Myth and Symbol in the Semitic and Indo-European traditions
“Mithya”: (Samskrt): a fantasy; an unreal, misleading appearance beheld in dream or hallucination
“Mythos” (Greek): a fictional, imaginary story
“MithaJ” or “Mathal” (Arabic): a symbol, an allegorical figure or vision
The mission chosen by the TEMENOS ACADEMY consists mainly in raising the dying flame of sacred awareness, or the consciousness that everything has a sacred dimension when it is “understood” in the etymological sense that was implied by Oscar Wilde when he wrote in his cell at Reading: “all that is understood is well”.
The sacred dimension or implication of all components of the cosmic reality is manifested in their symbolic associations. The word symbol itself can be taken to express the divine (numinous or luminous) connotation of an object since the symbolic has “diabolic” as its semantic reverse or its symmetrical dark side. (1)
For the sake of simplicity in demonstration, we can say that a myth is a story involving symbolic figures or characters performing equally symbolic deeds in an allegorical context. That preliminary description is not fully satisfactory but it establishes directly the connection of myth to symbol and to its theological extrapolations such as anagogy, tropology and tautegory.
THE MYTHOLOGICAL CULTURE
A fundamental feature of myths is to lend themselves to various interpretations corresponding to diverse levels of insight into the psychic and natural structures which determine and support thought. Thus Wendy O’Flaherty has described four possible layers of interpretation for classical myths: litteral, historical-social, psychological and cosmological.
Most ancient spiritual traditions, grounded on what we might call the great neolithic sacred and magical patrimony common to mankind, do indeed admit that several meanings co-exist and enclose one another, like Russian dolls, for the mystery-tales told in holy books or in popular lore. The exegesis or interpretation of these diverse hidden or arcane significances is an important branch of the religious science, as are the Hebrew Haggadah and the Arab Tawil and Majaz Ilhami. In the same vein, the Hindu Brahmanas and Upanisads as well as the Buddhist Sutras are mostly concerned with the elucidation of the gnomic texts, respectively the Vedic scriptures and the Nikayas.
In Europe, this science, favored by many of the first Church Fathers, from Origen to Saint Augustine, became the province of Kabbalists and Hermetists and though it was frowned upon because of its gnostic and therefore heretical overtones, many of the greatest poets and artists, from Dante to Shakespeare and from Durer to Titian built their creations around it, thus giving proof that the highest spiritual inspiration is received in the language of symbol and needs myths to translate itself, just as philosophical thinking, even in some of its most contemporary expressions, has found it useful when not necessary to purloin images and analogies from ancient mythical tales in order to become more easily accessible.
Since the advent of the age of reason with its connotations of extreme materialistic nominalism, myths have predictably and gradually lost the regard they enjoyed in Western societies well into the XVlllth century when the elite still read Plato’s and Aristotle’s well known commendations of mythology as a doorway to wisdom (2). As a result of the intellectual revolution that ushered in the modern age, a myth came to be regarded as a rather primitive form of literary or even pre-Iiterary fiction whose childish, magical “weltanschuung” reflected the pagan mentalities which Levy-Bruhl described as savage minds.(3)
It is worth noting that mythology is in fact the turf of much of the popular literature of tales, so rich in the Middle and Near Eastern context. Thus the Arabian Nights are infused with mythical allegories and their construction reflects the initiatic intent of the authors or narrators of the traditional compendia known as maqamas (meaning stations or stages in the journey to enlightenment) Likewise the Sindbad of Basra legends is originally the samskrt Siddhapati (i.e.: lord of magical powers) who is exposed to a number of trials and revelations in the course of his esoteric odyssey.
Freud’s liberal use of myth to illustrate his psychological theories did not fundamentally alter the perception of mythologies as collections of originally magical, pre-intellectual stories even though they might enshrine some implicit parcels of truth about the human subconscious being. To Jung must be given greater credit for rediscovering the essential role of myth in the spiritual and cultural history of the human mind and its maïeutic and epistemic functions, but even he cannot be said to have plumbed it to its greatest depth, if that is possible from a rational viewpoint.
Indeed, the arbitrary distinction between revealed faith and pagan, discarded or declining cults, the dialectical opposition between divine truth and obsolete superstition has generally led western societies and middle-eastern moslem cultures too (4), to regard mythology as a rather futile if not dangerously idolatrous, though artistically fertile field of inquiry to be cultivated only for amusement.
That disdain for the polytheistic lore of ancient civilizations was seemingly justified by the ambiguous meaning of the greek word mythos which retains from its Sanskrit forbear mithya the implicit connotation of fictitiousness or imaginative origin. In the course of this necessarily sketchy study we will be led to inquire much deeper into the nature of imagination and into its diverse categories but we must point out first that there is, in most traditional civilizations, no clear and definite discrimination between the historically true and the fictitious.
Events that happen in the past are eternally relevant and, as such their exact chronology is immaterial and not only because it was difficult to establish in the absence of precise methods of datation. “In the beginning” meant also “in the (ontological) principle” as the greek en archon or the latin In principiis. Everything takes place in that legendary past that is also a continuous ubiquitous present, alluded to in fairy tales through the consecrated formula: “once upon a time” and in latin chronicles as Ab illo tempore. A Sanskrit equivalent may be the itihasa (literally meaning: “so it was”) that defines the character of the epic Mahabharata.(5).
History is as we know it today, with its fundamental concern for accuracy of dates and places, a rather recent creation in many civilizations and critical historical science, with its underlying research methods and its sceptical, materialistic socio-political philosophy, goes back merely to the age of enlightenment even though it has had forerunners in China, Ancient Greece and the Islamic Near East. Yet, the verdict of traditional wisdom on this science and its vaunted pretensions of approaching absolute truth is not much different from Paul Valery’s famous judgment on it. The present we live cannot be properly visualized and understood until it is past and past itself fades away unrelentingly so that it becomes ever fainter and more blurred.
The vanity of trying to reconstruct that fast-receding past mechanically in all the details of its phenomenological, factual components is inescapable and an essential property of the mind seems to gradually turn into mythical icons and tales the very few names and events that are not eventually forgotten
The elusive, protean and therefore confusing essence of phenomenal reality, bound in time and space, which history, imitating the other sciences, desperately tries to grasp and describe in its evolving human manifestations, can be perceived in the cyclical, achronical and synchronous (in the Jungian sense), often ambivalent and polyvalent character of mythology. Such a natural ambivalence can be instantly felt in the ambiguous origins of many words of our common vocabulary. We need not demonstrate that “black” and “white” in English are etymologically synonymous, as the word “blank” (and the french “blanc”) illustrates. Black and white both mean absence (or totality) of all colors. Likewise in french the word “rien”: nothing comes from rem which is indeed something in latin. Diglossy takes us back to the famous Taoist equation between wei (action) and wu-wei: its negation.
In Samskrt krsna means black which is taken to be the colour of divine beauty so that beauty is also said krsna. In Russian, beauty is krasnoï which stands for red. Black and red merge in the colour purple which is in many cultures the symbol of kingship and divinity and whose greek name phoenike recalls the eponymous symbolic immortal bird and its fiery nature. In turkic languages, similarly, qyzil (güzel in modern Turkish) applies to both redness and beauty and Arabic draws the same ontological relation between the colour and its ethological value through the word ahmar built on the semitic root that gave hemeros (the red one), the name for dawn and its associated star (Lucifer for the Romans) and deity in Ancient Greece.
The purpose of evoking these homonymies between concrete and abstract notions is to introduce the ambivalence of many mythological creatures, such as the asuras and devas of India and Iran who are either positive or negative in character, depending upon the time and the cultural specific context, as are the fearsome but protective demons of Mahayana Buddhism or indeed of the Hellenistic Near East. Indeed the root dev accounts for the words divine (“Dieu” in french, “Dio” in Italian) and also for the reverse: devil. Daemon est Deus inversus.
In Ancient Greece for instance, the infernal Erynies are also called Eumenides (i.e.:auspicious ones) and archaic fabulous beings like the Cabires and the Telchines are both good and evil. In fact a direct link can be traced from the cabires to the Indian god of wealth Kubera as they both guard the hidden chthonian treasures epitomized in mesolithic and early neolithic times by the metal copper which gave its name to Cyprus, one of its major mining sites in Antiquity and also to Aphrodite Cypris still connected in astrology to that metal. The semitic root kbr or gbr developed into the concept of the son or messenger of the gods (geber, whence Gabriel: the Biblical envoy of the Almighty) and into the epithet kabir: great, which must originally have defined a god, one of the baalim, always held to be gigantic (like the geborim of Genesis).
The innumerable mythical beings known to many peoples, such as the nymphs, sirens, satyri, fauns and centaurs of the Hellenes; the raksasas, yaksas and kinnaras of India; the djinns and peris of the Arab-Persian Middle East; the trolls, fairies and nibelungs or gnomes of the Germanic lore all share that “daemonic” ambivalence which flows from the wellspring of mythical thought situated at the confluence of epistemic and moral polar opposites, That double nature also characterizes many of the primitive European gods like Wotan, Thor, Fafnir, for the Germans and Esus or Cernunnos for the Celts, in the same way as Semitic gods like Malak (Moloch) and the other Baals or the Adonaï El Shaddaï of the Hebrews were alternatively and at once baleful and auspicious, The parallel is also obvious with some of the Hindu pantheon’s dyads such as Siva-Rudra or Parvati-Durga, we could quote, to further illustrate that essential duality, a few of the innumerable animal or vegetal emblems of complementary opposites; thus for many cultures the horse signifies both life and death which it reconciles and transcends in their Hegelian synthesis: resurrection; the crow represents the night of death and also the Sun; the dog alludes to the lower, ignoble instincts in man but it also is the psychopompus: the guide of the soul of the dead towards the other world of immortality at whose gates it stands guard, as Cerberus exemplifies, and so on.
PERCEPTION AND THE MYTHICAL IMAGINATION
In Arabic, the word mithal or mathal which means symbol corresponds broadly to the indo-european homophonic “myth” as it is also used to describe an icon or eidolon in the platonic sense, embodying a certain abstract principle or notion, both immanent and transcendent in an intermediary J supra-physical or subtle dimension which acts as a screen between the material world and the realms of the invisible.
We might therefore, for the sake of clarity, compare the imaginary universe of myth to a film screen on which the moving and immaterial images of legendary yarns appear fleetingly but in a recurrent manner as if they reflected beings and objects long since vanished, like very distant stars and galaxies whose lights our giant telescope perceive aeons after they have exploded or burnt out.
Just as in the photographic memory of our cameras these faint and yet immense nebular objects remain present to us as they were at a given instant and acquire in our eyes an apparent static eternity, mythical themes assume a contemporary reality when they are narrated at any period in history. Thus their component figures and events become symbols in the collective cultural imagination, figments derived from our perceptive and conceptual abilities and often crystallized through artistic devices.
In that metaphor, the screen on which the mythical film is projected is a meson, an intermediary realm that acts as a bridge to pass from our world to the great beyond, the samskrt Arupadhatu, the Aramaic Msunia Kusta, the realm of the archetypes. Its definition corresponds to that term of Iranian mystical philosophy illustrated by Sohrawardi Halabi, the barzakh which that great syncretistic visionary also alluded to as “the confluence of two oceans”, where initiatic legends of East and West often place the mysterious Isles of the Blest or the green island of immortality(6).
We must emphasize at this point that for the “noumenal” or transcendent, essential reality of being to become perceptible, or at least intelligible, there has to be a barzakh, a limbic, crepuscular zone of passage where pure ideas take form while remaining immaterial and “hyperphysical” (7).
In Islamic mystical theology, the barzakh is said to be located in the ‘Alam al Jabarut “the world of the messenger”, or angelic realm in which the Creator manifests the signs or symbols of his omnipotent will (‘amr) and which extends between the sphere of material creation: ‘Alam al Khalq (or Mulk the kingdom) and the region of the divine entity: ‘Alam al Malakut.
This distinction between diverse levels of reality brings us to the traditional analysis of such a reality or the world as it is perceived. Epistemological schools in the Middle and Near East customarily break the totality of being into three categories that are in fact modes or “points of view” that modern science also acknowledges: the observer, the field of observation and the knowledge or science that the first has of the second, in samskrt Ksetrajna, ksetra and jnana and in Arabic: ‘Aqil, ‘Aql, Ma’aqul (cf. the etymology of ‘aq’ which links that root with the greek agge’os or aquilon: wind originally -specifically the northern wind sometimes pictured as an eagle, whence aquila: eagle -and thus breath, spirit (the spirit of God is held in some middle eastern symbolic schools to blow from the North) and finally “angel” in English and in most European languages) or ‘Alim, ‘Alam, ‘llm. It is incidentally a tribute to the spiritual suggestiveness and subtlety of Arabic that the word ‘Alam from the root: ‘ilm (knowledge) means “the universe” or “the world” which by definition is everything known or knowable that, for us, has no existence outside of our perception.
The three terms of that equation are of course inseparable since they are consubstantial in a mathematically transitive way. To paraphrase a sentence of the Vulgata loaded with allegorical meaning, we might say as Genesis of Abraham and the three angels: “Tria vidit sed unum adorabit”. Going further on the analogical path we could venture a comparison with the three dhatus or domains of classical hindu-buddhist hermeneutics, the kamadhatu or realm of desire is the field of sensory observation, the rupadhatu or world of form is the intellectual apprehension we have of the former and the arupadhatu or formless, invisible reign is in fact the fundamentally unknowable observer on which the other two concepts are contingent without being outside of it or “elsewhere”. The three terms should in fact be understood as co-terminous or as defining three different perspectives in a seamless continuum.
Once we are agreed that the universe for us indeed equates with our field of sensorial and intellective perception, it follows that the source of all reality is the sensorium or, by synecdoque the eye. That is apparent in the Arab and Persian words for the eye, respectively ‘ayn and cheshm which both mean “spring” or “source” as well. The old persian cheshm relates to the sumerian gishm, connoting a spring and an abyss and is certainly to be regarded as the origin of the anglo-saxon “chasm” that seems poised on the semantic knife-edge between the antithetical greek primal twins, kosmos and chaos.
Thus mythology is the shadow play we enact in order to render abstraction concrete and it is small wonder that it pervades all our cultures to the point where it is not possible to separate it anywhere from religious thought, contrary to what certain theological schools have attempted and still attempt to do, generally with the well meaning but misled intent of upholding the “dignity” or “purity” of monotheistic faith and dogma. As images flowing from the unfathomable realm of Na Koja Abad, the persian synonym for Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon”, myths share a common source with religious revelation and the allegories in which it expresses itself. As we will show in another part of this essay, the mysteries of the great revealed religions are rooted in the mythological lore and they are, as all myths, intended to awaken the human soul to the higher realms of being, whether it is Plato’s world of ideas outside the cavern of sensual slumber or the dreamworld of Australian aborigines which is in fact an antinomy, as it designates the essential realities of which in general we can only see glimpses during clairvoyant sleep as the Upanisads bear witness.
We are called here, following the metaphysicians of the Arabo-lranian Ishraqi sufi school to make a distinction between two sorts of dreams. First, those dreams of “fantastic” (from the greek phantasia) character that are caused by physical or psychological disturbances (whose pathological source is alluded to in the concept of trauma derived from the Germanic root traum for “dream”, connected as well to the greek drama and also to the latin verb tremere:”to tremble” whence comes the description of the divine presence as tremendum numinosum) and secondly the dreams which emanate from the mundus imaginalis, the world of the platonic ideas or archetypes and partake of what Henri Corbin calls the creative imagination (8) which corresponds to the vajracitta of the Indian Tantras, i.e. the magical mind or imagination.
That latter sort of dream which is credited with a prophetic value and whose interpretive key is held to lie in the arcanes of mythology may give us a reason why “rêve” (french for dream) goes back to the indo-european root rav. found in the Avestan ravan’ “soul”, in the name of the raksasa-king of Lanka in the Ramayana, Ravana and in the English verb: “to rave”. It is the voice of the hidden soul that speaks in dreams. In Spanish and Italian, the words that describe both sleep and dream descend from the samskrt root sunya which alludes to the primeval luminous emptiness regarded by Buddha as the ultimate essence and source of being.
In many if not most of the ancient traditional civilizations, the human mind was taught methods of deciphering or at least interpreting those dreams, with the help of conventional mythological codes in order to arrive at a rational understanding of an initially puzzling, often fragmentary message. Such was the aim of oniromantics.
REASON AND MYTH
The mention of the adjective “rational” leads us to ask ourselves the meaning of the concept of “reason”. If we follow our favorite method of etymological meditation, since semantics is the heraldry of language and since the sign is also the seed of the word (thus the root sem means both a grain (semen) and a sign, as the sign “contains” and announces what it means just as the gene implies the organism encoded in it) we see that ratio originally means a pebble in old Latin and that the exercise of reason must originally have consisted in the counting and combination of little rocks as in a abacus, which is incidentally the remote forbear of our computers. Thus we get another illustration of the manner in which the mind works from the concrete to the abstract (a visibilibus ad invisibilium rapiamur) so that mythical thinking, with its vivid imagery and its hylozoic anthropomorphism enshrines the initial (and initiatic) process of analogical reasoning to account for the world, life and human existence.
In that light, one may conclude that the mythical, anagogic and symbolic vision of Nature and History is no less “real”, at a different level of consciousness, than the scientific, materialistically empirical and agnostic accounts our contemporary civilization have come to solely rely on. In both cases, the mind is, often unwittingly the prey of the paradoxical tautology aptly summed by Pascal in the adage: scio quod credidi.
That very broad interpretation of Reason, of which discursive or “reasoning reason” can be held to be but a segment or limb, allows us to grasp better why for Socrates and Plato, reason was logos which meant both word or discourse and the rational norm ative law whereas the archaic stories about the greek gods were known as logoi. The passage from the material to the theoretical and back to the concrete is also illustrated in the arabic equivalent ‘Aql whose semantic evolution we have already commented upon but it is worth adding to that exegesis that angelos gave rise in hellenistic Greek to evangelion:”the good messenger” or good angel of which four were later held to be synoptic and orthodox, as if to echo the cosmology of the four cosmocratores, egregores, archontes or arkan which syncretistic Gnostic and Hermetic schools placed at the four points of the compass and symbolized by the four heavenly animals in Ezekiel’s vision.
The good angel came to be embodied in a manuscript, evangelion or gospel, according to a very ancient semitic magical analogy between a book and a divine being of which we often find traces in the Old Testament and which has survived almost until today in certain remote parts of the Islamic realm, as in the Atlas mountains of Morocco for exampl13 where some isolated, more or less schismatic Berber tribes equated the Holy Book to the Prophet and to the divine force he personified so that according to visiting cultural anthropologists, they held the Qur’an to be a man.
There is hence a philological continuity between breath, wind and spirit(‘aql, anemos, anima), with their theophanic and animal emblems (the angel, the eagle) and the book that enshrines the holy message of the Spirit, essence of all reason. The interconnetedness of the semitic and indo-european linguistic families, melding as they did in the great Mediterranean and Asian crucibles, is well illustrated in that genealogy of related concepts.
THE TRIBAL ORIGINS OF MYTHOLOGY
Here we should make one of the essential assertions we intend to demonstrate all through this paper: in mythical consciousness, there is no separation between the divine and the human planes of existence, no more than between the spiritual and the physical domains in our original languages.
Thus, the first mythologies unfolded theogonic and cosmological stories related to the tribes, clans and persons by or to whom they were told. Myths connect one, through one’s forefathers and totemic symbols to the origins of Creation and to the other human groups as well as to all living and (seemingly) inanimate components of Nature. In that fashion they give an explanation, a history and a reason for individual and collective existence and they impart us with a place and a role in the universe and suggest the task we are predestined to accomplish in life, for ourselves and our descendents.
The diaskeuasts, homerids and aedes of Ancient Greece, the bards and skalds of Nordic and Celtic Europe, the kavis and vedavyasas of Vedic and medieval India, as well as the minstrels and trobadors of Medieval Europe all sung and recited for audiences that were descended or -to make a concession to the spirit of our sceptical age -that claimed descent from the gods and heroes celebrated in their epics. Homer carefully mentions the genealogies and feats of the Achaean kings assembled before the walls of Troy as they are the forebears of his listeners but he also expatiates on the lineages and relations of the Trojans and their allies because the 1Iiiad is intended, at least in its later versions, to be told or read as well to the clans and nations connected by blood to the house of Priam.
In the form that has come down to us, the 1Iiiad enshrines a compendium of the ruling dynasties of the Eastern Mediterranean and their respective clanic deities, as some kind of legendary Gotha almanach. Likewise, the ancestors of most princes of Brahmanic Northern India who listened to or read the verses of the Ramayana and Mahabharata had fought at Kuruksetra and farther back, were kindred to the royal houses of Ayodhya and Mithila. The same situation applied to the audiences of the Nordic sagas and gaelic legendary epics, like the Taliesin and the Mabinogion so that it is broadly accurate to say that mythology was in its origins a family history going back to the hoary times when the gods and the heroes were related and mingled freely in love and in battle. That fact is reflected in the gothic word gesta which means family- and its secular continuum, lineage -and is applied to the heroic deeds of ancient and medieval germanic heroes so that it was also taken to mean “feat” as in the expression: gesta dei per francos.
Indeed, religion was for most cultures during millennia inseparable from national history and tribal genealogy. The gods were not outside of the complex web of kith and kin and we know that when the Germanic tribal rulers for example (and the Merovingians in particular) adopted Christianity under its Arian or Catholic form, they tended to claim parentage with Jesus, the new God through obscure oriental family ties since they needed to replace thereby their pagan ancestors Wotan and the other deities of the Sagas in order to retain aristocratic legitimacy. Aware of that cultural requirement, the Christian Clergy seems to have given its imprimatur to those evidently apocryphal genealogies.
This observation does not lead us however to accept as a whole the theory of Evhemerus according to whom gods originally were heroes later divinized by their admirers. As we will show through diverse specific examples, the status of many mythical figures is at once divine and human and they seem along the centuries to have moved to and fro between the cosmic empyreus and the terrestrial plane so that their image in the distant mirror of legend and devotion appears ambiguous. Our monotheistic culture has accustomed us to a clear separation between God, the human world and Nature which, for the mythical mind, does not exist.
It is at later periods of cultural development and often in purportedly decadent ages that poets and commentators composed the great mythological sums which attempted to encompass and interconnect heterogeneous cosmological tales, religious traditions and legendary cycles. Outstanding examples of that encyclopaedic poetic literature are provided by the Puranas and the Mahabharata (both incidentally attributed to Vyasa), by Firdausi’s Shahnama, by Hesiod’s Theogonyand, centuries later, by the compendia of the Alexandrian Greeks or, in Northern Europe, by Sturlusson’s sagas and the Arthurian cycle.