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On the Hero
The descent of the Divine
This post forms part of an ongoing series. Please click here to access the rest of the series
This article draws on Erich Neumann’s work to expand on the third vision I experienced in December 2020. Neumann describes the evolution of consciousness in his work, The Origins and History of Consciousness. He draws on mythology to show how our development is shaped through exposure to these primordial images, which manifest in our dreams and motivations.
He also draws on comparative mythology across cultures, showing how our consciousness has evolved in tandem with these mythical stories over time. He theorizes that our conscious growth as a human recapitulates the same growth shown through these mythical stories, from the ancient dependence on nature and Mother we experience in our childhood, to the myths of individual destiny we are familiar with in modern religion. And indeed he indicates this process is cyclical, for as humans we are constantly birthing new seeds of potential into conscious awareness throughout our lives.
Neumann indicates that the conscious process is described through two types of myths. The first we have already touched on through the first two visions, which concerns the birth of consciousness through the creation myth. This vision will be concerned with the maturity of consciousness through the hero myth.
Neumann describes how our human potential is already contained within us as seeds of consciousness. This ‘potential’ state of being is described mythologically as the Ouroboros or the Divine Egg, both symbols of original perfection that are represented as a darkness that contains all opposites. It is in the process of bringing this potential to realization that the opposites start to take form, creating the distinction between subject and object that defines consciousness. ‘Let there be light’ from the first verse in Genesis points to this birth of consciousness, as distinct from the ‘earth without form and void, and darkness .. upon the face of the deep’.
Consciousness is birthed as the light within this ‘earth without form’, similar to an embyro within a womb. The Earth, the bearer of this womb can be considered alike to a Mother Goddess. The Mother is at first experienced as all-encompassing and overwhelming to the young seed of consciousness. Against the vast natural processes of life and vegetation that births our being, our ego is still akin to an infant, remaining initially small and dependent.
The growth of our conscious being that this vision is concerned with, from dependence to conscious mastery, is summarized in the hero myth and proceeds in a number of stages. At the danger of being highly reductive, I’ll summarize the initial stages of the hero into two states of being, the youth and the adolescent. The youth is in a dependent, passive relationship to the Mother, the adolescent takes a position of active defiance against her. While these stages mirror our human development, they also reflect traditional understanding of our place in the world, as suggested by myths from ancient cultures.
The youth is deeply dependent on the Mother, having no agency to assert his will on the world. Ancient myths reflect this through emphasizing harmonious relationship to Nature, and ensuring the gods are appeased. This view is reflected for example through the fertility rites of May Day and Midsummer celebrations. The mythological meaning of these rites indicate the youth must sacrifice the phallus, his creative principle, to ensure fertility and regeneration. In certain scenarios, this sacrifice would be literal, perhaps through animal or even human offerings. This indicates a self understanding completely dependent on the whims of Fate. It reflects a latent fear of the Terrible Mother, or the Goddess of Death, for it is from her womb that all life proceeds and all life meets its final end. It reflects an individuality swallowed up by an uncaring Mother who values him only for fertility.
Whereas the youth is always aligned to the Mother, the adolescent defies the Mother. This attitude is best reflected in the classic tragedies of Ancient Greece. As the culture that birthed rationality, these stories reflect the first assertion of humanity’s independence from Fate. However the tragedies reflect Greek anxiety around this defiance of the divine, meaning the tragic endings reflect the same latent fear of death. Despite the adolescent’s heroic stance, his phallus is again sacrificed to the womb of the Mother through his death. In the end it becomes clear the hero cannot assert his will and escape his fate after all.
However it is the victory over the Mother that this vision is concerned with. The initiate no longer relinquishes his identity as he does in youth. Nor does he meet a tragic end in attempting to assert his will. Rather than sacrificing his phallus, his creative principle out of fear of death, the initiate resolves to travel into the darkness and meet his fate head on. His sacrifice is no longer passive, but done with active intention, as he heads into the womb of the Mother, or the underworld to see what he’ll find.
Standing on a precipice
A pure white light radiates below
Dive straight downwards
Into a chasm
Of indistinguishable blankness
Some distance down I stop falling
And I float amidst the heaven
Luxuriating in a white light
The light submerges me
And I take on the appearance of an Egyptian God
The previous vision concerned the youth and adolescent stages of the initiate. The vision concluded with the Anima’s advice in the garden to head into the darkness of the Forest, in order to find the ‘song of the heart’.
This passage touches on the start of the journey, as the initiate descends the mountain towards the Forest below, and the underworld at the heart of it. This is a deliberate decision on the part of the initiate, representing the active sacrifice mentioned earlier to meet his fate head on.
However in making this decision, the initiate makes contact with a heavenly presence, indicating help has arrived. This theme is touched on repeatedly through the mythical stories, that Death cannot be defeated through one’s mortal nature, contact must be made with the divine in order to make it out alive. In the myth of Perseus for example, Athena provides him with a mirror shield through which to decapitate the Medusa. Such is the fearsome power of the Mother that to look upon her directly is to risk certain death and being turned to stone.
Overall, the descent of the divine serves to indicate the initiate’s ego is no longer tied solely to the phallus. A second center, the ruby from the second vision, is becoming active as the ‘higher phallus’ or ‘higher masculinity’. We’ll come to find this center is what will live on after the initiate sacrifices his mortal being to the Mother. However it is also evident that this integration with Heaven is not immediate, and it’s only once this integration is complete that the initiate will enter the underworld itself.
Real life parallel
The divine descent from the vision was experienced lying in bed one morning, as a mighty wave of energy engulfing my being. And rather than feeling subject to an overwhelming force, it felt more like the activation of some divine power. I lay there for well over an hour until the experience subsided, and I felt I could move again. As this happened, I had this vague intuition that it was the Egyptian deity, Ptah that had united with my being, a detail I’ll touch on in the next article. All this despite the fact I had never heard of this entity before, and almost immediately forgot I’d had this thought until months later.
I was stunned but optimistic about what the experience could mean. However this optimism would soon sour. I was left feeling on edge and irritable for months. It was like a fire had awakened within my being, but I was unable to accept it nor understand it, and so it felt instead that it was myself on fire. As a result, I was a terror to be around and suffered frequent mood swings during this period.
Neumann labels this experience as ‘castration anxiety’, being the lingering fear of losing one’s phallus to the Terrible Mother. It’s a fear that is liable to intensify the closer one comes to the underworld, preventing complete identity with one’s divine nature. Neumann indicates it’s only once this identity has taken place that one can safely enter the underworld.
This anxiety surfaced an interesting theme. A common allegory for the initiate who refuses his divine inheritance is that he is an impotent cripple. This is reflected in the story of the Fisher King, and also through the various myths of the demiurge such as Hephaestus. In keeping with this theme, I would come to experience debilitating back pain in the few months immediately after the divine descent. The psychologist John Sarno theorises this pain originates from our unconscious. When we have emotional content we would rather not deal with - such as the acceptance of a divine inheritance - our unconscious distracts us with physical pain instead.
I also had several dreams as a blind cripple. My family hovered over me like helicopters, fretting over my every movement as I descended into the dark cellar of our home. Under the advice of my family, I took the stairs slowly, gingerly holding onto the guardrails. Everything had to feel sanitized, it had to feel secure as I headed downwards into the unknown. Though blind, I recall the visceral feeling of being immersed in a cocoon as I entered the cellar. And as I emerged from the earth, reborn in the backyard of my home, I felt no triumph or elation. Instead a panic welled up within me, as my family streamed towards me, deathly scared of what had happened to me while I was gone.
Despite commencing the descent down the mountain, and the arrival of Divine assistance, it’s clear now I was still operating under fear of death and the Terrible Mother. The victory would only eventuate once I’d decided to unreservedly move into the darkness, and accept my divine inheritance. What this means, and what it entails will be expanded upon further in the next article.
For further reading on the ideas discussed in this article, Neumann touches on the youth stage in his book Origins and History of Consciousness on pg 53-54. He touches on the adolescent stage in pg 89-91. He further expands on the different types of sacrifice mentioned in this article on pg 54-58, and pg 154-156. For further reading on the classic tragedies referred to in this article, you can refer to the myths of Narcissus, Pentheus and Hippolytus.
Texts referenced in this series
Alan Chapman (2019), Magia. Barbarous Words
C.G. Jung (2009), The Red Book, A Reader’s Edition. Philemon Foundation
C.G. Jung (1980), Psychology and Alchemy, 2nd Ed. Taylor and Francis
C.G. Jung (1991), Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Taylor and Francis
Erich Neumann (1955), The Great Mother. Bollingen Foundation
Erich Neumann (1954), The Origins and History of Consciousness, Bollingen Foundation
Peter Kingsley (2018), Catafalque, Catafalque Press
Joseph Campbell (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library
Henry Corbin (1998), Alone with the Alone, Princeton University Press
Wim v.d. Dungen. Book of the Hidden Chamber. Retrieved from https://sofiatopia.org/maat/hidden_chamber03.htm