The Myth of the Solar Hero


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Lecture 19
The Dream of the Cosmos
The Lunar and Solar Hero
The Great Work: Healing the Wasteland
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The Myth of the Solar Hero
Voices of the Ancestors
A Unified Vision of Reality
A Metaphysical Revolution? Reflections on the Idea of the Primacy of Consciousness
Lecture 12
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Rebalancing the Psyche: Integrating the Feminine Principle Body, Soul and Spirit
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Love as the Pulse of the Cosmos: Reconnecting With the Divine Ground
Lecture 10
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Seeing through the Veil: Reuniting Three Dimensions of Reality
Lecture 9
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Unexplored Dimensions of Consciousness
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An Alchemical Quest
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Healing the Heart: An Alchemy of Consciousness
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The Sleeping Beauty - The Awakening of Instinct into Consciousness
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Rebalancing the Masculine and Feminine
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The Dream of the Water: A Quest for the Numinous
Lecture 3
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The Evolution of Consciousness
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Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos 
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The Relevance of the Visionary Experience to Culture  



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Lecture 16

Its origins, historical influence and dangers

February 15th, 2005 Cape Town - Planetarium
copyright ©Anne Baring

The word 'myth' is generally used today to describe something that is false, unreal, unproven. But myth in its original Greek sense is a mighty belief system that can structure and influence a whole culture as well as a fascinating story that can endure for centuries. In the ancient world such a belief system was a myth like the great Egyptian one of Isis and Osiris - a myth that endured for 3000 years and was believed to regenerate the earth's fertility and to connect the Egyptians with their gods. In our time myth can still be understood in this sense as a powerful religious belief system - like Christianity or Islam; it can also be a totalitarian belief system such as Communism or Fascism. It can be a secular belief in the idea of progress or a belief in the omnipotence of science and technology. The myth of the solar hero has had a profound influence on the human psyche over the last 4500 years. In this talk I would like to tell you the story of how this myth developed and reflect on the influence it has had on us and the danger of the mythic inflation of those who identify themselves with the role of the solar hero.

Man looking into space
But before I come to this, I would suggest that human consciousness itself is the ultimate solar hero - particularly those individuals whose vision takes us beyond our present horizon. Solar heroes are courageous explorers of the unknown, those who face great risks to achieve incredible goals. To achieve them, they often have to challenge or stand against the values of their culture. The key image of solar mythology is transcendence - going beyond the known. But its focus is also on individuality - the individual standing out or surpassing the collective. The astronauts are modern solar heroes. Ellen MacCarthur - who has just completed a phenomenal sea journey round the world - is a solar hero. Women also, in their struggle to define a new role for themselves in society, are modern solar heroes.

The Moon
However, I would like to begin with the moon rather than the sun because lunar mythology long predates solar mythology. The moon has been the inspiration of the greatest myths and stories to emerge from the human soul. Lunar notations in Africa date to 40,000 BC and stories about the moon are surely at least as old as these. For hundreds of generations people have watched the moon appear as a crescent, wax to fullness, then wane and disappear into darkness and re-appear after a three days absence. The fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty may have originated in a story spun from the life of the moon. The key images in lunar mythology are death and rebirth as well as relationship and connection. The Christian story is a lunar myth because it is focussed on death and resurrection. But it is also a solar myth because Christ as an outstanding individual brings a new revelation, a new myth. However, he is also a lunar hero who brings things together that have been split apart, recovering what has been lost, healing the wounded heart of humanity. Modern lunar heroes are Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu.The moon was perhaps our great teacher. The long observation of the moon gave us a profound sense of connection with the life of the cosmos, and with the life of the earth and its cyclical process of death and regeneration. It enormously stimulated the imagination and laid the foundation for all kinds of quests, all kinds of discoveries. It helped us to discover astronomy and mathematics and to chronicle the passage of time. The moon gave us hope because we knew it would return after its three day absence. This return gave us trust in the survival of the soul and the cyclical rebirth of life after apparent death. A most important feature of lunar mythology is that it held both light and dark in relation to each other because the totality of the moon's cycle contained both the light and the dark, embraced both life and death. In lunar mythology, death is not final and terrifying but a rite of passage connecting two dimensions of reality.

Gilgamesh and lion
But from about 2500 BC the age of the sun god dawns. In Egypt and Mesopotamia solar mythology begins to replace lunar mythology; linear time begins to replace cyclical time. Why did this change in mythology happen? One reason is that the ultimate source of life was no longer imagined as a Great Mother but as various gods and goddesses and then, ultimately a single Father God. This reflects the fact that human consciousness was beginning to break away from its dependence on nature. It begins to identify itself with the sun and with the sky gods and to turn against the Great Mother. At the same time, the individual begins to differentiate himself from the tribal group. Because of what was happening within the psyche, we begin to get a radical split between spirit and nature and at the same time a radical split between life and death. In solar mythology death becomes something final, terrifying and remorseless, without the promise of rebirth. The myth of the solar hero tells the story of humanity's Promethean struggle to master the forces of nature, to overcome its deepest fears, to reach new goals. But in solar mythology the male hero stands over and against nature, over and against what is dangerous and threatening to his survival, attempting to conquer, dominate and control it. It reflects very powerful instincts that lie at the root of the male psyche. Solar mythology ultimately becomes focussed on the supremacy of male power.

Solar barge picture
But there are two kinds of solar myth: one, like the older lunar mythology, holds the light and darkness in relationship; the other sees the dark as the enemy or opposite of the light. Egypt gives us one of the earliest examples of the first kind in the story of the night journey of the sun god through the body of the sky goddess Nut, his encounter with a great serpent called Apophis and his rebirth at dawn. The Egyptian sun god is one of the earliest images of the solar hero. The goddess Isis stands in the prow and her magic skills allow the barge to pass the serpent and ascend again to the upper world. Egypt was deeply concerned with uniting the solar "day" world with the lunar and stellar "night" world - the invisible world of the gods that peopled the heavens in the form of the stars. The journey of the sun-god expressly connected the day world with the night world, the upper world with the underworld, the known with the unknown, so that together they formed a whole, each indispensable to the other. The opposites are held in equilibrium. Light and dark are not polarised. So detailed and explicit are the stages, imagery and dangers of the sun's journey that they can be recognised millennia later in alchemical texts which describe the soul's transmutation and the gradual unveiling of the inner sun - the gold or philosopher's stone that was the symbol of an illumined or transfigured consciousness.

Perseus and the Gorgon
However, it is the other kind of solar myth - the one which polarises the light and the dark - that lies at the root of western civilisation. It comes down to us from the mythology of Mesopotamia, Persia and Greece and its theme is a cosmic battle between light and darkness, good and evil and the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. It is portrayed as the battle of a solar hero against a great dragon, serpent or monster. In Greek mythology we find it in the story of Apollo killing the She-Dragon that guarded the sacred spring at Delphi and in those of Perseus and the Gorgon and Theseus and the Minotaur.

St. Michael and the Dragon
In the Christian tradition we find the solar myth in the Book of Revelation, portrayed as the great battle between St. Michael and the Dragon. It is this archetypal solar mythology of the fight with the dragon that has entered deeply into the Jewish, Christian and Muslim psyche and is, I believe, one of the root causes of the polarised situation we find ourselves in today. In solar mythology, the dragon is identified with the dark and with evil, but originally it may have personified the dark phase of the moon. The hero in lunar mythology may have been the one who rescued the crescent moon - the maiden - from the power of the dark phase of the moon - the power of the dragon.

Picture Marduk and Tiamat
In Mesopotamia, the earliest myth of the solar hero is the Sumerian one of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who, together with his friend Enkidu, sets out to kill a monster called Humbaba who lived in the forests of the Lebanon. A thousand years later, around 1700 BC. the Babylonian myth of creation tells of a ferocious battle between the god Marduk and a great she-dragon called Tiamat. Marduk kills Tiamat and divides her carcass into two halves, so creating heaven and earth. This new and violent creation myth was recited annually at the Spring Equinox, a time when the floods which covered the Babylonian plain were receding, when the power of the sun warmed the earth and the spring sowing of the crops could begin. The recitation of the myth was believed to strengthen the forces of light against the forces of darkness in the great annual battle that took place between them, so ensuring the regeneration of life for the new year. This solar hero myth was hugely influential in Persia and Greece and Marduk became the model for all warrior kings to come. Hammurabi, king of Babylonia, said that he had been summoned by Marduk to "bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to wipe out the wicked and evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to go forth like the sun over the human race, to illuminate the land, and further the welfare of mankind." (Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, page 159)

Narmer Palette showing Pharoah smiting enemy
In both Egypt and Mesopotamia the solar myth now moves from the archetypal world of the gods into the human world. War and conquest become the focus of solar mythology. The pharoah or king is identified with the sun, endowed by the sun god with the power to smite his enemies, hailed as a mighty conqueror. If we substitute the figure of George W. Bush for the Pharoah in this sculpture and Saddam Hussein for his vanquished foe, we can see that the solar myth in this warrior form is as alive today as it was 4000 years ago. The influence of solar myth holds leaders addicted to power and the goal of conquest, often in the name of "the good". History gives us an endless succession of warrior solar heroes from Hammurabi to Saddam Hussein, from Achilles to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar to Napoleon. For 4000 years, under the influence of this warrior mythology, war was seen as the noblest activity for man; victory and the spoils of war the coveted prize to be won in battle. Heroism in war was the highest achievement that a man could aspire to. However, the 'shadow' side of this mythology was the tendency to omnipotence and dominance, and the mythic inflation of leaders who have succumbed to the powerful spell of solar mythology. It also demanded the sacrifice of the vaniquished.

Greek Achilles Vase
In Greece, the Iliad laid down the prototype of the solar hero - the one who - supported by the gods - has the greatest power to defeat his enemies. The Odyssey is much closer to lunar mythology: Odysseus' journey has as its goal the reunion with his faithful wife, Penelope.

Fight with Dragon - Pisanello drawing
The myth of the fight with the dragon comes to life wherever an individual takes on the archetypal power of a solar god against a named enemy. As time went on, religions took on the mantle of solar mythology - claiming to be God's agent on earth and in exclusive possession of the truth and the way to salvation and threatening heretics and unbelievers with death. It is true to say that for thousands of years the solar myth of the hero's fight with the dragon has inspired men to fight for freedom, for justice, for human rights against all kinds of tyranny and oppression and this is the positive aspect of this mythology. But the pathological shadow aspect has been the tendency to project the image of the dragon onto an opponent, demonising that opponent, and claiming all light and goodness for oneself or for one's tribal group and tribal religion. Victory was the coveted prize bestowed by God. The power and endurance of this aspect of solar myth is phenomenal. Even today God is claimed by both sides to support the 'good' in their struggle against 'evil.' So I think you can see that the archetypal power of this mythology is a two-edged sword: it can be of immense value to us but also a great danger. Its pathological aspect may be activated when we are offered ideologies which promise us deliverance from evil. Millions may fall under the spell of such an ideology, projecting the archetype of the saviour onto their leader or their religion, and the archetype of evil onto an enemy. Leaders fall into mythic inflation and unconsciously identify themselves with the solar hero. They will justify the sacrifice of human life because of an implacable belief in the rightness of their cause or their religion. Because solar myth polarises the light and the dark, some portion of humanity will always be split off from the rest and demonised.

Totalitarian State as Moloch
The recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz has reminded us of the depths of evil into which we can be led by Messianic ideologies and how solar mythology can be used as a lethal political weapon. Mao Tse Dung, Stalin and Hitler were solar heroes. Each proclaimed a doctrine of salvation. At the same time the dragon was projected onto social or ethnic groups who were named as a threat and demonised, with the fearful results we know. Some 150 million people were murdered and millions more died as a result of their policies in the last century. George W. Bush is a solar hero whose aim is to free the world from the evil of Islamic terrorism. Osama bin Laden is a solar hero whose aim is to free the Islamic world from the influence of America and to extend the rule of Islam. Both are unconscious of the totalitarian 'shadow' of their agendas. We cannot yet tell how this modern re-enactment of the ancient myth will end. It seems as if between them, they have unleashed a psychic epidemic in the collective psyche. Each sees himself called upon or chosen by God to overthrow evil - engaged in a battle of almost cosmic dimensions that now involves the whole world. In the words "Those who are not with us are against us" we hear the old solar mythology reborn. (George W. Bush drew on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew - "He who is not with me is against me" Matt12:30). In this state of mythic inflation dialogue and relationship are not an option. Wherever paranoid projections of fear, hatred and the demonisation of others are activated by leaders and the media, unconscious survival instincts will be aroused in the people. When these are aroused, the mass of the people will not regard the actions of a leader as conducive of evil when the aim is defined by him as good and the tribal group is told that it is in danger. Then the archetypal power of solar myth casts its spell over millions of individuals and justifies unspeakable acts of barbarism. Then we see an individual assuming the mantle of the solar hero and leading his people against the dragon of darkness that has been projected onto the enemy. We need to beware of this state of collective possession whenever we hear the call to war and the fateful words 'good' and 'evil'. It needs the greatest maturity, insight and wisdom on the part of a leader not to succumb to the archetypal power of solar myth. (In South Africa a few years ago, we saw leaders of this calibre (Mandela and Desmond Tutu) set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which did so much to defuse the desire for vengeance for the suffering inflicted).

Jung painting of Spirit above a world of war and technology
On the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, Jung had a vivid dream: "I was with an unknown, brown-skinned man, in a lonely, rocky mountain landscape. It was before dawn; the eastern sky was already bright, and the stars fading. Then I heard Siegfried's horn sounding over the mountains and I knew that we had to kill him. We were armed with rifles and lay in wait for him on a narrow path over the rocks. Then Siegfried appeared high up on the crest of the mountain, in the first ray of the rising sun. On a chariot made of the bones of the dead he drove at a furious speed down the precipitous slopes. When he turned a corner, we shot at him, and he plunged down, struck dead. Filled with disgust and remorse for having destroyed something so great and beautiful, I turned to flee, impelled by the fear that the murder might be discovered. But a tremendous downfall of rain began, and I knew that it would wipe out all traces of the dead." (page 174 Memories, Dreams, Reflections) Reflecting on this dream, Jung understood that it pointed to a problem that was being played out in the world. He realised that he had to sacrifice his identification with the solar hero and the inflated attitude that seeks to impose one's will on others. The heavy rain showed that the tension in the psyche between the conscious and unconscious was being resolved. He knew that he had to take on board the message of the dream and apply it to himself. He understood that when an individual or a culture does not become conscious of both the light and the dark aspects of the psyche the shadow is projected onto an opponent and a crusade embarked on to eliminate an enemy. Hence the world is torn into opposing halves. Hence walls are built to separate enemies.

The Cyclops (Odilon Redon)
Solar mythology can be a very real danger to the world. It unconsciously influences the decisions of those who may despise the power of myth even as they succum to a modern version of it. The belief in the invincibility of weapons of mass destruction and the protection they can give is the old solar myth dressed up in new clothes. It masquerades as a saviour power that can protect us from danger yet it has a truly demonic shadow. It has a spurious morality: the end justifies the means. This belief inevitably gives rise to more evil, not less. Over four thousand years, we have lived under the spell of solar mythology, sacrificing millions of precious lives to the inflated ambitions of saviour-leaders, ravaging and laying waste to the earth. Today we are capable of even more devastation because of the power of our weapons. We have to find another way if our species is not to destroy itself. Coming to the more personal aspect of this mythology, one could say that today, the 'rational mind' has claimed the role of the solar hero. In Shakespeare's words it "bestrides the world like a Colossus." In its hubristic stance, it has banished the unknown, unexplored, non-rational aspect of life and of our own nature. It has banished the dark side of the moon. Yet it is possessed by the power drive of that dark side. Jung said that our power-addicted shadow is reflected in the face of the enemy that continually confronts us. Until we free ourselves from its spell, we will face ever more dangerous enemies. I think we can understand the omnipotent stance of the rational mind that wants to dominate and control all it surveys as a compensation to the deep fear of a species that has lost its connection to the life of the soul and the life of nature, that has lived for millennia with the deep unconscious split between spirit and nature and between the conscious and unconscious, solar and lunar aspects of the psyche. Lunar mythology - which held light and dark contained within the whole - kept our developing consciousness in touch with the older instinctive matrix of the psyche from which it has emerged with infinite effort and struggle. Over some five thousand years, solar mythology has polarised light and darkness, life and death. During this period, we see the human mind moving away from nature, forgetting the ancient instinctive ways of relating to nature and substituting conquest and control for relationship. In religious teaching the instincts were split off and identified with evil. Women and sexuality were effectively demonised. As this happened the feared and despised instincts and the guilt associated with them were projected onto so-called inferior or primitive people who had then to be conquered and converted. Solar mythology increasingly becomes a mythology of conquest that reflects an inflated ego that is out of touch with the instinctive depths of the soul - an ego that lays claim to omnipotence - whether it be the omnipotence of a leader who wants to conquer and control the world, or a technology that is believed to bring us ultimate control of life, even the control of space.

Diagram of 3 Phases of Consciousness
Why has this whole scenario come into being? I thought this diagram might help to give a wider perspective on this situation. In it I have divided the evolution of consciousness into three phases. In the first phase, presided over by the image of the Great Mother, we lived with a sense of instinctive participation within the life of nature and the life of the cosmos. We felt part of this life, part of an organic, sacred and living whole and our rituals described this sense of participation. In the second phase, which could be described as the phase of Separation - presided over by the image of a transcendent Father God and the myth of the Fall - we begin to experience a sense of separation between ourselves and nature, ourselves and the cosmos. We are exiled from our former state of participation. Earth becomes a place of punishment for primordial sin and we no longer feel part of the divine order. This phase has led ultimately to the idea of the "death" of God and to the belief that there is no power greater than the human mind and that we are the only conscious beings in a dead universe. In order to move into the third phase in the evolution of consciousness where earth and cosmos are once again sacred, the solar and lunar, masculine and feminine dimensions of our being need to be brought once again into relationship with each other. We have to heal the split between spirit and nature within us. Our conscious solar mind needs to reconnect with our instinctive lunar soul. Our rational mind is cut off from its instinctive roots, impoverished because of its ignorance of the undiscovered treasure-house of the soul. It is in danger of being possessed by what it has rejected.

Dragon (alchemy)
Let me explain further. To reconcile and reunite these two dissociated aspects of our soul, we need to understand the image of the dragon. The dragon, in my view, is an image of the deepest instinctive level of our being and an essential aspect of our soul. This is an image from alchemy. The focus of alchemy, as many of you will know, was the transmutation of our nature from base metal into gold. Alchemy carried forward from Egypt the old lunar mythology of death and rebirth, applying it to the inner dimension of the soul. So what is the dragon within ourselves? I think the dragon is an image of our archaic and deeply unconscious instincts - instincts that are embedded in the "underworld" of the psyche in the oldest and least conscious part of our brain. Survival instincts, territorial instincts, and the millions of years-old pattern of predator and prey are active in our limbic brain. We, who see ourselves as the summit of creation, are still vulnerable to being taken over or 'possessed' by habits of behaviour which were formed during pre-human phases of evolution going back 500 million years. From this archaic experience that is carried in our oldest brain system has come our capacity to act as predators towards members of our own species and our primordial fear of becoming prey to others. We can follow this pattern of behaviour in the history of our tribal and national relationships with each other through the recorded history of humanity. Because we are so cut off from this deep stratum of the soul, and so fearful of it, it is very difficult to bring these instincts into conscious awareness, and to understand how they can control us in our daily lives and how they can become activated whenever we feel threatened. It is much easier to continue in the old unconscious tracks. Uccello Painting of Hero, Dragon and Woman
Here is an image of the two ways of approaching the dragon - the solar way is to kill it; the lunar way is to establish a relationship with it. A wounded dragon is dangerous and from the wounded dragon in millions of individuals, come all the conflicts in the world today. Could we perhaps see the solar hero myth in a new way, as a quest to heal the deep fissure in our soul, to engage in dialogue with the dragon, to connect with that part of us that has been so feared and despised? It has suffered atrociously during its long exile through our neglect and repression of it. Mythology says that the dragon guards a priceless treasure that is to be won by the hero who faces its power and is not overcome by it. I think it is hard for us to realize that our instincts are something massively important and precious. The whole structure of our conscious mind rests on the foundation of instinct, has developed over countless millennia out of instinct. Instinct is the original root of our feelings, our imagination, our intuition, our rational mind. It is instinct which connects us to the great web of life of this planet and beyond that, of the universe. If we reject this vital dimension of our being, we cut ourselves off from the web of life to which we belong. The greater the dissociation within our nature, the greater the distress and disharmony in ourselves and the greater the risk that we will destroy ourselves by attacking each other. From this distress and disharmony come all our negative projections onto others and the fear and anxiety that reflect our lack of relationship with the deepest level of our soul. We need to approach the dragon with the greatest respect, even awe, for in it we encounter the creative power of life itself. That creative power will remain hostage to the predatory habits that still control us unless and until we free it from the compulsion to repeat the old patterns. Trismosin - the Young King
In the alchemical tradition the Great Work of transmuting the base metal of our nature into gold rests on the assumption that we are capable of a further evolution of consciousness, capable of freeing ourselves from these habits. In alchemy the young solar king shown in this picture personifies this more evolved consciousness that we need to develop in ourselves. The text that goes with the picture says: "The king's son lies in the depths of the sea yet lives and calls from the Deep: Whosoever will rescue me and bring me to dry land, him will I reward with everlasting riches."

Sacred Marriage of Sol and Luna
I will end with this image of the marriage between the lunar queen and the solar king. They stand for two ancient and immensely powerful mythologies as well as the two aspects of our soul. With this marriage we can complete the Great Work of alchemy and release ourselves from the negative aspects of a mythology that has brought terrible suffering to humanity. We can live the solar myth in a new, more conscious way that does not do violence either to ourselves or to others, so overcoming our compulsion to bring evil into being through ignorance. We can begin to cooperate consciously with the Divine Order of the universe. The choice is ours and the time of choice is now.


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