The Loss of the World Soul and its Returnby: Anne Baring
You could not discover the
boundaries of the soul, even if you travelled by every path in
order to do so, so deep a measure does it have.
My heart is longing for a
lost knowledge, slipped down out of the minds of men.
-from the Sanscrit poem Black Marigolds Chaura-panchasika, 1st
Once upon a time, in a past so distant that we have no memory of it, the invisible and visible dimensions of life were imagined and instinctively experienced as a sacred unity. In the great civilisations of the Bronze Age (c.3000 bce), particularly those of Egypt, India and China, the whole cosmos was envisioned as a living being and the manifest world was seen as an epiphany or showing forth of an unseen source which breathed it into being, animating and sustaining it: the air itself was experienced as the invisible presence of that world - an “awesome mystery joining the human and extrahuman worlds.”(1) Just as the stars emerged each night from the darkness of the night sky, so the visible universe was born from the dark mystery of the invisible. Everything - plants, trees, animals and birds as well as moon, sun and stars - was infused with divinity because each and all were part of a living, breathing web of life.
Although this ancient way of knowing was once experienced in many different places (and may still be found today), Egypt has bequeathed to us one of the clearest images of it. Two goddesses were of particular significance for an understanding of the origins of the later concept of a World Soul: Hathor - often interchangeable with Isis - and Nut. Hathor was Egypt’s oldest goddess, imagined as the nurturing Mother of the universe and as the creative impulse flowing from the cosmic immensity of her being. More specifically, Hathor was imagined as the Milky Way, whose milk nourished all life, yet she was immanent within the forms of life, immanent in the statues that stood in her temples and in the beautiful blue lotus that was daily laid at her feet. (2) As Divine Mother, she received the souls of the dead at the entrance to her sacred mountain.
Nut was the night sky, whose vast cosmic body contained all the stars. The sun vanished into her body on its nightly descent into the underworld and was reborn from her at the dawn of a new day. Nut’s image was painted on the inside of coffin lids and sometimes on the base as well, as if to enfold the soul entrusted to her care in her cosmic embrace. There is a moving inscription to her on a fragment of stone in the Louvre:
O my mother Nut, stretch your wings over me;
Let me become like the imperishable stars,
like the indefatigable stars.
O Great Being who is in the world of the Dead,
At whose feet is Eternity, in whose hand is the Always,
O Great Divine Beloved Soul who is in the mysterious abyss,
come to me.
Presided over by the Great Mother, this era was characterised by a consciousness which participated in the deepest imaginative sense with the life of the cosmos and the life of the earth. It was a totally different way of perceiving and relating to life than the one we have now. Today we look back on our "superstitious" past with some contempt, not realising that our present consciousness has grown out of a far more ancient and instinctive way of knowing which could be described as lunar because the moon rather than the sun was of supreme importance in that distant time. It is possible that the image of a world or cosmic soul arose out of lunar mythology because the moon was our earliest teacher and the inspiration of some of the greatest myths of the ancient world: the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, the Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece, and the later Christian myth all carry the same lunar theme of death and regeneration. (3)
What did the moon teach us? The emergence of the crescent moon from the three days of darkness that preceded it gave us the image of the visible world emerging from an invisible one, the time-bound world from an eternal one. The moon nourished the creative imagination, teaching us to observe and to wonder, helping us to make connections between what was above in the heavens and what was below on earth – a theme that is carried through into Hermetic philosophy and Alchemy.
For hundreds of generations people watched the circumpolar movement of the stars and the changing yet stable course of the luminous moon. They observed the connection between the cyclical rhythm of the four phases of the moon’s life and the rhythm of growth, maturation, death and regeneration in the life of the crops. They experienced the phases of their own lives – youth, maturity, old age and death as woven into the rhythm of that greater life. The constant return of the crescent moon after the three days of darkness laid the foundation for trust in the survival of the soul and the renewal of life after apparent death and may have been the original inspiration of the belief in reincarnation. From this lunar pattern constantly speaking to the mythic imagination, birth and death became a rite of passage for the soul as it journeyed between the visible and invisible dimensions of life, a journey that was symbolised by the path through a labyrinth. The ancestors were not lost to the living but were close by, available to counsel and guide. There was, therefore, no final demarcation line between life and death.
The constant rhythm of the moon waxing and waning held both light and darkness in relation to each other - held them in balance - because the totality of the moon’s cycle embraced both light and dark phases and therefore symbolically included both life and death. Light and darkness were not polarised as they were later to become in a solar culture, but were phases of the total cycle, so that there was always an image of a unifying whole which included both polarities.
Over countless thousands of years, shamanic rituals and myths kept alive the sense of connection between this world and another world whose symbol, initially, may have been the dark phase of the moon. Poets, artists, philosophers and musicians received their inspiration from the invisible dimension that Henri Corbin, the great scholar of Sufism, named the mundus imaginalis (imaginal world), carefully drawing the distinction between the imaginal and the imaginary. (4) The words spoken, the music heard, the dreams and visions seen, came not from “inside” us, but from the cosmos, from goddesses and gods, from daemonic beings and the spirits of animals. The original role of the philosopher was a shamanic one - to journey into the Otherworld or Underworld and bring back what was seen and heard to help the human community harmonise its life with the sacred life of the cosmos.
Fairy tales like the Sleeping Beauty may be the residual fragments of that forgotten participatory experience where forests were inhabited by creatures who would help or hinder us: where spirits of tree and mountain, stream and sacred spring could speak to us; where bears or frogs might be princes in disguise and shamans living in the deep forest might offer us wise counsel, or birds bring us messages and warn us of dangers. "Whoever denies the daemons, wrote Plutarch in a later time, "breaks the chains that links the gods to men." There are countless tales which describe how the hero or heroine who responds to this guidance wins the reward of the treasure and the royal marriage.
Rituals like those of the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece strengthened the sense of participation in an unseen reality and gave initiates an experience of the immortality of the soul. People spoke with goddesses and gods in dream and vision. Birds were recognised as messengers of the invisible, very possibly because people dreamed about them in this role or even heard them as a voice inside themselves, speaking to them. Intuitive sensibility and the ability to communicate with the spirits of plants taught people to gather, grind or distil certain herbs and plants for healing illness. Rites of incubation and healing were practised in many sanctuaries. Dreams and visions were of great importance in the diagnosis and healing of disease. Music was used to invoke the presence of a world that was the foundation of this world and as real as this one; everything was connected, everything was sacred. The shaman-healers who guided these cultures were trained to enter a state of utter stillness and to listen and observe what they heard and saw in an altered state of consciousness. This lunar culture was primarily feminine in character - receptive to the presence of the eternal.
If we listen to the Pre-Socratic Greeks of the sixth century bce, we find that they carry forward the legacy of this lunar consciousness and cannot be understood except in relation to it: the words of Heraclitus, suggesting that the Soul is of unfathomable depth, retain the essence of that ancient perception. Thales of Miletus speaks of the “All” as being alive and full of daemons who are the agents of the one Soul-substance. Anaximenes says that humanity and nature are fundamentally inseparable because both participate in the same underlying “substance” which he calls Soul. (5) Pythagoras, after he was exiled to Crotona having spent forty years with the astronomer-priests of Egypt and Babylon, defines the mathematical laws which embody the divine intelligence of the cosmos. A few decades later, Parmenides, living at Velia, in southern Italy, describes his shamanic journey into the Underworld of the Goddess who takes his right hand in hers, telling him to transmit her teaching to the world of mortals. (6)
This, therefore, is the foundation upon which the concept of a World Soul developed. Plato (429-347 bce) was the first to name it as such in his Timaeus. Was it from the participatory experience of an earlier age that he drew his concept of the Soul of the World – psyche tou kosmou? He speaks of a great golden chain of being connecting the deepest level of reality with its physical manifestation where every particle of life is a revelation of creative spirit, but there is in his work a distancing of the sensory world from the world of spiritual or archetypal forms. There is a fading of the feeling of participation in an ensouled world, a disjunction between rational mind and sensory experience, an objective definition of Soul rather than the experience of it so intrinsic to the earlier time. Plotinus (204-70 ce), who was steeped in Platonic thought, developed further the concept of a Universal Soul that he called All-Soul or Soul of the All (anima-mundi) but in his philosophy as well as in Plato’s there is the idea that this material world is the lowest level in the hierarchy of divine emanation. (7) Implicit in this immensely influential definition of reality, is the idea that nature is “lower” than spirit, body “lower” than mind and that animals and plants are “lower” in the scale of being than humans.
Aristotle (384-322 bce) took this distinction further, defining matter as something inanimate - separate and distinct from spirit and soul – leading eventually to the modern idea that matter is “dead”. While Plato and Plotinus had a strong influence on the development of Christian doctrine, the mainstream teaching of Western philosophy and science followed Aristotle. His philosophy draws a clear demarcation line between an ancient way of knowing and a new way whose emphasis is on the rational human mind distancing itself from what it is observing rather than participating in its life. The increasing separation between these two ways of knowing was henceforth profoundly to influence the development of the philosophy, religion and science of the West. However, the sense of being within an ensouled cosmos lasted until the end of the Middle Ages when the School of Chartres, influenced by the brilliant Islamic scholars and architects of Moorish Spain, initiated the building of the great cathedrals of France. It found new expression in fifteenth century Florence when Marsilio Ficino translated Plato and recovered the texts of the Hermetic tradition and it survived in Kabbalah and Alchemy. However, the older vision faded rapidly with the Reformation and the scientific revolution which succeeded it. What was lost was an imaginal or visionary way of knowing, grounded in shamanic experience. Yet, in the late eighteenth century, the poet and artist Blake would write “Everything That Lives Is Holy.”
Having described a lunar culture where people lived within a sacred cosmos, we may ask what wider cultural influences led to the demise of the World Soul? Why did D.H. Lawrence despairingly write, “We have lost the cosmos”? (8) To answer that question we have to look back some 4000 years. From about 2000 bce, we begin to see developing a new phase in the evolution of human consciousness – a phase whose focus is the sun rather than the moon. As this process develops, solar mythology begins to displace lunar mythology: linear time begins to replace lunar cyclical time, and a linear, literal and objective way of thinking slowly replaces the older imaginal and participatory way of knowing. Concurrently, the human psyche draws away from nature and as it does so, the predominant image of spirit changes from Great Mother to Great Father. The greater the withdrawal from nature, the more transcendent and disengaged from nature becomes the image of the deity: divine immanence is lost. The mind is focussed beyond nature on the realm of intellectual ideas: philosophy becomes discourse on these ideas rather than relationship with an invisible reality.
A second major influence was the impact of literacy on our way of thinking. The written word replaced the oral tradition that had carried the wisdom and insights of the older culture. David Abram has shown in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, how the new emphasis on the written word contributed to the loss of the older participatory consciousness: “Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air.”(9)
Perhaps because literacy distanced us from nature, creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition is now believed to arise from the word of the transcendent Father, no longer from the womb of the Mother. This is a crucially important distinction because the unity of life is again broken: invisible spirit no longer animates and inhabits nature. The earth is desacralised. Religious belief replaces shamanic experience. Ancient ways of connection are forbidden. With this shift in archetypal imagery, everything formerly associated with the feminine archetype (the Great Mother) is downgraded in relation to the masculine one (the Great Father). The lunar way of knowing is subjugated to the solar way and, under the influence of solar mythology, first nature, then cosmos, are ultimately de-souled.
As the sun becomes the new focus of consciousness, the cultural hero is no longer the lunar shaman who ventures into the darkness, assimilates its mysteries and returns from it with the treasure of wisdom, but rather the solar hero, often a king, warrior or outstanding individual, who is celebrated as the one who conquers and overcomes darkness. The emphasis is now on ascent to the light and repudiation of whatever is identified with darkness. Iron Age mythology (from c. 2000 bce) celebrates a great contest between a hero-god and a dragon or monster of the underworld (see the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Greek myth of Apollo killing the she-dragon at Delphi). The emphasis is no longer on relationship with the invisible world but on the light conquering the darkness. The theme of conquest and victory becomes the dominating ethos of the hero myths of the Iron Age and so it is even today in our modern hero myth and the battle against “the axis of evil”. In this solar phase, good and evil, light and dark, life and death are drawn as opposites inimical to each other and become increasingly polarised. George W. Bush’s words “Those who are not with us are against us” are a modern re-statement of solar mythology.
For over 4000 years, under the influence of this mythology, war and conquest were glorified as the noblest activity for man; victory and the spoils of war the coveted treasure to be won in battle, courage in battle the supreme virtue in the warrior. Wherever today we find the tendency to omnipotence and grandiose ambitions of empire and world domination, whether religious or secular, we can discern the influence of solar mythology and the inflation of leaders who unconsciously identify themselves with the archetypal role of the solar god or hero.
Solar mythology reflects an immense change in human consciousness, the formulation of an entirely new perception of life, one where, as technology advances, nature becomes something to be controlled and manipulated by human ingenuity, to human advantage. It had a dramatic influence on Greek, Hebrew, Persian and Christian cultures. The imagery of opposition and conflict between light and darkness, good and evil pervades the Old Testament and other mythologies. As people move to cities and cities become states, and as more and more men are conscripted into armies which obey a warrior leader, the cosmic battle is increasingly projected into the world: a fascination with conquest and dominance possesses the psyche and leads to the creation of vast empires (Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman). It is as if the heroic human ego, identified with the solar hero, has to seek out new territories to conquer, has to embody the myth in a literal sense. The terminology of conquest and dominance still influences our own modern culture with its focus on the conquest of nature, of space, of our enemies. It is as if we have been conditioned by this powerful mythology to think only in oppositional terms – victory or defeat - never in terms of dialogue and reconciliation.
Solar mythology is, above all, the story of the heroic individual. In the West, it has been the driving inspiration behind the Promethean quest for freedom, justice, knowledge and power. A major theme of solar myth is escape from the bondage of the body and ascent to the light and, by association, release from the bondage of mortality and ascent to spiritual enlightenment. In the West, we find it first in Plato in his metaphor of the cave. It carries with it the human longing to go beyond all constraints and limitations, to reach higher, progress further, discover more. It is overwhelmingly male because the male psyche has been the dominant influence in many cultures over some 4000 years and it is the achievements and discoveries of exceptional men which have inspired other men. A strong sense of self and a focused ego, that was ultimately identified with the conscious, rational mind, can be acknowledged as the supreme achievement of the male psyche during this solar era. But the voice of women who were denied access to education, the priesthood and the healing profession was silenced.
The influence of solar mythology gradually created a fissure between spirit and nature, mind and body which has defined our way of thinking and influenced the way we behave. During this solar phase, the male psyche unconsciously identified itself with the supremacy of spirit and mind over nature, woman and body and came to relate the former to the image of light and order and the latter to the image of darkness and chaos. Woman was named as an inferior creation: woman and body came to be viewed as a danger, a threat, a temptation to man. (10) The religions of the solar era carry this polarisation within their teaching, wherever this is associated with the ascetic subjugation of the body, the mistrust of sexuality and the oppression and persecution of women. Because nature and instinct became something dangerous and threatening to the supremacy of the rational mind, much effort was expended in eradicating all vestiges of goddess-worship, and of animism or belief in “spirits”. Further to the east, in China, Confucianism replaced the older Taoist vision of an ensouled and conscious nature. The sages of India, with certain exceptions, turned away from the body and sensory experience and held the phenomenal world to be an illusion.
All this had the effect of disconnecting us from nature and denying us access through the mythic imagination to that mysterious and all-embracing dimension of Soul. As the ego and rational mind grew stronger and more powerfully controlling, so, increasingly, did we lose the ability to relate instinctively and imaginatively to earth and cosmos. The Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall describes this process of estrangement and loss and, in the story of the Expulsion from the Garden, discloses a total reversal of the way of knowing which had guided older cultures. (11)
The shamanic way of knowing survived in Kabbalah and Sufism as well as in certain gnostic sects, the Hermetic Tradition and Alchemy but for centuries these had to remain hidden for fear of persecution. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (c. 70 ce), the old shamanic vision shines through the words of Jesus: “Cleave a piece of wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find Me there.” (logion 77)
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