Friday, August 4, 2023

Strange and Blessed Fire 2: Waterspouts and Whirlpools

German scholar Hans Jonas, in The Gnostic Religion, asserts that Gnosticism is similar to modern nihilism and existentialism in that all three see humanity trapped in a hostile world. However, unlike Gnosticism, these modern philosophies are at core inconsistent, especially in their claim to express difference within an indifferent world. Afterall, why should this notion of difference arise within a philosophical stance that entirely denies the transcendent?

There is no overlooking one cardinal difference between the gnostic and the existentialist dualism: Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine, and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit . . .

But this very difference, which reveals the greater depth of modern nihilism, also challenges its self-consistency. Gnostic dualism, fantastic as it was, was at least self-consistent. The idea of a demonic nature against which the self is pitted, makes sense. But what about an indifferent nature which nevertheless contains in its midst that to which its own being does make a difference?

Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.338-9

The Gnostics, more coherently than the modern nihilists, thought humanity possesses sparks of the divine light of the One, a light that the Archons of this cosmos try to trap, suppress and make us ignorant of. Here, Gnostic beliefs were really not that far from that of later theologians.

For orthodox Christians of the medieval period, the Fall is sub-lunar, below the sphere of the Moon, and condemning only the Earth and its elements. But for the Gnostics, the Fall is sub-Empyrean or closer to their own terminology, sub-Aeonic; the entire cosmos is damned from the outset. 

Jonas elsewhere explains that, emerging from later Gnosticism (Valentianism etc.), gnosis was translated from a belief in the mythological ascent of the soul through the seven planetary spheres to an internal or psychological ascent through energy centres within the body.

In a later stage of gnostic development (though no longer passing under the name of Gnosticism) the external topology of the ascent through the spheres, with the successive divesting of the soul of its worldly envelopments and the regaining of its original acosmic nature, could be internalized and find its analogue in a psychological technique of inner transformations by which the self, while still in the body, might attain the Absolute as an immanent, if temporary, condition: an ascending scale of mental states replaces the stations of the mythical itinerary: the dynamics of progressive spiritual self-transformation, the spatial thrust through the heavenly spheres.

Thus could transcendence itself be turned into immanence, the whole process become spiritualized and put within the power and the orbit of the subject. With this transposition of a mythological scheme into the inwardness of the person, with the translation of its objective stages into subjective phases of self-performable experience whose culmination has the form of ecstasis, gnostic myth has passed into mysticism (Neoplatonic and monastic), and in this new medium it lives on long after the disappearance of the original mythological beliefs.

Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.165-6

This view of the “spirtualized” or internalized process of the soul’s journey, adapted from Gnostic cosmology, is taken on by Plotinus and the later Neoplatonists and through them to the Christian mystics from Pseudo-Dionysius on, and to the Jewish Kabbalists.

The earlier Gnostic myth of the cosmic flight, preceded in literature by the Book of Enoch and other early and marginalized scriptures, was, melding after the Asian conquests of Alexander, itself based on a Hellenic rationalization of Mesopotamian star magic.

In the case of the Babylonian religion, the success of this movement toward abstraction is apparent in its later form as it emerged into the full light of Hellenism. In a one-sided development of its original astral features, the older cult was transformed into an abstract doctrine, the reasoned system of astrology, which simply by the appeal of its thought-content, presented in Greek form, became a powerful force in the Hellenistic world of ideas.

Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p.165-6

This more recent internal mystical interpretation has obvious parallels with Indian traditions/teachings of the chakras, found also in Taoism and elsewhere. Parallels can later be located in the Renaissance-era mysticism of Teresa D’Avila’s Interior Castle, which may have been transmitted through Spanish Islamic and/or Jewish mystical sources, both of which had ties with sources much further East.

Religion scholar, Weston Le Barre, explains in Muelos, A Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality that belief in subtle physiological channels conducting spiritual and consciousness-altering energy can be delineated back to the evident Paleolithic veneration of skulls, bones and especially the life-sustaining marrow that flows through them.

If bones are the framework of life, more specifically it is the semen-like marrow (muelos) in the bones that is believed to be the source of semen. The skull, as the bone enclosing the most plentiful muelos-marrow in the body (the brain), is therefore the major repository of the generative life-stuff or semen. Consciousness and life are the same stuff and thus have the same site.

The idea seems bizarre and contrived to us only because we have forgotten the formative origins of our ideas. Yet, as later discussion will establish, the concept of brain-muelos as the source of semen is everywhere inherent in European thinking, as well as in that of societies elsewhere.

Weston La Barre, Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality, p.3

Concomitantly, and turning to Mircea Eliade, shamanic cultures across the globe believed in and practiced a kind of spiritual flight that transports the shaman through the planets and the stars.

For what the shaman can do today in ecstasy could, at the dawn of time, be done by all human beings in concreto; they went up to heaven and came down again without recourse to trance. Temporarily and for a limited number of personsthe shamansecstasy re-establishes the primordial condition of all mankind.

In this respect, the mystical experience of the primitives is a return to origins, a reversion to the mystical age of the lost paradise. For the shaman in ecstasy, the bridge or the tree, the vine, the cord, and so onwhich, in illo tempore, connected earth with heavenonce again, for the space of an instant, becomes a present reality.

Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, p.486

Taken together, it is likely that these ideas were always linked in the minds of mystics and visionaries across the globe. 

The notion and experience of ascension through states of consciousness associated with the movement of generative and creative energy transmitted via the marrow and even more subtle physiological pathways through junctures in the body (wheels, spirals, chakras), was combined/identified with a mythic but physical journey through the cosmic spheres. 

States of mind were always corresponded with other worlds/realms either above or below the Earth: Stars below and chakras above and muelos circulating between.

This journey down through the underworld or across the sky, was certainly inspired and provoked by observations of the Sun, the Moon and the planets sinking below the Western horizon and rising in the East the next morning. Psychedelic use undoubtedly played a role here as well.

The underworld descent is evidenced in the cave art of the Paleolithic, and much later in Egyptian mythology and books of the dead. And from here a line can be followed to classical mystery schools/movements in Egypt, Crete, Eleusis, Anatolia and subsequently with the Orphics, the Pythagoreans, the Pre-Socratics (and notably Parmenides). This tradition continues with Plato, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism, alchemy, the Rosicrucians, Freemasonry, occultism, Theosophy and onward.

Bolstering this mostly Western esoteric tradition are continual waves of non-Western influence: Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, African and, with later colonial expansion, indigenous American. All of these waves well up from primordial shamanism worldwide, transmitted through trading routes of land and sea. 

The dualistic tendency of Gnostic thought may have resulted from the initial externalization of the ascension process. The Archons of the spheres were seen as being tyrannical, as attempting to prevent the soul from rising to the One. Both the cosmos of the spheres and soul or psyche that traversed them, were thought of as imprisoning the vital spirit. 

Yet, as in later philosophical developments, with the centres internalized, the body and its processes could once again be praised. In contrast to the dualistic schools of Gnosticism, in Hermeticism, in Neoplatonism, in Stoicism and in other more pantheistic systems (including Valentianism) both the Demiurge and his creation, the cosmos, were acclaimed. This was also the case in medieval Judaic and Christian mysticism. 

Plotinus fervently argued for this positive acceptance of the cosmos:

If another cosmos better than this one actually exists, what it is? But if a cosmos is necessary and there is no other cosmos, then our cosmos is the one that preserves the imitation of the intelligible one. For the entire earth is indeed filled with all kinds of living beings including immortal ones, and everything up to heaven is full of them. Why are not the heavenly bodies in lower spheres and the stars in the highest region gods, given that they are transported in order and revolve around the cosmos? Why wouldnt they possess virtue? What could prevent them from acquiring virtue?

        Plotinus, Against the Gnostics, The Enneads (2.9),  p.229

But, in another sense, there is no definite division between dualistic and non-dualistic religions. Manichaeanism, commonly understood as being one of the most dualistic traditions, also emphasizes the ability to recover the beautiful and living sparks of original light present latently in all things, thereby revealing its Buddhist ties. 

“Non-dualistic” Buddhism, on the other hand, retains a dualistic split in its doctrine of the “Two Truthsnormal awareness and Buddha awareness, a split between knowing if not being. Mystical and esoteric traditions within all religions tend to be non-dualistic; the priestly and hierarchical aspects within religious institutions tend to be dualistic in theology but are non-dualistic at core.

From the esoteric outlook, from the Second Truth, The Bible is a continuous retelling of the story of the return of the soul (Israel, Jerusalem, the Church, various female figures like Rahab, Tamar, Mary Magdalene etc.) back to the Spirit, to the Father, to the One.

The demonic counterpart of the Bride who is Jerusalem and the spouse of Christ is the Great Whore of Revelation 17 who is Babylon and Rome, and is the mistress of Antichrist. The word whoredom in the Bible usually refers to theological rather than sexual irregularity . . . Thus the forgiven harlot, who is taken back eventually into favor despite her sins, is an intermediate bridal figure between the demonic Whore and the apocalyptic Bride, and represents the redemption of man from sin.

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, p.141

The soul is described in feminine terms and goes through the stages of prostitution, redemption and marriage with the Son/Brother.

The return to the Spirit is depicted as the union of Bride with Bridegroom in the Bridal Chamber. This is the Tantric symbolism at the heart of both the Old and New Testaments as well as in Greek mythology. Here is the ascent through the spheres, the resurrection, the homecoming of the exiled, and the ransom paid to free the imprisoned.

Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she received the divine nature from the father for the rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father.

“The Exegesis on the Soul,” The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p.196

The Whore of Babylon can thus become the pure bride of Jerusalem. Christ came to redeem our souls for the the Father, the Spirit. “No gods before me” and “ye of little faith” are both expressions of the fault of miring ourselves in the concerns and distractions of the world and necessity and not directing everything onto the One.

In all the traditions of the Westorthodox or heretical, Jewish, Christian or pagan, in poetry or in prose, from the ancient Mysteries to high modernist literaturethe major theme is of the soul’s return to the One, mostly through mediation of the Word, the Logos, Son, Messiah, Sophia. Duality in return movement to non-duality.


Before the dynamic whirl known to seamen as a waterspout shoots down its long finger-shaped sucker from the clouds, the sea beneath can be seen forming a whirlpool as it were in sympathy. In the same way the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, or, if that expression be objected to, the belief in his incarnation, was preceded by the creation of an inchoate society, which that event crystallised into the Christian Church.

It is usual and convenient to distinguish these proto-Christians from the converts of Peter and Paul by using the Hebrew word Messiah in place of its Greek equivalent Christ. The first name looks forward to a Saviour who has yet to come, the second looks back to one who has come.

Allen Upward, The Divine Mystery, p.277

There is the descent of the Holy Spirit from above, grace from the One. This descends when “a place is prepared” in the heart. But this latter occurs as an ascent, as a willingness to open one’s heart to the Spirit and to the Logos. 

This can be compared with the upward movement of Kundalini from the base chakras to the heart. The heart is the location where the two movementsfrom above and from belowmeet. Eliade’s successor, Ioan Couliano derives the term  “cardiac synthesizer” from Renaissance speculation on this matter. As he puts it in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

On the other hand, the body opens up to the soul a window to the world through the five sensory organs whose messages go to the same cardiac apparatus which now is engaged in codifying them so that they may become comprehensible. Called phantasia or inner sense, the sidereal spirit transforms messages from the five senses in phantasms perceptible to the soul. For the soul cannot grasp anything that is not converted into a sequence of phantasms; in short, it can understand nothing without phantasms (aneu phantasmatos).

Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, p.5

The little space in the heart is as big as this great universe. The heavens and the earth are there, the sun, the moon, and the stars, fire and lightning and winds are there also; and all that exists now and all that exists no longer: for the whole universe is in Him and He lives in our heart. (Chāndogya Upaniṣad, VIII, 1)

Quoted in Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, p.133

It is at this site, at the seat of the Imagination, where the image of the Logos is formed or maybe summoned by the individual. Mary’s willingness to conceive Christ is the movement from below; the impregnating word of the Angel of the Lord is the matching movement from above.

This is also the lapis, the Philosopher’s Stone, according to Jung’s view of alchemy. It is the completed mandala of individuation, completed but also becoming in Dostoevsky’s sense, not yet grasped.

The Christ-lapis parallel vacillates between mere analogy and far-reaching identity, but in general it is not thought out to its logical conclusion, so that the dual focus remains. This is not surprising since even today most of us have not got round to understanding Christ as the psychic reality of an archetype, regardless of historicity. I do not doubt the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, but the figure of the Son of Man and of Christ the Redeemer has archetypal antecedents. It is these that form the basis of the alchemical analogies.

C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, p.124

This may be expressed as the site of conception, where bride and groom meet in the bridal chamber, the synthesis of all planetary influences into the Sun, the Vishvarupa of the Mahabarata, the culminating apex of all Biblical stories, Christ on the cross, the Buddha under the Bo tree, resurrection and nirvana.

None of these of course can be reduced to or equated with any of the others. Every instance here of break through is unique, singular, each in its own way the defining apotheosis of its respective tradition. What makes these events comparable at all is their level of mystical impact. 

Each attempts to encapsulate via language and narrative, through myth and metaphor, through avatar and miracle, a point at which our world was touched by the wholly Other. And, as such, they are times outside of time. 

Yet they are not apart or separate from one another. They happen all at once and, in a sense, only once. The singularity, by necessity, has happened, will happen and is happening. These, along with the Incarnationits centre everywhereare a few of its names.

All of this may appear to horribly stretch the bounds of the “right” understanding of Christianity, but in fact it is a vista beheld at the heart of Christian orthodoxy if its claims are fully investigated. And, in any case, orthodoxy alone and without frills is more than sufficient.

As ever, the “method” here is loose metaphoric correspondence, intertextual misreading, and simultaneity.


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