Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Cupid and Psyche Relief from the Capua Mithraeum, third century AD. Psyche (Soul) was a maiden so beautiful that mortals began to worship her instead of Venus. The jealous goddess sent her son Cupid to inflame Psyche with love for some lowly object: instead, he fell in love with her himself, visiting her incognito by night but forbidding her to behold his true shape. Psyche's jealous sisters persuaded her that her secret lover was a monster, so that she disobeyed his command and, lighting a lamp, looked on him sleeping. A drop of hot wax fell on him: he woke and fled from Psyche, abandoning her to his mother's wrath. For an age she wandered bereft, performing tasks and undergoing torments by Venus, until at last Cupid returned to save her and, in the end, to make her his wife. The tale as told by Apuleius is one of the most beautiful allegories of the descent of the Soul and her redemption by the Divine Lover. The devotee who offered this votive statue must have known the meaning of the myth, and probably identified Cupid with Mithras. Psyche wears butterfly wings, for she has emerged from the chrysalis of her earthly existence to be led by Cupid, the Psychopompos, to the alchemical marriage of Soul with Spirit.

Most people today are persuaded that in the distant past infant mankind gradually differentiated themselves from their animal ancestors, growing step by step in understanding and intelligence until homo became sapiens and was able to take a rational view of the world around him. Things that were not at first understood, like the stars and the seasons, psychological events, birth and death, were expressed in personifications of great beauty and archetypal power. Myths are these explanatory tales told by primitive men when their world was still young, their minds as yet unburdened by logical necessity, their concepts unfocused by the separation of subject and object, mind and matter, reason and fantasy. Even now, the spell of myths holds sway over our atavistic imaginations: they inspire artists, fill our dreams, and even govern our behaviour - for we are not so very different from our forebears.

Another view holds that prehistoric men were not all primitive. Granted, they had perceptions and beliefs that run counter to our own, but if any be incorrect it is not theirs but ours, with our false distinctions and our absurd reliance on logic without feeling. They told in myths not what they fumblingly surmised, but what they knew. Sometimes their knowledge was such as to be inexpressible in our abstracted tongue, and then we must rely on artists, or on intuition, to recreate it for us. The characters in the myths, moreover, are not mere personifications: many of them were real people, others daemons or gods who, in some instances, are still with us. But such is the law of correspondences, layer upon layer, in the universe, that what happens in the realm of the gods is reflected in the life of man and throughout nature. So the same drama is played out at every level, and the myth, wise beyond human telling, may be read as deeply or broadly as one cares to range.

Perhaps for that reason, the mythographers' purpose has been served best by those who have not interpreted the myths, but simply retold them, like most of the visual artists whose work is reproduced here. It is the storytellers who keep the myths alive, who teach them from generation to generation, so that they take root in the soul of Everyman. People in traditional societies are all raised with mythological beliefs, and when these have not been tampered with they are the perfect structures for experience, revealing primordial truths to every epoch and race. They do their work beneath the surface of consciousness, instructing the soul on its origins, nature and destiny. Subtly they inform the mind, preparing it for the day when it no longer need be taught in parables. The most important myths from the point of view of the Mystery religions are those that concern the descent and ascent of the soul itself. The inclination of the Neopythagoreans and Neoplatonists was to interpret most myths as such, in their fundamental meaning. Homer's Odyssey, for example, received such treatment from Porphyry, the whole tale being understood as the journey of a man's soul to its true home. Such an attempt to adapt mythology to the purposes of spiritual philosophy is looked down upon by modern philosophers and dismissed as a Neoplatonic 'phase', just as the philosophy of Plotinus and Proclus is regarded as a passing episode in man's search for truth. But here we come to the crux of the two attitudes to ancient history mentioned above: the view one holds of mythology will depend on one's estimation of the Sages of the past and of the primeval ancestors who composed the myths in the dawn of history. Are we wiser than them, or were they wiser than us? Are the myths the end-point of their understanding, or a legacy from which to begin our own?

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