Prague: A Threshold

You may have heard of two magical triangles, one of black, the other of white magic. The origins of that legend are impossible to fathom. The white magic triangle is said to include Lyon, Prague and Turin, while the black one is supposedly composed of San Francisco, London and Turin. Thus Turin is the focal point of both triangles. I have written about this fascinating city and its interplay of light and darkness here. After Lyon, which I wrote about here, it is time to complete the white magic triangle and focus on Prague. Please note that my writing, as always, focuses on myths and legends, which means I do not usually aspire to presenting the so-called historical truth. My focus is on the landscape of the soul.

I. “Since the Middle Ages, Prague had exerted a cultural and political influence that spread far beyond its national borders. The Bohemian capital frequently took center stage in European history, becoming the intellectual focal point of the continent.”

Harald Salfellner, “Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide”

II. “Prague does not let go. This little mother has claws.”

Franz Kafka

III. “And I say: when I seek another word for mystery, the only word I can find is Prague.”

Angelo Maria Ripellino, “Magic Prague”

IV. “Prague is certainly the best place in the world for my music.”


Old Town Square Prague in 19th century with the Church of Our Lady before Týn, via

What makes the city magical? Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance philosopher and scholar, was one of many who attempted to define magic. In Oration on the Dignity of Man, he wrote that magic “embraces the most profound contemplation of the deepest secrets of things and finally knowledge of the whole of nature.” The crucial moment of magic is when heaven, the above, is united with the earth, the below. There are certain places where the distinction between the above and below seems to be obliterated. We can speak here of special places of power. Prague has a reputation of being one.

Charles Bridge and the Castle in the distance

The city swept me off my feet. While crossing the Legion Bridge and entering the city for the first time, I gasped. The towers of the castle and Charles Bridge were visible to the left. It all looked decisively otherworldly. Didn’t Gustav Meyrink write that Prague is a threshold between the life on earth and heaven? Didn’t André Breton call the city the magic capital of old Europe? Not to mention that the contested etymology of the city’s name goes back to the Czech word práh, i.e. the threshold or a gate according to other sources. Absorbing all the beauty of the city, I had another association. I had a feeling I was inside an old music box, hypnotized by all its wonders.

The romantic and evocative name Bohemia is derived from the Boii, the Celtic people who inhabited the area in the 2nd century B.C. Until the 16th century Bohemia was a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. It was always a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities. Prague was known as the city of three peoples; the Czechs, the Germans and the Jews. This commingling of influences is easily discernible on the multilingual streets of Prague but also in its cafes and restaurants, where the dishes served are a colourful juxtaposition of various influences. The elegant cafés were especially alluring to me, for the reason that they were frequented by Franz Kafka, who loved Café Louvre, Café Slavia and Café Savoy to name just a few I simply had to visit.

Café Savoy

But going back to the mythical origins of Prague, Peter Marshall thus summarizes the founding legend:

“One legend popular at the time has it that Libussa, queen of Bohemia, sought out a husband. With the help of the gods, she mounted a magic white horse which took her to a place where she met a handsome young peasant called Přemysl. Then, one summer’s evening, while she stood with her new husband and the elders of her people on a cliff overlooking the great Vltava River, she pointed across the water to the wooded hills beyond and was moved to prophesy: ‘I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!’ She led her people to the spot on the hill where there was a man raising the threshold (prah in Czech) of a house and asked them to build a castle. Together they founded a dynasty and the city of Praha, Prague.” (1)

The legendary spot on the hill, called the mythical cradle of Prague, is called Vysehrad (Czech for higher castle). It is located on the edge of the city, three kilometres away from the medieval Prague castle. It is a quiet spot now with decisively fewer tourists than in the centre. There you can visit the magnificent Peter and Paul Basilica, whose interior enchanted me most in Prague. The surrounding park is full of statues; especially interesting to me was the Devil’s Column:

“There are many theories as to where Devil’s Column comes from. The most famous speaks of a certain local priest who made a bet with the Devil. The Devil was to bring a column from the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome to Vyšehrad before the end of evening mass. So, the Devil flew to Rome, ripped out a column, and started making his way back. But his return trip was hindered by St. Peter (one of the patrons of Vyšehrad, along with St. Paul), causing the Devil to fall into the Venetian Lagoon three times. In the end, he arrived late, and, in his fury, the Devil flung the column through the basilica roof.”


Peter and Paul Basilica

This kind of apotropaic magic permeates numerous Prague legends, the most famous being the creation of Golem. According to a legend, Golem, the being from Jewish folklore, made of clay or mud, was created through magic to protect the Jews from persecution. The legend kept returning in many iterations. Rabbi Judah Loew was believed to have created Golem out of the mud of the Vltava river. Ultimately, the creature had to be destroyed because it went out of control. His heart is said to be resting in the Old-New Synagogue in Prague.

Monument of Rabbi Judah Loew

The Middle Ages was also the time when the iconic Charles Bridge was constructed. This happened exactly on 9 July 1357 at 5.31 a.m,

“… a time chosen carefully for its propitious astrological and numerological associations. At that very moment a conjunction of the Sun with Saturn occurred, with the great luminary of the sky overpowering the gloomy influence of the malefic planet. … In addition, the setting sun on the summer solstice lined up Charles Bridge with an architrave of the Castle’s cathedral.” (2)

As the Dark Ages were drawing to a close, another celebrated Prague marvel was constructed – the astronomical clock. Unlike other similar clocks un Europe, this one showed the time in both Old Bohemian time and Babylonian time.

Renaissance was without a doubt the golden age of Prague. Under the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the city attracted a lot of luminaries, especially adepts of hermeticism, alchemists, astrologers and magicians. Rudolf II had a profound impact on the cultural history of Europe:

“He provided an island of intellectual security at a time of growing religious conflict, especially between Catholics and Protestants. By encouraging religious tolerance and the freedom of enquiry, he helped lay the foundations of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, as well as the Age of Reason which eventually forced it underground.” (3)

Upon his birth, Rudolf’s parents had Nostradamus cast a horoscope for the future emperor. He was to become known as “the Recluse of Prague,” since he would spent most of his time in the castle and its gardens. The sombre, brooding atmosphere of the city suited his melancholic temperament. Shunning political machinations, he devoted his time almost entirely to hermeticism in all its forms. He established an alchemy workshop, to which he attracted the greats such as John Dee, Edward Kelley, Michael Maier and Martin Ruland.

John Dee and Edward Kelley evoking a spirit, via

Rudolf II engaged the illustrious Tycho Brahe as his court astronomer and astrologer:

“Rudolf was particularly fond of a lion given to him by the Sultan of Turkey in a rare lull in the fighting between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. It was reported that Tycho Brahe, who became Rudolf’s court astronomer, declared that since they shared similar horoscopes they would suffer a similar fate. The prophecy proved to be accurate: when the lion eventually died, Rudolf locked himself in his chambers, refusing all medicine and help, and died three days later.” (5)

In 1600, Johannes Kepler joined Tycho Brahe in his work for the emperor. He spent the next twelve years in Prague, during which time he wrote Astronomia Nova as well as cast horoscopes for Rudolf II. There are a lot of imagination-stirring stories associated with those colourful characters of the Rudolfian Era. Back in Denmark, Tycho Brahe had had his nose cut off in a duel. He fashioned a number of prosthetics to replace the precious organ: the ordinary every day one made of brass and silver and gold ones for special occasions. Kepler had a lot of disagreements with the eccentric Brahe. Nevertheless, his Prague period was the most creative and productive of his life.

At the height of his era, Rudolf’s castle was surrounded by magnificent gardens with plants and animals brought from all over the world, while the castle became

“a unique centre of learning and an inspirational milieu for creative and original work. He opened the doors of its chambers and vaults and built galleries, workshops, laboratories and studios for anyone who could help him in his grand project to unveil the mysteries of the world.” (6)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Portrait of Rudol II as Vertumnus (the Roman god of seasons, change and plant growth)

Rudolf II was also an indefatigable collector. His vast Kunstkammer included paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, the vast proportion of which was dedicated to alchemy and astrology. The emperor even managed to acquire the mysterious Voynich manuscript. He amassed a great number of scientific instruments, telescopes, globes, astrolabes, weapons and a plethora of clocks, which especially captured his heart. What is more:

“Rudolf valued precious stones and crystals for their secret virtues and he always carried one next to his heart to calm his palpitations, an inherited Habsburg weakness. His magical arsenal, which he increasingly drew on when normal methods to influence the course of history failed, included dried roots of mandrake, bizarre foetuses, a basilisk, parrots’ feathers, corals, fossils, ancient stones with indecipherable markings, whales’ teeth, rhinoceroses’ horns, the jawbone of a Greek siren, a fur fallen from the sky and a crystal lion. He also had such wonders as unicorns’ horns and dragons.” (7)

After his death, the emperor’s collection was dispersed and gradually sold off. But the legend of Prague as the city of alchemy remained. There is a tiny street with Lilliputian houses right next to Prague Castle. It is called the Golden Lane. The name most probably stems from its association with goldsmiths, who used to work there. However, there is a widespread belief that once alchemists inhabited those tiny houses. Whatever the truth may be, in 1916 one of the greatest literary alchemists lived at number 22 of the Golden Lane. His name was Franz Kafka. The eerie atmosphere of the street and the looming castle above it is depicted in Kafka’s’ unfinished novel The Castle.

Golden Lane with Kafka’s house (the blue one)

Martin Stejskal described the Royal Way from the Powder Gate to the Castle in alchemical terms:

“The Royal Way enters the Old Town from the east, at the Powder Gate, which symbolises the threshold of the alchemical way … and continues … near the House of the Black Madonna, the source of the primary matter to the Great Work. … The route … to Old Town Square … passes through a forest of symbols. … Next comes The House of the Black Sun, …, the House at the Two Golden Bears recalls that, as matter can be controlled, the bear, too, can be mastered. … The sgraffiti of the Virgin’s gushing breast milk on The House at the Minute symbolise the beginning of… albedo. … On Charles Bridge, the gestures of the row of saints clearly show the traveller the way to the west. … On the final stretch, the House of the Golden Apple symbolises the philosopher’s stone, which is now very close.” (4)

The House of the Black Madonna
The House of the Black Sun

In his book Stejskal does not mention the second Black Madonna of Prague, who is to be found quite near the castle, at the very end of the Royal Way. She is in the Baroque Loreta chapel. Like in the image of the uroboros, the beginning of the Great Work meets here the end to renew the cycle eternally.

Loreta Chapel

When I attempted to probe the symbolism of Prague in my ruminations, all I knew with certainty was that this is a feminine city. Prague unveiled herself to me as a woman. It seems that others shared the same impression, since

“a number of writers belonging to the early twentieth-century “Secese” (Secession or Art Nouveau) movement portrayed the city on the Vltava as a tempting and treacherous woman, a capricious harlot. Oskar Wiener, compared her to a “dark Salome.” (8)

I think Prague constellates both dark and light side of the feminine archetype. The predominance of Art Nouveau architecture with its undulating forms and organic feel contributes to this impression. There is so much intricate detail everywhere; plant and floral elements, the constant interplay of light and shadow and the ubiquitous stained glass windows create a mesmerizing effect. It is impossible not to be charmed. Alphonse Mucha is the epitome of this esthetic.

A. Mucha, “The Samaritan”
A. Mucha, “Evening Reverie” (Nocturnal Slumber)

The night seems to be the most natural time for Prague. It makes it look even more otherworldly but also very tender. I delighted in that aura of nocturnal mystery and its starry veil. If I were to assign a Zodiac sign that I associate with the city, I would go for Cancer. Even Prague’s coat of arms resonates with this energy, as it emphasizes the highest level of protection.

Interestingly, Rudolf II was a Cancerian and so was Franz Kafka. C.G. Jung associated the symbolism of all cities with the mother:

“The city is a maternal symbol, a woman who harbours the inhabitants in herself like children. It is therefore understandable that the three mother goddesses, Rhea, Cybele, and Diana, all wear the mural crown.” (10)

This makes Prague the ultimate city in symbolic terms.

František Hudeček, “Street at the Time When Women Go to Sleep”

Wandering the streets of Prague during the day, my thoughts frequently returned to Franz Kafka, who apparently adored walking and spent hours strolling the numerous lanes of Prague. (9) He wrote the following poem about Charles Bridge and dedicated it to his friend Oskar Pollak:

“People who walk over dark bridges,

Past holy stone saints

With feeble light upon them.

Clouds that wander over grey skies

Past churches

With fading towers.

Someone who leans on the stone parapet

And looks into the evening water

His hands resting on old stones.” (11)

Two striking monuments in Prague offer a unique look into the heart of Prague. They both feature emptiness, which is perhaps the ultimate symbol of mystery. One is the statue of Kafka by Jaroslav Rona. A small Kafka figure rides on the shoulders of a large man, or rather a large and empty suit, which has no arms and no head. The artist was inspired by Kafka’s short story Description of the Struggle. The theme of the story is anxiety about not being able to fulfil societal expectations. This early story of Kafka shows his insecurities, the inner turmoil and struggles to find his place in the world. The second statue is by Anna Chromy and has the title Il Commendatore. It is a hooded figure, a spectre with no body – just a cloak. Il Commendatore is a character in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which had its premiere in Prague. The spectre was the father of one of the women seduced by the opera’s main character, Don Giovanni. Il Commendatore appears in the opera as a statue, brought to life by supernatural forces in order to exact vengeance on Don Giovanni. This statue is related to other works by Anna Chromy, which she labelled collectively as The Cloak of Conscience. She explains:

“Designed as a place to rediscover one’s inner self, Anna created an interior space for meditation, which allows people to consult their conscience, the lost faculty to perceive the hidden, eternal truth.”


The symbolism of the cloak seems to go hand in hand with that of Prague. The cloak, as Cirlot puts it in his Dictionary of Symbols, is like “a veil cutting off a person from the world.” Taking the habit means withdrawing from the world and focusing on the inner world, where the divine dwells. Prague’s sacred womb enables the visitor to do precisely that. As Reiner Maria Rilke, who was born in Prague in 1875 and spent his youth there, wrote in Letters on Life, “Where does the soul begin that subsists on its own mystery?”


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(1) Peter Marshall, The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Martin Stejskal, Secret Prague

(5) Peter Marshall, The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague

(9) Harald Salfellner, Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide

(10) C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation (CW 5), par. 303

(11) Harald Salfellner, Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide

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His Dark Materials

William Blake: Copy D, plate 1, frontispiece: “The Ancient of Days”; a bearded nude male (probably Urizen) crouching in a heavenly sphere, its light partially covered by clouds; his left arm holding a pair of compasses and reaching down with them, measuring the surrounding darkness.(via

Philip Pullman finished his trilogy of fantasy novels His Dark Materials in 2000. But I feel his epic has a lot to say about the symbolic portents of our times and the near future. I tremendously enjoyed the HBO/BBC adaptation of the novels, which ended in December last year. There is a curious personal connection between the Pullman universe and my humble blog. I had chosen the name Symbolreader a long time before I heard about the alethiometer, a.k.a. symbol-reader, which plays such an important role in Pullman’s universe. The alethiometer (from Greek – a truth-measuring device) is a compass-like device used by Lyra, the main character of the books, to gain truthful answers to her questions. The needles of the device point to images, whose interpretation is only possible when one is in a state of deep contemplation. Reading the alethiometer is a skill that can only be mastered through years of diligent studies. However, Lyra, who is still a child, has a unique gift of reading the golden symbolic compass. She accomplishes this by communicating directly with the conscious particles called Dust. Lyra’s name Belacqua is obviously an allusion to the intuitive properties of water. What is more, her nickname Lara Silvertongue links her with the alchemical Mercurius. Dust can be likened to the alchemical primal matter, with which Lyra has a very special connection. In accordance with her Mercurius credentials, at one point in the story Lyra descends to the Underworld to free the souls kept in limbo by the evil Authority.

Lyra with her daemon Pantalaimon

In Lyra’s universe conscious particles are referred to as Dust. In “our” world, Dust is called Dark Matter or Shadow particles, and there is indeed a strong Jungian resonance here. Pullman conceived of Dust as conscious and sentient. Creatures made entirely of Dust were called Angels. Dust is attracted to adults, especially the creative ones. The title of Pullman’s trilogy refers to a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which God, the Almighty Maker, uses “his dark materials” to create new worlds. Pullman’s visionary undertaking is awe-inspiring in both its depth and breadth. It alludes to Gnosticism, Orthodox religions, Jungian psychology, William Blake’s cosmology, alchemy, the Kabbalah, and has been successfully interpreted in light of all of those systems, and more.

Metatron, the Regent of the Authority

Central in Pullman’s story is the human soul and its struggle to free itself from the tyranny of orthodoxy. Organized religion is not portrayed kindly. But also the limited nature of science and rationalism are exposed. It seems that both scientists and members of the clergy strive for power and are more than happy to sacrifice individual souls if the “greater cause” of their fixed convictions demands it. Lord Asriel, a free thinker and a scientist, who opposes the Magisterium (thinly-disguised metaphor for Church) turns out to be as ruthless and close-minded as his mighty opponents. He does not stop short of child sacrifice. Yet he is still a full-blooded character, since Pullman does not limit himself to simple dichotomies of good and evil in his superb storytelling. Together with his estranged partner, Marisa Coulter, Asriel manages to defeat the Authority, thus redeeming himself to a certain extent. Both he and Marisa are marvellously-conceived tragic characters: capable of utter evil in the name of ambition but also driven by deep love and soulful striving.

Marisa Coulter surrounded by the Spectres (malevolent soul-eaters, which fed on Dust)

In Lyra’s universe people’s souls are called daemons and take the form of an animal. The animal changes shapes multiple times until it settles for one species in adulthood. In “our” world daemons are not visible, but the chosen few can train themselves to perceive them. Daemons were normally the opposite gender to their master, which must be a hint at the Jungian concept of anima and animus being the soulful companions of respectively men and women. At the moment of physical death daemons dissolve into Dust, which is beautifully shown in the TV adaptation. The unique loving bond between human and their daemon rests upon the latter’s ability to mirror the unconscious emotions of the person, to provide them with intuitive insights as well as to warn them of any danger. Animals also provide grounding and a connection with primal instincts.

I was struck how timely Pullman’s epic is in relation to the long-announced Age of Aquarius. It seems to be a task of the individual soul to navigate their way through the dominant religious and social systems, which so often seek to mould and oppress by offering false security. Without a doubt, the most liberating factor seems to be the symbolic imagination. I think Pullman would agree with the following words from Jung’s Red Book:

“Our freedom does not lie outside us, but within us. One can be bound outside, and yet one will still feel free since one has burst inner bonds. One can certainly gain outer freedom through powerful actions, but one creates inner freedom only through the symbol.”

There is freedom in the air. Air is about freedom. Interestingly, one of the most compelling characters of the trilogy is Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut, whose balloon serves as an instrument of liberation and protection for quite a few characters. Air is heavily populated in Pullman’s universe: there are witches and angels spreading their wings over humanity in loving embrace and offering constant guidance.

Lee Scoresby with his daemon Hester

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Symbolism of the Cave

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

William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 51

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

William Blake’s illustration showing the Cave of the Nymphs

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine de Kooning, “Torchlight Cave Drawing V

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

Theotokos of the Caves (Kyiv School of Icon Painting)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is perhaps what sages and hermits looked for in caves as the most perfect spaces for meditation. Whatever caves mean, their fascination has been with humankind since the beginning. From the Homeric hymn to Hermes we learn that “the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals,” “a bringer of dreams,” and “a watcher by night” was born in “a deep, shady cave” at dawn, when the first light was penetrating the darkness of earth’s womb. His mother’s name was Maia, which has an apt resonance with the Hindu goddess mentioned at the beginning. In symbolism there is perhaps nothing more stirring for the imagination than the cave.

Clarence White, “The Cave”


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

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

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

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


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Reading The Red Book (45)

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

C.G. Jung, Black Book 5

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

Pieta with Michelangelo’s signature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albrecht Dürer, “Putti Dancing and Making Music”

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

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

One-sidedness is never desirable in the Jungian world.

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

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

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

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

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, “The Sun”

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

(2) Ibid.

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

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Shiva and Parvati: the Birth of Kali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakshineswar Kali Temple, Kalkota

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Annie Ernaux

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

Annie Ernaux, Getting Lost

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

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

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

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

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Number Three and Its Mysteries

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

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

Henry Fuseli, “The Three Witches”

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

Hermes and the Triple Goddess, via

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meinrad Craighead, “Crow Mother over the Rio Grande”

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

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

Virgin of Sorrows – an Orthodox icon

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

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

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

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


(1) Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses

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

(3) Ibid.

(4) Juan Eduardo Cirlot, The Dictionary of Symbols

(5) Jean Chevalier, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols

(6) Dion Fortune, The Mystical Kabbalah

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

(8) Ibid.

(9) Dion Fortune, The Mystical Kabbalah

(10) Ibid.

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


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Reading The Red Book (44)

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

R.M.Rilke, “Sonnets to Orpheus”

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

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

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

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “The Nile”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edvard Munch, “Golgotha”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Ligare, “Landscape for Baucis and Philemon”

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

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

Rembrandt, “Philemon and Baucis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.C.Escher, “Snakes”


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyon – coat of arms

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

Statue of Marianne in Lyon

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

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

No wonder then that in Roman times the most worshipped deity of Gaul was Mercury, who stands for the union of opposites as well as being the god of magic. In Alchemical Studies Jung thus summarizes the role of Mercurius:

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

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

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

Mercury stele from the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(2) Ibid.

(3) Gerald Gambier, Fourviere: A Symbolist Basilica

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

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

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

RWS Tarot – The Star

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

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

Wilhelm Kotarbinski, “Evening Star”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Our Lady of Guadalupe


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

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

(3) quoted by Alfred Ribi

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

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

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

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


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