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“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard: A Hero’s Journey into the Subconscious

I picked this book up on a whim, basically because it was on sale and I had heard of it, and also because I liked the character of Allan Quatermain (the protagonist in this book) from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notes on the back cover also state that this book influenced the Indiana Jones movies. All in all, it seemed like something I should read.

It’s basically a story about a small group of adventurers in Africa who go on a quest to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. The writing is great, the story is exciting, and the imagery is dazzling; but what I found most fascinating about this book is the symbolism concerning the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld.

For me, the hero’s journey into the underworld is symbolic of a person’s exploration of the hidden realms of the subconscious mind and is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth. This book is brimming with these types of symbols.

Before the intrepid crew sets out, Sir Henry Curtis lets everyone know that this journey they are about to undertake is the strangest on which a human can embark.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Henry, presently, in his low, deep voice, “we are going on about as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtful if we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for good or for evil to the last. And now before we start let us for a moment pray to the Power who shapes the destinies of men, and who for ages since has marked out our paths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with His will.”

(p. 53)

As they set out on the journey, Quatermain attempts to describe the mountain landscape, symbolic of the border realm between the two states of consciousness. But because this lies on the border of the subconscious, it is ineffable and beyond the ability to describe in words.

To describe the grandeur of the whole view is beyond my powers. There was something so inexpressibly solemn and overpowering about those huge volcanoes—for doubtless they are extinct volcanoes—that it fairly took our breath away. For a while the morning lights played upon the snow and the brown and swelling masses beneath, and then, as though to veil the majestic sight from our curious eyes, strange mists and clouds gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope. Indeed, as we afterwards discovered, they were normally wrapped in this curious gauzy mist, which doubtless accounted for one not having made them out before.

(p. 61)

Consciousness is eternal, and a symbol that frequently is used to represent the continuity of consciousness is the ourosboros, or the snake devouring its tail. This symbol is tattooed upon the body of Umbopa.

“Look,” he said: “what is this?” and he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.

(p. 103)

Later, Quatermain contemplates the eternal nature of the soul, or the subconscious.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

(p. 132)

When the adventurers finally enter the cave, they marvel at the forms, the strange creations of the subconscious, reminiscent of the forms in Plato’s cave. These forms are described as strange, since they exist beyond the realm of our ordinary waking consciousness.

Sometimes the stalactites took strange forms, presumably where the dropping of the water had not always been in the same spot.

(p. 173)

It is also worth noting that water is another symbol of the subconscious. Essentially, the hidden divine aspect of our consciousness is what creates the forms which eventually manifest in the material realm.

Quatermain then contemplates how the inside of the cave is illuminated.

… I was particularly anxious to discover, if possible, by what system the light was admitted into the place, and whether it was by the hand of man or of nature that this was done, also if it had been used in any way in ancient times, as seemed probable.

(p. 174)

This symbolizes one of the most important questions for humankind: From where did consciousness arise? Light is the symbol of consciousness, or the divine intellect. It casts light into the darker regions of the subconscious and enlightens us with the divine knowledge. But is this the result of our own doing, a construct of our own minds? Did we evolve this way? Or was some divine “nature” responsible for the gift of enlightenment?

When the group emerges from the cave, they are greeted by a friend who acknowledges the importance of their return to the world of normal consciousness, which is the symbolic end of the hero’s journey, the return from the land of the dead, or the deep reaches of the subconscious.

“Oh, my lords, my lords, it is indeed you come back from the dead!—come back from the dead!”

(p. 196)

I have to say, I really loved this book. It spoke to my sense of adventure, but also inspired me with its rich symbolism. And the quality of the writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it. It’s short and quick, and definitely worth it.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 25” by Lao Tzu

YinYang

There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself,
Born before Heaven-and-Earth.

Silent and boundless,
Standing alone without change,
Yet pervading all without fail,
It may be regarded as the Mother of the world.
I do not know its name;
I style it “Tao”;
And, in the absence of a better word, call it “The Great.”

To be great is to go on,
To go on is to be far,
To be far is to return.

Hence, “Tao is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
King is great.”
Thus, the king is one of the great four in the Universe.

Man follows the ways of the Earth.
The Earth follows the ways of Heaven,
Heaven follows the ways of Tao,
Tao follows its own ways.

I wrestled with this passage this morning. For me, it was one of the more challenging. I do not know for sure if my interpretation if completely accurate, but it is the impression that I got from meditating on this.

The “Something undefined and yet complete in itself” I interpret to be the ineffable source of all that is, something which cannot be adequately expressed and yet encompasses all that is. I envision the yin and yang symbol when I think of this something, comprised of opposites, and complete in itself.

The third stanza depicts the progressions of emanation and spiritual development. It conjures an image of the soul emanating from the divine source, progressing on its journey, and then returning to the source. The symbol that I see associated with this is the yin/yang encircled by the ouroboros.

Image Source: scrapbookgraphics

Image Source: scrapbookgraphics

The fourth stanza was the most puzzling for me, but I think I understand it. The key again is the yin and yang symbol. The symbol contains four components that make up the whole: the pair of curved shapes, and then two circles, one within each of the curved spaces. So essentially, we have two pairs of opposites: Tao (Mother/divine feminine) and King (Father/divine masculine); then Heaven and Earth, contrasting planes of existence. Heaven and Earth are contained within the Tao and the King, symbolizing that they are manifestations within the divine. These four pillars are combined to create the Universe, which symbolizes the entirety of all that is.

As I said, this was a very challenging passage for me, and I make no guarantees on the veracity of my interpretation; but I sense that this may be at least part of what Lao Tzu was trying to express. If you have any thoughts or impressions, please feel free to share them in the comments space below. Thanks for stopping by and have a blessed day.

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Rise of the Black Flame: Issue 1 of 5

blackflame_1

On a recent visit to my local comic store, I was surprised that the owner had added this comic to my folder. I inquired about it and was informed that it was a short five-issue offshoot of the Hellboy saga and he thought I would like it. I figured I would give it a try. I’m glad that I did.

The story begins with young girls in Burma being kidnapped and sacrificed as part of a ritualistic ceremony. While this trope may seem a little hackneyed, the strength of the story is in the subtle details within the text. These I found intriguing, even in this short first installment.

Many mystical and spiritual traditions assert that sound or vibration brought everything into existence. In fact, energy, which is the basis of all life and existence, is vibration. This concept is hinted at during an invocation early in the story.

<You are the origin of all things, and devourer of all things.> <Your perfect song can be heard in the void, but also in the hum deep within all living things in this breathing world.> <Though having form, you are formless. Though you are without beginning, so are you without end.>

Also in the short passage, we have hints of Taoism, of form and formlessness combined into one. Additionally, I see references to the ouroboros, the powerful occult symbol of wholeness and infinity.

Ourosboros

Racial and ethnic tensions seem to be running high these days, and this is hinted at in the story. There is a great panel where the British general expresses his racist views by asserting that it is one thing if Burmese children go missing, but British girls disappearing is unacceptable. This corresponds with the tendency in some places to show outrages at the death of a white person, but lack of concern over the death of a black person.

Yes, well, Burmese children might well wander away from home unattended. But two English girls missing is two too many.

Finally, in a nice twist, the strong lead character turns out to be a woman, which I love. We need more strong female characters. So while in the first part of the tale it appears that the lead characters are two men, it shifts and the main characters appear to be two women. I find this a nice balance of the masculine and feminine.

I want to close with one more quote from this issue, which resonated with me.

The world is a great deal stranger–and more dangerous–than most would credit, mon cher.

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Millennium: Issue 1

Millennium_01

I have been waiting for this issue to come out since I first heard about it. Often, when you are anticipating something, you can be disappointed. Not the case with this initial release. It was as good as I’d hoped it would be. My understanding is that this is slated as a five-issue miniseries. If you were a fan of the television series, I encourage you to give this a read. If you have never seen the show, then you will probably not find this comic interesting and should probably skip it.

The issue begins with a flashback to December 1999, the dawn of the new millennium. Two computer technicians are upgrading a system and discussing Y2K issues.

It’s almost the year 2000 and we’ve all gotten soft and fat and lazy. Meanwhile, sectarian unrest, governmental malfeasance, financial meltdowns, and wars for both resources and hegemony are always just over the horizon. Everyone thinks the good times are gonna last forever.

The issue then flashes to the present where Agent Mulder (yes, that Mulder from the X-Files) is at an early release hearing for a convict who supposedly used strange runes and deprivation to brainwash individuals into taking their own lives. Upon signing out, Mulder notices Frank Black’s signature on the visitor log and then locates him at a nearby motel.

I don’t want to give away too much, since I hate spoilers. Suffice to say that the tale gets very dark and mysterious. The writing is excellent; the artwork is very, very good; and the storyline connects well with both the Millennium and the X-Files television series.

I will share one other quote in closing: I encourage you to give this a read if you were a fan of the television series. If you have never seen the series, then you will probably not find this comic interesting and should probably skip it.

Frank Black: There are forces at work in this world, Agent Mulder. Patient, deliberate, and dark forces. They’ve been around since long before you and I, and they’re certainly going to be here after we’ve gone.

Agent Mulder: Which forces are we talking about, Frank? The monsters under the bed, or those who seek them out?

Frank Black: In my experience, if one doesn’t get you, the other will.

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“Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot – Part 1 of 4: Burnt Norton

FourQuartets

I read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets early on in college and really didn’t grasp it. I think the fact that I read it on my own and not as part of a class was what made it difficult for me to grasp. Anyway, I decided to read the collection of poems again and to write about them one at a time. So this is my first of four posts on the Four Quartets.

“Burnt Norton” is a poem about time, essentially, the cycle of time and how the past and the future relate to the present. I found it to be very spiritual and it seems to me that Eliot was drawing inspiration from Eastern religions. The language and the metaphors he uses conjured images of a mandala, where the present is the center and the past and future revolve around, folding into and out from the central point.

Mandala

From the poem’s opening lines, you immediately get the sense that time is not linear.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

There is a definite impression that everything that ever was and everything that will come into being already exists in the now. Time is relative to our point of existence in the universe. The infinity of possibilities extends in every direction, emanating from our point in space.

Since time and possibility surrounding us is infinite, there is no way that our consciousness can grasp its depth. As Eliot expresses in the following lines, we are only able to grasp an infinitesimal amount of reality, and that is symbolized by the present.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

(Lines 42 – 46)

Since we cannot fully grasp the past or the future, since both are infinite, all we can do is focus on the present. The only thing we can grasp completely is the moment in which we exist. In order to do this, one must still the mind, as expressed in the following lines.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
T be conscious is to not be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbor where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

(Lines 82 – 89)

So in order to become fully conscious, we must transcend time. The way that we transcend time is through meditation. When we enter a deep meditative state, time is no longer linear. Everything exists within the single moment of our awakened consciousness. At that point, the past and the future become one with the present in our psyches. This is the only way that we can truly comprehend time and existence.

Later in the poem, Eliot offers a great description of how it feels to enter the deep meditative state.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

(Lines 114 – 126)

As I read these lines, I recalled experiences I have had while meditating. There is a sense that you lose touch with the world around you, and yet, at the same time, you are fully connected with the world and with all existence within that one moment. It is something that is very hard to describe because it transcends our ordinary reality. The closest you can come to expressing that feeling is through poetry, and Eliot does a great job here.

There is much more to this poem than what I have covered here; for example, I noticed symbolism of time as an eternal circle which I personally associate with the ourosboros. In addition, the number 10 appears in the poem which for me is a very mystical number. Finally, there are references to various Eastern and Western mystic traditions. Any of these could be explored deeper in another post. But I will leave some for you to explore. I encourage you to read this poem, even if you have read it before. It is deeply spiritual and profoundly inspiring.

Look for Part 2—“East Coker”—soon.

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“The Younger Edda” by Snorre Sturluson

YoungerEddaThis book has been on my list for a while and I finally got around to reading it. Essentially, it’s a collection of tales from Norse mythology. As I started reading it, I quickly learned that I had to disregard all the introductory text, as well as the footnotes. It may have just been the translation, but the sheer volume of academic blather and mental masturbation that was wasting pages almost made me delete the book from my reader. Once I skipped over all the analysis and got into the actual text, though, it got much more interesting.

As with many epics, there are sections that contain lists of names, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to remember them all, especially since the gods and persons in the book are referred to by multiple names. I didn’t spend a lot of energy trying to keep track of everyone, but instead focused on the stories.

The first thing that struck me about this text is how much it inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t completely surprised by this, since I recall reading about it somewhere. Yet it seems that Tolkien borrowed not just the epic style, but he also took names from the Edda. I was surprised to see Gandalf’s name appear in the Edda.

The earlier part of the book deals with the creation myth and it was interesting to compare the Norse version to other creation myths. For example, the god Surt seems a combination of divine beings from other texts. He is similar to the cherubim and St Michael the Archangel, with the sword of flame. He also seems to embody aspects of Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.

Surt is the name of him who stands on its border guarding it. He has a flaming sword in his hand, and at the end of the world he will come and harry, conquer all the gods, and burn up the whole world with fire.

There are some interesting differences, too. The one that stands out the most for me is that when the moon and sun are created, the genders attributed to them are the reverse of what is common. In everything that I have read so far, the sun is associated with masculine energy, while the moon with its cycles is symbolic of the feminine. Not so in the Norse mythology.

The sun knew not Where her hall she had; The moon knew not What might he had; The stars knew not Their resting-places.

I thought about how this type of gender reversal would affect the symbolism of the sun and the moon. I suppose in the cold north, the sun becomes a symbol for birth, life, and regeneration, causing plants to spring from the earth. The moon, associated with might in the text, has the power to shift the tides, a power that certainly must have been important to the Vikings. So the symbolism attached to these astral bodies makes sense when you look at it from that perspective. That’s the thing about symbols—they mean different things to different people.

Although the god Thor figures prominently in the text, I’m not going to say much about him. Personally, I found Thor to be arrogant and prone to hubris. It was like his attitude was always: If I hit it hard enough with my hammer, I’ll get what I want. Thor’s flaw as a hero is that he doesn’t really use his brains as much as he should. It’s all brawn for Thor, which is his defect, in my opinion.

Loke, on the other hand, I found infinitely fascinating. He is like Lucifer, Prometheus, Anansi, and Odysseus all rolled into one. He is beautiful; he is a trickster; he is sharp and cunning; he is the embodiment of all the things that make a character thrilling and interesting.

There is yet one who is numbered among the asas, but whom some call the backbiter of the asas. He is the originator of deceit, and the disgrace of all gods and men. His name is Loke, or Lopt. His father is the giant Farbaute, but his mother’s name is Laufey, or Nal. His brothers are Byleist and Helblinde. Loke is fair and beautiful of face, but evil in disposition, and very fickle-minded. He surpasses other men in the craft called cunning, and cheats in all things. He has often brought the asas into great trouble, and often helped them out again, with his cunning contrivances.

Loke, according to the Norse mythology, is the father of the ourosboros, which for me is one of the most powerful symbols. I was kind of surprised by this. I had always viewed the ourosboros as a symbol for cycles and eternity and had never considered that it was created by another divine entity.

Loke had yet more children. A giantess in Jotunheim, hight Angerboda. With her he begat three children. The first was the Fenris-wolf; the second, Jormungand, that is, the Midgard-serpent, and the third, Hel. When the gods knew that these three children were being fostered in Jotunheim, and were aware of the prophesies that much woe and misfortune would thence come to them, and considering that much evil might be looked for from them on their mother’s side, and still more on their father’s, Alfather sent some of the gods to take the children and bring them to him. When they came to him he threw the serpent into the deep sea which surrounds all lands. There waxed the serpent so that he lies in the midst of the ocean, surrounds the earth, and bites his own tail.

OurosborosI feel like I could write an entire book on Loke. He is by far the most interesting character in the Edda. But, I want to talk about Odin for a little bit, so I will say farewell to Loke, for now.

I learned a lot about the god Odin from this book. Not only is he the father of the other gods, or the Alfather (I like to think of him as the archetype from which the other gods were formed), but he is the source of magic and poetry, which are closely related. Poetry, or the art of “skald-craft,” was passed down from Odin, but Odin remains the master. It is said that: “With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased.”

Odin taught the magical arts to the priests and priestesses of old. Essentially, all magic, witchcraft, and sorcery was passed down from the Alfather.

He taught all these arts in runes and songs, which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin also understood the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practiced, namely, what is called magic. By means of this he could know the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot, and also bring on the death, ill-luck or bad health of people, or take away the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practice it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art… From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and he relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long.

This is not an easy book to read. It is very dense and the language is archaic. That said, if you are interested in mythology, magic, and the occult, it is a must read. I am glad that I persevered and finished the book. It was very insightful for me. As always, feel free to share your thoughts and comments. Thanks.

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Ourosboros Symbol in “The Conqueror Worm” by Edgar Allan Poe

OurosborosThis is a poem that fascinated me when I was young. I read it many times in my early teenage years. There is a strange blending of the macabre and refinement that gives this poem a truly unique feel.

The structure of the poem is quatrain that employs the ballad stanza form: A-B-A-B rhyme scheme with iambic tetrameter. I think it is this structure, combined with the imagery of a theater, that creates the sense of refinement for me.

The poem is a dark allegory of human life. Basically, Poe sees our existence as a tragic play acted out for the amusement of divine beings who refuse to intervene in our suffering. The Conqueror Worm, on a basic level, represents death, which is the finale of all our individual scenes upon the great stage of life. The Worm always triumphs in the end, feasting upon the remains of our mortal flesh.

When I read the poem this morning, though, the third stanza stood out for me and I discovered symbolism I had never noticed before.

That motley drama—oh, be sure   
   It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore   
   By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in   
   To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,   
   And Horror the soul of the plot.

Structurally, this marks the very center of the poem, being the third of five stanzas, which made me think that this symbolizes the heart of what Poe was expressing. The Phantom for me represents the elusive meaning of life, which no one seems to be able to grasp. But what struck me as the most interesting, and I had never made this connection before, is the image of the “circle that ever returneth in / To the self-same spot.” I see now that this is the image of the ourosboros, the snake devouring its own tail. The Conqueror Worm is, then, the ourosboros. It symbolizes the cyclical aspect of existence. Poe sees this as a dark and disturbing cycle. Instead of a spiritual renewal, which is often associated with the ourosboros symbol, Poe sees it as a cycle of madness, horror, and decay. Mankind is trapped in an eternal loop of sin and death from which there is no escape.

I love it when I read a poem that I am familiar with and discover new symbolism. For me, that is one of the greatest thrills about reading poetry and literature. Your interpretations and what you get out of reading something is dependent upon what you bring to the reading — your life experiences and the knowledge you’ve gained from your other readings.

Click here to read the poem online.

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