Hats Off to Toni Morrison

Memories in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved “are embodied, substantial, have a shape and a form to them” (Slattery, Wounded 213) and, like the ghost of a murdered daughter, cannot be left behind. Pass it on or not, a story with a character like Beloved who climbs over rocks or obstacles to emerge will not die.

The central figure in the novel by the same name, Beloved quietly slips in—as a memory remembering itself. The ghost, the murdered, in a tale in which slavery is perhaps a metaphor for that which wounds and consumes us (207), enters without an introduction: “She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat” (Morrison xviii). Like paint transforming a blank canvas, these words bring her image into view. As she rises out of water, or the collective unconscious, she comes forward giving her memory life.

Jung speaks of a dreamer who, upon leaving a social gathering, “puts on a stranger’s hat instead of his own” and with that, assumes the personality the hat imparts, as a doctor’s hat imparts dignity (Jung, Dreams 121-2). Later, the dreamer throws off the hat realizing he has come to identify with it as his self. A hat is one of the many defining symbols in Beloved with Beloved easily merging into the landscape as the girl with a nice hat (Morrison xix), bestowing upon her the personalities and promises of the dreamers. She arrives an almost “storyless creature” who “offers to those in her midst what they desire but feel they need to repress” (Slattery 221), like exchanging hats.

Wearing a hat, Beloved is bestowed with her mother’s unresolved guilt and shame on the one hand and, on the other, the millions of lives lost to slavery demanding and deserving memory and justice. While she steps out of water, symbolically bringing memories into consciousness, the story of which she is a part ends with a blatant decree: “This is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). Though the characters might try to suppress their story, it is integral to their lives and passing it on is their only option.

As Beloved brings memories into focus “with the capacity to begin healing the wounds of injustice” (Slattery 210), so the wisdom and beauty of Morrison’s novel by the same name provides humanity with enhanced perspectives for viewing ourselves in the world. Hats off to Toni Morrison!

 

Reflections: The Sea

The alluring “watery part of the world” (Melville, Moby-Dick 18) can soothe or stir the soul and awaken within people their desired and feared journey into the Self. Ishmael, like many of us, goes to the sea where he can get beyond the thin veil of his identity to reach the primary springs of human life and thought, the key to the soul’s destination.

In Ishmael, I confront an archetypal image that intrigues me, as I also am drawn to water and the sea. Ishmael, the voice of our own knowing, goes to the sea whenever he needs to be revived and refreshed or, as he puts it, when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth.” For him, getting to the sea is essential for survival, a “substitute for pistol and ball” (18). At the sea, he can engage the soul for, as he asserts, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (19).  For Ishmael, water contains the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life; […] the key to it all” (20). For as a mirror or polished stone, the water reflects and reveals truth; its transparency enables us to see it and see through it.

Rather like Ishmael, I often must leave my work to go for a sail or jump into a pool for a refreshing swim. Doing so, I reflect upon Ishmael, the embodiment and archetype of the nuclear Self setting himself apart from the masses of land dwellers to “get to the sea” to imagine the depths and meaning of existence and soul (18). Reading Moby-Dick, I reflect upon how I seek avenues for separating and freeing myself from e-mails, ringing phones, and life’s obligations. I go to the sea, pool, shower, and bath to be cleansed by and reconnect with the water, the womb, my psyche, my soul, and my Self.

An insightful narrative voice, a character both enigmatic and decisively clear, like the waters of the sea, is Ishmael. The story begins, “Call me Ishmael” (18) and readers are at once engaged; as Jung suggests, human experiences tend to form themselves into story or mythological characters. Ishmael goes to the sea, not as a captain or cook with a defined purpose and care-giving responsibility; he goes instead as in reduction mode from schoolmaster to a “simple sailor” that is, at least, paid for the privilege of being at sea, unlike passengers that pay fares (20-21). He goes to the sea for the wholesome exercise, pure air, and the triumph of catching the first winds on the foredeck (21). So the epic begins with Ishmael, almost at once as spiritual seeker and guru, who yearns for and seeks the sea, as if the pending whaling voyage is fated and at the same time knowing that he goes out of free choice, “unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (22), proclivities that could also be his fate.

According to Jung, there is a universal longing to return to the womb, a longing for reconnection to one’s potential wholeness, Self, and collective unconscious. This may be an aspect of Ishmael’s need to go “waterward” (24). The theme is reiterated at the epic’s end when Ishmael, the sole survivor, in the words of Job: “…escaped alone to tell thee” (427). A coffin life-buoy surfaces at his side for him to safely hold until the “devious-cruising Rachael” (427) in search of her missing children, signifying a search of self‑discovery, rescues Ishmael like a mother finding a son.

The lure of the sea resonates within us all, giving expression to the impulse to complete one’s Self, destiny, and god within. As Jung suggests, consciousness is but a small boat within a sea of unconsciousness and rather than be masters of their own ships, people are ruled by creative and destructive forces and energy sources operating through them. Like other myths, this epic suggests universality and ways to understand the shared human experience and truths that transcend time and place.

Moments of Suspension

Bardo means gap” (Fremantle and Trungpa, Tibetan 1). It refers to experiences of suspension in life as well as in death, for death happens in the process of life (1). Bardo experiences happen to us all the time. They are experiences of not knowing our ground, of not knowing for what we have asked or are going to receive. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, is not about death any more than it is about birth. It is about the uncertainties of everyday life in which birth and death happen to us all the time (2).

Do you remember the moments when your best friend moved away or your grandmother died and everything felt fuzzy, as if you were between two worlds or passing out of one life into another? Poignant moments such as these flooded my mind in the continuous gaps between endings and beginnings as I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, moments when the ground seems to move, moments that happen to us all the time.

I reflected on the moment when, garbed in scuba gear, I jumped off a boat and was totally engaged in the intermediate space after the jump but before hitting the cold water to take my first deep ocean dive, or the moment I became a parent. During these moments, I was suspended between two worlds: the known and unknowable. I remember each as thresholds I had to cross in order to reach today. During such moments, the familiar world seems to fall away before there is the chance to attain a new sense of things. These are moments of suspension. These are not the moments when our lives start or end, but are moments when our consciousness shifts.

“Bar” means in between and “do” means island or mark, so “bardo” is sort of a landmark that stands between two points, like an island on a lake. It is the point between sanity and insanity, the state before confusion is transformed into wisdom (10-11). It is the place between death and birth. It is the moment before the future has manifested itself, yet the past has already been left behind: it is the gap (11).

Buddhism teaches that to view the whole of life from an egocentric view is to live in an “unreal” world and “the remedy is to see through the illusion, to attain the insight of emptiness—the absence of what is false” (xvi). With emptiness is luminosity, “the presence of what is real, the basic ground of which the play of life, takes place” (xvi). The first bardo experience is of the uncertainty about whether or not we are going to die; it is the moment we experience the possibility of stepping out of the real world into an unreal world (3).

The bardo experience can be seen in terms of the six realms of existence that we go through, our six psychological states, or the deities that we meet in our lives, the same ones that we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Within this context, there is no one to save us; everything is left to us and to the commitment we make to who we are (2). The teachings are not for the dying any more than they are for the living, or for those who seek a spiritual understanding in everyday life.

Jung, Nature, and Psyche

In The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writings of C. G. Jung edited by Meredith Sabini, Carl Gustav Jung shares that “Trees […] were mysterious and seemed to [him] direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life” (29). Sitting under the shade from the branches of my favorite tree, I pondered Jung’s plethora of insights.

Within each individual is the power to imagine a life that is lived in harmony with nature. This is actually consistent with the development of human beings as a species on a particular planet that evolved under specific conditions. To live in disharmony with nature is work; to live in harmony is easy but is counter to the mass culture and, therefore, the individual must break away to lead the way back to a connection with the earth.

As Jung puts it, “A fundamental change of attitude (metanoia) is required, a real recognition of the whole [individual]” (167), a far-reaching metamorphosis that comes not from outside but from inside the individual, or the “bearer” of life (168). Individuals must face “the present condition of the world” as well as their own souls (168-169). That is, to reconnect with nature, they must remove the extraneous historical layers and connect with their own “nature within” at the animal level that is not conscious and can, thus, unveil the original patterns and reestablish humankind’s initial bridge to nature (172).

Once the break between humankind and nature is abolished, the “truth, but a truth which [one] cannot prove” (172) can be revealed. The truth is that humans, like trees, live on earth, our home, and we need to take care of our home and ourselves if our lives as we know them are to continue for generations to come.

Jung asserts that the psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders (176) and is aware that people need a better understanding of their own psyches, which is their essence (174). He observes that recently, too much emphasis has been placed on the development of technology and other external objects while human psyches and the earth have been neglected. Jung suggests that the uses of technology are determined by people’s states of mind. He believes that there is a profound need to understand the human soul, and that it is through the wisdom from dreams that people can find their way back to human existence (175-177). Thomas Berry offers, through the wisdom of the “dream of the earth” (Dream 223), humans can find their way back to their biospiritual earth as well (117).

Dew and Human Destiny

The experience of morning dew has been available to people in many lands for centuries. Therefore, its images and symbolism are prevalent in a wide range of mythologies and legends, particularly from ancient times when people lived closer to nature than they do today. These myths and legends help shed light on the human desire to interpret and understand natural phenomena, such as dew (Andrews, Nature vii).

“Dew is moisture that renews the earth. Condensed from the air, it falls in droplets and covers the grass and plant life, seemingly like magic, during the night.” With its sparkle and magical dispensation, people of long ago believed dew to be of celestial origin, as it “healed like rain, cooled like snow, and therefore represented water from some heavenly force” (56).

Many ancient people attributed dew to the sky forces; some associated it with the cold and watery moon which led to the notion of moon dew, a silvery liquid that was sent by lunar gods to nourish the crops; others associated it with the night or thunder. In some Chinese and Japanese myths, dew dripped from the stars; in some Scandinavian myths, it dripped from the bit of the horse that brought night. In an Iroquois’ legend, dew fell from the wings of Oshadagea, the Big Eagle of Dew, who assisted the thunder god and carried a lake of dew on his back to refresh the earth after a fire depletes its vegetation. In a wide range of Classical myths, dew represents the tears of gods and goddesses that lamented their loved ones and fell to the earth as water imbued with the powers from the celestial heavens, to renew life and restore youth (56). These and a vast array of other myths help people understand how dew has been experienced, appreciated, interpreted and understood over time (vii).

While the symbolism of dew is very much like that of rain, its influence is subtler “as the expression of heavenly blessing, it is essentially life-giving grace” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant, Symbols 289). It is pure water with generative powers. Though highly symbolic and even poetic, the reality of dew can be easily missed by those among us today who are too preoccupied to take notice of morning dew and even of nature’s entirety of which they are a minute part.

The ancient Greeks associated dew with fertility myths, particularly pertaining to the love gods and goddesses (290). In Buddhist terms, the “world of the dew” is that of appearances and represents the ephemeral nature of the material things and of life (289). Dew is symbolic of “the light of dawn; spiritual refreshment; […]; Sweet dew is peace and prosperity” and it can represent change and illusion (Cooper, Symbols 50). People today who do not take the time to attend to and value early morning dew likely lack the time and propensity to become familiar with the breadth of nature’s beauty and vulnerabilities.

Ancient peoples battled with and tried to control the forces of nature. Through worship and sacrifice, they tried to placate the gods in an attempt to influence their will (Andrews xii). The ancients revered their nature gods because they feared their power just as they feared neglecting any power strong enough to control the destiny of the world. Thus, the worship of nature involved the reverence of natural phenomena as animated, conscious forces (xii).

The ancients considered natural phenomena as living beings analogous to people but with more power, as was demonstrated to them with the roar of thunder. With awe, they experienced the sight of dew and its evaporation under the sun’s heat. Natural phenomena were mysteries in the ancient world. Back then, people created myths to help them understand the unexplainable, using the best tools available to them: their experience and imagination, as “nature was revealed to them as symbols” (xii). The ancients lived close to nature and treated it with respect as it fulfilled them. In their wonderment of nature, they created myths and legends to explain natural events and influence the forces that control them.

Today, if people take the time to experience dew and seek information about it to help them understand it, they may be largely satisfied with instantaneous explanations derived from a single click on their handheld devices, while the ancients revered and honored the phenomena as if they were miracles. Perhaps in our contemporary culture of instant answers and fast facts, people have lost touch with miracles and no longer recognize the sacred, nor do they invest physical phenomena with spirit as people did long ago.

Depth psychology takes seriously the process of finding “equilibrium in a world unbalanced” (Lorenz, “Forward.” Depth Psychology 7). Myths provide constructs that make order out of chaos. Today, if people can make an effort to see the wonderment in nature and allow it to awaken their imaginations, then perhaps they can embrace myths about “earth-cultivating” humans (Campbell, Power of Myth 23), myths that inspire humans to develop lifestyles that are in accord with nature, and that champion the protection of the environment and the continuation of the planet and of human life. For in this historic hour, the very destiny of the human species and the earth may hinge on a small shift in people’s perspectives on dew.

“God is dead”: the Plight of World Ages

It has been said that the modern world was defined when a poet-philosopher stood upon a stump and decried “God is dead!” This declaration, whatever its original intent, has been fundamentally embraced by modern, secular culture, from Darwin to Heisenberg, from Freud to Russell, as an underpinning to the very idea of the Age of Reason: humankind does not need God; we can create our own paradise. Indeed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the popular idea of the scientific community was that the Golden Age was just around the corner–Reason had created industry, technology, modern economy, and science, of its own standing and natural course, and would eventually solve all problems and suffering. This humanistic belief in god-is-dead-ology persists today, in some ranks, ironically, with wholesale blind faith.

Yet, as a rising body of social and scientific critique emerges from the horizon, with such titles as Dark Age Ahead, The Coming Plague, Twilight of American Culture, Twilight of Common Dreams, The End of Education, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, and many more, a new cultural consciousness is emerging which recounts the old words of Marcellus, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet 1.4). It seems from circumference to center the Age of Enlightenment is dimming down, and the neo-post-deconstructionist age may well be defined by another poet-philosopher standing on the self-same world stump declaring, “Man is an idiot!”

In the rush towards interminable material progress humankind has stifled their true nature, which has always been inexhaustible spiritual potential (Tillich 104). Living within this contradiction–the material versus the spiritual, gain versus authentic growth–humankind lurches forward, from age to age, raising up as standards of both gain and growth one dogmatic neurosis after another. Religion, science, psychology, ethics, philosophy, or any other epistemological paradigm held as the center axis of being unattached to the universe as it really is can only lead to endless suffering.

Curiously, in mythologic systems the nature of consciousness was well observed, and even tracked in grand cycles of time. Nearly every mythic tradition held a belief in a series of world ages which transcribed these cycles. The very word “world” identifies this ancient eschatology: wer-auld literally means “man-age” and refers to the long cyclical ages of consciousness in which humankind participates.

In mythic time, there are generally denoted four world ages. The Greeks declared that there was a golden age, a silver age, a bronze age, and an iron age. Each age was aligned with a form of consciousness which, in the golden realm of being, was akin to the gods. The iron age, on the other hand, is an age of stifling lust and pride and the current age in which we live. These ideas of time were themselves thought to parallel the rise and fall of civilizations, where each civilization went through four epochs of consciousness–in the Greek terms: olbus, koros, hubris, and ate. As Hugh Nibley notes, olbus means filled and fulfillment, having everything that is needed; koros is taking more than is needed, overeating or over filling; this leads to hubris which is overconfidence in self and a total disconnect from nature as it is, placing self above all else; which terminates in ate or the point of no return, things break down and run out and nothing can stop the entropy cascade of destruction (Nibley 41).

Both Buddhist and Hindu cosmology also express the four world ages. In a treasury of Buddhist teachings entitled The Encompassment of All Knowledge the four world ages are clearly named: “formation, abiding, destruction, and vacuity” (Taye 62). In Hindu cosmology the four ages are Krita, Tretā, Dvāpara, and Kali (Zimmerman 13). These ages in many ways parallel the Greek understanding, for they both address a physical creation as well as an evolution (or de-evolution) of consciousness. As Zimmerman explains, the Hindu ages exist upon Dharma, “the moral order of the world” (13). With each successive age there is a decrease in Dharma until the Kali age, where “man and his world are at their very worst. […] ‘when society reaches a stage, where property confers rank, wealth becomes the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union […], falsehood the source of success in life, sex the only means of enjoyment, and when outer trappings are confused with inner religion […]’ then we are in the Kali Yuga […]” (15).

So it is that the so called Age of Enlightenment has proved to be nothing but eye wash and special effects–a spectacular opening act invariably leading to a final culmination of hubris whose closing curtains are cued by a dirge for inner awareness. Despite the vast armada of technical doohickeys with which we append ourselves with great self-congratulations, these accouterments are a horse and pony side-show preventing true awareness of the disproportionate state between man as he is and the universe as it really exists. The greater the distance between these nodal points of consciousness the greater the neurosis that develops. Indeed, the hubris of modern homo sapiens is a neurosis constructed to obfuscate the famine ever growing within the psyche. As Carl Jung observes, “Modern man believes that he can do as he pleases and is perturbed that inexplicable anxieties plague him. True to his rationalistic bias, he has tried all the usual remedies–diets, exercise programs, studying inspirational literature–and only reluctantly admits that he can’t seem to find a way to live a meaningful life” (Sabini, ed. 16).

Not surprisingly, the cycles of the world ages and the forms of consciousness that go with them have been the subject of immense examination by those seeking a way out of the horse and pony show. Leaving this circus is no easy task. It turns out every exit offered by the world leads back on itself in a spinning wheel motif that counterfeits the Dharma of the cosmos. Escape has been replaced by escapism–which is ironically just more of the same.

Judges, Part IV: Samson’s Labors

Samson is the Israelite Heracles. Like our Greek hero, Samson must perform a series of impossible labors, which include slaying a lion, tying burning fox tails together, slaying 1000 men with the jawbone of an ass, drinking water from the jawbone, grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death. Whether these labors constitute a unified, ritualistic scheme is unknown. We are forced to wonder if these labors were somehow associated with the Israelite temple cult, or perhaps a series of ritualistic military tropes performed before battle, or simply and probably a hodgepodge of tasks collated by later scribes who themselves may have not understood their origins?

  1.  The Lion.
    In Near Eastern and Mediterranean myth and religion several hero-kings must perform a series of tasks, all of which begin with a lion. Gilgamesh descends into the underworld after killing a pair of lions which guard its gate. He wears their skins as he travels through the netherworld. This motif is remarkably homologous to the Egyptian king who, in funerary texts, cannot descend through the netherworld until he passes the guardian lion (Aker) and puts on a special ritual token, the Nemes Crown. This crown is only worn in a funerary context, and is always worn when pharaoh is depicted as a leonine sphinx. This suggests that the crown itself was a representation of the lion’s mane. While the mummy wrappings are themselves represented by a lion goddess.

    Heracles must descend through the underworld by first slaying the Nemean lion. He skins the lion and wears its mane for the rest of his labors. Heracles is most often depicted wearing his lion garment or “crown” in Greek art. The lion was a symbol of the celestial world. Ancient kings in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece always sat upon the lion throne indicative of their celestial mandate. One can see a presentation on the Lion symbol in ancient myth and religion here.Samson’s first task is to slay a lion. This puts Samson squarely within the realm of NE and Mediterranean myth linked to ritual kingship as well as a ritual journey through the netherworld. According to current scholarship the Israelites did not believe in an afterlife until centuries later, and the rest of Samson’s labors do not seem to correspond to any underworld station as can be tracked in the cycles of Gilgamesh and Heracles.

  2. Fox Tails.
    The tying of 300 fox tails together and letting them loose in the fields is a very  unusual motif that ultimately cannot be explained. There are a few suggestions that can be made. The first of which is for military usage, as some generals in antiquity employed this strategy during military campaigns. Hannibal launched oxen with fire brands tied to their horns through the fields against the Romans in 217 BCE. In another fight between the Mongols and Arabs in 1262 CE the former set loose foxes and dogs with torches tied to their tails through the enemy fields. This incident is remarkably similar to the 300 torch bearers accompanying Gideon in a previous story in the book of Judges. If the 300 fire brands were part of a real military strategy than the source of the strategy still might have ritual and cosmological underpinnings, for in the oral world of the Judges, all formal action required analogical recourse to celestial archetypes. 

    Another interpretation of the fox tails comes from the Roman poet Ovid, who recounts that during the annual Festival of Ceres (the Greek Demeter) it was customary to tie torches to foxes and send them burning through the fields. Ovid’s accounting of the origin of this Festival is unique:

    “In yonder plain,” said he, and he pointed it out, “a thrifty countrywoman had a small croft, she and her sturdy spouse. . . . She had a son, in childhood frolicsome, who now had seen twice five years and two more. He in a valley at the end of a willow copse caught a vixen fox which had carried off many farmyard fowls. The captive brute he wrapped in straw and hay, and set a light to her; she escaped the hands that would have burned her. Where she fled, she set fire to the crops that clothed the fields, and a breeze fanned the devouring flames. The incident is forgotten, but a memorial of it survives; for to this day a certain law of Carseoli forbids to name a fox; and to punish the species a fox is burned at the festival of Ceres, thus perishing itself in the way it destroyed the crops.” (679)

  3. The Jawbone.
    Ovid’s description of the origin of the rites provides no real clues for interpretation. We know only that a ritual was performed during the Festival of Ceres where the old crop remnants were burned by fox tails in preparation for a new sewing. This lustration by fire would have cleansed the fields and fertilized the ground, and so would have been advantageous for another crop cycle.

    Of further interest on this point however is afterwards Samson kills 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Now it is curious that the Festival of Ceres occurred in the Spring month when the  star cluster known as the Hyades set on the horizon. The Hyades were the daughters of Atlas and the sisters to the Pleiades. They are mentioned as being the nurse maids to Dionysus. More importantly, their name means “the rainy ones” and like the Pleiades, they are a star group in the sky; specifically, they are the jawbone of Taurus the bull. The biblical text speaks of the jawbone of an ass which slays the thousand Philistines, but the connection to the Hyades is also present in the text, where, after Samson slaughters his enemies, a hollow in the jawbone opens up and water pours out of it to quench Samson’s thirst (15.19). This “rainy” jawbone is the Hyades (the rainy ones) and is connected to foxes in both Ovid’s narrative and the biblical story.

    It is also tempting to read this story as pure solar myth. Indeed, during the days of the Festival of Ceres, not to mention the writing of the story of Samson, the Hyades set with the sun on the horizon during the rainy months, while, in fact, by the next morning, Ursa Major would be seen rising with the sun parallel to the horizon, and would do so throughout the summer months. There is a star known as “the fox,” Alcor, who is the bride of the seven stars of Ursa Major; she sparkles right above Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper. Thus, at sunrise, the fox would be seen running across the fields during the hot summer months after the setting of the Hyades.

  4. The Wounds.
    Samson is finally defeated when he discloses the nature of his power to the harlot Delilah. He tells her that if his hair is cut he will lose his strength. Like the harlot Ishtar who plots against Gilgamesh, Delilah “made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him” (16.19). It is not Samson’s hair that holds his strength, but specifically his seven locks of hair; a curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. Yet, Gilgamesh only defeats the cosmic giant Humbaba by cutting off his seven glories, one at a time, until he is reduced to mortal clay and is slain. So likewise does Inanna deliver up her seven tokens at the gates of the underworld where she too is reduced from divine glory into a hanging corpse. Samson’s seven locks hale from the old cosmology of ritual and cult; the seven glories, tokens, or hairs being the seven heavens one descends through to find the secrets of immortality in the kingdom of the dead.

    Samson is captured and blinded. The blinding motif also occurs with other mythic heroes performing their labors. Neither Gilgamesh nor Pharaoh are physically blinded, but both descend into an underworld that is specifically described as pitch black, where no one can see. Gilgamesh enters the underworld where it is so dark that he is forced to race against the midnight sun “twelve double hours” before it sets and which Gilgamesh cannot see. Pharaoh’s entrance into the netherworld is so terrifyingly dark that he calls out in anguish to Ra for aid, knowing only the God of light can save the soul blinded by the darkness of death. The introduction into the underworld is always blinding, and this is why in two archaeological finds Heracles is shown blindfolded while being initiated into the Mysteries. An initiate into the mystery religions ritually descended into the underworld (the word initiate is Latin and means to “descend underground.”) where they were all blinded with darkness, and in many cases this meant they were literally blindfolded to imitate the darkness that existed through the veil of death. The only way to penetrate the darkness of the netherworld was through the inner sight of proper initiation.

    According to the Babylonian Talmud Samson is also lame; another curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. But the edifice of wounds piles up with uncanny synchronicity with the Greek hero Orion. Orion is lame and blinded and is sent through the astral world to find healing and rebirth from his father Helios; not unlike Pharaoh who suffers the same fate and pleads to Ra; or Gilgamesh who travels to the end of the impassable sea to find the secrets of life from Utnapishtim. Of course, the stars that make up the constellation of Orion were also known to be the stars that represented Osiris (and the Pharaoh) and even Gilgamesh.  Whatever the late accretion of myth fragments found in our Samson story, their origin lies in stellar cosmography and theology.

  5. The Mill.
    Having been wounded Samson faces another terrible ordeal, “But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house” (16.21). This grinding in the prison house is actually turning at the mill, or grindstone. None of our other heroes are put to a mill, however, and this seems unique to the story of Samson. But a few checks shows that the grinding mill is also part of a mythic complex of images.

    Perhaps our greatest clue lies in Germanic myth, where the great Amlodhi (also known as Hamlet) owns a great mill. Amlodhi’s father is none other than Orvendel, whose name signifies an “arrow” and who is also identified with the constellation of Orion. In one version of the myth King Frodhi owns the great mill and imprisons two giant maidens to grind at it. Whilst they grind they foretell Frodhi’s doom, but do so in the night while everyone is asleep. This imagery is a rather remarkable parallel to Odysseus’s return to Ithica in Homer’s Odyssey, where in the middle of the night he meets a woman grinding at a mill and who foretell’s not the death of Odysseus, but the death of all the royal suitors.

    In both cases the mill grinds out a prophecy foretelling the change of royal status and the death of those who are currently in charge. The decay of the old and the birth of the new seems to be the mill’s purpose, whose grinding transforms the ripened wheat into flour and bread. In another inexplicable parallel, the Babylonian Tammuz was the son of a god destined for death and rebirth. During the great Festival of Tammuz (surely another agrarian holiday) our hero is put to a great mill, though this time it is the mill itself which grinds the hero’s bones and sends his soul to the underworld.

    This great mill is cosmic, and is known to be the turning of the heavens, whose daily, monthly, and yearly “grinds” foretell the changing fate of land and kingdoms; borrowing from Tennyson, “grind out the old, grind in the new.” This is no idle fancy, as in at least a few early planispheres the stars known as the Little Dipper were imagined as a mill stone.

  6. The Gate of Death.
    The eventual fate of all our mythic kings and heroes is to land in the realm of the dead. Odysseus can only return home, after all, by descending to the underworld to gain directions. As for Gilgamesh, Pharaoh, and Heracles, the kingdom of the dead turns out to be their goal destination. Samson finds himself between two pillars in a stadium of party-goers some 3000 strong. Samson calls upon God and is given his strength and pushes the pillars over causing the entire building to collapse and kill everyone inside. It turns out his grinding at the mill was a necessary precursor to the death of kings and suitors.  In other myth systems the purpose of the hero-quest is to find the secrets of life and kingship in the astral underworld. In the story of Samson, our hero is slain with his enemies, but our narrator cannot end the story without stating that Samson reigned for twenty years and that in his death he slew more of Israel’s enemies than in his life.

The story is over and we are left with many fragments that find exact parallels in other myth systems tied to ritual and cosmology. Why is this story included in the Hebrew Bible? No one can really say. As every culture in the region had such a hero that stood at the basis for kingship, perhaps the Israelite priesthood adopted the story into their own cultic repertoire? In any case, the story of Samson is the story of the foolish hero who conquers all, even to the gates of death.

Oedipus: Sophic versus Mantic

In a recent post I explained the connections between cosmology and eschatology. These connections have been severed in modern thinking, but always lurk in the background as a person’s cosmology is more than a scientific and mathematical model of the universe, but is rather the operating frame of a person’s worldview. I briefly compared a believing Christian and atheist’s worldview to make my point.

The comparison between the believing Christian and the secular scientist, while modified, turns out to be the central theme of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. I have already pointed out the inherent contrast between Oedipus the tyrant and the Oedipus of the old sacral order. Yet the real contrast rests between Oedipus the Sophic (from sophoi, meaning wisdom, and specifically knowledge gained from logic, reasoning, and observation–i.e. our skeptical scientist) and Tiresias the Mantic (the Greek mantic meaning prophetic, oracular, revelatory–i.e. our faithful believer). The tension between these two attitudes was fully alive in fifth century Athens.

The  Sophists were  a group of intellectuals that were deconstructing the old religious traditions, not so much in order to find some new, greater truth, but for money. Protagoras concluded that he was wasting his time trying to sound the secrets of the universe in a short lifetime, burned his books in the marketplace, and turned to teaching rhetoric, achieving the immortal fame of being the first man to make a hundred minas at the trade” (Nibley, Ancient 246-247). The first named Sophist appears to be Protagoras who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BCE and who is the very man who coined the phrase “man is the measure of all things.” His works were agnostic and by the end of his life he was exiled from Athens for his impiety.

No matter, the Sophist school was by then thriving and roving scholars for hire were roaming about the countryside selling knowledge of any sort, but especially the skill of rhetoric. Intellectualism was in the air as a cadre of philosophers sought to describe the world based off reason and observation as opposed to religion and myth. This all sounds very modern to us, and in fact the Sophists thought themselves very modern. However, when we read Sophic thought we find ourselves planted in what appears to us as a great deal of metaphysical gibberish, with the universe being created by the four central elements of fire, air, water, earth, and with Mind and Spirit lurking behind the scenes as primal causes. The intellectual and cosmological schemes of the Sophists were highly metaphysical, but rooted in academic and rhetorical training, as opposed to the oracular priesthood.

When Oedipus sends for Tiresias to help in finding the murder of Laius, Oedipus voices a wonderful dialogue which itself is conflicted between sophic and mantic thinking: “O Tiresias, master of all the mysteries of our life,” Oedipus begins, “all you teach and all you dare not tell, signs in the heavens, sings that walk the earth! Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. You, my lord, are the one shield, the one savior we can find” (OK 340-346).

Oedipus concedes that within the mantic mainframe is a power which transcends human awareness. Oedipus is seeking for a revelation. Unfortunately, Oedipus seeks a different sort of knowledge than the kind Tiresias provides. Like so many moderns, Oedipus seeks a shortcut; what he really wants is a quick answer to a very complex mathematical puzzle. He knows that he must collect data, interview suspects and witnesses, compile clues, and using reason and wits alone solve the puzzle. But all this is laborious and time consuming and our tragic hero is very impatient. So, much like Faust, who has solved all riddles using the sophic method and finding it insufficient and laborious, Oedipus tries to cheat on his own methodology by applying to the mantic ways. “Rescue yourself, your city, rescue me–rescue everything infected by the dead. We are in your hands. For a man to help others with all his gifts and native strength: that is the noblest work” (OK 355-358).

How ironic that Oedipus addresses the final frontier of sophic knowledge beyond which he cannot pass and therefore must resentfully rely on the mantic for salvation. “Rescue everything infected by the dead,” he pleads, for death is the greatest riddle, who, for the sophic, even with “all his gifts and native strength,” has absolutely no solution. Oedipus does not see the paradox, but Sophocles does. He makes Tiresias a revelator of a different sort of knowledge.

Strictly speaking, Tiresias is not interested in the complex mathematical puzzles of the sophist, with its hyper-fixation on meaningless knowledge. Our old prophet not only knows that Oedipus murdered Laius, but that this answer belongs to the wrong question. Ten thousand times has he seen the end of the sophic way, he foresees the fate of Oedipus as he foresees the fate of Faust–the fate of the Age of Reason disconnected from the divine spirit and the “mysteries of our life”–plague upon civilization is always the final result. “How terrible–to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” is his only response (OK 359-360). The Greek word phronein Fagles translates as “to see,” punning on Oedipus’s future blindness. The word itself however means to know, to understand, to be wise, and thus the LOEB edition translates this phrase as “how dreadful it is to know when the knowledge does not benefit the knower!” (LOEB 355). While another scholar translates it as “Being smart can only be disastrous to a man who doesn’t know where his cleverness is taking him!” (Nibley, Ancient 345).

Here is the great theme of the play; the theme in which the play is transfixed. From beginning to end in Oedipus the King Sophocles uses Oedipus as a theatrical mask representing an intellectual movement that sought to separate cosmology from eschatology in order to finally come to some sort of precise science and reason. “Let’s have done with it!” seems to be the exasperation of the sophist who cannot figure out any of the mysteries which religion was supposed to address and in which the sophist no longer has time for. Let us live our lives with the things we can touch, smell, and hear; but more importantly, spend our money on. In this sense, Oedipus the King is a very modern play.

Cosmology and Eschatology

When a Christian stands and proclaims his belief in Jesus Christ as Savior, and that his god is the only Way, Truth, and Light, he is proclaiming not only an eschatology, but also a cosmology. In the first place, his eschatology is revealed: there is a god; there is an afterlife; there is a path in the afterlife; there is a judgement; there is a place where people go who pass and fail the judgement; etc. Moreover, he is at the same time declaring a cosmology, for now heaven and earth are linked in a multitude of relationships all of which have eternal consequences. Suddenly, every human action now comes with a moral imperative. God now is omnipresent, existing in every place man occupies, and the structure of the universe is not just some mechanistic, grand clock-work but a stage upon which the real drama of the cosmos is performed–the drama of human relations and moral intelligence. All this is a philosophy of the cosmos and the human race’s involvement in it. All this is a cosmology.

When an atheist stands and proclaims his belief in the Scientific Method, and that reason, experiment, and objective observation is the path to true enlightenment, i.e. is the only Way, Truth, and Light, then he too is proclaiming an eschatology rooted in a cosmology. The rationalists eschatology is in fact an earth-bound utopia of reason and science predicated upon the positivist theologic point of view: human intellect can unriddle anything; nature can be codified by laws of reason and observation; nature, not god, is the thing to discover; and above all, man is the measure. This is the eschatology. It is birthed from the ultimate paradigm of relatedness between man and nature–the cosmology. Modern cosmology is not even heliocentric, if we are to employ the strictest sense of the term. In fact, the modern universe has no center. There once was a singularity, so says the meta-narrative, which expanded in a Big Bang creating the universe; but no one is certain where that was, or why it was, and none of it matters anyway. The relatedness of the cosmos in modern terms is addressed with such words as “randomness,” “chaos,” and above all “evolution.” All this is a philosophy of the cosmos and the human race’s involvement in it. All this is a cosmology.

Perhaps we are unfamiliar with associating the theologian with the word cosmology, as we are as unfamiliar with associating the secular scientist with the word eschatology. Modern sensibility has so severed the ideas of science and religion, and eschatology from cosmology, that this latter term is almost always used in the modern context as a mathematical if not theoretical construct of macrocosmic physics. Besides, science became science when it separated itself from eschatology; just as religion became modern religion when it separated itself from cosmology.

Despite the safe separation in the modern mind between these two fields of knowledge, the truth is, in practical terms of human experience, there is no separation at all. It turns out that human beings are interpenetrated with ideas of ultimate causes and ends which provide a philosophy of relationships and ethics which in turn have their own consequences of causes and ends. I suppose this is a wordy way of saying the universe is so big, and the questions it poses to us so infinite, that our reason and logic, in contrast to the endless horizon of inquiry before us, simply runs out too quickly. We are left doing the only thing we can do: projecting ourselves into the universe to make sense of it all. It should not surprise us, then, to find that our attitudes of the universe are reflected in the ideas of ourselves. Our metaphysics gives birth to a cosmology that is self-fulfilling, and this explains why a change in a culture’s cosmology is so hard to come by. In short, there can be no cosmology without eschatology; nor eschatology without cosmology. Furthermore, there is no real separation between religion and science; there are only varying degrees of cosmology and eschatology within a single system.

This is no idle prattle. It is the eminent historian and philosopher of science, Karl Popper, who indicates that cosmology is not only a central, human concern, but also centrally involves humans in its conceptions. Popper asserts, “I, however, believe that there is at least one philosophical problem in which all thinking men are interested. It is the problem of cosmology: the problem of understanding the world–including ourselves, and our knowledge, as part of the world. All science is cosmology, I believe, and for me the interest of philosophy, no less than of science, lies solely in the contributions which it has made to it” (Popper xviii, italics his).

Popper has got it right, and herein our modern dictionaries have failed to make a critical point in their definitions. Cosmology is not just the study of the macrocosm–stars, galaxies, Big Bang, and the lot. No. Cosmology is also, and perhaps principally, a study of the microcosm– “including ourselves, and our knowledge, as part of the world.” In this respect, the Hermetic saying “as above, so below” is as a good starting point for a definition of cosmology as any, for the universe cannot be separated by its inhabitants trying to describe the universe. Moreover, the universe is reflected in its inhabitants, so that the study of one should say something about the idea of the other. Man and Cosmos are synonymous, and modern cosmologists therefore must include all people investigating human relatedness within the world. It is uncomfortable for some to admit, but philosophers, theologians, economists, psychologists, anthropologists are also all cosmologists.

For Popper, not only is all science cosmology but all cosmology is metaphysics (14-16). This bold assertion is exactly what I have been discussing. It is an idea that challenges the modern tradition that science is a strictly objective method of logic and reason predicated on observations and measurements “reducible to elementary (or ‘atomic’) statements of experience […]” (12). Indeed, Popper challenges the very notion of the inductive method as the basis of scientific knowledge. Popper quotes Moritz Schlick, who observes, “The problem of induction consists in asking for a logical justification of universal statements about reality […]. We recognize, with Hume, that there is no such logical justification: there can be none, simply because they are not genuine statements” (14, italics his). Popper concludes: “This shows how the inductivist criterion of demarcation fails to draw a dividing line between scientific and metaphysical systems, and why it must accord them equal status; for the verdict of the positivist dogma of meaning is that both are systems of meaningless pseudo-statements” (14). 

Again, all this is a wordy way of saying that while the inductive method of science insists that scientists can make observations without a theory in mind, if this were the case, then all such observations would be rendered meaningless. In fact, all observations are already tied to a series of presuppositions, most of which are not scientific, but philosophical. “I am inclined to think that scientific discovery,” continues Popper, “is impossible without faith in ideas which are of a purely speculative kind, and sometimes even quite hazy; a faith which is completely unwarranted from the point of view of science, and which, to that extent, is ‘metaphysical’” (16). One modern cosmologist puts it this way, “Maybe more so than in any other field of physics, cosmologists construct fantasy worlds which they hope may have some bearing on what we observe” (Ferriera 10). How can this be justified from a strict, scientific point of view? Our modern cosmologist continues, “The hope is that, like Albert Einstein, by stretching our imaginations but at the same time remaining firmly entrenched in basic principles, it will be possible to explain many of the unanswered questions in cosmology” (Ferriera 10).

Here lies the essence of cosmology. The positivist focuses only on the “firmly entrenched basic principles” which are made up of formula and proofs and says all the universe can be explained in this way. Of course it is not so. For all those “firmly entrenched basic principles” have to be strung together in a dot-to-dot construction that encompasses a wider area of ideology that itself may not be justified by those basic principles. They are strung together into “fantasy worlds.” It is the construction of a theory, especially a cosmological theory, that turns science into metaphysics. For indeed, in order to create a fantasy world one must already have a cosmology in mind. This means modern cosmology is a product of a cultural cosmology already firmly established.

A civilization’s ultimate framework of cultural imagination is its own cosmology. How we think about the universe is reflected in how we think about ourselves, and vice versa. Moreover, how we think about the past is also tied up in our cosmological constructions. This is why Popper considers cosmology a central human concern that encompasses not only science but also philosophy, and oft times there is no difference. In the end, cosmology is the central human concern about which everything else is an addendum. If we are to study myth and the mystery religions then perhaps we should consider the cosmological mainframe in which they grew? But from what position shall we consider that framework? From our own cosmology? It turns out, ever since Darwin, our conceptions of the past have been projections of modern cosmological constructs. As they say, we look through a glass darkly. Not only is our seeing glass murky, but its focal point is fixated on the wrong target. We have much to see anew.

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.