The Symbolism of Islands

1.“Theseus is cruel because he leaves Ariadne on the island of Naxos. … Just a beach lashed by thundering waves, an abstract place where only the seaweed moves. It is the island where no one lives, the place where obsession turns round and round on itself, with no way out. A constant flaunting of death. This is the place of the soul.”

Roberto Calasso, “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”

2.“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

3.“O place of many a mystic sacrament!

Archaic Aphrodite’s splendid shade

Lingers above your waters like a scent

Infusing spirits with an amorous mood.

Worshipped from of old by every nation,

Myrtle-green isle, where each new bud discloses

Sighs of souls in loving adoration

Breathing like incense from a bank of roses”

Charles Baudelaire, “The Voyage to Cythera”

4.”I’ve looked into the eye of this island, and what I saw was beautiful.”

John Locke, a character in “Lost”

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Arnold Böcklin, The Island of Life

In Psychology and Alchemy, Carl Gustav Jung wrote that “only in the region of danger (watery abyss, cavern, forest, island, castle, etc.) can one find ‘the treasure hard to attain’ (jewel, virgin, life potion, victory over death).” Islands are one of the most treasured motifs both in myth and literature. Jung’s quote shows his amazing intuitive grasp of island’s significance: it is both beautiful and dangerous. Islands can be incredibly scenic but their detachment from the mainland may create a feeling of entrapment. Island inhabitants define their identity chiefly as Islanders: they have their own unique cosmos there and any newcomers are perceived as intruders. Because they are away from the land of law and regulations, morality may break loose on them and people can get tested, as you may remember from the famous novel “Lord of the Flies.” As final resting places, most notable example being the island of Avalon, islands have a funerary, eschatological quality about them. Where there is death, there must be transformation. Whoever comes to an isolated island, does not leave it as the same person: islands are both safe havens and dangerous areas of upheaval; safe wombs and insular alchemical vessels of transformation. Time flows differently on islands, because they are places torn out of the conventional time space continuum. Odysseus found that out when he spent seven long years trapped on Ogygia by the nymph Calypso. Ogygia was a primordial island, which attracted visitors like an insect eating plant only to trap and devour them:

“No one was ever lonelier than Calypso. … Divine hostess, time denied her any guests. … Calypso’s distance from the world wasn’t only to be measured across the huge expanse of the waters but first and foremost across time. … Calypso lived at a point of cosmic intersection: Ogygia was a primordial island…

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Arnold Böcklin, “Odysseus and Calypso”

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Jan Brueghel the Elder, “Odysseus and Calypso” (a completely different vision than that of Böcklin)

Calypso means “She Who Conceals Things.” Concealment was her passion, cloaking something in a veil, like the veils she sometimes wore around her head. … Toward Calypso, Odysseus felt the same attraction Gilgamesh had felt for the barmaid Siduri, for the woman who pours drinks behind a counter and talks, listens. What did the attraction conceal? Odysseus knew what would later be forgotten: it concealed the woman who welcomes us at the entrance to the kingdom of the dead. …  The conversation with the woman who pours the drinks goes on and on through an endless night, unthreatened by any dawn on the window-panes. …

Odysseus spent seven years with Calypso… They were years when time sucked him backward into a fabulous prison that was also a floating sepulcher.”

Roberto Calasso, “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”

Calypso, the sad and lonely nymph, seems to be at one with the island she inhabits. The symbolism of islands definitely has an intimate connection with the feminine. Islands are like precious jewels scattered on ocean waves, like treasure chests waiting for brave heroes to explore them. They provoke longing and wishful craving.

Islands continue to inspire writers, TV producers and movie makers. The show that caught my attention in the last years was “Lost,” which I am the staunchest fan of. In “Lost” the island is an entity, a protagonist in its (her?) own right. At one point the island falls off the temporal axis and a group of characters start travelling in time. The series itself is wonderfully inventive and plays on numerous cultural tropes, myths and archetypes. It seems to be a place where accelerated character growth takes place, where characters get in touch with their spiritual centre, and where they can redeem their past and carve out a new identity for themselves. While Robinson Crusoe did everything to recreate a full civilization on the island where he was shipwrecked (he was obsessed with keeping track of the time passed, for example), the characters in “Lost” get in touch with the wildness of nature that resides within themselves. Like the game of backgammon, featured in the first episode, the microcosm of the Island is s stage where dark and light forces interplay, intermingle, oppose and attract each other.

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John Locke, a character in “Lost”

The island in “Lost” has healing powers which emanate from the Heart of the Island (a source of water bathed in brilliant white light).

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The Heart of the Island

This source of life, death and rebirth needs to be protected. The Island also functions as a sort of a “cork” that contains darkness and evil and prevents it from spreading. It is extremely ancient and was populated by Egyptians and Sumerians in the distant past. It periodically changes its location, which again points to her archetypal character as a place outside of space and time. As such it is similar to Atlantis, which also existed beyond the frontiers of known space and time. If it really existed, then the cradle of our civilization and the seed of our inner wisdom originated on a mythical island.

Northrop Frye, a literary critic, referred to islands as “points of epiphany.” On an island, away from their everyday circumstances, mythical and literary characters can become free of themselves in order to find themselves. I have recently read a short story by one of my favourite authors: it was “The Tale of the Unknown Island” by Jose Saramago. It is an enchanting fairy tale in which the main character wants to discover an unknown island but has no boat and petitions the king of his country to give him one. In a famous poem the poet John Donne says that no man is an island, but from Saramago’s tale we can surmise that every person is like an unknown island both to themselves and others. As the cover of the book suggests, the mystery of the island cannot be solved without a woman.

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37 Responses to The Symbolism of Islands

  1. Wow!!! I enjoyed this so much Monika! I now would like to watch the Lost series. Never did and never understood all the hype, hmmm..

    Regarding islands in general. I am very drawn to them and was born on one ( New York City). I was sad to learn you have not seen the ocean! I feel very at home on islands. Perhaps I enjoy the illusion of isolation. Very cool about Calypso. Have you heard calypso music? wonder what is concealed in the music?

    thank you for spreading your knowledge out into the blogosphere and beyond ..

    • Thank you, Linda, I really appreciate your comment. I am afraid I am more into harder rock music to appreciate calypso music but I am sure the name is derived from Greek myth. I do not know if Lost was very hyped, certainly not in Europe. I am really a bog, big fan of the series, it’s nothing short of amazing to me.

    • Soul Fields says:

      Hi Linda & others who have not watched the Lost (myself included). I just found a site to do that; here is the link to watch the series online http://www.tvids.me/watch103/Lost/season-01-episode-01-Pilot-%281%29 .

      And many thanks to Monica of a fascinating post!

      • Thanks for the link, Deelia! (I hope it is legal – we are much less strict about this in Europe). I am a fanatic so I have the whole series on bluray. 🙂 I am happy you liked the post.

      • Soul Fields says:

        Oh, yes, me too hope it´s legal! Have not introduced myself more with it. You can also delete the link, if you like. I don´t know what the consequences might be, if it´s not legal. I´ll search the web for info of legal sites of the kind later, but it may take some time.

        Your post made me chuckle as I could apply it to my personal life (and that would be a long story).

        Hugs, Deelia

      • Don’t worry about the link.
        Now I am intrigued but I love to be intrigued, so let your experience remain a mystery.

  2. stephen says:

    Thanks once again Monika. Lovely post. I haven’t seen Lost, but you have peaked my interest. Here’s something beautiful for you:

    “Somewhere there was once a Flower, a Stone, a Crystal, a Queen, a King, a Lover, and his Beloved, and this was long ago, on an island somewhere in the ocean five thousand years ago. . . . Such is Love, the mystic flower of the Soul. This is the center, the self. . . .Nobody understands what I mean. Only a poet could begin to understand . . .” (C. G. Jung, Talks with Miguel Serrano, from C. G. Jung Speaking, p. 405)

  3. Great post! I watched the entire Lost series and loved it. It brought back memories, too, of when I visited Hawaii (I actually stood on some of the cliffs where the scenes were shot). I am curious how J. J. Abrams will do taking over the Star Wars franchise.

  4. deanjbaker says:

    great enjoyable work

  5. I LOVED Lost~ Great fun post Monika!

  6. jeanraffa says:

    I’ve never watched Lost! Now that I know what I’m missing I’ll check it out if I can find it.

    I’m enjoying your blog and loved your wise and insightful quote: “Whoever comes to an isolated island, does not leave it as the same person: islands are both safe havens and dangerous areas of upheaval; safe wombs and insular alchemical vessels of transformation.”

    Without fully understanding this symbol I used it in my autobiographical first book (The Bridge to Wholeness) to convey these ideas. Another symbol in that book was a golden bear, among whose many meanings include themes of spiritual introversion, hibernation, transformation, and rebirth. I have since found additional meaning in the bear’s fishing expertise: for me it’s a metaphor for the inner work of dipping down into the unconscious waters to bring back nourishing psycho-spiritual insights.

    • Thank you for a wonderful comment and validating my intuition about the symbolism of islands. A golden bear can be also a beautiful emblem of conscious femininity, I think. I feel I need to read your book.

      • jeanraffa says:

        You’re welcome. Despite the mother bear’s reputation for fiercely protecting her cubs, I’ve never heard anyone else say the golden bear is an emblem of conscious femininity, but that’s exactly how I saw it in The Bridge to Wholeness! Empowering femininity and bringing it into consciousness is the theme of all my books. Wow. It certainly feels as if you and I are on a very similar wavelength!

      • That makes me very, very happy.

  7. cat says:

    Just “landed: here via Sue Dreamwalker … lovely blog … will explore more … greetings from Canada … Love, cat.

  8. rolandclarke says:

    Another wonderful post with a great deal to dwell upon. I am a Lost fan and even bought the first series of DVDs. Have to admit still need to watch later series but now will. Your words “Time flows differently on islands, because they are places torn out of the conventional time space continuum,” struck a particular chord as I have it echoes a novella that I wrote first draft of in 2011, and about to return to it. So you’ve got me noticing my hidden references. Than you.

  9. ptero9 says:

    Excellent post Monika!
    I can very much relate to Islands having grown up on Long Island, NY and I too am a huge, huge fan of Lost. My dear recently deceased friend Regina, my childhood best friend, told me I must see Lost. I decided to check it out. In watching the first three shows, I wasn’t sure I would get hooked, but by the 6th or 7th, I was so hooked, my husband and I devoured the first three seasons in a few months.
    I loved the character of John Locke, but towards the end it did get a little weird. I may have to watch Lost again one of these days.

    You bring some wonderful new insights here for me on Islands though. I had not thought of them as having a feminine quality before, but that makes sense, and perhaps they even have a touch of anima too.

    Living on one definitely gives you an identity as an islander, but, yes, can be confining. Because my family had settled on LI in the 17th century, I was always able to recognize the “city” people, as we called them, who used to move to LI from NYC. Also, say we live on LI as compared to saying we live in LI, that just never sounded right to us.

    • That is so interesting about Long Island, Debra. I am so glad I am learning new things about American culture through blogging.
      About Lost, I was also kind of sad for John Locke but I loved the final seasons of the show – it was sheer myth and magic.
      Thank you!

  10. One of your blog’s themes is the return of the Sacred Feminine. Thought these might interest you…
    http://tomsplitt.com/2014/07/11/o-my-love-2/
    http://tomsplitt.com/2014/10/16/the-poet-and-the-cry-of-life/

  11. geokalpataru says:

    since i am a frequent traveler to both Ariadne’s and Calypso’s islands, i would suggest for you to visit them so to see for your self the magic in the air. the healing of the body and mind, the primordial atmosphere(esp.in Calypso’s island) but also the feeling of (beautiful) entrapment..i think you will enjoy it.i am quite sure though that Ariadne found refuge in a tiny island very close to Naxos island, its called Donoussa (well according to mythology). this was a very informative article by the way.

  12. Pingback: Symbiosis: The Seeking Man & an Island – The sHaded elEphant

  13. Thank you for this post. It graciously assisted me in a recent occurrence that I’ve just written about… So much so that I even cited this very article and referenced your website at the end. Blessings.

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