By Wael Al-Mahdi (2011)
Carl Gustav Jung drove home to us the reality that myth in a collective sense, and dreams in an individual sense, are reflections of the unconscious. He stated plainly that dreams, along with other myths and fantasies, presented psychological facts – pictures of the state-of-affairs of the unconscious. At the root of the revelations of the unconscious lies the subject-object dichotomy, which allows the conscious ego to apprehend the unconscious as the other. This separation must have happened tens of thousands of years ago when the individual ego broke away from its animal psychic basis as part of the process of evolution driven by natural selection. Put very simplistically, we could say that individuals with greater consciousness, specifically better will-control, were more successful reproductively, and thus produced more conscious offspring. This separation, of course, did not cancel out the unconscious, which kept on exerting its multifarious influences. In this way there arose the necessity of devising means of dealing with both the negative and positive aspects of the unconscious, whence ritual, religion, and most recently, psychology.
The problem with the unconscious – from the viewpoint of the more-or-less free ego – is not that is essentially autonomous. Rather, the issue of one of dominance by the unconscious on the one hand, and loss of touch with it on the other. Both states are perilous to the conscious, whose urgent task it is to strike a delicate balance with its natural parent. Countless myths represent the unconscious overwhelming the ego, and the ensuing result of either spiritual death, or continous resistance. There are myths in which the ego – represented by a hero, a young god, or even a prophet – is swallowed up, confounded by riddles, attacked by a dragon, or anchored firmly to the ground. This is one of the negative, dominating aspects of the unconscious; sometimes the evil unconscious is personified in mother, sometimes father, sometimes a figure more equivalent to the ego, namely the evil friend or the devil. Conversely, there are myths where the positive effect of the unconscious is manifested – as a minister of salvation, in religious terms. This includes the unconscious as a source of wisdom, intuition, eternal life, and long-term meaningfulness. Thus we find personifications in angels, helpful spirits, and wise old men. The two-sided nature of the unconscious, and its connection to the figure of the mother or the father, is hardly surprising, since we have realized long ago that the archetypes (as understood by Jung) are only personal in part, deriving their spell-binding numinosity from the ‘other side’, i.e. the unconscious.
In practical terms, the negative effect of the unconscious – starting from the personal and moving on to a more collective realm – can be felt as boredom, ennui, doubt, self-loathing, a feeling of being out-of-place, in short, an overall sense of little or no worth. We know from myth and dreams that these manifestations might differ in men and women, but seeing as most influential religions were established by men, we have readier examples of the attempts of men to deal with and come to terms with these negative aspects. Despite the recognition that the unconscious can be as much a source of good as evil, the majority of thinkers and religious men have seemingly been more preoccupied with its negative manifestations from the dawn of the history of consciousness.
Here I would like to point to Mithraism as an example of a system that attempts to relate to the unconscious in its overwhelmingly negative aspects – namely, the unconscious as enemy. The unconscious perceived as enemy – especially in its aspect as the problem of evil – has obviously taken center stage in the majority of religions and philosophical systems as an issue of extreme difficulty. But this religion of late Roman antiquity, arising on the verge of the end of one world and the rise of another, is an especially interesting case in point. It took the genius of a Nietzsche to recognize in Mithraism a religion of décadence – a state of psychological exhaustion and overripeness afflicting an old and saturated civilization on its last feet. It is certainly no coincidence that Mithraism emerged as the Roman empire was on the verge of collapse. An attribute of a décadence religion, according to Nietzsche, is that it caters to a sense of weakness on the part of the celebrants, as opposed to the olden pagan gods that symbolized the strength and bloodlust of a triumphant nation. The advent of décadence religions accompanied the dissolution of the tribe’s locus of identity and power, its survival and overcoming against all odds, it terrible subjugation of its enemies. The young and raw will to power of the triumphant tribe had long-since burned itself out here. Historically, the religious developments of the Mongols is an illustrative case, who moved from a religion in which Father Sky symbolized the genius of a victorious nation, to adopting traditions from older and more tired civilizations like Buddhism and Taoism. Mithraism was a religion of civic men who had niches in an old civilization organization – soldiers, merchants, bureaucrats, and freedmen. It wasdominated by the idea of the young male, being almost devoid of recognition of the feminine.
Let us now take a look at the symbolism of the Mithraic mysteries and try to make some sense of them. Mithras himself, in the manner of all epoch-making developments of the unconscious, appears suddenly and unexpectedly, from a rock. Here Mithras takes on the role of the divine ego – the ego of the average man transfigured and lifted up by energy from the unconscious harnessed through myth and ritual. In this Mithras is strong, solid, rocklike. The divine ego and the everyday ego (the one that worries about food, shelter, money etc) are not identical; the divine ego, despite its disctinctness but in keeping with unconscious manifestations, is foreign, in this instance, of exotic Persian origin. To symbolize freedom from the unconscious as enemy, and also the actual emancipation of freedman Mithraists, Mithras dons a Phrygian cap, the so-called liberty cap. With the rise of Mithras, miracles are performed, as he strikes a solid rock with the thunder of consciousness and live-giving water spouts from the rock. Here the dead and inanimate can produce life, just as a psychological impasse can give rise to a new lease on life; the Qur’an states of God, “He brings the living out of the dead, and the dead of the living.”
The central and most striking image of Mithraism is the tauroctony – the slaying of the bull. This supreme act of defiance, even hybris, is depicted on subterranean murals in Mithraea from Britain to Rome to Syria. The bull in his power and animal intransigence is the unconscious as enemy. He is the personification, or rather theriomorphization, of all the alien powers that ailed the forward looking man of action. He is the heaviness of the heart at dawn, he is the tightness of the chest before a dangerous act. He gives rise to the autonomous moods of self-doubt and self-loathing. He is boredom, lack of meaning, existential ennui. He represents every social disappointment, lack of control, failure to follow custom, and most dangerously, lack of adaptation. The evil father, father as a depressant, is in the bull – as is the evil friend, the devil, who both attacks the ego and forces to do evil. Every worthless feeling of the ego is projected onto him – and he is indeed a fitting target of projection. In short, he is the great No to life. He is the enemy within that must be vanquished if the conscious ego is to grow.
In contrast to conciliation myths, in which the ego tries to make peace with the unconscious, here the ego strikes with its readiest weapon – its will. After a long chase and a difficult haul to the womb-cave where a transformation can occur, Mithras’ right hand performs the unspeakable act of stabbing the bull’s neck. The cave serves a dual purpose are both regenerative womb and the unconscious cosmos which parallels the real cosmos. But there is respect in Mithras – out of respect, he pulls the animal back by the nostrils, never by the horn. Mithras’ face is serene, almost sublime – divinely devoid of emotion, Zen in his imperturbability – looking up towards his father, the mighty Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, as if saying, “Behold my most brazen act, father. Soon we are to become equals” Mithras is steadfast, unflinching – he takes full responsibility for his act, he never hesitates or backs down. As a result of Mithras’ challenging of the evil-animal father archetype, Father Sun emerges in a more human guise but with his divinity still intact.
In some reliefs the sacred bull bleeds wheat or grapes, symbolizing the paradox of the ability of the unconscious, even at is most evil, to heal after it harms. The killing of the bull is not a real-world death but an unconscious event that breathes life into a new psychological energy and outlook. But Mithras, this self-overcoming hero, is not alone in his daring act. Like all good heroes he has his sidekicks, the torchbearers, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down. They are his awareness of opposites, his ability to make distinctions, to discern opposites, and in their astral aspect symbolize his heavenly outlook. There is his dog too, lapping up the bull’s blood – his discipline, self-control, honed intellect, and the vital ability of self-obedience. On the scene is a serpent of wisdom and shrewdness, also drinking the life giving blood, for no quantum is wasted here. A sneaky scorpion sucks the ‘vim’ out of the bull’s genitals, literally ‘breaking his balls’ – energy that can be better utilized by the conscious hero Mithras.
As fascinating as this story is, it is almost entirely dominated by male figures. The cult itself seems to have been limited to men. Mother Moon, Luna, is in the background but visibly disengaged. This is keeping with a lower level of psychological development that still hasn’t made the effort to integrate with the feminine. Did alchemy perhaps attempt to carry on this task? Here the strong young male ego deals with a male shadow and a male animal self, and even the mighty male Sol Invictus kneels before Mithras and shakes hands with him. This signifies, importantly, that paternal control over the ego is now over, both as archetype and as real father. Indeed, the roles are now reversed, and the ego has exerted some conscious willpower over a manifestation of the unconscious. The father, in reality and in the unconscious, usually dominates the ego of the young man so that his overthrow and the ensuing balance becomes a vital and life-long task. In many myths, the young hero, symbolizing the ego, is dismembered in order to make way for a future reconstitution and merging with the feminine. But in the Mithraic mysteries, the bull, one of the manifestations of the unconscious, is itself dismembered, and in a ritual feast is absorbed by Mithras and his Father Sun as a constituent of a new psychic identity. Nothing in the unconscious is ever actually definitively dead, and the cycle of self-cannibalism, rebirth and new life goes on. In practical terms, the former reticence and self-doubt turns into self-confidence and a feeling of self-worth. At least for a time, the onslaught of the evil and uncontrollable unconscious is repulsed. For the Mithraist, the objective was to restore the father image , allowing a better adaption and relation to reality, custom and the ancestors.
Mithraism undoubtedly had a strong astrological fixation. The zodiac is depicted in the Mithraea and Mithras carries constellations under his cape. In the galactic cape we find the meaning of looking outward; the man is looking hard outside himself, thereby gaining empirical knowledge and engaging in science in its aspect of antithesis to inner knowledge, or gnosis. Man, or the man-god Mithras, is balancing his intense inner struggle with more accurate external sensation of the world.
Also revealing is the figure found in Mithraic temples of the leontocephaline: this is the image of a human body with a lion’s head intwined by a serpent whose head is near the lion’s head. The figure has four wings and two keys and a scepter. The serpent appears in an evil role here, in kinship with the bull. It imprisons that not-yet-fully human ego, symbolized by the lion head. However, the ego has the lion’s strength and ferociousness required to challenge the serpent’s stranglehold. In this his aided by the keys of intellectual knowledge and technique and the scepter of the sovereign will. It also the power of the wings of imagination and contemplation which can fly to the four corners of the world and thus achieve a square wisdom. This lion’s head image was mirrored centuries by Nietzsche’s three stages of the growth of ego – as camel, lion, and finally child. The first endures the domineering unconscious, the second fights it, and the third is reborn into it.
Mithraism was essentially a fight against the unconscious, forced on the ego by an autonomous, superhuman, and inimical ‘other’. Intertwined with this adversity is the search for meaning. From the viewpoint of the independent man this necessitates a putting up of resistance, a cry of triumph for the young, manly ego. In this instance, and in contrast with some other myths, the enemy is masculine – the shadow, the evil father, and the non-human beast all in one. The bull’s horns stress the animal side and demonic nature of the man’s fighting ego. Far from being an unconscious theater piece, this has practical consequences. We can imagine the Mithraist, in imitation of his god (for not only do Christians imitate their god), as a steadfast, self-confident soldier, heroically facing the tasks of life and challenges of society, while ennobling his existence at the same time. This is a transfiguring effect, an act of consecration, which liberates the man from his humdrum daily existence and makes him a Mithras, the son of a noble god. Not only does his youth-god support him, but he also finds strength in his communion with similarly inclined men, firm in expressing their unity at communal meals. Yet this struggle is no public spectacle – it is the struggle of a private man, in both a personal and military sense, to be conducted only with his closest comrades, underground.
Mithras symbolized the divine ego, and later divine mediator, that has wrung itself free from the unconscious but still carries significant residues of it. Indeed it may seem paradoxical that in myths which represent the ego’s coming-of-age, the ego derives its energy from precisely that source from which it is trying to escape. We had to wait for the 20th century in order to achieve an apparently complete liberation of the ego from the unconscious, and this only happened in specific parts of the world. But even there the liberation is not complete and the unconscious sneaks back in myriad forms – now mostly the domain of the psychiatrist. The unconscious will remain the basis of our humanity but it can particularly upset us ‘modern’ people when it misbehaves. The unconscious is a natural human organ, and like our physical organs, it responds very badly to being mistreated. Today’s depressed office worker, stuck in his psychological cubicle, could perhaps have a thing or two to learn from the ancient Mithraists.