original image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The next few days mark the annual commemoration of the culminating episodes of the gospel stories, including the accounts of the Last Supper, the Passion in the Garden, and the eventual Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection of the Christ.
These stories are extremely moving and powerful and, like all ancient myth, deserving of deep contemplation and interrogation. They want to convey a profound message which we very much need to hear -- or, rather, to "see," because they convey their wisdom through stories intended to evoke a response in us: a response which can really only be evoked through this kind of powerful dramatic illustration.
Although we have been taught that these stories were intended to be understood literally, and that we cannot properly understand them and give them due reverence and respect unless we accept them as accounts of literal and historical persons and events, an overwhelming abundance of evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion: that the stories and characters described in the gospel accounts, as well as in the rest of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, are based on an ancient worldwide system of celestial metaphor which forms the foundation for virtually all of the world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories, from cultures on every inhabited continent and island of our planet.
Because the characters and events can be shown to be based on celestial metaphor, it should be quite obvious that they are not intended to be understood literally.
Instead, I am convinced that the purpose of these powerful stories preserved in the ancient myths is to evoke a sudden recognition, an intuitive flash of perception, very much akin to a Zen koan.
The stories, in other words (and paraphrasing Alvin Boyd Kuhn's important quotation discussed here) are not about someone else, someone who lived thousands of years ago, someone external: they are about you.
The Bible stories are not separate and distinct from the rest of the world's ancient myths: they are part of the same family and built upon the same celestial patterns. Indeed, numerous startling parallels can be demonstrated between events described in the gospel accounts and episodes preserved in the Odyssey of ancient Greece (which was almost certainly committed to writing at least seven centuries earlier, and may have been passed down in oral form for several centuries prior to that); some but by no means all of these parallels are discussed in this previous post.
When the cuneiform inscriptions on thousands of fragmented tablets from ancient Mesopotamia were first being deciphered again during the nineteenth century, after a period of more than two thousand years during which time the writing system had been forgotten, the early translators were astonished to discover direct parallels between familiar Bible stories and the characters and events described in the ancient tablets, some of which preserved records from well over a thousand years prior to the presumed dates of the earliest Old Testament scriptures.
It is at this point very difficult to deny that the story of the death and burial of the divine Christ parallels an important pattern central to many other myths from cultures around the globe, including the death of Osiris and descent into the underworld (ancient Egypt), the banishment of Kronos to the underwater cave of Ogygia (ancient Greece and Rome), the descent of the goddess Inanna into the underworld, where she is for a time hung up upon a great hook, and her eventual return (ancient Mesopotamia), the descent of the Hero Twins into the underworld of Xibalba, and their eventual return (the Popol Vuh of the K'iche' Maya of Central America), and many others.
But how does any of this help us? What insight is it intended to evoke within our deeper understanding?
Well, my first advice would be to go to the myths themselves and ask them, rather than asking me or anyone else. My second reply would be to caution that any thoughts I offer here will necessarily be very brief and that these powerful stories have very deep and indeed endless depths of wisdom to offer, so anything I say here will only be a pointer towards those depths: to reach further you will have to dive in for yourself.
That said, I would argue that these stories are very much about you and your connection with what some traditions refer to as the Higher Self (if you prefer a different term, feel free to use a different term and don't let the terminology be a distraction).
And how do I know that you, the reader, have a Higher Self? Well, on a very practical level, I would start by pointing out that I know for certain that you have a subconscious. No one can deny that he or she has a subconscious.
But I also know that you, like everyone else, are estranged from your subconscious, because as we develop a conscious mind we become more and more tangled up in all the rules and norms and mores and structures of society. which introduce doubts and divisions that actually divide us from ourself in a way that is difficult to explain but familiar to just about everyone.
Our subconscious knows many things that our conscious mind is not aware of. In fact, I would argue that there is abundant evidence that our subconscious seems to be connected to other people and information that at times defies the normal boundaries of our five physical senses. See for instance some of the discussion in this and this previous post. In a way, we could say that our subconscious has access to knowledge that goes beyond the boundaries of the physical and material world.
Indeed, we could actually say that our subconscious is connected to the Infinite, to the divine realm described in the ancient myths: the realm of the gods. But our conscious mind has a very hard time accepting that fact -- or even accepting that as a possibility.
Our conscious mind is full of doubts, because existing in society among other people requires doubting, and judging, and weighing one action against another, and ranking "shoulds" and "oughts" with a level of subtlety that we have been improving ever since we were very young (when we first started to become divided from ourselves, by the imposition of these webs and structures and matrices that are part of learning how to successfully navigate through human society and its various power structures and rules). We need our conscious mind, and we cannot realistically "go back" to that state of innocence before we developed the doubting, judging, weighing, and balancing conscious mind that enables us to navigate society but which simultaneously divides us from ourselves.
The way forward, then, is to reconcile our "doubting self" with our Higher Self, and to bring the two into proper relationship and balance. This can only be achieved by reconnecting with the subconscious, which is connected in a way not fully understood (at least by me) to awareness beyond the boundaries of the physical senses, and indeed to the realm of the gods themselves.
But how do we do that?
The subconscious is hidden away. It is available, but not easily accessible. It is buried, like the divinity in the myths, inside the deep undersea cavern of Ogygia, or the underworld tomb into which Osiris has descended and hidden himself. In the myths, Isis searches diligently for Osiris before she finally finds him, his coffin enclosed within a tree which has been cut down and used to make the pillar which holds up the roof of a palace.
The myths are showing us, I believe, that reconnecting with that inner divinity, that Higher Self, is not an easy process -- it requires diligent searching, as the goddess Isis demonstrates for us in her search for the hidden Osiris. It requires quieting the conscious mind, in order to re-connect with the subconscious from which we have allowed ourselves to become estranged, and which is now buried in deep darkness, just like the story of Christ within the tomb (or all the other parallel myths from other cultures).
The conscious mind remains necessary for our day-to-day lives -- but estranged from our deeper self, our conscious mind (with its endless doubts, and self-criticisms, and weighing and judging and "should haves" and "could haves") will hold us back. But through disciplines such as regular daily meditation (for example), or other ancient practices such as Yoga or the martial arts or close communion with nature or with music, we can reconnect with that deeper intuition which can then guide and direct and lead that more constricted part of our mind that is better at doubting (and worse at leading).
I would argue that this reconnection, and the restoration of the proper relationship between our lower ("doubting") mind and that hidden, buried, deeper awareness which is in fact our conduit to what the ancient myths describe as the Infinite Realm, or the Invisible Realm, lies at the heart of many of the ancient myths -- including the episodes involving the descent of the Christ into the tomb and ultimate restoration.
Indeed, I am convinced that the well-known episode of Doubting Thomas, and his encounter with the risen Christ, dramatizes for our deeper understanding the restoration of the proper relationship between the "doubting mind" and the divine Higher Self. For more discussion of the Doubting Thomas episode, see here, here and here.
I am convinced that the ancient myths are intended to uplift and empower men and women. Unfortunately, they can be wrongly used to have the opposite effect -- as can other kinds of dramatic spectacle deliberately produced in order to engender feelings of powerlessness by those who do not have the uplifting and empowering of other men and women in mind.
I hope that this week you will find time to consider deeply the ancient myths entrusted as a precious inheritance to the human race, and that whatever myths you choose to focus on, you will see ways in which their story is actually about you -- and ways in which they can enable you to reconnect with your own Higher Self.
The kingdom of heaven and the hope of glory are within. They lurk within the unfathomed depths of consciousness. Divinity lies buried under the heavier motions of the sensual nature and the incessant scurrying of the superficial mind. -- Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Lost Light, 46.
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
(Note the "Scorpio-figure" asleep in the lower-right corner of the painting by Rembrandt, 1634).