Hidden Dangers of The Hero’s (mythological) Journey

This weekend, I was privileged to participate in an academic conference, The Talking Sky, hosted by the University of Wales and The Sophia Centre. The purpose of the conference was to explore the cultural aspects of diverse myths inspired by the heavens.

Whilst many important points were made, one surfaced time and time again – i.e. although we are fascinated with the sun (ever-popular Celtic fire festivals come to mind), we also fear it and for good reason. Although a source of life, the sun is also deadly dangerous. Myths such as that of Phaethon, son of the Greek solar deity, Helios, who was killed when he foolishly drove his chariot too close to the sun, illustrate this.

** Equally dangerous, perhaps, is our cultural preoccupation with empowerment of the (solar) self? **

320px-Heroesjourney.svgConsider the work of Joseph Campbell and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which explores the culturally recurring mythical motif of the hero’s journey. Not only was this motif popularised by films like Star Wars, but it also forms much of the basis of Jungian psychology, the centre-piece of which is ‘individuation’, or the transformational process whereby the (lunar) unconscious is melded into the (solar) consciousness to achieve an integrated personality and (alchemical) psychological growth.images

As Liz Greene acknowledges (The Luminaries), the hero’s journey is a solar process wherein the individual actively and  consciously  drives to develop his worldly goals. Having studied with Liz, I’ve never questioned the value of using this motif in my astrological work; it ticks all the boxes necessary for survival in western culture. But apparently, the well-respected psychologist, James Hillman, has questioned this and, it would seem, with good reason.

Hillman argues that not only is (1) Jungian ‘individuation’ a ‘developmental fantasy’ but also that (2) the solar focus of the hero’s journey is dangerously reductionist. In his book, The Soul’s Code, Hillman promotes what he considers to be the healthier, more holistic (pluralistic) ‘soul-making’ to be our psychological aim. Not only is this in keeping with the cosmology of the ancient Greeks, who saw numen, or the divine, in everything, but also in line with Platonic ideals (Myth of Er), which still underlie so much of western culture.

Arguably, as the speaker at the conference pointed out, contemporary natal (psychological) astrology does not look solely at solar functions. We leave that to the popular Sun Sign columns in magazines and newspapers, which, as another speaker at the conference has suggested, have become a myth in their own right.

images-2Whilst I agree that responsible astrologers do honour the entire natal chart (along with its multitude of inherent mythologies), I acknowledge that Hillman makes valid points which ought not to be ignored. As I’m about to embark on a new career as a ‘coach’ (utilizing astrology), I worry about the stated goal of contemporary coaching – i.e. empowerment of the individual. If, as a coach, what I will be empowering is solely the client’s solar self (or ego), then if Hillman is right I will be doing him or her a huge (reductionist) disservice. However, since that is what it would seem that most coaching clients want, how do I dare to offer them otherwise?

Once I’ve commenced my coaching studies at the University of Cambridge in this autumn, I hope to be in a better position to address these concerns. Watch this space, I suppose.

Responsibility

They say that worldly achievement involves not only risks and rewards but also responsibility.

Fair enough.

But how do you know if you’ve got the mix right?

With the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Capricorn, the next couple of days will provide opportunities to discover just that but I’m guessing that it won’t be all that easy and here’s why.

Consider the story of Minos of Crete who, in order to become king, enlisted the aid of Poseidon, god of the sea. In return, Minos promised to sacrifice to Poseidon a wondrous white bull. But when it came time for Minos to honour his part of the bargain, he reneged, choosing to substitute his 2nd best bull instead.Unknown

In making this decision, Minos might well have used a classic risk/reward analysis – i.e. the potential reward (to him) of keeping the better bull outweighed the risk that Poseidon would find out (or even care).

But unfortunately Poseidon did find out (and he cared) and in retaliation caused Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, to fall in love with that  wondrous white bull. That in itself may not have been so bad. After all, marital indiscretion has often been an issue dealt with by kings. But when, after coupling witUnknownh the bull, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, the plot thickened; each year nine youths and nine maidens had to be sacrificed in order to feed the Minotaur’s foul appetite and after awhile the folks in the street started to get angry. Finally, the Athenian hero Theseus arrived in Crete and with the help of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, killed the Minotaur freeing Crete from its terrible curse.  Minos, worn out by guilt and sorrow, died and Theseus became the ruler of both Athens and Crete.

I figure that this means that – despite the outcome of any risk-reward analysis, responsibility requires us to always consider that each and every decision we take also has an impact on others; Minos forgot this at his peril.

You wouldn’t want to do the same thing, would you?

Prepare to receive riches

With the Sun in Pisces (dissipation) and the Moon in Taurus (acquisition), today and tomorrow are Ace of Coins days.

The Ace of Coins is an exceedingly favourable card; it is the harbinger of material prosperity and spiritual well-being. It represents triumph in the material world, perfect luck, and the realisation of ambitions.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Live rich and happy, Timon of Athens (4.3.532)

Timon-of-AthensShakespeare’s self-exiled Timon tells this to his steward, Flavius, as he gives him the gold that he’s found in the woods. After all, what does Timon need with it now that he’s a hermit living in a cave? Although he’d once had plenty of money (and false friends to help him spend it), this had not brought him lasting happiness. Maybe Flavius, the only true friend Timon has ever had, will make better use of the gold? Timon can only hope this will be the case.

The Ace of Coins is the ultimate harbinger of success – get ready to ready to reap the rewards of your hard work and ambition. But be careful what you do with your newfound bounty.

Although Venus (ruler of Taurus) bestows both friendship and riches, Neptune (ruler of Pisces) will ensure that it all slips, quietly, away.

Today and Tomorrow are Phlegmatic / Melancholic Days

With the Sun in Cancer (cold/wet) and the Moon in Virgo (cold/dry), its Phlegmatic/Melancholic couple of days.

As you will recall, humoural theory is based on the ancient and medieval physiology and medicine as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – it’s all to do with the four block or ‘roots’ of the material world that manifest in certain humours and their related temperaments:

ELEMENT QUALITY HUMOUR TEMPERAMENT
Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

You may also recall that we experienced Phlegmatic/Melancholic energy earlier this month (1 July) when the Moon was in Capricorn; that energy was unpleasantly sobering, rather like a cold shower. That was because Saturn rules Capricorn and he isn’t known for being jolly. Indeed Saturn is usually cautiously ambitious to a fault.

Mercury
But this time the energy will be different because Mercury rules Virgo and he brings a much lighter energy to bear. In classical mythology, Mercury is the trickster god and hence like the Fool card in the tarot, has no fixed agenda. Indeed his is a spontaneous approach to life and although he rushes in where angels may fear to tread, he is usually successful. This is because whilst like Saturn he has developed significant wisdom, unlike Saturn, he isn’t overly cautious. Mercury isn’t remotely as self-focused as is Saturn and hence doesn’t envision life as an ego-trip.

Hence the energy today is still reserved and serious but not inflexible. The best way to handle this is to lighten up a bit – that makes it easier to see where you’re headed.

Structuralism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Literature

StructuralismStructuralism holds that a culture can be understood by means of the structure upon which its language, or structural linguistics, is modelled. This is because according to Saussure, the meanings assigned to words as well as the relationship between words (i.e. sentence structure) are maintained solely by convention. I have found this ‘new perspective’ of structuralism valuable in my study of literature because it provides enriched understanding about various cultural values and beliefs underlying the texts. It does however have its drawbacks which should be acknowledged if such value is not to be severely diminished.

For example, in 1.2 of Shakespeare’s play I Henry IV, when Hal proposes that when he becomes king, Falstaff should serve as his hangman, Falstaff responds that this ‘jumps with my humour’. Without placing the word ‘humour’ in its correct cultural context, I might be tempted to interpret this as an expression of Falstaff’s present mood. This would make it much more difficult to make meaningful connections with the lines that follow whereby Falstaff suggests he is as ‘melancholy’ as a ‘gib cat’ or ‘lugg’d bear’. However when I consider such comparisons to be signs of early modern cultural convention, values, and beliefs, I find myself addressing the complexities of Galenic humoralism which incorporates ideas about inborn temperaments relating to scarcity or excesses of bodily fluids – in the case of melancholy that of black bile. Hence Falstaff is not just feeling melancholy– he is melancholic. This has implications for his future because by nature of his humours, regardless of what he might wish to be otherwise, he is non-energetic, serious, solitary, suspicious, and mistrustful. Now the associations with animals (all mammals with blood were considered to be effect by the humours) start to make sense; the ‘gib cat’ or gelded (castrated) cat signals Falstaff is always ineffectual and the ‘lugg’d bear’ suggests that he realises he is being baited by Hal but is unable to do anything about it.

As a feminist looking at texts through structuralist eyes, I am also able to hone in on sex-inflected signifiers pointing to specific patriarchal cultural values I am keen to eliminate. For example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet prematurely presumes his mother behind the death of his father – ‘frailty, thy name is woman’ – taking this as a signal of key cultural attitudes I am able to identify it as insidiously dangerous for women as is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Milton’s bogey’ (the depiction of Eve as inferior, alone responsible for mans’ eviction from the Garden or Eden in Paradise Lost). According to Gilbert and Gubar, such attitudes inherent in some of the most important works comprising the literary ‘canon’, cuts women from the ‘spaciousness of possibility’. Once such ‘signs’ of cultural attitudes as this are identified, they can be openly discussed and hopefully dispersed. But whilst they remain buried in the unconscious minds of readers, they continue to give weight to damaging cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Not only that but the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss expanded the tenets of structuralism to the interpretation of myths and stories and the identification of various motifs and themes repeating through cultures and history. Armed with such understanding, I come to Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, ready to rely on, for example, the myths and legends surrounding the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian fame regarding the unfavourable consequences of a society’s sterility to help me understand the consequences of section about the bored typist and her equally disempowered clerk as they have sex without consequence or pleasure in The Fire Sermon of that poem.

However valuable structuralism are in focusing on valuable insight on other cultural believes, it has its drawbacks: for example it is impossible for me to neutralise the effect of my own cultural values and beliefs when I read about Falstaff and his melancholy. Although I can intellectually understand the significance of his humours for his future in terms of early modern ideals, I still cannot stop thinking if only he could get some psychological help (such as we are accustomed to request today), things would have turned out differently for him and such thoughts distract me from the realities of the story that Shakespeare wrote. Not only that, but in reaching so far into the cultural underpinnings of a text, I take my eyes further and further away from the text in its own right.

Also, it is through structuralism that Roland Barthes developed his position regarding the relationship between author, text, and meaning. While I agree in some respects that the reader is at least a co-author of a text in the sense that he or she will necessarily interpret text in line with his or her own cultural beliefs (as I did with Falstaff and his melancholy), I cannot agree with Barthes that the ‘birth of the reader’ spells the ‘death of the author’. Although we can never be certain what Shakespeare was trying to achieve by having Hamlet make such an affront to women in his speech regarding frailty, we do know that he meant them there for some purpose and (given the 16th century culture of which he was a product) that such purpose is more than likely at odds at least in some respects with any meaning that I coming from a 21st century mind-set might make of them. Just realising this makes us aware of the implications of any meaning that we might chose to assign.

In summary, whilst considering a text through the framework of structuralism (in the sense that I acknowledge that each word or sentence on the page is a signal pointing toward some deeper underlying cultural perspectives), my reading and understanding of literature is expanded and enriched. Further, I am able to articulate certain words and phrases that signal cultural perspectives with which I wish to take issue – for example as a feminist I am interested in covert patriarchal textual jibes at women. However the structrualist approach does have drawbacks, not the least in respect to at least as a co-author of textual meaning, I am unable to neutralise the effect of my own cultural perspectives on a text and whilst trying to undercover all that underlies any text, I take my focus further away from that text.

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

Today is a ‘Tower of Destruction’ Day

The TowerWith the Sun in Virgo (perfection) and the Moon in Leo (aspiration), today is a ‘Tower of Destruction” day.

Throughout history, there have been plenty of examples where hubris (i.e. excessive self-confidence, OED, n) has been the cause of a disastrous fall. Check out The Icarus Syndrome by Peter Beinart for insight.

Yet if in today’s world we’re pushed to ‘be all that we can be’ (and more) then where ought we draw the line between well-deserved success and hubris?

Meditations on the Tarot (A Journey into Christian Hermeticisim) provides a thoughtful answer:

Every Christian has been taught that man was ejected from the Garden of Eden for desiring more ‘knowledge’ than God wished to reveal.

Yet why was it so important to have such knowledge?Meditations on the Tarot

Origen (circa AD 185) suggests this is hard-wired in our souls – i.e. we are built to push the boundaries of nature with the purpose of breaching them – i.e. for example through scientific research.

According to the Hermetic tradition, this is dangerous for if God wished us to have such knowledge, He would have revealed it.

Does it mean that we should never strive for more than we’ve been given?

Of course not. The StarAccording to Hermetic wisdom, it is absolutely necessary for us to work and grow – to think and await the ripening of our thoughts – to cultivate and maintain ourselves as we would care for our garden – wherein we realise all will grow and be harvested in its own time.

So why do we push ourselves more than we push our gardens?

Hermetic wisdom suggests that (through ignorance), we identify ‘self’ with ‘ego’ – ‘I’ must have this or that because ‘I” want it (not because I need it or because it is good for me but because I WANT) – and such behaviour is further fueled by advertisements suggesting you should want whatever is for sale for no other reason than because ‘You’re worth it’.

Danger – danger – danger !!!!

What will you be ‘worth’ after your personal fall?

If on a ‘Tower of Destruction’ day, you’re tempted to push beyond your boundaries- beyond the bounds of your own nature  – and like Icarus, fly too close to the sun, resist and be heartened.

In the tarot, the card following ‘The Tower of Destruction’ is that of The Star’ – a kneeling woman with two urns being poured in equal measure so as to achieve balance and equilibrium.

Love’s Alchemy & the Golden Age of Saturn

imagesThe Babylonians believed Saturn, or Kronos, to be the ghost of a dead sun and hence the oldest spirit in the heavens. Saturn is thus considered the place where ‘created matter’ first manifests; it symbolises the laws defining and delimiting material manifestation.

The alchemist’s journey is focused on breaching these laws – or passing through the so-called ‘serpent’s circle’ of Saturn – in order to break through transient time and return to the Golden Age of eternal youth and divine benevolence.

In ancient lore, references to this Golden Age are numerous.

Hesiod tells of:

A golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Kronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil: miserable age rested not on them . . . The fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things. . . .

Similarly writes Ovid in the sixth book of his Metamorphoses:

In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right. . . . The earth itself, without compulsion, untouched by the hoe, unfurrowed by any share, produced all things spontaneously. . . . It was a season of everlasting spring.

The messenger of Saturn is the black crow. It symbolises the beginning of the ‘Black Phase’ of alchemical transformation, or Nigredo, the period when light gives way to darkness.black crow

It is in this darkness that we find the fertile soil of new birth. Indeed, the word Saturn comes from the Latin – serere – meaning to sow or plant. Because Saturn marks the boundary between personal and transpersonal (cosmic) powers, it is the alchemists most important planet being equated with both the beginning and end of the Great Work.

Psychologically, Saturn forces acceptance of the limitations of human mortality. Paradoxically, we are unable commit to life until we can face ‘who’ and ‘what’ we really are rather than that which we’d like to imagine. This in turn bring us to the threshold of whole new phase of life, or octave (Saturn being the 7th ring and hence transgressing it ushers in the next octave); each phase or octave leaving further behind the gross material of bodily incarnation in favour of the more subtle matter of our spirituality.

pitagorat1Astrologically, it is with Saturn transits/progressions (especially Saturn returns) that we often commence the ‘Black Phase’. Inevitably this is easier for those with Saturn in the air and fire signs (Gemini, Leo, Aries, Sagittarius, Libra, and Aquarius) for these individuals are more able to keep the ‘faith’ that in the end, everything will be OK.

However for those like my heroine, Judith Shakespeare, who have Saturn in earth signs (Virgo, Taurus, and Capricorn) or water signs (Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio) the Black Phase is much harder because these individuals are too close – too emotionally wedded – to their EGO needs and desires that are being swept away.

Today and Tomorrow are Days of ‘The Fool’

UnknownWith the Sun and Moon both in Sagittarius (NEW MOON !!!), today and tomorrow are Days of ‘The Fool’.

Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, The Fool is about to jump off a cliff.

Why would he do that, you ask?

Good question.

Here’s what I think.

The Fool isn’t a fool in the ordinary sense. Indeed, he represents the most enlightened energy in the deck.  He’s the archetypal youngest son in fairy tales in whom initially, no one had faith.

And so our young man set outs with nothing and returns having conquered the world. Not only has he recovered the lost treasure, married the pretty princess, and fathered a stable of beautiful children, but he also has the fidelity to return home to share his gain. While his older brothers, in whom their father had placed his promise, the Fool is bright and sunny for he alone has succeeded big time.

Unlike those brothers, the Fool didn’t over analyse. Nor did he try to be cute or clever. He didn’t even try to rely on patronage and family connections. He just went out there and by sheer force of character ‘did’.

The Fool is the real hero of the tarot. That’s why you’ll often find him both at the beginning and the end of the (Major Aracana) deck.  He started out modest and simple and despite his ‘wins’, he returns the same way. This doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown. On the contrary, it suggests he’s perfected his self par excellence.

For despite all the heart ache and disappointment he’s experienced during his travels, The Fool refuses to let any of it get him down. He’s just as adventurous, curious, and cheerful when he returns as when he first left. That’s not easy, as I’m sure you know because most of us have let our trials and tribulations get the better of us – to the point in which some of us no longer even try.

Days of ‘The Fool’ offer a unique opportunity to put the past behind you and start all over again. Remember what it felt like when you first set out to conquer life?

I bet you can do it again.

The Wounded Healer – A Classic Sagittarian Myth

imagesMyths are a very special kind of story.

Expressing recurring archetypal themes, they speak straight to the heart about shared human experience.

Myths associated with your natal sun sign offer significant insight into the archetypal themes playing prominently in your life. They allow you not only to get a handle on your personal dilemmas, but also provide a chance to find new meaning in your daily struggles.

This one’s for Sagittarius. Happy birthday to you.

Chiron was the wise king of the centaurs, an ancient breed of wizards and healers; half-man and half-horse. Accidentally wounded in the leg with a poisoned arrow (dipped in the blood of the many-headed Hydra), Chiron tried desperately to heal himself.

Although his inspired efforts spurred brilliant advances in science and medicine, he was unsuccessful in his primary task.

Because he was half mortal, Chiron suffered unbearable agony.

Because he was half immortal, Chiron was unable to die.

Finally, Chiron exchanged his life for that of Prometheus who, in punishment for stealing fire to benefit mankind, had been left chained on the mountainside by the angry gods. For his sacrifice, Chiron was honoured with a place in the constellation Sagittarius.

Sagittarius is the archetype of the philosopher who through expansion of his physical, intellectual, and geographical boundaries seeks something greater than himself. Even, if like Chiron, Sagittarius never quite reaches his goal, he brings to his fellow men and women, the precious gift of hope.