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Posts Tagged ‘myth

The Myth of Romantic Love (and what to do about it)

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Forgive this rant in the true sense of the word – this could all do with much more of a polish but alas time is short. My point here is paramount – take a sword and slash through the thicket of thoughts as they occurred to me and I hope you make it out the other side…

It begins with an Auspicious First Meeting – the first day of class in a busy lecture hall, the new work colleague with the sense of humour, the eyes that meet across a crowded room, the friend-of-a-friend you strangely get along with, that electronic message that pops up all of a sudden. Then comes the hanging out, the spending time, the getting-to-know, the ‘having fun’ that passes for the modern ‘Courting’. Then the Declaration one way or anything, the confession, the question-popping, the quiet even tacit agreement – and exhilaration of Consummation. These are the hallmarks of western romantic love. Indeed, ‘hallmarks’ is not strong enough. These are the dramas, the mysteries, the adventures, the bliss of those fraught but passionate experiences that, for many of us, are the most meaningful undertakings, even the bedrock of our lives.

This idea or narrative is so pervasive and socially conditioned in westerners, more or less explicitly encouraged as the norm through popular culture, religion, art, social structure and, less obviously, law, economics and history. We forget that it is constructed. It is not only an unrealistic fantasy but an incomplete one, a passageway or path leading through a fabricated wonderland which promises transcendence and release but quickly falls apart, abruptly abandoning the gallant traveller in the lurch. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth in our culture and how can we escape it? How might we live happy lives without this inflated fantasy? Where did it all begin?

The European middle ages seems responsible for a great deal although we cannot say so with precision. 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. However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. If you equate love with marriage or family or child-rearing, obviously the concept is far older if not fundamental to human life itself. However, nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of the unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of western romantic 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).” Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”


Tristan and Isolde

Mythologist Joseph Campbell proffers the story of Tristan and Isolde, particularly the versions by Gottfried and Thomas of Britain as the foundation myth of romantic love. In the story, a prince and knight, Tristan, is sent from his uncle’s kingdom in Cornwall to court the princess Isolde of Ireland. Tristan woos her for the king, but Isolde and Tristan fall in love with each other on the journey home. Isolde is married to King Mark who, the tale suggests, hardly knows her personally and has no such passionate connection. The remainder of the tale involves intrigues as Tristan and Isolde make love in various ways as the king tries to and eventually does catch them at it. It becomes clear that the lovers cannot continue this way – their passion remains but the king is getting madder and madder and society has shut them out. Tristan takes a wife to try to get over Isolde. This other wife is simpler and more ordinary, but is devoted to him. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. However, Tristan ultimately rejects her to return to his idealised beloved and eventually dies in her arms.

Campbell interprets the story as a celebration of personal and passionate individual love against the backdrop of shallow obligation-based and prudish conventions of medieval times. However, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson reads the same story as a cautionary tale against the thoughtlessness and self-destruction of modern romantic love. To find a more mature exploration, Campbell turns to another medieval High German myth, the Parzival of Wolfram von Escenbach. However, this tale achieves its playful, mutual love theme through a kind of romantic distance. The lovers in the Parzival myth uphold civil and graceful courtship conventions largely determined through medieval courtly conventions. They meet auspiciously but little is said about their personal connection. You sense the lovers are deeply mutually affectionate and respectful of each other. Their bedroom consummation is loving and mature but hardly passionate. The majority of the tale concerns Parzival’s maturity rather than romantic love. In the end, one gets the impression that the romantic values this tale advocates are merely the conventions which the Tristan tale rejected as shallow and pragmatic. However, in the world of Parzival these conventions have been renewed, relived, rejuvenated so that they can remain the same but with greater awareness of their purpose and limitations. These conventions therefore become facilitators of love and social connection rather than hollow conventions.



The conclusion reached by both Campbell (through Parzival) and Johnson (through critique of Tristan) is that true romantic love, in maturity, involves an acknowledgement of balance, compassion, convention as convention, of lovers as imperfect human beings. The focus of romantic love should not be upon passion or rejection of society, or upon beauty for beauty’s sake, or on perfect achievement of every wish and desire. Instead, the benefits of romantic love are the simple genuine connection between two unique individuals who know neither is perfect but love each other all the same. I can understand and believe this sentiment. However, there are huge problems with this more mature, more positive conception of romantic love as well. These problems concern the mismatch this conception of love has with the popular conception, and its extreme difficulty of achievement.

First, the mismatch – rereading this ‘mature’ formulation, the lovers that come to mind are not the passionate heroes of romance but two elderly people in rocking chairs, dressed simply, living perhaps even in poverty, living the simple life, even perhaps with 2-4 adult children, a cat and regular Sunday church attendance. In other words, this conception simply does not match the passionate lovers of the ‘Tristan’ variety. Trying again, we could say that the more youthful conception of these lovers would be the playful school lovers, innocent and rather naïve perhaps, who take the unimaginative path of holding hands in the school ground, getting conventional jobs at the bank upon graduation, marrying at 19, taking out a mortgage, working full time while popping out kids as an excuse to buy a CRV. This is not a popular conception even if it is a popular reality. That popular reality is blatantly undermined by the romantic conception, however, as we also associate these lovers with unhappiness, frustration, even underdevelopment (having skipped the period of globe-trotting and sexual experimentation celebrated as the proper modern maturation practice of the 20-something). Indeed, this sounds like Parzival without his Grail quest. Perhaps they do go on their globe-trotting – just staidly or only briefly before returning to their matrimonial domesticity. My point is that the image is not one most romantics aspire to.

Second, the difficulty of achieving mature romantic love is immense. The acknowledgement of the imperfection of the lover is the key point here. This realisation is fundamental to mature romantic love yet it is a big ask for most people. We are taught to expect our romantic partners to be at least decently goodlooking, interesting, conversant, employed, happy, healthy, respectful, considerate, social, enterprising, and great in bed. This is naturally unrealistic. All of these things are of course highly possible, but no one can be all of these things all of the time. However, if you thought being this perfect for your partner is impossible, noticing the imperfection of your partner and not being at least somewhat disappointed by it is an even more impossible task. In fact, this even slight disappointment pops the bubble of the romantic myth for most people, dispelling much of the magic of the honeymoon period in the process. This is why most western romance myths end with the point of consummation – “and they all lived happily ever after”, an unbelievably optimistic generalisation masking the complex and very unromantic truth. That love, at least in the romantic passion sense of the myth, never lasts, even if the relationship does. Few of us really aspire to the level of intimate relations between, in the best sense, parent and child, or between your immediate and your extended family. Yet this is the closest match to what a life-long imperfect human love actually is. “Darling, let’s make out – because you would make a great Uncle Jim or Aunt Clarice to have around at Christmas.” This is what we should really be thinking and expecting when engaging in mature romantic love.

There are nicer ways of conceiving of this mature romantic love of course. We’ve reviewed the “conventional loving old couple”, “the boring school-met young couple” and the “Aunty Clarice who lives with me” scenarios. Couldn’t we think of a more positive spin? How about the “open relationship couple” or the “arty alternative couple”? Or even the original conception of beautifully balanced compassionate graceful pairing between Parzival and Condwiramirs in the original myth? These are all distinct and far more positive conceptions of mature romantic love, I agree. However, they are all damn near impossible to achieve. The myth is just that, a fairyland world of magic stones, gracious rulers, and playful tournaments. It does not and never did actually exist. The “arty alternative couple” living a more creative perhaps ‘off-the-grid’ existence often are plagued by exactly the same romantic expectations as everyone else, despite their alternative facades. Another factor is that the pressures of being creative often take their toll in the form of endless anxiety or lesser abilities to function on the everyday maintenance level of existence. The best that can be hoped for is simply a more refreshing less cliché version of the elderly couple – friends or relations that essentially live together (with all the unromantic distance and slight background irritation involved). The “open relationship” variety hardly needs my critique – most people are willing to dismiss this as simply a romantic relationship in decline already or a dangerous breeding ground for jealousy and STIs. This too could work though, except that again it seems to be separating the passion, novelty and forbidden nature of the romantic love myth from the mature personal connection and the “happily ever after” ending. Indeed, the “don’t ask don’t tell” conception of this relationship divides the two versions of the romantic love myth pretty explicitly.

The real difficulty of the mature romantic love myth, I think, resides in the difficulty of being truly happy with the imperfection, not just of your partner, but with existence in general. It may be all very well to love your flawed partner in his/her idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, but another thing to put up with these same flaws when you have just been unfairly fired from a job, or priced out of the housing market, or diagnosed with something unpleasant. And this isn’t all – you also need your partner, since this is what makes a relationship a relationship of course, to feel the same way. So not only must you remain compassionate toward the imperfections of your partner, the popped bubble of romantic love, and the ‘whips and scorns of time’, but also somehow have happened to have partnered up with someone else who can and does do this as well. This, I believe, is highly highly improbable. In fact, this, I suspect, doesn’t ever happen. Instead, what occurs is a constant painful rollercoaster of tacitly, somewhat unsatisfied ‘putting up with’ imperfection interspersed with downright loathing and brief instances of passionate romantic delusions which might still pervade you at certain moments when the sun sets prettily. If you’re lucky, you might also happen to get into the zen-like world-acceptance of mature romantic love – but then your partner probably won’t do so at the same moment, or at all. Your partner may even just up and leave you in the lurch as their anxieties about not having lived up to the love myth, or about life’s imperfections, become too much for them.  I’m not sure those brief moments of transcendence are worth it frankly and it would be much easier to achieve this kind of happiness outside of the obligations and expectations of a romantic relationship.b_n-garnett-and-mandelker

So there we have it – our society is enthralled by the unrealistic and deluded Tristan-like romantic myth, while the Parzival option remains obscure, mostly uninviting and devilishly difficult to achieve. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is, if you think about it, a retelling of these myths in its two main subplots of Anna (Tristan) and Levin (Parzival), with Oblonsky as the confused and adulterous unhappy unenlightened ‘ordinary’ couple. Not surprisingly, Levin’s tale seems to us rather old-fashioned, preachy and unexciting, and is usually edited out of most adaptations of the story. Our passionate romantic expectations remain the most publicised and well-known. So what are we to do about it?

This is where I get personal as I’m sure the myth is so powerful that most of you won’t agree with much of what I’ve just written. Also, everyone will have their own ideas of what needs to be done about it. My own inclinations are to accept part of the mature romantic ideal. The passionate romantic ideal is clearly a recipe for disaster in that the message is powerful but unrealistic, as both Tristan and Tolstoy clearly show us. However, the mature romantic ideal seems to be realistic but all too disappointing. As we’ve seen, the prospect of being tethered to Aunt Clarice or Uncle Jim for eternity, however genial they may be, doesn’t sound inviting at all. However, people need people (loneliness isn’t a good), and these are some aspects of mature romance we can use. The simple appreciation of others as imperfect human beings is one. The mutual respect and bonds formed of personality is another.

It seems to me that what we need to do is to remove the obligations and expectations of romantic love from mature romantic love and keep the central good – the human connection. This is finally the connection of an intimate friend rather than of what we conceive, over-romantically, as a “lover”. We should also keep the longevity and stability of our romantic expectations without the exclusivity. It is the pressure, instigated by passionate romanticism, of “the One”, the exclusive partner, that sours many relationships. However, no one objects to having more than one intimate friend. Indeed, most of us have intimate friends already. I suggest that the reason why we are less satisfied to just leave it at intimate friends is that, in this modern world of urban anonymity, singular living, family disconnection, and transport congestion, we don’t see them often enough. I’m not suggesting we should overstay our welcome with our intimate friends but we need to reconceive of our living situations. The ideal I think is the school playground or the medieval village lifestyle. Both involved seeing your best friend every day but not for more than an hour or so at a time. It was easy to find and get to where your friends lived or hung out and you could call in or depart at leisure, as well as mix with others. We have our own space and our own lives but we have also our friends, our people, our “lovers”. This conception is rather like a sharehouse or dorm with distinctly separate and private but also communal spaces, with respectful rules and conventions for effective


The unlikely inspiration of sit-com “families”.

communication rather like Parzival’s rules of graceful courtly conduct. The setup ideally produces the familiar setup of most sit-coms and TV shows – a group of personalities, all different but much loved, who turn up every day for half an hour or so and express themselves and joke around and get into adventures then venture home again.

And what of sex you ask (as if love fundamentally is about this)? Every other question you ask about conventional married life – sex, finance, law, Ikea shopping, etc. – is answered similarly. Do it under the model of friendship. Playful, intimate, trusting, safe, and conducted under the rules of mutual agreement. Ridiculous you may say? Idealistic? Perhaps. But romantic love with its violent passion and tired marriage with its persistent disappointment is better, is it?

Written by tomtomrant

24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

The Mysterious and the Ridiculous: early ‘Doctor Who’

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‘Doctor Who’ 2014

Imagine if you decided to go way back and check out the first series of some long-running popular TV series and discovered that, say, Seinfeld was originally a soap opera, or that the first episode of The Simpsons was an educational children’s program about spelling. In other words, imagine if you decided to go back to the first episode of some long-running popular TV series and discovered it was pretty much totally unlike its later incarnation. This happens all the time of course when you discover the slow, awkward, primitive-looking early episodes of a series such as Blackadder or Star Trek, or, conversely, the fresher, more inventive, and better written version of a rather tired formulaic show. In both instances, the earlier incarnation can seem almost like an entirely different show.

In the case of Doctor Who, appearances can be deceptive. The show appears to have pretty clear-cut fundamentals – the Doctor is a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey. He has two hearts, dresses strangely, and can regenerate his body. He travels through time and space in a police-box-shaped time machine called a TARDIS, continually defeating alien menaces such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, generally ‘doing good’, with the aid of a human companion or two and a handy gadget known as a Sonic Screwdriver. All of this, at least to the uninitiated, is pretty standard B-grade sci-fi. I don’t mean ‘B-grade’ in a negative sense here – I mean that the style of the show is pretty tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The scenarios are mostly familiar goodies-versus-baddies plotting with, at times, a variety of intellectual, pseudo-scientific, politically savvy, or totally fantastic thematic ideas interwoven.

You would assume that checking out the series’ beginnings in 1963 would reveal a faded, black-and-white, clunky version of the same scenario. This at first appears to be exactly what we do find. BBC TV in the 1960s was indeed clunky and black-and-white. The prohibitive expense of early TV meant that all the Doctor’s early time-travelling had to take place almost entirely inside BBC TV studios on rather theatrical sets. The cost of post-production editing was so high that the show was performed more or less entirely live, like a stage show, complete with Daleks colliding with the set furniture, and line fluffs, most of them perpetrated by the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell. However, this technical primitiveness can disguise the startlingly different underlying concept of the original Who. If you were looking for the faded version of the familiar scenario, you would probably have to turn to “The War Machines”, one of William Hartnell’s very last stories, produced almost 3 years after the beginning of the series. In it, the Doctor, arriving with a companion in his TARDIS, acts as a futuristic alien technical advisor for military authorities in London fighting the onslaught of an evil computer bent on taking over the world, etc.


The Doctor meets Kublai Khan in “Mighty Kublai Khan” (“Marco Polo” episode 6).

There were over 100 episodes of the show produced before this point and how unique, exciting and unusual they are. Unlike what the series became, this earlier incarnation is arguably not sci-fi. It was, firstly, designed as a programme to teach children about history and science – the journeys backwards in time concerning history, while travels into the future allowing for exploration of scientific ideas. That the show managed to avoid becoming unconvincingly kiddy or patronisingly instructional can be explained by the manner in which it both succeeds and fails at its educational charter. Firstly, it is educational – in the best possible way. That is, facts about history and science are not the focus but the backdrop against and through which a gripping plot, with, of course, lots of good cliff-hangers, unfolds. This is the basic educational method of attaching naturally interesting things to the subject matter being communicated rather than trying to force an interest through clumsy and uninteresting exposition (the curse of many a programme produced for children). Secondly, the show isn’t only (or even primarily) educational. You can’t help thinking it escapes becoming too preachy through the pure inspirational force of its ideas, sometimes against the wishes of the show’s producers and probably without the production team being consciously aware. Within a few episodes, the scientific ideas give way to the show’s first, most successful alien ‘bug-eyed monster’ with the barely sanctioned but phenomenally successful appearance of the Daleks. This story is then followed by a short serial which cannot be defined as a journey backwards or forwards in time – it is really a move sideways.[1] It seems that the show’s production team has become delightfully carried away by the infinite promise of the scenario.


No one’s ‘space boyfriend’: William Hartnell

So what is this scenario? It may appear somehow related to the later familiar outline of the show, but I argue it is in fact a totally different idea. Our heroes are certainly travelling through time and space in a far more varied and unpredictable manner but, significantly, these heroes are accompanied by an occasionally unfriendly and decidedly grumpy old man. Examining the first story, two remarkable features reveal themselves at once. The Doctor is incompetent, unpredictable, and a troublemaker. He also is clearly not the protagonist. The hero of this series seems to be either the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (fitting the demographic of the young viewer) or her meddling but generally quite sensible schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara. The Doctor is clearly in the ‘character’ role as both ‘the Instigator of the Adventure’ – the Gatekeeper to Mysterious Realms, the Old-Man Prompter to Adventure, the Virgil-like Mystagogue – and ‘the Trickster’ – the Maker of Mischief, the Challenger of Beliefs and Ideals, the Cheat, the Liar, and the Clown, he who makes more mischief than he finds. There is something utterly fantastic and mythic about this idea. As a result, this Doctor is a far cry for the rational ‘scientific advisor’ (or quirky ‘space boyfriend’) of later years. This man – for he is a man, the Time Lord ‘back-story’ not cracking a mention for nearly 6 years of the show – is a truly mysterious character. In fact, Mystery is who the mystagogue is. It defines him. No one asks who he is or where he comes from. This is built into the very title of the show. Doctor Who signifies Mystery. ‘Who’ is not his name of course. He is simply referred to as ‘The Doctor’ because he has no name. It matters not who he is but where he leads us, and the show’s first production team certainly seems to have realised, despite their ‘educational’ brief, that where he leads us could truly be anywhere.

A huge spaceship, magical but flawed and imperfect, mysteriously materialises as a then-common everyday object, a police box (for those not in the know, a kind of pay-phone used by London police as a precursor to the walkie-talkie). This small blue phone-box can be installed anywhere interior or exterior, studio or location, out of which blunder our heroes into, well, any situation. Unlike later producers of the show, the first production team clearly noticed the infinite variety of this scenario so that even when they stumbled upon the phenomenal success of the B-grade sci-fi option (with the Daleks), this was clearly viewed as only one of many more and varied possibilities.

To this end, the basic mechanics of the show were geared, refreshingly and startlingly, toward variety, possibility and unpredictability – a very exciting prospect. Hence, not only do stories jump unpredictably between future, past and sideways arrangements, but genres change just as quickly. We can be watching a deadly serious power-play among the Aztecs, then find ourselves in the midst of a silly farce set in ancient Rome. (Sometimes the genre changes throughout different episodes of the same story.)[2] It is not only that the narrative involves a space-and-time travelling machine which could depart at any moment (and, importantly, isn’t properly under control), but each stop on its journey can have any duration, as each story can have four, six, seven, three, two, even one or twelve episodes. The size and relative meaning of each step of the narrative cannot be confidently gauged. As a viewer, you can even lose your way within a given story because, until “The War Machines”[3], each episode is given its own individual title without indication of the episode number, e.g., episode 4 of “Marco Polo” is actually only referred to as “The Wall of Lies” onscreen. The viewer is liable to forget how many episodes she has been watching already. As if this wasn’t already an excitingly unpredictable viewing experience, the writers deliberately introduce ‘fake endings’ to a number of these early stories, signalling a thrilling escape or final dénouement culminating in a sharp reversal at the last minute.[4]


Barbara takes charge (“The Aztecs”)

Then there is the element of character. The Doctor seldom appears as the lead. Ian takes over much of the action at times, while Barbara and Susan often have adventures of their own, or take on the lead role for a story. Often our characters split off into groups and barely meet again for a story, sometimes they travel together, disappear altogether, or, on at least one startling occasion, trudge on alone.[5] Conflict is caused not only by villains, but through misunderstandings, bad luck, complex situations, even mere technical faults. The possibilities are vast and this enormous variety is actively pursued and presented.

It can come as a surprise, considering all of this, that these early years of Doctor Who, those made under the series’ first producer, the young and inventive Verity Lambert, are not more well-known or highly regarded. This cannot be entirely due to our modern prejudice against anything old, clunky, and black and white. The fact is that it is really only fans of the later, quite different Doctor Who which are aware of these early episodes, and such an audience tends to be critical of the many deviations from the later scenario.[6] Of course, the series isn’t, by today’s standards, realistic, properly ‘character-driven’, and is frequently mistaken for the children’s series it can at times appear to be (although it is worth emphasising that Doctor Who was made by the BBC’s drama not children’s television department).


The original TARDIS interior

I suspect a major problem concerns the DVD releases, the most common means of viewing these episodes today. Despite the lovingly detailed even pedantic efforts of the restoration team, the DVD releases, ironically, destroy much of the original mystery of the show. Not only are the menus presented in the style of later Who, but instead of being released as a series box-set (series 1, series 2, series 3, etc.), the DVDs are presented as separate self-contained stories, which, owing to the lack of overarching story titles and the greater continuity in these earlier episodes, they technically aren’t. This form of release reveals the number of episodes in each story beforehand. (All this is leaving aside the issue of gaps in story continuity due to episodes missing from the archive.)

In the end, it is probably the incredible variety which, paradoxically, causes the most viewer dissatisfaction, as we humans are creatures of habit and sameness. Certain sections of the audience always prefer sci-fi stories to historical period dramas, or vice versa, and are liable to become bored when bemired in a story of a personally unfavourable genre.

Yet I think we shouldn’t quibble with a series which, considering its technical limitations, is, despite appearances, so technically and artistically proficient. Verity Lambert Doctor Who is the way the series was designed to look. The interior of the TARDIS never looks more mysterious, exciting, magical (but still very real) as it does in the opening episode (and particularly in the early story, “The Edge of Destruction”). The time machine being a significant part of the new show, a sufficient budget had been set aside to make this set new and effective, a far cry from the faded and battered skeleton of the original design used up until the late ‘80s (saying nothing of the CGI-enhanced, overblown new series’ ‘gaudy-egg’/’phallic ball-sack’ design).


Pale imitation: the Pertwee-era TARDIS

A big problem, particularly when shooting on a budget, is colour. The black and white of the ‘60s creates an unreal, fantastic quality exactly right for this early period of the show. The BBC’s vast costume department (still existing at that time) made many of the historical stories look amazing in their degree of detail. It is also easy to forget that there is a sophistication and drama created by the movement of an old-fashioned camera crane, today used only in more cinematic dramas. If you watch a William Hartnell Who with care, you are liable to notice the most complex high angles, low angles, and carefully choreographed craning shots, which put today’s static shot/reverse-shot television shooting style to shame – and the camera work is all the more impressive considering the show was filmed virtually live without post-production editing in very cramped old-fashioned TV studios.

I must say a word about the often overlooked sound design. The newly formed BBC Radiophonic Workshop produced some radical experimental sound design effects, most famously, the Doctor Who opening theme. The Radiophonic work in these early years is possibly the most astounding use of sound in a television show, providing not only incidental sound effects but what we would call today soundscapes, ambient sound environments which give the impression of a place and time. The superlative first Dalek story is perhaps the best example of this but even in historical stories, the sounds of distant horses, a bustling village square or a traumatic desert sand-storm are created largely by the soundscapes alone, played in live as the action unfolds. The detail of the work is easily overlooked. Not only were enough different incidental Dalek spaceship doors or blaster rays played in on cue, but the differing atmospheric sounds of various locations were flicked on and off in time with intercutting between scenes which were filmed live, inside, and often merely at different ends of the same BBC TV studio. In line with the series’ wild variability, it will come as no surprise that each serial also had an entirely different composer to write the incidental music, creating markedly different musical impressions as well. The sound designers also do not shy away from that great squirmy horror for modern viewers – silence.

Of course, the technical shortcomings of all of these elements are obvious to modern viewers. Yes, those complex crane shots often result in a collision with the set. Off-camera equipment noise can interfere with the aural soundscape. The fight scenes will always appear rather pathetic without the benefit of post-production editing – although, I must admit that my own private misgivings about how badly such a sequence could conceivably look onscreen has led me to watch them with some (granted, unintentional) degree of suspense so similar to the dramatically appropriate emotion as to blur into a reasonably feasible dramatic effect. (Similarly, I feel that Hartnell’s line fluffs beautifully compliment the tetchy incompetence of the Hartnell-Doctor who spends his time floating about in space and time clearly in denial that he really has no idea where he is going. It seems appropriate that he also doesn’t appear sure exactly what he is saying either.) I find these shortcomings merely add to the wildness of it all.


Someone needs a bath…

I do not want to go into plot detail, for fear of spoiling the mystery here, but I also want to draw attention to the extraordinary nature of even the most minor plot elements in these early pre-“War Machines” years. Rarely do we see prehistoric people presented dramatically in film let alone TV, and only seldom is historical drama presented as farce. No TV producer would have the gall to even attempt to present a world entirely comprised of giant insects or produce a story where each episode contained multiple time machines and a different setting each week. You would be hard pressed to find a TV show where characters are shrunk or aged to death or suddenly shot, nor do they, momentarily and unexpectedly break the fourth wall, confuse themselves by walking about in circles or reappear unexpectedly from an entirely different serial. Such story elements are remarkable compared not only with most other television series past and present, but also with later Doctor Who itself. In later Who we never see the TARDIS treated like a kind of tent into which you can duck for a nap throughout an epic journey, nor as a setting for an entire serial. Characters do not tend to remember events, even passing references, from stories past. Until relatively recently, the Doctor never suddenly fell in love with a passing minor character, nor would he have fierce arguments with his companions. Perhaps less dramatically but nonetheless remarkable, Hartnell-Who even features characters sweating, becoming dirty, changing their outfits, and having the occasional meal, everyday activities noticeably absent from later Who. There is even one instance of a cliffhanger which tantalises with a question about the past instead of the future – rather than “what will happen next?”, the viewer asks, in the most joyfully ridiculous manner, “what the heck just happened then?”[7]

In sum, William Hartnell Doctor Who is more unusual and extraordinary than its clunky black-and-white appearance suggests. It is fantastic but (mostly) makes sense. It takes itself seriously but with hallucinatory logic and a sense of the absurd. It is childish but serious and, at times, dark and mysterious. Most impressively, it refuses to find all but the most vague formula. It is this non-formulaic wild indefinable quality which renders it both dramatic and ridiculous in equal measure. We should, I suggest, appreciate this wild televisual anomaly for its clunky unconventional explorations into both the unknown and the ridiculous, instead of treating it as faded, poorly produced, primitive children’s TV show or as an awkward, slightly embarrassing early incarnation of a decidedly different later TV series.

For more on Doctor Who see my Doctor Who Story Registry.


[1] The 12th and 13th episodes (“The Edge of Destruction” (aka. “Inside the Spaceship”)).

[2] Witness (as best you can – the story has been wiped) the comedy of episodes 1-3 of “The Myth Makers”, which concludes painfully and tragically with its gritty and deadly serious episode 4 (“Horse of Destruction”).

[3] Actually, the story before this, but since it has been wiped, we’ll just overlook this minor inaccuracy.

[4] Examples are “The Ambush” (“The Daleks” episode 4) and “Rider from Shang-Tu” (“Marco Polo” episode 5). “The Plague” (“The Ark” episode 2) even sends the travelers departing only to land back in the same place several centuries later.

[5] ‘The Sea Beggar” and “Priest of Death” (“The Massacre” episodes 2 & 3) technically feature only the Doctor’s companion Steven as a protagonist.

[6] Oh! The frustration when Ian says in “The Edge of Destruction” that the Doctor’s “heart seems all right”. Surely he means his hearts (plural) seem all right? Fan indignation seems to imply that the early series is not so much different as inaccurate – how dare they assume the doctor isn’t a time lord! etc.

[7] “The Death of Doctor Who” (“The Chase” episode 5).

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]


Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
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).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

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

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

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

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.

‘Sir Gawain’ and the green girdle

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This is another short essay from my medieval literature subject – if anything I really recommend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a very readable medieval English text. There’s a good version by J.R.R. Tolkien even.

The green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like the poem itself, evokes a wide range of symbolic connotations for both the reader and its characters. It can be considered a magic talisman, a symbol of shame, a token of courage and nobility, or an emblem of courtly brotherhood.[1] Something of the depth and complexity of the poem is revealed in that the green girdle is properly any and all of these things and much more besides. Interpretation of the girdle is important for reading the sense of Gawain’s physical and ontological quests, and for gauging the nature of his ‘fault’. I will explore the complex nexus of meaning surrounding the girdle and, in so doing, suggest that a deeper understanding of its significance is elicited from the secular and Christian religious traditions reflected, intentionally or otherwise, in the poem.

Interpretation of the green girdle, along with much else in Gawain, depends upon the discernment of a number of different layers of meaning. I wish to focus on the contrasting ideas of a religious test against that of a secular quest. A religious test, at least in the Christian tradition, involves the challenging of a person’s conduct specifically according to a moral framework, while a secular quest is not so ethically or morally focused. The secular quest concerns more humanistic preoccupations such as romantic love, overcoming physical obstacles, or even just raw survival.[2] There is some overlap between these paradigms – these are not rigid dividers but broad thematic models. Importantly they intersect in the concept of medieval chivalry, where the Christian sense of agape overlaps with that of the secular individualistic amor.[3] Furthermore, both concern an exploration of selfhood for the questing knight, namely, an ontological quest; the secular idea of natural self-development or maturity overlaps with the more ethically focused self-judgment of the religious paradigm.[4] These thematic strands are extremely tightly bound in Gawain but also play off of each other on countless occasions, tying both Sir Gawain and the reader into interpretative knots as to the best and most appropriate way of reading such moments. Arguably the most important of such difficult moments, also marking a turning point in the plot, involves the ‘temptation’ or ‘magic’ of the green girdle.

The Lady offers the green girdle to Sir Gawain ostensively claiming that any courtier wearing it “could not be slain through any strategy on earth” (1854).[5] In other words, she implies it is a magic talisman. The idea of magic here is certainly not a conventional Christian notion, hence the green girdle could be considered an idolatrous fetish, set to deceive the Christian knight and violate his moral code. But the Gawain poet never makes explicit mention of this interpretation. In his declaration of shame Sir Gawain calls the girdle “falssyng” (2378), roughly, a treachery, but there is no suggestion that it has caused him to sin in the religious sense. In Celtic myth, a magic talisman often has the effect of revealing or engendering powerful emotions in the mythic hero, inadvertently revealing unrealized aspects of his character.[6] The love potion consumed by Tristan and Isolde in the Tristan myth has just this effect,[7] and, mysteriously, so does the green girdle, which occasions the revelation of Gawain’s imperfect nature. Gawain’s taking of the girdle is the sole reason for the slight cut to the neck bestowed by the Green Knight later in the story. Perhaps engendering this revelation is the true ‘magic power’ of the Lady’s girdle as talisman.

Sir Gawain himself interprets the green girdle negatively, as “a sign of [his] shame [or, surfet, trangression]” (2433). However, exactly what he has to be ashamed of is multifaceted and open to interpretation. We have seen that his transgression is probably not religious sin exactly.[8] It is possible to read the acceptance of a gift from a married woman as symbolically committing adultery, but, once again, this does not seem well supported by the text.[9] Gawain’s transgression appears to be mostly on the secular level of the poem, the level of courteous social conduct. Indeed, the adventure of the entire middle section of the poem, in which Gawain is forced to distribute kisses to a strange lord while engaging in alluring bedroom scenes with his wife, has distinctly unchristian undertones. (It seems almost indecent for the poet to have placed Gawain in this situation in the first place.[10]) However, as titillating as some of these scenes are, the Gawain author seems only concerned with testing Gawain’s secular strength of character, in particular his resolve to act courteously to both the Lord and the Lady. Gawain must hand over all his ‘winnings’ to the Lord, and yet he must also treat the Lady courteously despite her many suggestive requests. By accepting the girdle, Gawain also must abide by the Lady’s request that he keep the girdle hidden from her husband (1862-3). This results in a contradiction for Gawain, who is now in a ‘Catch-22’ situation.[11] Whatever course of action he chooses, whether he hides or declares the girdle, he violates someone’s trust. By this thinking, he should not have accepted the girdle.

230px-Gawain_and_the_Green_KnightHowever, if we bring the Lady’s interpretation of the girdle as magic talisman back into our considerations here, we discover yet another possible justification for Gawain’s ‘shame’, a reason he explicitly mentions as “cowarddyse and couetyse [covetousness]” (2374). The implication is that Gawain took the girdle because he was afraid. Indeed, this seems to be the justification that appears in the text, when Gawain considers that, “It [the girdle] certainly would be splendid to forestall being slain” (1858). (This could also imply that on some level he actually believes in the protective quality of the girdle as magic talisman.) However, one senses that he should also be ashamed of breaking his pact in not declaring the girdle to the Lord even though such a declaration would have nothing to do with fear exactly – only with courteous impropriety. Perhaps it is both.[12]

For all Gawain’s myriad ‘faults’, Bercilak de Hautdesert declares the girdle a token of purity (2398). In this interpretation, Bercilak seems to appeal to Christian notions of sin and forgiveness, considering Gawain absolved of guilt because: “You have confessed so cleanly, proclaiming your faults, / And openly have the penance from the point of my weapon” (2391-2393). Yet he then gives Gawain the girdle to keep, ostensively as a proud symbol of his bravery in meeting the challenge at the Green Chapel (2399). But how has the girdle revealed Gawain’s bravery? If anything, it reveals his weakness, particularly if he took it out of fear and desire for its magical protection. The answer to this question resides again in the secular tradition and not the Christian. Conventionally, the Christian moral code does not celebrate flaws inherent in human nature. The concept of original sin is a negative reality to be condemned and overcome through the grace of God, not something to be celebrated with conspicuous tokens.[13] Yet, Bercilak is quite explicit about this, declaring that Gawain “lacked a little … / not from wild wickedness, nor wooing either, / But because you loved your life” (2366-68). One senses here the affirmation of natural order (as per the secular paradigm), recognized using the language of supernatural grace (as per the Christian).[14]

King Arthur’s court reinterprets the green girdle again, this time seeing it as an emblem of courtly brotherhood, adopted by all the knights in honour of Gawain (2515-2518). Exactly how to interpret this deference towards Gawain is also multifaceted. Some modern interpretations see Arthur’s court as naïve and childish, not without some textual justification.[15] In this view, the green girdles worn by the court represent a mockery, an inauthentic replication of Gawain’s distressing adventure. Yet other commentators consider the court as exhibiting a youthful innocence rather than a deluded naivety. In this reading, the laughter of the court is not a mockery but an affirmation of Gawain’s nobility and courage, and an acknowledgement of the small size of his fault.[16] In this view, the girdle as emblem of courtly brotherhood expresses a sentiment similar to Bercilak’s interpretation of the girdle as a token of natural purity. The wearing of girdles by the whole court would then symbolize the spreading of a humanistic (predominantly secular) courage and nobility among the knights.

This study thus reveals the greater significance of the secular rather than Christian paradigm for interpreting meaning in Gawain. The acceptance of the girdle by Sir Gawain seems to explicitly reveal his fear rather than his lust or his disloyalty to courteous social agreements. The interpretation of the girdle as protective talisman also satisfyingly links the ‘exchange of winnings’ agreement with the ‘beheading’ game – it is Gawain’s fear of the latter than leads to his violation of the former through acceptance of the girdle.[17] The Christian paradigm appears to have little significance until Gawain’s confession of shame. However, the Gawain author and Medieval readers probably would have distinguished no difference between these two aspects of the tale.[18] Gerald Morgan has convincingly argued that what modern critics often see as Gawain’s angry and traumatic self-castigations are more likely conventional medieval penitential practices, considered the more genuine through their dramatic expression.[19] On this interpretation, Gawain graciously admits the girdle as token of shame and ultimately comes to accept it as a token of purity, courage and brotherhood too[20] in the spirit of Christian atonement and in the spirit of secular chivalry (a spirit suggested aptly by the playful tone of the poem).[21] However, while this reading may more accurately reflect historical conventions and authorial intentions, it must be said that it is a comparatively bland and straightforward reading. The complexity and depth of Gawain to modern readers is likely to reside in its elusive, multifaceted interpretative possibilities,[22] even if these are partly the result of historical misunderstandings or unintentionally subversive readings.


Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain poet. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012.

Brewer, Elisabeth, ed. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973.

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

Cooper, Helen. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Keith Harrison, ix-xxxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Gerald. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

Silverstein, Theodore. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1-34. 1974. Reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited & translated by William Vantuono, revised ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Stanbury, Sarah. Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1-15. 1975. Reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1948. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[1] Sarah Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 110.

[2] Note that what I am calling a secular quest may in fact pertain to non-Christian religious traditions such as, in Northern Europe, the vestigial Celtic or Germanic traditions, but I wish to make no historical conjectures here. I use terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘Celtic’ throughout this essay in a purely thematic sense, in reference to the moral test and secular quest paradigms only. These are aids to exploring meaning in the text from our modern standpoint and should not be construed as making judgments about historical precedence or authorial intention. See Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, ed. Joseph Campbell (1948; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 34-51 for a complex discussion and interpretation of pagan mythic elements.

[3] For a discussion of agape versus amor, see Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 175-178.

[4] See John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain poet (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012), 40, for a discussion of the ways in which Sir Gawain’s identity is annihilated in the poem.

[5] Line numbers and quotations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. & trans. William Vantuono, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

[6] Compare the original ‘beheading game’ in Elisabeth Brewer, ed., From Cuchulainn to Gawain, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973), 9-13, which seems to exist to explicitly demonstrate the supreme courage of the Irish hero Cuchulainn.

[7] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 240-242.

[8] Helen Cooper, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Keith Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxx. Cooper describes Gawain’s fault as a venial sin. I suggest this equates with what I am calling a ‘secular’ fault, since venial sin means religiously slight or pardonable, not a mortal sin.

[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, trans. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien (1975; reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006), 5. Tolkien suggests that if Gawain has any temptation to adultery, it is absolved through prayer. It is temptation’s blending with the customs of courtesy that trouble Gawain. See also Theodore Silverstein, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1974; reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.

[10] For a discussion of the unconventionality of these scenes, see Cooper, introduction, xxiii.

[11] Silverstein, introduction, 14.

[12] Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991), 142-3.

[13] Cooper, introduction, xxxii.

[14] For a discussion of natural versus supernatural grace, see Campbell, Creative Mythology, 43, 476.

[15] Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 21-22, 49-51.

[16] Tolkien, introduction, 5; Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 52.

[17] Cooper, introduction, xxv, xxxvi.

[18] See also Zimmer’s argument that the Gawain author does not seem to understand the pagan symbology even as he utilizes it: Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 80.

[19] Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 155, 157-8.

[20] Note this could also be seen as part of the transforming ‘magic’ of the girdle as talisman, see Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 79. Zimmer calls the girdle a ‘talisman of rebirth.’

[21] Bowers makes particular reference of the joyous bob-and-wheel in this respect: Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 15.

[22] It is frequently called ‘ambiguous’ by modern critics: Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet, 111; Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 129; Silverstein, introduction, 13.

The Mysteries of Mithras: A Symbolist Theoretic

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Another essay from my seemingly endless Arts degree. This was my favourite – writing about the Mithras cult of the Roman Empire, in the process discovering a theory of cultural interpretation as per Beck and Geertz, leaving behind a misguided attempt to make cultural interpretation ‘scientific’ by simply not commenting on it at all…

The religion of the Mithras cult flourished in the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth centuries C.E., only disappearing with the triumph of Christianity. The primary source evidence for the cult, while not exactly scarce, is distinctly enigmatic, consisting of little more than iconographic images and some short, largely uninformative epigraphs. Thus the meaning of this mystery cult as a historical reality has remained, ironically, mysterious. In this essay, I will firstly review the primary source evidence, drawing upon the work of Manfred Clauss. I will then explore an interpretation put forward by Roger Beck based upon the symbolist theory of Clifford Geertz. I argue that Beck’s interpretation achieves a greater insight into the experience and meaning of the cult largely because he takes the trouble to interpret the data in an appropriately ‘religious’ fashion. As we shall see, studying the Mithras cult will not exactly ‘teach us a lesson’ but ‘open out the possibilities’ of religious experience. Since this presumably approximates the goal of the ancient cult-members, we shall see how interpretations based on strict scientific rationalism will be unilluminating and generally inappropriate.

The Primary Sources

The Mithras cult apparently emerged during the first century C.E. with the appearance of the first inscriptions and artefacts.[1] The area of spread is very large, with Mithraic sites discovered throughout the ancient empire from Egypt to England.[2] We only know about membership from short epigraphs, for example: “To the invincible god Mithras, Optimus, deputy of Vitalis, slave of Sabinius Veranus and supervisor of the customs-post, has fulfilled his vow.”[3] Early followers included soldiers, ordinary citizens, slaves and low-grade administration officials.[4] Scholars have long believed that the cult admitted no women,[5] but Griffith remarks that one textual reference is difficult to explain, from Porphyry of Tyre, the third century C.E. Neoplatonic philosopher, who wrote: “Thus initiates who take part in their rites [the Mithraic Mysteries] are called lions, and women hyenas, and servants ravens” (Porphyry, De Abstinentia ab esu animalium 4.16.3).[6]

A recreation of the interior of the Mithraeum.

A recreation of the interior of a Mithraeum.

Everything else we know about Mithraism comes from the physical artefacts and iconography usually discovered in the ruins of Mithraic temples. A mithraeum is a small, square-sided room, usually less than 10 metres along any wall.[7] A cave-like interior appears to have been important; mithraea tend to have vaulted ceilings – some were even carved out of rock.[8] The basic common structure is a central aisle, flanked by raised podia on each side, upon which cult-follows presumably sat or reclined.[9] The exact range of images, statues and small altars varies from site to site, but every mithraeum had a brightly painted cult-image of Mithras slaying the bull displayed at the end of the aisle either in bas-relief or, sometimes, as a free-standing sculpture.[10] Apparently, lighting effects were also important, with many lamps discovered in the ruins; some images had alcoves for candles, designed so that they could be made to glow in the darkness of the Mithraic ‘cave’.[11]

The iconography of Mithraism is remarkably varied in style and detail across the large geographical range of the cult, yet at the same time most of the scenes portrayed are roughly consistent. The most common images and the manner in which they are arranged can be interpreted as outlining the ‘sacred narrative’ of Mithras.[12] The sun-god is born from a rock; he is pictured emerging fully-formed as a child or youth, sometimes naked, wearing a Phrygian cap, wielding a torch and a dagger.[13] He is

A typical image of Mithras.

A typical image of Mithras.

shown firing an arrow at a rock, which magically brings forth water.[14] A series of images portray his hunting a great bull – he is shown prowling, chasing, riding, guiding, dragging and even carrying the bull on his shoulders.[15] This presumably leads to the scene that forms the central cult-image of the bull-slaying (tauroctony): Mithras is shown holding down the bull with his left knee and plunging a dagger into its neck with his right hand while fixing the viewer with an expression of “easy grace”[16] or “dolor and compassion.”[17] He is almost always accompanied in this act by a dog, a scorpion and a snake, and sometimes a lion, all of whom seem to be feeding upon the bull, whose thrashing tail or gushing blood is often represented as burgeoning grain-stalks.[18] These creatures frequently take part as observers of the earlier scenes too, appearing along with images of the sun and moon, a distinctive krater (mixing bowl), the Roman sun-god Sol, and the mythic torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates.[19]

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

Rarely are initiations portrayed and these are difficult to interpret.[20] Some written sources suggest the rituals were very harsh but these herald from Christian writers who obviously disapproved of the cult and almost certainly were exaggerating.[21] A lot of the theories concerning initiation have centred around the apparent 7-stage grade structure for cult-members. The lowest grade was called Raven, and progressed upward through Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-runner, and Father.[22] These grades are attested by iconography at a few mithraeum sites, such as the mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia near Rome.[23] Some scholars consider the grades to be ubiquitous to the cult, while others suggest they only applied in certain areas, or only to priests.[24]


Clauss represents the scholarly consensus when he affirms that the Mithraic cult images are difficult to interpret, that we may never know exactly what they signify, but that the tauroctony, for instance, generally gives the impression of a positive, life-affirmation.[25] Mithras’ central act of killing the bull is a “transfiguration and transformation”[26] or rebirth, not merely a scene of senseless slaughter and destruction.[27] In terms of understanding ancient mystery religions generally, Clauss exhibits an awareness that ancient peoples did not feel bound by fixed credos, and that they could worship multiple gods without conflict or contradiction.[28] However, he still finds the Mithras cult rather disorganised or not properly unified, exemplified by the evident inconsistency of iconographic detail and style, lack of evidence of a definite doctrine, the confusing syncretism of gods and symbols, and its ultimate weakness in the face of attacks by Christians.[29]

Another Tauroctony.

Another Tauroctony.

Undeniably, the small, dark Mithraic temples and the paucity of written description has led to assessments of the Mithras cult as deeply esoteric.[30] This has led to all kinds of theories as to the type of esoteric meaning suggested by the iconography. Many scholars have drawn on perceived links between the Mithraic imagery and astrology, in particular, proposing that Mithraic ritual was somehow supposed to lead the participant on a journey through the stars to experience the soul’s salvation.[31] Clauss is very dismissive of such interpretations,[32] but others have provided complex arguments for Mithras’ identity with the sky or the cosmos itself (Weiss), for the tauroctony as a kind of astral clock (North), or as encoding the mathematics of equinoctial precession (Ulansey).[33]

Roger Beck argues that links to astrology do seem justified but many interpretations approach the subject wrongly; there is an ad hoc nature to many interpretations which is disconcerting, inviting inconclusive readings.[34] Essentially, Beck argues that we are not missing a definitive interpretation; we lack a sensible theoretic for understanding the multiplicity of existing interpretations.

A Symbolist Theoretic

The missing theoretic, Beck argues, concerns the appropriate interpretation of mythic symbols. Clifford Geertz suggests, for instance, that applying the principles of logic – discreteness, linearity, exclusivity – is not appropriate for the interpretation of symbolic subject matter.[35] All religious systems are characterised principally by an emotional element; the intellect only provides assent to a feeling-toned worldview.[36] Geertz argues that religion comprises a worldview and an ethos which interact, forming a ‘gestalt’ which establishes a fundamental sense of numinous meaning and experienced reality, only secondarily converted into an ethics or consistent metaphysics.[37]

Beck similarly argues that Mithraism, as a feeling-toned system, cannot have a definitive meaning, like a dictionary definition.[38] Emotional experience comprises an ineffable complexity, not a specific symbol-to-meaning correspondence.[39] A particular symbol usually means many different things depending on the level of interpretative experience.[40] Thus, interpretations which involve complex intellectual workings or instrumental answers have no place in the theoretic. Hence, the Mithraic symbology is unlikely to be a complex code, which, once decoded, reveals the mathematics of astral precession. This not only draws upon incongruous modern astronomy, but such thinking exemplifies a theory of religion which suggests that only the learned can understand religious symbols, which the vulgar misinterpret.[41] This idea is often propagated by ancient intellectuals, such as Porphyry, but it is nonetheless unrealistic, or at least, peripheral to our concerns. Beck suggests we must focus upon the experience of the Mithraic majority, who were unlikely to be attending a secret astronomy class.[42]

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

The Mithraic symbols are not trying to hide their meanings – Beck suggests that what you see is what you get.[43] Mithras, as a sun-god, probably represents the sun on the primary level of interpretation.[44] Granting that the cult-followers wanted to keep their religion mysterious, the iconography is already ‘hidden’ inside the mithraeum – there was no need for further opacity. Scholars seem to forget this context, which is ironic considering the usual importance of provenance for archaeological explication.[45] Beck argues that the tauroctony alone has no context – the symbols could be interpreted ad infinitum. We must start with what the mithraeum means, within which the tauroctony resides.[46] Furthermore, we must also extend our context into the common, generally understood cultural-social milieu of the Roman Empire in this period, for, as per Geertz’s theory, it is ethos and worldview which will inform contemporary symbolic understanding.[47]

All scholars have long declared the Mysteries to be embedded in the Roman social structure; the cult even seems to support existing social hierarchies.[48] A new cult, to successfully capture imaginations and acquire followers, must appeal to conservative tastes, only realising them in slightly new combinations, a fact acknowledged by Gordon.[49] Beck argues we must ask what the mithraeum meant to most Romans,[50] and suggests we have the answer in this brief passage from Porphyry:

Similarly, the Persians [followers of Mithras] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, reveal to him the path by which souls descend and go back again. … This cave bore … the image of the Cosmos which Mithras had created, and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with the symbols of the elements and climates of the Cosmos. (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6)[51]

This passage is often dismissed by scholars as it is written by a Neoplatonist philosopher not a Mithraic cult-member, yet, as Beck argues, Porphyry’s essay is not about interpreting Mithraism – the cult merely earns an incidental mention.[52] Furthermore, as per the theoretic, the allusion does not need to be exactly correct; we are not looking for exact correspondences, only a general impression of ethos. This passage suggests not only that there was a popular understanding of the mithraeum as ‘cosmos’, but it also specifies the pertinent symbolist way of thinking.[53]

The cosmology of Aristotle

The cosmology of Aristotle

Thus, deferring again to the cultural milieu, Beck next asks how Roman society conceived of the cosmos. Clauss knows the answer as well as anyone:[54] he writes of the well-known cosmology of Aristotle, with the unmoving Earth at the centre of seven invisible spheres, one inside the other, each hosting a visible ‘planet’ – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.[55] The human soul was believed to descend through these spheres to be born.[56] The question is whether something like this cosmological worldview is symbolised in the mithraeum and its iconography. Beck responds with a resounding ‘yes’: the mithraeum is a dark cave-like room, rather like the vault of the stars, in which strange lighting effects illuminate representations of sun, moon and stars, and a seven-grade system mirrors the seven celestial spheres. To explain the animals and other iconography, we need only expand on the popular Greco-Roman symbolic associations between the planets, the gods and their mythic narratives.[57] The tauroctony does not merely picture a man slaying a bull; it portrays a man slaying a bull, accompanied by a scorpion, a dog, a snake, and sometimes a lion and a bowl – all of which were ancient and well-known representations of constellations in the zodiac.[58]


The Zodiac.

Beck elaborates on this picture, delving further into the cosmological correspondences.[59] I do not have the space to rehearse his arguments here. His interpretations become complex, yet arguably never delve beyond the contemporary Roman astrological worldview. Importantly, Beck is not suggesting that these astrological readings offer an ‘explanation’ of the cult;[60] they are only an index of primary readings,[61] the central structuring mythology, as it were. He suggests that a whole series of simultaneous symbolic correspondences overlay and interact with this astrological symbolism, the ethos interacting with the worldview.[62] A participant could experience meaning on the level of the sacred story of Mithras, of the cosmological worldview, of the earthly ethos, and that of the destiny of human souls.[63] With this interpretative picture, we gain a better sense of the depth and character of Mithraism. So much so that Beck argues that “there is no necessity for a lost ritual to be postulated.”[64] The tauroctony, for instance, seems to involve a sacrifice of the moon-bull by the sun-god. I am reminded here of an observation made by Joseph Campbell in relation to American Indian myth:

On a very special evening there is a moment when the rising moon, having just emerged on the horizon, is directly faced across the world, from the opposite horizon, by the setting sun. …[At such a moment,] if the witness is prepared, there ensues a transfer of self-identification from the temporal reflecting body [the moon], to the sunlike, eviternal source, and one then knows oneself as consubstantial with what is of no time or place but universal and beyond death…[65]

Some similar astral revelation may have furnished the Mithraic cult-followers, through ritual of some kind, with an experience of “the path by which souls descend and go back again” (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6).[66]

Conclusion1. The sanctuary's bottom

The Mysteries of Mithras provide us with an interpretative challenge – what to make of an ancient religion about which we have very little textual evidence. Using logical deduction and the usual archaeological methods we can make interpretive guesses, but what emerges is a vague, ad hoc set of symbolic elaborations. The symbolist theoretic of Geertz and Beck does not enhance our viewpoint by disclosing new archaeological facts or even new symbolic interpretations, but provides an insight into the religious mindset that ordered and experienced such meanings. I believe this is what the Mithras cult can teach us today – its symbolic iconography exemplifies the manner in which mythic thought can be (usually is) structured. To comprehend this, we must acknowledge the importance of not just physical but cultural provenance when interpreting ancient myth and religion. From the symbolist theoretic, we can garner a greater understanding not just of the Mithras cult but of the typical human religious worldview, a perspective often buried, confused, or considered ‘esoteric’ in the usual positivist rational analysis of the twentieth-century scientist and archaeologist.

Works Cited[67]
Beck, R. 2000. “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel.” The Journal of Roman Studies 90: 145-80.
Beck, R. 2006. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Campbell, J. 1991. Reprint. Occidental Mythology. New York: Arkana. Original edition, New York: Viking Penguin, 1964.
Campbell, J. 2002. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Novato, California: New World Library.
Clauss, M. 2000. The Roman Cult of Mithras. Translated by Richard Gordon. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
David, J. 2000. “The Exclusion of Women in the Mithraic Mysteries: Ancient or Modern?” Numen 47: 121-41.
Geertz, C. 1957. “Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols.” The Antioch Review 17: 421-37.
Gordon, R. L. 1980. “Reality, Evocation and Boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras.” Journal of Mithraic Studies 3: 19-99.
Griffith, A. B. 2006. “Completing the Picture: Women and the Female Principle in the Mithraic Cult.” Numen 53: 48-77.

[1] Clauss 2000, 22, 28-32.

[2] Clauss 2000, 26-7.

[3] This translation from Clauss 2000, 38.

[4] Clauss 2000, 33.

[5] Clauss 2000, 33; David 2000, 129, 131, 138-9; Griffith 2006, 65.

[6] Translated by G. Clark, quoted in Griffith 2006, 51.

[7] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[8] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[9] Clauss 2000, 46.

[10] Clauss 2000, 52.

[11] Clauss 2000, 120, 125.

[12] Clauss 2000, 62.

[13] Clauss 2000, 64.

[14] Clauss 2000, 71-4.

[15] Clauss 2000, 74-7.

[16] Clauss 2000, 79.

[17] Campbell 1991, 258, after Cumont.

[18] Clauss 2000, 99.

[19] Clauss 2000, 95.

[20] Clauss 2000, 103-5.

[21] Clauss 2000, 102; Beck 2000, 146 n. 10.

[22] Clauss 2000, 131.

[23] Clauss 2000, 133.

[24] Clauss 2000, 131.

[25] Clauss 2000, 79.

[26] Clauss 2000, 79.

[27] Clauss 2000, 81.

[28] Clauss 2000, 9-10, 14, 148, 158.

[29] Clauss 2000, 16-17.

[30] Clauss 2000, 61.

[31] Clauss 2000, xx.

[32] Clauss 2000, xx.

[33] All these referenced in Beck 2006, 37-8.

[34] Beck 2006, 23.

[35] Geertz 1957, 436.

[36] Geertz 1957, 421.

[37] Geertz 1957, 421-22, 425.

[38] Beck 2006, 68-9.

[39] Beck 2006, 28.

[40] Beck 2006, 27.

[41] Beck 2006, 47.

[42] Beck 2006, 46.

[43] Beck 2006, 59.

[44] Beck 2006, 37.

[45] Beck 2006, 60.

[46] Beck 2006, 70.

[47] Beck 2006, 72.

[48] Beck 2006, 72; Clauss 2000, 25.

[49] Gordon 1980, 22-3; Beck 2006, 27.

[50] Beck 2006, 61.

[51] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[52] Beck 2006, 85.

[53] Beck 2006, 102.

[54] Clauss 2000, 10.

[55] Clauss 2000, 10-11; Beck 2006, 77; Campbell 1991, 255.

[56] Beck 2006, 79-80; Campbell 1991, 255.

[57] Beck 2006, 31.

[58] Beck 2006, 31.

[59] Beck 2006, 102-256.

[60] Beck 2006, 41-2.

[61] Beck 2006, 31.

[62] Beck 2006, 73.

[63] Beck 2006, 11.

[64] Beck 2006, 129.

[65] Campbell 2002, 31-2.

[66] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[67] Note: all primary sources were referenced from inside secondary sources so all works cited are secondary.

Written by tomtomrant

29 December 2013 at 6:40 pm