To read a myth as prose (denotation) rather than as poetry (connotation) is a grave mistake and destroys the meaning of the story. All too often we humans do this with our religious texts. – Joseph Campbell
Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison
The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered. — Paul Shepard
The third type of relationship, sadly, no longer carries either kind of potential, conviviality or rape. Calasso called it indifference:
… the gods have already withdrawn, and, hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise. Such is the peculiar situation of the modern world.
Man’s rational and scientistic soul may be indifferent, but it is even more exposed to that “gusting violence”. Greek myth describes the transition from phase one all the way to phase three in one short story. Zeus’ mortal lover Semele became pregnant. Enraged with jealousy, his wife Hera appeared in disguise and advised her to request that Zeus prove his divinity by revealing his immortal form. Zeus knew that humans could not survive such visions, but he had promised to honor any request of hers, and he could not refuse. Reluctantly, he obeyed, and his lightning destroyed Semele. Zeus sewed the fetus into his own thigh and later it was born as Dionysus.
Semele’s fateful decision transformed her – and us – from a condition in which she could be with Zeus in his convivial, human form to a world in which she could no longer be protected from unfiltered, absolute reality, a demythologized world. It is a world lacking any of the intermediating figures of Greek myth, especially the heroes, almost all of whom died at Troy. After the death of the last of them, Odysseus,
…What happens is mere history…man’s approach to primordial beings and places could only take place through literature.
Joseph Campbell argued that we’ve lived in such a world since Christianity began to lose potency around the 12th century A.D. I suggest, however, that in what we call the “Western World” myth (as the glue of society, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) has been slowly breaking down for a far longer period of time. What remain, exposed like archeological layers, are immensely old stories: the myths of father/son and brother/brother conflict, and the literalization of initiation ritual into the brutal socialization and sacrifice of children.
It is not that we don’t have myths; we have plenty of them, even if they are mostly unconscious (see Chapter Nine of my book). The critical fact is they no longer nurture us. Clearly, both Greek and Hebrew stories were tracking this process. And we only have one version of our primary myths; we no longer have variants associated with specific places. The Christianist myth, for example, is supposed to be universal, even if Catholicism grudgingly allows countless Virgins connected to various places. But the practice of religion, especially its mass spectacles that link it to the objectives of the modern state (why are there American flags in every church?) changed profoundly, writes Calasso: “…man now discovers that sacrifice is just as effective as a tool of social manipulation as it was to appease the gods.”
The Aqedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), first written down around 1,000 B.C., illustrates this pattern. Scholars of all three “Abrahamic” religions have debated its meaning for generations, but for me, the ending – whether the act was consummated or not – is irrelevant. All that matters is that Abraham was willing to murder his son to glorify his god, or, in modern terms, to send the son off to war to die for his nation. He was willing to prioritize allegiance to an abstract principle, a belief system (religion, nationalism, patriotism, etc) over any human relationship.
In some later versions, Isaac was indeed murdered, and he came to embody the only sacrifice acceptable to God. Generally, however, the patriarchs couldn’t openly admit that they or the people they embodied were capable of such barbaric acts, so their mythmakers projected the idea of child sacrifice onto the gods – such as Moloch – of other people to justify their wars of aggression.
A thousand years later, this same God confirmed this same theme, abandoning his only son in his hour of need. When Jesus asked on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting Psalm 22. Already quite old, this lament acknowledged centuries of abuse and betrayal and the profound depression – or unquenchable desire for vengeance – they produce. Whether Hebrew or Greek, patriarchs feared rivals among their subjects or children, pursued the most terrible of initiations and slaughtered the innocent, teaching the survivors to become killers themselves. Jesus was acknowledging that Western culture had already reduced the old rituals of initiation, of the symbolic death of the child, into literal child sacrifice.
Nearly two thousand years after that, Wilfred Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, written from the trenches of Northern France in 1917, acknowledges that the fathers of modernity continue to enact this child sacrifice on a massive scale.
…When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Women, of course, have always understood this. African-American writer bell hooks writes:
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.
We all know this in our bones. Our souls all came into this life with the old expectations intact, that we would be wrapped in protective layers of myth and community. So the idea of that long-gone, convivial relationship between men and gods is profoundly important because it reminds us that there were times when myth symbolically described macrocosmic dimensions of the world in terms that enabled people to situate themselves individually, or microcosmically. How did this happen? Ritual and other forms of culture, with their mesocosmic function, mediated between the two. By analogy, consider the atmospheric ozone layer. It mediates between living things and necessary but harmful solar radiation, allowing an appropriate flow between the worlds.
We can think of the macrocosm as the unitary dimension of experience in which all polarities are resolved. It is both transcendent as divinity and immanent as nature. We humans make up the microcosm that reflects it. But direct, unmediated experience of the macrocosm – the rush of overwhelming archetypal energies – is far too intense for humans. Consider Semele again, how she demanded that Zeus appear in his true form. With the mesocosm (his human form) removed, she was exposed to a cosmic intensity that no mortal could endure. In psychological terms, she became exposed to vast unconscious energies and went mad. In spiritual terms, the mystic (or psychedelic) vision opens up new worlds of perception, but often by destroying one’s ego boundaries or sense of self. Or in mythic terms, the birth of Dionysus results in the collapse of those walls, as they do in the story of the Bacchae by Euripides.
Culture (as true education, storytelling, poetry, all forms of art, elegant language, communal ceremony and intentional ritual) used to make up the mesocosm. It wrapped individuals and societies in protective containers of story, and its rituals produced continually creative relationships between macro- and microcosm, between this world and the other world, between society and nature, between men and women, between personal and transpersonal and between self and Other. This is what we mean by a reciprocal relationship. It involved a recognition of human capacity and the willingness to think in metaphoric, poetic terms, rather than in rigid belief systems.
The Binding of Isaac remains the foundational mythic narrative underlying Western Culture. In the context of our contemporary crises of masculinity and the environment, it speaks to a time when the wisest among us (the poets) knew that the advent of patriarchal society had – perhaps permanently – rendered these old connections.
To understand how all this broke down is to recite the history of Western culture. The Hebrews and the Greeks knew it was happening; for some of them, the transition from mythos to logos, from symbolic thinking to belief; from participation mystique to monotheism and eventually to the scientific world view may have been worth the trouble. This is not the forum to argue such an immensely complicated issue. But from then on, “the divine” would mean only one of two things: either a rationale for a rigidly ordered, clock-like hierarchy and deep suppression of feminine values, or an opiate of the masses.
Catholicism did attempt to create a working mesocosm by converting many of the old Pagan (“hill people”) deities into its vast array of saints, who could intercede between humans and God. But the Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought new emphasis on individualism and rational science over revealed truth. These changes accelerated the breakdown of the mythic containers that had provided us with meaning and identity. The mesocosm collapsed further, the veils were lifted and Western man found himself alone and alienated, desperate for authoritarian leaders, fundamentalist assurances and the distractions scapegoats and wars. Men would begin by sending their sons to die for Christ and end by sending them to kill for Christ. Eventually, they would be content to be entertained by simply watching such abominations on electronic screens.
As the religious mesocosm collapsed, secular movements (fascism and communism) motivated millions to similar extremes of sacrifice. Although religious symbols have largely lost their power, the heritage of “chosen people” and “holy war” persists in the modern psyche, which still equates the salvation of one people with the destruction of another. Although religious revivals periodically occur, they are generally characterized by grim, literal interpretations of their own myths, hatred of the body and of women, and brutal contempt for anyone who questions their basic assumptions.
Sociologist Max Weber called this condition the “disenchantment of the world.” For a deeper analysis of how our original, creative imagination devolved over time into these conditions, see my essay A Vacation in Chaos.
In the extreme, such a world evokes either of two ideological gestures. The first is that we must rush to save it – and that any level of violence we utilize is justified. For a thousand years, Christians have slaughtered their way across the globe, very often with the sincere intention of bringing God’s truth to the unenlightened. As Campbell wrote, “Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world.” C.S. Lewis wrote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
The second gesture is to hope fervently for the total demise of this world. Now, tens of millions are obsessed with the Biblical idea of apocalypse. We can hardly minimize the actual dangers we confront. Yet to examine the fear, or, if we were honest, the anticipation that fundamentalists display, is to approach the psychic energy that drives us: the archetypal cry for initiation. At the root, apocalypse is a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the ego in the process of transformation. But it is precisely our modern literalization and inability to think metaphorically that prevents us from seeing this.
People once knew that “apocalypse” means “to lift the veil”. At the end of an age, we can see truths that have been veiled behind outdated myths. However, when an entire civilization ignores the invitation, then, in Yeats’ words, it is a “rough beast,” instead of a divine child, that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
Can we really imagine the price we have paid to live in a demythologized world? Can we even conceive of times when culture and nature together held and protected our ancestors? Few of us have any sense of just how much we have lost, how deeply diminished our lives have been. We literally cannot imagine it. Who can remember how much they have forgotten? Assuming that disconnection, alienation and constant violence are natural, we “normal neurotics” rely upon ego defenses that substitute for the old mesocosmic structures. Ernest Becker wrote that only psychological repression “…makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world.”
It is also a deeply frightening world. Social institutions rarely offer meaning, except in times of great crisis. Then, with our paranoid imaginations racing out of control, we project evil upon convenient scapegoats. And, as Benjamin Franklin noted, we exchange liberty for safety. We offer our allegiance to political leaders, upon whom we project the archetypal image of the King. The demythologized world has resulted in an unprecedented diminishment of the creative imagination. In many places, it has replaced mythical Kings who served the entire cosmos with rulers beholden to increasingly smaller circles of “us” bounded by increasingly larger circles of “them.” The logical conclusion of this process is rule by narcissists who, like George W. Bush, announced that he heard directly from God, or French King Louis XIV, who claimed to be the state.
But if we slow down, turn off the devices, breathe deeply and allow ourselves to feel, we feel exposed. The sacred, with both its awesome and terrible faces, burns us like direct, cancerous solar rays. This is a dispirited world, since we long ago rejected the mesocosmic “spirits” who connected us to this immense and incomprehensible universe. We stand exposed to old, patriarchal conditions: raw opposition between irreconcilable polarities. We speak of alienation, but tribal people would say that we are a culture of uninitiated people, who simply don’t know who we are.
So we fear – perhaps we wish – that we are at the edge of catastrophe (“to turn downward”). We veil our anxieties but know we must ultimately face a vast, ancestral grief that edges closer with each headline.
This is the condition Calasso was describing, in which modern humankind is so “indifferent” to the gods – to the vast, unseen, ancestral worlds of spirit both around us and within us that we are blind to “all the light we cannot see”. But because we cannot live without some kind of mesocosm to mediate between us and ultimate reality, we have spent the last 3,000 years fabricating poor-quality substitutes (again: fundamentalism, consumerism, nationalism, colonialism, addiction, the culture of celebrity) for the mythic and cultural forms that once protected us. Perhaps the greatest irony of this utterly un-religious situation is that tens of millions of Americans praise a God of love but practice a religion of hate.
The past two years of isolation, social distancing, fear of contagion and polarized argument have brought this condition into deep focus (a condition, by the way, that People of Color and poor people have always known). On a personal note, I realized that I had been part of a community that came together nearly every month, often in large public gatherings, for twenty-five years, to recite poetry. This was my mesocosm of community and deep ritual that had kept me sane in a mad world, and suddenly it was taken away. I’m sure you have your own tales to tell.