Once upon a time, in a past so distant that we have no memory of it, the invisible and visible dimensions of life were imagined and instinctively experienced as a sacred unity. In the great civilisations of the Bronze Age (c.3000 bce), particularly those of Egypt, India and China, the whole cosmos was envisioned as a living being and the manifest world was seen as an epiphany or showing forth of an unseen source which breathed it into being, animating and sustaining it: the air itself was experienced as the invisible presence of that world - an “awesome mystery joining the human and extrahuman worlds.”(1) Just as the stars emerged each night from the darkness of the night sky, so the visible universe was born from the dark mystery of the invisible. Everything - plants, trees, animals and birds as well as moon, sun and stars - was infused with divinity because each and all were part of a living, breathing web of life.
Although this ancient way of knowing was once experienced in many different places (and may still be found today), Egypt has bequeathed to us one of the clearest images of it. Two goddesses were of particular significance for an understanding of the origins of the later concept of a World Soul: Hathor - often interchangeable with Isis - and Nut. Hathor was Egypt’s oldest goddess, imagined as the nurturing Mother of the universe and as the creative impulse flowing from the cosmic immensity of her being. More specifically, Hathor was imagined as the Milky Way, whose milk nourished all life, yet she was immanent within the forms of life, immanent in the statues that stood in her temples and in the beautiful blue lotus that was daily laid at her feet. (2) As Divine Mother, she received the souls of the dead at the entrance to her sacred mountain.
Nut was the night sky, whose vast cosmic body contained all the stars. The sun vanished into her body on its nightly descent into the underworld and was reborn from her at the dawn of a new day. Nut’s image was painted on the inside of coffin lids and sometimes on the base as well, as if to enfold the soul entrusted to her care in her cosmic embrace. There is a moving inscription to her on a fragment of stone in the Louvre:
O my mother Nut, stretch your wings over me;
Let me become like the imperishable stars,
like the indefatigable stars.
O Great Being who is in the world of the Dead,
At whose feet is Eternity, in whose hand is the Always,
O Great Divine Beloved Soul who is in the mysterious abyss,
come to me.
Presided over by the Great Mother, this era was characterised by a consciousness which participated in the deepest imaginative sense with the life of the cosmos and the life of the earth. It was a totally different way of perceiving and relating to life than the one we have now. Today we look back on our "superstitious" past with some contempt, not realising that our present consciousness has grown out of a far more ancient and instinctive way of knowing which could be described as lunar because the moon rather than the sun was of supreme importance in that distant time. It is possible that the image of a world or cosmic soul arose out of lunar mythology because the moon was our earliest teacher and the inspiration of some of the greatest myths of the ancient world: the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, the Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece, and the later Christian myth all carry the same lunar theme of death and regeneration. (3)
What did the moon teach us? The emergence of the crescent moon from the three days of darkness that preceded it gave us the image of the visible world emerging from an invisible one, the time-bound world from an eternal one. The moon nourished the creative imagination, teaching us to observe and to wonder, helping us to make connections between what was above in the heavens and what was below on earth – a theme that is carried through into Hermetic philosophy and Alchemy.
For hundreds of generations people watched the circumpolar movement of the stars and the changing yet stable course of the luminous moon. They observed the connection between the cyclical rhythm of the four phases of the moon’s life and the rhythm of growth, maturation, death and regeneration in the life of the crops. They experienced the phases of their own lives – youth, maturity, old age and death as woven into the rhythm of that greater life. The constant return of the crescent moon after the three days of darkness laid the foundation for trust in the survival of the soul and the renewal of life after apparent death and may have been the original inspiration of the belief in reincarnation. From this lunar pattern constantly speaking to the mythic imagination, birth and death became a rite of passage for the soul as it journeyed between the visible and invisible dimensions of life, a journey that was symbolised by the path through a labyrinth. The ancestors were not lost to the living but were close by, available to counsel and guide. There was, therefore, no final demarcation line between life and death.
The constant rhythm of the moon waxing and waning held both light and darkness in relation to each other - held them in balance - because the totality of the moon’s cycle embraced both light and dark phases and therefore symbolically included both life and death. Light and darkness were not polarised as they were later to become in a solar culture, but were phases of the total cycle, so that there was always an image of a unifying whole which included both polarities.
Over countless thousands of years, shamanic rituals and myths kept alive the sense of connection between this world and another world whose symbol, initially, may have been the dark phase of the moon. Poets, artists, philosophers and musicians received their inspiration from the invisible dimension that Henri Corbin, the great scholar of Sufism, named the mundus imaginalis (imaginal world), carefully drawing the distinction between the imaginal and the imaginary. (4) The words spoken, the music heard, the dreams and visions seen, came not from “inside” us, but from the cosmos, from goddesses and gods, from daemonic beings and the spirits of animals. The original role of the philosopher was a shamanic one - to journey into the Otherworld or Underworld and bring back what was seen and heard to help the human community harmonise its life with the sacred life of the cosmos.
Fairy tales like the Sleeping Beauty may be the residual fragments of that forgotten participatory experience where forests were inhabited by creatures who would help or hinder us: where spirits of tree and mountain, stream and sacred spring could speak to us; where bears or frogs might be princes in disguise and shamans living in the deep forest might offer us wise counsel, or birds bring us messages and warn us of dangers. "Whoever denies the daemons, wrote Plutarch in a later time, "breaks the chains that links the gods to men." There are countless tales which describe how the hero or heroine who responds to this guidance wins the reward of the treasure and the royal marriage.
Rituals like those of the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece strengthened the sense of participation in an unseen reality and gave initiates an experience of the immortality of the soul. People spoke with goddesses and gods in dream and vision. Birds were recognised as messengers of the invisible, very possibly because people dreamed about them in this role or even heard them as a voice inside themselves, speaking to them. Intuitive sensibility and the ability to communicate with the spirits of plants taught people to gather, grind or distil certain herbs and plants for healing illness. Rites of incubation and healing were practised in many sanctuaries. Dreams and visions were of great importance in the diagnosis and healing of disease. Music was used to invoke the presence of a world that was the foundation of this world and as real as this one; everything was connected, everything was sacred. The shaman-healers who guided these cultures were trained to enter a state of utter stillness and to listen and observe what they heard and saw in an altered state of consciousness. This lunar culture was primarily feminine in character - receptive to the presence of the eternal.
If we listen to the Pre-Socratic Greeks of the sixth century bce, we find that they carry forward the legacy of this lunar consciousness and cannot be understood except in relation to it: the words of Heraclitus, suggesting that the Soul is of unfathomable depth, retain the essence of that ancient perception. Thales of Miletus speaks of the “All” as being alive and full of daemons who are the agents of the one Soul-substance. Anaximenes says that humanity and nature are fundamentally inseparable because both participate in the same underlying “substance” which he calls Soul. (5) Pythagoras, after he was exiled to Crotona having spent forty years with the astronomer-priests of Egypt and Babylon, defines the mathematical laws which embody the divine intelligence of the cosmos. A few decades later, Parmenides, living at Velia, in southern Italy, describes his shamanic journey into the Underworld of the Goddess who takes his right hand in hers, telling him to transmit her teaching to the world of mortals. (6)
This, therefore, is the foundation upon which the concept of a World Soul developed. Plato (429-347 bce) was the first to name it as such in his Timaeus. Was it from the participatory experience of an earlier age that he drew his concept of the Soul of the World – psyche tou kosmou? He speaks of a great golden chain of being connecting the deepest level of reality with its physical manifestation where every particle of life is a revelation of creative spirit, but there is in his work a distancing of the sensory world from the world of spiritual or archetypal forms. There is a fading of the feeling of participation in an ensouled world, a disjunction between rational mind and sensory experience, an objective definition of Soul rather than the experience of it so intrinsic to the earlier time. Plotinus (204-70 ce), who was steeped in Platonic thought, developed further the concept of a Universal Soul that he called All-Soul or Soul of the All (anima-mundi) but in his philosophy as well as in Plato’s there is the idea that this material world is the lowest level in the hierarchy of divine emanation. (7) Implicit in this immensely influential definition of reality, is the idea that nature is “lower” than spirit, body “lower” than mind and that animals and plants are “lower” in the scale of being than humans.
Aristotle (384-322 bce) took this distinction further, defining matter as something inanimate - separate and distinct from spirit and soul – leading eventually to the modern idea that matter is “dead”. While Plato and Plotinus had a strong influence on the development of Christian doctrine, the mainstream teaching of Western philosophy and science followed Aristotle. His philosophy draws a clear demarcation line between an ancient way of knowing and a new way whose emphasis is on the rational human mind distancing itself from what it is observing rather than participating in its life. The increasing separation between these two ways of knowing was henceforth profoundly to influence the development of the philosophy, religion and science of the West. However, the sense of being within an ensouled cosmos lasted until the end of the Middle Ages when the School of Chartres, influenced by the brilliant Islamic scholars and architects of Moorish Spain, initiated the building of the great cathedrals of France. It found new expression in fifteenth century Florence when Marsilio Ficino translated Plato and recovered the texts of the Hermetic tradition and it survived in Kabbalah and Alchemy. However, the older vision faded rapidly with the Reformation and the scientific revolution which succeeded it. What was lost was an imaginal or visionary way of knowing, grounded in shamanic experience. Yet, in the late eighteenth century, the poet and artist Blake would write “Everything That Lives Is Holy.”
Having described a lunar culture where people lived within a sacred cosmos, we may ask what wider cultural influences led to the demise of the World Soul? Why did D.H. Lawrence despairingly write, “We have lost the cosmos”? (8) To answer that question we have to look back some 4000 years. From about 2000 bce, we begin to see developing a new phase in the evolution of human consciousness – a phase whose focus is the sun rather than the moon. As this process develops, solar mythology begins to displace lunar mythology: linear time begins to replace lunar cyclical time, and a linear, literal and objective way of thinking slowly replaces the older imaginal and participatory way of knowing. Concurrently, the human psyche draws away from nature and as it does so, the predominant image of spirit changes from Great Mother to Great Father. The greater the withdrawal from nature, the more transcendent and disengaged from nature becomes the image of the deity: divine immanence is lost. The mind is focussed beyond nature on the realm of intellectual ideas: philosophy becomes discourse on these ideas rather than relationship with an invisible reality.
A second major influence was the impact of literacy on our way of thinking. The written word replaced the oral tradition that had carried the wisdom and insights of the older culture. David Abram has shown in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, how the new emphasis on the written word contributed to the loss of the older participatory consciousness: “Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air.”(9)
Perhaps because literacy distanced us from nature, creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition is now believed to arise from the word of the transcendent Father, no longer from the womb of the Mother. This is a crucially important distinction because the unity of life is again broken: invisible spirit no longer animates and inhabits nature. The earth is desacralised. Religious belief replaces shamanic experience. Ancient ways of connection are forbidden. With this shift in archetypal imagery, everything formerly associated with the feminine archetype (the Great Mother) is downgraded in relation to the masculine one (the Great Father). The lunar way of knowing is subjugated to the solar way and, under the influence of solar mythology, first nature, then cosmos, are ultimately de-souled.
As the sun becomes the new focus of consciousness, the cultural hero is no longer the lunar shaman who ventures into the darkness, assimilates its mysteries and returns from it with the treasure of wisdom, but rather the solar hero, often a king, warrior or outstanding individual, who is celebrated as the one who conquers and overcomes darkness. The emphasis is now on ascent to the light and repudiation of whatever is identified with darkness. Iron Age mythology (from c. 2000 bce) celebrates a great contest between a hero-god and a dragon or monster of the underworld (see the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Greek myth of Apollo killing the she-dragon at Delphi). The emphasis is no longer on relationship with the invisible world but on the light conquering the darkness. The theme of conquest and victory becomes the dominating ethos of the hero myths of the Iron Age and so it is even today in our modern hero myth and the battle against “the axis of evil”. In this solar phase, good and evil, light and dark, life and death are drawn as opposites inimical to each other and become increasingly polarised. George W. Bush’s words “Those who are not with us are against us” are a modern re-statement of solar mythology.
For over 4000 years, under the influence of this mythology, war and conquest were glorified as the noblest activity for man; victory and the spoils of war the coveted treasure to be won in battle, courage in battle the supreme virtue in the warrior. Wherever today we find the tendency to omnipotence and grandiose ambitions of empire and world domination, whether religious or secular, we can discern the influence of solar mythology and the inflation of leaders who unconsciously identify themselves with the archetypal role of the solar god or hero.
Solar mythology reflects an immense change in human consciousness, the formulation of an entirely new perception of life, one where, as technology advances, nature becomes something to be controlled and manipulated by human ingenuity, to human advantage. It had a dramatic influence on Greek, Hebrew, Persian and Christian cultures. The imagery of opposition and conflict between light and darkness, good and evil pervades the Old Testament and other mythologies. As people move to cities and cities become states, and as more and more men are conscripted into armies which obey a warrior leader, the cosmic battle is increasingly projected into the world: a fascination with conquest and dominance possesses the psyche and leads to the creation of vast empires (Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman). It is as if the heroic human ego, identified with the solar hero, has to seek out new territories to conquer, has to embody the myth in a literal sense. The terminology of conquest and dominance still influences our own modern culture with its focus on the conquest of nature, of space, of our enemies. It is as if we have been conditioned by this powerful mythology to think only in oppositional terms – victory or defeat - never in terms of dialogue and reconciliation.
Solar mythology is, above all, the story of the heroic individual. In the West, it has been the driving inspiration behind the Promethean quest for freedom, justice, knowledge and power. A major theme of solar myth is escape from the bondage of the body and ascent to the light and, by association, release from the bondage of mortality and ascent to spiritual enlightenment. In the West, we find it first in Plato in his metaphor of the cave. It carries with it the human longing to go beyond all constraints and limitations, to reach higher, progress further, discover more. It is overwhelmingly male because the male psyche has been the dominant influence in many cultures over some 4000 years and it is the achievements and discoveries of exceptional men which have inspired other men. A strong sense of self and a focused ego, that was ultimately identified with the conscious, rational mind, can be acknowledged as the supreme achievement of the male psyche during this solar era. But the voice of women who were denied access to education, the priesthood and the healing profession was silenced.
The influence of solar mythology gradually created a fissure between spirit and nature, mind and body which has defined our way of thinking and influenced the way we behave. During this solar phase, the male psyche unconsciously identified itself with the supremacy of spirit and mind over nature, woman and body and came to relate the former to the image of light and order and the latter to the image of darkness and chaos. Woman was named as an inferior creation: woman and body came to be viewed as a danger, a threat, a temptation to man. (10) The religions of the solar era carry this polarisation within their teaching, wherever this is associated with the ascetic subjugation of the body, the mistrust of sexuality and the oppression and persecution of women. Because nature and instinct became something dangerous and threatening to the supremacy of the rational mind, much effort was expended in eradicating all vestiges of goddess-worship, and of animism or belief in “spirits”. Further to the east, in China, Confucianism replaced the older Taoist vision of an ensouled and conscious nature. The sages of India, with certain exceptions, turned away from the body and sensory experience and held the phenomenal world to be an illusion.
All this had the effect of disconnecting us from nature and denying us access through the mythic imagination to that mysterious and all-embracing dimension of Soul. As the ego and rational mind grew stronger and more powerfully controlling, so, increasingly, did we lose the ability to relate instinctively and imaginatively to earth and cosmos. The Judeo-Christian myth of the Fall describes this process of estrangement and loss and, in the story of the Expulsion from the Garden, discloses a total reversal of the way of knowing which had guided older cultures. (11)
The shamanic way of knowing survived in Kabbalah and Sufism as well as in certain gnostic sects, the Hermetic Tradition and Alchemy but for centuries these had to remain hidden for fear of persecution. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (c. 70 ce), the old shamanic vision shines through the words of Jesus: “Cleave a piece of wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find Me there.” (logion 77)
With the psychological insight which has become available to us over the last hundred years, particularly through the depth psychology of C.G. Jung, we can understand that this solar phase of our evolution reflects a radical dissociation within the human psyche between the growing strength of the ego (the hero) and the older and greatly feared power of instinct (the dragon). (12) As this dissociation gathers momentum, so the feeling of containment within a cosmic entity and the sense of relationship with an invisible dimension of reality fades and with it, the participatory consciousness of an earlier time. The legacy of the Platonic and Aristotelian emphasis on reason and the rational mind, together with the solar emphasis on ascent to spirit and light and the deep suspicion of sexuality and sensual experience, hastened the demise of the lunar way of knowing.
The danger of this solar phase is that the human mind, breaking away from its instinctive ground, and its relationship with nature and cosmos, begins to assimilate a god-like power to itself, seeing itself engaged in a great struggle to gain mastery of nature. The priceless evolutionary achievement of the solar era and its masculine culture was the emergence of a strong ego from the matrix of instinct and the creation of the conscious, rational mind. But, tragically, this was won at the expense of repressing and denying whatever was perceived as threatening to it. The inner conflict between the two aspects of the psyche was projected into the world as the drive for power and control over others, whether in the religious or political field.
The influence of solar mythology was to divide life into two halves: spirit and nature, light and dark, good and evil, mind and body, subject and object. These oppositions became fixed in our consciousness as an actual belief system. The solar myth is carried in all ideologies which strive to reach the light and split off the darkness. It entered not only into the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam but into our behaviour towards the “dark” and so-called primitive races or anyone different from ourselves. As time went on religions took on the mantle of solar mythology in a struggle for supremacy and are tragically engaged in it to this day: the split between Catholic and Protestant in Christianity and between Shia and Sunni in Islam may be traced to the polarising influence of this mythology. Finally, it is reflected in the secular totalitarian ideologies which ravaged the last century because these separated the heroic race or “chosen” social group from those they demonised as inferior or expendable. These ideologies justified the elimination of racial or class enemies just as Christianity and Islam had justified the elimination of heretics and apostates. (Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for refusing to deny that God was present in nature).
From this long historical process, it is possible to see that the belief system of scientific reductionism which has so powerfully influenced modern secular culture may be understood as the end-result of the long-standing dissociation between spirit and nature, mind and matter but, above all, the sundering within us of thinking and feeling, rational mind and instinctive soul – the conscious and unconscious aspects of our nature. It has concluded that the universe is indifferent to us, that we are the products of impersonal forces operating on inanimate matter: atoms are not living elements of divinity but lifeless particles, floating randomly in an inanimate universe. We are the outcome of genetic, social and environmental conditioning. Consciousness is an epi-phenomenon of the physical brain: there is no such “thing” as soul; when we die, that is the end of us.
This belief system reflects a situation where we have become so estranged from nature that we believe that we have the right to exploit it for our own material advantage – even the right to control space in order to protect ourselves from attack by our enemies. Although we may profess a belief in God, nothing is sacred save our own survival or the survival of our group and our religion.
To sum up: over the four millennia that solar mythology became the dominant influence on world culture, we have achieved an extraordinary advance in scientific and technological skills and their application to improving the conditions of human life on this planet and a phenomenal expansion of the ability to express ourselves as individuals in myriad different fields of endeavour. But at the same time, we have suffered a catastrophic loss of soul, a loss of the ancient instinctive awareness of the sacred interweaving of all aspects of life, a loss of the sense of participation in the life of nature and the invisible dimension of the cosmos, a loss of instinct and imagination.
So we come to the present day where, in a secular culture, the rational mind has established itself as the supreme value, master of all it surveys, recognising no power, no consciousness beyond itself. It has lost its connection to soul, not only soul in the individual sense but Soul as a cosmic matrix or field in whose life we participate. In its hubristic stance, the rational mind has become disconnected from the deeper instinctive ground out of which it has evolved which, ultimately, is the life of the cosmos. Cut off from its roots, it stands like a tyrant over and against nature, over and against the earth, over against whatever it defines as threatening to its supremacy. This leaves the human heart lonely and afraid and the neglected territory of the soul a barren wasteland. The rage and despair of denied inner needs confront us in the world as the enemies who seek to destroy us and whom we seek to destroy. We struggle to contain the effects of a dysfunctional way of thinking – believing that ever greater power and control will enable us to eradicate the evils we bring into being.
Yet, beneath the surface of our culture, the ancient concept of Soul is returning. The challenge of the immense problems facing humanity is urging us to change our current understanding of reality and jettison the mechanistic paradigm we have inherited from the secular beliefs which control the ethos of our culture. A deep human instinct is attempting to restore balance and wholeness in us by articulating values rooted in a different way of knowing: the ecological movement is restoring sacredness to the earth; compassion is growing for those suffering from poverty, disease and the obscene effects of war; shamanic methods of healing are being recovered; a new image of reality is struggling to be born. We are beginning to understand that we are poisoning the earth, the seas and our own immune system with toxic chemicals and pesticides, and inviting our destruction as a species through our predatory behaviour. Many individuals are awakening to awareness that we and the phenomenal world that we call nature are woven into a cosmic tapestry whose threads connect us not only with each other at the deepest level but with many dimensions of reality and multitudes of beings inhabiting those dimensions. Beyond the present limits of our sight an immense field of consciousness interacts with our own, asking to be recognised by us, embraced by us. What is emerging at the cutting edge of science is a grand unified theory of quantum, cosmos, life and consciousness where physics is reunited with metaphysics. (13) As this deep soul-impulse gathers momentum, the “marriage” of the emerging lunar values with the ruling solar ones is changing our perception of reality. If we can recover the ancient way of knowing in a modern context, without losing the priceless evolutionary attainment of a strong and focused ego, we could heal the fissure in our psyche. In the words of D.H. Lawrence, “The great range of responses that have fallen dead in us have to come to life again. It has taken two thousand years to kill them. Who knows how long it will take to bring them to life” (14)
1. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 250, Vintage Books, New York 1996
2. For poems to Hathor and Nut see Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring, The Divine Feminine, Conari Press 1996
3. See Jules Cashford, The Moon: Myth and Image, Cassell Illustrated, London 2003
4. The phrase used by Henri Corbin in his writings on Ibn Arabi and Suhrawardi.
5. Gertrude Levy, The Gate of Horn, pp. 301-3, Faber & Faber, London 1958
6. Peter Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom; see also his Reality, Golden Sufi Press, California, 1999 and 2003
7. Plotinus, The Enneads, transl. Stephen MacKenna, Faber and Faber, London, 1956 and 1969
8. D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1931, p. 78
9. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 254
10. The concept of the inferiority of woman is found in Plato’s Timaeus as well as the Book of Genesis.
11. See Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, Viking1991 and Penguin Books, London and New York, 1993 (chapter 13: Eve, The Mother of All Living)
12. C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (Collected Works Vol.10) and Man and His Symbols, Aldus Books, London, 1964
13. See Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos by Ervin Laszlo, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006 and Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, Viking, New York, 2006
14. Apocalypse, p. 78
© 2006 Anne Baring, www.annebaring.com