image: Wikimedia commons (link).
If the world's ancient scriptures and myths are not literal but rather allegorical, then it is quite likely that attempts at literal interpretation risk serious mis-interpretation.
For instance, I have written previously that the dramatic encounter described in the Fourth Gospel, in which Thomas (often referred to as "Doubting Thomas") encounters the risen Lord, may well represent a teaching about the existence of a Higher Self, a Divine Twin -- and that the two figures portrayed as two different persons in that story may actually have been intended to convey to our understanding the true situation of each and every man or woman in this incarnate life (see for example extended discussions and illustrations here, here and here).
They are not two separate persons: that is a mistaken interpretation which comes from reading the story literally.
In another example, previous posts have also explored the possibility that the Battle of Kurukshetra described in the ancient Sanskrit epic of the Mahabharata may be celestial allegory and not literal, terrestrial history (or even a "mythologized" or "supernaturally enhanced" version of literal, terrestrial history) -- meant to describe the experience of each and every human soul which descends into the "battlefield" of this incarnate life.
Some of those discussions have examined the possibility that the depiction of the semi-divine hero Arjuna with his divine charioteer being none other than the Lord Krishna himself may also be a dramatization of the proper relationship with what some translations of the teachings of that tradition have labeled the Higher Self or the Supreme Self: see for example this previous post entitled "Self, the senses, and the mind" in which quotations from the Katha Upanishad or Kathopanishad were cited which use the image of the chariot to illustrate the goal of bringing the senses and even the mind under the direction of the Higher Self.
The Kathopanishad says that the senses are like powerful horses, which if not properly guided by the mind (which acts as the reins) under the control of the Higher Self can run off after their desires, out of control.
In the illustration from the Bhagavad Gita (a portion of the Mahabharata detailing the discussion between the Lord Krishna and Arjuna just prior to the start of the great battle) shown below, we see that the Divine Charioteer (Lord Krishna) is between the horses and Arjuna, and we see Arjuna placing his palms together in recognition and acknowledgement of the divinity of Krishna:
image: Wikimedia commons (link); labels added, based partly on the Katha Upanishad, Part I chapter 3.
It is very easy for the "horses" to run away with us, so to speak, and we have all experienced this first-hand (probably later regretting what happened). For example, if in a discussion or a debate, if someone makes a pointed insult (as a deliberate tactic to incite emotion such as anger in the other person), all clear thinking can go out the window as the horses stampede (blood rises to our head, we might even begin to literally "see red," and what we say or do at that point may be more driven by anger or emotion than anything else -- that is, if we are holding the reins ourself, without the Higher Self in between).
Another common example might be our performance in a sporting event, in which we are about to take a crucial shot at the goal, and the mind is suddenly seized with doubt. Through training, we can actually learn to observe the impulse of the horses in a more dispassionate way, saying in effect, "I see these emotions arising -- that's interesting, but I am not going to let them take me wherever they want to go."
These are mundane examples (although quite important ones -- in which letting our doubts or our anger have full control can lead to various levels of disaster). The ancient myths of the world, however, demonstrate over and over that the existence of a Higher Self goes far beyond these examples (as helpful as those examples are for understanding the concept). The world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories appear to show us that integration with the Higher Self -- the divine or Supreme Self -- is one of the critical missions in this incarnate life, if not the critical mission (period).
However, if we insist on trying to read the stories literally, we may well miss that message altogether. Because if we read the above episodes literally, we will mistakenly conclude that the duo of Thomas and the risen Lord, or the duo of Arjuna and Lord Krishna, are separate personages -- and that the human figures at least (Thomas in the gospel account and Arjuna in the Mahabharata) represent people who lived thousands of years ago, and who probably have little or nothing to do with us and our own personal situation, whatever that may happen to be.
The message is so important, in fact, that the myths of the world present it to us in hundreds or thousands of different ways. And, although many previous posts have cited illustrations which use "male" characters to illustrate the principle, that is by no means always the case either. Several important and dramatic illustrations employ female figures to illustrate very much the same message -- for example, the Sophia cycle, or the memorable myth of Psyche and her divine lover, Eros (or Cupid), relayed for us in written form in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (most commonly called The Golden Tale of the Ass, or more simply, "The Golden Ass"), although earlier statues and mosaics and shorter references from earlier texts show us that the myth predates Apuleius himself by at least some centuries.
The story of Cupid and Psyche occupies a very prominent position in the tale of Apuleius, who himself appears to have been an initiate of the Mysteries of Isis, and whose Metamorphoses should be read very carefully, because it appears to be the work of someone who understood the deep truths which his seemingly "idle tales" were designed to convey. A 1924 edition is available online in its entirety here, which contains the original Latin text alongside the English translation, although I personally am partial to the 1960 translation by Jack Lindsay, which I believe is far superior, although it does not provide the Latin text for comparison, which is a definite advantage of the online version linked above.
I would personally recommend obtaining a physical copy of the Lindsay translation for your own library, if possible, and then the Latin version can be seen online if desired for comparison (Latin scholars or Apuleius aficionados may want to obtain the original Latin in hardcopy as well).
The Psyche story deserves to be read as Apuleius tells it -- I will not spoil it by giving a summary here. I will say, however, that I believe the story is spiritual allegory, and that we should be extremely careful about forcing it into service to make modern points about supposed relationships between genders or sexes (the entire text of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius consists of stories within stories within stories, all related to us by a narrator who spends most of the book transformed into the outward appearance of an ass -- which itself can be seen as a metaphor relating to our incarnate experience in this material plane of existence).
However (and if you wish to stop here and read the story as told by Apuleius first, now would be a good time to do that), I will point out a few aspects of the story which clearly relate it to the discussion above.
First, the story clearly has parallels to the story of "Doubting Thomas." In the story, Psyche lets her "doubts," so to speak, run away with her -- to her great sorrow, and temporary estrangement from her divine lover.
The reconciliation of that relationship between Psyche and Cupid (or Eros, as he is called in Greek myth, a name which Gerald Massey hints may well be related to the Egyptian deity Horus, and who may play the same role in the story that Horus plays in the myth-cycle of Isis, Osiris and Horus -- this observation is found in Massey's Ancient Egypt: the Light of the World, Volume One on page 223) takes up the majority of the tension in the memorable tale.
In all of the mythical illustrations -- Thomas and the risen Christ, Arjuna and the divine Krishna, Psyche and Eros -- the proper relationship is seen when the divine and the human are in harmony, and when "control" is turned over the divine twin in the relationship.
The story of Cupid and Psyche also contains two "awakenings" -- first, Psyche awakens Cupid (shown in the illustration above, as well as in numerous ancient and Renaissance depictions of the myth), when she lets the doubts and insinuations of her two sisters get the better of her. In the illustration, Psyche is about to accidentally spill burning oil from a small lamp or cruse onto the god's sleeping form.
Later, however, Cupid awakens Psyche, from a sleep that is described as a deathlike sleep. This precedes the ultimate union of the two in a divine marriage at which all of the assembled gods and goddesses are present.
Alvin Boyd Kuhn, following and citing the arguments made earlier by Gerald Massey, says plainly in Lost Light that the story of Cupid and Psyche represents the "welding at last in blissful harmony of the mortal and immortal elements" (587).
Discerning readers might be wondering at this point, however, if we are supposed to understand all of the gods and goddesses found in the ancient myths as representative of our Higher Self, our divine invisible nature, our Christ within.
The answer, I believe, is no.
Psyche got into trouble, at the beginning of her story, when everyone for miles around began to pay more attention to her than to Venus herself, the actual goddess of love and beauty. So it would probably be a mistake to conclude that the myths are teaching us that the gods and goddesses (including Krishna) are always representative of our own Higher Self.
However, Kuhn does make the very important argument on page 550 of Lost Light, based on passages found in the Pyramid Texts (specifically some of the Pyramid Texts from Teta or Teti, which can be read in the Budge translation on page 139 of Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection) that:
man is to summarize in himself the qualities of the whole scale of being, denominated gods. All their powers and virtue have to be embodied in man's organic wholeness to make him, like the resuscitated Osiris, "Neb-er-ter, the god entire."
Obviously, although Kuhn (writing in 1940) uses the word "man" (as was common in previous generations to indicate "humanity in general"), he means men and women (and he says "men and women" and "male and female" explicitly in other parts of the same discussion, such as on pages 551 and 587).
The point being made is absolutely critical, and worthy of deep consideration, as a guide to what we are supposed to be doing here in this life in the (seemingly) material world in which we find ourselves. But we are apt to miss this message altogether if we attempt to read the ancient myths and scriptures as if they were intended to be taken literally as opposed to esoterically.
Note that the presence of all the gods and goddesses at the conclusion of the story of Psyche and Cupid can be seen as a visual dramatization of the very teaching which Kuhn articulates above.
Finally, it must be noted that the entire story of Psyche in The Golden Ass is presented with what I would argue to be very clear indicators of celestial allegory. Readers of the series Star Myths of the World, and how to interpret them (particularly Volumes Two and Three) will find extensive discussion (and illustration) of other myths and sacred stories which involve high cliffs and personified divine winds, such as are found in the tale related by Apuleius.
Note also that the critical moment in the story, in which Psyche spills hot oil upon the sleeping god (at a true low-point in the narrative, when she has succumbed to her all-too-human doubts), can be seen to have very specific celestial correspondences. The cruze of oil is found in many Biblical stories (discussed in Star Myths of the World, Volume Three) and it has powerful spiritual meaning, as well as clear connections to the outline of the important zodiac constellation of Sagittarius, as discussed in Volume Three.
I believe that the understanding of where certain scenes can be found on the Great Wheel of the zodiac gives us additional insight into the deeper meaning of the myths and sacred stories (see previous discussion here). The fact that this "low-point" (which is also a "turning point" in the story, and in the life of Psyche) takes place at Sagittarius -- at the bottom of the Wheel -- has deep spiritual significance (also outlined in depth by Alvin Boyd Kuhn, most notably in a 1936 lecture entitled Easter: the Birth-day of the Gods).
The absolutely profound importance of the fact that the ancient myths and scriptures of the world are in fact speaking to us in the language of celestial metaphor may sometimes be difficult to relate to our individual lives -- but I believe that the above discussion should help demonstrate the awe-inspiring and potentially life-changing (as well as exciting) message these ancient myths are telling us: they seem to be saying quite clearly that each and every man and woman does indeed have a Higher Self, and that he or she wants you to wake up to that fact.