Episode 003: Symbol, Ritual, and the Picture of Dorian Gray

After a long hiatus, in the third episode of Hermetic Garden, I discuss symbols in ceremonial rituals and relate them to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Support me via http://www.patreon.com/hermeticgarden

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. https://amzn.to/2APVayA

The Picture of Dorian Gray (audiobook), by Oscar Wilde. Read by John Gonzalez. https://librivox.org/the-picture-of-dorian-gray-by-oscar-wilde/

Vera, or the Nihilists, by Oscar Wilde. https://amzn.to/2MnKbkE

Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, by Lon Milo DuQuette. https://amzn.to/2CtxW1o

“Rosa Alchemica,” by W.B. Yeats. http://brdyweb.com/thesis/story1.html

The Unfolding Self, by Ralph Metzner. https://amzn.to/2DkoxuH

Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion, by Northrop Frye https://amzn.to/2FITjPn

“An Esoteric View of the Rose-Croix Degree,” by Leon Zeldis. http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/zeldis11.html

The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, by Israel Regardie. https://amzn.to/2W3vV4U

Prospero’s Island: The Secret Alchemy at the Heart of the Tempest, by Noel Cobb. https://amzn.to/2MkmFVr




Episode 002: Yeats and the Divine Genius, Part 2


This episode continues with my analysis, taking the poems to their inspirational yet hopeless conclusion.

Like what you hear? Support me on Patreon!


Episode 001 (Part 1)

Susie Chang and Mel Meleen. Fortune’s Wheelhouse. Podcast.

Yasuko Suzuki. “Yeats’s ‘From the Antigone’: Desire and Loss.” The Harp. Vol. 15 (2000), pp. 47-58. Critical essay.




Episode 001: Yeats and the Divine Genius, Part 1

38 minutes, 20 seconds


I started a podcast! This episode revisits a blog I wrote several years ago but takes the series of poems several steps further. In this episode I analyze the first five of the eleven poems. Part 2 will analyze the rest.

As always, I discuss Kabbalah, mysticism, symbol, language, and much more.

You can access my Patreon page here.


  • I say that Yeats joined the Golden Dawn in 1889. He actually joined in 1890. He was a part of several Hermetic societies in the 1880s.
  • I realize there’s an error when I read the first poem – the audio sounds jumbled. I’ll fix this tonight and re-upload the audio.


Golden Dawn Magical Tarot. Amazon

Gorski, William T. Yeats and Alchemy. Book. Amazon.

MacGregor Mathers, S. L. The Tarot: Its Occult Significance, use in Fortune Telling, and Method of Play, Etc. Book.

MacGregor Mathers, S. L. Kabbalah Unveiled. Book. Amazon.

Mann, Neil. W.B. Yeats and A Vision. Website. http://www.yeatsvision.com/

Peneton, Brady. “The Winding Cabbala: Yeats’ Use of Cabbalistic Mythology of Spiritualization and Imagination in ‘A Woman Young and Old.’” Critical essay. Blog.

Raine, Kathleen. “Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn.” Critical essay. Amazon.

Regardie, Israel. The Complete System of the Golden Dawn. Book. Amazon.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Audio recording on YouTube.

Yeats, William Butler. “Per Amica Silentia Lunae.” Essay

Yeats, WIlliam Butler. “Magic.” Essay

Yeats, William Butler. “The Body of the Father Christian Rosencrux.” Essay

Yeats, WIlliam Butler. “The Two Trees.” Poem

Yeats, William Butler. A Woman Young and Old. Poems

The Tree of Life:

Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript, Folio 28:

Golden Dawn Classic Tarot. The Lovers:

Golden Dawn Classic Tarot. The Sun:

Golden Dawn Classic Tarot. Judgment:


Intro Song: Kevin MacLeod – “Backed Vibes Clean.”

The Husks and the Fruit

“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.”

–  Oscar Wilde, from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Symbol means, in its etymological root,

literally “that which is thrown or cast together,” from syn– “together” (see syn-) + bole “a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, or beam,” from bol-, nominative stem of ballein “to throw” (Etymonline.com)

What two things, exactly, does a symbol “cast together”? I hope to establish this and more in the following essay. What I hope to establish is that the two things that are “cast” together are matter and spirit – or material consciousness and a nonmaterial concept which exists somewhere deep in our psyche. That is a symbol is a sensible, material sign that stands for something that is not material, and it casts the two together.

Frithjof Schuon and others in the symbolist tradition chased what has been called throughout the history of the humanities the “perennial tradition” otherwise known as the “perennial Sophia.” (Therion indeed has a song about “The Perennial Sophia,” which you can – and should – listen to here.) The perennial Sophia is, Schuon says, the “transcendent unity” behind all religious traditions, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor of The Essential Frithjof Schuon, explains Schuon’s theory as such:

[Schuon] emphasizes perennial religion, or religio perennis, that he also calls the religion of the heart, which resides at the center of every particular religion and also at the center and in the very substance from which man is made. (Schuon 5)

In an essay on Sufism, Schuon explains that there is a “spirit” behind the “husk” of all the religions:

Behind the husk of the literal text [exists] a concrete and active spiritual presence which goes beyond the words and the mind. (Schuon 304)

The title of this blog entry, of course, comes from this essay by Schuon. Schuon refers to a fruit or a seed or a spirit that goes beyond literal text, past images and symbols and into somewhere ethereal. I will delineate in this essay two sides to the religions here analyzed: 1) the husk or shell (exoterism) and 2) the seed, fruit, or spirit (esoterism). Again, Nasr explains in the introduction to the massive volume:

Religion is like a walnut, to use the Sufi image, with both a shell and the core or fruit which can grow and possess existence only within the shell. The purpose of the shell is to protect the fruit but without the shell there would be no fruit. Likewise, the final end of religion is to guide man to God, to enable man to be delivered from the bondage of limitation which is the goal of esoterism here in this life and which even exoterism aspires to in future life. (Schuon 12; emphasis mine)

You cannot send a message without a vessel through which the message travels (without performing some sort of Star Trek Vulcan-esque mindmeld), and this shell or husk, once pulled or peeled away, provides access to the fruit within. This is what a symbol “casts together”: the sign (letters on the page), the shell (image) and the fruit (signified).

So where does the “husk” or “shell” come from?

When people write, they write what they know. If a person frequents the desert and rides camels, that person will write about deserts and camels, or in very near proximity to such. If one has never seen or heard of a camel, one can’t very much write about a camel. The authors of Judaic scriptures wrote about deserts, rivers, and temples which they knew very well. If the authors of the Judaic scriptures can conceive in their minds a green, flowery oasis, they might write about that too – and perhaps call it the Garden of Eden? –and use it as one of their symbols.The authors of the Christian scriptures wrote about shepherds, sheep, boats, Romans, Pharisees, and other familiar figures. When Rowling was a child, she wrote many stories about rabbits – not because she had one, but because she and her sister knew of rabbits and desired one very much. This rule rings true for religion and mythology and the perennial tradition as well.

And many alchemical operations, like religious and mythological tales, are symbolic, metonymic, allegorical, and at their core (their fruit?) spiritual. That is, they each tell a symbolic story of the perennial Sophia – explorations of psychic contents that are the same in essence but different in form. Yes, even within the same tradition the process takes a different form. The shell is, however, necessary.

It must be noted and emphasized that a majority of people – indeed most people – will not see the fruit of the story. They may catch glimpses of it or have a notion of it, but it takes a special kind of nature to perceive clearly the fruit or spirit. Therefore, the outer shell of the tale or mythology must be convincing and gripping enough to hold the attention of those who only see the shell. The exoteric tradition must be as compelling – or more compelling – than the esoteric one, and must survive in order to pass the esoteric side of the tradition on, as Nasr explains:

Exoterism is…absolutely necessary to make the attainment of [deliverance from bondage] through esoterism possible even when man lives in this world. Without the exoteric, no esoterism could survive and be efficacious. But also without esoterism religion would be reduced to only its external aspects without means of providing a way for those whose nature is such that they must follow the esoteric path in order to follow religion. (Schuon 13)

I urge my readers to, if they so desire, look within the symbols of religious traditions for the “transcendent unity of all religions,” and follow the path. It is said to be full of thorns, but “sublime”:

The Path by which to Deity we climb
Is arduous, rough, ineffable, sublime;
And the strong massy gates thro’ which we pass,
In our first course, are bound with chains of brass;
Those men, the first who of Egyptian birth,
Drank the fair water of Nilotic earth,
Disclosed by actions infinite this road.
And many paths to God Phoenicians showed;
This road the Assyrians pointed out to view,
And this the Lydians and Chaldeans knew.
– Oracle of Apollo, from Eusebius

Dialogue with an Atheist I

ME: You should watch this [link to a Joseph Campbell lecture from the Mythos series]

HIM: Oh is this the video series based on Campbell’s books? Cool beans.

ME: Not based on his books – based on his life 😉

HIM: I’ve been reading his Masks of God series, but I haven’t gotten to these yet.

ME: Yeah I saw, and I find it strange that one (you) can have an aesthetic and intellectual taste for mythology and religion yet still delineate oneself an atheist

HIM: It is because of the work of people like Campbell that I can be an atheist. He points out the intellectual roots of mythology, which makes it clear that it is simply that.

ME: He points out that these deities reside, as Blake said, in the human breast, in our mind. Does that make them any less real? No, no I don’t think it does.

HIM: If they existed in reality, they would be beyond our breast and mind. So yes, it openly makes them less real. I exist outside your mind. I am both a thought that you have, a representation of a person, but I am also flesh and blood, and able to interact and accomplish.

ME: Do you exist outside of my mind? OH GOD DON’T DO THIS TO ME. (Kidding around.) But on a serious note, god exists, and god is the one archetype behind our consciousness; he is being itself

HIM: Don’t get existential about it, it doesn’t suit you.

ME: Once you get more into Campbell I hope you’ll move away from the theism/atheism polarization/dualism

HIM: I hope you get away from this odd apologetics. You are jumping through too many hoops to justify a god. You should ask yourself why the concept exists in the first place, and why you assume one should exist. I’ll put it simply, buddy: I know you want things for me, but you are not ahead of me in any area of philosophy. Don’t talk down to me on the subject. It is pretty annoying

ME: not sure why you think this is an ego thing. I just want to help.

HIM: You are not good at it then.

ME: you concern yourself with atheism a lot, and it’s not so much purely a philosophical subject as it is a psychological one (to me anyway).

HIM: I concern myself with it because it is important to me. And it is both [psychological and philosophical] to me.

ME: Arg, I totally wish this were easier to explain. I am “ahead” of you in the history of the consciousness of mankind as I’ve studied through language and cultural change (which shape his consciousness). I’m not trying to justify anything or prove anything. God was one thing in the past and now he’s seen as something else by what appears to be the majority of humanity (and I say “he” because that’s the traditional way of talking about “him,” though I wouldn’t call him that if I had been the first to talk about god). God was the unknown, the unconscious aspects of our mind. Read more Jung and Campbell. That’s all I’m saying.

HIM: It is hard to tell if you’re getting into pseudo-science or terrible metaphor. It is pretty sad either way.

ME: Insults aren’t needed here, and call it terrible if you want. It’s symbolism and it’s been used throughout most literature, but particularly mythology and religion.

HIM: So brass tacks, do you think there is a mystical being or not? Yes or no. You don’t have to explain its nature to me.

ME: Well, what do you mean by “mystical being”?

HIM: Something that is beyond current examined nature.

ME: Examined by whom?

HIM: So the answer is yes. If the answer was no, you wouldn’t be making it so troublesome.

ME: Yes, with the qualification that you’re attempting to vastly oversimplify theism and archetypal psychology completely.

HIM: Yes I am, because I’m trying to figure out if you’re attributing mythological concepts to psychological concepts.

ME: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m doing.

HIM: …or if you are actually believing mythological concepts

ME: I’m not “believing” anything.

HIM: Yes you are. If you are attributing a ‘god’ to the unknown sections of the mind, as you said, you are ‘believing.’ Because you have no proof of that beyond the history of storytelling, which is as much proof that we are scared of things, as it is proof of something existing beyond reality.

ME: But when you interact with mythology and literature on a deeper level you don’t need to “believe” anything; the aesthetic experience is enough.

HIM: yes you do, by the very nature of the words. So I am glad you know so much more on this than me, and that it isn’t an ego thing for you, but I don’t believe either of those statements.

ME: Well I did after all get my MA in English literature and wrote my thesis on Yeats’ use of alchemy and mythology and its parallels to Jungian depth psychology (and even touched on its relation to the aestheticization of the likes of Pound and Dickinson). But okay, not ahead of you at all, and I know nothing about mythology and psychology. And I love magic sky fairies

HIM: See this is the thing. If you want to come talk about this stuff with me, you have to remember that I am not your student. You are not my guru, my priest, my father. If you come in expecting to be above me in the conversation, don’t do it at all.

ME: I don’t want to be – I want to be a friend who points you to something profound

HIM: Then find some humility. OK, we can start it over; hit the reset button. But you need to put a cap on your ego.

ME: I might suggest you do the same with your down-talking to theists. You said some woman couldn’t critically think because she is a theist, if I recall correctly.

HIM: No, I said that her statements caused statements in the atheist community that English majors don’t need to critically think.

ME: Yeah, I’ve definitely never done that in my life. I felt (and maybe I was wrong) that you agree with the idea that she cannot or does not.

HIM: Whether I do or not, I didn’t make that statement. Because I try to avoid insulting people who aren’t openly offensive.

ME: Okay, well, sorry if I’ve been offensive then, because you’ve insulted me. (I sort of thought I was being defensive though.) Anyway, my point still stands about the Campbell lecture. It’s pretty incredible. And yes, most people who believe in god are absurd spiritual materialists, but there is some merit to the God/Zeus/Odin/Hermes nonsense. Myth is like a figurative model or map of the human psyche, sort of like that Adrienne Rich poem, “Diving into the Wreck”: “the words are purposes. / the words are maps.”

HIM: Let me help then, as a person with a longer history than yours saying things that others will find offensive. When people you know post something to their blog and such, they are talking to the crowd and aren’t looking to offend you personally. All personal level conversations on the other hand, are meant to be conversations of equals in so far as you consider that person a friend.

i.e. when I’m talking bad about Heffernan, I’m not trying to beat up on any of my many theistic friends. Because if they come talk to me, I’m going to treat them as logically and kind as they deserve as a person.

ME: Okay, brilliant. The reason I come to you with this is because i respect you and think of you as my equal, but at the same time my circumstances have been very different than yours and that has provided me a much different experience with religion than your own. I think I can provide you with a new perspective to mull over and attempt to reconcile with your atheistic perspective. I wouldn’t come to you and challenge you if I didn’t think you had it in you to sympathize with this perspective, having studied literature. I hope from your studies you’ve at least gleaned hints of it from the Romantics, from Yeats, perhaps from medieval literature.

HIM: All part of why I am where I am today.

ME: And I don’t mean to come to you as someone who’s above you. I don’t think I’m above you. I do think I see myth and psyche and religion far differently and (if you don’t mind me saying it) far more critically than you though.

HIM: I do mind the last part. You may have more years in the education system on the topic, but we have no way of knowing if you are indeed, more critical on the topic. Not to take away from your degree, congrats on that.

ME: Okay then I don’t. I did once consider myself an atheist though, and I was shaken out of it by the likes of Yeats. I suggest you look into Jung, Yeats, Campbell, and others who have done work on the psyche and mythos and evaluate them as critically as I hope you do Dawkins or Harris or any other similar reductionist or materialist. And I want to reemphasize also that I don’t see “god” as a matter of belief. I don’t “believe” in god, or Odin, or Hermes, or Aslan, or Ron, Hermione, or Harry Potter. They (can?) reside in our breasts, so I don’t need to “believe” in them.

HIM: statements like that are so… lol

ME: I could say that about your own

HIM: You may as well just call it a soul.

ME: I think I did earlier, but I may not have. I certainly meant to.

HIM: That is what I hear, because it is just as useless. I will continue to trust the likes of Hitchens, Harris, and also Campbell, because without some reason to attribute some non-physical existence to those gods, they are simply ink on paper, and viral ideas in the mind.

ME: viral to some, liberating to others

HIM: Yes, very liberating, to those specific people. Not often to those in proximity to them. The unfortunate crime of these gods isn’t the pressure they take off of people, but their demands. As time has gone on they’ve gone from asking for our labor, to our obedience, to our money, or blood. So any positive is quickly overwritten and then some. So yeah, materialist. lol

ME: I’m not sure how I (or anyone) can give a god in my psyche money. Where was the money actually going? To the god, or the humans of the church? The pope maybe?

HIM: If it remained in your psyche, that wouldn’t be a problem. But it would be disingenuous and pointless for us to pretend that is where gods stay.

ME: They manifest as idols and symbols, sure – but even then, I’ve never witnessed a statue of Pallas Athena asking for my first fruits.

HIM: That is because Athena is a fossil. If you lived in her time, you would have. Just as people claim to have heard Jesus ask them for things every day.

ME: My point is that they’re given to the priests as income to maintain the religious institution. We know they were, and we don’t have to act like they go to the gods or the idols of the gods. That was the point of what I said.

HIM: and the point of what I said.

ME: So because priests can misuse gods in this way we shouldn’t consider them representative of some aspect of our psyche?

HIM: You can consider them metaphors all you want.

ME: Indeed I will – salt, sulfur, mercury

HIM: But metaphors are not real, they are devices. So that isn’t the conversation we are having.

ME: Consider this: almost all language is metaphorical. Metaphors allow us to communicate as we do right now

HIM: Agreed.

ME: And metaphors (through religion) allow us to communicate with ourselves.

HIM: To summarize it, metaphors are part of what allows humans to use language to express concepts they have never directly perceived

ME: Right — even the word “express” there means “to squeeze out.” We can’t perceive the concept the word expression refers to, so we use a metaphor. Have you seen that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Darmok”? [Spoiler Warning] The enterprise comes across an alien species who have a mythological language. They speak all in metaphor from their mythology to communicate sentiment, desire, thankfulness, etc.; all of their communication is in story and image — “Darmok and Jilad at Tinagra”

HIM: I don’t think I ever saw that one, but just read the wiki on it.

ME: Those figures from their mythology are very real to them, because they represent those very desires, emotions, sentiments, ideas.

HIM: They are very emotionally close to them, they play heavily on their psychology, but they are not real.

ME: Is an expression real? Is this, this idea I’m conveying to you right now, is it real?

HIM: You are really expressing them to me, yes.

ME: Really? Am I squeezing them out to you?

HIM: Ha, but you cannot equate an expression really being stated, and really having happened, to the concepts within the statement being a reality. You are abusing language.

ME: But wait – to express is a process. I’m talking about the expression, as in the process. Is the expression real? Not the statement, the expression. The word “express” is a metaphor, and the idea meant by the metaphor is (I would argue) as real as the essence of a god (the mercury). We embody the metaphor in a symbol (to squeeze something out). The symbol is the squeezing out of something – it is something sensible to manifest the ethereal concept meant by that word “express.”

HIM: Your use of ‘squeeze out’ is making this weird to understand. Are you implying some sort of Logos idea, like expressing a god through symbols and idols is trying to manifest some small part of them into the world? Or are you implying that their symbols manifest some small part of our inner thoughts?

They are similar ideas, but I don’t know which you are going for.

ME: I’m going for both I guess, but mostly the latter, if I had to pinpoint my idea to one of those two you’ve listed.

HIM: I could agree with that, but it has little meaning considering the many ways we can manifest aspects of our mind. The mind: real. Unexplored aspects of our psychology: real. Gods, simply stories created to help us cope with those aspects. Big rubber stamp: still not real.

ME: The argument isn’t whether they’re real. In fact I don’t think there’s an argument.

HIM: There definitely doesn’t seem to be one.

ME: I just meant to point out the absurdity of calling oneself an atheist given all this.

HIM: You haven’t done that either… and I wasn’t even aware that was your point.

ME: From earlier: “I find it strange that one (you) can have an aesthetic and intellectual taste for mythology and religion yet still delineate oneself an atheist.”

HIM: Well I could explain why, if that helps.

ME: That is, you can reorganize and even manifest parts of your psychology into idols, symbol, characters, words (grammar), whatever. So atheism and the “new atheism” movement especially are pretty …strange? I mean they’re not wrong: there’s no one in the literal sky shooting literal bolts of lightning at me. But there is an Immortal in the sky striking me with lightning – i.e. symbolic, like Blake’s or Yeats’ double vision.

HIM: But only if you choose to believe there is one. There is, without doubt, no consciousness in the sky trying to hit you with lightning. Period. Done. There is nothing up there doing that.

ME: Not the literal sky, nope

HIM: Whether we express a symbol of one doing it or not, that doesn’t change the reality.

ME: i’m not arguing about the literal reality of it

HIM: Giving or creating a symbol only creates a chance to create undue psychic stress on yourself worrying what that symbolic god wants, and why they are angry, which is why gods and religion are intrinsically linked.

ME: I’m gonna have to disagree with that. The gods aren’t some fear tactic when you take possession of your own mind

HIM: That is pseudobabble. Explain.

ME: “Pseudobabble”? That term doesn’t make much morphological sense.

HIM: I’ll say that whenever you sound like someone trying to get me to call a psychic. You can use better words is what I’m really saying.

ME: I mean – as an aside, having to put this into rational language for you right now is taking quite a toll on my brain – I mean  that when a priest, or ruler or your pastor or your father, describes to you the nature of god or gods (the unconscious influences of your mind), they use fear tactics to get you to think or do certain things for them (or for the temple) – or not do certain things – so you will stay servile. And maybe the priest or your father doesn’t meant to keep you unaware of and in fear of these influences, or perhaps he doesn’t know exactly what the rhetoric does and how it does it, but it happens.

But if you say “NO, SCREW YOU, GUY” to the priest or your father and discover the influences yourself, you don’t fear them. I mean…maybe you do at first or whatever, but the point is to, as Yeats says, “Overcome the gods of parnassus” – not to fear them, to run from them, but to bring them into consciousness – to understand the influences.

HIM: And I do say “SCREW YOU.” A sociologist I cannot remember the name of said, “To escape a system, you must be aware of it.” The influences are important, not to make it a deeper part of yourself, but to use those influences in a more positive aspect. For example, strife helps build Christianity, because the soothing messages of Yahweh and the religious institution give a feeling that thing will get better, if not in this life, in the next. I understand that influence, but it isn’t a reason for me to bring Yahweh into me, it means I should create more realistic expectations of this life so to make better use of my time and energy.

ME: Oh gods no. Contemporary religious institutions are garbage mostly. I mean there are some magical orders that are probably doing great things for people, but as for most Christian churches, gods no. They don’t understand the book they pretend to follow.

HIM: The historical ones don’t get much better, no matter how much we romanticize them.

ME: To be fair, I think some pagan cultures had some great institutions. I can’t prove it, but druidism and Celtic paganism seem pretty good from what I can gather historically.

And yes the eschatological mindset of most contemporary Christians is really depressing:

“I’m just gonna be a docile dipshit until the end of the world here. I’ll see you in heaven, good pal!”

“Take my money, pastor Joe! I’ll have all the riches in the afterlife right?”

Yeats thought (and I do too) that the apocalypse, the second coming, happens in your own mind

HIM: That sounds like a pointless philosophical line to draw. Why assume their language? Likely, because of audience?

ME: Yes, but also because mythology is useful — poets make myth; leaders abuse myth.

HIM: Mythology is useful, especially for leaders to abuse. It is only useful for the layman when they understand it as that, otherwise they are putting themselves in place to be abused.

ME: Agreed.

HIM: Which is, no surprise, exactly why I like mythology.

ME: Right, so I (or you) adopt their language because it’s the language of the poet, not of the average religious-materialist imbecile. (To add — the word sin, in my opinion, has been misapprehended, misappropriated, and misused and St. Paul I think is somewhat guilty of it as well, despite his (I think) inspiration and depth of understanding.)

Anyway, I’m not a theist and I’m not an atheist. I have no argument. I just want to show that mythos – not religious institutions – can be liberating if used correctly.

By the way, the trinity is the trivium:

  • father – holy ghost – son (trinity)
  • logic – rhetoric – grammar (trivium)
  • mercury – sulfur – salt (tria prima)

HIM: For the average atheist, not having a stance is really a cop out. As the XKCD comic put it, ‘at least you’ve found a way to feel superior to both’

ME: I… don’t feel superior. I feel fortunate, I guess, if anything.

HIM: It’s a webcomic; don’t put too much stock in it. The point is that having a long argument why you aren’t theist or atheist, and aren’t going to pick a side, means nothing to both groups. You are one, but no one wants to take the time to talk a person’s position out once they’ve taken that ‘no sides’ stance.

It doesn’t help anyone.

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.”

The (de-?)Evolution of Modern Language: Sign, Symbol, and Self

Owen Barfield was a philologist, philosopher, poet, essayist, critic, lecturer, and one of the first members of the Inklings, the literary discussion group of fame through authors Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. To summarize his work in a blog post is an impossible task, but I’ll attempt something of the sort. Of his works, I’ve only read once a book review he wrote on a book about philology and hermeneutics and twice a compilation of essays in a book entitled The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, which, after my second read of my university library’s copy, I bought from Amazon and determined to read at least once a year until he saturates my dreams and my waking thoughts and actions.

I wish I could at this moment succinctly narrow his life’s work to a one- or two-sentence overarching thesis, but the following three-paragraph primer will have to suffice.

In the aforementioned compilation of essays, Barfield highlights two of the greatest shifts in the history of language: the more recent shift occurred around the middle of the seventeenth century, just after the Thirty Years’ War, which was a positivist and materialist one; the greater, and far more distant, shift occurred “sometime between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of Saint Augustine,” marking a new self-consciousness in language. Though this latter shift is highlighted later in the book, I shall address it first for greater perspicuity.

The greatest shift, Barfield explains, is a shift in self-consciousness of language. Now let me attempt to describe what he means by this. In several of his early essays, Barfield argues, quite cogently, citing other philologists and examples, that all words that refer to moral, ethereal, spiritual, or psychological concepts have their root in the symbolic, external universe — for example, “wrong” means “crooked,” “right” means “straight,” “express” means “to squeeze out.” The shift around two thousand years ago marks the passing over of the external symbol for the concept to talk about the concept directly. That is, when one says “express” s/he no longer uses this expression symbolically or metaphorically, referring to an object seen to stand for a concept unseen in the self, but as if the latter – the concept within – is an entity in itself:

If one contrasts the meaning of the Greek word for word or reason or discourse (for it could mean all three: I’m referring to the word “logos“), if one contrasts the meaning of that word, as it stood in the time of Plato and Aristotle, with its later meaning; or to put it another way, if one contrasts the meaning of the old word “logos,” with the meanings of the words which we have to use to translate it; and if one then moves the microscope a little nearer, so to speak, so as to determine, if possible, the moment, or at least the single century, of transition from the old to the new, then one is struck immediately by the way in which this word “logos” was being used, in Alexandria, for instance, used by Greeks and used also by Jews, in the first century B.C. One may even be a little more pedantically precise, and remark that that particular word was in especial use in the Stoic philosophy, and that it was in expounding the Stoic philosophy that the concepts objective and subjective first make their appearance in a clearly recognizable form. In other words, it was then that the fundamental duality with which we are now so familiar was first clearly formulated, was first sharply focused, a duality no longer merely between mind on one side and senses on the other (which had been long familiar to the Greeks), but a duality between a self on the one side and its environment on another.

The second shift – in the seventeenth century – marks a further move in rhetoric and language away from its metaphoric and relational roots and toward a mechanistic/mechanomorphic, positivist philosophy of language. To explain what I mean by relational I shall turn briefly to Kant. Kantian rhetorical epistemology includes three concepts: noumenon, phenomenon, and language. The noumenon is the object itself, and the phenomena are the various ways a perceiver comes to experience the noumenon (obect) through his or her senses. The perceiver then uses language to explain this perceived experience of the noumenon through the phenomena as a relationship between the perceiver, the object, and various other perceived objects around it. The mechanistic philosophy of language says that we can take the perceiver out of the equation and talk about the noumena/noumenon directly, not in terms of its relationship to us or even to other objects. Barfield says that this philosophy is wholly incompatible with language, as language is the product of subject/object relations. Barfield says, in “Science and Quality”:

[L]et me revert for a moment to the pre-Scientific Revolution (“Aristotelian”) world-picture. It assumed as a matter of course that mind or intelligence is operative in nature as a whole and not exclusively in the human brain. This assumption was vociferously abandoned. Indeed rather more than abandoned. I believe almost any biology student will tell you that it is absolutely taboo with the scientific establishment, so that it is as much as your academic life is worth even to hint at such a possibility.

Barfield identified, through his philological lens, the struggles of twentieth century modernity as at least partly a product of our attempt to take ourselves out of our understanding of the universe in the seventeenth century, caused in turn by the greatest shift in language two thousand years ago and its effect on our consciousness.

What think you of this idea? Thoughts? Questions? Additions? Is there anything I can clarify? Rebuttals?


Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. San Rafael, Ca.: Barfield Press, 2005. (1st edition published 1977) [Amazon]