The Danaids, the Lernaean Hydra and Heracles

John William Waterhouse, “The Danaids”

According to the Greek myth, the Danaids, fifty daughters of Danaus, were forced to marry fifty sons of Aegyptus, a ruler of Egypt. Forty-nine of them killed their husbands on the wedding night. The forty-nine heads of the men were tossed into the marshes of Lerna. As punishment, the Danaids were sent to Tartaros, were they were ordered to endlessly pour water into a leaky pitcher. At least such is the official, patriarchal version of the myth told by the Greek conquerors.

For Robert Graves and J.J. Bachofen (1) the Danaids were water priestesses, who brought the precious gift of pure water from the delta of the Nile to the dry Peloponnese in Greece. Their ancient sanctuary was raided by the Greeks, as Robert Graves tells in his Greek Myths:

“After the second successful attempt, the Hellenic leader married the Chief-priestess and distributed the water-priestesses as wives among his chieftains.”

In Graves’ view, the Danaids were not pouring water into a leaky pitcher, but they were rather performing an act of sympathetic magic by ritual sprinkling the ground with water. The Greeks seemed to have “welcomed the gift of water but rejected the Danaids.” (2)

From the heads of the forty-nine men that got thrown into the marshes, the nine-headed Hydra, a symbol of the wrathful feminine, was born with eight mortal and one immortal golden head and black bile in her veins. Destroying her was one of the twelve labours of Heracles. Hydra was so venomous that not only her breath could kill instantly but the sheer smell of her tracks was deadly. Heracles lured the monster out of its cave with flaming arrows. First he tried to use brute force and clobbered her heads, but each time one was vanquished two more sprang up. Meanwhile, the goddess Hera sent a giant crab to nip at the hero’s foot and thwart his efforts further. Heracles killed the crab, which was subsequently placed in the constellation karkinos, i.e. Cancer. Heracles decided to change the tactics and asked his nephew Iolaos, who accompanied him, to burn the surrounding woods and burn each stump left by the freshly cut off heads with a torch so that it will not grow back. This cauterization of the wound to seal it had been recommended by Athena. Thus Hydra was conquered, her body, together with the immortal head, buried under a heavy rock.

Gustave Moreau, “Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra”

In times of crisis like the current one, when we are battling the many-headed Hydra, we can choose to understand the events in multiple ways. We can see Hydra as the symbol of the wrathful feminine wronged and violated by the patriarchal idea of progress ravaging earth and its resources. In the first part of Matrix Agent Smith says these words to Morpheus:

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.”

After killing Hydra Hercules used her black blood  to dip his arrows in. The same poisonous arrow was later shot accidentally, wounding the wise centaur Chiron. The wounded healer archetype is a reminder that we are all subject to suffering endemic to flesh and blood, we are all mortal. The hydra of epidemic can also be viewed as a natural phenomenon, raising its head periodically throughout history, with no one to blame, just as a manifestation of fate. To prevail in the current crisis, when we are wounded by the arrows of misfortune, we need fierce defensive measures, not brute force. This monster that we are facing cannot be clubbed to death. It can be neutralized with wisdom, consciousness symbolized by fire and co-operation. The immortal head of Hydra is golden, which means that in the dark swamps of our transgressions there is alchemical gold to be found. But we also need the patience, kindness and wisdom of Chiron. The arrow, which is a symbol of “the inner strength and unity deriving from correct use and development of the ‘killer instinct'” as well as “the evolution of aggression and desire into wisdom” (3) was used both by Apollo, the god of the sun and Artemis, the moon goddess.  The arrow is also connected with “mental, physical and spiritual focus” as well as “focused attention and spiritual maturity.” (4) A heart pierced by an arrow symbolizes suffering but also a conjunction, according to Cirlot, the author of The Dictionary of Symbols. Perhaps in times like this we can transcend our differences and dualities, not only those of gender. Perhaps a new sense of unity will be born.

Sandro Botticelli, “Pallas and the Centaur”

When I was younger one of my favourite books was Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez. There are numerous passages that I remember but I want to focus on this one describing how a character is confronted with the death of a loved one:

“Until then Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his family had conceived of death as a misfortune that befell others, other people’s fathers and mothers, other people’s brothers and sisters and husbands and wives but not theirs.”

What stayed with me from that book that I read so many years ago is the simple, immortal truth of solidarity in suffering. Paradoxically, a sense of oneness and community may arise from forced isolation and social distancing.

An image from “The Red Book”

Notes:

(1) Johann Jakob Bachofen (born in 1815) was an early Swiss proponent of the prehistoric matriarchy, author of Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World

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

(3) The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, ed. by Ami Ronnberg

(4) Ibid.

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The Feminine and the Masculine Revisited

I have always believed that the concepts of anima and animus need to be updated for our times. According to Jung, the anima is the image of the woman in a man’s psyche, while the animus is the image of a man in the psyche of a woman. If the consciousness is feminine, thought Jung, then the unconscious will be masculine, and vice versa. The Jungian archetype of the Self, written with a capital S, spells out a pattern of development, in which the ego must be confronted with the contents of the unconscious in the name of wholeness. Excessive adherence to one side of any polarity will inevitably result in an enantiodromia, i.e. a process in which it will start turning into its opposite.

I have come across a very inspiring theory recently, which aims at adjusting Jung’s somewhat old-fashioned views of gender to our modern sensibilities. In his book Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche, Gareth S. Hill emphasizes that the masculine and feminine patterns transcend gender. He differentiates between four patterns that define all human activity: the static feminine, the dynamic masculine, the static masculine, and the dynamic feminine. A mature ego is able “to flow freely through the four modalities of consciousness that are based on those four fundamental patterns…,” he proclaims.

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By the static feminine he understands “the impersonal, rhythmic cycle of nature, which gives all life and takes all life.” This orientation, being fatefully indifferent towards the individual, aims solely at “perpetuation of the species.” On a positive side, the static feminine will love us as we are, unconditionally, provided that we do not try to break away from the group. The negative expression of static feminine is, according to Hill, “smothering entanglement, an inertia of ensnaring and devouring routine.”

Th polar opposite of the static feminine is the dynamic masculine. In the ego’s development, it is activated when a child is trying to separate from the mother. Initiative, orientation toward a goal, progress, linearity are some possible expressions of this pattern. When distorted it brings about destruction of nature, rape, domination and violence.

In order to get away from this polarity, the ego seeks what Hill refers to as “fiery initiation,” which is connected to the third pattern, i.e. that of the static masculine. The static masculine is a tendency to create systems, order, hierarchies, laws and the government. When distorted, it results in tyranny, lifelessness, lack of spontaneity and rigidity. In order to solve the conflict between the static feminine and the dynamic masculine, the individual, “through a certain expenditure of effort, and performance to a certain standard, … qualifies for a particular status in society.” This is what Hill understands as the fiery initiation.

The compensatory pattern to the static masculine is the dynamic feminine, which Hill poetically compares to “the undirected chaos of the forest floor.” This pattern equates with openness to the unexpected, responsiveness, participation and the expansion of consciousness. In a negative sense, it may lead to addiction, suicide, chaos, despair and death. The image below illustrates the four basic patterns:

static-dynamic-polarities

In order to overcome the polarity of the static masculine and the dynamic feminine, the ego seeks a watery initiation, which Hill understands as “the dark night of the soul,” which ultimately leads to a deeper and wider sense of the self. The rigid ego of the static masculine relinquishes control when confronted with the wild, dynamic feminine; and ultimately reconnects with the static feminine or the mysterious ground of being. The image below illustrates the flow of initiations according to Hill:

figure-8-static-dynamic-flow

I believe that our civilization has reached the apex of the static masculine development. We are standing at the threshold to the watery initiation. The dynamic feminine has awakened both in its positive and negative expression. The more identified the societies remain with the static masculine order, in which fitting into the system is everything, the more eruptions will we see from the unconscious. We may expect more symptoms such as the social unrest and destruction, until the cosmic balance is restored. Hopefully, at the very end of a long and painful process, we will reach the static feminine – the Great Mother who will take us in her loving arms.

Vincent van Gogh, “Girl in the Woods”

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Ancient Roots of the Symbol

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The book Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts by Peter T. Struck, published in 2004 by Princeton University Press, traces the ancient origins of the concept of a symbol. The author has this to say about the first occurrences of the word “symbol”:

“In its earliest instances, the Greek word… [symbolon] … has nothing to do with figurative or suggestive language. Formed of the verb… (put together), a symbol is one half of an object – usually a piece of cloth, wood or pottery – that is deliberately split in two and then allocated to the parties to an agreement. It is reassembled at a later time to verify the deal.”(p. 78)

However, already in Plato it can be noticed that the meaning of the symbol has evolved beyond its original material sense. Plato’s dialogue Symposium contains a myth about a proto-human, who at the beginning had four legs, four arms and four faces. This, however, threatened Zeus, who cut the creature in half. Plato writes:

“Then each of us is a symbol of a human, since we have been cleaved just like flatfish, two generated from one. So each person forever searches for the symbol of himself. (quoted after Struck, p. 79)

Thus, the meaning of the word “symbol” encompasses “both lack and potential wholeness;” (p.79), while it simultaneously creates desire, which is a result of want.

At the same time, i.e. around 300 B.C.E., the word symbol was used to signify a sort of token or password to authenticate and allow entry. It was used like this by soldiers and also by members of secret cults, notably by the Pythagoreans. It was a mark of secret identity, not open to all (p. 81). Thus, it created a feeling of community.

Further, the symbol was used very prominently in divinatory context. Omens were treated as signs left by the divine to interpret. “The omen provides our earliest secure attestation of a symbol that is an interpretable enigma,” says Struck (p. 96).

In addition, the word “symbol” carried with it the notion of “a coincidental meeting,” for example when a tortoise fell into the path of a newly-born Hermes, this auspicious encounter was called “a symbol” in the Homeric hymn to Hermes. While reading this, I was reminded of Jung’s concept of synchronicity interpreted as a “meaningful coincidence.”

By Unknown author – Hermes transforms the tortoise into a lyre http://www.cvaonline.org/gems/poniatowski, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46305419

By virtue of a strong association of the symbol with secret cults and mysterious omens, it can be concluded that “the power of the symbol is born out of the power of the secret.” (p. 102).

Struck moves on to discuss the enormous importance of the symbol for the Neoplatonists – Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus. For Porphyry, the symbol was “a point of intersection between divine and mundane realms.” (p. 218). In his essay “On the Cave of the Nymphs” he refers to the cave from Homer’s Odyssey as “a symbol.” For Iamblichus, the symbol is also “the central link between the divine and human realms, …, the node on which the transcendent can meet the mundane.” (p. 213). The Neoplatonists were inspired by a passage of the Chaldean Oracles, which said that the Nous or the mind of God “sowed secret symbols throughout the universe.” (p. 216). In order to evoke the presence of the gods in the human realms, “the earliest theurgists saw themselves as gathering these divine seeds (i.e. in the form of certain stones, herbs, gems, plants, etc.) in theurgic ritual.” (p. 216).

The theme of the divine communicating with humans by means of symbols is also pervasive in Corpus Hermeticum. The invisible divine principles are made visible by means of symbols. The One exists beyond ordinary language and thought, which means that symbols are our only chance to grasp the vital message of the divine realm. In symbols dwells divine presence, which gives them the power they have. Not only do symbols transform the practitioner, but they also raise him or her “to higher spiritual levels.” (p. 224)

According to another Neoplatonist – Proclus, the rays sent by the One penetrate down through the immaterial to the material realm. Struck offers a clear example of this emanation of symbolism:

“One ray, or chain, laves the transcendent heights of the One and manifests itself, very near its source, as the traditional Greek god Apollo. When this same ray continues downward and enters the realm of Nous, it brings into being the Platonic Form of the sun. At the level of Soul, the beam manifests as sort of sun-soul… Next … the beam brings into being the actual physical sun that we see in the sky. … [at the mineral level] it appears as gold.” (p. 231)

Thus the One has left its impressions on every existing thing. The divine signs, symbols, seeds or sunthemata, are visible all around us, even in the basest material things.

Symbolism is a golden thread that oscillates between spirit and matter. An old Greek meaning of sumbola was “the confluence of the waters,” a place where various rivers, streams and other waterways meet and flow together. (1) Through symbols we gain access to the creative and nourishing watery source of life. It is symbols which bring together (Greek sumballen – throw together) seemingly disparate cultural currents. When we realize that the One permeates All, we can notice symbolic connections that reach far and wide, beyond any kind of artificial borders and dualities. In Alchemical Studies, Jung spoke of “the living truth” of the symbols and their liberating quality:

“The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly and, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept; for the symbol not only conveys a visualization of the process but—and this is perhaps just as important—it also brings a re-experiencing of it, of that twilight which we can learn to understand only through inoffensive empathy, but which too much clarity only dispels.”

It seems that we can notice how the ancient understanding of the symbol as two parts coming together resurfaces in the idea of the symbol acting as a link between psyche and matter, the above and the below. The symbol seems to obliterate dualities in a display of One Wisdom.

Félix_Vallotton,_1909_-_Le_Rayon

Félix Vallotton, “A Ray” (1909)

Note

(1) Rene Alleau, The Primal Force in Symbol: Understanding the Language of Higher Consciousness

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Reading The Red Book (17)

Saint Onuphrius, one of the Desert Fathers (via Wikipedia)

Chapter IV of Liber Secundus is called “The Anchorite. Dies 1” and relates the first day of Jung’s encounter with a hermit monk, who lives in the Libyan desert. While reading The Red Book I was particularly struck by all the passages in which Jung describes nature; they are always extremely evocative. He starts:

“On the following night, I found myself on new paths; hot dry air flowed around me, and I saw the desert, yellow sand all around, heaped up in waves, a terrible irascible sun, a sky as blue as tarnished steel, the air shimmering above the earth, on my right side a deeply cut valley with a dry river bed, some languid grass and dusty brambles. In the sand I see the tracks of naked feet that lead up from the rocky valley to the plateau.”

What follows is an encounter with “a haggard man” wearing a white mantle and holding a parchment, which Jung recognizes as a Greek gospel. The first topic of their conversation is language and interpretation. Jung is surprised that the Anchorite can occupy himself with just a single volume for the entirety of his time on the desert. The hermit berates Jung’s childishness. A book, he says, reveals something new each time it is read because “on the higher levels of insight into divine thoughts, you recognize that the sequence of words has more than one valid meaning.”

He proceeds to tell Jung that before he converted to Christianity he was a rhetorician and philosopher in Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander the Great, who, according to a legend, was inspired by a fragment of Homer’s Odyssey about an island called Pharos, lying off Egypt. (1) There the genius of Hellenism and the genius of Egypt met. The population of Alexandria was very diverse, predominantly Greek, Egyptian and Jewish, but with sizeable groups from people from all over the world. As Vrettos puts it, “the city was a universal nurse, …, nurturing each race that settled there.” (2) There the anchorite from The Red Book taught philosophy, both Greek and modern, concentrating on the teachings of the great Philo of Alexandria, the first Western esotericist. Philo was a Jewish thinker, whose aim was to harmonize the Torah with Greek philosophy. His writings, especially the doctrine of the logos, influenced early Christian writers, including the prologue to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In the Greek version of the Gospel of John in the beginning was not “the Word” but “logos.”

The concept of “logos” was first found in Heraclitus, who used it to refer to order and knowledge, though already in his philosophy there was already more to logos than simply “measure” or “word.” There exists a breathtakingly powerful short passage of Heraclitus, in which he ponders the unlimited nature of the psyche: “You would not discover the limits of the soul although you have travelled every road. So deep is its logos.”

Philo expanded the theory of the logos. He saw it as the principle of order in the world and the way God manifests himself in matter:

“It is the powerful word that gives solid consistency to the universe … It is synonymous with due measure and harmony, both in God, reconciling the contrasting attributes of mercy and justice …, and in the world, bringing together the different elements and neutralizing the forces of chaos. ….Philo links Sophia to a life-giving feminine maternal principle. In union with God, she generates the Logos and the cosmos.

…the Logos not only provides order to the world, but it also actively and constantly dominates and controls it, or even, when necessary, props it up internally. In fact, Philo goes so far as to say that ‘the most venerable Logos of the one who is put on the world as a garment’ … In this fashion the Logos comes to take the place of the Platonic ‘world soul’ in an extraordinary integration of philosophical notions and concepts.” (3)

It seems that for Philo logos served as an intermediary between God and the material world.

The Anchorite asks Jung to read the Prologue to John’s gospel. With the ardour of a new convert, the hermit argues that Philo’s logos was just a word, a dry concept, an abstraction, while John equated logos with Jesus, God’s “son in flesh.” The Anchorite seems to perceive pre-Christian philosophy as purely abstract intellectual exercise. He encourages Jung to “unlearn” everything.

Jung admires anchorite’s simple but full existence:

…The solitary seeks the sun and no one else is so ready to open his heart as he is. … In the desert the solitary is relieved of care and therefore turns his whole life to the sprouting garden of his soul, which can flourish only under a hot sun. … You think that the solitary is poor. You do not see that he strolls under laden fruit trees and that his hand touches grain a hundredfold. … He cannot tell you, since the splendor of his garden is so abundant. He stammers when he speaks of it, and he appears to you to be poor in spirit and in life. But his hand does not know where it should reach, in all this indescribable fullness.”

The final part of the chapter is Jung’s meditation on words and their danger to the psyche, whose depth they often seek to obliterate. He asserts the importance of finding new words, but first we need to shatter the old ones. The silence of the desert opens the soul to “the boundless,” while words often banish it. Silence allows us to “comprehend the darkness” and

“Through comprehending the dark, the nocturnal, the abyssal in you, you become utterly simple. … Peace and blue night spread over you while you dream in the grave of the millennia.”

Kay Sage, “Margin of Silence”

Notes:

(1) Theodore Vrettos, Alexandria: City of the Western Mind

(2) Ibid.

(3) Adam Kamesar, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Philo

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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book (part 2)

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

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Hermes in the Forest of Symbols

Hermes from Boccaccio’s “Primavera”

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

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

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

The Emerald Tablet, transl. by Isaac Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”

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

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

Pinturicchio and assistants, Hermes Lulls Argus

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

Diego Velazquez, “Mercury and Argus”

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

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

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

Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic in Siena Cathedral

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

Libyan Sibyl, Siena Cathedral

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

Augustus Knapp, “Emerald Tablet of Hermes”

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

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

johfra_hermes_trismegistos

Johfra, “Hermes Trismegistus”

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

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

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

Engraving by Basil Valentine, read more about it here: https://www.alchemywebsite.com/Alchemical_Symbolism_Basil_Valentine_engraving.html

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Notes:

(1) https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0138%3Ahymn%3D4

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

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) http://www.jungatlanta.com/articles/Hermes-and-the-Creation-of-Space.pdf

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

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

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

(12) Gary Lachman, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus 

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

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid.

 

 

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Little Women 2019: A Short Review

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

Louisa May Alcott

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

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March

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

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

 

*https://culture.pl/en/article/olga-tokarczuks-nobel-lecture-the-tender-narrator

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The Underworld in Finnish and Greek Myth

Gustave Doré, “Submersion in Lethe”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey 

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

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

Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey 

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Reading The Red Book (16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Schenk, “Le Clochard”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The_Reaper_(after_Millet)_by_Vincent_van_Gogh,_1889

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

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

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

Edvard Munch, “Moonlight”

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

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

Footnotes:

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

(2) Ibid.

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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

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Reading The Red Book (15)

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

Carl Jung, “The Red Book”

bookred..liber4f_small

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

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

Harry Clarke, from his Illustrations to Faust

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

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

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

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

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

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair”

Footnotes:

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

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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

 

 

 

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Reading The Red Book (14)

Marc Rothko

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

bookred..liber4b_small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bookred..liber4d_small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lust, XI Arcanum of the Thoth deck

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

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

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

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

By Jean Michel Basquiat

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

(5) Ibid.

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

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

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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

 

 

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