Athene and the Archetype of Divine Agency

Athene, daughter of Zeus alone, represents the ability, within a ruling structure, to work in such a way as to allow the prevailing order to remain while still finding new interpretations and modes of behavior which allow for life to run seamlessly on. Since it is the natural tendency for an order to dry-up and to stop reflecting the values which established it, Athene represents the tendency, counter to Ares, not simply to erupt into violent conflict, but to find a way to integrate into the new order the reality of a changing world or consciousness. She therefore represents the pliancy in life, and the inability of an order without fluidity of thought and innovation to maintain itself (without conflict) without such liquid and creative solutions.

Interestingly, in our article before, we noted that Zeus, the principle of order, hates “two-faced” Ares because Ares represents the mortal nature of all rules and the duplex process of reigning and falling as a ruler. Athene, however, is also a War-Goddess, and Ares, perhaps rightly, claims that she too “stirs up strife”, but why is it that she does not earn the ire of Zeus, or how is it, then, that she represents something so radically different from the undiscerning conflict of Ares? Homer gives us a brief glimpse into Ares’ perception of his stronger sister:

“Father Zeus, are you not angry looking on these acts of violence? We who are gods forever have to endure the most horrible hurts, by each other’s hatred, as we try to give favor to mortals. It is your fault we fight, since you brought forth this maniac daughter accursed, whose mind is fixed forever on unjust action. For all the rest, as many as are gods on Olympos, are obedient to you, and we all have rendered ourselves submissive. Yet you say nothing and you do nothing to check this girl, letting her go free, since yourself you begot this child of perdition.” (Homer, Iliad Bk V 872-880, Lattimore tr.)

Ares, typically, is incapable of looking past the fact that both his actions (as a warrior on the battlefield) and Athene’s actions (also as a warrior) appear to be the same. He has no conception of the fact that intention, favor, side of the battle, and pre-existing relationship might play into one’s judgment of a situation. It is precisely because Athene, cunning as she is, does understand not only the situation on the ground, but the situation on Olympos, that she may act in such sly and undermining ways. But undermining is not quite right–for to undermine is to consciously work against the established order. No, whereas Ares’ conflictual nature might undermine an order, but unconsciously, Athene acts in a way which might conflict with the usual practice of obedience to an order without conflicting with the spirit or nature of the order in actuality. She is the weapon of divine order on earth; here Karl Kerenyi will support us with his work on the subject:

“She is the rescuer from every danger and peril, the advisor for every tight spot, and the highest wisdom. The people’s chiefs and leaders, as well as the whole people itself, are advised by her; she presides over all local, tribal, and national gatherings. She maintains life and health [my ital.]. She is the gracious, gentle nurse who takes the children of mankind to herself, who makes mothers fertile and children grow and develop, who increases the stock of the people through a strong younger generation. She preserves the divine order in nature [my ital.], protects the seedlings and fruits from damage, sows and tends the noble and nourishing olive trees…” (Karl Kerenyi, Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion, P. 18)

Just as her father, Zeus, establishes the royal and divine order of things, so does Athene, as the active agent of her father’s authority, ensure that his will be done on the earth. Whether she is pulling the hair of Achilleus (Iliad, Bk I 194-200), or imploring Zeus to release Odysseus from his ignoble captivity on Ogygia (Odyssey, Bk I 45-61), or crying out to end the madness of further conflict after the brutal slaughter of the suitors (Odyssey, Bk XXIV 529-534) she is always enacting the will of her Father and maintaining order, in some fashion or another, on the mortal plane. She is the matron of heroes, journeyers, and cunning liars (Ibid, 18). But her pride of rank makes her more demiurgic than any of her siblings of the generation of her father. Kerenyi here expands:

“But she is also righteous, strictly recompensing Providence: seated beside Zeus, she is the only one who knows where the lightning bolts lie hidden, has the full right and power to use them, and also employs the aegis, the terrible shield of her father Zeus. With him she has many traits and epithets in common, and she is frequently worshipped jointly with him, especially in the most ancient sites of her cult.” (Ibid, 18)

In the ancient Greek religion and mythology, Athene, therefore stands as second only to Zeus, and is something of the πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς or πνεῦμα ἅγιον of Zeus. But the purpose of this series is hardly a simple exposition of mythology and Greek mythology; the purpose, however, is to recognize in the figures of the gods their archetypal figures and how they work in the world along cultural and personal lines. Might Kerenyi, then, help us one more time with this?

“Although it was the religion of a Goddess, it actually existed side by side with the victorious father religion, in no respect subordinate to it as was the naturalistic Hera religion, but in all practical respects equal to it, yet without overthrowing the general patriarchal order. Is this not really an accidental product of history? But then one must also ask whether history could have produced such a thing without there being some foundation for it in the structure of human beings [my ital.].” (Ibid, 19)

Kerenyi therefore contends, as we have all along, that Athene, as a figure of mythology and religion, reflects some inborn capacity or archetype within man, the archetype of Athene, which after the order of the kosmos (or whole) is set by Zeus, continues and maintains that order, in direct collision with the strife-filled and aggressive motions of her weaker brother, Ares. So, just as her brother Ares, and his archetype, are activated in absence of a ruling order and before a new “king” or dominant of consciousness is established culturally or personally, so does Athene, as archetype, reflect the action which maintains and expresses the will of the healthy and rich order of a healthy and vivid dominant of consciousness. Just as it is clear that the process of “individuation” does not end the life of a person or culture, so is it necessary that, on occasion, the will of the gods (or the intentions of the unconscious and reality) be expressed in order to cultivate, cull, and right an existing order without overturning it entirely.

Just as Zeus begat Athene from his head without help from Hera (though perhaps from Metis), so does the new established order, whether cultural or personal, birth from its new ordering principle the capacity to maintain, extend, and alter itself to fit the demands of the world. For an order without malleability and agency would quickly become stagnant, dull, and fail to meet the demands of the world and reality, and thus without this active agency, the process from Prometheus to Ares, would have to start again anew, forever repeating itself. If one pays any mind to the state of Nietzsche’s health at the end of his life and his philosophy of the eternal recurrence (so like the Hindu concept of reincarnation), one might see there prima facie evidence of this process gone wrong, or rather, this process completed, over and over, devoid of the recognition and realization of the archetype of Athene, the principle of action in accordance with the principles and laws of the world and reality as a whole, the one who connects the mundane with the spiritual, and maintains the coniunctio oppositorum.

“The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, s.341. tr. Walter Kaufmann)

Just as Nietzsche’s philosophical statement above showcases the failure to integrate the contents of the archetype of Athene, so below will Kerenyi indicate the proper relation of Athene to herself and of one, be it culture or person, to Athene.

“If merely the result of historical accident, would this position of the Goddess have been acceptable, and would her image itself, with its internal tension and antitheses [my ital.], which soon will appear to us to be even stronger, have been tolerable?” (Kerenyi, Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion, P. 19)

Just as the archetype itself maintains internal tension and therefore vitality and health, so then does a person or culture who adequately integrates its contents. Athene, as archetype, therefore expresses the full and vivid life, lived in accordance with divine and mundane providence, and filled with energy, meaning, and purpose, culturally and individually. Though, of course, it is persons who comprise a culture.


Hermes and the Archetype of Transformation

“You can see what kind of a deity this is, a new thought, a new spirit. All the old gods were psychological facts which later on became ideas. The old gods represented by the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, are the old personal gods living on Olympus. They became later on psychological constituents of human character. We speak of a saturnine expression, a mercurial temperament, a martial bearing, jovial behaviour, etc., and we forget that we thus liken man to the great rulers of Olympus. A god may appear to you if it pleases him to do so, and if you integrate or entertain him, as it were, that means a new spirit, a new attitude in you.” (Carl Jung, Seminar on Dream Analysis, pp. 181-182)

Hermes, great messenger of the gods, and son of Zeus and Maya is most popular for his capacity to bring the will of the gods, generally Zeus, down to mortals from above, particularly in Homer’s Odyssey. There is, however, another role which he plays for which he receives a smaller, but potentially more important, bit of credit: as psychopompos. A psychopomp, from psuche+pempein (soul+to send), is a spirit or daimon who brings souls between worlds, like Charon, or Hermes himself. In both the Iliad and Odyssey Hermes acts in this capacity in Book 24 of both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (once with Priam to his son Hektor, and in the latter he takes the souls of the suitors to the Underworld). But he also is mentioned in the famous Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid as both taking souls to and from the Orcus, the Underworld, and the same power is ascribed to him in Book I of Statius’ epic, Thebaid.

Given our recent course of study starting from the archetype of the hero as bringing about tremendous change in the conscious dominant of a person or society, and the archetype of Dionysos proving the necessary “space between” or katharsis before a new dominant takes hold of a person or place: what then does Hermes as an archetype represent, and when in this process does his role become operant? We will begin by examining Hermes’ role as psychopomp in the epic tradition, and then we will connect that role with his “birth myth”, and finally we will consider the symbolism of Hermes/Mercury in conjunction with his purpose and function as archetype.

In Book XXIV of the Iliad, Hermes is sent by Zeus to ensure safe-passage of Priam from his safe and living world of Troy to the camp of his opposite number, his dead son, Hektor, and his son’s murderer, Achilleus, who now holds the body of Hektor hostage. Priam must therefore leave his home, cross the battlefield, and then “kiss the hands” of his sons’ killer–transitioning both his physical place and his state of being across the battlefield. As Zeus commands Hermes down, he makes an interesting comment about Hermes: “Hermes, for to you beyond all other gods it is dearest to be man’s companion, and you listen to whom you will, go now on your way, and so guide Priam inside the hollow ships of the Achaians…” (Homer, Iliad, Bk XXIV 334-337. Lattimore tr.) And then again Hermes is described: “He caught up the staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers.” (Ibid, 343-344) One observes from these two descriptions two important aspects of Hermes: he of all the gods most cares for man (ostensibly, now that Prometheus is out of the picture), and he has the capacity to wake or put to sleep a man. What this means, is that Hermes is the archetype, par excellence, of the transition between one state of being and another, or transformation (for it is humans who go from sleeping to waking, and alive to dead*). Just as Dionysos represents the space necessary between states, so does Hermes represent the active process of transformation, though this transformation can be positive, waking, or negative, being put to sleep, both aspects are essential to transformation. Let us now look to Hermes’ expressly stated role as psychopompos that we might not be tempted to think his role as transformational archetype be a “stretch”.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XXIV, after god-like Odysseus has killed withe suitors with the help of his herdsmen (Eumaios and Philoitios) and his son Telemachos, all 108 suitors require guidance to the underworld. It is in this way that Book XXIV opens.

“Hermes of Kyllene summoned the souls of the suitors to come forth, and in his hands he was holding the beautiful golden staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers [my ital.]. Herding them on with this, he led them along, and they followed, gibbering. And as when bats in the depth of an awful cave flitter and gibber, when one of them has fallen out of his place in the chain that the bats have formed by holding one on another; so, gibbering, they went their way together, and Hermes the kindly healer led them down along the mouldering pathways.” (Homer, Odyssey Bk XXIV 1-10, Lattimore, tr.)

We see above that Hermes not only brings sleeper to wakefulness and wakened ones to sleep, but he also commutes the living to the world of the dead, and as we will see below, vice-versa. Interestingly, just as the suitors are transformed from living to dead, so is their speech, of which Hermes is the god, also rendered from intelligible to unintelligible as well. His power is by its very nature the active principle of transformation. Whether he is represented as putting one to sleep (like Argos, the giant whom he killed and earned the epithet Argeiphontes for), waking one up, or bringing one back to life or guiding one down to death. Even in more subtle ways does he represent transformation in the Odyssey where he transforms Odysseus from captive to free-man on Kalypso’s island, Ogygia (Ibid, Bk V 98-117), or when he gives Odysseus moly to prevent him from transforming when he ate the food of Circe (Ibid, Bk X 275-310). If one looks closely, one even observes that Hermes “explained the nature of [the plant, moly]” (304), therefore transforming Odysseus from ignorance to understanding on the substance. We will now conclude the historical overview of Hermes as a transformational archetype in epic with two brief quotes from Vergil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebaid. Though the Thebaid was written first, we will continue with Vergil’s Aeneid.

Interestingly, in Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid, Mercury (Hermes) speaks twice to Aeneas insisting that he hurry along away from mad Dido. First he reminds Aeneas that he has his own city to fight for and colonize (Vergil, Aeneid, Bk IV 345-371, Mandelbaum tr.). And then when Aeneas has the audacity to attempt to sleep the night away, Mercury drops the bombshell that resonates throughout time along with Agamemnon’s assessment of Klytaimestra from Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, “Why not flee this land headlong, while there is still time? You soon will see the waters churned by wreckage, ferocious torches blaze, and beaches flame, if morning finds you lingering on this coast. Be on your way. Enough delays. An ever uncertain and inconstant thing is woman [my ital.].” (Ibid, 781-786). But where one observes his capacity as psychopompos in its clearest form is in his description before his first visit:

“Mercury made ready to follow his great father’s orders. First he laces on his golden sandals: winged to bear him, swift as whirlwind, high across the land and water. The he takes his wand; with this he calls pale spirits up from Orcus and down to dreary Tartarus sends others; he uses this to give sleep and recall it, and to unseal the eyes of those who have died.” (319-327)

And then again in Statius’ Thebaid:

“His father spoke. Atlas’ grandson appeared and quickly bound winged sandals on his feet. A cap concealed his hair. His glow dimmed stars. In his right hand he held the slender wand he uses to induce and banish sleep or send dead souls to deep, dark Tartarus or, on occasion, bring dead shades to life [my ital.]. Down he leapt, upright; by the air sustained that instant, flying on the vast sublime and traced a mighty down-gyre through the clouds.” (Statius, Thebaid, Bk I 303-311, Ross tr.)

With Hermes effectively demonstrated as not only the god of transformation (life to death, sleep to wakefulness, unintelligibility to intelligibility (through language), etc. Let us now consider how his birth and theft of his brother Apollo’s cattle myth yet further demonstrates his archetypal capacity to transform. We will here quote from a summary, but full details from a variety of primary sources exist here.

“Conceived of Zeus, he had been born of a night-sky nymph named Maia…In a cave [Hermes] had been born, at dawn; and toddling forth from his cradle before noon, he has chanced–or had seemed to chance–at the entrance of the cave upon a tortoise (an early animal symbol of the universe), which he broke up and fashioned into a lyre, to which at noon he beautifully sang. That evening he stole Apollo’s cattle, and to appease the god gave him the lyre, which Apollo passed to his own son Orpheus.” (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, P. 203)

So, we see above that Hermes, like Dionysos, was an illegitimate son of Zeus, but unlike Dionysos who gained authority through being dismembered (passively) and re-unifying, Hermes, himself, transforms his rank and earns acceptance through his transformational deeds. First, at dawn, a time of transition, at the mouth of the cave he was born at (the space between inside and out), he transforms a living tortoise into the dead lyre by which he transforms moving air and words into son. He then steals his brother’s cattle, transferring ownership from Apollo to him, a markedly underhanded transformation, but one all the same. And then he transforms Apollo from foe to friend, by transferring ownership of the lyre to him, and in doing that, he is accepted as an Olympian by Apollo and Zeus.

All this said, however, how exactly is it that Hermes as archetype of transformation represents a point in time or an energic process in both man and society? Just as in the beginning of this series we suggested that the task of the hero was to remove the “old-king” or dominant of the collective consciousness from power, so did we then indicate that a “purging” or katharsis had to occur between the rule of the old and new king (collective attitude). After the fall of the former dominant, and then after the “clearing of space” of the wild and unruly Dionysian archetype, then does the active transformation of a person or culture begin. That is the space of the archetype of Hermes. Let us observe his description as Mercury from Richard Tarnas.

“the principle of mind, thought, communication, that which articulates the primary creative energy and renders it intelligible; the impulse and capacity to think, to conceptualize, to connect and mediate[my ital.], to use words and language, to give and receive information; to make sense of, to grasp, to perceive and reason, understand and articulate;  to transport, translate, transmit [my ital.]; the principle of Logos; Hermes, the messenger of the gods.” (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, P. 90)

What one sees above is that the principle and essence of the archetype of Hermes is furnish and transmit a new leading collective or personal attitude after the former one has been destroyed by the archetype of the hero. Just as an old conscious dominant ceases to reflect reality and therefore halts the flow of life, vitality, and meaning, so does it become, after the steps above, necessary in some way to reconnect and mediate the new myth which will inform and unite a people or person with creative unconscious or reality as it is. It is precisely in this moment that the archetype of Hermes, messenger of the gods, mediator of wisdom, transformative archetype, is activated.** In the moment after the archetype of Dionysos does its work, then is a space created for the transformative connection between the unconscious and consciousness of a man or society. During this moment of connection or mediation, a link may be created by which the new myth of a person or a people is perceived and interpreted. Plato has a description of such a moment in his Symposium:

“I don’t know whether anybody else has ever opened him up when he’s been being serious, and seen the little images inside, but I saw them once, and they looked so godlike, so golden, so beautiful, and so utterly amazing that there was nothing for it but to do exactly what he told me.” (Plato, Symposium, 216-e-217a, Hamilton tr.)

And when this moment of transformation and transmission occurs on the personal level, the psychologists call it either the coniunctio or part of individuation.

“Our pictures of the coniunctio are to be understood in this sense: union on the biological level is a symbol for the unio oppositorum at its highest. This means that the union of opposites in the royal art is just as real as coitus in the common acceptation of the word, so that the opus becomes an analogy for the natural process by means of which instinctive energy is transformed, at least in part, into symbolical activity [my ital.].” (Carl Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, P. 250, Par. 460)

Just as Alcibiades received insight into the images inside by means of connecting to Socrates, so does one in a psychological sense, achieve a transformation of consciousness or attitude by receiving and embodying a new symbol or myth, a risen phoenix from the ashes purged from the old, now dead one. Jung uses the example of a physical or natural union as a process for transforming instinctive energy into symbolical activity, sometimes called sublimation. So, however, does the archetype of Hermes connect opposites (conscious to the unconscious; mortal to immortal; god to man) in order to revitalizes and reinvigorate the energy, meaning, and purpose of modern culture and modern man.

*Though the gods do appear to sleep in Homer’s Iliad Bk XIV (250-256; 352-355) with the help of the god Sleep, anyway.

** “And with Right may the son of Maia lend his hand, strong to send wind fair for action, if he will. Much else lies secret he may show at need. He speaks the secret word, by night hoods darkness on the eyes nor shows more plainly when the day is there.” (Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, Ll. 811-818, Lattimore tr.) Hermes is no fewer than three times called “Hermes of death” or “lord of the dead,” as well (124, 623, 726)

The Myth of Dionysos and the Birth of a New Age

“But you cannot, artificially and with an effort of will, believe the statements of myth if you have not previously been gripped by them. If you are honest, you will doubt the truth of the myth because our present day consciousness has no means of understanding it. Historical and scientific criteria do not lend themselves to a recognition of mythological truth; it can be grasped only by the intuitions of faith or by psychology, and in the latter case although there may be insight it remains ineffective unless it is backed by experience.” (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, P. 528)

In our recent articles, we considered the archetype of the Hero and how it is activated during a time of transition and change from one set of cultural values to another. The focus of those articles was to establish the fact that “heroes” exist as people who are part divine, part mortal, and though they exist within time, they by necessity are timeless or exist out of time as well. Whenever the prevailing cultural attitude has become defunct and lost the energic capability to motivate and unite a people, such an “archetype” as it is called becomes activated–that is, whenever the life of a culture slows to a drip from a flow, then the hero archetype activates in order to “clear the blockage” and restore the vitality of the human spirit to a culture. But, after this transition time, what next? Though the hero exists to slay the dragon or the “old-king”, what time follows this slaying of old and decrepit values?

This part of the transitory time belongs to the archetype of Dionysos, or the archetype of rebirth, after the hero causes the “death” or “transition” from an old set of values–then does the archetype of Dionysos bring about the necessary space for the values of a new generation and a re-enlivened culture. First though, let us examine the place that Dionysos, that ever elusive and stranger to Greek culture, occupied within the Greek mythos and cult, and then we will analyze and interpret the meaning that such a figure in mythology represents. Frazer begins with one of the more popular accounts of Dionysos’ origin and dismemberment.

“Like the other gods of vegetation Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, but to have been brought to life again; and his sufferings, death, and resurrection were enacted in his sacred rites. His tragic story is thus told by the poet Nonnus. Zeus in the form of a serpent visited Persephone, and she bore him Zagreus, that is, Dionysus, a horned infant. Scarcely was he born, when the babe mounted the throne of his father Zeus and mimicked the great god by brandishing the lightning in his tiny hand. But he did not occupy the throne long; for the treacherous Titans, their faces whitened with chalk, attacked hm with knives while he was looking at himself in a mirror. For a time he evaded their assaults by turning himself into various shapes, assuming the likeness successively of Zeus and Cronus, of a young man, of a lion, a horse, and a serpent. Finally, in the form of a bull, he was cut to pieces by the murderous knives of his enemies.” (Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, Abridged. 1922. P. 451)

And then Frazer continues with an explanation of how the dismembered and murdered god comes back to life, like the seasons.

“Thus far the resurrection of the slain god is not mentioned, but in other versions of the myth it is variously related. According to one version, which represented Dionysus as a son of Zeus and Demeter, his mother pieced together his mangled limbs and made him young again. In others it is simply said that shortly after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended up to heaven; or that Zeus raised him as as he lay mortally wounded; or that Zeus swallowed the heart of Dionysus and then begat him afresh by Semele, who thereby conceived him.” (Ibid, 452)

Therefore, one sees that in his aspect as a God of Vegetation (much like Adonis, Attis, and Osiris (Ibid, 449), Dionysos is born, lives a brief time, is torn asunder, often by the Titans, and is resurrected to reascend anew, like the dawn from eternal night, or spring from frosty Winter. Forever does Dionysos, the dismembered and deceased god, or principle of the immortality of the spirit, experience death and rebirth. These solar and vegetable analogies are useful, but the symbol of a god as representing the change of the seasons is hardly novel. To connect the archetype of Dionysos to the process of the birth of a new age requires a more humanistic and human-centric approach.

Before observing the civic role which Dionysos plays, though, we must observe and examine the point that one comes to over and over again with the Dionysos myth: he experiences rejection (and usually dismemberment) before being accepted as an Olympian. He is at once a bastard son of Zeus and in the cults, and often enough he is a stranger from Thrace or farther East (Frazer, 449). How, then, does this strange God of orgiastic rites, first dismembered, and then glorified, express the situation of a culture which has experienced the rise and fall of a prevailing attitude or set of values? We will now look to Vernant who includes Dionysos as a figure who serves to transform children into citizens, just as he first represented the change of Fall to Winter and Winter to Spring.

“But before this time, the young of the two sexes had deposited garlands of grain near Artemis, which, in allusion to the first victims, dedicates them forever to the goddess in their youthful status. It is as if, through these garlands given up to the goddess, they are both the young who are “sacrificed” to her and the ones, now ripe, who are liberated from her charge. Instead of grain given to Artemis, they put garlands of ivy around their foreheads and, thus arrayed, they go to the temple of Dionysos Aisymnetes, the god who, a stranger like them, was integrated into the civic cult with the title of Master and Arbiter. The nocturnal ritual, the controlled and regulated orgiastic behavior of this daimon xenos [strange god; my trans.] who henceforth was adapted to Greek culture[my italics], guaranteed the young their own integration into the civic community by contriving a change of status through which the young ceased to be young in order to become adults[my ital.], yet without entailing any confusion in status between youth and adult or any effacement of boundaries between them.” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals, P. 212)

One therefore observes that beyond simple transformations of the seasons that Dionysos was also associated with changes of status between children and citizens. He is, in of himself, always duplex in some form or another. In Hesiod’s hymn to him, he appears androgynous and wearing purple, looking like a youth or a man, or a man or a god. It is precisely because Dionysos, youngest of the Olympian gods, is expressive not only of initial rejection (dismemberment; or like any new cultural idea), but of transformation from one form of being to another–child to adult-citizen, alive to dead, dead to alive, stranger to familiar, and mortal to immortal. Just as in our most recent article we observed Kronos’ role as a god who experiences the rise to power and the fall from it, so does Dionysos represent the prevailing confusion, discontent, “de-unification” (dismemberment) which occurs during a twilight state of transition between one age and another, one cultural dominant to another, or even one prevailing attitude to another on the personal stage.

The Archetype of Dionysos indicates a time of dangerous and uncontrolled energies. Without the form and structure set out in a person or culture’s life, the energies of the person or people are unrestrained, destabilized, and without unity. Therefore, just as the Archetype of the Hero represents the positive aspect of change from the old-dying king (culture cut off from life), so does the Archetype of Dionysos represent the time between the fall of the old cultural values (old king) and the coronation of the new values (or new, revitalized, king or cultural values). During this time between “rulers”, the energy or vitality of the unconscious rushes back into a culture, but without the cultural safeguards of order, ritual, and custom to hinder its explosive and potentially monstrous force. The Archetype of Dionysos, then, represents the negative or darker aspect of transition–the moments between darkness and light–and the dangers which twilight and dawn both hold for those who desire clarity of sight and purpose.

This time, however, serves a valuable purpose. Just as day does not become night without first passing through twilight, so does the Archetype of Dionysos serve as a time of “preparation” in that it allows for katharsis or cleansing of one mode of being that another might replace it. Joseph Campbell here explains this “time between” below.

“…tragic katharsis (i.e. the “purification” or “purgation” of the emotions of the spectator of tragedy through his experience of pity and terror) corresponds to an earlier ritual katharsis (“a purification of the community from the taints and poisons of the past year, the old contagion of sin and death (my ital.), which was the function of the festival and mystery play of Dionysos. The meditating mind is united, in the mystery play, not with the body that is shown to die [or former attitude of conscious, personal or cultural; my add.], but with the principle of continuous life that for a time inhabited it, and for that time was the reality clothed in the apparition (at once the sufferer and secret cause), the substratum into which our selves dissolve with the “tragedy that breaks man’s face” has split, shattered and dissolved our mortal frame.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, P. 26)

The Archetype of Dionysos thus acts as an “intermediary” time between one set of collective (or personal) values and another set of oncoming values. During this “middle” time, a great purge or catharsis of the former attitudes and values occurs in order to make way for the new ones. And in observing this time between, one observes not only the unity between prevailing cultural and personal values, but also the continuity of life beyond one’s necessarily limited and mortal perspective. Though one’s customs, attitudes, values, or body might fade in their mortal decrepitude, so does one observe that life itself will prevail and continue on–just as it did before, during, and will after one’s physical death (was this perhaps the great secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries?). One therefore celebrates “the universal life”, as Campbell puts it, in experiencing the Dionysian age and rites, and in one’s mortal and finite way, experiences the magnitude of life eternal beyond one’s mortal grasp. To really hit home this imagery, Jane Harrison espouses the role of Dionysos in the Eleusinian Mysteries through a brief explanation of a vase painting from the 4th century.


“The central figure is Demeter, crowned and sceptred, sitting on an altar-like throne. To the right is Kore with her torches. She turns towards Dionysos. He too is seated, as becomes a god, and he holds his thyrsos. He is seated, but on what a throne! He is seated on the omphalos [midriff of the world; my add.]. To the ancient mind no symbolism could speak more clearly; Dionysos is accepted at Eleusis; he has come from Delphi and brought his omphalos with him. We are apt to regard the omphalos as exclusively the property of Apollo, and it comes as something of a shock to see Dionysos seated quietly upon it. We have already (p. 319) seen that Apollo took it from Ge, took the ancient symbol of Mother Earth and made it his oracular throne; but at Delphi men knew that it had another and mystical content. It was the tomb of the dismembered Dionysos.” (Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Pp. 556-557).

What we see above is that Dionysos is, as written earlier, the symbol for unification of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum) par excellent. Not only does he offer the time between one prevailing set of attitudes and values and another (as katharsis or purification), but he, in of himself, carries the omphalos of the world with him, which contains his own dismembered corpse, and is usually associated with Apollo. This is a lot of symbolism expressing the same concept: the omphalos indicated the connection between the lower half of the body or world with the upper half; carrying one’s own dismembered corpse indicates the connection between immortality and mortality, or life and death, and the association with Apollo indicates the transition from the god of daylight, or the sun, high in the empyrean, through the twilight space of Dionysos, to the earthy and dark richness of Ge (Gaia=Earth). Dionysos, in all we see above, serves therefore as an archetype of the transition–between one time and another, life and death, heaven and earth, and mortality and immortality. And in of himself, as a god and archetype, he contains the principles of the coniunctio oppositorum, particularly linking life with its opposite, death.

Post Scriptum:

If one is so inclined to look, one even finds them same strange idea of the rejected or discarded item (or the rejected and dismembered god) which would come to great importance in the rather obscure works of Carl Jung. Here he quotes an obtuse passage from the Bibliotheca Chemica.

“Finally, there will appear in the work that ardently desired blue or cerulean colour, which does not darken or dull the eyes of the beholder by the healing power of its brilliance, as when we see the splendour of the outward sun. Rather does it sharpen and strengthen them, nor does he [Mercurius] slay a man with his glance like the basilisk, but by the shedding of his own blood he calls back those who are near to death, and restores to them unimpaired their former life[my italics], like the pelican.” (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, P.14)

And again, but in slightly clearer (but still highly obscure) form:

“But sometime he must set about the opus himself, for, as the alchemists emphasize, nobody else can do it for him. Like this apprentice, the modern man begins with an unseemly prima materia which presents itself in unexpected form–a contemptible fantasy [or this quote itself! my addition] which, like the stone that the builders rejected, is “flung into the street” and is so “cheap” that people do not even look at it[like this blog! my addition]. He will observe it from day to day and note its alterations until his eyes are opened or, as the alchemists say, until the fish’s  eyes, or the sparks, shine in the dark solution. For the eyes of the fish are always open and therefore must always see, which is why the alchemists used them as a symbol of perpetual attention. The light that gradually dawns on him consists in him understanding that his fantasy is a real psychic process which is happening to him personally. Although, to a certain extent, he looks on from outside, impartially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche.” (Ibid, 528-529).

Just as Dionysos suffers death and rebirth, so does a man and so does a culture metaphorically do so, and in so experiencing such suffering and decay–and then rebirth, so does a new attitude in one man come to be and a new cultural consciousness and awareness on a larger scale.

America and The Archetype of the Hero: Timeless or Timely?

We begin with a brief examination of the connection between man and man as a symbol for the sort of “universal process of nature”. As uncomfortable as it is to view man in such a way(as a symbol), especially when he is so capable of living as unnaturally as he pleases*, the fact remains that man, like any natural object or being, might serve as a symbol of that life-source, or energy, which apparently runs through all things, so long as it is part of a physical system. In the quote which follows, Carl Jung elucidates the connection between “solar” imagery and man, both experiencing increase and decline, both Apollinian and Dionysian.

“The finest of all symbols of the libido** is the human figure, conceived as a demon or a hero. Here the symbolism leaves the objective, material realm of astral and meteorological images and takes on human form, changing into a figure who passes from joy to sorrow, from sorrow to joy, and, like the sun, now stands high at the zenith and now is plunged into darkest night, only to rise again in new splendour[my italics]. Just as the sun, by its own motion and in accordance with its own law[my italics], climbs from morn till noon, crosses the meridian and goes its downward way towards evening, leaving its radiance behind it, and finally plunges into all-enveloping night, so man sets his course by unmutable laws, and his journey over, sinks into darkness, to rise again in his children and begin the cycle anew. The symbolic transition from sun to man is easily made…” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation, P. 171)

The hero, like the sun, experiences increase and decrease, lighting up the world, but still returning to darkness. The heights which he experiences are only matched by the depths which he must endure. Jung’s description of man and the sun as symbol  exemplify not man himself, but man as he “ought to be”, a man who experiences the richness and fullness of life–a man like a hero. For example, let us look to see how the description of Gilgamesh by Sin-leqi-Unninni in the prologue of the epic, Gilgamesh.

“He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions, from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision into the great mystery, the secret places, the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted but whole[my italics].” (Sin-Leqi-Unninni, Gilgamesh, P.69. Mitchell tr.)

One sees above an apt description not simply of Gilgamesh, but of heroes in general in the Western Mythological tradition. To provide a more expansive view, connecting Gilgamesh to all the West, Vernant below gives a concise account of what makes a hero.

“Supernatural birth, expulsion from the human world[my italics], abandonment of the infant in the space of that other world symbolized by the immensity of the sea, survival and return among men after going through the ordeal whose normal outcome would have been death: Perseus’ biography from the very outset, even before the career of his exploits begins, contains all the ingredients needed to give the young man his properly “heroic” dimension.” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals, P, 135)

First, Vernant adds the “otherworldly” or “divine” element of the hero (which Gilgamesh shares in being 2/3 divine), the survival of some impossible circumstance, like Herakles killing the two vipers as a child, and abandonment, like Philoctetes on Lemnos or Odysseus on Ogygia. There are several important aspects which unite the efforts of a hero and have him represent the “archetype of a hero”. The most important one, however, which perhaps creates the others, is that the hero appears out of time. Vernant continues.

“In literary tradition, the heroes are situated in a world and a period that are not quite that of Greece. They do not belong to the Iron Age. Above all, the heroes are a religious category that is both worship of the gods and funerary cults, and they can only be conceived of within the framework of civic religion.” (Ibid, 279)

In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Kronos first creates the race of Gold, and then after they pass away and become spirits of the earth, Zeus creates the race of silver, and then bronze, and then somewhere between bronze and the next men of iron, the heroes arise–without metal. Perhaps it is the case that they are not given a metal, because as Vernant suggests, they are necessarily men out of time, not in line with the manner of being or prevailing consciousness of their time. Is the hero then an archetype of transition indicating the change from one age to another– and if such an archetype were now constellated (activated or charged) in America, how would it look? Especially if one looks closely at Hesiod’s own description of these men do they appear all the odder:

“But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven- gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, 156-169. H.G. White tr. Extracted from here.)

Not only is it the case that this is the first and only race of men who are “nobler” than the race before, but those who survive the great wars in Thebes and Troy (and their returns home) are given over to the isles of the blessed (much like the Elves, Frodo, et alia in Tolkien’s Return of the King), and interestingly, Kronos is freed from Tartarus and made ruler of these men. This seems odd: for one, Kronos is the god who first created the race of gold, the greatest race of mortal men, so these heroes are in their way equated with the mightiest most beloved men by the gods–who died as if “overcome by sleep”. But the race of men is also called theion, or god-like, and clearly, they are mortal, so they do not reflect the gods in being deathless (until taken to isle of the blessed), and as they endured war, it was also the case that they did endure suffering and sorrow while on earth, unlike the gods. What then was it that made them god-like?

The question above is answered by the fact that Kronos is placed above the men as their ruler. Kronos was overthrown precisely because he had become the “old-tired” dominant of the collective consciousness which results in the “zest–libido–[going] out of life”. If Kronos, though, was a deposed and fallen form of the “Old-King” or “outdated form of cultural consciousness”, why would he be placed above these men out of time? Precisely for this reason. Because the semi-divine (hemitheion) men partook of both divinity and humanity, mortality and immortality, so must their lives and places in history be duplex. On the one hand, they endure suffering in the world, and on the other they endure no suffering on the Isle of the blessed. They live for a finite amount of time as men in the world, and then forever after “live” as the ageless gods do on the blessed isle, remembered for all time in poetry and as a result of their distinct funerary rites which effectively apotheosize them.***But does this at all answer why Kronos is placed above them as ruler? We turn to Richard Tarnas who explains that Kronos represents, in his Saturnine aspect, a ruler not simply for a time, but himself “out of time” as well. He says that the following qualities are represented by Kronos/Saturn:

“…to experience difficulty, decline, deprivation, defect and deficit, defeat, failure, loss, alienation; the labor of existence, suffering, old age, death; the weight of the past, the workings of fate, character, karma, the consequences of past action, error and guilt, punishment, retribution, imprisonment…” (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, P. 91)

It is precisely because Kronos, in fighting against his own fate to be superceded by one of his own children, after himself usurping the throne of his father Uranus, has experienced both rising and declining in the celestial sphere that he is an apt ruler for those men who have also experienced the fullness and two-sided nature of life. Kronos rules because he has been both king and prisoner, upstart son and cast down ruler. He, more than any Titan or Olympian (Prometheus would be close), is a fitting ruler for those who know the duality of human existence, heroes, because he, even as a god, experienced such dualities of increase and decline himself. In experiencing both the temporal and changing, and in experiencing the timeless and immortal, both Kronos and the hero exist outside of time and place, together united in a place all their own.

It is all well and good that the hero might achieve his proper place amongst his fellows and ruled by an appropriately like-minded deity, but the question remains, if the hero is an archetype of transition and of change, how does it help current society, America, if he simply leaves the world and exists on the isles of the blessed? Is not the purpose of the Hero Archetype practical in nature–affecting and joining one time to the next by disposing of the tired and old dominant of the collective consciousness? Joseph Campbell provides us with the necessary context to answer this practical and timely question.

The return and reintegration with society, which is indispensable to the continuous circulation of spiritual energy into the world, and which, from the standpoint of the community, is the justification of the long retreat, the hero himself may find the most difficult requirement of all. For if he has won through, like the Buddha, to the profound repose of complete enlightenment, there is danger that the bliss of this experience may annihilate all recollection of, interest in, or hope for, the sorrows of the world; or else the problem of making known the way of illumination to people wrapped in economic problems may seem too great to solve.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pp. 36-37)

The hero must not only embody the qualities which Vernant discussed above (survival of situations which might lead others to death, expulsion from the world, abandonment), but he must also come back, and even when he does, like Plato’s mysterious person who escapes his chains in the cave, he or she may be castigated, punished, or flat-out ignored. If the hero then represents the archetype which rejuvenates and reconnects a culture with its roots, values, and meaning, even then he may suffer violence or “he may meet with such a blank misunderstanding and disregard from those whom he has come to help that his career may collapse.” (Ibid, P. 37). How, then, does the hero accomplish the task which both establishes him as a hero and frees a culture from the tyranny of its “old-king”? Carl Jung attempts an answer by elucidating the fact that a man, if he is to be a hero, must endure the coincidentia oppositorum, or that the apparent opposites of life: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, useful and useless, et alia must not be sided with and therefore lose their energic tension but endured as parts and poles along the same energic spectrum or whole.

“But if a man faced with a conflict of duties undertakes to deal with them absolutely on his own responsibility, and before a judge who sits in judgment on him day and night, he may well find himself in an isolated position. There is now an authentic secret in his life which cannot be discussed–if only because he is involved in an endless inner trial in which he is his own counsel and ruthless examiner, and no secular or spiritual judge can restore his easy sleep. If he were not already sick to death of the decisions of such judges, he would never have found himself in a conflict. For such a conflict always presupposes a higher sense of responsibility. It is this very quality which keeps its possessor from accepting the decision of a collectivity. In his case the court is transposed to the inner world where the verdict is pronounced behind closed doors.”

“Once this happens, the psyche of the individual acquires heightened importance. It is not only the seat of his well-known and socially defined ego; it is also the instrument for measuring what it is worth in and for itself. Nothing so promotes the growth of consciousness as this inner confrontation of opposites[my italics].” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, P. 345)

Therefore, if a man or a woman is capable of enduring the presence and existence of these opposites, and not simply siding with one aspect of his or her nature: goodness, economic value, rationalism, then is society bettered by his or her heightened consciousness–then is he or she representing the archetype of the hero–and society continues to be bettered by more and more individuals enduring the coincidentia–more than any social or political reform could ever hope to offer.

So, for life to re-enter society and one’s self, one must simply remove the impediments which prevent the free-flow of energy, so as in physics, so as in the psyche:

“Life, being an energic process, needs the opposites, for without opposition there is, as we know, no energy. Good and evil and simply the moral aspects of this natural polarity. The fact that we have to feel this polarity so excruciatingly makes human existence all the more complicated. Yet the suffering that necessarily attaches to life cannot be evaded. The tension of opposites that makes energy possible is a universal law, fittingly expressed in the yang and yin of Chinese philosophy…” (Jung, Psychology and Religion, P. 197)

*”But man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of Nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.” (H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, Ch. 5)

**Libido simply means “energy” for Jung, not sexual energy like for Freud.

***”The monumental work of Erwin Rohde remains one of the most eloquent sources for our understanding the heros ‘hero’ as a very old and distinct concept of traditional Greek religion, requiring cult practices which were also distinct from those of the gods[my italics].” (Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, Pp. 114-115)

How is Mythology Created?

“The hero is the one who, while still alive, knows and represents the claims of the superconsciousness which throughout creation is more or less unconscious. The adventure of the hero represents the moments in his life when he achieved illumination–the nuclear moment when, while still alive, he found and opened the road to the light beyond the dark walls of our living death.” (Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces P. 259)

Although Joseph Campbell is a bit impermissively cavalier with his assertion that a hero attains illumination, or divine insight into his own deeds, one might more frugally admit that it is the hero that lives out an illuminated moment in time where the unconscious will or spirit of a people is embodied through some great deed of his. The hero therefore lives out some greater purpose–without as Campbell suggests–necessarily understanding it, though he undoubtedly senses that he is living in and through some great moment.

For example, when Odysseus killed the suitors in Ithaka upon returning home, he did so with both the assistance and direction of Athene. Now, does this give Odysseus some greater insight into the way of things, or “illumination”? No, it simply shows that he is a “favorite” or “chosen” person of Athene–because of his endurance and desire “always to seek after his own advantage”, and his ability “always to keep his head” in any difficult situation. And though he does gain insight and recognition of the “way of the world”, it would be a stretch to suggest that his action enlightens him or illuminates him about the nature of the gods. Therefore, Odysseus, as a hero who performs a culture defining action, does so by his own will and due to his virtuous attributes and the love of a goddess, but not because he is illuminated as to the will of the gods. What makes him a hero is that he brings about the potential for illumination for others through his deeds, not personal illumination for himself.

As we wrote yesterday, it is not simply the hero, but also the artist, author, or thinker who could bring forth an epoch-defining piece of work called “mythology”. Campbell, again, overstates the position of the author in this case:

“But if we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources–the unconscious wells of fantasy–and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns are consciously controlled(my italics). And their understood function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the world nor unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy.” (Ibid P. 256)

This is a tricky spot for Campbell, for he is asserting that though a myth comes from the depths of the creative unconscious that its expression is consciously chosen and asserted by a discerning and potentially “illuminated” shaman or thinker. Given that Campbell’s source for notions of mythology coming from the unconscious was Carl Jung, the psychologist, let us see whether their words and thoughts on the source of mythology agree.

“A psychological reading of the dominant archetypal images reveals a continuous series of psychological transformations, depicting the autonomous life of archetypes behind the scenes of consciousness. This hypothesis has been worked out to clarify and make comprehensible our religious history.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1686, P. 742)

Though there is agreement on the fact that mythology as “dominant archetypal images” can enact transformations of a psychological and therefore cultural sort, there is not consensus on whether the author has conscious control of these changes. In fact, what is controlled may be the exact manner, wording, or expression of the action or artistic-object, but the content of the story, piece of art, or action are created first in the unconscious, not in the conscious mind of the actor or author. In fact, against Campbell’s theory, the artist or actor is far more the vessel or tool of the unconscious myth than he or she is the interpreter or greatest understander of it at all. For further information on the relationship between the artist and his work, particularly a work of mythological and cultural importance, let us turn to the psychologist and polemicist Friedrich Nietzsche:

“In a case like Wagner’s, which is in many ways an embarrassing one, although the example is typical, my opinion is that it’s certainly best to separate an artist far enough from his work, so that one does not take him with the same seriousness as one does his work. In the final analysis, he is only the precondition of his work, its maternal womb, the soil, or in some cases, the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows—and thus, in most cases, something that we must forget about, if we want to enjoy the work itself.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals,  3rd essay, Ch. 4

As polemical as Nietzsche can be, his point about the relationship between the artist and his work is valid: the process of interpreting one’s art or action is a different one from producing it, precisely because living out or producing a great work of art, or action, does not necessitate understanding its cultural importance or significance. In fact, this would be tremendously difficult if not impossible while still living “in the moment” that such an event was created or occurred, without the context of the future to show its true place. This is what Nietzsche meant when he called the artist the “precondition”, “womb”, or “soil” of his work; that though the work is grown within and born from an artist or actor, it does not truly belong to him, nor was its form created by him, though he was the “soil” in which the product grew. For a preeminent description and further evidence of the existence of such a process, we must look to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno:

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to say that wood was, so savage and harsh and strong that the thought of it renews my fear! It is so bitter that death is little more so! But to treat of the good that I found there, I will tell of the other things I saw.” (Dante, Inferno Canto I 1-7, Durling tr.)

Observe the passive imagery, “I will tell of the other things I saw,” and especially the fact that the pilgrim does not insist that he created his image, but rather that he simply perceived it and is not recollecting it for us. Dante’s narrative continues in that vein.

“I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way.” (Ibid lns 10-12)

Again, Dante insists on unconscious and passive imagery: “I cannot really say how I entered there.”; “so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way.” This is not the language of a conscious and discerning person actively choosing at each moment how to construct this myth. No, though the language may be his own, the experience was autonomous, or self-creating within him, and he was but the steward or “soil” who recorded and conveyed it by the page. In fact, if one simply turns to Canto II of Dante’s Inferno, one sees him explicitly agree with this fact by crediting the muses, or the unconscious, for the story he is to tell: “O muses, O high wit, now help me; O memory that wrote down what I saw, here will your nobility appear.” (Ibid Canto II lns. 7-9). Not only does Dante credit the imaginative or creative unconscious with bringing him to the place in the road where the story begins, but he even credits the muses, or the unconscious, with helping him find expression of the tale. Though, of course, he is consciously linking himself to Virgil and his Aeneid, it is just as clear that the story, its words, and its impact expressed itself through Dante.

Before concluding, let us briefly return to Campbell, and see whether he maintains himself in error:

“The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries–even milleniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they actually touch and bring into play the vital energies of the psyche[my italics].” (Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces P. 256-257)

Campbell has hit upon the utter value and power of myth: that it brings forth and springs from the vital and latent energies of the human spirit–that in accessing, living, and bringing forth a myth–a human essentially lives out his and his times’ vocation, for the myth is not consciously created so much as it is vitally lived or received. In this, Campbell is an enormous help to understanding the power, meaning, and proper function of myth. It is in the quote which follows which he unconsciously attempts to lead us astray.

“Until the most recent decades, [myths] were the support of all human life and the inspiration of philosophy, poetry, and the arts. Where the inherited symbols have been touched by Lao-tse, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, or Mohammed–employed by a consummate master of the spirit as a vehicle of the profoundest moral and metaphysical instruction–obviously we are in the presence rather of immense consciousness than of darkness.” (Ibid. P. 257)

Campbell’s error, as stated above, lies not in his perception of the function of myth nor in his choice of the “masters” through which myth is received. It is, however, his understanding that the consciousness of the recipient “adds to” or creates the myth rather than the fact that it is the receptivity of the master, or the consciousness, which allows the myth to speak through him. Therefore, it is not at all the size of one’s consciousness which makes one capable of living out a myth, but one’s receptivity which allows one’s self to be expanded by the transformational aspects of myth. So when Campbell says the following, we will understand him to be speculating in the service, perhaps, of his own personal attempt at a theory about myth rather than correctly expounding the facts about the creation of myth, which is our goal:

“And so, to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles [my italics], which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself.” (Ibid. P. 257)

Now, although Campbell is correct that myths exhibit, form, and are the result of “certain spiritual principles” and that many of the values, teachings, and characteristics of myths are constant throughout space and time, it is simply impermissible for him to say that these values and myths are “controlled and intended” statements as if the authors of them tailored and created the myths to fit the world. Such a thought is just as inflated and misguided as assuming that an athlete has created his own physique; though the athlete may slightly augment and improve what nature has given to him for his sport, he may not substantially alter or create for himself a new physical body suitable to his own needs. Such is the case with the authors above as well. Though they might slightly tailor and trim the myths to suit their time, style, and ability, they do not create, but rather receive, the material which they have presented in their various living myths.

In conclusion, Campbell will help us to see, without error this time, the ultimate source and purpose of myths:

“Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world–all things and beings–are the effects of a ubiquitous power (the unconscious(my addition and italics) out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.” (Ibid. P. 257)

The ultimate well-spring of myth is the creative unconscious, and from it every myth arises which invigorates, unites, and informs a people. Though the expression may differ in word, action, or consequence, the ultimate source of every myth is the same. And in finding or receiving the myth which unifies and gives meaning to a person or people today, one need only, as Dante has written, “come to one’s self in a dark wood.”

Is There an American Mythology?

This last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing an esteemed and wizened professor make the bold assertion that we in America live in a myth-less society today. What he meant was that unlike the Ancient Greeks with their mysteries and rich epic heritage, the Romans and their destiny of world-conquest, the Teutons and their war-loving gods, et alia…that we Westerners, and Americans, must settle for platitudinous and calcified forms of thoughts in the form of “-isms”, doctrinaire and schismatic systems of faith, and for lived-out and discarded notions like manifest destiny and the quickly dwindling American Dream. Several questions thus arise: (1) What is a living mythology? (2) Does America and the West have a living mythology? and (3) What is the process for developing or discerning a living mythology?

The esteemed professor first suggested an erroneous etymology for the study of economics which he correctly linked to the Greek term oikos but incorrectly defined as “rule of the home”. The term oikos means “home” or “household” in the Greek and nomos means “the rule of or law”–therefore oikos+nomos=”the rule of the home”. Etymology aside, his suggestion was that America has lost connection to its living spirit and instead that America is ruled by inert economic considerations–something like Oscar Wilde’s miser who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. If one needs evidence of just how concerned Americans are with “the American Dream” or “economic mobility” one need only access the great oracle, Google, and one can see for one’s self countless articles from countless sources on the issue. One also observes in the articles above that the consensus omnium is that these various myths and dreams have failed. Is this perhaps because true myths are always bound to fail? Let us consider what a “real” or “living” myth then is and how it differs from a false myth, doomed to fail.

Naturally, America and the West in general has access to the roots of its myths in many, many forms. One need only look to our broad collections of Homer, Hesiod, Statius, Nonnus, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Spencer, et alia to see that myths are very much still present in the literature and cultural dialog of our people. But what exactly is the difference between the myths which have informed and shaped our culture and a living myth which continues to define and give meaning to the lives of American people, especially if the economic myth is dead or dying? We turn first to the eminent psychologist and student of mythology, Carl Jung, and his massive tome The Symbolic Life for a brief exposition of what a “living myth” is: “A myth remains a myth even if certain people believe it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth, but it becomes moribund if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of belief. It is therefore necessary to renew its life from time to time through a new interpretation.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1665, P. 736). He again attempts a description of the “living myth” in his work Psychology and Religion in paragraph 451: “But whereas mythological figures appear as pale phantoms and relics of a long past life that has become strange to us, the religious statement represents an immediate “numinous” experience. It is a living mythologem.” (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion CW 11 Par. 450, p. 300). Two immediate aspects of Jung’s descriptions jump out at us. In his first description of a living myth, he suggests that in order to “renew its life” it requires a new interpretation. And in his second description, he suggests that a living mythologem gives one a “numinous” experience, which means a spiritual, moving, or transformational experience. So, with these descriptions we will define a living myth as: “an expansive, motivating and transformational story which informs, guides, and provides meaning for the life of a person or people.”

With the definition above, the first thing which becomes immediately clear is that though America has access to many, many myths (viz above: Homer, Statius, Virgil, Dante, Milton), that few if any of them have an expansive impact on Americans, and in fact, many of the “old” myths are reserved for more of a scholastic readership, even though many are easily accessible to any person. The other more difficult aspect of the definition above, however, is that few if any of the stories throughout time might be considered “transformational” to a contemporary American audience. Though, for instance, the story of Odysseus might well establish a firm expectation in a reader that greatness and eternal glory requires endless strife and divine endurance, it is unclear that the story might affect the character, attitude, and spirit of the reader. And even if the Odyssey does impact a person in that way, does that make the Ancient Greek myth a living myth for Americans? We must return to Jung’s first description and its notion of a “new interpretation” to answer this question.

Clearly, it would be nationalistic and chauvinistic to assert that the living myth of a people would have to come from that people and not that people’s ancestors. However, not to observe national differences in character, temperament, and civilization between the archaic Greek nation-states and the contemporary America would seem criminally unobservant. So, is it then the case that these old stories, these myths–potentially inert for years–could be resurrected by a new interpretation of their content and the meaning of their content? In theory, yes, but the question quickly becomes: is a new interpretation of an older and less familiar myth the way to a new living myth or is the creation of a new myth, possibly informed by those of the past, an even stronger guarantee of new transformational American myth? Let us consider how this might work.

The first question that arises for how to “create a new living myth” is this: Will America’s myth be an artistic creation (movie, book, poem) or lived out in the life of some great man or woman? What this question is asking is whether America requires a written or oral myth, like Homer’s Odyssey, or more like the Life of Alexander, as reported by Plutarch, some great American must live and embody a myth, though it may not yet have solid or concrete form. As profound as this question is, the general difficulty of it exists in the same mode for either option: the myth must be indefinite and exist more as a potential story or path in the mind and soul of the person who is to write or live it out. What this means is that there will not be a clear line demarcating the path on which the author of the great work (opus) or action takes.

On either path, he or she will essentially be working in the dark. For though there are various luminous deeds, texts, and masterpieces scattered throughout history, the defining feature of each seems to be that there is something utterly unique and expressive mixed with the mundane aspects of the day. Or rather, there is the stamp of a particular and temporally bound culture mixed with some universal and eternal element. Such a notion is irreducible, and as such defies simple formulation. And even though that makes attainment of such a noble goal (the noblest goal?) so difficult that for most it would be impossible, it adds the highest possible value to the endeavor as well.

In conclusion, America seems to be dealing with a worn-out, tired, and unworthy mythology of an economic nature which it will soon cast aside. Because of this, there is no operating mythology governing and unifying its people, but like a phoenix, the opportunity now exists for a more honest, motivating, and expansive–a living–mythology to be born through a person or people through great and noble actions, if one will simply rise from the ashes and make one’s contribution to eternity.