Saturday, July 1, 2017

Panic, hubris, and rage -- and their antidote in ancient myth

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In a previous post, I linked to a video in which I explore a reader's question about how exactly the power of the zodiacal constellations manifest themselves in men and women.

Part of my response involved my conviction, based on what I've learned from studying the patterns of ancient myth thus far, that the constellations themselves are representatives of and pointers towards the powers known in the world's ancient myths and scriptures and sacred traditions as the gods (or by other names depending on the culture and language, such as the neteru of ancient Egypt, or the Kami of ancient Japan, or the Orisha of the Yoruba, etc).

While the specific constellations all have distinctive characteristics and even "personalities" within the ancient worldwide system of celestial metaphor which are associated with or correspond to the characteristics of specific gods and goddesses, the constellations are not the gods themselves, but rather a way for us to learn about and better understand the powers of the invisible realm -- a way for us to "see" into that infinite realm, which cannot ordinarily be seen.

In other words, my response to the reader's question alleges that it is not actually the power of the constellations that manifests in men and women, but rather the power of the gods themselves.

As part of the evidence to support that assertion, I referenced a recent blog post entitled "There is no member of mine devoid of a god," a title which is taken from the 42nd section of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (or the Book of Going Forth by Day) as arranged in the Papyrus of Ani.

Additionally, as part of the same response, we explored a specific passage from the ancient text of the Odyssey, in which the hero finds his mind "running away with him" and leading to a condition which I argue could accurately be described as panic -- until the goddess Athena intervenes and inspires him to get his mind back "in hand" and take appropriate action.

Indeed, that particular passage in the Odyssey is very revealing, because in it we actually get a glimpse into the thoughts of the hero and his "inner dialogue," and we see his mind considering different contingencies and courses of action, and spinning out of control towards a point of despair, before Athena reels him back (see Book 5 and lines 450 through 467).

The interesting aspect of this revealing episode is the fact that Odysseus is notable for his ability to consider all the possible courses of action, and for almost invariably selecting the right one and carrying it out to successful completion -- a skill which serves him in good stead throughout the many adventures described in both the Iliad and especially the Odyssey. In this case, however, his ability to envision all the possibilities seems to get out of control, to the point that he begins envisioning sea monsters which are not even present at that point, and reaching the point of not knowing what to do (again, until he is inspired by the goddess).

As I have quoted many times before, Alvin Boyd Kuhn argues that the world's ancient myths and scriptures are not in fact about "old kings, priests and warriors; the one actor in every portrayal, every scene, is the human soul" -- and so it is here with Odysseus as well. I would argue that the ancient epic depicting his struggles to find his way back home while being buffeted about the vast sea domain of the god Poseidon was given to impart wisdom we ourselves need in this incarnate life, and that one level of that ancient knowledge involves the proper relationship between our mind and the gods.

Throughout the Odyssey, one of the signature features of Odysseus is his discretion, his judgment, and his self-control -- in marked contrast to his companions and to many of the other characters we encounter in the poem. However, I would argue that there are three notable points in the Odyssey in which the hero forgets his characteristic sagacity and self-control, each time with nearly disastrous results: the first is when he is overwhelmed with despair at the sight of the waves dashing against the enormous cliffs after swimming for days and nights through the open ocean (described above, in the passage from Book 5), the second is when he taunts the cyclops Polyphemus after the memorable escape from the giant's cave (against the protests of his crew in this case, who realize that his arrogance and pride at that moment could easily get them killed -- and in fact it results in the prayer to Poseidon by Polyphemus, which is responsible for the active opposition of the powerful sea-god from that point forward), and the third is when Penelope deliberately tests his identity by telling him that she has moved their bed (which causes Odysseus to fly into a rage and forget his ordinary caginess, but which in this case does not result in disaster but rather in the reunification of the long-separated Odysseus and Penelope, because she was actually using a ruse to cut through his disguise).

We might characterize the three emotions or mental states that cause Odysseus to abandon his characteristic self-control as fear or panic (in the encounter with the surf-pounded rocks and cliffs in Book 5), pride or hubris (in the taunting of Polyphemus by Odysseus, which is found in Book 9 and lines 529 and following), and rage or out-of-control anger (in his response to Penelope's baiting, found in Book 23 and lines 193 and following).  

One lesson that we might take away from this observation (and there are of course endless layers of wisdom contained in the ancient myths of the world, such that we could consider this aspect of the Odyssey alone for years without exhausting the lessons that it holds for us) is that these are probably the three emotions or "programmed responses" that most often override our "better judgment" or mental equipoise and which can easily carry us away, with potentially disastrous consequences. Many of us have probably had the experience of looking back on things we said or did while carried away by such a state of mind and wondering who it was who was speaking or acting during that moment, so out of control were our runaway thoughts and their outcomes.

And, if someone like Odysseus -- who is able to control himself in some of the most difficult and harrowing situations imaginable -- can succumb to nearly out-of-control panic, arrogance, and rage, then what hope do ordinary men and women like us have of maintaining control when it matters the most?

The answer, I'm convinced, has to do with another signature characteristic displayed by Odysseus in the epic -- his receptiveness to the inspiration of the gods, particularly to the goddess Athena in his case. When we see his thoughts running away with him in the passage in Book 5, when he is in fact in great physical danger, physically exhausted from paddling through the ocean and now being carried towards a rocky shoreline pounded by enormous breakers, it is the inspiration of the goddess that enables him to pull himself together and get out of the situation safely.

I would argue that in order to be able to keep our mind from running into complete despair in certain situations, or from flying off into a rage over injured pride, or from giving free rein to the hubris that is depicted as the downfall of so many protagonists in the ancient Greek plays, the ancient myths indicate that the assistance and inspiration of the gods is actually necessary and essential.

We see this necessity portrayed in many other ancient stories from many other sacred traditions in other cultures. For instance, Arjuna is basically in a state of complete despair at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, and the situation is not remedied until he is able to turn over the "control of the horses" to the divine charioteer, the god Krishna. Similarly, "Doubting Thomas" is basically in a similar state until he brings his mind's capacity for being skeptical and suspicious (which are actually good and necessary characteristics, as long as they don't get out of control) into the proper relationship with his "divine twin," the Lord Christ.

Our mind's ability to think of different contingencies, and to play out different scenarios down into three or four branches of possible outcomes, is a good and necessary function -- one that we see as saving Odysseus from falling into various traps time and again during the episodes of the Odyssey. But the same capacity, if it runs amok, can easily lead us into panic (if our mind starts spinning out of control as it considers all the things that could cause us harm in a certain situation) or into rage (if our mind similarly starts spinning out of control by following the various branching pathways that begin with, "if this thing hadn't happened," or "if that person hadn't done this," etc).

In order to prevent that good capability of our mind from spinning out of control or running away with us, the ancient myths imply that we must bring it under the control of the powers that are beyond the visible realm. Arjuna must place the reins of the horses in the hands of the Lord Krishna, and Thomas must place himself in the proper relationship with the Lord Christ. In the examples from the Odyssey, Odysseus must remain attuned to the inspiration of the goddess Athena (and he usually does).

The connection with the powers of the Higher Self or the Other Realm is shown to be essential. The wise advice of friends or counselors, while very important for good decision-making in many situations, is not sufficient for those moments when our mind runs away into rage or panic or overweening hubris -- as we see, for example, when Odysseus ignores the pleas of his comrades to desist from his taunting of the cyclops in Odyssey Book 9 (and there are many similar examples in the Mahabharata of ancient India, and in other myths and scriptures the world over).

It is only by being able to put our mind into the proper relationship with the available assistance from the realm of the infinite that we can overcome the sudden burst of speed and power when the "horses of the mind" start to really run towards the cliff at full clip (the Katha Upanishad and other ancient texts describe our strongest senses and emotions as powerful horses that must be brought under control).

To that end, I believe, we have been given a variety of disciplines and practices which can facilitate our need to achieve the right relationship with our Higher Self and with the other powers in the realm of non-ordinary reality. Among these are meditation, mantras, chanting, Yoga, and many others (this subject is explored further in my latest book, Astrotheology for Life).

Interestingly enough, all of the above episodes in the Odyssey, in which Odysseus gives in to fear, rage, or overweening arrogance, can be shown to have connections to specific parts of the heavens and specific positions in the great wheel of the annual cycle marked off by the zodiac. The journey of Odysseus in the Odyssey can be shown to move through very distinct parts of that heavenly cycle, and to correspond to very specific challenges we face on our own journey through this "lower realm" of incarnate life. 

The hero ultimately transcends the "spin cycle" of Poseidon's realm when he begins to travel "upwards" towards greater integration and harmony with the Infinite realm -- to which he actually has a connection at all times, as do all of us (the ancient text seems to say). You can read much more about the celestial aspects of the events in the Odyssey, and their spiritual implications, in Volume Two of my multi-volume series entitled Star Myths of the World, and how to interpret them.

While we ourselves are down here undergoing that same "spin cycle," the runaway situations of panic, rage, and overbearing pride constitute real dangers that can lead to disastrous consequences. The ancient wisdom found in the world's myths points us towards the place where we can learn how to listen to the inspiration of Athena in such a situation, or to hand the reins over to Krishna before the horses take the chariot over a cliff.