Soul and Myth
The following is excerpted from The Secret Tradition of the Soul, recently released by EVOLVER EDTIONS/North Atlantic Books.
When I was five years old an enlightened elementary school teacher read us stories from Greek mythology. All us little boys liked the Greek heroes. We recognized the prototypes of our adventure book heroes and comic book superheroes: powerful Heracles rampaging through his twelve labors, Jason and his gang of specialists nabbing the Golden Fleece, Theseus negotiating the Cretan labyrinth with a ball of thread in order to kill the Minotaur, high-flying Bellerophon on his winged horse, hare-swift Achilles laying waste to the armies of Troy. Some of us admired the subtler heroes, such as Perseus, who outmaneuvered the Gorgon Medusa; the artistic Orpheus, who used music rather than brute force to master the Underworld; or wily, redheaded Odysseus, who thought up the Trojan horse. I later came to realize that all our different styles of heroic stance toward the world find their archetypal blueprint in the myths.
Did the little girls similarly thrill to these tales? Or did they identify with neglected Deianeira, Heracles’s wife; with poor Ariadne, who teaches Theseus about the thread and is abandoned for her pains; or with powerful, witchy Medea, without whose help Jason would have failed to procure the Fleece? I don’t know. But I do remember that we were all affected by the story that, above all the others, stayed with me.
It is the story of an innocent girl called simply the Kore, or “maiden,” who is drowsily picking narcissi and poppies in a sunlit meadow when, suddenly, the earth opens and Hades, god of the dead, flies out in his brazen chariot, snatches her up, and carries her off into the Underworld. It is a violation, even a rape—as children we were not explicitly told this, of course, but we keenly felt how appalling the vivid opening scene was. I had a cosmic vision of the whole green Earth withering as the Kore’s heartbroken mother, Demeter, goddess of crops and growing things, neglected her duties and wandered the blighted world in search of her daughter.
All would have perished from famine if Zeus had not sent Hermes into the Underworld to bring the Kore back. He was successful: Hades promised to let her rejoin her mother. But whether she had been unable to resist eating some pomegranate seeds, or whether Hades had secretly popped one into her mouth, she had eaten in the Underworld. And to eat Hades’s food is to be condemned to stay there forever. However meager the seeds, they doomed the Kore, now renamed Persephone, “Bringer of Destruction,” to spend one third of each year below the earth.
At first I was quite pleased, when, years later, the myth was “explained” to me as a primitive account of how the seasons came into being. The Kore was the part of Mother Nature that “went underground” in winter and reemerged in spring. The myth was made into an allegory, with a single meaning, satisfying my desire for facts. But I felt, too, a loss of depth and complexity in the myth. It continued to resonate in my mind far beyond the explanation I had been given. I began to see that the myth was about the loss of the Soul of the World, symbolized by the wasteland of the Earth’s surface; yet at the same time soul’s continued existence in “Death’s dream kingdom.”1 I also began to see, by the way the myth had gone on haunting me, that myth was operative in my life, and that it deepened its meaning over time and according to how much imagination I brought to it. Myth is, like great art, as bottomless as soul itself, capable of limitless readings and interpretations. I could see, in other words, that all the gods and their stories are still informing the stories we tell ourselves, including our scientific theories and hypotheses. For, as Karl Popper reminds us: “scientific discovery is akin to explanatory story-telling, to myth-making, and to the poetic imagination.”2
We are all in the grip of a myth. We are all inhabiting an imaginative structure determined by the perspective and set of ideas we used to call a god. Proclus thought that myths are composed by the daimons and that the daimons shape our lives.3 The idea that the daimons who inhabit myths also invented them is a remarkable metaphor for the way myths generate themselves out of Imagination. “I have often had the fancy,” wrote the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, “that there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought.”4
This is why the recounting of myths, especially to children, is intrinsically healthy for the soul and why we go on listening to, or reading, different versions of the same myths all our lives.
Because soul is occupied by—and the soul preoccupied with—the gods, it is religious. It is just that its religion is not denominational or dogmatic. Worse still, it is not monotheistic. This is why the Judeo-Christian tradition has been on the whole inimical to soul. It rejects soul’s natural animism and polytheism, and insists on one God. It is suspicious of icons, images, art, and imagination. It tends to denounce all myths other than its own as untrue.
Soul on the other hand is tolerant of monotheism. It recognizes our need for unity, and so it embraces monotheism as one of its many points of view. What it tries to resist is the drive inherent in the monotheistic outlook to exclude all other gods, hence all other perspectives. Monotheism takes its one God literally, approaching Him with ritual, prayer, worship, and belief. Soul does not believe in its gods so much as imagine them.5 They may be powerful, supernatural, dazzling, and awesome, as Pallas Athena is for Odysseus— but they are not literal beings. They do not require repentance or dispense forgiveness: what they require is attention and what they dispense is insight and meaning. Soul accommodates our desire for a single god by moving us to address one god at a time—while continuing to acknowledge all the others.
It is as if, whenever one god or archetype steps forward to be spotlighted at center stage, the others are all present in the background or waiting in the wings, ready to enter and interact. Meanwhile, however, we express the viewpoint appropriate to the ascendant deity through whose eyes we see the world without being aware of the fact—in fact, the world we see is the creation of the god who is governing us. Each god carries a set of ideas and a mode of imagining that precede our perception of things. In short, each god carries with it its own cosmos. Its presence in our lives is so dazzling that we are often blinded to any other god’s point of view. We end up mistaking our ruling deity’s perspective on the world as the world—end up mistaking, as is sometimes said, the map for the territory. As Jung said of the archetypes: “All we know is that we seem unable to imagine without them … If we invent them, we invent them according to the patterns they lay down.”6
The god behind science is golden Apollo, the “Far-Seeing,” the “Wide-Awake.” He is the god of consciousness, clarity, order, purity, reason, and progress. When he came to dominance in the sixteenth century, bringing with him the theory of a sun-centered cosmos, he brought the light of reason, which would usher in the Enlightenment. The scientific worldview was not complete, however, until Apollo’s rationalism had been underpinned by materialism—the eccentric doctrine that everything is only matter—whose begetter, we suspect, is the Great Mother Hera, wife of Zeus (the Latin mater; “mother” and “matter” are cognates),7 who keeps us grounded and mindful of matter.
Dionysus is the god of communal ecstasy. His devotees are maenads, “raging” women who celebrate his midwinter rites with the wine of which he is the god, and, thrashing their long hair about, with the dismemberment of a goat that stands in for the dismembered god. He is like the lord of misrule who is allowed to reign for short periods in order to prevent the orthodox order and rules from becoming too repressive. Whenever we submerge our individuality in collective outpourings—political rallies, wild parties (“raves,” for instance), or chanting football crowds—Dionysus is present.
Jung identified the god behind Fascism as the northern, Germanic deity Wotan, whose wild hunt sweeps across Europe leaving slaughter in its wake. But war will always be with us as long as the red-faced war-god Ares stamps about in our psyches, soothed only by his lover, Beauty herself—sexy, promiscuous, adulterous, maddening, worshipped Aphrodite, goddess of love, who is married to the lame cuckold Hephaestus. As armorer to the gods, working with his Cyclopes in the great forges beneath Mount Etna, he is the god behind our technology, perhaps, which, having divine sanction, is therefore not necessarily inimical to soul and only grows lethal when Love is taken away from it by War.
There are deities behind social movements. Hera’s little hausfrau daughter, Hebe, is behind the ideal of the wifely and motherly domestic goddess who was worshipped in the 1950s. Then the great wheel of the world-soul turns, Hebe retreats into the wings, and Aphrodite takes center stage to inaugurate the sexy, promiscuous ’60s. But we must not forget the great goddesses who will have nothing to do with sex and marriage. The virgin Athena sprang fully armed from her father’s head, as if she were the strong right arm of his very thoughts. An intellectual bluestocking—with teeth—Athena is the goddess of feminism, of social justice and civic virtue, her Parthenon (“virgin”) presiding over the city of Athens. The other virgin goddess is Artemis, goddess of hunting and the wilderness and also, strangely, of childbirth. Might it be children other than the literal kind—ideas and inspirations—that her remote beauty helps bring to birth? We recognize these goddesses in modern women, though we do not have to take their attributes of warrior-dress and hunting, midwifery, and even virginity literally. But a man who marries a woman under the aegis of Athena or Artemis would be well advised not to tangle with her when she’s on the warpath or pursuing one of her crusades; nor to try to prevent her from taking off, free-spirited, into the wild.
We are all very naive about our own unfathomed unconscious lives and the gods, both savage and wise, who dwell therein and shape our attitudes to the world.
For example, our attitude to Nature, or Dame Kind, as she was known in medieval times, depends on the deity whose point of view we unwittingly take. Through the eyes of Demeter, so to speak, we see Nature as the abode of green growth and fertility. Gaia, or Ge, governs the realm just below the Earth’s surface. From her outlook we see the deeper meaning of places, as not simply subject to brute biology, but as sacred—places where we perform rituals and make pilgrimages to, whether for picnics at standing stones or prayers at holy wells. She is not the goddess of fertility, but of the rites that guarantee fertility.8
If Gaia is the goddess of the ecological movement, Artemis is the goddess of conservation, the Virgin whose inviolacy we must preserve at all costs. She presides over wild Nature, where we do not grow things or perform rituals. If anything, we hunt—a perilous business, because we might lose ourselves in the wilderness while chasing a magical white deer or, worse, become the hunted ourselves. The story of Actaeon is a cautionary tale. He saw what no one is permitted to see: the goddess, bathing naked. We are allowed to hunt the animals who are in Artemis’s care or who are, like white deer, manifestations or masks of Artemis herself (providing always we show the proper reverence); but we are not allowed to see Artemis herself, as if in her nakedness. In striving to see too much, and lusting after the goddess, Actaeon is like the natural scientist who knows no bounds to his inquiry and seeks to penetrate Nature to her core. Myth tells us that this is indecent. Artemis punishes Actaeon by turning him into a stag. The hunter becomes the hunted. He is torn to pieces—not by the goddess, but by his own hounds, emblems of his own lust. Here we see that the vision of Nature as “red in tooth and claw,” which the old survival-of-the-fittest scientists held up as the true version of Nature, is actually a reflection of their own lustful and aggressive stance toward her. By imagining that she is soulless machinery they can despoil at will, they open themselves to destruction by their own impious desires.
Like an embodiment of the world-soul, Nature reflects back at us the face we show her. She is not the fixed entity we fondly think she is, but a sea of metaphors, constantly shape-shifting—the inviolate nymph we must preserve; the dangerous animal who destroys; the temptress we must penetrate or rape; the pregnant mother who gives birth to abundance; and so on. She can even be Dionysian when the maenads go out to her rocky places at dead of winter to “commune” with the god. At her most tranquil, dozing in the heat of the noonday, there comes the terrible shout of Pan, which sends us running for our lives.
Religion is successful when it acknowledges soul and does not exclude other gods too fervently in favor of one. Even Christian monotheism was subverted by soul. Its one God became a Trinity. The Virgin Mary was elevated by popular demand to the status of a goddess behind whom stand all the great goddesses, from Astarte to Artemis, Isis to Sophia. The daimons crept back in as mediating saints. Christ Himself was multifarious in the early days of Christianity, being freely identified with pagan gods and heroes from Osiris, Apollo, and Dionysus, to Eros, Orpheus, Prometheus, Adonis, and, especially, Heracles.9
As I have mentioned, the more we insist on monotheism and shut out other gods, the more they clamor at the back door—and the more rigid and puritanical we must become in order to keep them at bay. Our religion narrows to ideology. We cling to a single, literal creed and condemn any imaginative variant as deviant or heretical. We become fundamentalists, whether Christians or Moslems, Marxists or Fascists, rationalists or materialists. All ideologues are monotheists without knowing it. They have been ambushed by one or another of the gods. They use the perspective of a single god to suppress all the others. But the gods do not want to be treated monotheistically. They are all married or related to each other, as mythology makes clear. If we isolate them, their virtues turn against us. In seeking to reconnect with their fellow deities they become ruthless and possessive, and this is reflected in our fanaticisms.
For example, we all need a portion of Dionysian ecstasy from time to time to “take us out of ourselves.” But to be only Dionysian is to suffer that degradation of ecstasy familiar to the addict and alcoholic. If we isolate Gaia, we no longer revere the Soul of the World and promote the sanctity of certain sites. She becomes the goddess of an ecological ideology that has replaced religious instruction in many schools. Mostly this does no harm; but we should be aware that it can turn a beautiful, sacred world into a profane “environment” whose spoliation we combat with the same literal and scientistic attitude that caused the damage in the first place. Analogously, to pursue Artemis alone is to make a religion of “conservation” and to foster puritanical “green” movements that would not just reject consumerism but spread abstinence everywhere, curbing all our pleasures along with our carbon footprints. But ideologies can only ever hope to change our lifestyles; it takes soul to change our lives. Clever Athena,10 who inspires our desire for justice and equality in the community, becomes a shrew when she is isolated. She turns us into oxymoronic fanatical liberals who detect political incorrectness everywhere, like the old Puritans who, condemning all sensuality, saw wantonness in every innocent gesture.
Many ardent atheists think that, by rejecting the Judeo-Christian God, they have vanquished religion. They do not notice that they are in servitude to gods of their own, such as Apollo. For when he is alone and untempered by his brother Hermes or his counterpart Dionysus, he ceases to be sweet and enlightening Reason and becomes rigidly overrational, violently opposed to anything that smacks of soul, of the daimonic, of the divine. The materialists, on the other hand, are unconsciously possessed by the Mother—probably Hera, who reduces all points of view to her own, just as the materialists reduce everything to matter; and, like many materialists, she is notoriously vindictive toward her husband’s lovers—that is, toward any other perspective with which he might ally himself.
Unfortunately, ideologues can never be talked into adopting any other perspective. They have to be, as Christians would say, converted; or, as we might say, initiated—that is, transformed. But how might an Apollonian rationalist, for instance, be persuaded to release his iron grip on the world?
One way might be to introduce him to Dionysus, whom Nietzsche famously paired with, and opposed to, Apollo. We can see how, to Dionysus, god of collective abandonment, Apollo must seem dangerously cold, tight-assed, individualistic, aloof, and intellectual. From Apollo’s point of view, Dionysus can only appear dangerously irrational, undifferentiated, out of control, prone to contagious hysteria. It is obvious that we need something of both their outlooks if we are not to become either intolerable prigs or dissipated ne’er-do-wells. Unusually, Apollo and Dionysus are not naturally related in the myths, so how are they to be brought together?
Like the rationalist, Apollo on his own overvalues consciousness; he needs to be acquainted with the “irrational” unconscious. Fortunately, the god whom Jung called the “god of the unconscious” is not far away—he is, in fact, Apollo’s younger brother, Hermes.
The Hermetic Way
One of Hermes’s first actions after his birth is to steal Apollo’s cattle. He twists their hooves around, and makes himself a pair of sandals that he wears back to front, so that his pursuers will be misled into thinking that he has gone in the opposite direction. From Apollo’s standpoint Hermes is at best a trickster, at worst a thief and a liar—when he is accused of thieving, he flatly denies it. Duplicity is the air he breathes, and very different from Apollo’s unity. When he is not in relation to Apollo, however, Hermes appears quite otherwise. He is not only the god of thievery but also the god of communication. He presides over trade and commerce, crossroads and boundaries, magic and oracles. He is marginal, shady, even occult—the most daimonic of the gods—but also known for his wisdom and the depth of his hermeneutics. As messenger to the gods, he is the only one who can travel freely between their skyworld, the human world, and the Underworld. He mediates between different planes of existence and separate levels of the psyche. He not only specializes in leading astray, but also in guiding—notable guiding the souls of the dead down into Hades. Hermes is highly ambiguous, transcending all boundaries because he is himself the god of boundaries; difficult to pin down because he has no home except the road he travels, constantly enabling exchange to take place between this world and the Otherworld, the Above and the Below, consciousness and the unconscious. His thieving from Apollo is only the thievery that the unconscious is always practicing on consciousness, snatching away words, ideas, memories, and dreams just when we most need them. If we want to retrieve them or interpret their depths, we cannot follow their literal tracks on the straight, sunny path of Apollo. We have to be devious, following the twisted path that Hermes has ordained, even going in the direction opposite to the one the tracks are pointing to.
If we take the winding, backward, downward path of Hermes, we not only connect with the soul’s deepest perspective—that of Hades, Death—but also, and paradoxically, with the gods of the high Olympian world. Hermes connects consciousness to the unconscious, and psyche to the world. He may be a thorn in the side of righteous, moralizing, pompous Apollo, but he does initiate the reconciliation between them: he offers his brother the lyre he has made out of a tortoise’s shell. Apollo is so delighted with the instrument that he gives his cattle to Hermes, and appoints him Lord of the Herds. Hermes understands that barter and reciprocal exchange are as important in the life of the soul as they are in trade. He enables different worlds to be bridged, different perspectives to be mediated. He invents fire-sticks and lights the primordial fire long before Prometheus steals fire from the gods. He cooks a couple of cattle and sacrifices the meat to all the gods, including himself, dividing it up into twelve portions. Thus he gives all the gods, every perspective on the world, its due. He not only reconnects himself to Apollo, he is also the first to carry the infant Dionysus—standing in for the Dionysian stance while it matures, perhaps—and so maintains the connection between the god of ecstatic disorder and orderly Apollo.
We are all to some extent innocent Kores, children of Nature, picking posies in the tranquil fields and blissfully unaware of the imminent eruption of Death’s chariot, which will carry us off to the Underworld to be violated. Such a rape is indispensable to real life because it drags us out of our merely natural, merely human life and initiates us into the life of the soul. We are all Kores who have to become Persephones. The myth of Demeter and the Kore was central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, which, the myth tells us, Demeter founded in the course of her search for her daughter. We do not know much more about these Mysteries, except that they were considered indispensable to the citizens of ancient Athens. But we can be sure that they entailed death, that is, the “dying to ourselves” without which we remain childish—psychic “maidens” who lack the reflection and double vision of those who have been awoken into soul life. It is unfortunate that initiation seems to have to be so sudden and brutal; but then again, there is no gentle way to encounter death. Like the Kore we can learn to love Hades. Her abduction and rape are a narrative that is eternally present in our own souls. It tells us we must be penetrated by death. From our normal sunny, conscious outlook in the green, growing, fertile, physical fields, Hades’s cold Underworld makes us shudder and fills us with dread. We think it is a dreary and chilly place, perhaps even unreal, like the shades who are said to populate it. But Hades is also known as Plouton, “the Rich One.” And his riches are not of silver and gold, but the limitless riches of Imagination, beside which it is our fields—even ourselves—that seem mere shadows.
© 2011 by Patrick Harpur. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Image courtesy of MAMJODH, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
1. “The Hollow Men” II, line
2, in Eliot p. 89. 2. Popper, Karl, “The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions” in Hacking p. 87.
3. Cf. Raine and Harper pp. 460–61.
4. Yeats (1961) p. 107.
5. Cf. Hillman (1975) pp. 168–69.
6. Quoted ibid. p. 151.
7. Cf. Hillman (1979) p. 69.
8. Ibid. pp. 35–36.
9. Tarnas (1991) p. 110.
10. Snell pp. 40–41