Apologies for the long lapses in posts – I’ve been trying to get myself settled in Connecticut, looking for work, getting ready for the start of fall classes at The New School, and so on. In continuing my own personal reading and study, I came across a fabulous book  by a Jungian analyst named  Anthony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue, which innocently enough describes itself as “A guide to the symbols of humankind” on the cover, but is much, much more.

Chances are all of us have seen symbol guides, coffee table books which purport to decipher the images in our dreams and in all forms of media: oral narratives, books, films, sculpture and visual arts are full of powerful representations which echo some intrinsic meaning. Most of these guides are somewhat silly and perhaps a bit arbitrary. I own two, 1000 Symbols (which provides a brief, loose and incomplete history of each symbol) and Traditional Symbols (a bit more thorough). But each read like dream dictionaries which ensure the reader they can interpret the images themselves. Stevens offers no such assurance – the book is split into two parts, the first, a very enlightening overview of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, mythology, and semiotics as they relate to traditional and ancient images, such as the Uroboros. The second is a thesaurus, which Stevens begins by stating

…No such treasury can ever hope to be exhaustive, since the variety of symbols arising in dreams, religions, and works of art is infinite. Nor does this Thesaurus offer a form of “dream book” where ready-made meanings to symbols can be looked up. Our imagination makes use of common symbols, it is true, but these must always be examined within the context of the life of the person producing them. (P.93)

Stevens stresses a reliance on metaphor and analogy and not literalism – in the tradition of Jung, symbols are ways for us to understand the subconscious and develop the self. “…one becomes aware of new meanings arising from the unconscious psyche by seeing these mirrored in outer reality” (P.133). These signs evoke fragments of our evolutionary heritage – complex concepts for which there are not always enough words to totally define. The historical psychic process of symbol creation  include three aspects:

  • Resemblance – simile and metaphor, rhetorical tools like hyperbolic statements, not logical but representative of parallel  ideas. Stevens cites Cirlot’s definition of “the principle of sufficient identity.”
  • Condensation – A Freudian concept, where dream symbols are “over-determined” and many meanings are drawn into a single configuration.
  • Macrocosm and microcosm – “subjective manifestation of a psychological process in the person creating it.” A convenient example is the axis mundi, where a tree stands for the focal point of all creation and a conduit between the natural and the supernatural.

Stevens entire book is well worth reading, with valuable concepts such as sacred technology, mythical cognition, but I’d like to focus on one part that really struck me: the symbolism of the “loss of Eden” on page 202.

A neolithic farm in Southern Shetland

I’ve written briefly about this before(1 2) – ever since reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael I’ve been struck by the prospect of reinterpreting Genesis as an evolutionary fable about agricultural revolution. Stevens puts those thoughts into a wonderful perspective that deconstructs “paradise lost” on five symbolic levels: – early migration from the forest, the hunter-gatherer becomes agriculturist, an allegory of birth, the ego emerging from the Self, and developing the human consciousness.

In one of my earlier posts I talked about the vegetarianism in the garden of Eden – Stevens mentions how “the early ancestral transition from the primeval forest to the open Savannah entailed the abandonment of a predominantly vegetarian diet of gathered fruit and the adoption of a more carnivorous diet of hunted meat.” Following that migration, the transition between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist about 10,000 years ago “is suggested by the occupations of Adam’s first sons, Cain and Abel, a ploughman and a shepherd respectively,” a detail that Quinn uses to great effect in the writing of Ishmael. This conflict of transition could also have been one of class – groups of hunter-gatherer would most certainly clash with agriculturalists over territory and resources.

The next three aspects (allegory of birth/ego emerging/development of consciousness) are really to my interest – birth as a purely physical event still evokes the two other phenomena. As David Byrne sang, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” In order to emerge from what we now see as the perfect symmetry of prehistoric ecology,  there is a violent separation between mother and child. The child has a hand in this:

The snake tells Adam and Eve that if they eat of the fruit, their eyes will be opened (they will become conscious) and they will be like God. ‘There is a deep doctrine in the legend of the Fall,’ wrote Jung; ‘it is the expression of a dim presentiment that the emancipation of the ego-consciousness was a Luciferian deed. Man’s whole history consists from the very beginning in a conflict between his feeling of inferiority and his arrogance’ (CW9i, para. 420). To be conscious is to become aware of creation, like the God who created it, and to know it for what it is. Humanity is no longer passively subservient to Nature but well on the way to mastering it. (P. 204)

From a deep ecology point of view, this is great stuff. But my comparison in earlier posts to Prometheus has its place  as well, and Stevens is on his way there:

The ‘demiurge’ that created Eden would have kept humanity in ignorance (unconsciousness): ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest therof thou shalt surely die’ (Gensis 2:17). Adam’s disobedience to God, like Prometheus’s theft of fire, is a felix culpa, a happy sin, for it advances the cause of human consciousness. Acordingly, the Orphites, a Gnostic sect of the second century AD, celebrated the serpent as a principle of gnosis – of knowledge and emerging awareness.’ The serpent, like Prometheus, initiates development at the price of suffering, for consciousness brings with it knowledge of the tragic fate of every human life – the inevitability of death. Pain, suffering, and death exist in the absence of consciousness, it is true, but if there is no consciousness to experience them, then they do not exist psychologically. Without consciousness, life is a state of anaesthesia. Accordingly, Prometheus suffers the eagle’s visists to gnaw at his liver during the daytime (consciousness), and the wounbd heals up at night (unconsciousness). During the night we all return to that original unconscious wholeness out of which we (and the ego) were born. In this way the ills and traumas of the day are healed by the sleep that ‘knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care’. (P.204-205)

Now it would be interesting to compare these thoughts with a Buddhist perspective of ego-death and noself, but before we can go there we should see Steven’s conclusion.

…the development of consciousness demands mastery over the beast and enslaving the two-million-year-old human in ourselves in the name of civilized order and commerce: it represents the apotheosis of the left pre-frontal cortex over the rest of the brain. The development of cities, armies, and empires would never have been possible without such self-discipline: ‘the city, once conceived as a representation of Heaven, took on many of the features of a military camp,’ wrote Lewis Mumford (1996), ‘a place of confinement, daily drill, punishment. To be chained, day after day, year after year, to a single occupation, a single workshop, even finally to a single manual operation… that was the worker’s lot.” This was the triumphant outcome of the hero’s recurrent victory over the monster. A hollow victory indeed! And, not surprisingly, it set of dreams of regaining Paradise.

Again, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you have any interest in these topics, go find a copy at the library or online.