Hermes in the Forest of Symbols

Hermes from Boccaccio’s “Primavera”

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

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

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

The Emerald Tablet, transl. by Isaac Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”

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

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

Pinturicchio and assistants, Hermes Lulls Argus

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

Diego Velazquez, “Mercury and Argus”

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

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

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

Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic in Siena Cathedral

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

Libyan Sibyl, Siena Cathedral

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

Augustus Knapp, “Emerald Tablet of Hermes”

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

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


Johfra, “Hermes Trismegistus”

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

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

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

Engraving by Basil Valentine, read more about it here:



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

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.


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

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

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

(12) Gary Lachman, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus 

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

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid.



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Little Women 2019: A Short Review

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

Louisa May Alcott

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

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March

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

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



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The Underworld in Finnish and Greek Myth

Gustave Doré, “Submersion in Lethe”

I have been reading The Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane, which is a dazzling exploration of the author’s daring travels into the bowels of the earth. He devotes space to mining, caving, cave painting, Parisian catacombs, glaciers of Greenland, nuclear waste, and also to mythical explorations, which are of greatest interest to me. This is no light fast-paced reading; rather it is often an onerous task, which matches what the author says about the time in the underworld:

“Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.”

He also argues that our language is deeply biased against the nether regions:

“In many of the metaphors we live by, height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’. ‘Catastrophe’ literally means a ‘downwards turn’, ‘cataclysm’ a ‘downwards violence’.”

He calls the underland “a fascinating and terrible place, and not one that can be borne for long,” a place where all language is crushed, where the unbearable weight of rock and time turn bodies into stone.

But the two most fascinating passages that I am going to quote below are devoted to the myth. The first one talks about the five Greek rivers of the underworld. Perhaps nowhere else can you find a better metaphor for  the various roles that the unconscious can play than in the haunting image of the five rivers of Hades.

I. “Starless rivers run through classical culture, and they are the rivers of the dead. The Lethe, the Styx, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus and the Acheron flow from the upper world into the underland – and all five converge in a welter of water at the dark heart of Hades. The waters of Lethe are the waters of amnesia, from which the shades of the dead must drink in order to forget their earthly existence. The Greek word lethe means ‘oblivion’ and ‘forgetfulness’; it is countersaid by the Greek word aletheia, meaning ‘unforgetfulness’, ‘unconcealment’ and also ‘truth’. By means of the Lethe, Aeneas is able to travel to meet the ghost of his father – one of the many souls that throng the flood – in the great katabasis of Book VI of the Aeneid. Charon, the ferryman, carries souls of the newly dead across the Styx; he requires, for safe passage, an obol, or coin, to be placed on the lips of the deceased in order to pay for transport to the underland. The Phlegethon is the river of heat, of flaming fire and boiling blood, which is thought to flow in coils and spirals, descending into the depths of Tartarus, the abyss of the damned. The Cocytus is the coldest of the five, the river of lamentation, scoured by freezing winds, hardened in places to ice. Where the Cocytus runs, its currents call out constant cries of pain as they tumble over rapids and swirl around bends. The Acheron is the gentlest of the starless rivers, the river of woe, over which Charon also plies his trade. It runs so deep into hell that at times it is made synonymous with it, as when Juno says in the Aeneid, ‘Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo’, ‘If I cannot get the gods above to change their minds, I will appeal to the River of Hell.’”

Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey 

The second quote refers to a crucial mythical tale of the Western culture – the Kalevala, which was a source of inspiration to Tolkien. Here the main hero descends to Tuonela, which is the Finnish name for the Underworld, immortalized by a magnificent composition by Sibelius called “The Swan of Tuonela”:

II. “The Kalevala is a haunting epic that has preoccupied me for some years, obsessed as it is with the power of word, incantation and story to change the world into which they are uttered. Its heroes are language masters and wonder-workers – and the greatest of them is called Väinämöinen, whose name translates memorably as ‘Hero of the Slow-Moving River’. Partway through the poem, Väinämöinen is given the task of descending to the underland. Hidden in the Finnish forests, he is told, is the entrance to a tunnel that leads to a cavern far underground. In that cavern are stored materials of huge energy: spells and enchantments which, when spoken, will release great power. To approach this subterranean space safely Väinämöinen must protect himself with shoes of copper and a shirt of iron, lest he be damaged by what it contains. Ilmarinen forges them for him. Clad in these insulating metals Väinämöinen approaches the tunnel mouth, which is disguised by aspens, alders, willows and spruce. He cuts down the trees to reveal the entrance. He enters the tunnel and finds himself in a deep ‘grave’, a ‘demon . . . lair’. He has stepped, he realizes, into the throat of a buried giant called Vipunen whose body is the land itself. Vipunen warns Väinämöinen not to bring to the surface what is buried in his caverns. He speaks of the ‘grievous pain’ of excavation. But Väinämöinen will not listen to Vipunen. He sings of his conviction that the power buried underground should be returned to the surface…”

Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey 

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Reading The Red Book (16)

“In Paris, on a day that stayed morning until dusk,
in a Paris like –
in a Paris which –
(save me, sacred folly of description!)
in a garden by a stone cathedral
(not built, no, rather
played upon a lute)
a clochard, a lay monk, a naysayer
sleeps sprawled like a knight in effigy.

If he ever owned anything, he has lost it,
and having lost it doesn’t want it back.
He’s still owed soldier’s pay for the conquest of Gaul –
but he’s got over that, it doesn’t matter.
And they never paid him in the fifteenth century
for posing as the thief on Christ’s left hand –
he has forgotten all about it, he’s not waiting.

He earns his red wine
by trimming the neighborhood dogs.
He sleeps with the air of an inventor of dreams,
his thick beard swarming towards the sun.

The gray chimeras (to wit, bulldogryphons,
hellephants, hippopotoads, croakodilloes, rhinocerberuses,
behemammoths, and demonopods,
that omnibestial Gothic allegro vivace)

and examine him with a curiosity
they never turn on me or you,
prudent Peter,
zealous Michael,
enterprising Eve,
Barbara, Clare.”

“Clochard” by Wislawa Szymborska, from “Poems New and Collected,” translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Karl Schenk, “Le Clochard”

In the world’s of Jung’s Liber Novus the “I” of the narrator re-members itself by incorporating various “permutations of humanity, fantasy, nature, and the gods,” who all “have a role in the making of the being of ‘I.'” (1) In chapter 3 of Liber Secundus (called “One of the Lowly”) Jung encounters a tramp, a wretchedly poor individual, who had lost an eye in a fight. He strikes Jung with his upbeat, engaging demeanor, though Jung is also embarrassed to be seen in the company of a former convict. The tramp talks about his love of the cinema, which for Jung is one of the lowest forms of entertainment. The chasm between the two characters is glaring – with Jung epitomizing the heights of privilege, while the tramp inhabits the bottom of reality, as Jung puts it.

A poignant scene takes place at night in the inn, where they both took up lodgings for the night:

“I open the door of his room. Moonlight floods it. The man lies still dressed on a sack of straw. A dark stream of blood is flowing from his mouth and forming a puddle on the floor. He moans half choking and coughs out blood. He wants to get up but sinks back again-I hurry to support him but I see that the hand of death lies on him. He is sullied with blood twice over. My hands are covered with it. A rattling sigh escapes from him. Then every stiffness loosens, a gentle shudder passes over his limbs. And then everything is deathly still.”

Jung notices that his bloodstained hands look like those of a murderer. “Is it not the blood of my brother that sticks to my hands?,” he asks himself, experiencing a moment of solidarity with the tramp. He ponders the utter despondency and loneliness of the situation, where “there is no one left to grieve.” Jung admits that he had never experienced destitution in his “easy” life, but his soul needs the tramp because he “leads to the depths.” Only the “botommost” can bring about the renewal of his soul. “In the holy stream of common life,” Jung says, “you are no longer an individual on a high mountain, but a fish among fish, a frog among frogs.” This is the Dionysian zoe – “the endless instinctual life,” which informs “a body-oriented consciousness.” (2)

Jung goes on to distinguish between “being” (the common life of the instincts) and “becoming” (individuation). Being is the antithesis of individuality because “if you live your own life, you do not live the common life, which is always continuing and never-ending.” Being is the indispensable root of becoming, since “how can you become if you never are?” Becoming is “full of torment,” as it puts an individual on a steep path leading upwards.

In this poetic chapter, Jung compares being to flowing “into the sea that covers the earth’s greatest deeps, and is so vast that firm land seems only an island embedded in the womb of the immeasurable sea.” He indirectly speaks of fate, in which we all participate, suffering under the illusion of free will:

“You wander vast distances in blurred currents and wash up on strange shores, not knowing how you got there. You mount the billows of huge storms and are swept
back again into the depths. And you do not know how this happens to you. You had thought that your movement came from you and that it needed your decisions and efforts, so that you could get going and make progress. … From endless blue plains you sink into black depths; luminous fish draw you, marvelous branches twine around you from above. You slip through columns and twisting, wavering, dark-leaved plants, and the sea takes you up again in bright green water to white, sandy coasts, and a wave foams you ashore and swallows you back again…”

But this entanglement in the shared fate of the instinctual life of humanity awakens in some the need to disentangle from the twists of fate, to emerge from the oceanic unconscious into the dryness given by the sun, into the “firm stones,” into “the motionless and firmly held.” The star shining above the waters beckons to “cross over from being to becoming.”


Vincent van Gogh, “The Reaper” (after Millet)

Jung says that the vision of the dying tramp brought him the realization that “we live toward death, how the swaying golden wheat sinks together under the scythe of the
reaper…” But it is becoming which lets us overcome death, says Jung. Gaining awareness of one’s individuality also means becoming aware of the collective life and death. The one who has awakened to the inner life, is like the moon, says Jung:

“Your heights are like the moon that luminously wanders alone and through the night looks eternally clear. Sometimes it covers itself and then you are totally in the darkness of the earth, but time and again it fills itself out with light.”

Edvard Munch, “Moonlight”

In this moment reminiscent of satori the “I” of The Red Book simultaneously participates in the stream of life and is detached from it, as if awakened:

“It is the life blood of your brother, yes, it is your own blood, but your gaze remains luminous and embraces the entire horror and the earth’s round.”


(1) Susan Rowland, “The Red Book for Dionysus: A Literary and Transdisciplinary Interpretation” in: Murray Stein, Thomas Arzt, editors, Jung’s Red Book for Our Time, volume 1

(2) Ibid.

Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15


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Reading The Red Book (15)

“Your Hell is made up of all the things that you always ejected from your sanctuary
with a curse and a kick of the foot.”

Carl Jung, “The Red Book”


The second chapter of Liber Secundus is entitled “The Castle in the Forest.” It is illustrated by a painting of a castle on water surrounded by dark blue hills. A crescent moon illuminates the scene.  Jung loses his way in a dark forest, which is an allusion to the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy (“In the middle of our walk of life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”) He comes across the castle and decides to ask for lodgings for the night. The owner of the place is an elderly scholar, who is talking to Jung distractedly, awaiting the first opportunity to return to his books.

Jung is assigned a room, where he retires and gets lost in his reveries. One thought in particular is extremely persistent, to his utter dismay. He considers it a vulgar, worn-out romantic idea but cannot suppress the thought that the old man is hiding a beautiful daughter somewhere in the castle. In his egoic pride and elitist intellectualism, Jung sees himself as someone better than the common folk who would be interested in such “hackneyed nonsense” and “empty fantasies.”

Harry Clarke, from his Illustrations to Faust

Soon a pale heroine appears and scolds him: “You wretch, how can you doubt that I am real?” Jung is struck by her pure soulful beauty, which he perceives to be out of this world. All she says to him runs contrary to his previous thoughts. She tells him that fairy tales, which he had just mocked, have more “universal validity” than novels. She adds: “Only what is human and what you call banal and hackneyed contains the wisdom that you seek.” It seems that he has been looking for the highest truths about the human essence in the wrong places. Now the blade of Jung’s irony turns against the scholar, whose soul he perceives to be starved:

“Therefore you see those old scholars running after recognition in a ridiculous and undignified manner. They are offended if their name is not mentioned, cast down if another one says the same thing in a better way; irreconcilable if someone alters theirs views in the least. Go to the meetings of scholars and you will see them, these lamentable old men with their great merits and their starved souls famished for recognition and their thirst which can never be slaked.”

From the point of view of the soul, the scholar leads an external life – he does not live for himself and his soul but he lives “for outer things,” which in his case are “outer thoughts.” He has detached himself from life and has become lost in the object of his studies.

Jung laments that by pursuing “everything rare and uncommon… everything ordinary in me suffered harm without my noticing it, and it began to hanker after life, since I did not live it.” By burying himself in his books, like Faust before him, he had lost touch with the world soul, personified by the ethereal night visitor. Despite his original scornful tone, Jung manages to convey the divine feminine presence beautifully in this chapter. Before disappearing, she passes on greetings from Salome. She has brought along luminosity and grace, and also spurred Jung on to ponder the mysteries of the feminine and the masculine in relation to the soul.

The scholar’s daughter made him realize that “you can hardly say of your soul what sex it is.”  The task of the soul is to “accept their own other.” Only then will “the white bird of the soul come flying.” Jung calls this soulful undertaking going “beyond the gendered.” The two genders should strive to meet on a human level, as individual human beings and not as stereotypical gendered projections. Completeness means accepting one’s feminine and masculine side. Here we witness the birth of Jung’s theory of anima (the feminine part of man’s psyche) and animus (the masculine part of woman’s psyche). Jung goes on to advise men to put on women’s clothes so that they can achieve “freedom from women” by connecting with their own inner feminine. Sanford L. Drob speaks in this context of “a post-gendered consciousness.” (1) Yet this is the state that even our modern times have not reached yet, though much has changed in respect of attitudes to gender since Jung’s times. The Red Book is considered prophetic, anticipating the shifts in consciousness that were to come to pass in the more distant time horizon.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair”


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

Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 16





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Reading The Red Book (14)

Marc Rothko

Jung’s Liber Novus, better known as The Red Book, is divided into Liber Primus and Liber Secundus. The former was created on parchment and resembles a medieval illuminated manuscript. The reason why Jung decided to switch to paper in Liber Secundus was that parchment was very poor at retaining ink, which started to bleed through the pages. He decided to order a red leather-bound notebook with 600 blank pages, and this is how The Red Book was born. Paper enabled Jung to include larger, richer and more detailed paintings in the text. As Drob notices, in Liber Secundus “the paintings achieve independence from the text and create their own psychological and theological narrative.” (1)


We have now reached Liber Secundus and are looking at the initial image (above), which is staring back at us, emphasizing the importance of the visual aspect and beckoning us to embark on a quest towards self-knowledge:

“…the pupil, as Socrates says to Alcibiades, ‘is the finest part of the eye,‘ not just because it is ‘the part which sees‘ but because it is the place where another person looking will find ‘the image of himself looking.‘ And if, as Socrates claims, the Delphic maxim ‘Know thyself‘ can be understood only if translated as ‘Look at thyself,‘ then the pupil becomes the sole means of self-knowledge . . .“ (2)

The psychological quest that Jung embarked upon when he chose to open the floodgates of the visions that were coming to him, was not without suffering and conflict. What it ultimately led to was “important transformations and the integration of previously rejected or unfamiliar elements in Jung’s personal psychological world.” (3) In the image above, a most striking part is what looks like “a cross section of the earth’s crust, with its earth-toned layers and tectonic shifts, cracked and fissured nearly throughout.” (4) The eye of consciousness is framed within these major “displacements and fractures” (5), signalling that the contents of the unconscious are ready to burst through the ego’s crust.

In Liber Secundus a lot of new characters are going to emerge from Jung’s unconscious.  Are these dramatis personae real, and what does it even mean to be real? Again, Jung seems to grapple with the question of reality, for there is a fine line between a prophetic vision and an outright psychosis. He pronounces:

“This I learned in the Mysterium: to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits the inner world, since they are real because they are effectual.”

Simply put, for Jung “real is what works.” The world of the psyche is no less real than the so-called outside reality.

In the first chapter of Liber Secundus, called “The Red One,” Jung encounters who he suspects to be the devil:


“I find that I am standing on the highest tower of a castle. … I am wearing a green garment. … I am the tower guard. I look out into the distance. I see a red point out there. …it is a horseman in a red coat, the red horseman. He is coming to my castle: he is already riding through the gate. I hear steps on the stairway, the steps creak, he knocks: a strange fear comes over me: there stands the Red One, his long shape wholly shrouded in red, even his hair is red. I think: in the end he will turn out to be the devil.”

At the beginning of the conversation, the devil tells Jung:

“I have wandered a long time through the world, seeking those like you who sit upon a high tower on the lookout for things unseen.”

We are reminded of Faust, who, although he had reached a high position in society, symbolized by the tower, is highly dissatisfied with his life and therefore makes a pact with the devil selling his soul in exchange for worldly pleasures and unlimited knowledge. The tower is also an emblem of isolation, which Jung suffered from when he ended his association with Freud. The Red One brings an air of excitement; though Jung is feeling fearful, he cannot contain his fascination, when he sees the devil:

“It seems to me that you bring with you a strange air, something worldly, something impudent, or exuberant, or-in fact-something pagan.”

All the aggressive and erotic instincts that Christianity projected on the devil come the fore most compellingly in this chapter of Liber Novus. As their conversation proceeds, the Red One gets redder and redder, and “his garments shine like glowing iron.” At the same time, miraculously, Jung’s “green garments everywhere burst into leaf.” The devil says he personifies joy, which Jung had lost. Jung expands on that thought, saying that the Red One symbolizes “that strange joy of the world that comes unsuspected like a warm southerly wind with swelling fragrant blossoms and the ease of living.” He adds:

“Whoever tastes this joy forgets himself. And there is nothing sweeter than forgetting oneself.”

Lust, XI Arcanum of the Thoth deck

Who is this red emissary of the shadow? Jung says that everyone has their own devil, whom he or she should confront in utmost seriousness. His role is to “tempt you and set a stone in your path where you least want it.” The conscious approach of the ego, which in the case of Jung was his role as a serious and respectable scholar, needs a challenge from “the devil,” so that the obstructed energy can flow again, blood can rush through the veins and the heart may burst with joy. This is what the alchemists called the rubedo – the red stone and the last phase of the opus, when the vision has become real, and the word has become flesh.

Yet living the life at the dictate of the instincts will turn futile, and this is where the ultimate danger brought by the devil lies. In Buddhist cosmology the torment of intense desire that can never be satisfied is called the realm of Hungry Ghosts. The ruin of Faust came when he exclaimed, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!” Jung remarks that

“you can make no pact with joy, because it immediately disappears. Therefore you cannot capture the devil either. The devil always seeks to saw off the branch on which you sit.”

For Liz Greene the Red One also carries the qualities of the planet Mars with it. Its vital energies, connected with “exercising individual will and desire” threaten to bring down the stable structure of the tower, which is elevated “above the chaos of the emotional and instinctual aspects of life.” (6) Drob sees the Red One as a personification of Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra scorned men for experiencing too little joy in life. (7) One of the tenets of Jungian psychology seems to be a conviction that there is no life in the abstract intellectual realms, no individuation without living a passionate, full life in the realm of the senses.

By Jean Michel Basquiat


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

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

(3) Liz Greene: “The Way of What Is to Come”: Jung’s Vision of the Aquarian Age, in: Jung`s Red Book For Our Time (Book 1), ed. by Murray Stein and Thomas Arzt

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

(5) Ibid.

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

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

Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16




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From Lascaux Cave Paintings to Greta Thunberg

It fascinates me when similar ideas come to me simultaneously from completely different directions. The first revelation was a must-read article in The Guardian on how the cave paintings of Lascaux remind us that “in our self-obsessed age, the anonymous, mysterious cave art of our ancient ancestors is exhilarating.” The Paleolithic cave painters were fascinated with nature, which they put at the centre stage, while humans were an insignificant or even grotesque subject to them. As the author of the article puts it, “They knew where they stood in the scheme of things, which was not very high, and this seems to have made them laugh.” Another beautiful insight was offered in this statement:

“Maybe, in the ever-challenging context of an animal-dominated planet, the demand for human solidarity so far exceeded the need for individual recognition that, at least in artistic representation, humans didn’t need faces.”

Lascaux cave painting

The second eye-opening moment was a visit to an art gallery. I saw an exhibition of Swiss art from the 19th and 20th centuries called “Things Fall Apart,” the title being a quote from Yeats’s 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 exhibition revolves around the idea of the fall of the human ego. The exhibited art marks a transition from the egocentricism to the humble admission that the I, the subject, is nothing but a fraction of a larger world represented by nature and by the unconscious psyche. Freud called this “a major humiliation of human narcissism.”

The evolution of landscape painting was especially stunning to me. Before Romanticism, the human figure used to be presented as a brave conqueror of nature, but the Romantics show him or her as vulnerable, marginalized, standing full of dread at the foot of a mountain. One painting in particular struck me enormously. I had previously seen a lot of works by Ferdinad Hodler, but not his “Aufstieg und Absturz” (Ascent and Fall), which depicts the tragedy of the first expedition to the Matterhorn in 1864. After a triumphant first ascent onto this iconic Swiss mountain, the descent brought a terrible tragedy, when four of the seven climbers fell to their deaths. Hodler’s monumental painting shows both moments. He had to cut his painting to pieces because it was too large to be displayed in a gallery. Below you can see my photo of the painting.


As a final thought, there is something poignant about the latest cover of the Time magazine with Greta Thunberg as the person of the year. How far have we come from the age of earth conquerors. Things indeed are falling apart on our planet, but Greta’s steady resolve and humility give me hope that all is not lost.


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A Reedeming Darkness of The Black Madonna

“Underneath all our conditioning, hidden in the crypt of our being, near the waters of life, the Black Virgin is enthroned with her Child, the dark latency of our own essential nature, that which we were always meant to be.”

Ean Begg, “The Cult of the Black Virgin”

The Black Madonna of Vilnius

Our world needs the dark goddess. We live in yang, daytime culture, which values above all a clear sense of purpose, logical solutions, single-minded focus and clear-cut distinctions. With the ever-increasing light pollution, we have lost touch with the dark sky and the dark earth. Most of humanity still live under the cultural spell of monotheistic religions, which deny divinity to the feminine. The patriarchal monotheism of Judaism and Christianity, symbolically reduced women “to nothing but mute matter, a mere body;” (1) the body which is portrayed as an instrument of devilish temptation, rather than a sacred conduit of divine wisdom. The word “sacred” itself does not stir any emotion in most; locked away in churches, it sounds abstract and irrelevant.

Twenty-one Taras

No wonder that the collective shadow is so palpable, the divisions and conflicts so stark, with the most primitive emotions brewing under the lid. The archetype of the dark goddess – the Black Madonna in her multi-hued robes (see the Black Madonna of Einsideln below), her skin brown, black or reddish, the twenty-one aspects of Tara in the whole array of colours ranging from white to black – is waiting to bring awakening and liberation. In our times the Saviour will be feminine – the Sanskrit name Tara, which in Tibet is Drolma, means “a female who liberates,” the Female Buddha. The Dalai-lama assures that the Madonna, especially the Black one, is her avatar in the West. Though officially Madonna’s status is nowhere near as high as that of Tara in Buddhism, the devotion and adoration that she attracts persists despite the reticent attitude of the church. The church fathers have always striven to put her in a low and humble place. They say she is nothing but a mediator between the faithful and God; she can at best plead our case to the masculine Godhead.

I was recently at an exhibition devoted to the Black Madonna in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, organized by the monastery. Two assertions of the devout curators caught my attention: firstly, they said, we must realize that the whole cult of the Black Madonna should centre on Jesus because he is far more important than her; secondly, her blackness is irrelevant, being merely a result of the exposition to candle smoke or age-old dirt.

The orthodox narrative sounds quite defensive, which suggests that Her growing power stirs fear. “I long to liberate Mary from the Catholic Church,” (2) writes China Galland in her jewel of a book, in which she traces the archetype of the Dark Mother through Tibet, Switzerland, France and Poland. Like her, I too was born Catholic in a home with images of the Polish Black Madonna adorning the walls. Like her, I have since left the faith, yet I have never left the Black Madonna. Looking at her likenesses, be it paintings or statues, I always wondered at how luminous they seemed, despite being black. China Galland illumined the etymology of the word “black” to me, which, astonishingly enough, comes from the Greek word phlegein, which means “to burn,” possessing at its root words such as “to shine,” and “to flash.” Hers is the radiant black of the truth, affirms Galland, reminding us that in Tibetan Buddhism black is the colour that comes just before enlightenment. This blackness is the emptiness (shunyata) of the womb, it is Tara the Liberator, who, like Mary, was born as a mortal woman. Her name was Yeshe Dawa, which means Wisdom Moon. Seeing her specialness, the monks were lamenting that she was not a man, because in that case she would reach enlightenment quicker. They were expressing the views of the conservative Tibetan monastic tradition. Wisdom Moon’s response was to make a vow:

“I will remain in the woman’s form until reaching enlightenment and thus I will turn the wheel of Dharma, working for the benefit of all living beings, until the world of samsara is empty and all suffering ended.” (3)

The Green Tara

Buddha Shakyamuni would not have reached enlightenment if he had not taken refuge in Tara.

It seems that within every religious or spiritual tradition there are two currents: the exoteric, official one, and the most conservative, and a hidden esoteric one, which carries revolutionary ideas; these ideas feel threatening to the mainstream. Christianity is much more opposed to female leadership, not to mention female divinity, than most Eastern spiritual traditions. But in the alternative Christian wisdom, such as Gnosticism, Jesus is portrayed as treating men and women as equals when it comes to their ability to absorb his teachings. Gnostic Gospels reveal that Mary Magdalene was his most prominent disciple, which was objected to by Saint Peter the Apostle. Ean Begg claims that even in orthodox verses the hidden truths can be fathomed. He analyzes the Litany of Loreto, in which Mary is called on (among others) as Mirror of Justice, Seat of Wisdom, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Tower of David and Tower of Ivory. (4) Tower of Ivory is a reference to the Song of Songs and the beauty of the neck of the Black Shulamite. When ivory is “calcined in a closed vessel, …, it yields a fine soft pigment from which the shiny ivory-black paint is made.” (5) While it is fairly obvious that the Tower of David can only be “Jerusalem, home of the Temple,” the Greek word for ivory – elephantinos, invokes the Egyptian city of Elephantiné, connected with Gnosticism. Begg muses:

“… what we see are the church of Peter, catholic, orthodox, male dominated and victorious, and the rival church of Mary, Gnostic and heretical, worshipping a male/female deity and served by priests of both sexes.” (6)

Not only does Black Madonna connect to Mary Magdalene, but her roots go deeper and further back in time. Pagan goddesses, especially Isis, Artemis of Ephesus and Cybele are considered her precursors. She can also be traced back to earth goddesses as well as Inanna and Lilith. Black was the colour in which goddesses of fertility were traditionally depicted. As a matter of fact, black Madonnas are frequently implored in matters related to fertility.(7) We see the Black Madonna in the famous statue of Artemis of Ephesus, which

“… shows her with black face, hands and feet, multiple breasts, on her head a mural crown or tower, and on her dress images including bulls, goats, deer and a bee.(8)

Artemis of Ephesus

France is the country with the largest number of Black Madonna likenesses in the whole world. Black Madonnas found there frequently come from a lineage of dark pagan goddesses, for example the cult of the Black Madonna of Marseilles replaced the cult of Artemis of Ephesus, which was vibrant in the city, thanks to the Greek colonists from Phocaea, who had brought her there. Lyons was the city of Cybele right to the 3rd century AD. Cybele, the Phrygian mother goddess, was originally worshipped as a black meteorite stone. Begg writes:

” Her name is etymologically linked with the words for crypt, cave, head, and dome, and is distantly related to the Ka’aba, the cube-shaped holy of holies in Mecca that contains the feminine black stone venerated by Islam.”

Cybele in a chariot drawn by lions

Another fascinating French example is the Black Madonna of Chartres, which before the advent of Christianity was the centre of Druid worship. The cathedral of Chartres, which has two Black Madonnas, one of which was whitened in a recent restoration, was erected on a sacred Druidic place, most probably a burial mound. The first Black Madonna is housed in the main church and is now white, while the second, The Black Madonna of the underground, is located in the crypt and is still black. The connection of the Black Madonna with death and the underworld is quite notable. Another outstanding example is the Black Virgin of Mont-Saint-Michel, which used to be called Mount Tomb, since it was another Neolithic burial site. The dark goddess has always been venerated as the dark earth and the night from which all life arises and into which it vanishes. The chapel of the Black Madonna of Einsideln in Switzerland was constructed directly above the martyred hermit Meinrad’s cell, whose skull is buried beneath her feet. Saxena links this fact with Mary Magdalene and Tantric Buddhism:

“…most famous paintings of Mary Magdalene present her with a skull which connects her with the Tantric traditions that focus on meditating on death and connects her directly with the Black Madonna.” (9)

Georges de la Tour, “Magdalene with the Smoking Flame”

But the most powerful of all pagan goddesses worshipped in France was Isis, who was “the true goddess of France,” as Begg notes. She was the true universal goddess, who said in The Golden Ass of Apuleius:

“I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. … Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods [Cybele]; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me … Artemis…; for the … Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn. ‘Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”



Shrines to Black Madonnas are famous for their notable healing powers. The statues and paintings of Black Virgins are believed to be wonder-making images. Votive images showing stories of miraculous healing are a frequent sight at all pilgrim destinations. The healing power comes from both the image and the place where it was found. For example, in Montserrat, Spain the monastery had to be constructed around the statue, which apparently refused to be moved. There are numerous stories, in which the Black Madonna obstinately refuses to be removed from her place. China Galland quotes Peter Lindegger, Swiss scholar and Tibet researcher, in her book,

“One cannot make the ground holy, it simply is. Knowing this, one culture would incorporate the sacred sites of the preceding cultures, building one temple over another temple or calling the same statue by a different name. If you didn’t do this, the people would worship there anyway.” (10)

The Black Madonna of Montserrat

The symbolism of the Black Madonna is rich, virtually inexhaustible. Pagan revivalists, alchemists, hermeticists, Gnostics, Jungians, Buddhists, and plain Christians, all lay claim to her. China Galland quotes Gilles Quispel, author of The Secret Book of Revelation, who claims that the Black Madonna is the only living symbol of Christianity. What is more, “unless men and women alike become conscious of this primeval image of the Black Madonna and integrate it within themselves, humankind would be unable to resolve the problem of materialism, racism, women’s liberation, and all that they imply.”

The first wisdom brought by the Black Madonna is the wisdom of the body and its integrity. The dark mother has always sustained the physical processes of birth, death and rebirth. She helps to “break rigid masculine rules, ” writes Begg. She heals the sick and reveals the pangs of childbirth. She supports the equality of the sexes and liberation of women. She embodies the Biblical phrase “Love Thy Neighbour,” which was recently invoked in Poland when those who used her image, adorned with a rainbow, in the campaign against homophobia were persecuted by the conservative Catholics. She is also on the side of freedom in all things political. The Polish Black Madonna has long been associated with freedom and independence of the Polish state. She was the most fervently worshipped when Poland was under partitions, during the second world war and in the times of Communism.

The Polish Black Madonna

The LGBT rendition of the venerated image

The second wisdom is connected with alchemy and the inner spiritual work. In The Mystery of The Cathedrals, Master Alchemist Fulcanelli wrote these words about the Black Madonnas:

“They represent in hermetic symbolism the virgin earth, which the artist must choose as the subject of his Great Work. It is first matter in mineral state, as it comes out of the ore-bearing strata, deeply buried under the rocky mass. It is, the texts tells us, ‘a heavy, brittle, friable black substance, which has the appearance of a stone and, like a stone, can shatter into minute fragments.’ Thus it appears to be the rule that the personified hieroglyph of this mineral possesses its special colour and that the subterranean parts of temples are reserved as its dwelling place.”

Ean Begg says that the Black Madonna is both the beginning (nigredo) and the end of the alchemical process:

“She is the ancient wisdom of Isis-Maat, the secret of eternal life that is the gold at the end of the alchemical process, as well as the initial blackness. In short, she is the spirit of evolutionary consciousness that lies hidden in matter.”

Thus the Black Virgin is the Gnostic Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom, hidden in matter, whose luminosity we seek in our own darkness and ignorance. Caitlin Matthews calls her the primal manifestation of the Divine Feminine. (11) Similarly, a renowned student of C.G. Jung, Erich Neumann, author of The Great Goddess, wrote:

“The Great Mother remains true to her essential and eternal darkness, in which she is the center of the mystery of existence.” (12)

The third and final wisdom is perhaps the most elusive and brings us back to Tara. Saxena beautifully describes the dark goddess as “pregnant nothingness.” She encompasses the whole cosmos, beyond space, beyond time. She is both empty and full, as the womb from which all forms arise. As can be read in The Heart Sutra, form is emptiness (shunyata), emptiness is form. But it is the emptiness, which is the mother and the ultimate essence of all phenomena. In her blackness all distinctions, all dualities, disappear. Her ultimate wisdom is the negation of separation, of anybody or anything existing separately. The whole material world pulsates with this luminous wisdom. China Galland, herself a practising Buddhist, concludes:

“This is darkness to the thinking mind, to the ego that grasps and holds that there is such a thing as ‘mine.’ This goes beyond thinking mind, beyond the world of appearances, into the vast direct experience of being. This is not ordinary reality. This is the black of starless midnight, imminence, that comes before the pre-dawn of enlightenment, the ‘clear light,’ a state of translucence or transparency that is beyond dark and light. This is a radiant black. …Thus emptiness can be said to be dark or black to us. This is the womb of enlightenment. This is Wisdom. This is the Mother of All the Buddhas, this is Tara.”

T78 INT 89

Meinrad Craighead, “Crow Mother Over the Rio Grande”


(1) Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism

(2) China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) “In Quest of the Black Virgin: She is Black Because She Is Black,” by Leonard W. Moss and Stephen C. Cappannari, in: James J. Preston, ed., Mother Worship: Themes and Variations

(8) Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin

(9) Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism

(10) China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna

(11) Caitlin Matthews, Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God

(12) China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna



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Reading The Red Book (13)

“In Mark 4.11 Jesus says to his disciples: ‘To you has been given the secret, mysterion, of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.'” (1)

Fresco from Pompeii, temple of Isis (via Wikipedia)

Jung divided The Red Book into two parts: Liber Primus and Liber Secundus. With chapter XI called Resolution we reach the end of Liber Primus. This marks a pivotal moment: Jung undergoes an initiation, similar or identical to the one experienced by initiates who participated in ancient mysteries. Jung says:

“On the third night, deep longing to continue experiencing the mysteries seized me.”

There are no first-hand accounts of ancient mysteries, except one, which is to be found in The Golden Ass, a novel written by the Roman Apuleius in the second century CE. There he describes his initiation into the mysteries of Isis with these words:

“I approached the frontier of death, I set foot on the threshold of Persephone, I journeyed through all the elements and came back, I saw at midnight the sun, sparkling in white light, I came close to the gods of the upper and nether world and adored them from near at hand.” (2)

In this part of The Red Book Jung goes a step further than adoring the gods “from near at hand.” He becomes deified:

“The notion that Liber Novus both illustrates and effects a divinization process provides insight into why Jung treated The Red Book with such reverence, and why he produced it as a calligraphic illuminated manuscript, in the style of the Bibles of medieval Europe.” (3)

The steps leading to Jung’s becoming one with Christ abound in visions, the first one of which involves a battle between a white and black serpent. As a result of the conflict, part of the black serpent’s body becomes white, and finally the animals retreat to darkness and light respectively. Jung wonders if that means that darkness will be illuminated by light. Next, Elijah takes Jung to the temple of the sun and says: “This place is a vessel that collects the light of the sun.” The place reminds Jung of a Druidic temple. But then the prophet encourages Jung to follow him into the depths, through a crevice into a dark cave. Now Elijah calls himself Mime, who will show Jung the underground wellsprings, as “whoever drinks from them becomes wise.”

Bill Hammond, Cave Painting 3

From the extensive footnotes provided by the editors of Liber Novus we learn that Mime was a dwarf from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. He was the brother of the master craftsman Alberich, who stole the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens and forged a ring of limitless powers out of it. At some point the ring goes into the possession of the giant Fafner, who transforms into the dragon. Siegfried kills Fafner with a sword that Mime had forged for him. In the end, Siegfried slays Mime as well because he knows that the dwarf covets the ring above all and is ready to kill for it.

Arthur Rackham, Mime at the Anvil

It seems that the unconscious is trying to show to Jung the value of low and dark places, the wisdom of creatures like Mime, as well as the enlightening qualities of the dark serpent. In a 1925 seminar Jung indeed admitted that he was going through an internal conflict at that time, facing “a resistance to going down.”

Next, Jung has a vision of the Passion of Christ, which he finds an agonizing sight. He also sees a divine child “with the white serpent in his right hand, and the black serpent in his left hand.” This suggests the unity of opposites. But then the vision of Christ’s cross returns, and this passage comes:

” I see the green mountain, the cross of Christ on it, and a stream of blood flowing from the summit of the mountain-I can look no longer, it is unbearable-I see the cross and Christ on it in his last hour and torment-at the foot of the cross the black serpent coils itself-it has wound itself around my feet- I am held fast and I spread my arms wide. Salome draws near. The serpent has wound itself around my whole body, and my countenance is that of a lion.”

Augustus Knapp, Mithra in the Form of Boundless Time

Salome tell Jung: ” “You are Christ.”

The vision continues:

“The serpent squeezes my body in its terrible coils and the blood streams from my body; spilling down the mountainside. Salome bends down to my feet and wraps her black hair round them.”

At that point Salome’s blindness is healed, while the prophet’s form shines like a flame. The serpent had also stopped torturing the body of Jung and wraps itself around Salome’s foot.

At the end of this initiation Jung describes his emotions:

“Salome kneels before the light in wonder struck devotion. Tears fall from my eyes, and I hurry out into the night, like one who has no part in the glory of the mystery. My feet do not touch the ground of this earth, and it is as if I were melting into air.”

In 1925 seminar Jung explained the above vision by referring to Mithraism. The Roman initiates to Mithraism referred to their God Mithra or Mithras as the invincible sun (Sol Invictus). As Dabid Fingrut explains in his fascinating essay:

“The seven grades of Mithraism, were: Corax (Raven), Nymphus (Male Bride), Miles (Soldier), Leo (Lion), Peres (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner), and Pater (Father); each respective grade protected by Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn.”(4)

Jung was referring to the figure known from the Mithraic mysteries, which is “represented with a snake coiled around the man, the snake’s head resting on the man’s head, and the face of the man that of a lion.” An initiate was, in Jung’s words, “a vessel of creation in which the opposites reconcile.”

As you may imagine, Jung has been viciously attacked for equating himself with Christ. There have been accusations of establishing his own cult, and so forth. This is perhaps why he hesitated whether to publish The Red Book. Sanford L. Drob says that in this chapter Jung “attains Christ’s powers of spiritual healing.” He experiences a union between “the spiritual principle represented by  Christ and the earthly, instinctual principle, represented by the black serpent, in order to achieve mastery as a psychotherapeutic healer of the soul.” (5) For Jung, Christ did indeed represent a symbol of individuation. Following Christ meant for him living according to one’s true essence, and furthermore, as Drob adds, “the union of opposing principles is the path to the Self.”

At the end of the chapter Jung once again addresses the issue of warring opposites, as expressed by the fight of the two serpents. He says that every individual psyche is an arena of such a war. The footnotes to this chapter contain a quote from the preface to The Psychology of the Unconscious Processes, where Jung wrote:

“The psychological processes, which accompany the present war, above all the
incredible brutalization of public opinion, the mutual slanderings, the unprecedented fury of destruction, the monstrous flood of lies, and man’s incapacity to call a halt to the bloody demon-are suited like nothing else to powerfully push in front of the eyes of thinking men the problem of the restlessly slumbering chaotic unconscious under the ordered world of consciousness. This war has pitilessly revealed to civilized man that he is still a barbarian … But the psychology of the individual corresponds to the psychology of the nation. What the nation does is done also by each individual, and so long as the individual does it, the nation also does it. Only the change in the attitude of the individual is the beginning of the change in  the psychology of the nation”


It has been suggested that the final days of the Age of Pisces have brought to the fore the extreme polarization of opposing principles. Until humans realize that the conflict lies within themselves, they will continue laying blame on one another, which Jung seems to suggest in the above quote, which sounds astonishingly contemporary.


(1) Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World

(2) Ibid.

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


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

Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16




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“One Version of Events” by Wislawa Szymborska

“If we’d been allowed to choose,

we’d probably have gone on forever.

The bodies that were offered didn’t fit,

and wore out horribly.

The ways of sating hunger

made us sick.

We were repelled

by blind heredity

and the tyranny of glands.

The world that was meant to embrace us

decayed without end

and the effects of causes raged over it.

Individual fates

were presented for our inspection:

appalled and grieved,

we rejected most of them.

Questions naturally arose, e.g.,

who needs the painful birth

of a dead child

and what’s in it for a sailor

who will never reach the shore.

We agreed to death,

but not to every kind.

Love attracted us,

of course, but only love

that keeps its word.

Both fickle standards

and the impermanence of artworks

kept us wary of the Muses’ service.

Each of us wished to have a homeland

free of neighbors

and to live his entire life

in the intervals between wars.

No one wished to seize power

or to be subject to it.

No one wanted to fall victim

to his own or others’ delusions.

No one volunteered

for crowd scenes and processions,

to say nothing of dying tribes—

although without all these

history couldn’t run its charted course

through centuries to come.

Meanwhile, a fair number

of stars lit earlier

had died out and grown cold.

It was high time for a decision.

Voicing numerous reservations,

candidates finally emerged

for a number of roles as healers and explorers,

a few obscure philosophers,

one or two nameless gardeners,

artists and virtuosos—

though even these livings

couldn’t all be filled

for lack of other kinds of


It was time to think

the whole thing over.

We’d been offered a trip

from which we’d surely be returning

soon, wouldn’t we.

A trip outside eternity—

monotonous, no matter what they say,

and foreign to time’s flow.

The chance may never come our way again.

We were besieged by doubts.

Does knowing everything beforehand

really mean knowing everything.

Is a decision made in advance

really any kind of choice.

Wouldn’t we be better off

dropping the subject

and making our minds up

once we get there.

We looked at the earth.

Some daredevils were already living there.

A feeble weed clung to a rock,

trusting blindly

that the wind wouldn’t tear it off.

A small animal

dug itself from its burrow

with an energy and hope

that puzzled us.

We struck ourselves as prudent,

petty, and ridiculous.

In any case, our ranks began to dwindle.

The most impatient of us disappeared.

They’d left for the first trial by fire,

this much was clear,

especially by the glare of the real fire

they’d just begun to light

on the steep bank of an actual river.

A few of them

have actually turned back.

But not in our direction.

And with something they seemed to

have won in their hands.”

Translated by Claire Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak

Found in Wislawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected, Kindle edition

Untitled by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments