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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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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

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