The Winding Cabbala: Yeats’ Use of Cabbalistic Mythology of Spiritualization and Imagination in ‘A Woman Young and Old’

Necessary reading for this post:

“The Two Trees” can be found here.

A Woman Young and Old can be found here.

The series A Woman Young and Old echoes Yeats’ and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s cabbalist mythology of the Lower Self being rescued by the Higher Self and their interpretations of the myths of the Perseus and Andromeda arc. The Golden Dawn mythology explains that through the imaginative faculty the Higher Self liberates the Lower Self from dogma and strict materialism. The Lower Self is Andromeda, who tends toward lust and materialism, who does the dragon’s or serpent’s will. The Higher Self is the heroic Perseus, who, using the tools of the Nymphs to whom Hermes and Athena led him, instills inspiration and imagination into the Lower Self, freeing her from the chains of habit and philosophical materialism. Philosophical materialism is defined in this essay as the belief that all that can be known about the world can be known only through sense perception. Philosophical materialism stunts psychological and spiritual growth because the philosophical materialist lacks the imaginative faculty which can lead to such growth. The imaginative faculty is the ability in man’s consciousness to consider and perceive images and sensations that are not readily available in everyday experiences through the five senses. This essay aims to show that though most critics believe Yeats gave up on what they perceive as childish magical beliefs of the Golden Dawn after the Celtic Twilight, Yeats dedicates A Woman Young and Old to his experience with and knowledge of the mythology of the liberating imaginative faculty in the Golden Dawn system of magic, even borrowing their images and mythological interpretations. The mythology he disguises so easily in his later poetry (or clothes in the mythology of A Vision) appears also in his early prose and poetry, including “The Two Trees” – which contrasts the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (of the Garden of Eden myth).

Criticism on the series of poems in question – A Woman Young and Old – appears rather sparse, though with such a limited time and such a small scope for this essay, reading all of the available criticism on the series would still be impossible. From my research, however, I have discovered that no one critic has applied the Golden Dawn system of magic and mythology to this series of poems in particular. Carole Vopat authored in 1992 one explicatory article printed on the series of poems, titled “The Darker Vision of W.B. Yeats: ‘A Woman Young and Old,’” which borrows from a plethora of other sources, yet it is a wholly literal and thematic explication and analysis of the series and contains no spiritual or mythological interpretation and application. I aim to alleviate the lack of a spiritual and psychological interpretation of the series of poems by interpreting them using the Golden Dawn tarot, various primary and secondary Golden Dawn documents, other mythologies, and the structure of the Tree of Life in general.

In “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Fool,” Joan Weatherly poignantly explains that though many critics are quick to mention Yeats’ association with the Golden Dawn and his occult practices, the association is usually drawn to “be dismissed as a youthful dalliance which the mature poet outgrew with the Celtic Twilight” (112). Later, she explains that the tarot and the Golden Dawn were in fact essential to his poetry; especially important, she argues, is the concept of the neophyte Fool’s movement through phases of initiation into the understanding of occult principles. The Fool, Weatherly argues, symbolizes the “‘pure mind’ and the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ in which ‘those masterful images’ grew” and Yeats “employed [forbidden secrets of the Golden Dawn] throughout his career” (119). Illuminating Yeats’ uses of the tarot Fool in his various works in turn supports a mythological interpretation of A Woman Young and Old through the Golden Dawn’s cabbalism. The mythological interpretation of this series echoes the neophyte’s initation – a discovery of imagination, liberation from philosophical materialism, and a climb in consciousness up the cabbalistic Tree of Life.

Another useful critical article pertinent to this essay is Kathleen Raine’s “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn.” I subscribe, as does Raine, to the notion that

merely academic study of magical symbolism may be likened to the analysis of musical scores by a student who does not know that the documents he meticulously annotates are merely indications for the evocation of music from instruments of whose very existence he is ignorant. (Raine 112)

This assumes an ambiguity and abstractness to the study of the symbolic meanings of Yeats and other symbolist poets, though this essay will attempt to be as perspicuous and pragmatic as possible.  Raine goes on in her article to highlight the ways in which Yeats makes use of the archetypal images of the tarot in his literature, explaining that these images are like “keys” that “awaken their sleeping counterparts in the mind” (134). Though she analyzes Yeats’ poetry using the tarot and other occult beliefs, there is no mention of the poems of A Woman Young and Old. This essay will borrow some of her tarotical and archetypal methodology of reading Yeats. Additionally, a particularly poignant quote from Yeats about the alchemical image of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood on page 145 will be used to illuminate the symbolical meaning of “Her Vision in a Wood” – self-sacrifice of the poet in an attempt to heal mankind.

Yasuko Suzuki in “Yeats’s ‘From the “Antigone’”: Desire and Loss” describes the last poem in the Woman Young and Old series in relation to Yeats’ three Oedipus plays. According to Suzuki, Yeats’ desire for a return to a “romantic heroic age” is reflected in the themes of the Oedipus plays and in the coda poems of both of the Young and Old series. Suzuki argues that “Yeats must surely have felt encouraged and hoped…that he might yet, through his poetic drama, elevate the Irish people to embrace the legends, folklore, and literature of their past and thereby recover the heroic Romantic age” (49). If the final poem of A Woman Young and Old is a (somewhat morose) call for the heroic age (and it seems it is), then, as will be shown in this essay, the rest of the series is a mythological outline of Yeats’ own experience awakening that mode of thinking, that spiritual and heroic age, in his own consciousness.

Yeats assures of this fact – that poetry is a quarrel with one’s own psyche – in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. To quarrel with one’s psyche in writing is to write poetry: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Later in the same paragraph he talks of how one awakens the imaginative faculty – a gift from the figure of Hermes – in our minds: “He can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed wanderer” (Per Amica V). For Yeats, in order to make inner changes and achieve spiritual growth, we must awaken the imagination and strive for the greatest imaginable empathy. Hermes’ gifts must be the winged sandals and the helmet of Hades (which grants invisibility to Perseus). Here and throughout his work, Yeats alludes to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s interpretations and uses of various mythological systems. The systems of Rosicrucian, Egyptian, Greek, medieval and Renaissance magic all find their place in the system of the Golden Dawn, and thus we see that Hermes plays a role in rescuing the materialist human, instilling him with imagination and sympathy.

In his book Yeats and Alchemy, Gorski analyzes at one point the ways in which Yeats treats imagination and sympathy with regard to the magical and poetic tradition. Gorski explains that

although Yeats thought the previous two centuries were primarily a barren intellectual age cut off from the passionate depths of the unconscious, he found in Blake an anomalous flowering of the symbolic imagination. “He [Blake] had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, ‘the body of God,’ ‘the Divine Members,’ and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sin commanded by Christ” (E&I 112). (Gorski 22-3)

For Yeats, the goal of the mythology to which he subscribed (a syncretic, inclusive one) was a development of the imaginative and therefore sympathetic faculty. As one climbs to greater rungs or steps of awareness along the path outlined in many traditions, one achieves a sympathy for all mankind, both sinful and righteous. We can see this mythology reflected throughout Yeats’ work, and especially, as we will see, in A Woman Young and Old. The mythological figures in the series can be easily equated to symbolic figures in the Golden Dawn magical tradition, and that is where this argument of this essay begins.

The Lovers card of the Golden Dawn tarot shows a scenario much like the one described in Yeats’ “Her Triumph,” and, after having seen the card, to not attempt some association between the poem and the various figures in the series and the image on the card and the figures therein (Perseus and Andromeda) would be absurd. The tarot card shows a naked woman with her hands fettered to a large rock on a small rock platform, which rises just above sea level, and a dragon threatens her from nearby in the waters just below. From above, a man, a Perseus figure, descends equipped with helmet, sword, and shield. His helmet bears a pair of wings, and his shield bears the symbol of the sun, from which twelve rays emanate. “Her Triumph” recreates much the same scenario: the title character of the series, the woman, was at one time similarly fettered and under threat of a dragon figure; the woman “did the dragon’s will” (1) until her “Saint George or else a pagan Perseus” (10) who “mastered” the dragon-rings came and “broke the chain and set [her] ankles free” (9). Indeed, the tarot trump (with which Yeats was familiar) and “Her Triumph” imagine for their audience the same scenario: Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Poseidon’s sea monster. Though both imagine the same scenario, the connection does not end there.

The Lovers
The Lovers (from the Golden Dawn Classic Tarot)

The imagined scenario symbolizes for Golden Dawn members a psychological transformation that is to them magical in nature. In a description of the tarot trumps compiled in Israel Regardie’s The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, G. H. Soror Q. L. explains that the card symbolizes the “impact of inspiration on intuition, resulting in illumination and liberation – the sword striking off the fetters of habit and materialism, Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the Dragon of fear and the waters of Stagnation.” MacGregor Mathers similarly describes the signification of this image in his short treatise on the tarot:

[The Lovers] is usually described as representing Man between Vice and Virtue, while a winged genius threatens Vice with his dart…[but] I am rather inclined to the opinion that it represents the Qabalistical Microprosopus between Binah and Malkuth, while the figure above shows the Influence descending from Kether. It is usually considered to mean Proof or Trial; but I…suggest Wise Disposition as [the card’s] signification. (MacGregor Mathers 7)

MacGregor Mathers and other cabbalists define the Microprosopus (from mikros “small” and prosopon “face”), equivalent to a symbolic Virgin Mary, as the nine Sephiroth on the Tree of Life below Kether (that is, Chokmah through Malkuth), and thus M. Mathers precludes only one Sephira from his interpretation of the female figure from the scenario. The figure from above is the influence from the topmost Sephira on the Tree of Life, Kether, that doesn’t merely conquer the unvirtuous, but conquers the unspiritual, materialistic consciousness. The figure from above, Yeats’ Perseus, conquers the dragon’s will to liberate the Microposopus figure – the title figure of Yeats’ A Woman series – from the earthly fetters to “stare astonished at the sea” (“Her Triumph” 11). With the figures of the series identified as figures of consciousness and imagination in a cabbalistic mythological context, it will be apt to begin interpreting the cabbalistic climb of the Tree from the beginning of the A Woman Young and Old series, after a brief summary of the system of the cabbala.

The Cabbalistic Tree of Life

I use the term “cabbala” with a ‘c’ because Yeats uses this spelling throughout his essays and other writings. Though this term traditionally concerns the purely Christian application to the mythology contained in the Tree of Life, I will use this term universally throughout this essay despite the Greek and hermetic mixture of symbols throughout the series here analyzed. The Tree of Life of the cabbala maps or outlines the “potencies and potentialities” of human consciousness, and each of ten Sephiroth, the spheres of these influences, represents steps toward a fuller mastery over consciousness. The Sephiroth are organized in three columns, the first Sephira, Kether (the Macroprosopus – “big face” – or Crown), being placed at the top of the middle pillar. The second Sephira Chokmah (Wisdom) is placed just below on the right-hand pillar, and Binah (Understanding), the third, is placed on the left-hand pillar opposite this one. The fourth, Chesed (Mercy), is placed a row below the second and third on the right-hand side, and the fifth, Geburah (Severity) returns back again to the left pillar. From here, the sixth Sephira Tiphereth (Beauty) rests in the central column in its own row. Netzach (Victory), the seventh, is below on the right-hand side of the Tree in a new row, and the eighth, Hod (Splendor), returns again to the left-hand column. Yesod (Foundation) is placed in the center column below the seventh and eighth spheres of influence, alone in a row directly above the final sphere, Malkuth (Kingdom), where in the mythological system the human consciousness naturally resides. This Tree of Life, this spiritual growth and ascension is reflected in Yeats’ image of the “winding stair” in the collection in which A Woman appears. Belief in the cabbalistic Tree of Life can be glimpsed throughout Yeats’ poetry, though reference to it appears most explicitly in “The Two Trees.”

A cabbalistic interpretation of the Judaic Garden of Eden myth lies at the base of “The Two Trees.” The tree in the first stanza is the Tree of Life (the cabbalistic one) and the tree in the second stanza is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrasting a “union and separation from the divine source” (Gorski 39). The tree in the first stanza of “The Two Trees” is described as a “holy tree” (2) that we may seek and find if we “gaze in [our] own heart[s]” (1). To gaze in our own hearts is to gaze on our own psyche, our own consciousness, and cabbalism seeks union with the unconscious potencies of our mind. The other tree, however, the Tree of Knowledge, contains the “ravens of unresting thought” (34) and is seen only through the “bitter glass [mirror]” (21) that “the demons, with their subtle guile, / lift up before us when they pass” (22-3). Gazing at the outer, bitter Tree of Knowledge makes our “eyes grow all unkind” (39) while looking within for the tree makes “our eyes grow full of tender care” (19). This bitter glass is the strict materialism to which the dragon’s will in “Her Triumph” refers; it is the outer weariness that contrasts with the inner, divine source that can be known through the ascension of the Tree of Life, an ascension that is portrayed for us through veiled symbolism in A Woman Young and Old.

The first poem of the series, “Father and Child,” represents the beginning of the cabbalist’s mythological journey up the Tree of Life that begins in Malkuth. At the beginning of the cabbalist’s journey, a discovery of Mask – a tutelary spiritual being, in spiritual traditions the Holy Guardian Angel, and Christ as the shepherd in the Christian cabbala – appears halfway up the Tree of Life, in Tiphereth. This Mask is symbolized in the series as the woman’s “face…/ Before the world was made” (7-8), and guides one to the discovery of the fullness of the self, symbolic of a pull in one’s psyche toward individualization, Yeats’ One, and away from the collective psychology, Yeats’ Many. This is the same figure that descends from the clouds in Yeats’ “Her Triumph” and the image on the Lovers of the tarot, the figure MacGregor Mathers called the “Influence descending from Kether” (7). This figure, the Higher Self, comes to save the Lower Self from the dragon or the sea monster in the mythology of the Golden Dawn and represents a finality in liberation from the materialist mindset. When the woman (the Lower Self) achieves this influence, she achieves the imaginative faculty and a more conscious life and, indeed, a voice.

An image of the cabbala appears with a male figure and a female figure laid over the top in the twenty-eighth folio of the Cypher Manuscript, which was used in the founding rituals and mythological beliefs of the Golden Dawn. On either side of the supernal triad (Kether, Chokmah, and Binah contained in a circle above the male’s head) appear the Hebrew words “Elohim” on the left – one of the many names of God – and “Aima” on the right – meaning “mother.” The man appears with a cross figure behind him, his left hand rests in Chesed, and his right hand rests in Geburah. His genitals are positioned directly in the center of Tiphereth. Netzach and Hod lie on opposite sides of his thighs, and his feet rest in Yesod. The woman’s head lies just below Yesod, as if the male figure stands on the crown of her head, and Malkuth rests directly over her stomach. Analogy between this image from the MS. and A Woman Young and Old comes easily: the male’s genitals residing in the sphere of influence which the Lower Self discovers first explains the sexual nature of the arc of the poetry.

Page 28 of The Cipher Manuscript, one of the foundational documents of the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

In “Father and Child” the Microprosopus does not have a voice: she only “hears [her father] strike the board” as he denounces her desires for the Mask figure in this short poem. This signifies that the father disapproves of the use of the Microprosopus’ imagination. The woman is in the first stages of the climb toward spiritual growth in this poem, the first phase of the moon in Yeats’ Great Wheel in A Vision. The father figure denies the woman a voice and desires to keep her in the primary phases, the Many, in which she is a product of circumstance. She sets her sights on a male figure, however: the Higher Self or Mask, whose “hair is beautiful” (7) and “Cold as the March wind his eyes” (8). To achieve spiritual growth, she must exercise her imagination, but her father denounces her association with the male figure.

In “Before the World was Made,” the woman looks for her true face in the mirror, symbolizing her search for self-knowledge and her spirit within her. In “mirror after mirror” (5) the woman looks “for the face I had / Before the world was made” (7-8). She escapes from the oppressive captivity of the father and is now able to perform self-reflection and achieve self-knowledge and therefore spiritual growth. In the magical tradition, magicians use a mirror for the practice of scrying. Scryers use mirrors to see spiritual visions, visions that arise from the subconscious and the imagination.  Though mirrors, crystals, or other gazing devices are usually used, Bill Whitcomb notes that “anything which one can focus the sight upon, yet does not produce a definite image, may be used as a blank matrix in which the mind may impose its own order” (Whitcomb 536). Literature or scripture may be used, where the imagination is given to wandering toward the spirit, as in George Herbert’s “The Holy Scriptures I”: “Ladies, look here; this is the thankfull glasse, / that mends the lookers eyes: this is the well / That washes what it shows.” This is not to say that the conscious mind imposes this order – it’s quite the opposite. The magicians set their imaginations loose upon a blank matrix – mirrors, scripture, or other objects of concentration – and give their minds or imaginations a will of their own to discover the true spirit behind their nature. Using her imagination through scrying (or reading), the woman (at this point a symbol for the Microprosopus at its lower aspects) climbs the Tree of Life toward her Higher Self to eventually achieve consummation – Yeats’ Unity of Being – at Tiphereth.

The consummation comes at the fifth poem of the series, “Consolation.” The antimonies of Malkuth (the collective psychology marked by outward, material consciousness) or the early primary phases and Tiphereth (an individualization marked by gazing inward at one’s own true spirit) or the middling antithetical phases, though opposite, console one another. Similarly, in Yeats’ A Vision, when the Will reaches the fifteenth phase, the personality’s Mask is then in Phase 0, its complete opposite, which is “where the crime’s committed” (11) and where “[t]he crime can be forgot” (12). When the will of the Microprosopus in the Golden Dawn mythology reaches Tiphereth, there is similarly a “little death” at that point: the Golden Dawn places the tarot card “Death” on one side of Tiphereth and the card “Justice” on the other. On the Justice card, there are scales, symbolizing a balance of chance and choice.

After consummating, after the “little death” of sexual release, a balance comes, portrayed in “Chosen” (named such, perhaps, because of Yeats’ concept of unity of chance and choice). The balance is a realization that the Lower Self – marked by circumstance – and the Higher Self – marked by choice – are one. The woman appears to have been divining, or scrying, on the Zodiac for her love, so that she could imagine and move toward her Higher Self (the male in the stories): “The lot of love is chosen. I learnt that much / Struggling for an image on the track / Of the whirling Zodiac” (1-3). After lying with the male, the woman desires to stay with him in “Parting.”

In “Her Vision in the Wood,” the woman achieves a state of self-sacrifice in attempt to “cover / Whatever could recall the lip of lover” (7-8). This covering is a covering of the written word with one’s spirit, in an attempt to bring others to union with their Higher Self. Yeats discusses this sacrifice in a pamphlet addressed to the Order of R. R. and A. C.:

The great Adept may indeed have to hide much of his deepest life, lest he tell it to the careless and the indifferent, but he will sorrow and not rejoice over this silence, for he will be always seeking ways of giving the purest substance of his soul to fill the emptiness of other souls. It will seem to him better that his soul be weakened, that he be kept wandering on the earth even, than that other souls should lack anything of strength and quiet….He will remember, while he is with them, the old magical image of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood; and when, his sacrifice over, he goes his way to supreme Adeptship, he will go absolutely alone, for men attain to the supreme wisdom in a loneliness that is like the loneliness of death. (qtd. in Raine 145)

The “magical image of the pelican feeding its young” is an alchemical image which is closely linked to Christ’s sacrifice for mankind on the cross. Adepts act as Christ, in that they sacrifice their perfected human existence in order to fill the souls of others. The woman in “Her Vision in the Wood,” like the alchemical pelican, tears the flesh of her finger off and lets blood, the “wine” that makes us think of the spirit of Christ, drip down. The dark then “changed to red, and torches shone, / And deafening music shook the leaves” (12-3), signifying the creation of poetry. The Adept here (Yeats himself), struck with every imaginable pang, cuts his own figurative flesh to share with mankind through poetry, which music so often signifies in Yeats’ work. For the woman, the blood is a figurative wine, but for the Higher Self, it is real blood, as she cries out: “I stared upon his blood-bedabbled breast / And sang my malediction with the rest” (23-4). The sacrifice is one that attempts to bring others up the mythological Tree of Life through the use of symbol and song. Although the woman wants to lead others to the unfoldment of their consciousness and towards living more fully, the last poem expresses at the same time this same desire but a failure, as Antigone falls into the dust.

The last poem of the series, as Suzuki argues, cries out finally for a spiritual and imaginative reinvigoration in the consciousness of humankind. The poem is a call to the path which Yeats outlines in the previous ten poems of the series. The apocalypse to which Yeats always points is a call to this path: a discovery of Hermes and his gift of the hermetic imaginative faculty; a journey through symbol and scrying upon mirrors, literature, and scripture; of feeling the highest influence from Kether and slaying finally the propensity toward materialist thoughts. In Yeats’ Antigone, Suzuki points out, his speaker “celebrates Love and invokes it to unleash its power to ‘overcome’ all things,” the same “terrible” Love which in Sophocles’ play the Chorus says “drives men to frenzy and madness” (Suzuki 112). This Love is a Love for the spiritual or Higher Self whose genitals the author of the Cipher Manuscript placed at the sphere of Beauty, Tiphereth, which Yeats calls phase 15 in his A Vision. Yeats calls in the last poem of A Woman Young and Old for this love to


The rich man and his affairs,
The fat flocks and the fields’ fatness…

Overcome Gods upon Parnassus. (1-6)

This is indeed an apocalyptic call for spiritual reinvigoration and the discovery and reorganization of the unconscious influences in one’s mind, and to discover the Higher Self upon one’s climb through these influences. The rich man and his affairs is associated with the materialism and desire for power so prevalent in the west. Susuki goes on to explain that though Yeats desires a cultural renaissance and for Ireland to achieve again the romantic heroic age, Yeats is “forced to acknowledge sadly the irreversibility of history, and so he chooses to conclude The Winding Stair and Other Poems with the finality of Antigone’s death” (58): “Pray I will and sing I must, / And yet I weep – Oedipus’ child / Descends into the loveless dust” (14-6). Though he calls for a spiritualization of humanity, he realizes that in his old age he has not succeeded; Antigone descends into the dust, without frenzy, without the ability to overcome and consummate with the Higher Self as Yeats appears to have done through the cabbalistic Golden Dawn mythology.

As can be seen, Yeats calls throughout his poetry for his readers to ascend the Winding Stair which symbolizes spiritual growth. This growth is marked by a reinvigoration of the imaginative faculty, through which we can overthrow the gods and achieve an excellence and perfection of selfhood, free of unconscious influences (which are the gods). The cabbalists’ climb up the Tree of Life in their consciousness allows them to experience life more consciously and more fully as they “Overcome Gods upon Parnassus; Overcome the Empyrean” (“From the ‘Antigone’” 6-7). The Golden Dawn embodied this hermetic, cabbalistic mythology, and Yeats borrows from it extensively in his poetic symbolism. Despite what critics may say about Yeats’ early involvement with magic, spirits, the Golden Dawn, and other occult practices and strange beliefs, these beliefs are and were essential to his poetry. It is often remarked that “had Yeats produced nothing beyond the nineties he would today be unknown” (Weatherly 119) but without these beliefs from Golden Dawn’s mythology of expansion of consciousness, the tarot, alchemy, and all else, as Weatherly says, “many of the great twentieth-century poems might not have been” (Weatherly 119-120). In order for him to build up his own mythological and symbolic system, he had to borrow and conjoin various systems from traditions of Greek mythology, poetry, and drama, Pythagorean and Paracelsian alchemy, astrology, hermetic qabalah, Christian cabbala, Egyptian mythology, and Blake’s poetry to create a syncretic, Yeatsian whole.

The map presented to us in Yeats’ poetry for psychological expansion is difficult to grasp, even ethereal and insubstantial. Yeats’ work does point to something though, which can be contemplated and uncovered for individuals in their own individual imaginations. The growth in spirit to which he calls is an interplay and synthesis of many symbolic narratives, like faeries dancing around in our imaginations. If this mythology does affect consciousness, whatever synapses these faeries fire may be powerful indeed. Yeats’ maps and models, taken from the syncretic mythology of the Golden Dawn and other traditions, guide the student of hermeticism in this transformative process, sometimes called the Path of the Serpent of the system of the cabbala.

Want to see more blogs like this? Check out my “Recommended Reading” at the top of this page.

Works Cited

Gorski, William T. Yeats and Alchemy. New York: State of NY UP, 1996.

Grimal, Pierre. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1991.

MacGregor Mathers, Samuel Liddell. The Tarot: Its Occult Signficance, Use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc. San Francisco: Weiser, 1969. PDF.

Raine, Kathleen. “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn.” The Sewanee Review 77.1 (1969): 112-48. JSTOR. Web. 14 May 2013.

Regardie, Israel. The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. Tempe, AZ: Falcon, 1994.

Suzuki, Yasuko. “Yeats’s ‘From the “Antigone”’: Desire and Loss.” The Harp 15 (2000): 47-58. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2013.

Weatherly, Joan. “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Fool.” College Literature. 13.1 (1986): 112-21. JSTOR. Web. 14 May 2013.

Whitcomb, Bill. The Magician’s Companion: A Practical and Encyclopedic Guide to Magical and Religious Symbolism. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999.


Mind, Spirituality, and Symbolic Language

I would like to apologize for my admittedly Eurocentric views; I have limited knowledge of non-Western languages (and even many of their mythologies) and this lack is very much reflected in my research.

“I have failed in my foremost task – to open people’s eyes [to the fact] that man has a soul, that there is a buried treasure in the field, and that our religion and philosophy are in a lamentable state.” Carl Jung, in a letter just before his death in 1961

I had a conversation earlier today with an atheist. He denied the existence of God (specifically the Christian God), because (I assume) he was raised Christian and in part resents his literalist, fundamentalist parents. His views are, I think, unintentionally distorted. Do not get me wrong – I am not on his parents’ side either. You see, their understanding is (probably) incorrect too. There is no side to take; they both suffer from the same misunderstanding.


[Athena is born from Zeus’ head]

It seems a foolish belief because it really is – Zeus gets a migraine after swallowing one of his innumerable concubines in fly-form, a Titan comes to fix it with an axe (how else?), and out pops Athena (pictured above). Odin hangs upside-down from a tree limb for nine nights and from this test of endurance invents the runic alphabet. Hermes, the messenger god, prankster, magician, and our guide through the underworld, lends Perseus his magic sandals so he may fly to defeat Medusa, a woman with snakes for hair. An angry god rains hellfire upon a city for not acting “godly” or “righteously,” and Moses lifts a snake up on a staff in a desert to cure his people of poison. Ridiculous, right? Well… yes and no.


[Moses lifts the serpent on the staff]


[Hermes stares deeply at his caduceus]

In constructing a “big picture” of symbolic literature, I will take you through many philosophies and theories, moving from belief in allegory, to the nature of “symbolic” language, and finally to unconscious repressions and archetypal symbols. Ultimately I will argue that language can be (and is in many stories) a fourfold act, and that repressed desires of the psyche pour from the unconscious, into the conscious mind, and onto the page as symbolic narrative. These narratives become our literature – mostly religion, mythology, and a bit of philosophy – and our ritual. The first step in understanding this process lies in a deepened perspective of the symbolic and allegorical possibilities of language.

Language is a system of signs that point to images or ideas. Let us call signs the signifier(s) and the images or ideas the signified or images.  As I type these words (signifiers) I am meaning for you to call upon the ideas and images in my mind (signified), and not the words themselves nor the material cause of their construction (my moving fingers on the keys).

In Book I of his On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine outlines the “signifier” and “signified” aspects of language, but then he explains that there is a third entity in the mix. Signs may signify an image or object (a “thing” in the following translation), but that object in turn often signifies something else:

All doctrine concerns either things or signs, but things are learned by signs. Strictly speaking, I have here called a “thing” that which is not used to signify something else, like wood, stone, cattle, and so on; but not that wood concerning which we read that Moses cast it into bitter waters that their bitterness might be dispelled, nor that stone which Jacob placed at his head, nor that beast which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son. For these are things in such a way that they are also signs of other things. (translated by D.W. Robertson)

So on the one hand, we have a sign (“ox”) which points to an actual ox, but that ox also points to something else. This may be obvious to many of my readers, especially if the reader has any kind of background in literature. Indeed, when Plato’s Socrates in Book VII of The Republic refers to the man in the cave, the shadows cast on the wall by the fire, and the blinding light of the sun, the reader is to understand these things as signs also. That is, the images may – and do – act as signs/signifiers themselves.

Now let me speak briefly about philology. (See my first blog for a more detailed and expanded version of this idea.) Philology is the study of language change and language differences – historical linguistics. It is generally accepted – by philosophers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jeremy Bentham (an early positivist), Owen Barfield, and others – that signs for concepts that are ethereal, spiritual, psychological or otherwise unseen began first to refer to something material and perceptible (in the Proto Indo-European family, strictly speaking, as that is the only language with which, quite regrettably, I am familiar). Right and wrong (from OE) originally mean “straight” and “crooked,” respectively. Express (from Latin) means “to squeeze” (press) “out” (ex-). Dubious (Latin) means “vacillating two ways” and comes from the same root as the English words “two” and “doubt,” and transgress means “the crossing of a line.” And, finally, to add something spiritual in nature, spirit (L.) means (or meant) “wind” or “breath” (hence respire and inspire). Though these are only six examples, I hope they will suffice in showing the material nature of seemingly immaterial ideas. In our basic language used for ethics, argument, spirituality, and psychology, we can see the third aspect beyond signs and their images. Words such as these (in the PIE family) note some imagined or unseen aspect of our mind, or the “spirit world.”  This aspect I will call the meaning, and I will define meaning as “the imperceptible concept and/or associations which an image may convey.” I have established so far three layers of language: the sign, the image, and the meaningThe meaning is now (seemingly) the signified concept to which some signs (like the six examples above) refer. However, we are merely omitting the symbol (the image) that once mediated the sign and meaning

I will turn to Jungian psychology (and Freudian, in a lesser way) now to introduce a fourth layer of language and to sufficiently complicate matters further. Jung theorized, and maintained after literally dozens of years of personal and professional psychological exploration, that unconscious desires take the form of archetypal or symbolic narratives. This is the fourth aspect of symbolic language. This layer of language is very elusive, so I apologize if the following appears cryptic or is difficult to understand.

Karl Marx was one of the first western philosophers to analyze the necessarily repressive nature of society and its institutions. He explained that the individual must consciously repress certain desires in order to function within society – the family, the tribe, the city, the nation – and its institutions. Sigmund Freud, the coked-up maniac and progenitor of psychoanalysis, first suggested the existence of the unconscious. The unconscious, he said, is an aspect of the mind which is created to store these repressed desires. In turn, these repressed desires appear in our dreams in symbolic (though sometimes candid) forms. Hence we get narratives like Oedipus Rex, in which the repressed desire to have sexual relations with the mother and kill or harm the father comes out in symbolic narrative, resonating deeply with its audience. (Because we all repress this desire, right? [See footnote 1])

Carl Jung, who was deeply influenced by Freud, proposed a fundamentally different model of the unconscious mind. For Jung, the unconscious mind exists a priori to the conscious mind. Indeed, the unconscious gives birth to or contains a seed of consciousness that is separate from itself. As the person grows, consciousness grows.

He also began a string of psychoanalysis called depth psychology and posited the existence of archetypes. Through my many years of research into depth psychology, I’ve been served dozens of definitions of the term archetype. Very loosely, archetypes are universally observable symbolic patterns which derive from instinctual ways of living. Archetypes have also been compared to Plato’s “ideal Forms.” Bill Whitcomb in The Magician’s Reflection defines archetype as 1) “patterns that reflect our instinctual knowledge of successful and unsuccessful ways of living…[that] have no inherent form but are given form by our consciousness as we encounter them” and 2) “the original patterns or models from which others of the same kind are derived.” Edward F. Edinger says that some archetypal energies “transcend the ego and are experienced as numinous.” The archetype is also variously defined as “an idea, mode of thought, or ‘god form’ that has crystallized from the inherited experiences of the species, the ‘collective unconscious’” and as the “original astral form or the ‘mold’ of a phenomenon.”

To give a better definition and greater weight to the notion of “archetype” I must now endeavor more deeply into Jungian psychoanalysis to the realm of individuation. Individuation is a confusing (and at first glance seemingly contradictory) term. In short, individuation is a conscious awareness of the maturation process, integration of personality, and development of the Self. The Self is the final product of the individuation process – the unity of the psyche, the union of opposites. It is fundamental to note that the individuation process does not occur unless the person in question is aware of the processes of the unconscious. That is, one must be actively observing unconscious activity (i.e. dream symbolism) and analyzing the archetypes that come forth from this activity. In the final few stages of the individuation process (Jung, I believe, outlined seven, though please don’t quote me on that) a reintegration of consciousness occurs. That is, the barriers of the ego are broken and more aspects of us and our lives are able to integrate into our sense of Self.

Though the individual goes through the process him- or herself, the individuation process occurs at the cultural level as well; the family, tribe, city, or nation and its institutions encourage a certain level of personality development, of individuation, of ego-consciousness expansion.

As infants we are undifferentiated from our mothers, and our ego-consciousness is almost undifferentiated from our unconscious: our waking life is ruled by our unconscious impulses and the ego-consciousness is very slight. As the conscious mind grows and the ego-consciousness expands, it naturally must repress unconscious desires, pushing them out of awareness. Many unconscious desires are repressed (as Freud and Marx promulgated) because of the conscious mind’s own desires to participate in society (as it is indeed beneficial for the ego to do so in most cases).

In this way, society’s institutions prevent the natural continuation of the individuation process. The individuation process, repressed by the conscious mind, rises into consciousness in various symbolic narratives, particularly in dreams but also in our waking lives. This, Jung says, is where much of our mythology and literature arises. The incorporation of these symbols – through literature, religion, ritual, etc. – in our lives provides us a relationship with our unconscious.

These archetypes arise in forms such as the Earth Mother (Isis, Mary), Messiah (Christ, Mithras), Tyrant (Claudius, Set), Shadow (Grendel), the Axis Mundi (Yggdrasil, Tree of Life, Jacob’s Ladder) and in narratives such as the Journey, Games, the Fall, Marriage, Sacrifice, and Rebirth.

So does Zeus exist? Does God exist? Did Moses exist? Beowulf? King Arthur?

These questions are ultimately in vain and ignore the symbolic value of mythology, religion, ritual, etc.

The fundamentalists’ (and in turn their atheist or anti-theist counterparts’) conception of God is distorted. This conception, I think, resonates with many because of the archetypal appeal of the One.

There exists a conception of God which is healthier and that provides a relationship with the unconscious. This God is still unknowable, still the creator, still both everything and nothing. Let us reformulate and re-conceive the notion of God though to draw toward a healthy relationship with our unconscious mind.

Coda: Hermes, or Mercury, is our guide in the individuation process. First we must do away with the troll mind and incorporate the messenger of the gods into our understanding. Though he is sometimes a trickster, leading us astray because of the finicky and elusive nature of language, Mercury guides us through the four aspects of language I have highlighted here: the sign, the image, the meaning, and the archetype or spiritual aspect. These, by the way, correspond to Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Blake, in his theory of the structure of the human imagination, named in a similar fashion four aspects: Ulro, Generation, Beulah, and Eden.


[Harry awakens the serpent in Philosopher’s Stone]


[the troll grips Harry in Philosopher’s Stone]


[Harry and Ron eventually defeat the troll and befriend Hermione (female equivalent of Hermes)]


[1] Unfortunately for Freud, but fortunately for the rest of us (and Sophocles), we don’t have these desires. Evolutionary biologists have, within the last 20 years, proven that there is a mechanism in our brain that deters us (most of us) from desiring sexual relations with those by whom we are raised and with whom we grew up. This, obviously, is a general principle, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Additionally, Steven Pinker writes: “The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother.”

Material, Mammon, and the Loss of Spirit in Elizabethan Tragedy

In a time of great change in philosophy, technology, religion and culture, Elizabethan playwrights and poets concerned themselves with the loss of spiritual truth in their age.  The tragedies analyzed in this essay – Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflect this loss of connection with and aspiration toward spiritual truth. Through these plays – two externalizations of the inner world of the human psyche or soul – these two playwrights give insight into their own perspectives on the general spiritual problems of the Elizabethan age. In alchemy and the occult, a black magician is a magician who uses his magic to accrue material wealth and superficial knowledge. He is the alchemist who pursues the literal alchemical gold and riches (the biblical Mammon), often invoking the name of Satan to do so. However, a white magician or alchemist pursues the metaphorical alchemical gold, symbolic of the developed, individuated, mature, enlightened self, comparable to the Hindu concept of atma (meaning literally “true self”). Faustus, in Doctor Faustus, is one of the former magicians: he pursues material riches with his spirits. In Hamlet, Shakespeare divides humanity’s spiritual nature into several aspects: Claudius is representative of the corrupt self, King Hamlet is symbolic of the true or higher spiritual self, and Prince Hamlet is the soul of collective humanity; in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the corrupt self has usurped the spiritual self’s position and misguides – and even attempts to eliminate – the soul of humanity. Poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era concerned themselves with this loss of spiritual truth, expressing cause and diagnosis through complex symbol and allegory.

Faustus, a black magician, makes it clear early in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus that he does not understand the conception of the development of the higher self. The chorus introduces him, explaining that “He surfeits upon cursed necromancy” (Prologue.25). He ironically flaunts the “depth of [his studies]” when he explains that “Bene disserere est finis logices” – to carry on a disputation well is the end of logic (1.1.1, 7). To the proud and superficial learner, the purpose of logic may be such; however, the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, otherwise known as the trivium, had a much higher end: the study of the Word and the development of the self. To scholars in the Middle Ages, to study the trivium was to pursue philosophical and spiritual truth, and not, as Faustus professes, to simply dispute well with his brethren. Reason and logic are not ends of themselves, but means to a spiritual end. This utter lack of understanding points also toward the lack of pursuance of spiritual truth dramatized in Marlowe’s tragedy.

Faustus, an unwittingly misguided alchemical pursuant, uses his spirits – his intelligence – to, as the evil angel encourages, “Be…on earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements” (1.i.76-7) to “fetch [himself] what [he] please[s]” (1.1.79). Meanwhile, the good angel begs him to “heap God’s heavy wrath upon thy head: / Read, read the Scriptures…” (1.1.72-3). These Scriptures, the Bible, would help Faustus discover and develop spiritual truth:  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth,” says the Gospel of Matthew “where moth and decay destroy and thieves break in and steal…Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” However, Faustus turns away from scripture to pursue superficial knowledge and material wealth, worshipping Mammon, the false god of material riches of the New Testament.

Doctor Faustus symbolizes humanity, and Faustus’ “tragical history” is a tragical history of humanity up to (and perhaps just past) the authorship of this play. Like Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Faustus attended Wittenberg, where he studied theology. During Marlowe’s life, not a century after Luther’s 95 Theses, a majority of the population of Northern Europe were Lutheran. This fact creates a parallel between our tragical hero, also Germanic, and the population of Northern Europe. Misguided in their pursuits, Marlowe explains, the educated population of Northern Europe worships superficial knowledge, material wealth, and Mammon, and they use their superficial intelligences to be masters of the elements on earth rather than pursue spiritual truth.

In Hamlet, also documenting an ostensibly misguided humanity, in the spirit of the alchemist’s doctrines, Shakespeare represents religio-spiritual aspects of the heavens and earth with several character symbols. If we borrow traditional alchemical symbols, the father figures of the play symbolize aspects of the self. Claudius represents the corrupt self who has usurped his position from King Hamlet, the true spiritual self, now merely a ghost. Prince Hamlet, whose name comes from Hammond, which means “human,” is representative of the soul of humanity (the soul being the religio-spiritual aspect of the human which may commune with the spirit). Gertrude, the soul’s mother, is the material realm. Though other character symbols may be analyzed to complicate and illuminate the spiritual problems highlighted in Hamlet further, these four main characters and religio-spiritual aspects will suffice for this short essay, it being such a short and cursory analysis of these tragedies.

The ghost of King Hamlet explains to his son, Prince Hamlet, late in the night that he is his “father’s spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk in the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires…” (1.5.10-2). In Elizabethan times, the soul was thought to, during the night, leave the physical body to mingle in another realm during the dream state, which is called in occult philosophy the astral plane. Spirits dwelling in this plane are those who have passed from the physical plane. This belief explains why Hamlet’s father is doomed to walk only in the night: the former King Hamlet, the spiritual self and higher spiritual truth, has been eliminated from communion with the human soul. This, of course, occurs during the day, as the Ghost explains:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distillment. (1.v.60-5)

During the day, the spiritual self was sleeping, eventually to be usurped by the baser, false self Claudius. When human consciousness uses its senses most, the false self took dominion over Elsinore. The ‘distillment’ poured into the ear of King Hamlet symbolizes the false self’s thoughts and ideas seeping their way into consciousness through the senses. The name Claudius means “lame,” thus appropriately representing the false self. Though not as explicitly as Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare complicates further the issue by pointing the blame for man’s loss of the spiritual self and truth at Claudius, the corrupt self that controls the senses.

Claudius not only usurps the throne, but usurps the marriage between King Hamlet and Gertrude, father and mother, or the spiritual self and the earth. Because husband and wife are one flesh when they are married, and become one when they conceive a child, as the soul may be present in both spirit and flesh, to remarry is adulterous, and to marry the brother of your husband – your brother – is incestuous. Prince Hamlet broods over this concept frequently in Hamlet, highlighting its importance in the play. To analogize this to the underlying spiritual message, the corrupt self – obsessed with the senses – has married the earthly realm.

These tragedies outline the spiritual problems of man in the Elizabethan age, problems which continue even now in an age of a mass commercialized market in the west, which, like Faustus, serves Mammon. Marlowe in Doctor Faustus highlights the development of this problem, showing that man is headed toward the black arts – pursuing earthly riches rather than philosophical and spiritual truth. Shakespeare in Hamlet blames not man himself but Claudius – the false self-conception reinforced by our senses and by others who are misguided.