Stones symbolize that which is ancient, eternal, impenetrable and unconscious. Unsurprisingly, the first chapter of human history was called the Stone Age. For the ancients stones were infused with the spirit of the gods and ancestors. Stone caves were places of initiation, the symbolic wombs where souls descended into embodiment or ascended into the ancestral realm or to higher spiritual realms. Before monuments to solar worship, such as Stonehenge, were erected, all over Europe people used to carve large-scale sculptures that were human-like in shape. This was 4000 BC while in the course of the 3rd millennium BC worship of the sun emerged and stone structures lost their anthropomorphic character. But back at the beginning, when religion was more closely bound to nature, Hermes was worshipped in the form of herms – stone pillars erected at roadsides, while the ancient goddess Artemis of Ephesus (Artemis at Perga) was venerated as a black meteoric stone. Later in monotheistic religions stones kept their sacred status; Jesus said to Peter (petrus – rock) that he is the rock that Jesus will built his church on; in Islam Ka’aba – the Black Stone – is venerated at Mecca. In our times, however, we often disregard the stone as lesser material and speak of a heart of stone or that you cannot get blood from a stone (English proverb). We also become petrified (=like a stone) due to fear or trauma.
Yet, as Juan Eduardo Cirlot beautifully puts it in his Dictionary of Symbols, the stone is a symbol of creation per se, about which the alchemists knew very well:
“In volcanic eruptions, air turned to fire, fire became ‘water’ and ‘water’ changed to stone; hence stone constitutes the first solid form of the creative rhythm —the sculpture of essential movement, and the petrified music of creation.
As for the philosophers’ stone in alchemy, it represents the ‘conjunction’ of opposites, or the integration of the conscious self with the feminine or unconscious side (or in other words, the fixing of volatile elements); it is, then, a symbol of the All.”
In old Europe, young women used to visit special so-called sliding stones to sit on them or crawl over them in order to conceive a child.
It is true that when we moderns think of the meaning of the stone we do not immediately recall divinity but we certainly remember the myth of Sisyphus. In her book, Sisyphus: A Jungian Approach to Midlife Crisis, the Jungian analyst Verena Kast offers an in-depth analysis of the myth. She quotes from The Odyssey (the Fitzgerald translation), in which Odysseus sees the toiling Sisyphus in the underworld:
“Then Sísyphos in torment I beheld
being roustabout to a tremendous boulder.
Leaning with both arms braced and legs driving,
he heaved it toward a height, and almost over,
but then a Power spun him round and sent
the cruel boulder bounding again to the plain.
Whereon the man bent down again to toil,
dripping sweat, and the dust rose overhead.”
For Verena Kast, the myth of Sisyphus means that our problems can never be eliminated and that the path we follow is the goal. The contrasting archetypal image to the myth of the task of Sisyphus is the myth of the holy child, which is associated with the ability to create and discover. We may speak of the torture of the ordinary, repetitive tasks, for which the holy child in us has low tolerance.
The stone demands the greatest effort and undivided attention from Sisyphus. But in the end the hero has no choice but to let go, as Kast explains:
“In considering this we are forced to confront our own fear that our efforts will fail in the end, that everything could prove useless, senseless, absurd, in vain.
Perhaps the myth of Sisyphus is also a symbol for the fact that in spite of all our efforts nothing can really be brought to an end in human life, nothing can ever be completed.”
What is heroic about Sisyphus, says Kast, is that he does not escape but he stays and takes responsibility. He cannot flee into the paradise of death or illusion, either.
Freud spoke of what he called “the repetition compulsion,” by which he meant our human preference for the familiar. The myth of Sisyphus also stands for our compulsion to repeat the same mistakes, which mark us for life. In the same context we may also speak of the difficulty of breaking the karmic cycle. Some life patterns are just set in stone.
But why was Sisyphus punished by the gods in such a cruel way? Verena Kast explores the myth and offers very valuable insights. The name Sisyphus apparently meant “the clever one” and he was indeed a trickster character. His most important feat was that he tricked Death itself:
“Death, change, setbacks and having to let go, these things hold no reality for him. When he is threatened by the principle of ‘death’ we see this attitude most clearly in his behavior – he chains up death and locks it away in a storage room. By this action our friend sets himself up as equal to Zeus, on the same level as the gods.”
Sisyphus was unable to accept that life is limited by death; he could not relinquish the idea that human existence, unlike that of the gods, is frail and limited. Therefore he was sentenced to spinning the vicious circle and pursuing his unglamorous task without the possibility of redemption or transformation. But is there hope in this seemingly hopeless myth? Albert Camus finished his famous essay dedicated to the myth of Sisyphus and his heroic struggle in the face of the absurdity of existence with these words:
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
There is dignity and divinity in ordinary daily struggle. “A face that toils so close to stones is
already stone itself!,” writes Camus. This must be “the human form divine” of which William Blake wrote.
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