the federal level in 1971, I was fascinated to have a closer look at the tumultuous Swiss Sixties, which had paved the way to such a historic change. Without the eruption of the unconscious material, without all the chaos, madness and destruction of the 60s, we would be in a very different place now – with less personal freedom and much lower level of collective and individual awareness. In his book The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties, Tobias Churton compares the decade to the magnificent magic show that Prospero conjures up at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is perhaps easy to dismiss the collective longing for freedom from social constraints and suffocating social roles, which characterized the 60s, as “such stuff as dreams are made on” but it is also important to note that all seismic changes start as dreams and ideas germinating in the unconscious and slowly pushing up to the light of day. The more inevitable the change is, the stronger opposition and reaction it encounters, but in the final outcome the force of human evolution is unstoppable.

Dane Rudhyar, “Seed Flight”, via https://www.khaldea.com/rudhyar/flight.shtml

Perhaps the real magic of the 60s consisted in the mythical dimension that was sparked into existence in that decade. Though I believe the mythical dimension is “spread upon the earth” for all to see, there are unique moments in time when the fabric of the universe is torn, a sort of spiritual quickening takes place and our lives become saturated with myth. This is why we tend to glamorize that decade, which is clearly visible in shows sumakes for some wonderful television such as the inimitable Mad Men.

In a scholarly study of the show (see Sources), a critic writes this about the main character:

“Don’s brilliance as an ad man and his interest as a character lie in his ability to turn matter into metaphor, objects of consumption into dreams (or here, memories), the vulgar exteriority of the commodity world into the interior realm of the psyche. Don, in short, turns surface into depth, and this alchemical quality recurs as both visual cue and narrative trope for his character throughout the show.”

There was the depth pf the psyche we collectively encountered in the Sixties. What exactly was the archetypal substratum of the decade? According to Richard Tarnas, the most important astrological alignment of the time was the conjunction of Uranus and Pluto. Oppositions and conjunctions of these planets happen only once per century. Tarnas summarizes the archetypal meaning behind these two planetary bodies in the following way:

“The planet Uranus appears to be correlated with events and biographical phenomena suggestive of an archetypal principle whose essential character is Promethean: emancipatory, rebellious, progressive and innovative, awakening, disruptive and destabilizing, unpredictable, serving to catalyze new beginnings and sudden unexpected change. The planet Pluto, by contrast, is associated with an archetypal principle whose character is Dionysian: elemental, instinctual, powerfully compelling, extreme in its intensity, arising from the depths, both libidinal and destructive, overwhelming and transformative, ever-evolving.”

Chariot of Dionysus, Greco-Roman mosaic from Sousse

When Uranus and Pluto are in axial alignment we witness “massive empowerment of revolutionary and rebellious impulses, and intensified artistic and intellectual creativity.” The two planets were in opposition in the decade of the French revolution, which shared with the sixties the strong anti-Establishment sentiments. The first Uranus Pluto conjunction of the modern era occurred between 1450-61, when Gutenberg’s printing press made history.

Throughout history, mass emotion was at its peak each time the two planets aligned. Tarnas thus summarizes the meaning of the decade while simultaneously explaining the backlash against it:

“The unmistakable cultural ambiance which pervaded the decade of the Sixties, a zeitgeist whose prevailing quality combined a mass awakening of emancipatory and creative impulses with a titanic eruption of elemental and libidinal forces, was talked about, celebrated, criticized, feared. Attempts were made to suppress it, attempts were made to sustain it indefinitely. It dominated people’s experience at the time, just as it now dominates retrospective views of that era. In a sense, the 1960s seemed to unleash the force of a great collective Oedipal impulse, catalyzing a vast wave of erotically motivated rebellion against the repressive structures of established authority.”

In September 2018 The New York Review of Books published a marvellous article related to the numinous qualities of the 1960s and the relevance of the decade to the present. Its author Jackson Lears claims that the 60s were about the “longing for a more direct, authentic experience of the world” rather then being confined to to “a hamster cage of earning and spending” on both individual and collective level with wars understood as “a product of the same corporate technostructure.” He also suggests that the members of the 60s counterculture were ridiculed and demonized by the establishment with active participation of FBI and CIA agents and the mainstream media. Trapped in the rational scientific paradigm of the era, more and more people felt starved for spiritual meaning. Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass, left his Harvard professorship to look for deeper meaning in the East. And so did thousands more. Ram Dass’s message of the necessity of introspection and being here now is now more relevant than ever.

Ram Dass, Be Here Now

It was Theodore Roszak who in the 1960s coined the term “counterculture.” Lears summarizes his message in the following way:

“At its most profound, Roszak argued, the counterculture arose from a Romantic and existentialist tradition preoccupied with sustaining authentic existence in an inauthentic society—a tradition stretching from Blake and Wordsworth to Martin Buber and Paul Goodman.”

The 60s brought about undeniable changes related to ecology, sexuality, race, feminism and personal freedom. However, it seems that the evolution promised by the magical decade has been stunted in many areas. Lears finishes in a lamenting tone:

“But the core of resistance never disappeared entirely, and the countercultural search for alternatives to technocratic rationality remains more necessary than ever. The corporate technostructure survives, increasingly deregulated, no longer even pretending to provide the job security that was available to more fortunate workers at mid-century. Police brutality toward black people has been militarized, facilitated by the use of sophisticated weapons and riot gear, while the legal rights of defendants have receded with the rise of mass incarceration. Serious debate on foreign and military policy has largely retreated to the margins of public life, experts continue to justify endless wars abroad, and our nuclear arsenal awaits a trillion-dollar modernization. Revisiting the Sixties leads to a sobering conclusion: everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

Tobias Churton is more hopeful for the eventual dawning of the age of Aquarius:

“The Sixties was the Herald, the kerux, the main show has not yet begun but book me a seat when it does! I’m in for the ride, how about you?”

Sources:

Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (e-Duke books scholarly collection.), Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing, Kindle edition

Tobias Churton, The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties: The Magic, Myth and Music of the Decade that Changed the World, Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont 2018

Jackson Lears, “Aquarius Rising,” The New York Review of Books, September 27 2018 issue

Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, Kindle edition

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The Tree of Life in the Vision of W. B. Yeats

One of the most beautiful poems ever written is “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats. The poet was a favourite of his beloved Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and his muse. The visual richness of the poem is informed by the curriculum of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and evokes Kabbalah, astrology, tarot and alchemy. Yeats and his wife Georgie Hyde Lees were both members of the order. Shortly after they got married, Georgie suggested an experiment in automatic writing. This led to a string of fruitful sessions which brought forth A Vision, a meditative study weaving together poetics and the occult. Neil Mann runs an excellent website dedicated to the analysis of A Vision (http://www.yeatsvision.com/Yeats.html).

Yeats and Georgie Hyde-Lees

The celebrated literary critic Northrop Frye observed that the first stanza of “The Two Trees” refers to the symbol of the Tree of Life. To me, the poem is an exhortation to look within, into one’s soul. When one looks within, the heart awakens and the darkness of ignorance is no more. Therein lies eternal beauty and eternal life: the radiant truth about the spiritual (archetypal) roots of manifest reality. The stanza contains references to the Zodiac (“the flaming circle of our days” – you can read more about Yeats’s understanding of the wheel here) and to hermetic knowledge in general, invoking the winged sandals of Hermes himself.

Yeats’s drawing in A Vision

The second stanza seems to convey what happens to the soul when the gaze is fixed outwards, towards the illusions of maya, without anchoring in the soul. In the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 13:12 we read: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” We look through the dark, dim glass when we turn away from the soul. On his website dedicated to A Vision Neil Mann quotes a significant passage from Yeats’s another poem “The second coming”:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Like in “The Two Trees,” it is a sad, unbalanced world where spiritual centre has been lost.

What is the second tree referred to in the title? Critics have suspected that is is the second tree from Eden – the Tree of Knowledge. Eating fruit from that tree brought humans consciousness and mortality. The imagery of death and decay is quite evocative in the second stanza of the poem.

A very beautiful musical rendition of the poem was performed by Loreena McKennitt. The song begins with a sublime solo played by Patrick Hutchinson on the bagpipe. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

“The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
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The Bembine Table of Isis

“I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil.”

(the words inscribed on the statue of Isis of Sais)

Museo Egizio, Bembina Tablet of Isis

The Bembine Table of Isis, also known as Mensa Isiaca, is a bronze tablet decorated with a variety of metals including silver, gold and black “Corinthian bronze,” a prestigious and extremely valuable metal alloy. The tablet is on display in the Egyptian Museum in Turin. Scientists have established that probably it was not made in Egypt but in the first century BC in Rome for a temple to the goddess Isis. The hieroglyphs it contains are random and not authentically Egyptian. And yet, despite the scientific condescension, this outstanding artifact has fascinated generations of occult thinkers and researchers. Manly P. Hall wrote that “whoever fashioned the Table was not necessarily an Egyptian; he was an initiate of the highest order, conversant with the most arcane tenets of Hermetic esotericism.” It is quite remarkable that Museo Egizio in Turin, one of the largest and most important Egyptian museums in the world, acknowledges the significance of the Table of Isis as its first most notable artifact and the kernel of the entire collection. Mensa Isiaca is actually the opening exhibit of the Museum, accompanied by a statue of Isis.

Museo Egizio in Turin, Statue of Isis

The following is drawn on Chapter 10 – “The Bembine Table of Isis” – of Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages. There P. Hall quotes Athaniasius Kircher, a 17th-century German scholar, who held that the Bembine Table of Isis “teaches, in the first place, the whole constitution of the threefold world – archetypal, intellectual, and sensible”.

Thomas Taylor, the 18th-century English Neoplaonist, wrote:

“Plato was initiated into the ‘Greater Mysteries’ at the age of 49. The initiation took place in one of the subterranean halls of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The ISIAC TABLE formed the altar, before which the Divine Plato stood and received that which was always his, but which the ceremony of the Mysteries enkindled and brought from its dormant state. With this ascent, after three days in the Great Hall, he was received by the Hierophant of the Pyramid (the Hierophant was seen only by those who had passed the three days, the three degrees, the three dimensions) and given verbally the Highest Esoteric Teachings, each accompanied with Its appropriate Symbol. After a further three months’ sojourn in the halls of the Pyramid, the Initiate Plato was sent out into the world to do the work of the Great Order, as Pythagoras and Orpheus had been before him.”

According to Manly P. Hall himself, the Tablet of Isis holds “the key to Chaldean, Egyptian, and Greek theology”. Elyphas Levi thus interpreted the meaning of the artifact:

“It is divided into three equal compartments; above are the twelve houses of heaven and below are the corresponding distributions of labor [work periods] throughout the year, while in the middle place are twenty-one sacred signs answering to the letters of the alphabet. In the midst of all is a seated figure of the pantomorphic IYNX [Isis – the goddess who assumes all forms; a transmitting intelligence], emblem of universal being and corresponding as such to the Hebrew Yod, or to that unique letter from which all the other letters were formed.”

Manly P. Hall continues summarizing the symbolism of the Tablet:

“The upper panel contains the twelve figures of the zodiac arranged in four triads. The center figure in each group represents one of the four fixed signs of the zodiac. … In the secret teachings of the Far East these four figures–the man, the bull, the lion, and the eagle–are called the winged globes or the four Maharajahs who stand upon the corners of creation. The four cardinal signs–P, Capricorn; X, Aries; B, Cancer; F, Libra–are called the Powers. The four common signs–V, Pisces; A, Gemini; E, Virgo; H, Sagittarius–are called the Minds of the Four Lords….

If the throne be accepted as the symbol of the spiritual sphere, the border typifies the elements, and the various panels surrounding the central one become emblematic of the worlds or planes emanating from the one divine source.

If cosmogony be the subject of consideration, the central panel represents the spiritual worlds, the upper panel the intellectual worlds, and the lower panel the material worlds.

That the lower panel represents the underworld is further emphasized by the two gates–the great gate of the East and the great gate of the West–for in the Chaldean theology the sun rises and sets through gates in the underworld, where it wanders during the hours of darkness.”

Finally, Manly P. Hall compares the Tablet to the Orphic egg of creation, which represents the Cosmos encircled by the Serpent – the Creative Spirit. The way the snake spirals is analogous to the path of the Moon – with the snake’s head and tail representing the apparent halt in moon’s orbit (the lunar nodes). For alchemists, Isis, the healing goddess, who not only healed Ra of poisoning but also put together the dismembered Osiris, was one of the metaphors of prima materia. She is the reason why the manifest universe unfolds spirally from the Source. As Jung wrote in Mysterium Coniunctionis:

“Materia prima in its feminine aspect: it is the moon, the mother of all things, the vessel, it consists of opposites, has a thousand names, …, as Mater Alchimia it is wisdom and teaches wisdom, it contains the elixir of life in potentia and is the mother of the Saviour and of the filius Macrocosmi, it is the earth and the serpent hidden in the earth, the blackness and the dew and the miraculous water which brings together all that is divided.“

“… she personifies that arcane substance, be it dew or the aqua permanens, which unites the hostile elements into one. … The cognomen of Isis was the Black One. … since ancient times she was reputed to possess the elixir of life as well as being adept in sundry magical arts. She was also … rated as a pupil of Hermes, or even his daughter. … She signifies earth, according to Firmicus Maternus, and was equated with Sophia, … the vessel and the matter of good and evil. An inscription invokes her as ‘the One, who art All.‘ She is named the redemptrix. In Athenagoras she is ‘the nature of the Aeon, whence all things grew and by which all things are.‘”

 I had the opportunity to visit the Egyptian Museum of Turin a few months ago and it was a transformative experience. To stand face to face with the greatest mysteries of the goddess, as represented in the Bembina Tablet of Isis, was a rare blessing.

Sources:

C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis

Manly P. Hall, The Sacred Teachings of All Ages, http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/sta/sta13.htm

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Roma: Movie of the Year

Romaposter2

The movie Roma is a beautiful hymn to women. It tells the story of Cleo, an indigenous (Mixtec) woman who works as a maid to an upper-middle-class Mexican family. She is wonderfully portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted before. She tends to the family and their mansion with humble dignity and loving care reminiscent of the hearth goddess Hestia. Her demeanor in the movie has been repeatedly called “stoic” by various reviewers. But she is so much more than stoic, the epithet which to me implies “in control of emotions”. What is more, the emotional depth is perhaps the most palpable, powerful feature of this compelling character.  Granted, hers is introverted emotion, devoid of grand gestures, yet flowing like a strong river below the few words that she utters throughout the whole movie. Similarly, Hestia was as an unshaken guardian of the hearth, the Goddess of Being, who quietly maintained order and stability.  Cleo embodies the qualities of love and humility; the latter word coming from Latin humus, i.e. earth. She is the rock for the troubled family, which has been abandoned by the selfish father. And she does not stop serving despite her own tragedy.

Yalitza Aparicio

The opening scene focuses on foamy water being mopped across the floor. It is a sublime symphony to the mundane, repetitive household chores, which are deemed by some as demeaning but when viewed from a spiritual perspective they are the expression of pure love and humble work which sustains life. This work is unnoticed, unappreciated and endlessly repetitive, subject to ruthless entropy.  It is often the task of the underprivileged, namely women or ethnic minorities. And yet, both Benedictine and Zen monks emphasize the necessity of working with hands as essential spiritual practice and as a way to relate and connect to the world around.

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The director Alfonso Cuarón dedicated the movie to Libo, who is Liboria Rodríguez, his family’s longtime maid. By giving her the name Cleo (Greek  for pride, fame and glory) in the movie he symbolically elevates her. Fermin, her heartless macho boyfriend, tries to demean her by calling her “a servant.”  In his world her quiet power goes unappreciated. But as James Hillman observes in Kinds of Power,

“The idea of service demands surrender, a continuous attention to the Other. It feels like humiliation and servitude only when we identify with a ruling willful ego as mirror of a single dominating god.”

But god/goddess is not away from the world, as “the idea of an anima mundi (ensouled world) translates into care for things,” continues Hillman. Furthermore, in Japanese, the characters for “human being” mean “a person in between,” always related to others, interdependent with the environment. Water, which binds all, is the most powerful symbol in the movie, as pointed out by this reviewer:

“Fittingly, water is a recurrent motif – from the soapy suds of the opening credits (signalling the “woman’s work” that is never done?) to the breaking waters that prefigure a harrowing scene of unblinking sorrow, to the poignant Veracruz beach finale in which strong thematic undercurrents are given literal physical form. We see also planes reflected in that water, passing overheard, distant and unreachable, like a dream of escape.”

roma

In his Dictionary of Symbols, Cirlot describes water as limitless and immortal; saying that “the waters are the beginning and the end of all things on earth.” Water powerfully mediates between life and death; the Babylonians called it “the home of wisdom.” For me, the movie provided a cathartic (from Greek kathairein  – to cleanse) emotional release; it is both heartbreaking and uplifting, a real stroke of genius.

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Symbolism of the Egg

I. “Set the egg before you, the God in his beginning.

And behold it.

And incubate it with the magical warmth of your gaze.”

II. “And I am the egg that surrounds and nurtures the seed of the God in me.”

Carl Jung, “The Red Book”

The Cosmic Egg from “The Red Book”

In the Ancient Greek Orphic tradition, Protogonos (First-born, Primeval), also known as Phanes (Manifestor) or Eros, is the first god hatched from the Cosmic Egg, which had a serpent wrapped around it. That primordial egg was believed to have come from Chronos (Time) and Ananke (Necessity) or Nyx (Night). Like the sun, he was imagined to drive a chariot and be the source of light, but unlike the sun he was considered invisible, perhaps like the yolk inside an egg. In an Orphic hymn “To Protogonos,” he is called “ineffable, hidden and brilliant”, “forever in whirring motion.” In this tradition heaven and earth were believed to have been made of the two halves of the eggshell.

Similarly, as Cirlot notes in his Dictionary of Symbols, in Hinduism Brahma hatched from an egg; also in Chinese belief the first humans sprung from an egg dropped by Tien to float upon the waters. The Egyptians were fascinated by the idea of “a secret animals growth [coming] about inside the closed shell” (Cirlot). Therefore they equalled the egg with the hidden, occult phenomena. Earle de Motte summarizes the role of the egg in Hermopolitan cosmogenesis in this way in his Egyptian Religion and Mysteries:

“… life in potentiality was the Cosmic Egg, laid on the primeval mound (the Island) by the ‘Great Cackler’ (Ibis, as Thoth). Ra … is said to have emerged from this Egg and created all life.”

By Tomasz Alen Kopera, via https://www.saatchiart.com/artalen

The great symbolist Rene Guenon also wrote on the World Egg that it contains in seed all that the Cosmos will contain in its fully manifested state, all that is essential to create life. Ancient rituals of initiation placed the would-initiates in caves so that they can incubate and wait for a vision, which would bring them rebirth in the upper world “in the same way as the chick crawls out of the egg.” (quoted after The Book of Symbols by ARAS).

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, central panel – detail

Guenon adds that the World Egg is the navel of the world, occupying its very centre and radiating life outwards, like the Greek omphalos. In Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung quotes from the alchemical treatise Turba Philosophorum: “The sun-point is the germ of the egg, which is in the yolk, and that germ is set in motion by the hen’s warmth.” “The Book of Symbols” summarizes the egg meaning in this way:

“The egg is the mysterious ‘center’ around which unconscious energies move in spiral-like evolution, gradually bringing the vital substance to light.”

Or, as it was put in theosophy, “within the egg, the universe is breathed out and breathed in.”

By Andrew Gonzalez, via http://sublimatrix.com/

Sources:

Juan Eduardo Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols

Rene Guenon, Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science

C.G. Jung, The Red Book

The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, by Archive of Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)

The Orphic Hymns, translation, introduction and notes by Apostolos N. Athanassakis and Benjamin M. Wolkow

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The Reality of Dreams in Henry Fuseli’s Art

Henry Fuseli’s portrait painted by James Northcote

Henry Fuseli’s paintings fire up the soul. What is special about this eighteenth-century artist is that he never painted from “nature” but rather he chose to cast his eye inwards and look for inspiration in the fiery depths of his soul. The themes of his art were myth, literature and gothic tales. The scenes depicted in his work are full of expression, the characters always in rapture, seized by extreme psychological states. The art can be described as sublime, lofty and ecstatic, as if the beholder was standing face to face with purely archetypal content, which has momentarily sprung up from the eternal substratum of the material reality.  It is reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous, meaning “”arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring.” To quote Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, the characters in Fuseli’s paintings stand trembling “face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.” 

In the introduction to a brochure accompanying the exhibition of his art in Kunstmuseum Basel, Eva Rufeli wrote:

“Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) is in many respects an artist of transitions and transgressions. Geographically speaking, his biography links his Swiss origins with his adopted country, England; art-historically speaking he stands on the threshold between Classicism and Romanticism; and, finally his oeuvre develops from a close dialogue between literature and visual art. The renown of the artist, who polarized opinion during his lifetime and acquired the nickname of ‘the wild Swiss’ in London, was founded on the scandal-provoking picture The Nightmare…, which triggered both horror and fascination in the public when it was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1782.”

Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare”

This world of dreams, which is the matrix of myth and symbol, was precisely where Fuseli felt at home. It is not easy to say which paintings that I saw at the exhibition affected me most. He wrote once, “Prostrate yourself before the genius of Homer!” and it is hard to ignore his wonderful rendering of ancient themes. Here the white goddess Leukothea offers the shipwrecked Odysseus her veil. You can read more about this myth in one of my previous posts devoted to The Odyssey.

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In another Homer-inspired painting, Achilles sees the soul of his dead friend in a dream. When he reaches to embrace him, the apparition turns into smoke.

Achilles-Searching-for-the-Shade-of-Patrocles-1803-Henry-Fuseli-oil-painting-1

Fuseli was dubbed “Shakespeare of the canvas” by his contemporaries, perhaps because he was a huge admirer of Shakespeare and an avid theatre goer. The most striking to me were his artistic illustrations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth.  Puck, the diminutive sprite loves to lead wayfarers astray in the nocturnal forest. Here he is depicted in sheer delight over the mischief he has managed.

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In another one, Titania, bewitched by a love charm, tenderly caresses the ass-headed Bottom.

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakes Surrounded by Attendant Faries - 1794

And from Macbeth nothing surpasses the famous Three Witches.

wierd-sisters1

In one of his aphorisms, Fuseli stated that “reality teems with disappointment for him whose sources of enjoyment spring in the elysium of fancy.” But I believe Carl Jung might have redeemed his fears by saying in The Red Book that he “learned in the Mysterium: to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits the inner world, since they are real because they are effectual.” Jung complained about “a scientific phobia against fantasy.” The inner world is not less effectual or less real that the outer one. What is more, the so-called physical reality was dreamed into existence from “the elysium of fancy” referred by Jung as the collective unconscious. In Fuseli’s “Creation of Eve” the divine apparition at the top of the painting is in fact the birthing force behind this miracle of creation.

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Inanna at the Ground of Being

 “Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer,”

translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer

Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld, illustration taken from “Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria” by Lewis Spence, via Wikipedia

Ereshkigal, Quuen of the Underworld, image via http://www.mesopotamiangods.com/category/ereshkigal/page/2/

In the well-known Sumerian myth, Inanna, wrapped in royal robes and adorned with her best jewels, decides to descend into the Great Below, where her dark sister Ereshkigal resides. Astrologer Austin Coppock, calls this place “the bottom, the lowest point in the heavens, the Imum Coeli, the private place, the underworld, where history is stored, where the dead go, where pain and wisdom collects.”  It is the place from which no traveller returns. Ereshkigal orders her gatekeeper to treat Inanna in the same way as anyone who enters the kingdom of the dead would be treated. At the seven gates which she passes and which may be likened to the seven visible planets, the great goddess is stripped of all attributes -“mes” as they were called in Sumerian mythology – that make her a queen, a priestess and a woman:

“As she enters, remove her royal garments. Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.”

In the most poignant and shocking moment in the whole poem:

“… Erishkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.

She spoke against her the word of wrath.

She uttered against her the cry of guilt.

She struck her.

Inanna was turned into a corpse,

A piece of rotting meat,

And was hung from a hook on the wall.”

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Having don the deed, Ereshkigal starts moaning “with the cries of a woman about to give birth.” She uncovers her breasts, while “her hair swirls about her head like leeks.” In her book Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women, Sylvia Brinto Perera identifies Ereshkigal with the Dark Goddess:

“She is the root of all, where energy is inert and consciousness coiled asleep. She is the place where potential life lies motionless – but in the pangs of birth…”

Ereshkigal’s “eye of death” is “the instinctual eye,” which allows the initiate to see beyond the rational, conscious patterns into what is “messy and full of affect,” says Perera. One stands naked in front of the Dark Goddess: her vision pierces all the masks, all the veils. But this confrontation carries a new vision with it: glimpsing the heart of  the ultimate reality brings a radical shedding, transformation and rebirth.

Inanna upon a lion with her emblem – the eight-pointed star

Enki

While other gods failed her, Inanna is brought to life thanks to the help of Enki, the wise sea-goat of the primordial fresh-water ocean, who was the god of wisdom and magic. Enki was sympathetic to Inanna’s quest because he had also been to the underworld and had made it back. His own underworld journey and return had made him into a shaman – the “generative, creative and empathetic male; … the culture bringer, not the preserver of the status quo” as Perera puts it. As a deity he may be viewed as a fashioner of images and thus the god of archetypes and a patron of hermeticism and alchemy. He presides over the downward path which is the path of the mystic. Diane Wolkstein summarizes traditional rites of descent after the Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. These involve “regression to a pre-natal state,” followed by death, dismemberment, suffering and rebirth/ascent. Those who return from the Great Below “carry within them the knowledge of rebirth and often return bringing to their culture a new world view.” Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, does not know the underworld, which makes her understanding impaired. Wolkstein explains:

“Until her ear opens to the Great Below, her understanding is necessarily limited. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom is the same. … It is said of Enki, the God of Wisdom and the King of the Watery Deep, who lives directly above the underworld, that his ears are ‘wide open’ and that ‘he knows all things.’”

To help Inanna, Enki fashions two creatures from dirt, who were neither male nor female. They are endowed with a precious talent of being able to mirror Ereshkigal’s emotions:

“She sighed:

Ah! My heart!

They sighed:

Ah! Ah! Your heart!”

The queen of the underworld wanted to bestow them with all manner of precious gifts, but they asked for the lifeless body of Inanna instead. When their wish was granted, They proceeded to revive the corpse with water and food of life.

However, the ways of the underworld are very strict and therefore it was demanded that someone else be sent Below to take Inanna’s place. When she returned to her kingdom, she realized that her husband Dumuzi was enjoying the absolute power and its privileges which he did not have to share. In his arrogance, he did not even notice that the earth was bare and the whole universe was mourning the disappearance of the goddess. Inanna’s reaction mirrors that of Ereshkigal:

“Inanna fastened on Dumuzi the eye of death. She spoke against him the word of wrath. She uttered against him the cry of guilt. ‘Take him away! Take Dumuzi away!”

In the end, though, Inanna agrees that Dumuzi will spend only six months in the underworld, while the remaining six months in the Underworld will be taken over by his sister, who sacrificed herself for her brother. Wolkstein explains the significance of this resolution:

“Inanna’s journey to the underworld has brought a new world order to Sumer. … By giving Dumuzi eternal life half the year, Inanna changes the cosmic pattern. … The king who enters the underworld once a year will emerge every six months renewed in feminine wisdom and inner strength to take over the leadership and vitality of the nation. Moreover, by alternating the descent between sister and brother, feminine and masculine, the women and men of Sumer … share in its necessary journey [to the underworld].”

In her book, Sylvia Brinto Perera analyzes the myth from the Jungian perspective, offering a number of angles. One obvious association is its connection with seasonal changes and “the dwindling and replenishing of the storehouse.” As Inanna personified the planet Venus, whose eight-year cycle “appears to rule growth and the multiplication of mankind,” (here Perera is quoting Rodney Colin, author of Theory of Celestial Influence) her disappearance from the sky may be linked with the agricultural cycle of death and regeneration, not unlike in the Egyptian myth of Osiris, which I have written about here .

The underworld is a magical and archaic dimension, whose depths are “ecstatic,.. transformative,… pre-verbal, often pre-image.” From this “undifferentiated ground of being” comes rebirth and new, deeper awareness. Inanna’s story, similarly to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, is also a story of initiation into the mysteries. Inanna was the first goddess who sacrificed herself “for a deep feminine wisdom and atonement,” continues Perera. She knowingly submits to transpersonal forces. Inanna’s transformation into “a piece of rotting meat” symbolizes “the incarnation of cosmic, uncontained powers into timebound, corrupting flesh, continues Perera.” Like Sophia, she descends through the planetary spheres to incarnate down on the earth. From the psychological perspective, Ereshkigal’s untethered emotional expression points to the liberation of the repressed feeling content. At the end of the poem, Inanna experiences the same fury in relation to her consort, Dumuzi, who was the only one not mourning her disappearance from the face of the earth.

The return of Inanna restores fruitfulness to the earth. Perera remarks that this is a metaphor for the Goddess’s return to the Western culture. The Goddess Inanna is an emblem of full femininity which cannot be constrained by labels such as mother, daughter, lover, virgin or harlot. She is all that and more. Perera summarizes her archetypal qualities, portraying her as a goddess of the heavens, but both of gentle rains and terrible storms. While the Greek myth compartmentalized feminine archetypal qualities into a number of female deities, the Sumerians imagined a total Goddess. Because she cannot be pinpointed to one category, she rules borderlands, transitions and the liminal regions where energies cannot be contained. Though she is the goddess of fertility and the land’s bounty, she is also known as the goddess of war. Her chariot is pulled by seven lions; at times she is accompanied by a scorpion. She is also the goddess of sexual love, who claims her needs assertively and openly, asking her consort to “plow her vulva.” She is both mother and maiden, described as “eternally youthful” and “fierce.”

Mesopotamian Tree of Life

Yet she also nurses an ancient wound, which has made her into “a wanderer.” When she was a young goddess, “in the first years, in the very first years”, she rescued a huluppu tree which had been uprooted by a violent storm. She planted it in her sacred grove in Uruk. Diane Wolkstein calls “The Huluppu Tree” one of the world’s first recorded tales of genesis. In her essay “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree: One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess,” another researcher Johanna Stuckey puts forward that the huluppu tree is in fact the World Tree, which is the axis connecting Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.

The huluppu tree of Inanna’s myth had three creatures that inhabited it: the snake, the bird Anzu and the female demon lilitu, the antecedent of Lilith. In Carl Jung’s Alchemical Studies (CW volume 13) there is a chapter called “The Philosophical Tree.” According to Jung, the tree with the bird and the serpent stands for alchemical opus and its realization. The snake “represents the mercurial serpent, which as the chthonic spiritus vegetativus rises from the roots into the branches.” It connects the tree to the Underworld, while the divine storm-bird Anzu links the tree with Heaven. Wolkstein points out that Lilith, the first bride of Adam, who refused to be underneath him, is portrayed less negatively in The Zohar, which is the foundational work of Jewish mysticism and which says that Lilith  was granted “dominion over all instinctual, natural beings, ‘over every living creature that creepeth.’” This would link her to the Earth. Wolkstein concludes:

“Lilith forms with the Anzu bird and the snake a triad of sexual, lawless creatures who live outside the bounds of the Sumerian community…”

For Jung, the tree is “the seat of transformation and renewal” and as such it has feminine and maternal significance. In the Huluppu tree myth, Inanna is a young goddess at the threshold of life. The descent to the Underworld is long way ahead at that point. The tree may be also viewed as a symbol of her psyche – the unconscious, underworld roots, the bodily consciousness symbolized by the trunk of the tree and the heavenly self, i.e. the tree’s branches. Inanna weeps in despair when she notices the three intruders living in the tree. She does not understand yet that they are there to herald her rebirth. She asks Gilgamesh for help and he obliges, violently getting rid of the creatures and uprooting the tree. He presents Inanna with a bed and a throne made from the wood of the tree. In return, Inanna gives Gilgamesh a pukku and a mikku, objects whose significance is not clear to researchers. But one thing is certain: he uses her gifts carelessly, which brings suffering to the women of Uruk. As a consequence, the earth opens and the gifts of Inanna fall into the underworld. Johanna Stuckey sees the destruction of the huluppu tree in the following terms:

“The destroying of the huluppu tree meant that human beings could no longer count on Inanna and the World Tree to maintain the cycle of life and death. Instead, they were now facing a terrifying, linear world.”

Although he helped her originally, Gilgamesh later turns against the goddess, ridiculing her as “fickle and unreliable.” Perhaps Inanna’s journey to the Underworld can be interpreted as her search for her cut-off roots. Perera laments:

“Constricted, the joy of the feminine has been denigrated as mere frivolity; her joyful lust demeaned as whorishness, or sentimentalized and maternalized; her vitality bound into duty and obedience. This devaluation produced ungrounded daughters of the patriarchy, their feminine strength and passion cut off, their dreams and ideals in the unobtainable heavens, maintained grandly with a spirit false to the instinctual patterns…”

I recently listened to In Our Time podcast dedicated to the Epic of Gilgamesh. I had to cringe many times when Ishtar (Inanna) was derided by the scholars for her alleged brutality towards her lovers. In a similar way, Harold Bloom of The New York Review of Books, who wrote a review of Wolkstein and Kramer’s book Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, belittled the goddess, emphasizing her vindictiveness and ignoring all her other qualities. You can read Wolkstein’s response to that unfortunate review here.  It seems that the mainstream culture is still not ready to integrate the many-sided goddess because women are still denied the right to express a full range of emotions.

According to Perera, the pairing of Inanna/Ereshkigal is an emblem of the full spectrum of femininity. In the Upper World Inanna is the goddess of “active engagement” both in love and war, Down Below Ereshkigal is “disinterested in the other and alone”.  Both goddesses change into the polar opposite when they encounter each other. Ereshkigal starts displaying awareness while Inanna becomes a passive initiate, as Perera explains further:

“The cross-fertilization between the two goddesses has a profound effect on each of them and on their creative capacities; it ultimately changes the relationship between upper and lower worlds and creates a new masculine-feminine balance in the upper world.”

As Inanna enters the Underworld, Ereshkigal becomes conscious and starts to suffer, while Inanna loses consciousness and merges with the Unconscious.

The myth of Inanna’s descent is the myth of the Great Round. First, Ereshkigal’s husband, the Bull of Heaven, is slayed. What this means is that the patriarchal principle no longer sustains the feminine, who needs to descend to meet the Great Goddess and to find nourishment in her earthy depths.  The earth cannot be fertilized from above, so the Goddess sacrifices herself and becomes “the meat of the underworld, its food and rotting fertilizer.” The empty source needs to be replenished. Again Perera summarizes:

“She needs to sacrifice her dependence on the patriarchal gods to find her true home in the basic feminine and processual ground of being.”

This, to me, beautifully summarizes the essence of the myth.

 

Sources:

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer,

translated by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer

C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, Volume 13 in the Collected Works

Sylvia Brinton Perera, Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women

Johanna Stuckey, “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree: One Way of Demoting a Great Goddess” retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/23458476/_Inanna_and_the_Huluppu_Tree_One_Way_of_Demoting_a_Great_Goddess_1

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