image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Understanding the language of the stars in which the myths, scriptures and sacred stories of virtually every culture on earth are speaking is not simply an "intellectual exercise" or a fascinating hobby like solving jigsaw puzzles or Rubik's cubes.
Understanding the language of the myths opens our eyes to the view of the cosmos contained in and conveyed by those ancient stories, stories given to humanity as a precious inheritance for our benefit, depicting for our hearts the reality of the Infinite Realm.
The myths embody the stars and constellations in the heavens in the stories of gods and mortals -- portraying throughout the endless and intimate interaction of the material and the invisible realm, and describing a cosmology in which this world is indwelt and entangled at every single point by the Other World: the realm of spirit, the realm of infinite potentiality, the realm of the gods.
In the myths of ancient Greece (upon which my most recent study of sacred celestial metaphor, Star Myths of the World -- Volume Two, focuses almost exclusively), we are shown a vision of this material realm which is connected to and in fact flows from the divine realm, a world in which the realm of the gods was present at all times and in all places.
The vision of this material realm infused and intertwined at every point by the infinite realm has been expressed by various modern authors in recent centuries through the observation that in the world-view of the ancients, "each fountain had its presiding nymph" -- a phrase so common that it can be seen to echo down through the works of different writers from one decade to the next, probably quoting a much earlier source (but one that is perhaps forgotten, since never explicitly cited), and usually expressed in tones indicating that with the dimming of this vision, something good was lost to humanity (although often this tone is tempered by words dismissing that vision as "primitive," "superstitious," "overly imaginative," "ridiculous," "misplaced," and of course, "idolatrous" -- if you follow the links provided below you will see each of these ideas expressed in the sentences before or after the description of the world-view of the ancient Greeks).
Here are a few selections -- by no means exhaustive -- of this common description of the ancient understanding of our world's interdependence at every point upon the Other World:
1830: "Each cave had its Faun or Dryad,-- each fountain its Nymph."
1836: "Not a spot but had its altar; every grove was consecrated to its peculiar nymphs, its Dryads and its Fauns; every stream and fountain had the votive marble for its own bright Nereid; -- along the plain rose the splendid colonnades of the yet mighty temples of Jupiter, and all the Olympian gods; and above all, on the high Acropolis, the noble Parthenon rose over the glorious city, proclaiming to the eye of the distant traveler, the honors of the virgin goddess of wisdom, of taste and philosophic virtue, whose name crowned the city, of which she was throughout al the reign of Polytheism, the guardian deity."
1838: "The shady groves and flowery vales were peopled by Dryads or wood-nymphs, and Satyrs, a species of rural deities, who, like Pan, had the horns, legs, and feet of a goat. Mountains and streams possessed their guardian gods and goddesses, and every fountain had its Naiad or water-nymph. The lively imagination of the Greeks made them consider the thunder as the voice of Jupiter; the soft breezes of summer were to them the movement of the wing of Aeolus; the echo of the forest was the voice of a goddess, and the gentle murmur of the streamlet sounded as the tones of its presiding deity. In short, whatever sound or sight in nature charmed their fancy, the Greeks ascribed the pleasure to the agency of unseen, but beautiful and immortal, beings."
1848: "The poorest wayfarer kept august company, in whose very silence there was a soul-stirring eloquence; he celestialised his thoughts, withersoever he might wander, not only by the marble divinities that graced his path, but by the spiritual ones brooding over it in unseen beauty; for every locality had its tutelary genius, every tree its hamadryad, every fountain its nymph, every sea its nereids, and by the tongues of winds, and waves, and woods, their voices were heard, whispering the secrets of the invisible world, or thrilling the imaginative hearer with melodious hymns and canticles."
1859: "What a land for the poet to die in! A land where each star in the lofty vault was a Deity, where each mount had its Oread, each river its Naiad, each fountain its Nymph, each woody copse its Dryad, and every scene its guardian angel!"
1866: "The very religion of the Greeks originated in a deep love of Nature, and their gods and goddesses were but the types of human attributes; whilst the same spirit permeated their mythology, and the ideal beings who inhabited its shadowy domains. The powers of earth, air, and water, were embodied in human forms; the woods resounded to the voice of the unseen Pan and his joyous crew; each spring, each grotto, and each fountain had its presiding nymph; and all these were but the embodiment of those feelings awakened in the mind by the particular character of the place."
1877: "The Epic of Homer, which was the Greeks' Bible, portrays gods and men, not quite in equal numbers, as mingling in the fray, and sweeping in bloody swirls about the walls of fated Ilium. Each fountain had its nymph; each brook its naiad; each wood its dryad; each wind had its presiding god, and a deity was at the beginning and end of diversified human experiences. The sea was heaved by them, the earth teemed with them, and the air swarmed with them. The universe, as they knew it, was believed to be filled with deities, inferior and superior; and every natural occurrence which they could not explain was supposed to be a direct interference of the gods."
All of the writers above express this vision of the world in the past tense: "each fountain had its nymph" -- as though the streams and forests and fountains and oceans are no longer infused by the Invisible World, or presided over and protected by the gods and nymphs and dryads and naiads.
And, while some of them offer a tone of nostalgic regret for the loss of this vision of the world, nearly all of them simultaneously offer their reasons to believe that this ancient vision, present with little variation in virtually every ancient tradition of every culture on our planet, was simplistic, naive, mistaken, or even (for those writers advancing the literalist Christian view) blameworthy.
In all likelihood, all of these writers (including those advancing the literalist view) were unaware of the fact that the same celestial metaphors which form the foundation for the world's myths also undergird the stories in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and that the myths of the world use the realm of the stars to represent the Infinite Realm (the heavens above, in fact, being infinite themselves: when we gaze into the night sky, we truly gaze into infinity) -- indicating that the myths are actually expressing truths about the Other World, and not (as is often assumed) trying to explain natural phenomena which today we explain "more accurately" and "less imaginatively" using science.
By honoring the presence of the nymphs and dryads and naiads and oreads in each and every tree, forest, stream, fountain, river, mountain, and ocean wave, the ancients were acknowledging that not only is this material realm inseparably connected to the Invisible Realm, the realm of the gods, but that this material and natural world which we perceive with our ordinary senses proceeds from and is vitally dependent upon the divine realm, the "seed realm," the realm that is in fact "the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world" in the words of the Lakota seer Black Elk.
The same post linked in the preceding paragraph also contains a quotation from a scholar of ancient Egypt attesting to the fact that the sacred traditions of the Egyptians basically express the identical vision, in which everything in this physical realm proceeds from and has its source in the "hidden realm," associated with the Duat and the hidden Amenta. The same could be said of other ancient cultures, including China, where the construction of roads and railroads in previous centuries was strongly influenced by beliefs about invisible forces and powers including "dragon lines" (which also strongly impact decisions about the locations of tombs and burials, even to this day). Other posts have explored evidence that the Bible actually expresses many of the same concepts -- a worldview which is essentially shamanic in nature, as is the worldview expressed in virtually every other myth-system on earth.
Of course, because they were writing in the 1800s, the writers who gave us the quotations above were also unaware that beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, the results from new experiments designed to learn more and more about the nature of the physics of this material universe would cause physicists to arrive at a very similar vision of our universe, which would later come to be known as "quantum physics" -- a vision in which the realm of "pure potentiality" is present at the level of each and every molecule and atom and subatomic particle, and in which certain things seem to "manifest" or "unfold" from that "implicate" realm of potential in conjunction with consciousness (through a mechanism that is still, apparently, not at all completely understood, even by theoretical physicists, even though it is fairly easy to demonstrate that this is indeed what is going on).
And, again perhaps because all of the above quotations are from the 1800s, any sadness about the passing of that vision of the natural world connected at every point with, and protected in every place by, gods and goddesses and nymphs and hamadryads, is expressed in terms of benign nostalgia or wistfulness -- and not as a loss that could in fact threaten the extinction of the entire human species and perhaps many other species of plant and animal on earth as well.
Because the writers in the 1830s or 1840s probably had little capacity to imagine that in the course of the next one hundred to one hundred and eighty years, representatives of cultures which had decided that the idea that every tree has its dryad and every stream and fountain its nymph was a bunch of "ridiculous," or "imaginary," or "mistaken," or "superstitious," or "idolatrous" nonsense from a long-gone, more "primitive" era would be dumping chemicals into rivers and streams in such quantities that some of them could catch on fire, and fish and frogs would begin exhibiting mutations, or dumping radiation into the oceans and using islands and atolls for "experimental" detonations of thermonuclear devices, or ripping down swathes of the Amazon rainforest and burning all the remaining undergrowth in order to graze relatively small numbers of cattle, or deliberately inserting the genes of worms and bacteria into corn and soy and rice and wheat intended for human consumption, alterations that would (in conjunction with massive increases in the spraying of new types of pesticides and herbicides) cause massive die-offs of bees and other crucial pollinators, as well as cause the seeds of those plants to be unusable to plant the next generation of food crops (necessitating the purchase of new seeds each year), and many other widespread practices taking place on a massive scale whose details those writers from the 1800s could not imagine in their wildest dreams.
It should be fairly clear that a culture that believed that every tree has its hamadryad, every fountain its nymph, and every sea its nereids would be aghast to learn of such wanton desecration and destruction -- and indeed would argue that, since all of us are also simultaneously connected to and sustained by the very same Invisible Realm which interpenetrates every tree and indwells every stream and river, such behavior is not only destructive but self-destructive.
Nor is this question of what we might call (and have called in previous discussions) opposing "visions" of the way the world actually works simply a question of technology (one vision, it might be argued, being "pro-technology" and the other being "anti-technology").
In the ancient text of the Odyssey (discussed at length in my most recent book), when Odysseus describes his catastrophic visit to the island of the Cyclops, he says that the Cyclopian giants have no laws, plant no plants, and do not plow. Further, he explains, they have no ships, for among them are none who know how to make such vessels, and thus they have no trade.
Odysseus and his crew, of course, come from a culture which does make ships, and plow the fields, and plant crops, and make wine, and conduct trade -- but in doing these things (some of which involve chopping down trees, presumably, since their "well-benched ships," their "vermillion-prowed ships," were made of wood), they nevertheless maintained the awareness that this world is presided over by gods and goddesses and nymphs and dryads, and that this material world proceeds from and is sustained by the Invisible World, the realm of the gods.
In the very opening lines of the Odyssey, when the gods are meeting on Olympus and Athena reproaches Zeus for leaving Odysseus captive on Ogygia, Zeus admits that one of Odysseus' most salient characteristics is his respect for the gods, and his carefulness to honor them with offerings and to pay attention to them beyond all other mortals.
And, when Odysseus and his companions watch in horror as the Cyclops murders two of their ship-mates at a time in order to make his monstrous meal, Odysseus addresses the monster and urges him to "Revere the gods!" (in Odyssey Book 9). But the Cyclops replies that he cares nothing for Aegis-bearing Zeus or any of the other blessed gods -- "since we are much superior to them" (9. 308 - 310).
This encounter (among many other things it teaches) should make abundantly clear that the subject we are discussing is not actually about "using technology" or "being primitive," but rather about the informing vision or heart-attitude: the recognition and reverence for the gods and the divine realm, which gives life to and sustains everything and everyone in the material realm, or the disregard for or denial of the gods and their primacy, the refusal to recognize our dependence upon them, and the declaration (which the Cyclops utters in just so many words) that he and the other Cyclopes are in fact "much superior to them."
It is not that we as human beings can never make use of the woods or the rivers, but that we must do so in accordance to the actual order of the universe, and with reverence and respect for the representatives of the Invisible Realm which preside over and dwell in every aspect of this one -- an attitude, in other words, of elevating the spiritual (which is blessing and life-affirming) rather than denying, debasing, or ignoring the spiritual realm that is present in each person, animal, plant, rock and stream (a denial which is in error, and which is a form of cursing, and which is ultimately self-destructive and suicidal).
The culture that is informed by the first vision -- the vision described in all the quotations above, which acknowledges and reverences the presence of the divine in every single stream and fountain, not to mention in every person and plant and animal -- will naturally look very different from the culture that will grow out from a denial and rejection of that understanding of the natural order of the universe.
Every ancient myth and sacred tradition from virtually every culture around the globe can in fact be shown to be expressing a vision of the cosmos as infused by, and connected to, and dependent upon the Invisible Realm, the Infinite Realm, the realm of the gods.
The disastrous consequences -- and the erroneous nature -- of the rejection of that vision should, by now, be self-evident to all.
But the good news is that the actual situation in the universe never really changed, even when that vision was suppressed, denied, or largely forgotten. The mistaken conclusion that the ancient myths were "mere superstition" did not actually change the fact that the Invisible Realm does indeed touch and interpenetrate every single aspect of this material, visible, and natural realm -- did not change the fact that every tree and stream does in fact have its protecting and sustaining power in the "real world that is behind this one."
The writers from the 1800s cited above chose to frame their assertions in the past tense, but their doing so did not actually change the reality that the world's myths and sacred traditions are trying to show us. It requires only to go to the world's sacred scriptures and traditions, and listen to them in the language that they are actually speaking to us, to change all of those "past tense" verb-forms to the continuing present -- an operation which is very much necessary if we are to begin to remedy some of the destruction which has already been wrought, before it is too late.
And, as we face what might accurately be described as the "Herculean task" of trying to repair some of the "cyclopean" damage that has already been done, we can then be buoyed and encouraged by the fact that, as the myths show so vividly:
"every locality still has its tutelary genius, every tree its hamadryad, every fountain its nymph, every sea its nereids -- and by the tongues of winds, and waves, and woods, their voices can still be heard, whispering the secrets of the invisible world, or thrilling the hearer with melodious hymns and canticles."