From this point of view a thread can be found running through the manifold Greek myths. Let us consider the legend of Hercules. The twelve labors imposed on
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, Dec 30, 2002
"From this point of view a thread can be found running through the manifold Greek myths. Let us consider the legend of Hercules. The twelve labors imposed on Hercules are seen in a higher light when one reflects that before the last and most difficult one he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. At the command of King Eurystheus of Mycenae he was to fetch Cerberus, the hound of hell, from the nether world, and take him back there again. To be able to undertake a journey into the nether world, Hercules had to be an initiate. The Mysteries led man through the death of the transitory and thus into the nether world; through initiation they wished to save the eternal element in him from destruction. As a mystic he could overcome death. Hercules overcame the dangers of the nether world as a mystic. This justifies the interpretation of his other deeds as stages of the inner development of the soul. He overcame the Nemean lion and brought him to Mycenae. This means that he became master of the purely physical force in man; he tamed it. Next he slew the nine-headed Hydra. He overcame it with firebrands, dipping his arrows in its gall so that they would never miss their mark. This means that he overcame lower knowledge, the knowledge of the senses, through the fire of the spirit, and out of what he had gained from this lower knowledge he drew the strength to see the lower world in the light belonging to the spiritual eye. Hercules caught the doe of Artemis. The latter is the goddess of the chase. Hercules hunted down what the free nature of the human soul can offer. The other labors can be interpreted in a similar way. We cannot follow them in every detail here; our intention is only to show how the general sense of the myth itself points to inner development.
A similar interpretation is possible for the voyage of the Argonauts. Phrixus and his sister Helle, children of a Boeotian king, suffered greatly at the hands of their stepmother. The gods sent a ram with a golden fleece to them, which carried them away through the air. As they crossed the straits between Europe and Asia, Helle was drowned. Hence the straits are called the Hellespont. Phrixus reached the king of Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. He sacrificed the ram to the gods and presented the fleece to the King Aetes. The latter had it hung in a grove and guarded by a frightful dragon. The Greek hero, Jason, together with the other heroes, Hercules, Theseus and Orpheus, undertook to fetch the fleece from Colchis. Jason was charged with difficult tasks before he could reach the treasure of Aetes. But Medea, the daughter of the king, who was versed in magic, helped him. He tamed two fire-breathing bulls; he ploughed a field and sowed dragons' teeth, so that armed men grew out of the earth. On the advice of Medea he threw a stone among the men, whereupon they murdered one another. By means of a magic potion from Medea, Jason put the dragon to sleep; then he was able to obtain the fleece. With this he embarked upon the return journey to Greece. Medea accompanied him as his wife. The king pursued the fugitives. To delay him, Medea slew her little brother Absyrtus, scattering his limbs upon the sea. Aetes was delayed in gathering them up. Hence the couple were able to reach Jason's home with the fleece. — Here every single fact demands a deeper explanation. The fleece is something belonging to man, something of infinite value to him; in ancient times it was separated from him and its recapture involves the overcoming of terrible powers. So it is with the eternal in the human soul. It belongs to man. But he finds himself separated from it. His lower nature separates him from it. Only when he overcomes this lower nature, puts the latter to sleep, can he regain it. This is possible when his own consciousness (Medea) comes to his aid with its magic force. Medea becomes for Jason what Diotima, as the teacher of love, was for Socrates (see Note in Chapter 4). Human wisdom possesses the magic force to reach the divine after overcoming the transitory. Out of the lower nature can come only a lower human element, the armed men, which is overcome by the force of the spiritual element, the advice of Medea. Even when man has found his eternal element, the Recce, he is not yet safe. He must sacrifice a part of his consciousness (Absyrtus). This is demanded by the material world, which we can conceive of only as manifold (torn to pieces). We could penetrate still more deeply into the description of the spiritual events lying behind these pictures, but here we intend only to indicate the principle of myth formation.
Of particular interest in relation to such an interpretation is the saga of Prometheus. Prometheus and Epimetheus were the sons of the Titan, Japetos. The Titans were the children of the oldest generation of the gods, of Uranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). Kronos, the youngest of the Titans, dethroned his father and seized the rulership of the world. For this, together with the remaining Titans, he was overpowered by his son Zeus. And Zeus became supreme among the gods. In the battle with the Titans, Prometheus stood at the side of Zeus. On his advice Zeus banished the Titans into the nether world. But the Titans' attitude of mind continued to live in Prometheus. He was only half a friend to Zeus. When Zeus wished to destroy men for their presumption, Prometheus took their part, teaching them the art of numbers and writing, as well as other things leading to culture, especially the use of fire. Because of this Zeus was angry with Prometheus. Hephaestus, the son of Zeus, was commissioned to fashion the image of a woman of great beauty, which the gods adorned with all kinds of gifts. This woman was known as Pandora, the all-gifted. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, brought her to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. She brought him a casket as a gift from the gods. Epimetheus accepted the gift, despite the fact that Prometheus had advised him on no account to accept a gift from the gods. When the casket was opened, out flew all kinds of human plagues. Hope alone remained inside, and that only because Pandora quickly closed the lid. Therefore Hope has remained as the doubtful gift of the gods. — At the command of Zeus, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus because of his relationship with men. An eagle constantly fed upon his liver, which continually renewed itself. Prometheus had to pass his days in tortured solitude until one of the gods voluntarily sacrificed himself, that is, dedicated himself to death. The tortured one bore his suffering steadfastly. He had learned that Zeus would be dethroned by the son of a mortal woman if he did not marry her. Zeus was anxious to know this secret; he sent the messenger of the gods, Hermes, to Prometheus to discover something about it. Prometheus denied him any information. — The legend of Hercules is linked with that of Prometheus. During his travels Hercules also came to the Caucasus. He killed the eagle which was consuming the liver of Prometheus. The centaur, Chiron, who could not die, although suffering from an incurable wound, sacrificed himself for Prometheus. Then the latter was reconciled with the gods.
The Titans are the force of will streaming from the original cosmic spirit (Uranos) in the form of nature (Kronos). Here we must not think of merely abstract forces of will, but of real beings of will. Prometheus belongs among the latter. This characterizes his being. But he is not entirely a Titan. In a certain sense he sides with Zeus, the spirit who assumed the rulership of the world after the unbridled nature-force (Kronos) had been tamed. Prometheus, therefore, represents those worlds which have given man that forward-striving, which is a force half of nature, half of spirit — the will. On the one side the will is directed toward good, on the other side toward evil. Its destiny is formed according to whether it inclines toward the spiritual or the transitory. This destiny is the destiny of man himself. Man is chained to the transitory. The eagle gnaws at him. He must endure it. He can only attain the heights when he seeks his destiny in solitude. He has a secret. Its content is that the divine (Zeus) must marry a mortal, human consciousness itself, which is bound to the physical body, in order to bring forth a son, human wisdom (the Logos), who will redeem the god. Through this, consciousness becomes immortal. Man may not betray this secret until a mystic (Hercules) approaches him and removes the power which continually threatens him with death. A being, half animal, half human — a centaur — must sacrifice himself to redeem man. The centaur is man himself, the half animal, half spiritual man. He must die so that the purely spiritual man may be redeemed. What Prometheus, the human will, despises, is taken by Epimetheus, the intellect, shrewdness. But the gifts offered to Epimetheus are only troubles and plagues. For the intellect clings to nothingness, to the transitory. And only one thing remains — the hope that out of the transitory, one day the eternal may be born.
The thread running through the legends of the Argonauts, Hercules and Prometheus, also holds good for the poem of the Odyssey by Homer. The use of this method of interpretation in studying the latter work, may appear forced. But upon a closer examination of everything that has to be considered, even the most hardened doubter must lose his misgivings about such an interpretation. Above all, it must surprise us to find it related of Odysseus also that he descended to the nether world. Whatever we may think of the author of the Odyssey in other respects, it is impossible to credit him with causing a mortal being to descend to the nether world without bringing him into relationship with all that the journey to the nether world signified in the Greek world conception. It signified the overcoming of the transitory and the awakening of the eternal in the soul. That Odysseus achieved this must, therefore, be admitted. With this his experiences, like those of Hercules, gain a deeper meaning. They become a description of something which does not belong to the material world, a description of the soul's path of development. In addition, the Odyssey is not related as one would expect of a sequence of external facts. The hero makes voyages on magic ships. Actual geographical distances are treated in a most arbitrary way. Material reality is simply irrelevant. This becomes comprehensible if the actual events are related only in order to illustrate spiritual development. Furthermore, the author himself states in his introduction to the work, that it deals with the search for the soul: “Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had reached the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own soul and the return of his comrades.” (see Note 59)
Here we have a man seeking for the soul, the divine element, and his wanderings in search of this divine element are related. — He comes to the land of the Cyclops. These are ungainly giants with one eye in their foreheads. Polyphemus, the most terrible of them, devours several of his companions. Odysseus saves himself by blinding the Cyclops. Here we are dealing with the first stage of life's pilgrimage. Physical power, the lower nature, must be overcome. Whoever does not deprive it of its strength, whoever does not blind it, will be devoured by it. — Odysseus then reaches the island of the witch Circe. She transforms some of his companions into grunting swine. She also is conquered by him. Circe represents the lower spiritual force which clings to the transitory. Through abuse of this force she can thrust humanity only deeper into its animal nature. — Odysseus must overcome her. Then he can descend into the nether world. He becomes a mystic. Now he is exposed to the dangers which beset a mystic on his ascent from the lower to the higher stages of initiation. He reaches the Sirens who lure passing travelers to their death with sounds of enchanting sweetness. These are the images produced by the lower fantasy, the first things to be followed by anyone who has freed himself from the material world. He has come as far as free creative activity, but not as far as the initiated spirit. He chases after illusory images and must free himself from their power. — Odysseus must traverse the awesome passage between Scylla and Charybdis. In his early stages the mystic wavers between spirit and sensuality. He is still unable to grasp the full content of the spirit, but sensuality has already lost its earlier value. All Odysseus' companions perish in a shipwreck; he alone saves himself and finds the nymph Calypso, who receives him in friendship and cares for him for seven years. At last, at the command of Zeus, she releases him to return to his home. The mystic has reached a stage at which all who are striving with him, fail, except Odysseus, who alone is worthy. In peace this worthy one enjoys gradual initiation for a period defined by the mystically symbolical number seven. — Before Odysseus reaches his home, however, he comes to the island of the Phaeacians. Here he is hospitably received. The king's daughter is interested in him and King Alcinous himself entertains him and does him honor. Once again Odysseus encounters the world and its pleasures, and the spirit which cling to the world (Nausicaä) awakens in him. However, he finds the way home to the divine. At first nothing good awaits him at home. His wife, Penelope, is surrounded by numerous suitors. To each she promises marriage when she has finished a certain piece of weaving. She avoids keeping her promise by unraveling at night what she has woven during the day. The suitors must be overcome by Odysseus so that he may be reunited with his wife in peace. The goddess Athene transforms him into a beggar so that he will not be recognized at once upon entering his house. Then he overcomes the suitors. — Odysseus seeks his own deeper consciousness, the divine forces of the soul. He wishes to be united with them. Before the mystic finds them he must overcome everything which lays claim to this consciousness in the form of a suitor. This crowd of suitors comes from the world of lower reality, of transitory nature. The logic applicable to this world is a weaving which continually unravels itself after it has been spun. Wisdom (the goddess Athene) is the sure guide to the deepest forces of the soul. She transforms man into a beggar, i.e. she divests him of all that is derived from the transitory.
The Eleusinian Festivals, celebrated in Greece in honor of Demeter and Dionysus, appear steeped in Mystery wisdom. A sacred road led from Athens to Eleusis. It was marked with secret signs which could bring the soul into a mood of deep reverence. In Eleusis were secret temple buildings which were served by priestly families. Dignity and the wisdom with which this dignity was connected, were inherited in these priest families from generation to generation. (Information concerning these places of worship may be found in the book, Ergänzungen zu den letzten Untersuchungen auf der Acropolis in Athen by Karl Bötticher, Philologus, Suppl. Vol. 3 Section 3.) The wisdom making it possible for services to be enacted there, was the Greek Mystery wisdom. The festivals, celebrated twice yearly, displayed the great cosmic drama of the destiny of the divine in the world and the destiny of the human soul. The Minor Mysteries were celebrated in February, the Major Mysteries in September. Initiations were connected with the festivals. The symbolical presentation of the drama of man and the cosmos formed the concluding act of the initiations undertaken there. The Eleusinian temples were erected in honor of the goddess Demeter. She is a daughter of Kronos. She bore a daughter, Persephone, to Zeus, before his marriage to Hera. Once while Persephone was playing, she was kidnaped by Pluto, the god of the nether world. Demeter, lamenting, hastened to search for her all over the earth. In Eleusis the daughters of Keleus, a local ruler, found Demeter sitting on a rock. Taking the form of an old woman she entered the service of Keleus' family as nurse to the son of the ruler's wife. She wished to endow this son with immortality. Therefore she hid him every night in the fire. When the mother once observed this, she wept and lamented. Henceforth the bestowal of immortality was impossible. Demeter left the house. Keleus built a temple. Demeter's sorrow for Persephone was limitless. She caused famine to spread over the earth. To avoid disaster the gods were obliged to placate her. Pluto was persuaded by Zeus to allow Persephone to return to the upper world. Before this, however, the god of the nether world gave her a pomegranate to eat. Because of this she was compelled to return to the nether world again and again at regular intervals. From then on she spent one third of the year in the nether world and two thirds in the upper world. Demeter was reconciled; she returned to Olympus. But in Eleusis, the place of her anguish, she founded the service of the festivals to commemorate her fate for ever.
The meaning of the Demeter-Persephone myth is not difficult to recognize. It is the soul which alternates between the lower and the upper world. The eternity of the soul and its eternal transformation through birth and death, is represented pictorially. The soul is descended from Demeter, the immortal. But it is carried off by the transitory and becomes destined to share in the fate of the transitory. It has eaten the fruit in the nether world; the human soul is satiated with the transitory and therefore cannot dwell continually in the divine heights. It must always return to the realm of the transitory. Demeter represents that being from which human consciousness has sprung; but this consciousness must be thought of as having been able to come into existence through the spiritual forces of the earth. Thus Demeter is the archetypal being of the earth, and her gift to the earth in the form of the forces in the seeds and the produce of the fields, only indicates a still deeper aspect of her being. This being wishes to endow humanity with immortality. Demeter hides her nursling in the fire at night. But man cannot endure the pure power of fire (the spirit). Demeter must desist. She can only found the temple service through which man may participate in the divine insofar as he is able to do so.
The Eleusinian Festivals were an eloquent acknowledgment of belief in the eternity of the human soul. This acknowledgment found pictorial expression in the myth about Persephone. Dionysus was celebrated in Eleusis, together with Demeter and Persephone. As in Demeter was worshiped the divine creatrix of the eternal In man, so in Dionysus was worshiped the divine element, ever changing in the whole world. The god who had been diffused into the world and had been torn to pieces in order to be re-born spiritually (see Note in Chapter 4), had to be celebrated together with Demeter. (A splendid presentation of the spirit of the Eleusinian Mysteries is to be found in the book, Sanctuaires d'Orient by Édouard Schuré. Paris, 1898.)"
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