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The ‘mystic psychology’ of Gnosticism

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This is something of a final piece for my Arts Degree. Also, a little more epic than usual. It not only concerns early Christianity and the late Roman world, but how we might go about understanding, interpreting and reconstructing religion.

Gnosticism is often called a more ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ religion by modern thinkers. Comparing Gnosticism to other religious systems, explore how this is or isn’t an appropriate designation.


A collection of soteriological religious ideas which circulated throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries C.E. is generally known today as ‘Gnosticism’. It is often colloquially considered by modern thinkers as a more ‘mystic’ or ‘psychological’ religion in comparison to other religious and philosophical belief systems of its time. I shall in this essay explore why this might be, comparing the Gnostic religion to Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. My contention is that most religious systems could be considered as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’, but that Gnosticism has been so characterized mainly as a result of modern misunderstandings of religious thinking.

A number of modern thinkers have linked Gnosticism with mysticism, or detected its “psychological implications.”[1] The extant texts are referred to by Needleman as “the subconscious teachings of Christianity;”[2] Leloup calls them the “unconscious gospels.”[3] Psychologists of last century with something of a mystic reputation are sometimes referred to as “modern Gnostics.”[4] Such associations might naturally centre around a religion preoccupied with knowledge of an elusive or secret kind – ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the word for ‘knowledge’ in ancient Greek.[5] I will employ the word ‘psychological’ in this essay in a very casual sense: ‘apparently reflecting mental functions and behaviour, particularly with a therapeutic effect’. As I shall detail shortly, despite modern conceptions about religion, most religions could be considered highly ‘psychological’ as they could be said to have some therapeutic aspect, if only in that they recommend a perspective on existence and a way of living, and that they intrinsically involve highly complex interrelations of thought and feeling functions, most of which operate unconsciously or at least indistinctly. The casual conception of ‘mysticism’ reflects this ‘psychological’ underpinning of religion – the word is used to refer to a religious mindset that is contemplative or self-surrendering, with a rejection of doctrine, intellect or even moral values. While both terms could fairly apply to Gnosticism, I shall argue shortly that they could very well apply to virtually all truly religious experience.

Understanding Gnosticism

There are two principal problems we encounter in attempting to construct a meaningful understanding of the Gnostic religion: the general difficulty of properly comprehending how religion operates psychologically, and the problem of understanding the everyday culture and thinking styles of people living nearly 2000 years ago. Even just linguistically, for example, a bewildering array of modern concepts cannot have meant exactly what we mean by them today – concepts such as ‘rational knowledge’, ‘empirical evidence’, and ‘Christianity’. This stands to reason, as orthodox Christianity and western science, as we understand them today, developed mostly after the period of the Gnostics, taking centuries to thresh out their respective philosophical particulars. Similarly, the term ‘Gnosticism’ itself was never used by the ancients. It was coined in the 17th century C.E.[6] to refer to an apparent heretical movement among the early Christians and consequently has a pejorative ring to it.[7] Yet the word gnosis does play a role in the extant Gnostic texts to an extent unusual in its time.[8] Gnosis is generally translated as ‘knowledge’,[9] but in English ‘knowledge’ has many different meanings. The term ‘philosophy’ is associated with the ancient Greek word for ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge’. This suggests Gnostic gnosis is something quite different from what we now call ‘rationalistic knowledge’. Joseph Campbell associates gnosis with an ineffable knowledge “transcending that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought”.[10] Kurt Rudolph calls it a “liberating and redeeming” knowledge.[11] All of this suggests that we will struggle to describe Gnosticism with precision because it is both ancient and, fundamentally, ineffable, like much that is emotional or religious.[12]

This last point is often overlooked by scholars, particularly when it comes to seeking ‘definitions’ for cultural-religious ideas. A perfect example of this is the scholarly muddle around ‘defining’ Gnosticism. The debate centres around how to classify a fundamentally ancient and ineffable religion using a variety of discrete, precise terminologies. Ismo Dunderberg, for example, denies that ‘Gnosticism’ is a particularly useful or meaningful designation,[13] mainly because he does not see ‘the Gnostics’ as forming a unified group. He proceeds to study the fragments of Valentinus pragmatically, as representing a particular individual’s mainly moral and philosophic teachings. But most mythologies do not form unified, clearly demarcated units[14] – these are myths, not social or political organizations with a discrete charter. I see no need for mythological ‘definitions’ at all; such would be purely casual, approximate, and impressionistic[15] in the area of cultural-religious ideas in general.[16] Such ‘definitions’ say more about viewpoints of modern scholarship than about the ancients’ beliefs.[17]

How might we understand religion?

I will, briefly, support my own mythic interpretative theory by utilizing the more appropriately impressionistic myth theories of Ernst Cassirer,[18] Clifford Geertz,[19] and others. Cassirer’s theory concerns the changes to mythic thinking over time. He proposes that the principle difference between modern and ancient thinking was not that the ancients did not have a basic understanding of what we call practical matters or rationality, for example, but that these understandings were expressed in a manner more fundamentally fused (today we would say confused) with areas of thought which we would call impractical, superstitious, or irrational.[20] For example, hunter-gatherer thinking would most likely have fused into one mindset the categories of thought we would today compartmentalize and distinguish as ethics, metaphysics, personal psychology, politics, aesthetics, opinion, superstition, philosophy, practical economics, etc.[21] Of course, the Romans would not have thought in as much of an extremely ‘fused’ manner as hunter-gatherer people; Cassirer suggests that with the development of what we call civilization (particularly early science and rationality) more of these categories of thought began to be consciously distinguished and conceptualized more discretely.

What this means is that we can and should, if only for convenience’ sake, use ‘discrete’ modern terms to refer to ancient thought, provided that we remain wary that the historical reality was more blurred, mixed, and ‘fused’, such that, for example, discrete but superficially similar thought processes can be equated and spoken of, even experienced, as one. In fact, Cassirer’s whole thesis is that this ancient, ‘fused’ way of thinking is actually the default mode of mythological thought and experience.[22] It is this less distinguished, ‘fused’ thinking which we are likely to see reflected in written records such as the Gnostic texts and which leads us to consider all religions, not just Gnosticism, as intrinsically ‘psychological’, even ‘mystic’.[23] This is one reason why religions cannot be explicated using ‘empirical’ or ‘systematic’ methods – both these thinking processes value discreteness and physicality to an extent, I argue, which the cultural-mythological subject matter does not warrant.[24]

Clifford Geertz[25] further explains the structure of myth in terms of a two-way interaction between a cultural ethos and a mythic worldview. Certain popular and meaningful cultural beliefs and ideas make up the components of a metaphysics or meta-narrative which in turn validates the component beliefs and ideas through ordering them into a meaningful structure. I argue, on the basis of Geertz’s theory, that it is the mythic worldview which crystallizes and guides the thinking process in relation to religious thought and experience. It is a kind of dynamic formula not of intellect, ethics, or theology, but of action.[26] The worldview motivates the ‘religious mission’.[27] However, we must remain aware that an individual deeply involved[28] in such a worldview is generally not consciously aware of its psychological functioning because he or she is dealing with a heavily ‘fused’ mode of thinking. The worldview and ethos are necessarily vague and approximate values, however their interrelation is of prime importance.[29] A slight alteration in ethos is unlikely to affect the worldview, but a large alteration can render the structuring device of the worldview ineffectual (i.e. less powerful, less inspiring) or even totally obsolete (in which case the religion becomes meaningless, ‘deceptive’ (i.e. uninspiring), or a curious folk story). The difficulty in terms of historical analysis of worldview and ethos is that neither of these is explicitly stated or directly represented in written texts or even verbal expression. These are only approximate values to begin with, that only appear in very impressionistic and generalised ways. Accordingly, a mythic worldview cannot be ‘defined’ but only impressionistically outlined and for the purposes of study.[30]

Finally, the numinous feeling that pervades myth[31] is, I argue, another component in the ‘fusing’ of mythic thought, not only in the sense that an emotional aspect is included along with the other indistinct mental elements, but the very process of ‘fused’ mythological thinking – particularly the sense of a mythic worldview crystallizing all the myriad parts of the cultural ethos and ordering these meaningfully – probably engenders a sense of culminating awe, of ‘transcendent-immanent horror-joy’.[32]

What is Gnosticism?

Since a mythic worldview is a complex metaphysics or meta-narrative, to explore the Gnostic worldview[33] I will turn primarily to Gnostic accounts of creation and cosmology as revealed in the texts usually titled, On the Origin of the World (OW) and The Secret Book of John (SBJ).[34] Here we read that, after the creation of the world of the highest gods by the ultimate god-principle known as ‘the One’ (OW 97-9; SBJ 2-9), an immortal known as Barbelo in SBJ, Pistis-Sophia (literally ‘Faith-Wisdom’) in OW, independently creates a being without the consent of the One from a superfluous substance referred to as shadow, chaos, darkness, envy, deficiency, abortion, and matter (OW 100; SBJ 9-10). This new being, said to be a “thing with no spirit … made into a likeness of the divine” (OW 100), is the first archon (‘ruler’), known as the Demiurge, identified with the creator god from the Torah or Old Testament. The Demiurge proceeds to shape matter into the world roughly as per Genesis chapter 1, creating lesser rulers, kings, and powers, including those of the planets of the ancient zodiac (OW 100-3; SBJ 10-3). The Demiurge then commits a great sin: he proclaims, “‘I am God, and there is no other but me’” (OM 103). In his arrogance, or ignorance, the Demiurge does not know of the One, the higher, more perfect god which came before him. Barbelo/Pistis and the One then reveal a glorious androgynous man made of light to expose the lie of the Demiurge, but this only encourages the Demiurge to create man, as it were, in the man of light’s image (OM 103, 107-8, 112-3; SBJ 14-5). The Demiurge and his powers (including the planets) are able to create bodily aspects of the first human but such is only able to come fully to life with the secret intervention of ‘the Mother’/Sophia, who essentially imprisons a spark of enlightened Insight (gnosis) within man (OM 114-5; SBJ 19-21). The end of the tale is similar to Genesis 2. The first man appears in the garden of Paradise, is divided: Adam becomes male and Eve female – Eve secretly embodies an earthly version of the goddess/Sophia – and, after eating from the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden by a jealous Demiurge (OM 118-21; SBJ 21-3).

From this creation story, we discern the mythic worldview of the Gnostics. The world, including man, as in orthodox Christianity, is ‘fallen’ – evil, deluded, ignorant, imperfect – but it is not the Biblical God who is to bring about salvation. A redeemer figure – not always[35] but often Jesus Christ, son of the true, highest god, of the One – descends and re-ascends from on high to bring knowledge – insight, gnosis – of the true light, perfection, wholeness. This is the central worldview of Gnosticism.[36] The aim of the Gnostic was, through whatever means,[37] to become aware of the divine spark within, and thereby to gain some sort of spiritual freedom or release from the corrupt world of the Demiurge. To reiterate, this is not a precise, always-stated principle or ‘doctrine’ of Gnosticism, but an approximation of a common conceptualization (the worldview) which functioned as the motivator for the driving feeling and spirit of this ancient religion.

As Dunderberg observes,[38] many Gnostic texts do not even mention the Demiurge, the fallen world, even the One, but I argue that something like this basic conception of ‘salvation from corruption’ inspires the ethical teaching or abstract transcendental poetry of the Gnostic texts. Similarly, this general worldview can be expressed in texts which differ or contradict each other on the level of specific detail. My exposition of the Gnostic cosmology above has ironed out much of the differing detail in the two texts – not only regarding names used, but the order of events is different, and there are some seemingly radical differences of interpretation. For example, in OM, the serpent in the garden and the tree of knowledge itself are embodiments of or emissaries from the life-giving Pistis-Sophia; whereas, in SBJ, they represent the corrupting powers of the Demiurge – the fruit of the tree brings not gnosis but a poison which instills desire, empty pleasure, and sexuality (which is seen as perverse and corrupting). These differences have been largely disregarded for two reasons. Firstly, individual believers naturally do not express similar ideas in exactly the same way. This is especially the case in a non-doctrinal religion where there is no authoritative text to be consulted like a prescriptive law book. Hence the differences are not necessarily significant. Secondly, most importantly, the differing details do not affect the fundamental worldview. In OM, disobedience in the garden is a disobedience of the ignorant Demiurge only. In SBJ, the Demiurge urges them away from the evil tree to make it seem more attractive to them. Either way, the world creator is an evil menace, endeavouring to keep humanity away from gnosis and the light. This disparity and variety of expression suggests not imprecision (since, again, there is no real precision in ‘fused’ religious conception), but a mytho-poetic grasping for expression of an ineffable ‘psychological’ truth.

Gnosticism compared to Neoplatonism

Like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism also exhibits a propensity for diverse forms. Each philosopher in the tradition from Plotinus to Proclus knowingly articulates his ideas in differing ways.[39] However, once again, an encompassing mythic worldview suffuses all texts in the tradition, otherwise we probably would not recognize them as exemplifying ‘Neoplatonism’. In comparison to Gnosticism, the Neoplatonic religion expresses itself in what we might call transcendental philosophy rather than narrative myth-making. In this respect, its worldview is less of a meta-narrative and more of a metaphysics. The universe is pictured largely according to the Greco-Roman tradition[40] with Earth pictured at the centre of 7 or 8 rotating concentric spheres, each home to a ‘planet’[41] or the ‘fixed stars’. Neoplatonism conceives all of this originating and remaining within the perfect, uniting, infinite, self-sufficient, transcendent-yet-immanent power of the One, which is sometimes anthropomorphized but is, like the entirety of Neoplatonism, mostly conceived of in extremely abstract terms. From the One emanates the archetypes or ‘intelligible forms’ which function rather like blueprints for the shaping of inert matter into the material and living world. Naturally, all of this differs slightly in organization, degree, names and expression depending on which Neoplatonic philosopher you are reading (or, indeed, which section of the same philosopher).[42]

The principal difference between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in terms of mythic worldview – which, of course, changes everything – is that the world is not considered necessarily evil, ‘fallen’, corrupt, deluded, or ignorant. Plotinus insists that the material world, while less ‘real’ than that of the immortal Soul or the One, is truly beautiful, perfect, and necessary to existence.[43] “[W]ill there be any so dull-witted and unresponsive,” he asks, “in seeing all the varied beauty in the world of sense, … that he will not stand in awe of it?” (Plotinus Enneads II 9.xvi). Without matter, he argues, “all would lie buried in [the One], without Form” (Plotinus, Enneads IV Evil is not a separate principle or power but simply a result of a world which is not adequately ‘in form’; that is, not properly reflecting the perfect archetypes which herald from the One. However, the similarities between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are great, and not only in respect to diversity of expression and structural conception of the universe. Neoplatonism holds that humans are part-matter and part-incorporeal, immortal soul. This soul is said to descend and ascend through the spheres at birth and death respectively. The similarity here to the Gnostic ‘insight’ or ‘spark’ imprisoned in the corrupt flesh of body is striking.

Diversity of form, coupled with its expression in the form of philosophy rather than mythic narrative, leaves us with a sense that Neoplatonism is also ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’. The terminology used by Plotinus refers directly to metaphysical principles which are blatantly words indicating psychological states: the powers of ‘Intellect’, ‘Desire’, ‘Soul’, ‘Goodness’, for example. This is also the case in Gnosticism of course, but such forces are generally personified: Pistis-Sophia (‘Faith-Wisdom’) is more clearly conceived as a goddess-figure, for example. Plotinus is apparently describing a metaphysics, not a psychology, yet virtually all his proofs and arguments rely on comparisons to psychological experience in some way. For example, he argues using metaphors that only make sense when psychologically conceived: the development of matter is “like the unfolding of a seed” (Enneads IV These metaphors seem to be all the proof required – he does not need to argue why it should be like the unfolding of a seed; the metaphorical comparison itself seems to be evidence that satisfies intuitively, that is, ‘psychologically’.[44] Furthermore, “the sight of beauty … can bear a man up to the higher reality” (Enneads II 9.xvi) surely means that such a man is not literally borne to a physically higher or otherwise displaced location, but is metaphorically borne to a ‘higher’ psychological state of mind. Unfortunately, the metaphorical conception is probably only perceived as more correct from our modern standpoint. Plotinus almost certainly equates the two, i.e. that psychological state (experienced rather than conceptualized) is the soul momentarily becoming physically displaced to a higher reality. Properly considered, Gnosticism seems less ‘psychological’ in comparison to Neoplatonic philosophy, yet modern psychologists are not considered by some thinkers as ‘modern Neoplatonists’[45] – it is the Gnostics that are represented as ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’. This still needs to be explained.

Gnosticism versus orthodox Christianity

In turning to orthodox Christianity, we must be careful to consider this in context. As far as we know there was no ‘orthodox’ Christianity before the 4th century C.E. when Theodosius I made it the Roman Empire’s sole authorized religion. I hope my earlier discussion of the typical forms of religious thought has shown that the idea of ‘authorizing’ a religion is a highly artificial almost incongruous thing to do.[46] It is worth bearing in mind that even after the declaration of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., the establishing of one dogmatic Christian creed took centuries to achieve, and it is arguable that such an undertaking had more to do with political repression than religious expression.[47]

We might express the fundamental orthodox Christian worldview as: The world including man is ‘fallen’; it is obedience to the moral law of the Biblical God, through the forgiving Grace and sacrament of his son Jesus Christ, that will lead the individual to ‘salvation’. This worldview sounds, on the face of it, very like the Gnostic in the sense that both can be reduced to a less specific and indiscrete emotional striving after ‘salvation from corruption’. We might explore the differences between the orthodox Christian and Gnostic religions through the critical words of those contemporaries of the Gnostics who later came to be known as the Church Fathers, but, upon reflection, there is very little criticism here pertaining to mythic worldview. This is because when two religious sects essentially hold the same or very similar worldviews, criticism can only occur on the level of ethos, that is, on the level of particular expression, social practice, ethical systemization or even political affiliation. These may be component elements which make up part of the ‘fused’ mythic worldview, but on their own they are perceived by the religious believer as either inessential, extrinsic or differently inflected. The Church Fathers’ fundamental criticisms are not specific to Christianity or Gnosticism but might be applied by an outsider to any religion he or she wishes to repudiate. These criticisms differ in detail of course but include accusations of corrupt origins, of inconsistency or incoherence, and of immoral practices.[48] All religions can be considered as dubious in this way due to the ‘fused’ nature of mythic conception.

The mode of religious expression can also be used to make a superficial distinction between traditions. We have already seen how Neoplatonism appears far more philosophical due to the abstract dialectical language in which its central inspiration is expressed. We see this component factor of expression over-enlarged into an apparently fundamental religious conflict when we consider the arguments concerning orthodox Christian ‘faith’ versus Gnostic ‘knowledge’.[49] On the psychological level, what, finally, is the difference between ‘faith’, a sense of ineffable religious righteousness or feeling, and ‘gnosis’, a non-rational, ineffable kind of ‘knowledge’? Such terms are ‘fused’ in normal religious thought. Their use merely depends upon whichever seems the more appropriate word to express the ineffable in the context of the religious discourse or vernacular. The word ‘faith’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is more likely to be used when the speaker does not seek to draw upon (or wishes to bypass) philosophic conception in describing this feeling.[50] This is primarily how the orthodox Christian hermeneutic operates. Its worldview finds expression and justification in literal, material, anti-philosophic, ethical-political doctrine rather than theoretical philosophical dialectic (Neoplatonism) or mytho-poetic narrative-philosophy (Gnosticism).

The primary religious difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism (i.e. significantly affecting worldview) is in the degree of world denial. In both traditions the world is ‘fallen’, man a creature of sin. Gnosticism includes the world rulers and creators as part of this corruption, whereas orthodox Christianity does not. This is the source of the orthodox Christian claim that Gnosticism is “nihilistic”,[51] yet ‘greater world denial’ does not necessarily equate to ‘rejection of all religious principles’. Accordingly, orthodox Christianity values collective social, ethical, and earlier-religious sources of meaning more than Gnosticism.[52] The effect of this upon orthodox Christianity is that, ironically, man is actually considered more flawed in relation to the deity. God, unlike The One, becomes the representative of earthly social, ethical, and traditionally authoritive meaning; hence he is more moralistic, righteous, and transcendent.[53] The Gnostic finds salvation not in the world, not in man, but not in moral, political[54] or traditional social authorities either, only in the One, which is abstract, transcendent, ineffable, but also, significantly, immanent, within the individual. Ironically, by rejecting all other forms of meaning, Gnosticism actually makes meaning accessible to any individual anywhere at any time, provided he is in possession of gnosis, or, in more ‘psychological’ terms, is in the right ‘enlightened’ state of mind.[55] Orthodox Christianity instead seeks to locate its numinous inspiration – its gnosis, as it were – exclusively in the institution of the Church, in the holy rite (religious ‘magic’) of the Eucharist, its efficacy explained by an un-philosophical ‘magic’ designated ‘faith’.[56] It is this ‘faith’ and the associated material-historical doctrine of the orthodox Christian which seeks to invalidate all claims that his or her religion has any necessary connection to emotional expression or ‘psychology’.[57] Hence orthodox Christianity as religion remains emotional-‘psychological’ but claims it is literal, historical ‘magic’ to a startling degree.[58]


The source of the modern designation of Gnosticism as a more ‘psychological’ religion is to be found in my earlier exposition concerning how religion is structured and operates. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity can all be seen as ‘psychological’ because they are religions and, as we have seen, religions are psychologically complex human thinking constructs. However, the modern conception of Gnosticism’s especially ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ nature goes beyond this in, I argue, two different directions. These concern, respectively, modern ideas of, in the first instance, religion, and, in the second, scholastic enquiry. Today, religions are popularly understood to be prescriptive ethical systems, clearly defined in a doctrine, and based on an irrational supernatural ‘belief’ concerning existence. This conception is clearly based on the Abrahamic doctrinal religions, particularly orthodox Christianity, which are, as I have argued throughout this essay, quite exceptional in that they rather incongruously and somewhat superficially express their approximate, impressionistic, ‘fused’ mythological worldviews in deceptively discrete, specific, ethical-political-ontological-historical doctrines. As a result, religion in general is popularly considered much less ‘psychological’ today than it actually is, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, Campbell, Boyer etc. Hence, when Gnosticism is considered, its non-doctrinal expression stands out in stark relief against its worldview, perceived as startlingly similar to the familiar Christian worldview, thus rending Gnosticism, superficially, as a more ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’ religion.

The scholarly conception of Gnosticism functions in a similarly superficial manner. In simulating the rigorous standards of empirical science, modern scholarship breaks down ‘evidence’ of this ancient religion into discrete, consistent units, searching for the precision of historical truth and, again, ‘doctrine’. However, this ‘evidence’ is comprised of cultural-mythological phenomena, which are actually, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, etc., intrinsically vague, approximate, impressionistic, and ‘fused’. Most scholarship thereby produces mainly hairsplitting analysis of individual differences of presentation, expression, or social-political affiliation, comprising cultural ethos, and only rarely and indistinctly the fundamental worldview. The result is categorization of religions according to their mode of expression or obvious surface characteristics. Hence, Neoplatonism is properly a kind of transcendental philosophy rather than a religion because it is expressed in philosophical texts. Similarly, orthodox Christianity is a religion since it has a church, expresses itself in doctrine and has authoritative-sounding texts. Gnosticism’s mixture of poetry and literary-style narrative text analysis seems too ‘wild’ to be sensible philosophy or a ‘serious’[59] religion. Again, its diverse, impressionistic texts defy (inappropriately) concise definition. Hence it remains, colloquially, a strange, complex curiosity, to be picked over for intellectual tidbits and branded as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’.

Considered inappropriately through the prisms of doctrinal religion or rationalistic scholarship, the ‘mystic’, ‘psychological’ aspect of any and all religion is selected as Gnosticism’s unique possession. Both approaches make essentially the same mistake in considering religion to be defined by a discrete, specific, concise thinking-process rather than an impressionistic, general, ‘fused’ non-conscious interaction between a Geertzian worldview and cultural ethos, producing an orientating ineffable numinous motivation and inspiration for life. However, such a ‘psychological’ aspect is not so much absent from as not unique to Gnosticism. In fact, we could put this slightly more positively as: Gnosticism is unique in that the ‘psychological’ aspect of general religious conception is more obvious to modern thinkers in its mode of expression than other known religions. However, modern thinkers do not generally realize this, or at least, express it this way.


Primary Texts
Epiphanius Panarion trans. P. R. Armidon (New York and Oxford, 1990).
Irenaeus Against the Heresies trans. D. J. Unger (New York and Mahwah, N. J., 1992).
Plotinus Enneads trans. J. Gregory (London, 1991).
On the Origin of the World trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
The Secret Book of John trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
Tertullian On the Prescription of Heretics trans. T. H. Bindley (London, 1914).

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Beck, R. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York, 2006).
Boyer, P. Religion Explained (London, 2001).
Cahana, J. “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Antitraditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” The Journal of Religion 94 (2014): 49-73.
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Cassirer, E. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II: Mythic Thought trans. R. Manheim (New Haven and London, 1955).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Dunderberg, I. Beyond Gnosticism (New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).
Filoramo, G. A History of Gnosticism trans. A. Alcock (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Gregory, J. The Neoplatonists (London, 1991).
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
King, K. L. “The Politics of Syncretism and the Problem of Defining Gnosticism,” Historical Reflections 27 (2001): 461-79.
King, K. L. What is Gnosticism? (London, 2003).
Leloup, J. The Gospel of Philip trans. J. Rowe (Rochester, Vermont, 2003).
Meyer, M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (New York, 2007).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pennachio, John. “Gnostic Inner Illumination and Carl Jung’s Individuation,” Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 237-45.
Rasimus, T. “Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library,” Vigiliae Christianae 59 (2005): 235-63.
Rudolph, K. Gnosis: the Nature and History of an Ancient Religion trans. R. M. Wilson (Leipzig, 1977).
Wallis, R. T. and Bregman, J., eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, 1992).


[1] Jonas expounded in King (2003), 114.

[2] Leloup (2003), x; Needleman’s italics.

[3] Leloup (2003), 2.

[4] Wallis and Bregman (1992), 4; Filoramo (1990), xiv; King (2003), 19. Cf. Pennachio (1992).

[5] Campbell (1968), 158.

[6] Dunderberg (2008), 16; or 18th century according to Rudolph (1977), 55.

[7] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[8] Rudolph (1977), 55. Aside from use by the Gnostics themselves, the Church Fathers refer to Gnosticism as the “gnosis falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6: 20 cited in Rudolph (1977), 55).

[9] Campbell (1968), 158. Rudolph (1977) prefers ‘insight’.

[10] Campbell (1968), 158. Campbell compares Gnosticism to Buddhism, which is based on the word for ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit, and with its own variety of non-rationalistic ‘knowledge’.

[11] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[12] There is certainly no scholarship to the effect that gnosis represents ‘rationalistic’ knowledge.

[13] Dunderberg (2008), 16.

[14] Though they may appear to. See the discussion of ‘doctrine’ versus ‘worldview’ in footnote 28; more on this later.

[15] To clarify, ‘impressionistic’ in this essay suggests a subjective, emotional, unsystematic reaction or thinking style.

[16] The debate surrounding the ‘definition’ of Gnosticism seems unknowingly and bizarrely preoccupied with defining what exactly we mean by religion in general, merely approached through the example of Gnosticism. We do not generally spend most or all of an article on, say, Christianity or Judaism, trying to define the word we use for that religion before we have even began. The whole approach seems to be hairsplitting or, at least, based on certain unspoken (or unconscious) assumptions.

[17] Dunderberg (2008), 15. It can of course be useful to make such distinctions in terms of historical-political scholarship but we must remember that these are fundamentally artificial (even, merely linguistic) methodological conveniences which often have very little to do with actual religious experience. Furthermore, a particular cultural idea or trait is never a single, clearly-defined, identically structured or reproduced ethereal ‘substance’ or ‘quality’, but a mere approximate similarity in terms of a thinking process or element among a group of discrete individuals (see Boyer (2001), 40). The scholarly designation of ‘Sethian’ versus, say, ‘Orphite’ Gnosticism (see Rasimus (2005), for example) produces further muddles. Are we talking here about different religions, different sects, or different regional variation in the expression of ideas within Gnosticism? Surely Lutherans are not Muslims, but are Sufis not Muslims because they are not Sunnis? And what about the Japanese person who might be Zen Buddhist and Shinto? We must make clear exactly what we are interested in: the meaning of Gnosticism for its professors or for the outsiders or enemies of the Gnostics? The perspective here will make all the difference but it is surprising how often these different perspectives are not differentiated, declared, even blurred together in the scholarship. There often is a world of difference between the mental reality of religious thinking and the self-identification of religious categories according to believers, non-believers, and individual religious scholars. My own interest is in the mindset of those inspired by, most intimately involved in, the ‘practisers’ of, Gnosticism (we might call them Gnostic ‘believers’).

[18] Cassirer (1946).

[19] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[20] Cassirer (1955), 78.

[21] This is why today, when such relatively discrete compartments of thinking have been separated we are more likely to redefine the earlier mode not so much as ‘fused’ but as ‘confused’, even ‘irrational’, ‘silly’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘wrong’, etc.

[22] This accords with modern understandings of the plethora of simultaneous non-conscious inference systems constantly operating in the human mind as outlined in Boyer (2001), 109-12.

[23] Since ‘mysticism’ by definition assumes an overriding of intellectual thinking, all religions can be considered ‘mystic’ because ‘fused’ thought is necessarily more or other than intellectual. Similarly, we might consider all religions as ‘syncretistic’ despite dogmatic claims for exclusivity, see King (2001), 463 for discussion of the term ‘syncretistic’.

[24] What this essentially means is that you cannot ‘prove’ two individuals are not inspired by the same religion just because they consciously express different words or conceptions. There is, in religious matters, an essential disconnect between conscious expression and non-conscious thought such as Boyer can remark: “when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about” (Boyer (2001), 108).

[25] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[26] As per Ruth Millikan, mental conception functions much less like an encyclopedia, collating ‘definitions’, than as a process for acquiring practical mental skills of recognition and evaluation (Boyer (2001), 129).

[27] I might add that the mythic worldview is not just the ‘lowest common denominator’ of a particular collection of culture-values (i.e. the ethos). This is partly because religious worldviews tend toward the more not less meaningful conception (hence we could argue it is more like the ‘highest common denominator’), but there are actually a distinct number of psychological factors which make some ideas and not others good candidates for religious conception. See Boyer (2001), 19-20, 33-4.

[28] I would not say ‘indoctrinated’ here. A Geertzian worldview is totally different from a doctrine. A doctrine is specific, discrete and philosophically stated. It is usually associated with political or ethical rather than mythological thinking. It functions more like a constitution in relation to a set of laws and in this respect it says more or less precisely what it means. A religious doctrine is, as per Boyer, not a precondition of all religion, but peculiar only to some (Boyer (2001), 159). Such a doctrine often functions as a justification for equating, repressing or restructuring primary religious inspiration with or by ethical-ideological dogma (see Hayden (2003), 5-12).

[29] See King (2001), 469-71 for her explanation involving the metaphor of cookery.

[30] For application of the Geertzian ethos-worldview in more modern scholarship, see Beck (2006), particularly 67-71; also, King (2001), 469-70.

[31] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[32] Otto (1923), 5-71. See also Boyer (2001), 145: feelings are the natural outcomes of our complex non-conscious inference systems.

[33] As per Geertz (1957), the use of ‘worldview’ refers to a decidedly impressionistic, ‘fused’, general overarching conception by definition. My use of ‘worldview’ does not imply a specific, discrete, precisely proscribed concept, and certainly not a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[34] See Meyer (2007), 199-222, 103-32.

[35] Rudolph (1977), 118.

[36] Such a rendition is relatively rare in scholarship, perhaps because making such generalized statements about a religion smacks of imprecision or simplification. However, I have already shown how systematic precision is misplaced when talking about ‘fused’ mytho-religious thought. And when such a statement is made in scholarship, it ends up sounding very like a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[37]We do not actually know what these were in any detail.

[38] Dunderberg (2008), 15.

[39] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[40]Which is no doubt the source of this conception in Gnosticism also; both religions share an ethos.

[41] The sun and moon were considered planets in ancient times.

[42] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[43] Gregory (1991), 102.

[44] It is possible of course to see these as explanations rather than proofs, but, if this is the case, Plotinus does not seem to provide any proofs for his philosophy as very rarely is any other form of evidence offered.

[45] See again the designation of some modern psychologists as ‘modern Gnostics’ in my introduction section.

[46] Hayden (2003), 4-12.

[47] See Campbell (1964), 407-19.

[48] Rudolph (1977), 12, 14, 15, 19. For example, in reference to the perversion of scripture and the allegedly confused basis of Gnostic myth, Irenaeus claims “what is ambiguous [the Gnostics] cleverly and deceitfully adapt to their fabrication by an unusual explanation” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.35) and, “[s]uch is their system which neither the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down,” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 8.1). Epiphanius argues that the Gnostics “fabricate books … basing themselves on pagan superstition … thereby weaving together truth and falsehood” (Epiphanius, Panarion 26.1.3). Tertullian also rails against false origins (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 21) and inconsistency (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 51). Epiphanius stretches credibility with his long diatribe detailing the apparent perversity of the Gnostics’ sexual practices which he claims include promiscuity (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.1), masturbation (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.1), homosexuality (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.8), and obscene rituals involving sexual orgies and abortions (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.5-5.2).

[49] Rudolph (1977), 15. For example, see Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 6.2.

[50] By philosophy here I mean both evidence-based ‘empirical’ philosophy, and the more general, ‘rational thinking’ variety. Indeed, the rejection of philosophy seems explicit in statements such as the following from Tertullian: “‘Thy faith,’ Christ said, ‘hath saved thee,’ not thy argumentative skill in the Scriptures” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 14).

[51] Rudolph (1977), 16.

[52] See Cahana (2014) for a study of Gnosticism’s unusual rejection of virtually all tradition.

[53]This is what Tertullian unknowingly expresses when he argues that Gnosticism “blurs the fixed limits that separate the creature from the deity” (H. von Campenhausen qtd. in Rudolph (1977), 16).

[54] King (2001), 476-7 finds the Gnostic position more political, as in, the Gnostic opposition to celestial and earthly rulers can be seen as a political protest against Roman authority. I acknowledge this is possible although the extant Gnostic texts read as religious texts and not political tracts. I suspect the distinction ‘more political’ may again be a qualifier which heralds from measuring Gnostic implications in relation to perceived Christian orthodoxy (itself possibly more explicitly political in its day than today). My point is that most religions can be skewed into political discourses, but such do not afford a complete picture of the religious experience, which is, as King ends up acknowledging, “somewhat ambivalent” (King (2001), 477) when it comes to advocating a radical political cause.

[55]See Campbell (1964), 366; Campbell (1968), 157-8.

[56] I am not here precluding the possibility that Gnosticism may have had a ‘magic’ ritual aspect too, only that, if it did have this aspect, there was also a philosophical-emotional reading involved as well. The extant Gnostic texts tell us little about ritual practice but they certainly reveal that there was no fixed doctrinal expression or denial of a philosophical-emotional approach to gnosis.

[57] For example, Irenaeus criticizes the Gnostics for supposing “they can surpass the apostles … and trust their inner capacity to innovate and progress spiritually” (Cahana (2014), 54).

[58] Perhaps one reason it does this is to distinguish itself from Gnosticism in the first place – who can say.

[59] I.e. dogmatic.


Love: medieval and modern in ‘Tristan and Isolde’

with one comment

Yet another essay from my BA. I highly recommend getting and reading a copy of Gottfried’s Tristan. It is available in Hatto’s great English translation in the Penguin classics series. It is very easy to read, especially for a work written in the 13th century!

ImageI am well aware that there have been many who have told the tale of Tristan; yet there have not been many who have read his tale aright. – Gottfried, Tristan (43)[1]

Emerging into literary history from the obscure oral culture of medieval Europe, the story of ‘Tristan and Isolde’[2] exists in a variety of retellings, some complete, many in fragments, in diverse languages, infused with particular understandings of medieval love: courtly, romantic, divine and human. In this essay, I will examine the versions of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story by Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory. Examining the broad stylistic traits of each, I shall focus upon the differing conceptions of love in each text and briefly expand on their impact through to modern day as these ideas have significance both within and outside a medievalist context.

The three texts I will be examining are all, in one way or another, incomplete.[3] The full story can be surmised by comparison with more complete versions, or by piecing together fragments by different authors. The central situation around which the romance revolves concerns a love triangle. The valiant young knight Tristan woos and wins the beautiful young princess Isolde of Ireland on behalf of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. On the return voyage, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a magic love potion. Back in Cornwall, Isolde is married to King Mark but Tristan and Isolde are so passionately in love that they cannot resist continuing their illicit lovemaking behind Mark’s back. The majority of the tale concerns Mark’s increasing and decreasing suspicions and the lovers’ more or less successful attempts at subterfuge as they carry on their lovemaking. Eventually their relationship is discovered; the lovers are exiled, separated, and die tragically.[4]

In essence, the ‘Tristan’ narrative inevitably brings the idea of love into conflict with medieval concepts of marriage, feudal statesmanship, and honour. Consequently, the author of a ‘Tristan’ romance must navigate carefully the areas of love, lust, marriage, and sex. It is worth bearing in mind that the medieval punishments for adultery were draconian, often involving death, mutilation, scouraging, or, as in Béroul, burning.[5] Women were married young primarily for social, political or economic reasons, often to much older men.[6] All of this was ratified by a moralistic clergy, so much more powerful than they are today, who preached the existence of a literal fiery Hell for all sinners in the afterlife.[7] The manner in which Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory deal with the essential adultery and scandal of the Tristan legend is best exemplified by their respective literary styles.

Béroul’s retelling is the earliest of the three; it is dated to the late twelfth century[8] and is written in an early French.[9] Béroul conveys his narrative in the style of early French fabliaux.[10] The tale is told in a casual voice – he frequently addresses the ‘seigneurs (lords)’ directly, as if addressing a live audience.[11] This suggests a closeness to oral storytelling. He does not dwell on psychological motivation or subtleties of individual feelings. His tale is concerned not so much with love, but with vengeance, as it is revenge which motivates his swiftly-moving plot.[12] Béroul’s Tristran is also more malicious and comic.[13] King Marc is jealous and vengeful in this tale, even attempting to burn the lovers at the stake.

Hence we find that love in Béroul is primarily a sensationalist plot device, not to be taken too seriously. He does not engage in eloquent love poetry; the lovers are principally celebrated for their deviousness and temerity. “Listen to the cunning woman!” declares Béroul, clearly impressed, “She [Iseut] was the perfect deceiver” (519-520).[14] Our heroes are scandalous adulterers – frequently caught “lying completely naked” (594) – who play cat and mouse with the treacherous cuckold king and his evil henchmen – “never have you seen such evil men!” (582). This means that the lovers essentially operate on the same depraved level as the king and his henchmen,[15] except of course the narrator always sides with the lovers; exactly why is sometimes difficult to fathom.[16] Consequently, Béroul’s Tristran is “neither heroic as a knight nor tragic as a lover.”[17] The poem is an occasion for ‘naughty’ entertainment, rather in the spirit of primitive trickster myths, delighting in the absurd violation of cultural taboos.

Gottfried’s retelling is written in Middle High German and is dated to the early 13th century.[18] Gottfried bases his narrative on what he calls “the authentic version” (43) by Thomas of Britain.[19] Thomas was writing in French but his name suggests he was from England;[20] it is possible that Gottfried’s version contains traces of French, English and Germanic understandings of the tale. Thomas is distinctive for his psychological depth[21] – one fragment opens with a 235-line internal monologue in which Tristran agonises over whether he should abandon his true love and marry Yseut of the White Hands (1-235).[22] The passage is strikingly modern; but for the rhyming verse, it could almost be a passage from a nineteenth-century novel.

Gottfried retains much of this psychological focus but combines it with a complex symbolic and lyrical acuity.[23] The characterisation is much more complex and multi-dimensional than Béroul. King Mark is no longer a jealous, vengeful villain, but a conflicted, indecisive “waverer” (274), torn between his sense of honour, and his love for both lovers – his wife and his nephew.[24] This is achieved through the intricacy of motivation. For example, in Gottfried, Mark does not force Tristan to woo Isolde of his own accord. Instead, Mark is coerced into accepting marriage by his jealous barons, and, startlingly, even Tristan encourages the marriage to spare Mark trouble at court (154). In this way Tristan is seen to actively instigate both his courageous successes and his ignominious defeats throughout the tale. This instils a sense of fateful inevitability.

For love, in Gottfried, is an immense semi-mystic force, driving the lovers to their bliss and, inevitably, to their deaths. From the beginning, Gottfried speaks of love in oxymorons as “bitter-sweet”, and “dear sorrow” (42).[25] Love’s joy is always accompanied by an intense suffering. “He that never had sorrow of love,” Gottfried proclaims, “never had joy of it either!” (42). He also emphasises the individual nature of this love and its mutuality:[26] “The two lovers perceived that they had one heart, one mind, and but a single will between them” (200). Gottfried expresses this in reflexive oppositions: “Her anguish was his pain: his pain her anguish” (195); “A man, a woman; a woman, a man: / Tristan, Isolde; Isolde, Tristan” (43). Gottfried also purposely plays upon poetic properties of language, using symbolism and metaphor. Consider, for example, his frequent use of the metaphor of the bird trapped in quicklime:

When she [Isolde] recognised the lime that bewitching Love had spread and saw that she was deep in it, she endeavoured to reach dry ground, she strove to be out and away. But the lime kept clinging to her and drew her back and down. The lovely woman fought back with might and main, but stuck fast at every step. She was succumbing against her will. She made desperate attempts on many sides, she twisted and turned with hands and feet and immersed them ever deeper in the blind sweetness of Love, and of the man. Her limed senses failed to discover any path, bridge, or track that would advance them half a step, half a foot, without Love being there too. Whatever Isolde thought, whatever came uppermost in her mind, there was nothing there, of one sort or another, but Love, and Tristan. (196)

The source of this complex symbolic conception of love is something of a mystery. Joseph Campbell has suggested the symbology seems to derive from a fusion of Classical, Celtic, Germanic, and mystic (Orphic/Gnostic) backgrounds.[27] For example, the Germanic sense of internalised fate (the Anglo-Saxon wyrd), the progression of initiatory stages through sex and death as exemplified in the Roman mystery religions, the Celtic names and background to the narrative, and the mystic equating of myriad symbolic forms are all significant for Gottfried’s retelling.[28]

Many ‘Tristan’ authors, including Béroul, use the love potion as an excuse for the lovers’ scandalous behaviour. It was “‘because of the potion we drank at sea’” explains Iseut in Béroul (2207).[29] Such excuses are unacceptable for Gottfried. Instead, he ensures that Tristan and Isolde are in love well before they drink the potion. The potion still has a profound effect, but that effect seems to consist of properly recognising their love for each other, rather than causing that love:[30] “Now that their shyness was over they gloried and revelled in their intimacy, and this was wise and sensible” (204). Furthermore, Tristan is continually performing courageous deeds which not only spare Isolde much grief, but suggest, along with their shared passion for poetry and music, that Tristan is her rightful ‘other half’. It is he who shares an intimate personal connection with Isolde rather than King Mark, who has never met her. Gottfried’s picture of Mark as encapsulating bureaucratic honour without love is driven home when Mark unknowingly sleeps with Isolde’s cousin Brangane on his wedding night – and does not notice. “To him one woman was as another,” Gottfried wryly remarks (208).

Malory’s ‘Tristram’ in Le Morte Darthur is much later than Béroul and Gottfried, heralding from the fifteenth century. It is purportedly based on earlier French and English sources but Malory’s method of adaptation is apparently very selective.[31] It is important to acknowledge that Malory is incorporating the Tristan tale into a larger work which endeavours, at least theoretically, to form a coherent whole. The sheer amount of material seems to have necessitated a kind of homogenisation, a flattening of detail. King Mark is again a straightforward villain. The story is fragmented and interspersed with less relevant sub-plots, even divergent narratives. Several key events, such as the substitution of Brangane in Mark’s bed, are entirely missing, yet, incoherently, many of their consequences are not, such as the Brangane murder attempt. Malory provides generic, often identical, justifications for such fitfully resurrected events, drawing upon the jealousies of random, often unnamed minor characters or King Mark’s endless evil streak. Malory also seems to ‘rationalise’ the more fantastic incidents, for example, turning Tristan’s fight with the dragon into yet another knightly duel. All of this may be explained as part of Malory’s efforts to form a legendary English ‘history’ rather than a fabulous adventure or a mystic romance. His more worldly focus on masculine military action may reflect the contemporary Wars of the Roses.

In comparison to Béroul, Malory does not wink at the love scandal; he almost edits it out. Love, for Malory, seems to fit the courtly ideal; the lady is, primarily, the noble, vaguely platonic inspiration for chivalrous deeds, namely duels and tournaments. Malory has no time for internal monologues or reflective asides on the psychology of love, as per Thomas and Gottfried, but he barely even provides a straightforward description of it either. He speaks of love in brief, one sentence, stereotyped phrases: “The joy that La Belle Isode made of Sir Tristram there might no tongue tell, for of all men earthly she loved him best” (VIII, 23).[32] Tristram loves Isode because she is “the fairest lady and maiden of the world” (VIII, 9). The scandal is diluted by firmly establishing their love from the start and barely even mentioning the love potion.[33] The most explicit Malory gets is to suggest that the lovers were, at one point, caught “naked abed” (VIII, 34), but nothing more is said of this. As Edwards remarks, “[Malory] has deleted a very great deal of the eroticism of his sources.”[34] Unfortunately, Malory’s attempts to make erotic scenes platonic (or, as Benson suggests, even just comradely)[35] often make a nonsense of the story he is narrating. The love aspect is not merely reduced quantitatively in summary, the quality of that love is also downgraded. For instance, Tristram and Isode have other admirers before and after their meeting, suggesting that there is nothing particularly special about their love aside from its unexplained longevity. Malory repeatedly sends Tristram out on irrelevant quests, returning to Isode, one feels, in a perfunctory manner, as if Malory is clumsily attempting to merely maintain the continuity of the standard ‘Tristan’ story even as he fails to make it very meaningful.

On the face of it, Malory does not offer a very detailed picture of love at all – not even courtly love, which in Malory is arguably more of an excuse for being sexually reticent. He hardly expresses the detailed poetic sentiments of the 12th century troubadours.[36] Whereas Béroul seems to equate romantic passion with scandalous lust,[37] the conception of love in Gottfried is something else entirely. Joseph Campbell argues that Gottfried seems to exemplify a startlingly early exploration of our modern idea of romantic love: a love that is individual, mutual, passionate, and above economic and political concerns.[38] There is something astoundingly refreshing about Gottfried’s discourses on surveillance and trust: “A virtuous woman does not need to be guarded; she will guard herself, as they say. But if a man nevertheless sets a watch on her, believe me, she will hate him” (276). The opposite of this view is exemplified by the bartering of women as a means to form homosocial bonds, exemplified throughout Malory – at least in his reticent tone if not in his focus on masculine action throughout his narrative. In this respect, Malory’s clumsy picture of medieval love resembles the ideas of misguided, indiscriminate King Mark in Gottfried’s poem. As a comparison, Malory, in his famous passage asserting that love then was not as it is nowadays (XVIII, 25),[39] suggests that love was more constant and stable in the past and less either ‘lecherous’ or cold and brittle. Gottfried expresses similar sentiments against inconstancy but also deplores prudery and love as a political commodity:

Nowadays no one finds such steadfast affection, so ill do we prepare the soil… Shorn of all honour and dignity she [love] sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and, denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets… Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market… False lovers and love-cheats as we are, how vainly our days slip by, seeing that we so seldom bring our suffering to a joyful consummation! How we dissipate our lives without either profit or pleasure!… Lovers who hide their feelings, having once revealed them, who set a watch on their modesty and so turn strangers in love, are robbers of themselves… This pair of lovers did not play the prude: they were free and familiar with looks and speech. (203-204)

Our contemporary familiarity with Gottfried-style romantic love can obscure its unique quality. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition.[40] However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. Nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of this unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[41] Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”[42]

It is significant that Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst, has used the ‘Tristan’ story to explore the psychology of Western romantic love, particularly in its dysfunctional aspects.[43] Johnson sees the story as a paradigmatic tale, a myth, a guidebook to romantic love’s modus operandi. In Johnson’s interpretation, the lovers are projecting a meaningful “god image” (their respective anima/animus archetypes) upon each other.[44] The essential tragedy is that the lovers are “in love, yet we wonder if it with each other.”[45] They are “in love with love.”[46] Tristan fails to moderate his passion to acknowledge the real human being. This real person is represented in the story by the deceptively simple and dull Iseut of the White Hands, whom Tristan marries but shuns in favour of his idealised, compulsive passion for Queen Iseut, who remains unattainable.[47] The essential tragedy, according to Johnson, is that Tristan fails to connect his passion with reality. This is the lesson which the tale encapsulates for modern lovers. Ironically, one could say, along with Gottfried, that Tristan is in love with death: as Brangane exclaims in reference to the love potion: “‘Ah, Tristan and Isolde, this draught will be your death!’” (195). (Wagner, in his 19th century ‘Tristan’ opera, seems aware of this when he has the lovers drink the love potion thinking it is poison rather than wine – their unrecognised love is so powerful that they want to die together, and instead have their passion awakened.)[48]

To conclude, we can see in the medieval ‘Tristan’ romances an emergence of the idea of romantic love from the generic, oral-inspired entertainments represented by Béroul, (where love, lust and scandal is part of the sensationalist milieu), through the courtly love superficially recollected in Malory, to the unique romantic variety brilliantly rendered in Gottfried. This brief survey also suggests something of the variety of styles in the romance oeuvre. Béroul reveals the comic, Gottfried the tragic, while Malory seems to encapsulate a medievalism already stereotyped, homogenised and sanitised as a sort of national ‘history’. Not only have we inherited these stories as cultural capital but they anticipate the modern myth of romantic love, which, as Gottfried reveals, both exhilarates and ensnares, such that reality can disappoint.[49] Johnson shows us that to resolve the ‘Tristan’ story and discover a way out of its tragic conclusion, we must discover another, fourth kind of love.[50] This is a human love with its acknowledgement of both reality and passion – an interpretation of reality as meaningful, poetic, even symbolic. As encapsulated in the ‘Tristan’ story, this problem of human versus romantic love is fundamentally a problem of hermeneutics, as expressed through medieval and medievalist literature.


Averill, James R. and Elma P. Nunley. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Benson, C. David. “The Ending of the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 221-240. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Béroul. The Romance of Tristran. Edited & translated by Norris J. Lacy. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Chinca, Mark. Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cooper, Helen. “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 183-202. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Edwards, Elizabeth. “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 37-54. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Ferrante, Joan M. The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy. The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973.

Gottfried. Tristan. Translated by A. T. Hatto. 1960. Reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Gregory, Stewart. Introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain, ix-xxii. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Hatto, A. T. Introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried, 7-36. 1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Johnson, Robert A. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

Lacy, Norris J. Introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul, ix-xix. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper. 1998. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

McCarthy, Terence. “Malory and His Sources.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 75-96. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988.

Rocher, Daniel. “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan.” In A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, edited by Will Hasty, 205-222. New York: Camden House, 2003.

Thomas of Britain. Tristran. Translated by Stewart Gregory. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Thomas, Neil. Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas. Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[1] Sadly, I was unable to locate a critical edition with line numbers for Gottfried. Consequently, I have referenced the page numbers from the highly acclaimed modern English translation by A. T. Hatto in the following edition: Gottfried, Tristan, trans. A. T. Hatto (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

[2] Character names will be as they appear in the relevant text under discussion. When the discussion is general, as here, or collective, I will use the spellings as in Gottfried. Similarly, I use inverted commas to designate the title of the ‘Tristan’ story, but italics to designate the title of a particular text.

[3] As we shall see, Malory’s retelling, though complete in itself, only tells the story briefly, in the fashion of a cursory plot summary.

[4] Note that it is not clear that the story in Béroul ends this way, but it may have done so.

[5] Neil Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 76.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 53.

[7] A. T. Hatto, introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 7; Campbell, Creative Mythology, 53.

[8] Norris J. Lacy, introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul (New York & London: Garland, 1989), ix.

[9] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, ix.

[10] Ibid., xiii.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joan M. Ferrante, The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973), 51.

[13] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xiv.

[14] Line numbers and quotations are from Béroul, The Romance of Tristran, ed. & trans., Norris J. Lacy (New York & London: Garland, 1989).

[15] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 62.

[16] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv.

[17] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 18.

[18] Mark Chinca, Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 9.

[19] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 87.

[20] Stewart Gregory, introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain (New York & London: Garland, 1991), xi.

[21] Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld, 84.

[22] Line numbers are from Thomas of Britain, Tristran, trans. Stewart Gregory (New York & London: Garland, 1991).

[23] Daniel Rocher, “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan” in A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, ed. Will Hasty (New York: Camden House, 2003), 209.

[24] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 47.

[25] Ibid., 96.

[26] Ibid., 41.

[27] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 84-171.

[28] Ibid., 121, 152.

[29] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv; Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 40.

[30] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 232: Campbell makes the point that this would probably not be considered ‘repressed’ love though, as per Wagner’s more modern interpretation in his ‘Tristan’ opera.

[31] Terence McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 77-78; Helen Cooper, “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 186-187.

[32] Quotations are from Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (1998; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The references are in the form of book and chapter numbers (based on Caxton) throughout Cooper’s text.

[33] Terence McCarthy, Reading the Morte Darthur (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 54.

[34] Elizabeth Edwards, “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 51; McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, 77.

[35] C. David Benson, “The Ending of the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 228; Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[36] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 176-184.

[37] After the love potion abates, Iseut confesses to the hermit that Tristran is “entirely free of any carnal desire for me” (2329) suggesting that this wasn’t the case while the love potion was in operation.

[38] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 178.

[39] Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[40] James R. Averill and Elma P. Nunley, Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 21.

[41] Averill and Nunley, Voyages of the Heart, 21. Campbell, Creative Mythology, elaborates further on this: 175-186.

[42] Hatto, introduction to Tristan, 17.

[43] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

[44] Johnson, We, 62-63.

[45] Ibid., 51.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 135-137.

[48] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 79.

[49] Cf. the modern divorce rate.

[50] This is found in the work of Gottfried’s contemporary Wolfram von Eschenbach, who makes this ‘human love’ a theme of his mystic Parzival, concerning the knight who rode forth to ultimately heal the wound of the Grail King, caused, in Wolfram’s work, by the tragic collision of honour and love (Campbell, Creative Mythology, 405-570).

Written by tomtomrant

19 January 2014 at 12:03 pm

A Christmas Eucharist

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Pardon my impertinence, O Lord, as I rewriteth the Christmas Eucharist I all but slept through… (See the afterword for details.)


Silent night, holy night:

All is calm, all is bright

Round the virgin mother and child,

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.



Lay Minister: Today you may know that the Lord is born to bring new life and wonder.

Priest: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

All: Amen.

Priest: The Lord be with you.

All: And also with you.

Priest welcomes everyone.


(The four Advent candles have been lit already from subsequent Eucharists.)

Priest: God our Mystery, today the Christ is born and from darkness comes a great light. We have lit the candles of the left and the right, the north and south, the east and the west and we now light the tiny flame of Christ, the centre. As the tiny spark of new life, he is born out of the abyss of chaos, the star shining in the night – he is unexpected but, once born, seems always to have been known, anticipated, here with us always; Jesus Christ, the light, the generative power of the Spirit.

(The white Christmas candle is lit.)

All: Lord Jesus Christ, Light of Light,

You have come within us.

Help us feel and remember your light

To shine as light in our own lives.

Wonder to God in the highest.


Priest: Let us pray:

God our Mystery, on this day your Son Jesus Christ is born of the Virgin Mary for our wonder and enlightenment.

See here this crib and around it the ass and the ox – those great enemy brothers of Egypt, Set and Osiris, and yet they are gathered here in peace with the Christ child. And see also the three wise men of the god Mithra, come with treasures for the Christ child; the old principle deferring to the New Principle of Christ, born mysteriously of the Virgin in the lowly and unlooked for place.

For the stable is also a cave, as Christ is the new light shining in darkness. It is a cave and it is a womb of new and glorious beginnings beyond all imagination. It is the womb and it is the universe, darkness, denseness, chaos and fire then light! And energy! And expanding growth! It is the universe and the dark chamber of the human heart where the light of the divine is first engendered, beyond hope and unlooked for.

Proceed now, those who are able, into the darkness of the sanctum of Christ and behold the promise of the Holy Spirit.

(Those who are able proceed to the altar and crawl beneath it, emerging into the light before the Cross on the far side.)

Lay Minister: Jesus, the light of the world has come to dispel the darkness of our hearts. In his light let us recall our human imperfections and avow them to God the Mystery of All.

Pause for reflection (for at least 1 minute).

Lay Minister: The Virgin Mary accepts the call of God and is the mother of Jesus.

All: Accept and touch us also.

Lay Minister: Your Son the Christ accepts the call of God and is God himself.

All: Accept and touch us also.


All: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people. Lord God, King of Ourselves, we remind ourselves of your presence in all. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lamb of God, you suffer from love: your magic is within us to call on the Father and the Holy Spirit of life. Amen.


Priest: Let us pray,

Eternal God, in the stillness of this night you sent your almighty Word to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of wonder: unlooked for he comes, a seed planted from the tree, hidden in leaf-litter unseen; the Christ child grows as but a green stem, then a shrub to grow upward to the Rood of the cross and, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, as one in God.

All: Amen.


GOSPEL (Matthew 2: 1-16)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for it is so written by the prophet…” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

All: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ


Priest: Meister Eckhart said, “It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.” What did he mean? He is saying that the Virgin birth, I think, has nothing to do with biological wonders. We know from science that it is not possible to give birth as a virgin. Unless, that is, the message is not one of biological birth. “It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.” What can this mean? It is not a biological birth, it is a spiritual birth. Christ is born of the heart and if we ignore the call of Christ, then we become lost.

“Dread the Passage of Jesus, For He Will Not Return” was a line repeated by Monks in the middle ages. The cost is great in our lives when we do not acknowledge the compassion, the love, the passion of Christ; when we do not heed the call of our life goals, what our bodies and souls require of us. We become mechanical monsters, we become like King Herod, seeking to hold on to the ego, to the apparent power of self-interest and greed. And we commit the massacre of the innocents in miniature every day when we ignore our destinies, our feelings, give the world the cold shoulder and hide in the cave, trying vainly to extinguish the light that can inspire us. The children needn’t die for the Christ child; the Christ child will prosper all the same. When we hide from our fears, our inspirations and make no time to heed and develop the balance of the heart we massacre the children of our own lands, in our hearts. We batter ourselves upon the rocks, we strangle our own souls and their promise. The Christ needs only be acknowledged, like the shepherds did. We need only direct ourselves to his crib and stand to. He is born here in our hearts if we would but look for him.

“It is more worth to God his being brought forth ghostly in the individual virgin or good soul than that he was born of Mary bodily.”


All: We see the Mystery that is God. We feel the Mystery that is God. We are the Mystery that is God. I am the Mystery that is God.

We see the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, of one being with the Father, through him all things are. In wonder he appears from within, is Incarnate of the Holy Spirit of God and the Virgin Mary, and becomes human in me. For all life he is crucified, suffers death, is buried and rises once more, at one with the Father. He it is who loves the living and the dead, his kingdom has no end.

We see the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and yet is the Father and the Son.

We see the holy Church of the soul. We acknowledge baptism for the inspiration of life. We carry the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world within.



Priest: We are the body of Christ.

All: His spirit is with us.

Priest: The peace of the Christ be always with you.

All: And also with you.

All may exchange the greet of peace, “Peace be with you,” among all of the people.


Priest: The Lord be with you.

All: And also with you.

Priest: Life up your hearts.

All: We lift them up to the Lord.

Priest: Let us give thanks to God.

All: Thanks to the mystery of God.

(All kneel.)

Priest: Lord God, through Christ accept our sacrifice of praise; and, by the power of your Word and Holy Spirit, sanctify this bread and wine, that we who share in this holy sacrament may be partakers of Christ’s body and blood and become one as He.

Christ, when his hour comes, the night before he goes up to the cross to unite with the glorious imperfections of the world, offers for all his sacrifice of himself, takes bread and gives you thanks; he breaks it and gives it to his disciples, saying:




In the same way, after supper, he takes the cup and gives you thanks; he gives it to us, saying,







Priest: Let us proclaim the mystery of life.

All: Christ is dead,

Christ is risen;

Christ comes again.

Priest: Through Christ grant that we who eat and drink these holy gifts may, by your Holy Spirit, be one body with Christ, to serve in unity and balance…

In your love and compassion, bring to us to realise eternal life. May we praise all in union, ourselves with ourselves through your Son Jesus Christ.

All: Blessing and honour and wonder be yours for all time. Amen.


The Priest introduces the Lord’s Prayer

All: Our Father in the heavens inside, hallowed be your name, your kingdom is here, your will is done, on earth as in heaven. Take we today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us to balance and deliver us from fear and desire.

Priest: We who are many are one body in Christ.

All: For all share in the one Bread.

The Priest then breaks the Bread during the Agnus Dei.

All: Lamb of God, you suffer from love: nourish all life.

Lamb of God, you suffer from love: nourish all life.

Lamb of God, you suffer from love: grant us peace.

The Priest then invites the people to Communion with the words:

Priest: This is the Lamb of God who suffers from love, who dies from love. Happy are those who are called to his supper.

All: We come to live on his life.

Those who are to receive Holy Communion or a blessing come forward.


Lay Minister: The Word of God becomes human; we see his glory.

Priest: Let us pray:

Father, the child born today is the Saviour of our world. He makes us your children. May he welcome us into your kingdom of eternal life.

All: Amen.

All: Father, we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, as the Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work as Christs on earth. Amen.

Lay Minister: Go in the peace of Christ.

All: Thanks be to God.


So I returned to Christ Church Essendon for Christmas Eve’s carols and Eucharist. The ceremony was largely the same as last time (see earlier blog update under week 3) except this time it was dark outside (so the candles glowed all around), the weather was rather hot (so it got sticky and irksome), and I’d seen it all before. This time around the ritual was still correct but admittedly overlong and the concretized and backward historical nature of the text was really annoying me. It occurred to me that maybe the ideal transformation the Church requires is simply to fully adapt and explore the texts. As much as worship has changed in the schizophrenic splintering that has occurred since the Reformation, the essential words of the Bible itself have not changed. This is the biggest hurdle for the modern church. Modernising ye olde English is but a surface prettifier – the backward, extremism and historicizing is still radically out of step with our Western European sense of Self. I have attempted above to adapt the words of the Eucharist I attended on Christmas Eve into the sort of Eucharist I would love to hear and which means something to me. I have followed the order of proceedings all the way and there are in fact some sections where I was surprised to find very little change was necessary. The main points of change were the following:

1. Removal of sleep-inducing repetition. This nearly always occurred in passage of worship and adoration. “Holy and gracious God, all creation rightly gives you praise.” “It is indeed right… at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise.” The mystery of God should definitely inspire submission and deference – the idea is of the conscious ego bowing down to the whole completeness of the Self – but to constantly carry on with worship for Jesus or the little boy laying down “his sweet head” in worship smacks of idolatry. Idolatry is getting caught on the material thing or personality; Jesus becomes a kind of supernatural superstar and the reference to ourselves, the mysterious light of inspiration, is lost. This occurs with any insistence upon history, personality cult or actual event. There is, in my opinion, too much of this in the Eucharist so I have trimmed some of this out (but suspect there might still be too much of it).

2. I attempted to selectively edit or reinterpret the Old Testament readings but I ended up with barely one line of them left. No point. The Old Testament, full of extremism and a vengeful God, does not belong in a modern Christian church – indeed the Christian God himself bears little resemblance to Yahweh or Elohim of the Old Testament. Read metaphorically, the images and stories may still have meaning, but the words in which they are described are so backward and the readings required are to be so stretched and contorted in order to avoid nonsense or worse that it is better and easier to have done with them altogether. (Inserting a reading from a Hindu or Zen Buddhist or American Indian text or indeed any other religion would be more enlightening and meaningful here.)

3. Finally, there are simple substitutions that can even be made ‘on the fly’ when reading texts in church. Convert any reference that refers to another time – that is, the past or the future – to now. For example, “For us he came down from heaven, was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human,” becomes, “For us he comes down from heaven, is Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and becomes truly human.” Any references to “for ever” becomes “in eternity” (eternity being the opposite of time not actually a long period of time). Salvation and sin should be read as enlightenment and imbalance. References to another place, whether this is Israel, Nazareth or particularly heaven or hell, should refer to inside. (Generally the other world should be read as the inner world.) Heaven is not “up there” (space is up there) but is “within”.

Once again, my readings of Jung and Joseph Campbell have helped me in my thinking here.

Written by tomtomrant

26 December 2010 at 12:13 pm

The Magical Sci-Fi Vortex of Power

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Magic is just for children, apparently. Except no. Feel free to read on.

First, an often overlooked scientific fact: We cannot know what any thing really is. The scientific method systematically experiments with phenomena. Doubt is part of this method. The proven theory is given credence only until the exception or contradiction is discovered. Any theory begins, “Given that” – and these “givens” are not total absolute facts, only, for the moment, proven facts, within certain specific conditions.

The case in point: what is wood? What is the chair you are sitting on? It is made of wood, or plastic, or some hideous new moulded fibreglass-like substance bought from Ikea and made cheap to look appealing but will probably fall to bits in less than a decade. We think we know what wood is. It comes from trees. But what is this apparently hard, grainy, fibrous substance hiding beneath the bark of trees? What IS this – in itself?

As we deconstruct our world, into the microscopic domain – and beyond – science, that reliable, staid, dependable source of knowledge, becomes shall-we-say, a little abstract. We are taught at school that an atom has a nucleus – protons neutrons and electrons and all that. And yet, “As our mental eye penetrates into smaller and smaller distances and shorter and shorter times, we find nature behaving so entirely differently from what we observe in visible and palpable bodies of our surroundings that NO model shaped after our large-scale experiments can ever be ‘true’… The … shapes displayed in these pictures are not anything that could be directly observed in real atoms. The pictures are only a mental help, a tool of thought, an intermediary means… Notice that we prefer to say ADEQUATE, not TRUE. For in order that a description be CAPABLE of being true, it must be capable of being compared DIRECTLY with actual facts. That is usually not the case with our [atomic] models.” (Erwin Schrodinger)

In other words, we may form hypothetical models of what any thing is on the most basic level, but we cannot know for sure. “A completely satisfactory model of this type is not only practically inaccessible, but not even thinkable,” writes Schrodinger. “Or, to be precise, we can, of course, think it, but however we think it, it is wrong…” Every thing is made of miniscule cells, atoms, particles that behave in a way that is not solidly conceivable or knowable in ‘big world’ terms that have a clear meaning for us.

We are all connected to the outside world by our senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – but that is all. This is so obvious, we easily overlook the idea. The desk-top feels hard because our sense of touch tells us so (and because the cells in our hands will not penetrate the atoms of the desktop). When in perfect health, we may feel the wind on our face, hear the sounds of a busy street, make eye-contact with a friend, taste that burger and smell the oily grease but our senses constrain as well as free us. They free us to experience the world but they constrain us within their limitations.

We can invent devices that will monitor levels outside the range of our perception. Dogs can hear a higher pitch of sound. There are birds that can see into the ultraviolet spectrum which humans cannot see. All these instances give us a hint as to how broad and deep the spectrum of ‘ultimate reality’ really is, abstracted from the ‘limited range’ of our senses, outside the grey-edged box in which our senses imprison us.

But what is this ‘ultimate reality’ which is all around us and in which we unknowingly reside? What guides the planets and causes iron filings to move about inside a magnetic field (whatever that really ‘is’)? Is it even possible (or meaningful) that an objective absolute reality really exists without someone to conceive and experience it? We have here left the bounds of science. For science can only deliver knowledge and cannot comment on experience.

We will now ask, what is it that is looking out, what is making use of these senses? Who is it that looks out of your eyes and who is it that returns your gaze from across the room out of similarly-formed eyes? Who is looking out of the portals? Well, of course, it’s you and your attractive other. Yes, you can’t know what in fact you are either.

“I am the knower of my body, therefore I am not my body.” Then: “I know my thoughts, therefore I am not my thoughts.” Next: “I know my feelings, therefore I am not my feelings.” And then the Buddha comes along and adds, “You are not the witness of these things either. There is no witness.” So where are you now?

This is not a proof of your nothingness. This is a line of thought in aid of awe – the world around you, as seen through your senses, is not quite as inert and clearly-defined as our consciousness – our knowledge – would have us believe. In fact, the world is suffused from the inside out with mysterious powers that rival the magical powers of the wizard’s staff, the nixie’s wand or the science-fiction space-traveller’s ‘force fields’ in wondrous inexplicability.

What makes an experience – something alive – different from a theoretical model of something alive? What makes the model of an atom different from an actual atom? This comes down to the problem of what any thing actually is once more. For looking at a thing and being a thing are very different experiences.

Being inside our bodies has conditioned us to experience the world using the senses. Likewise, the species has developed to attribute significance to certain qualities that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelt or touched. The atoms are not experienced in themselves. Hence their meaning is cut off from us, like the theoretical hypotheses that Schrodinger has described.

But, taking this a step further, what ‘attributes significance’? Makes our ‘big world’ mean something to us? The ‘real’ world outside of us seems to have an underlying structure that can be guessed at, that we can produce hypothetical models for, but which we cannot intuit clearly – like the atom. Yet this mysterious microscopic world supports everything ‘big’ which we see and which we are.

‘Inside’ matter, that is, inside our bodies, there is a similar layer of mysterious supporting powers. These are experienced ‘inside our heads’ as emotional reactions. It is these reactions, when linked to the world we see with our senses, that ‘attribute significance’, that is, make the world mean something to us. But from where do these emotional reactions come from?

Once again, there is not a clear answer to this because we cannot conceive of where (presumably somewhere in the brain) nor can we guess what these things are – but neither can we be sure what my cup of coffee ‘is’. In other words, the internal world (inside our minds) is just as mysteriously inexplicable as the outside world.

Yet, and here I am approaching the point of this essay, we do no consider emotional power in quite the same way we do magnetism or atomic power. This is only natural. Science is constantly ‘verifying’ the natural powers but rarely comments on the inner powers. This is not to say they don’t exist (we can see any time we are frustrated or happy or sad or in love that they DO exist), but they are mostly beyond the scope of science because these powers are inside. We can barely locate what we are to measure let alone how.

CG Jung suggested in one of his essays that these two types of powers may possibly be the same. That is, what we know as magnetism or gravity or even wind may be the same sort of power as anger or depression or hilarity – it is only that we examine and hypothesize about the former and are inside the latter. Or, if this is stretching the conceit, at least that what we see as instincts in animals certainly have some marked similarity to the emotional reactions in a human being.

What are the ‘atoms’ of emotional energy? Jung called these hypothetical sources ‘archetypes’. These are structures of our consciousness that are ‘built in’ to the organism that we are. What they are, we cannot say – but they are the basis of a structure, as the atom is the basis of the larger structure of a slither wood. The archetypes act upon our consciousness in the same way that a magnet acts upon iron filings. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Knowing about magnetism can help explain some of the bizarre behaviours of natural phenomena – we can compensate for an expected magnetic force – and we can put this power to use for developing technology. Similarly, knowing about the power of the archetypes can help us to understand ourselves and to compensate for a strong archetypal force (emotional reaction) rather than blindly denying these powers even as they have us in their grip. In fact, their denial leads to a perceived increase in their power.

But because these powers come from inside us, they are not quite so apparently settled or predictable as natural outside-world powers. That is not to say they are flighty and entirely unpredictable – the archetypal forces all come from the same basic blueprint in different individuals; they are patterns of the species – but the particular formation of the archetypes is differently realised in each separate person because each of us has had slightly different childhood conditioning patterns and deviations to the basic blueprint of the physical body (rather like how we all have noses but they are not all exactly the same nose). For example, our sense of smell is affected by the shape of our nose at birth, and what happens to our nose as we grow up – if our nose is sliced off due to an unfortunate accident for instance. Both these qualities affect the structuring patterns of our archetypal powers – (1) our capacity at birth and (2) how this capacity has been repressed, moderately developed or fully developed by our personal histories.

Jung proposes there are certain set types of archetypes that we are all likely to have – such as a mother archetype and a father archetype. Conditioning tells us we are all likely to have a mother and a father (even if through accidents of history we may not know them) and an emotional (archetypal) reaction to these figures. This is not to say that our bodies ‘know’ what our mother or father look like – in fact, it is impossible to have a set picture of any archetype – only that the archetypal powers tend to gather around, latch onto and structure themselves through the apparent image of a mother and father form.

It makes evolutionary sense that the emotional powers should do this. The infant is entirely reliant upon the parents for the first 13 or more years of its development. It both cannot help and needs to feel something towards these figures. Likewise, there are archetypes that latch onto certain conditioned sexual imagery – which means we find someone attractive; they match like key and lock the archetypal structures in our minds.

Now to science fiction, the harbinger of this discussion. If we can have a laser rifle such that when we pull the trigger, a great force or power sends a projectile in a certain direction, then there really is nothing inherently fantastical about firing some magical ‘love ray’ or ‘anger missile’ in a fantasy or science fiction story. There is nothing inherently ridiculous about this in the sense that the concept is not entirely without real-world correspondents; it is not an escapist delusion.

For the real world is full of objects brimming with emotional power – that is, our archetypal powers are released by encounters with people and symbols that activate our personally configured archetypes. In other words, love, attraction, revulsion, happiness, elation, expectation, irritation – anything we feel – are REAL powers. Cupid’s love arrow is therefore a representation of an energetic force just as Einstein’s E=MC squared is a representation of another form of energetic force.

So the apparently ridiculous and ludicrous ‘magic’ of a ‘love potion’ in story is not to be scoffed at, provided it is presented consistently and as sensitively as a representation of a special kind of inner force should be. In this way, all that fascinates in science fiction, fantasy, myth and even religion may not be quite so stupid or impossible as first thought. Closing your mind to inner forces may be as foolish as denying the outer forces, perhaps even more so – for it is your own inner sense of meaning, your own inner emotional connection to the outside world, that is, by so doing, being ‘unplugged’ and denied, and dammed up power will build up to a destructive explosion.

Written by tomtomrant

22 May 2010 at 10:36 pm

Trapped In The Belly Of The Whale

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Are you a sensible, down-to-earth, broad-minded, interesting person?
(Modest, aren’t you.)
If you think you’re in control – guess again.
We delude ourselves when we think we can control our feelings. Here’s what Jung has taught me recently:

Stage 1. The Change
We think we’re in control but then the world throws a surprise our way – from the nasty divorce to the tram not turning to up.

Stage 2. The Blockage
Our attitude needs adjustment but there is a tendency to get upset, to blame the world for not living up to our expectations. (This causes an emotional blockage.)

Stage 3. The Split
We try to rationalize the shock. We split the world into pairs of opposites – was it this, or that? But it clearly wasn’t me at fault – we can see no easy way out so we shrug and go to the pub. But the doubt won’t go away – “What is wrong with me?” we ask – so we lock down and force our attitudes even stronger. They become one-sided and brittle, liable to snap at any moment.

Stage 4. Retreat Inside
Then, eventually, we snap! releasing some of that blocked psychic energy – we become possessed by an inner demon and do something nasty. This is a natural reaction – our psyche, sensing the blockage, eases the pressure on the opposites, and retreats into our rejected unconscious. This is projected outwards and up come our forgotten infantile traumas, sexual taboos. We are plagued by unjustified fears and bizarre desires. We are in limbo.

Stage 5. Search for a Solution
But the psyche thrusts the unconscious onto us for a reason – in the hope that we will find a useful baby among the bathwater we thought we didn’t need in our narrowly conscious mind. The problem is, the longer we searching for this “baby”, the longer we’ll spend lingering in this unhappy and irrational state.

This is all very interesting, I’m sure, but I was having a read of this theory of Jung’s when it suddenly occurred to me why it is that modern life is in a bit of a destructive degeneration.

In the past, attitudes were largely inspired and maintained by religious convictions. Through the unconscious references of a prime myth, the conscious and unconscious were brought into line. In this respect, there was One Truth – the truth of the Eleusinian Mysteries, or of the Bible or Koran. In olden times, within their cultural horizons, the great myths were perfectly in synch with the current scientific knowledge, the current view of the universe, the current social order and they gave the individual a definite place in his world, inspiring a sense of completeness and meaning throughout life.

But then, Stage 1. The Change:
Some surprises fell our way – we discovered the world was not flat, the sun didn’t go round the Earth, and, responding, the social order became rationally determined not decreed by God.

Stage 2. The Blockage:
The myth is cast into doubt; conscious and unconscious are no longer flowing smoothly. We vent our uncertainty with violence and repression. (There is a tendency to blame the world, i.e. ‘immoral heretics’, for not living up to Revelation.)

Then, Stage 3. The Split:
The mythology breaks into opposites – light versus dark – something called the Devil must (somehow) be to blame. (The One Church splits into hundreds of differing denominations, as the collective psyche breaks into fragments.) None of this helps, so the playful myth is forced into a set of inflexible rules, becoming one-sided and brittle (and so we say, nowadays, it is “bullshit”). The believers become crusty and extreme in an attempt to hold off their own doubts, while the rest of us are isolated from our subconscious, get cocky and blame the government, those rich people, those dole-bludgers, the misguided political left or right, or those immoral Jews/Blacks/Homosexuals.

Then comes Stage 4. The Retreat Inside:
Out streams the unconscious. Up wells the infantile desires, and compulsive fears – the need for “security”, the desire for meaningless sex, the lack of compassion and maturity, and overall, a great emptiness – a feeling of dissatisfaction with the world. We are alone in the universe because we’re out of touch with our insides. And we seek to distract ourselves with fads, techno gadgets, political outcries, sexual dalliances and violent outrage.

Stage 5. Search for a Solution
There is no solution of course, as we have no spiritual order. All of the myths are dead. But we have forgotten that the psyche thrusts the unconscious onto us for a reason.

It’s as if we have lost a precious diamond (spiritual wholeness) and every day, we get up and crawl through slime and rubbish and excrement (our projected unconscious) to find it. It is bleak and unpleasant but some days we come across some excitingly heady odours and some racy novelties – low, sexy, repressed infantile things. And as time wears on, we begin to think that these things are all there is to life.

We are all ‘In The Belly of the Whale’. Every story has a beginning, middle and end (Act 1, Act 2, Act3). Writer David Mamet tells us that in act 1 the hero sets out on quest with a clear goal – say, to find the lost diamonds. In Act 2, he gets lost in the underworld (like Jonah (or Pinocchio) in the whale) and even forgets what his goal was. As Mamet puts it, “It’s hard to remember you set out to drain the swamp when you’re up to your ass in alligators.” We are searching in the dustbin in order to find something. (In musical terms, we are in the development section in search of a recapitulation.) The hero must fight on in spite of the temptress from the deep. The message is: don’t give up.

(This is why romances and melodramas offer only destructive distraction. The hero succeeds because of his own magical brilliance – he succeeds by co-incidence or super-human powers or because he has a bigger gun – and we all end happily ever after without undertaking any effort. We are encouraged to think that success and enlightenment comes easily. We are encouraged to give up when we face similar challenges and don’t find them resolved quite so easily.)

Scary Whale

Joseph Campbell tells us, “You cannot invent a myth any more than you can predict what dream you’ll have tonight.” We have no universal myth and can’t just make one. But we can take the hint and try to find our own, all you need to do is answer The Call.

What is The Call? The hero is off in the woods hunting when he sees a beautiful bird and follows it. The bird leads him out of the known world into the mysterious world of the subconscious depths. Each of us has our call. Many of us don’t know what it is, have forgotten what it is, or have repressed it. It will be something personal. It will be something you have a predilection for, something that is not easy but, when it comes to doing this thing – whatever it may be, you could well be ‘The Chosen One’. It may be a dream-job, or an artistic gift you never pursued. Jung suggests thinking about what you did when playing as a child. For Jung, it was playing with building blocks. He found great fulfillment and rewards in building his own home from scratch. When you deny The Call, life dries up.

So answer The Call. Do not let the temptations and deprivations of the unconscious distract you from your goal. If each of us took the time to find that something that ‘activates your being’, we can all slowly begin the journey out of the belly of the whale and into a new beginning. There is huge social pressure nowadays to focus on the economic and the “productive” – these are hollow goals on their own. If we all took the trouble to find out what truly motivates and satisfies us each in our own way for its own sake, there would be no need to project our own dissatisfactions onto to anything or anyone. (Why commit crime when you are satisfied in your soul? Hell, even advertising and political coercion doesn’t turn you head when you are living with spiritual wholeness.) Only you can save your Self.

The first step of this process is to become conscious of the existence of the unconscious – with what your feelings are telling you. (And for heaven’s sake, explore the old myths, but read them psychologically, as metaphors.) And start the search for your goal. My personal suggestion: seriously consider whether you need to work quite as much as you do, especially if you are under 30 and do not have a family of your own. I would encourage everyone to ask themselves why they are working full time. Are you meeting your basic requirements or are you simply living out of restlessness or convention? In today’s fractured and spiritually-undeveloped world, if you follow the dictates of any kind of mass creed – whether religious, political or just ‘popular opinion’ – you are not living your own life. Do you spend money just to pass the time, just to distract yourself from looking within, from facing what seems to be an empty void? Fill it with passion not possessions. In this day and age, doing anything simply because everyone else does it is the most demoralizing activity you could possibly do. Take the time to find something genuine – the spark that brings your being up above the waves so you can swim in the unconscious sea instead of drowning.

Written by tomtomrant

5 September 2009 at 10:05 pm

Posted in myth, philosophy

Tagged with , , , ,