“I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil.”
(the words inscribed on the statue of Isis of Sais)
The title of Chapter IX of The Red Book (Liber Primus) is Mysterium. Encounter. This chapter contains a powerful vision, in which Jung sees the prophet Elijah with a black serpent at his feet, accompanied by who the prophet says is his daughter, Salome. She is blind, which symbolizes the wisdom of the inner vision and the blind power of instincts. The vision is illustrated by a painting, which shows the figures at night in the mountains.
Liz Greene notes that this is the first female figure in The Red Book (1), which marks an important stage and a major qualitative change. Suddenly the air is electrified with the utterance of the mysterious name – Salome. “My wisdom and my daughter are one,” says Elijah, while Jung seems horrified because he remembers that Salome was the woman who danced before Herod and as her reward asked for the head of John the Baptist. Salome speaks to him:
“S: ‘Do you love me?’
I: ‘How can I love you? How do you come to this question? I see only one thing, you are Salome, a tiger, your hands are stained with the blood of the holy one. How should I love you?’
S: ‘You will love me.’
At this stage Jung is still not ready to love his anima. But Elijah insists: “I and my daughter have been one since eternity.”
Liz Greene points out to the red moon and red robes in the painting featured above. Jung says:
“I hear wild music, a tambourine, a sultry moonlit night, the bloody-staring head of the holy one – fear seizes me. Woe, was she the hand of the God? I do not love her, I fear her. Then the spirit of the depths spoke to me and said: ‘Therein you acknowledge her divine power.'”
Salome had just a passing reference in the Bible, where her name was not even mentioned. She was later identified as Salome by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephius. But her enduring myth, which has survived until today, was created by Oscar Wilde in his tragedy Salome. There Salome falls in love with John the Baptist, who spurns her. She enchants king Herod with the dance of the seven veils. The king offers her anything she wants so she requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. She proceeds to kiss his bloody lips. Sickened, Herod orders her to be killed, too. In the sky rises the blood red moon.
Wilde had been influenced by a number of sources, one of which was a painting by the French Symbolist Gustave Moreau. The work Salome dancing before Herod created real frenzy when it was displayed at the Salon in Paris in 1876. Holding a lotus flower, Salome is dancing in an ornate eclectic palace:
“Everything … about the painting … is extraordinary, particularly in its fusion of different cultural elements. These have been associated with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Alhambra in Granada, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and several mediaeval cathedrals. Motifs have been identified from Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese art and culture.”
Toni Bentley, who herself used to dance with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, is an author of a book about four famous dancers, who embodied the spirit of Salome in the period after Oscar’s Wilde play gave rise to a real Salome mania. Her interpretation of the myth of Salome is quite provocative. She writes:
“This fictional female, whose erotic allure leads men into danger, destruction, and even death, was created by the male masochistic mind, resolving his contradictory desire for sexual connection and his even deeper fear of castration and annihilation.
Oscar Wilde gave Salome what she had heretofore lacked: a personality, a psychology all her own. Wilde transformed Salome from an object of male desire and fear into the subject of her own life. Wilde saw Salome from her own point of view and completed her evolution into a real woman with real motivations.” (2)
Bentley compares the dance of the seven veils to Inanna’s descent to the underworld. The Mesopotamian goddess also had to relinquish her robes and jewellery at each of the seven gates:
“Oscar Wilde assigned this symbolic descent to the underworld of the unconscious, a ceremony that equates stripping naked to being in a state of truth, the ultimate unveiling, to Salome.
… a naked woman still conceals the darkness where life begins. The hymen veils the womb, the womb veils the origin of life itself.” (3)
The encounter of the dark goddess is not comfortable for Jung, who longs to go back to the light of the day. In the second part of the chapter, he tries to make sense of the powerful vision, perhaps in order to rationalize it:
“Because I have fallen into the source of chaos, into the primordial beginning, I myself become smelted anew in the connection with the primordial beginning, which at the same time is what has been and what is becoming.”
He meditates on the symbolism of the snake with its “changeability and germination”, which he sees as the unconscious earthly essence of man, and “the mystery that flows to him from the nourishing earth-mother.”
Once more Jung returns to the theme of opposites. He says:
“It is always the serpent that causes man to become enslaved now to one, now to the other principle, so that it becomes error.”
He identifies Salome with pleasure and Eros, while Elijah symbolizes “forethinking” and Logos. He says that human moves between thinking and pleasure according to his or her personal preference:
“He who prefers to think than to feel, leaves his feelings to rot in darkness. It does not grow ripe, but in moldiness produces sick tendrils that do not reach the light. He who prefers to feel than to think leaves his thinking in darkness, where it spins its nets in gloomy places, desolate webs in which mosquitoes and gnats become enmeshed. The thinker feels the disgust of feeling, since :the feeling in him is mainly disgusting. The one who feels thinks the disgust of thinking, since the thinking in him is mainly disgusting. So the serpent lies between the thinker and the one who feels. They are each other’s poison and healing.”
It seems that Salome is the overpowering presence in this chapter. Although Jung appeals for balance between Eros and Logos, as we need both, nevertheless the power of the goddess seems irresistible. Jung admonishes:
“A thinker should fear Salome, since she wants his head, especially if he is a holy man. … You must turn back to motherly forethought to obtain renewal.”
(1) Liz Greene, The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus: Daimons, Gods and the Planetary Journey, Kindle edition
(2) Toni Bentley, Sisters of Salome, Yale University Press: New Haven&London, 2002