Judges, Part III: Samson

There is no easier example of mythic constructs employed in Old Testament writing than in the story of Samson. According to the narrative, Samson, an Israelite chief, faces off against the Philistines numerous times in battle, and even has relations with three different Philistine women, all displaying some form of sexual taboo. The Philistines were known as the Sea Peoples. They immigrated into the Levant from the Aegean Sea, and are traditionally identified with the peoples of Crete. No exact identifications can be had, however, and the Philistines might just as well be from Greece or even as far north as Anatolia, or a mixture of people’s from all three areas and further.

Wherever the origins of the Philistines, one thing is certain, the story of Samson reads like an Aegean story, not an Israelite one. Samson belongs to Greek myth, as he is none other than a Jewish version of the Greek Heracles. The parallels between Samson and Heracles are numerous, but sometimes not always obvious. Here is a brief list of comparisons:

  1. Divine Birth. Heracles is the son of Alcmene and Zeus, half mortal and half god. Samson’s birth is also divine, though couched in  pastoral, Israelite themes. His parents, Manoah and his wife (unnamed) are barren, and require divine intervention for the wife to conceive (compare Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
  2. Divine Names. Heracles means “The glory of Hera.” His name may also signify the resplendence or light of Hera, his mother. Samson’s name means “Resplendent Sun,” though may also signify the glory or light of the sun. Samson appears to be a solar hero.
  3. Divine Strength. Both heroes come into the world with uncanny and god-like strength. Heracles strangles two serpents at birth, and displays god-like power while overcoming his Labors. Samson slays 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.
  4. Untamed. The temerity of both heroes is legendary. Heracles goes through a period of madness during which he kills six of his own children and two of his brother’s. Atoning for these sins is what leads Heracles on his series of Labors. Samson is the most impetuous of Israelite heroes, constantly consorting with Philistine women and constantly divulging his secrets to them. The consequences of his brashness leads to many innocent deaths.
  5. Series of Labors. Both heroes must undertake a series of Labors to prove their right to rule. Heracles has his famous 12 Labors. These tasks are a late accretion, and the original Labors of Heracles may have been fewer, but they always belonged to a cult system rooted in ancient cosmology. Samson’s tasks can also be seen as a series of Labors, which include slaying the lion, tying the fox-tails, slaying an army with a jawbone, drinking water from the jawbone, being blinded and grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death between two pillars. Like the Labors of Heracles, many of Samson’s tasks are curiously tied to cosmology; for example, the watery jawbone is none other than the celestial jaw in the sky related to rains and waters—the Hyades.
  6. Killing a Lion. The first task of each hero is the famous slaying of the lion with bear hands. This identifies not only a common myth-ritual system, but also identifies both heroes as descending from much older, Near Eastern traditions. 
  7. Military Prowess Both heroes are invincible in battle, and both heroes provide the circumstances for their own deaths.
  8. Ritual Wounds. Both heroes suffer interesting wounds. Heracles has his heel nipped at by a Crab while fighting the Hydra. In later archaeological finds Heracles is also depicted blindfolded whist going through mystery initiation. Initiates in the Greco-Roman mysteries were ritually blinded indicative of their passage through the dark underworld. In the Babylonian Talmud, Samson is identified as one who is lame (his wounded foot). Samson is also blinded. These wounds are common features among cult heroes; Attis, Oedipus, and Orion all suffer from both a wounded foot and blinded eyes.
  9. The Great Pillars. The famous Pillars of Hercules are thought to be the rock promontories at the Straits of Gibraltar. Ancient writers, however, note that the true Pillars of Hercules were temple pillars and were the frame for the gate of the dead. Samson enters death between two pillars. 
  10. Near Eastern Origins. Heracles is a myth construct descending from the ancient Near East. Heracles is a Greek version of the Babylonian Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh inherits kingship only after descending into the underworld, and the most common scenes on Greek thrones are portraiture’s of the Labors of Heracles, showing that these Labors were ritually connected with the right to rule. Samson remains a heroic leader freeing Israel from the threat of the Philistines and re-establishing political dominance in the region.

No one may have any doubt that Samson originates in the mythic constructs of the Near East, but is imported into Israel from the West. The entire story of Samson seems to be a pastiche of myth constructs layered into a literate, Hebrew context. Some scholars have suggested that if Samson is an historical story at all than he no doubt descends from the Aegean and may have been a Philistine himself. While this is speculative, like so many other things in the study of ancient myth and religion, it is certain that Samson the Israelite is no prophet from the line of Abraham, but a brash war chief whose story has collected layers of mythical constructs imbued with cultural prestige.

Judges, Part II: Gideon

Gideon is another antitype of the Israelite religious hero. In another chapter of Jewish history the Midianites threaten to overrun Israel. An angel (living by a tree) seeks out Gideon and promises him victory if he leads his tribe against the foreign host. Gideon declares that he is from the tribe of Manasseh (the least of the tribes) and that he is from the poorest family in the tribe and he is the poorest member of his family (Judges 6.15). In other words, Gideon is the last person anyone would suspect as a tribal chief let alone a military hero.

The Lord shows Gideon a couple of signs and this highly hesitant protagonist relents and leads the Israeli army against the Midianites. But God cautions Gideon, saying that he leads too many men into battle and if they are victorious they will take the credit and not give it to the Lord (7.2). So God tells Gideon to take his army to the waters, and every soldier who gets on his hands and knees to drink will be exiled from the military campaign, while every soldier who kneels and drinks with his cupped hands will accompany Gideon to the battlefield. Through this winnowing, Gideon’s army of 10,000 is reduced to 300 soldiers.

Through stratagem Gideon defeats the Midianites. He arms each of his soldiers with a horn and a pot containing a lamp. His army of 300 men enter and spread throughout the Midianite encampment during the night. At a given signal, each man breaks his pot revealing his lit lamp, and then blows his horn. The sleeping Midianites awake confused and alarmed and mistake each other as the enemy, and thus they slay themselves whilst Gideon’s men retreat. The Midianites are defeated and Gideon, the least of all the warriors, overcomes a massive enemy host without raising a single sword.

There are both religious and literary themes throughout this tale. The interesting thing to me, however, is that it parallels the episode of Samson and his 300 fox-tails in curious ways. Later, another war chief named Samson will battle the Philistines by lighting 300 foxtails on fire and sending them through the ripe fields burning them down. In response, the Philistines gather an army and march against Samson, who uses the jawbone of an ass to slay 1,000 warriors. Defeated, the Philistines retreat, while Samson, thirsty from a hard days work, seeks out water when a hollow within the jawbone opens pouring forth water (Judges 15.19).

Curious images to be sure, but the fact that Gideon procures 300 men at the waters and then sends them out into the fields with lit lamps is to close a coincidence to Samson’s escapade that includes 300 burning foxes in the fields and a miracle at the waters. What are we to make of these parallels?

No explanation is forthcoming. These images may be allusions to some military strategy used in antiquity. They may be allusions employed in the secret myth and cult of the Israelite temple order. They maybe shorthand for cultural or linguistic idioms whose original meanings have been long lost behind the veil of history. In the least, we can see that Old Testament history is not constructed like literate histories, but have contained within them oral historical patterning. Mythic motifs are employed within historical narrative to create an oral history easy to remember. Repeated motifs of the inexplicable 300 helpers in the fields with their fires belong to oral tradition. Perhaps this tradition was already lost when the literate scribes first wrote it down?

Judges, Part I: Deborah

According to traditional accounts, Israel was led by a series of judges after the deaths of Moses and Joshua (approximately 1200 to 1000 BCE). The Hebrew word shofetim translates as “judge” or “magistrate” but in earlier times meant something closer to “chief.” The Biblical judges were a series of tribal chiefs each ruling over their own clan. Each of these chiefs arose to power not through divine right or bloodline, as in the case of kings, nor through priesthood lineage, as in the temple priests from the tribe of Levi. On the contrary, these tribal chiefs came to power based off of their strength, wit, or through divine intervention. They are thus more closely aligned with the Greek tyrants than the Hebrew prophets.

Clear demarcations on political and religious rule in early Judaism are obscured by the narrative of Deobrah found in Judges chapters 4 and 5. According to the text, “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (4.4-5).

According to our text, the Israelites faced a formidable foe in Hazor where a general named Sisera led a Canaanite host of 900 chariots against Israel. Deborah calls forth Barak to lead the Israelite forces against the Canaanite army. Barak declares he will only go to war if Deborah accompanies him.

We are left with a series of interesting relationships and questions. Is Deborah the tribal chief or is Barak? Deborah is clearly called a prophetess. The fact that she dwelt under the tree of Deborah proves that she was the head of a religious cult or order. Cult sanctuaries were located by trees and in groves, and often the idea of “tree” and “cult image” were synonymous. In Judges 3.7 we read “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves.” The word for groves is asheroth, who is the wife/consort of Baal (and many scholars believe also to be the wife/consort of Yahweh.)

In any case, the fact that Deborah dwells by a tree in a grove shows that she is part of a cult precinct. She is specifically labeled as head of that order. She has so much prestige that Barak, the assumed military chief of the tribe, will not engage the enemy without this woman at his side. We have here a representation of a matriarchal priesthood which is foreign to traditional readings of the patriarchal Jewish tribal and religious hierarchy. From whence did it come and where did it go? No one really knows.

The story finishes in fine fashion, as Deborah and Barak route the Canaanites and Sisera flees for his life. He comes upon a tent and a woman, who promises him safety and nourishment but who instead kills him with a tent peg (or beating stick, depending on how one reads the Hebrew). Here we have the most fierce opposition to Israel since Pharaoh led his armies against Moses. In ancient days, a chariot was like an Abram’s tank. 900 chariots is an invincible force against which Israel has no hope for success. Yet victory is theirs, led by a woman prophetess on the front lines and ratified by the slaying of the enemy general by a woman on the back lines.

The story of Deborah is a brief glimpse at the power of women in Biblical history. For a brief moment two women rose to eminence and glory by their wits and strength. No man had or could accomplish what they had done. In the the case of Deborah, she held actual religious and political authority as a chief in Israel.

Old Testament Posts

When 2014 began I made a goal to read the Biblical Old Testament by the end of the year. It’s been many years since I’ve put this text in front of me for a serious study. Once again I am reminded that “reading” and “studying” are two different things, as I have already had to reset my goal: here it is the end of May and I have just finished Deuteronomy, but only after skipping Leviticus and Numbers. I spent three months in Genesis alone.

As I read the text I cross reference my reading with some valuable scholarly commentaries I have collected over the years. While this might not be for everyone, I will list here some very interesting reads which help explicate Old Testament culture, language, philosophy, and religion:

  1. Man is Not Alone, by Abraham Heschel
  2. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, by John Walton
  3. Lost World of Genesis One, by John Walton
  4. The Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg
  5. Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, Vol. 1 & 2, by Theodore Gaster
  6. Old Testament Parallels, by Victor Mathews
  7. How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel
  8. Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
  9. The Five Books of Moses, by Robert Alter
  10. A History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson

Of course I am not reading all of these in conjunction with my Old Testament study this year. I have read all of these and I use them as study aids and cross reference material as I read the Old Testament. #1 is a beautifully written philosophy of religion written by an acclaimed Jewish scholar. #2 through #6 are excellent study aids which give context to Hebrew culture and language and their surrounding cultural milieu throughout the Near East. #7 and #8 are excellent overview’s of the Biblical text. #9 is one of the best literary analysis of the Pentateuch I have ever read. #10 is a great overall and general history of the Jews.

There are of course many more books one could read, but the most important is the Old Testament text itself. I grew up on the KJV of the Bible. It is poetic but clunky at times. I read this version, but on verses I want to study I also cross-reference the NIV and the RSV versions. If I am picky, I also look up the Hebrew and Greek forms of the verses from various websites and my Strong’s Concordance.

Being that I have put this as a focus for the year, several of my posts will relate to this study. Next year I have in mind to pick up some wisdom texts such as the Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching, and cross reference those with wisdom texts in other religions.

Myth, Mind, and Theory

The greatest strength in a Jungian interpretation of myth lies in the fact that psychological archetypes can cogently explain the origins of all myth. This strength is also its greatest weakness, for if every ancient myth is a product of the unconscious, then the next logical step is to describe all narrative as a projection of the unconscious. One can no longer differentiate the material; the Epic of Gilgamesh is qualitatively no different than Mary Poppins.

Still, one can believe in a collective unconscious and psychological archetypes without making the definitive move to describe all of myth as mirroring those archetypes in the direct manner in which Jung positions his theory. Jung writes, “The collective unconscious […] appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious” (Segal ed. 79). For Jung, mythemes were components of psychological constructs which “arise autochthonously in every corner of the earth and yet are identical, because they are fashioned out of the same worldwide human unconscious” (Segal ed. 61-62). Thus myth is not a product of a conscious, synthesized system: “The widely held view that mythologems or myth motifs are always connected with a tradition proves untenable, since they may reappear anywhere, at any time, and in any individual regardless of tradition” (Segal ed. 64).

The truth is scholars of all stripes have had great difficulty in explaining the commonalities shared between myths around the globe independent of time and tradition. There are two camps of thought which attempt to explain these common mythemes: the diffusionists, who believe that a myth system began in one place and time and slowly spread around the globe; and the inventionists, who believe that mythemes can spontaneously generate in different places and times because the human psyche is the same everywhere and will produce similar products when faced with similar psychic and experiential inputs. Among these two camps are sub-groups, as in the case of the inventionists where many scholars believe in the autochthonous nature of myth without believing in Jung’s archetypes. Joseph Campbell himself took portions from both theoretical camps, stating that both diffusion and psyche play a part in the spread and formation of myth.

Without going into alternative explanations as to the universal nature of myth motifs around the globe, my chief complaint against the Jungian interpretation of myth, which also happens to be my chief complaint against almost all modern or older theories of myth, takes a different tack. Often, the modern interpretations of both history and myth are projections from modern thinking. With so little material at our disposal, we align the bric-a-brac of archaeological and anthropological debris into dot to dot constructions which supposedly try to make sense out of the amalgam historical conglomerate. Yet what is the mortar by which we build these bricks of the past to form the edifice of our choosing? Some will say that mortar is the theory one employs while compiling the historical or mythological bricks. While true, I say that such an insight is already in mid-stride, for there is already an a priori assumption at work within almost all the modern theories of myth, and it is this a priori assumption which I find untenable.

In order for Jung to propose his theory he relies heavily on an evolutionary model of the human mind, which is in step with the evolutionary model of the biological organism. Yet one can believe in Darwin’s Theory of biological evolution without ever applying such a theory to the mind. Here is where I part company from almost all myth theorists, who like Jung, believe that ancient civilizations were mythopoeic because ancient man had not evolved mentally or consciously to the point of modern man. Repeatedly we are told that the Greeks were the first to introduce Reason and Science, and that before the Greeks there was only Myth and Religion. Jung explains, in part, this view:

In the individual, the archetypes appear as involuntary manifestations of unconscious processes whose existence and meaning can only be inferred, whereas the myth deals with traditional forms of incalculable age. They hark back to a prehistoric world whose spiritual preconceptions and general conditions we can still observe today among existing primitives. Myths on this level are as a rule tribal history handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Primitive mentality differs from the civilized chiefly in that the conscious mind is far less developed in scope and intensity. Functions such as thinking, willing, etc. are not yet differentiated; they are pre-conscious, and in the case of thinking, for instance, this shows itself in the circumstance that the primitive does not think consciously, but that thoughts appear. The primitive cannot assert that he thinks; it is rather that “something thinks in him.” The spontaneity of the act of thinking does not lie, casually, in his conscious mind, but in his unconscious. Moreover, he is incapable of any conscious effort of will; he must put himself beforehand into the “mood of willing,” or let himself be put–hence his rites d’entrée et de sortie. His consciousness is menaced by an almighty unconscious; hence his fear of magical influences which may cross his path at any moment; and for this reason, too, he is surrounded by unknown forces and must adjust himself as best he can. Owing to the chronic twilight state of his consciousness, it is often next to impossible to find out whether he merely dreamed something or whether he really experienced it. The spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious and its archetypes intrudes everywhere into his conscious mind, and the mythical world of his ancestors–for instance, the alchera or bugari of the Australian aborigines–is a reality equal if not superior to the material world. (Segal ed. 83)

It never occurs to Jung or a great many other scholars that the Australian aborigines might not be the correct model upon which to compare prehistoric man. The various primitive tribes in existence around the world today are assumed to be vestiges of the earliest state of the species, but this is due to the fact that with Darwin not only did our sense of the biological organism change but so did our entire cosmos, and with it out sense of Time. Moderns think of time linearly. Ancients thought of time cyclically. Either way, our conceptions of time are nothing but mental projections upon the cosmos whose actual frame of time and space are as yet inscrutable. The aborigine or tribesman, under ancient, cyclical thinking, may not represent a parallel with early humanity, but may only resolve as an offshoot, a disjecta membra of a once more sophisticated era. This seems counter-intuitive only because modern assumptions on this issue are firmly entrenched within linear lines.

Poignantly, however, accurate comparisons between the aborigine and prehistorical man remain insoluble. This has a great many consequences. Which came first: civilization with its temple cults, mythological systems, and priesthoods? Or the individual Shaman with his magic stick, sacred tales, and cosmological maps? Modern thinking favors the latter, though the truth is the Shaman might be a descendant or cultural outcast from some high off time when an entire system of cult and myth was in place for millennium. Regardless of where one comes down on this issue, definitive answers remain unproven and unprovable.

Further, the very idea that the ancient mind did not think consciously, and in this pre-conscious state invented a world of magic and gods; of totems, fetishes, and taboos; of animism and myth, is a speculative notion indeed. One certainly can cite all sorts of modern text books and find totems and fetishes at every turn, but I remind the reader that these constructs are categories of the modern imagination and as such are often modern inventions. I personally consider much of this theoretical conglomerate nothing but highly inventive thinking, informed as it is, by an a priori assumption rooted in an unproven metaphysic.

I therefore ask, what happens if one pulls this mental evolutionary peg out of the theoretical stick pile? What if the human mind and with it the psyche remain the same in all eras, albeit operating under a different context, that is, the nature and structure of orality? Being that this stick is the first one in the pile, its removal has large consequences for a great many theories of myth. It is not just Jung who relies heavily on the mental-evolutionary metaphysic: Freud, Frazer, Tylor, Müller, Lévy-Bruhl, Malinowski, Durkheim, Lang, Cassier, Campbell and a great many other theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all follow suit in varying degrees. Even Mircea Eliade, in his conceptions of sacred time and sacred space as experienced by prehistoric man relies upon an evolutionary universality.

Billions and Billions of Planets

Carl Sagan was famous for using the phrase “billions and billions of stars” when he referenced the vast immensity of space. Some decades ago, the word “billion” meant something different today. It was a bigger number; actually the biggest number within the cultural horizon. Today we toss the word “trillion” around as if it is no big deal. The truth is no one really understands the scope of either.

In Sagan’s day, scientists believed that the universe was filled with about 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars. This number is in doubt today, as it also seems too small, and we might be using the word “trillions” in the near future.

This same phrase “billions and billions” and even “trillions” can now be accurately applied to the planets orbiting all those innumerable stars. Currently, scientists have discovered 1700 planets outside of our solar system. A recent article, however, confirms that scientists are now aware that our own galaxy contains at least 100 billion planets. Most stars have planets orbiting them. If our own galaxy contains 100 billion planets, than the universe is really filled with “billions and billions” and even “trillions and trillions” of worlds. Big ones and small ones. Gas giants and rocky midgets. The universe has these in spades.

It was not that long ago when scientists were speaking of our own Earth as a singularity; a unique speck of blue. No one could prove other worlds existed. Now every time we look up and look at the stars we can also perceive that many of these stars are solar systems. How many of these innumerable planets have life? No one knows. Of course, the answer to that question also depends on how we define “life”?

Still, I have no doubt that one day we will look up into the sky and quip, “Billions and billions of lives, big and small.”

Infinite Tree and Eternal Spring

In December of 1995 NASA chose a dark and uncluttered pin-point of sky in Ursa Major and directed the eye of the Hubble Telescope towards it. Over a period of ten days or approximately 150 orbits NASA photographed this pin-point of sky, layering the images as they went. The goal was to peer into the deepest well of space in hopes of glimpsing farther than science had ever seen before; perhaps to see even the distant rim of the universe? The image that the Hubble Telescope slowly produced astounded even the most prosaic and skeptical of minds. First bright swirls and globs appeared: galaxies! Then, innumerable dots began to fill in the dark spaces, until a grand canopy was painted by a telescopic lense. Each dot was not a star, but a galaxy containing billions and billions of stars. The image is called the Hubble Deep Field. In it NASA did not find the edge of the cosmos, but glimpsed an unexpected and mind-numbing view of an eternal cosmos.

Hubble Deep Field

Hubble Deep Field

Eternity is an uncomfortable idea for modern science. Numerous theories are afoot predicting the size, mass, and shape of our universe. Surely there is an end, a perimeter, something that can be seen and measured? Until recently, the estimated number of stars in the universe was thought to be about the number of grains of sand on one earth-bound beach. But a recent study by Dr. Simon Driver, an Australian astronomer, has pushed this number to at least 70 sextillion (a seven followed by 21 zeros) or more than ten times the number of sand particles in all the beaches and deserts on our world. Even this number, Driver admits, might be a drop in the bucket: “The actual number of stars could be infinite” (CNN.com July 23, 2003). To date, the whole grand architecture of the cosmos–its size, mass, and shape, and how it works–is still mired in profound mystery.

As incomprehensible as these images and numbers are, it is perhaps even more astounding  that in the ancient past a few inner-searching minds had already intuited the deep fields of cosmos–above and below. In ancient mythology this grand and apt understanding was represented by the Cosmic Tree, often called the World Tree or Tree of Life. Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the planet. He writes:

The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44).

According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). This ancient notion was fundamental to culture and civilization, thus every act of settlement or new founding was a cosmogonic act, a planting of a new World Tree in the garden of cosmos. Eliade describes that the Scandinavian colonists, for example, viewed the cultivation of new land as “only a repetition of a primordial act, the transformation of chaos into cosmos by the divine act of creation” (Eliade, Sacred 31). Furthermore, it appears that the ancient state itself was sacral in nature, and every city, town, and village was built around a sacred Center–a temple, an altar, a grove or tree–in cosmological repetition of the mythological structure of the universe.

The Cosmic Tree was a symbol of the universe–not just the visible universe of which the Hubble Telescope attempts to reveal–but of all the planes and possibilities of existence. The Tree thus represented the underworld by its roots, the material world by its trunk, and the heavenly world of gods and powers by its branches. The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).

Numerous pages and volumes could be written about the Tree symbolism in ancient civilization, but what concerns use here is the fact that the Cosmic Tree in ancient myth is often associated with a spring, well, or source of living waters. These two images are oft times synonymous, or are analogous in space and time; thus the Tree is often growing over the top of a well, or is literally planted by a spring or river.

Egyptian TOL

Egyptian Tree of Life

The World Tree of the Norse was named Yggdrasil and had at its base a stream and surrounding it a river. Zeus’s oak tree was planted on Mount Olympus and had the same water features; likewise the tree atop Mount Meru of the Hindus; as well as the tree in the Hebrew Garden of Eden. The Cuna Indian’s Saltwater Tree could be added to the list, as well as the sacred cedars and palms of Egypt growing forth from the Nile; or in the Book of the Dead, the great life-giving lotus rooted in the eternal well underneath the throne of Osiris. Wherever we look in myth the Tree and the Spring are wedded.

Not only in mythology are these cosmic images bound, but in the mythological requirements of mortar, stone, and sacred space of ancient temple architecture. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. The great Eninnu Temple built by Gudea is called the “foundation of the abyss”, and this is similar to the Jewish temple on Moriah, which too was built over the abysmal waters (Parry, ed. 83-91).

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles (Varner 14), and Janet and Colin Bord in their landmark study of sacred wells in the British Isles quote Burl: “Wherever an avenue of stones is associated with a stone circle it almost invariably leads from a source of water, indicating the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings” (Bord and Bord, qtd. 11). Varner also observes that the standing stones of circles or sacred avenues are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).

These associations are no coincidence. The Cosmic Tree is the archetypal paradigm for both the structure and potentiality of all cosmic processes. Wherever there is a moment of creation, a point of creation, there is an organization of form (the Tree) predicated upon cosmic laws, rules, and energies which endlessly bubble up from the depths (the Waters). Perhaps, and ironically, these associations also intuit the leading edge of modern physics and Chaos Theory, which posits that wherever there is chaos there is also an underlying geometric pattern. This understanding is revealed through fractals. In other words, chaos is not just disorder and particle bedlam–but rather a non-harmonic field of possibility (the Waters) which, due to the Mandlebrotian nature of chaos, finds nodes or spikes of energy in which harmonic forms can be created (the Tree).

Ancient mythology is not finished with these images, however. The Cosmic Tree and the Living Waters certainly represent an understanding of the material world and of mythological relationships within that world. Perhaps more surprising, is the fact that these images were also used to describe man! Whatever can be represented in the macrocosm is also reflected in the microcosm, for both share the same roots.
The universe was the macrocosm. Man was the microcosm. What existed in one existed in the other, as the ancient mysteries explained, “As above, so below.” Macrocosm and microcosm were linked in what Jacob Needleman calls a “hierarchy of purposeful energies” (Needleman 18) which ordered the cosmos from the cosmic tree branches to the primordial waters. In this hierarchy man was a fulcrum point, both created and creator. This concept of microcosm is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. Paraclesus writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. (Young, qtd. 12)

If the cosmos has deep fields like the Hubble telescope reveals, and is always associated with the primordial waters of creation and chaos through the fount, spring, or well, then man too has these features (exaltations), shares in this structure (conjunctions), and participates in these energies (oppositions). This notion is not lost upon Carl Gustav Jung, who was an avid reader of Paracelsus. Jung writes, “Not only is the image of the macrocosm imprinted upon him [microcosmic man] as a psychic being, but he also creates this image for himself on an ever-widening scale” (Jung, Undiscovered Self, 43).

Jung understood that man as microcosm meant that there was a cosmic correspondence, metaphorically speaking, between the tree and the spring or well within him. Like Needleman, Jung sees man at the fulcrum point of this cosmic picture. Jung explains, “In my picture of the world there is a vast outer realm and an equally vast inner realm; between these two stand man” (Jung, Modern Man, 122). Jung sees these realms as polarities: man can only view one realm at a time at the sacrifice of the other. Yet as polarities, both rely upon the energies of each other in the form of tension. This tension is beautifully illustrated through the metaphor of cosmic processes. Thus Jung deliberates that the psyche is a “star-strewn night sky, whose planets and fixed constellations represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity. The starry vault of heaven is in truth the open book of cosmic projection, in which are reflected the mythologems, i.e., the archetypes” (Jung, Psyche, 125).

Here Jung lays out the diagram of inner man. There are both “planets” and “fixed constellations” that move upon the firmament that is man’s psyche. It is helpful, in fact, to know a little astronomy when interpreting such language. The night sky is a place of grandeur, to be sure, but also a place wherein it is easy to get lost. To help define all those blinking dots a band of sky called the zodiac was created by ancient civilizations and divided up into constellations. These constellations are fixed groupings of stars along the plane of the ecliptic. This is important because the plane of the ecliptic is that band in the sky where all the moving luminaries transit, i.e. Jung’s “planets”. In fact, the sun, moon, and inner planets could all be tracked along this plane and their movements measured against the background of fixed constellations or zodiac.

Jung uses this metaphor of both moving and fixed luminaries in the midst of the firmament in microcosmic man to describe what is occurring within him. The fixed constellations are the ever present deep well of space from which the transiting “planets” are measured and moved towards man’s psyche. In other words, the zodiac in man is the collective unconscious–that communal realm from which the moving luminaries emerge.

The Hubble Deep Field is an analogous image which posits every galaxy is a Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness exists a deep well, an “ever widening scale” of possibility, beyond which science has not the ability to measure or even understand. Meanwhile, inner man is also such a place. Every harmonically integrated point in consciousness is a microcosmic Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness within the psyche there also exists a grand stellar firmament from which fixed constellations and planets conjunct and move in an ever flowing current of archetypes and energies. In elegant yet efficient symbolism, the Cosmic Tree and the Spring or Well remind us of the connections within ourselves; connections which share so much with what is above and below.