A passage by Dr. Carl Jung regarding the role that mythology plays in the identities of societies and individuals:
The primitive mentality does not invent myths, it experiences them.
Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes.
Such allegories would be an idle amusement for an unscientific intellect. Myths, on the contrary, have a vital meaning.
Not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul.
A tribe’s mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe. But religion is a vital link with psychic processes independent of and beyond consciousness, in the dark hinterland of the psyche.
Many of these unconscious processes may be indirectly occasioned by consciousness, but never by conscious choice. Others appear to arise spontaneously, that is to say, from no discernible or demonstrable conscious cause.”
We are increasingly inundated in Western culture with corporate and profit-driven forms of entertainment, a seemingly never-ending cacophony of hollow or trite productions who’s underlying objective is driving the company bottom line. All of this highly produced, artificial noise, however, lies upon a foundation of something we all have in common as a species: story-telling.
We are story-tellers and have been since perhaps even before the advent of written language. But why? Stories, especially those of a mythic nature, speak to us at a deeper level than even the intellect. They connect with us at an archetypal level, allowing us to experience emotions, feelings and ideas that are not merely common to all humanity, but to our transcendent consciousness – what some would call the soul.
As such, mythologies and stories need not be literally true for them to have power and significance for us. Whatever the archeological record that may exist for Jesus, what matters is the story. Jesus’ story embodies and puts into focus the need to live out of empathy, love and compassion; his story underscores the need to live in a consciousness of the heart and soul, eschewing the desire for power, control and domination. The story has power!
Before literacy became more commonplace, the character and identity of a culture, people and society was often passed down through spoken stories and myths. Myths nourish not just the mind but are the language of our very souls, and for this reason – among so many others – we need them!
The wonderful author Helen Luke used her encyclopedic knowledge of great literature and Jungian psychology to share some of the collective wisdom of human story-telling. In her analysis of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in her book “Old Age: Journey into Simplicity,” she shows in a powerful way how Prospero’s devotion to something beyond himself – his daughter Miranda – is what would save him. By sharing the genius of Shakespeare, she was able to demonstrate this kernel of wisdom not in dry, academic terminology but in the rich, soulful words of perhaps the greatest story-teller in Western history.
We need stories like this! We could talk about the dangers of hubris, arrogance and pride in a formal debate setting, or we could watch as Odysseus, the “sacker of cities” and the great, conquering hero of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, loses the lives of his crew as he arrogantly and carelessly blinds and taunts the giant Cyclops Polyphemous. Because of his massively inflated ego, his crew dies and he spends 10 years trying to return home. Through the telling of this story, we can feel what he felt, we come to understand at an intuitive level the dangers of acting out of excessive pride and deception.
Or consider the meaning of honor and loyalty. How? We can again debate their meanings, or we can share the story of Achilles and the Trojan War, again in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. To the ancient Greeks, glory was one of the greatest rewards for valor and loyalty, especially in battle; none knew this better, perhaps, than the greatest of all Greek warriors, Achilles. When, however, his king, Agamemnon, summoned him to fight in the Trojan War, Achilles refused. The king sends his emissary, Odysseus, to persuade him, promising him riches and the chance to die a hero in the glory of battle.
Achilles again refuses, for the king had dishonored and enraged him by taking from him his beloved Briseis. Achilles’ refusal to fight for a dishonorable king demonstrates that true honor is something far greater than glory; it underscores the need to understand the distinction between honor and reputation. Achilles does eventually return to the battle – completely changing the fortunes for the Greeks – only, however, out of loyalty and to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus.
Great stories like those found in the great mythologies of humanity, from the Iliad and Odyssey to the Bible to the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, and to countless others, speak to our souls.
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep”
– William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake (1956)
– Dr. Jaime G. Corvalan, MD, FACS
The great English poet William Blake was truly a visionary, and understood at an intuitive level ideas that challenge us even today. He bridged the traditions of East and West, and even constructed a mythology all his own, drawing from both mystical heritages. In Blake’s mythology, Ulro is the land of the manifest, of time and space; it is the world of duality in which we all live, but it is fraught with illusion. Ulro, it may be said, is the equivalent of “Samsara” in Buddhist tradition, the land of illusion that creates pain and suffering, due to our illusory attachments; it could also be compared to Parsifal’s Journey (in the Arthurian legends) through the Waste Land.
Blake’s admonition to “keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep” refers, I think, to those who live in this realm of Ulro, a level of low consciousness, who are consumed in a single-minded way with control, power and domination (the hallmarks of the general consciousness of our age). Blake opposed the Newtonian view of a mechanical, unfeeling, dreary universe, as well as those who would seek to drown out the voices of subtly, compassion and wisdom. This is a vision cut off from Nature and from the Soul, and is one we should strive to transcend.
The requirements for our evolution have changed. Survival is no longer sufficient. Our evolution now requires us to develop spiritually – to become emotionally aware and make responsible choices. It requires us to align ourselves with the values of the soul – harmony, cooperation, sharing, and reverence for life.”
– Gary Zukav
– Dr. Jaime G. Corvalan, MD, FACS
In ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius was known as the God of Medicine. Removed from the womb of his dead mother by his father, Apollo (in what could be called the first Caesarian section), Asclepius was raised and tutored by the wise centaur Chiron who taught him the art of healing. Asclepius excelled in his studies and became a doctor and surgeon of unparalleled skill, not merely healing the sick but eventually mastering the ability to raise the dead!
This, however, raised the ire of Zeus, to whom his brother Hades complained as so few individuals were entering the underworld after death. In addition, many of the enemies struck down by Zeus’ thunderbolts returned to life, to his distinct consternation. Zeus therefore struck Asclepius down, fearing his growing power, and set forth the dictum that despite the ingenuity, genius and creativity of humanity in the practice of the medical arts, we would nevertheless be subject to mortality and death.
I find this myth to be quite illuminating when it comes to the practice of medicine. Certainly, Hippocrates, known as the Father of Western Medicine, understood this law of nature – and the meaning of this powerful myth. Medicine was about healing the body, mind and soul – not trying to compete with the gods in a vain effort to live forever.
The body, the palette of the medical arts, as it were, is truly a product of the soul. The soul is the organizing principle that gives rise to the physical manifestation we call the body. So, to promote good health and well-being, it is necessary to treat the whole person, mind, body and soul.
This philosophy forms the foundation of what I call “Feeling Centered Medicine,” which is, in fact, how I refer to my own medical practice. Feeling Centered Medicine (FCM) sees that the traditional Western model of viewing the body like a machine is a poor, outdated approach, for it drains from medicine – and from the very patients we serve – the art and divinity at its core.
A key to FCM – and, really, anything you may undertake in life – is to operate from the heart, out of compassion and love. The first thing that I tell any of my team, when they join my practice, is that we don’t work for money. We must have gratitude for this journey we’re on, and we allow our souls to manifest their joy, their gifts, through grateful service to others.
It has always been my philosophy that we don’t fix people – we seek to heal the whole person. We treat every person with the dignity deserving of the beautiful souls that we all truly are. We listen and pay careful attention to everything that a patient shares with us, and we treat them with reverence and respect. People’s pain is almost always a manifestation of something greater and deeper in their lives, something affecting not just the body but the mind and soul as well.
Feeling Centered Medicine is based upon a foundation of compassion (a word meaning “to suffer together”). In FCM, we seek to elicit from people what they feel, not merely what they think (this has its basis in the field of NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming, created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder). Through a blend of empathy and compassion with the best tools and practices of modern medicine, we are able to explore what a patient’s feelings are presenting to us, and we are able to work to heal the total person, mind, body and soul.
As you are reading this, for a second, just turn your attention to who is reading. In that split second of shifting awareness, what you feel is a presence, don’t you? As you are reading, you become aware of who is reading. Well, that presence is your soul. It’s not your mind that might be saying, “Oh, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee.” There is a presence, and that presence is in the on/off of your thoughts: there is a thought flickering on and off and in that off there is a presence.”
Consciousness, it may be said, is all that there is – it is life, it is the essence of the universe, yet it simultaneously transcends both of these phenomena. This is the perplexing yet miraculous beauty of transcendent consciousness; however, it has often been misunderstood – and confused – with the concept of “awareness.”
Western civilization, over the last few hundred years, has developed a mechanistic world view in which we have come to believe that everything can be explained in a phenomenological way – everything behaves according to a series of knowable rules and laws which can be deduced, known and harnessed for our materialistic purposes. Nature, once seen as a miraculous entity, filled with spirits and deities, could now be reduced to knowable patterns and dry equations, and could be brought to heal at the altar of the human mind.
This materialist view drained nature – an indeed, humanity – of all of her miraculous glory and divinity; and, in doing so, completely missed the mark by replacing the notion of “awareness” for “transcendent consciousness.” The wonderful author Anne Baring describes the characteristics of the Western World view that has taken hold of us, cutting us off from our intuitive connection with our souls, that which is much deeper than the mind:
• Matter is primary and gives rise to mind as a secondary phenomenon. Consciousness is therefore a by-product of the physical brain.
• There is no survival of consciousness after death. The death of the brain is the death of the individual.
• God is an unnecessary hypothesis and the concept of the soul an irrelevance.
• The life of the universe has come into being by blind chance.
• There is no transcendent purpose or meaning to our lives.
This perspective places the locus of life at the most shallow surfaces of our being – in our senses and in our minds. Yet, Deepak Chopra rightly points out that our sensory perception is our least reliable means of knowing our world:
. . . we cannot rely on sensory observation alone to know the essential nature of reality. For the last 300 years, the whole basis of science has relied on our observational senses; but our senses are the least reliable test of what we call reality. My senses tell me that the ground I am sitting on is stationary and yet we know it is spinning at a dizzying speed, hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour. My senses tell me that, from where I am standing, the Earth is flat. Nobody believes that any more.”
Our sensory apparatus gives rise to what I would call “Awareness.” We receive input through our senses (of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing) of which our brains and central nervous systems make sense. Because we sense it, we are aware of it – or so we think. This immediately brings to bear an important point – what we believe we are perceiving is actually an abstraction of it – it’s what our brains make of the data received through our senses.
Let’s take a simple example. Consider a rose. When you look at one, you might describe its color and fragrance. But color and fragrance don’t exist in an objective way! They are characteristics of our sensory apparatus (our eyes and noses) and what our brains do with that information. To a dog, a rose is perceived in a completely different way! Or consider a honey bee – because it “sees” in the ultraviolet spectrum, it will perceive a rose in an entirely different way. Indeed, the nature of what one perceives really depends on who or what is perceiving, and how one perceives!
So what is the essential nature of matter or indeed anything in the universe? Well, the simple truth is that the answer lies beyond our tools of perception, beyond simple awareness and, indeed, beyond the abstracting powers of the human mind. This is a notion that was described by Plato in his Theory of Forms and has been taken up by many cultures and individuals over time.
Kant’s notion of the “Noumenon,” of the “thing in itself,” describes a reality that precedes perception, that is known (as far as it can be known) without the use of our physical senses.
This (and many other traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism) reopens the door to the fact that “Consciousness” precedes “Awareness.”
I return again to the wonderful work of Anne Baring and her articulation of a philosophy (The Perennial Philosophy, actually) that more correctly understands the nature of existence and restores the divinity to nature and all life:
• Consciousness is primary and matter secondary. That is to say, the phenomenal world emerges from an invisible dimension or implicate order of reality.
• The universe is conscious and there are many dimensions to this consciousness. ‘In My Father’s House there are many mansions.’
• Our human consciousness is integral to that greater consciousness, even though it is still partially developed or immature.
• Consciousness in some form survives the death of the physical body.
• What we have called God or spirit is the divine ground as well as the process of life in the universe, our planet and ourselves. There is nothing outside or beyond God.
• The soul is a vast and complex field or web of relationships connecting invisible spirit with the phenomenal world. Our body/mind organism is intimately connected to that wider soul, field or web of relationships.
• The purpose of our lives on this planet is to be reunited with the source or ground of our being.”
So, transcendent consciousness is the ground of all being, yet it transcends the very fabric of time and space. You might say that something wakes up in matter, that we are aspects of this transcendent energy, all participating in this grand web of life and experience, each and every component playing an integral, divine role in this magnificent production. We are so much more than what our tools of perception and abstraction make of us, and so is every aspect of the universe!
Generations of children have sat in church listening to this story [the Biblical Story of the Expulsion of Man from the Garden of Eden]. Generations have been imprinted with the idea that a woman succumbed to the temptation of the serpent and brought sin and suffering into the world and that her suffering and even her death giving birth to her children was the punishment for that original sin. They also learned that this primal woman tempted Adam to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge and thus was to blame for his fall and his being forced to toil for his living. How would this myth have influenced their view of their mothers? How did it affect the attitude of boys to girls and girls’ view of themselves? Would it not have set up a great conflict in their nature, making them mistrust and feel guilty about their instincts, believing that this punishing God demanded the repression of sexuality?”
Having been raised in the Catholic faith, the consequences of the mythologies of Man’s Great Fall and the stain of Original Sin are personally difficult for me to reconcile. Some of the greatest tragedies of human history may be traced to this mythological notion of the Fall of Man (as a result of being expelled from the Garden of Eden) and its concomitant idea of Original Sin, tainting humanity for all time.
A direct repercussion of this Old Testament concept was and is the separation of Matter and Spirit, Man and God, Nature and the Divine. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell notes, “The Christian separation of matter and spirit . . . has really castrated nature.” Further, this expulsion from the Divine is laid squarely at the feet of the feminine – Eve, who falls prey to the temptation of the serpent, herself tempts Adam to disobey God, leading to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, leaving a stain upon the whole human race.
This notion of the feminine being the source of the downfall of humanity, the origin of sin, suffering and death, has created a bitter legacy in which nature and the feminine have been denigrated, repressed and imbued with guilt and suffering.
Had the story of the Fall of Man remained exactly that – a story, a myth that carried it with it archetypes and models by which one might perceive the world – it may have been regarded as something of a benign curiosity. Unfortunately, elements of the story have been taken literally over the millenia, leading to terrific violence and suffering.
This initial great Old Testament myth led to the idea that the only way to redemption and return to the Divine was through strict adherence to the doctrines of the Church, and that for non-Christians, no salvation was possible. Needless to say, the resulting witch hunts, crusades, repression and violence have been an awful legacy for a theology that, at its core, contains so much that is beautiful.
A concomitant notion that arose from this origin myth is the idea of Original Sin, the idea that human nature is corrupted by the actions of Adam and Eve, with this sin transmitted to all of humanity by “concupiscence,” or sexual desire and copulation, resulting in “humanity becoming a massa damnata (mass of perdition, condemned crowd), with much enfeebled, though not destroyed, freedom of will.”
This peculiar notion originated with Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), who’s obsession, in my view, with sin, guilt and fear of sexuality drove this radical view. With it came the complete separation of the divine from the natural world and a lasting psychological wound to the Christian heart and soul. With Augustine’s pronouncements, the Church shifted from the teachings of Jesus to the consolidation of its growing power.
The mythologies of the Fall from Grace and Original Sin have so distorted our relationship with the feminine and the natural world as to have created a lasting legacy of suffering, guilt and destruction, all in the name of attaining salvation through the one and only path decreed by the Church.
Sexual guilt, repression and misogyny are only some of the many hallmarks of a twisted and literal take on what is properly the mythological. There is so much that is beautiful, compassionate and loving in the teachings of Christ, yet with the emergence of the Church as a powerful institution, power, control and domination have been unfortunate aspects of its legacy as well.
When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears.”
– Pope Francis, Laudato si’ (#204)
– Dr. Jaime G. Corvalan, MD, FACS
The recent visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States has brought into focus something beautiful that is happening not only within the Church but with the unfolding of transcendent consciousness itself. There is a growing recognition of the interconnection of all life, of a divinity not separate from creation but one that infuses all life, all nature, all of creation.
I am so pleased and inspired to see that the grievous error committed upon nature, the feminine and indeed all life reflected in more than a thousand years of orthodox doctrine has been addressed, corrected and transcended by this extraordinary Pope!Dating back to St. Augustine and his 5th Century AD work, “City of God Against the Pagans,” a document which codified the gulf between God and Man, the Divine and Nature, orthodox doctrine has held that, because of the idea of Original Sin, humanity is fallen and nature, and the feminine, were equally stained and corrupt. Nature was devoid of divinity (for the Divine was separate and beyond creation) and could therefore be subject to the dominion of man.
This mistaken philosophical idea has paved the way for terrible, destructive actions and attitudes toward our natural world, and each other, and allowed for an economic philosophy that sees nature, and all life, merely as resources to be exploited, devoid of divinity, compassion and consciousness.
In the May 24, 2015 Encyclical, “Laudato si, mi’ Signore” (“Praise be to you, my Lord”), Pope Francis lays out a radically different relationship with nature, each other and with the Divine (or, as I would call it, the transcendent energy consciousness). From the beginning of the document, the Pope reflects his humble nature, addressing the encyclical not to the hierarchy of the Church but instead to ALL PEOPLE; this humility and compassion seems to reflect the heart of Francis, and is what is needed for the continuing unfolding of consciousness.
The focus of this Encyclical is to enter into “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environment challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (Laudato si’, #14). With the heart of a poet, Francis goes on to say:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.”
Laudato si’ (#2)
While Pope Francis and the Church still see a doctrinal separation between God and Man, he recognizes that, in practice, such a schism can no longer be used to justify our treatment of nature and each other. As he states,
“we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures . . . This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”
Laudato si’ (#67)
Ultimately, the publishing of this Encyclical, and the recognition on the part of Pope Francis and, as a consequence, of the Church, of the need for a new relationship between humanity and nature is a reflection of a new, emerging relationship with transcendent consciousness. While Francis goes into great and noble detail about the destruction and exploitation we have and continue to visit upon nature, the act of publishing this work signifies something even greater at work: the gradual shift of human consciousness, from one focused upon power, control and domination to, instead, one that operates from the heart (the 4th Chakra).
Recognition of our obligation to “till and keep” nature begets recognition of the web of all life and creation. In the greater scheme of things, this will be seen as a small but firm step toward the recognition of the divinity in each of us, in all of life and in all of creation. We are the stuff of divinity, of transcendent energy consciousness, and it is heartening to me to see the growing awareness of this reflected in practical action by Pope Francis.
The heart is like an umbilical cord which mediates between the life within us and the life around us. It connects us to the life of the whole, the greater life of the divine ground. The heart is our creative imagination, born of our instinct for relationship with this greater life. The heart generates all our quests, all our hopes and longings and will ultimately reunite us with the source from which we have come. Without the heart, without the instinct to feel, to imagine, to hope and to love, life is meaningless, sterile, dead. When we are in touch with our heart, when we are connected to our deepest feelings, it comes alive, it vibrates, it sings.”
– Anne Baring, Lecture 7: Healing the Heart: An Alchemy of Consciousness, 1993
Some time ago, I attended a lecture by Richard Bandler, the co-creator with John Grinder of NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming. Richard asked a gentleman, a Wall Street banker, to come forward from the crowd and talk with him. “What do you feel?” Richard asked him.
“Nothing,” was his reply. Richard quizzed him further, trying to get to the heart of his disconnection; in fact, the poor man was unable to comprehend the nature of the question. Why? He had lost the connection with his own heart, buried under years of repressed feelings, cultural and familial expectations and a laser-like focus on nothing but the masculine mythology of power, control and domination. From that point forward, I realized the irreplaceable value and need for feelings, for the feminine, and for the need to balance the masculine and feminine energies.
For most of the evolutionary history of humanity (up until the rise of tribes and states, about 4,000 years ago), the collective myth that cradled humanity centered around the Great Mother. In this prevailing myth, body and soul, nature and spirit, were aligned in a great web of interconnected and sacred life; the feminine values of compassion, empathy and connection formed the foundation of human societies and relationships, with each other and with nature.
However, this prevailing myth was gradually replaced with a masculine, Authoritarian Father mythology, coinciding with the rise of competitive, aggressive tribal and state systems, and with it the generative values of the heart, of the Great Mother – creativity, gentleness, compassion and love – were repressed, devalued and shunted deep into the unconscious. This devaluation has created in all who are touched by it an indelible wound to the heart, punishing expressions of authentic feeling and / or creativity, while focusing instead upon an insatiable drive to control, to accumulate and exercise power over others, and over the Earth.
Such a shift can be seen in many cultures across time (including our own); gradually, the feminine goddesses receded into the background as the masculine gods ascended. In some cases, the rise of the All-Powerful Father comes concomitantly with the murder of the Great Mother, as in the Babylonian Creation mythology of Enuma Elis, where the masculine god Marduk defeats and splits in two the Goddess Tiamat, using her body to form the earth and sky.
This swing to the masculine has resulted in a loss of the sense of the sacred in life, of the empathetic connection to each other and to nature that is so deep within us as to be instinctive. As the masculine has ascended, the value of nature, of compassion, of the feminine has been degraded, coming to be associated with darkness, chaos and evil (it is Eve in the mythology of the Garden of Eden who tempts Adam and who, as a result, leads to the expulsion of man from paradise).
The values of the heart have been repressed as the primacy of the mind has come to the fore. Yet, that deep instinctual need for connection, creativity and compassion, the values of the Great Mother myth, do not disappear, try as the intellect may to eradicate them. Where the spark of creativity is buried in the unconscious, it will often bubble up uncontrollably and even with awful consequence, for it is a primal energy that cannot be extinguished. As the great psychologist Carl Jung noted, everything we call negative and evil emerges from the wounded heart of a culture.
Where the energies of the feminine are repressed and cloaked in fear and confusion, those creative sparks can become an inferno of barbarism, with the masculine-focused religions and doctrines unable to contain them.
What is required is a reconnection to spirit, to the feminine; we need a rebalancing of the masculine and feminine, within a new mythology, one not based in merely rote belief but in authentic experience.
To heal the wounded heart, we must restore to honor the values of the feminine. We must reconnect the body with the soul, the realm of the transcendent. We must live life out of the highest spiritual values of compassion, loyalty and love. We must participate in the gradual transformation of our level of consciousness, from single-minded pursuit of power to the reconnection of heart and mind, body and soul.
There is, in fact, a new consciousness coming into life or, rather, we are awakening to the transcendent energy consciousness of which we have always been a part though have repressed lo these many millenia. We are all participating in the synthesis of a new mythology, one that reconnects and acknowledges the divinity in all life, in all existence. We are awakening to the fact that we are all a part of the divine, both transcendent and immanent.
This awakening, to a consciousness of the heart and soul, is what will heal and bring us to redemption and reconnection with our transcendent nature.
From nearly the beginning, the Western psyche has been characterized by a polarizing schism – two competing mythologies, engaged in a continuing struggle for supremacy, neither able to take complete control, neither able to relinquish the quest. Each derives from diametrically opposed, philosophical and mythological foundations, one rooted in the Near and Middle East, the other rooted in the ancient Greek civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea.
These opposing traditions can be represented by two great stories: the Greek tradition by “Prometheus Bound,” the Near Eastern tradition by “The Book of Job” in the Old Testament of the Bible.
“Prometheus Bound” is attributed to the great Greek tragedian Aeschylus, and it is in the character and integrity of the Titan Prometheus that aspects of the independent, assertive and defiant nature of the Western psyche can said to be traced. In the story, the Titan Prometheus (who had sided with Zeus in his battle against his father, Cronus, and all of the rest of the Titans) draws the bitterness and hostility of Zeus when he opposes his plan to bring an end to humanity, instead giving them the gift of fire.
An enraged Zeus decrees that Prometheus is to be chained for eternity to a mountain in the Caucasus where an eagle would attack him and devour his liver; being immortal, however, his body would heal every night, only to have the gory and painful attack happen every day thereafter in perpetuity.
Various figures, feeling compassion and sorrow for the Titan, visit Prometheus in an effort to comfort and / or persuade him to make amends with Zeus to end his suffering. When a messenger of the gods is sent to Prometheus to offer him mercy if he would only reveal who was plotting against Zeus, Prometheus defiantly exclaims, “Tell Zeus I despise him and will never bow down to him!”
These aspects of Prometheus’ character – elements of which the ancient Greeks prized as of the highest and noblest order – form one pole of the opposing nature of the Western psyche. Pride, brazenness, courage, determination, resoluteness all reflect constituent components of one pole of the Western mind.
The other pole of the Western psyche can be represented by the Old Testament figure, Job, a righteous man, blessed with progeny and wealth. Yahweh, as God is referred to in the Old Testament, is meeting with his colleague Satan and, out of pride, asks him, “Have you ever seen a better servant than my servant Job?” Satan considers the question and answers him, “Your servant is loyal to you only because you bless him. Torture and take everything away from him and he will surely curse you.” Yahweh agrees to the bet, allowing Satan to strip him of his wealth, kill all of his children and livestock, visit upon him a plague of boils and make him a cursed outcast among his people.
Finally, Job protests his treatment, showing how he had always been devoted to Yahweh; he demands an answer from God for all the terrors to which he has been exposed. An indignant Yahweh, however, answers out of anger and spite, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” Yahweh dismisses Job, angry that he would deign to question him. Job, admitting his knowledge and understanding were insignificant compared to Yahweh, repents his insolence saying, “I am ashamed!” and throws dust and ashes upon himself.
This story reflects aspects of the Western psyche that include obedience, subordination, modesty, humility and even fear.
Significant differences, unsurprisingly, exist between these two mythologies.
For one, the Gods of Olympus, in the Greek tradition, did not create humanity; rather, they exhibited all of the emotional complexity of humankind, lusted after women and essentially acted as older siblings. The Greeks, while respecting the Gods, did not consider them to have some inscrutable divinity beyond the reach of humanity; thus identifying with the defiance of Prometheus.
Humanity, in the Old Testament, is said to have been created by God to be his servants. An impenetrable gulf existed between the Divine and lowly mankind, with the wisdom of Yahweh being beyond his understanding.
In one, humanity is to be a citizen; in the other, a servant.
Another difference lays in the origins of the mythologies. The ancient Greek traditions grew in the Mediterranean Sea and were part of the intellectual origins of the European continent. The Old Testament traditions can be sourced to the near and middle East, and were often brought to vast tracts of the continent at the tip of a sword, as the Roman Empire expanded.
In the end, one can look upon the schism within the Western psyche as did the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell:
The problem of most Western minds today is this: having been deprived of the sense of divinity in themselves by the church, they now have been deprived of the sense of the claim of the church by science—and so we have what is called alienation . . .
In Europe we have faith in the human being. Consider for instance the main position of the Levant. When we have two terms, God and man, there comes a final question as to your ultimate loyalty— is it going to be God, or is it going to be the man? Is it going to be to the mystery of God, or to the ideas and ideals of man?
Now for the Oriental [sic], this conflict, look at that: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday we are with Prometheus. And Sunday, for a couple of minutes with Job, and the next Monday on the psychiatrist’s couch wondering what is the matter?
These are two absolutely irreconcilable, absolutely contrary points of view that we pretend to have brought together—and we haven’t resolved this. The European races, with their individualism and humanism—Greek, Roman, Celt and German—had this system brought in upon them.”
– Joseph Campbell, “Lecture I.1.4 – New Horizons,” November 21, 1961/1974, The Cooper Union, NY, NY, Archive Number: L46, L535