Journey into the Dark; A note on the comparative study of religions and what I found there
The kurgarra sprinkled the food of life on the corpse.
The galatur sprinkled the water of life on the corpse.
It was around the time that I first saw Wagner’s Ring cycle that I decided in earnest to undertake a systematic, if necessarily cursory, comparative study of the major trends of history and culture in the world, with special attention to religious and mythological traditions. Wagner’s gargantuan and unparalleled dramatic imersion in the great mind of myth was a natural gateway to that journey.
Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, observed that “If one must see in Wagner the unimpeachable father of the structural analysis of myths … then it is highly revealing to note that such analysis was first made in music.” Like music, myth organizes and expresses non-rational energies and images of the unconscious in an expressive and emotional manner. Like music, myth has the power to transport one outside of one’s self.
The case of Wagner also warns of the dangerous possibilities of sailing the seas of the unconscious, as his troubling biography aptly testifies. Journeying outside the intellect leaves one vulnerable to the psyche, which holds the possibility of violence and darkness alongside the seeds of transformation and liberation.
However, positive and negative potentialities exist within the human mind whether they’re explored or not, and ignoring the irrational is no less dangerous. On the contrary, ignoring the nighttime within increases the possibility that one will be unwittingly directed by the shadow one excludes. In this sense, the exploration of the depths of the soul is a journey into darkness, with the hope that one may then return with the seeds of light. This is the unanimous testimony of the world’s rich heritage of myth, and it accords deeply with my own experience.
That this journey is fraught with peril is made clear by every myth we know, extending back to the earliest recorded stories set down in clay tablets in Sumer. From the myths of ancient Mesopotamia we learn of Inanna, the goddess of the Morning Star, who descends into the underworld, passing through seven gates. At each gate she is stripped of an ornament or garment, every token of her personality, until she arrives in the Land of the Dead, naked. There she is greeted and slain by her sister and double, Ereshkigal.
As so many have found, the loss of personal identity, which seems like the final crisis, instead became Inanna’s point of contact with the greatest of mysteries, that life extends beyond the individual ego. Through her resurrection, Inanna found that her persona is but a shadow of the true life she embodies, and out of the darkness Inanna finds new life.
Through this poem we achieve a sign that self-luminous being re-expresses itself through her new aspect in the patterns of her new identity, and the mind responds, for the deeper part of the self finds its own reflection in these stories. So in I Corinthians: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Inanna’s descent was occasioned by her wish to console her sister Ereshkigal, whose husband, the Bull of Heaven, was slain by the hero Gilgamesh. The slain bull god and his consort have been the central signs of the resurrection for as far back as we can reckon. We find it in the Anatolian city of Çatal Höyük in the eighth millennium BCE, where death and rebirth are associated with the bull god whose horns are the crescent moon. This moon-bull-god of the Taurus mountains may well have its ultimate origin in the Lower Paleolithic, and is transmitted down to this present day, as Inanna gradually transforms into Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Aphrodite, and the Virgin Mary.
While I was studying the literature of the Old Testament I learned that the Hebrew words of my name, Bar-nabe, meaning “son of a prophet,” were probably derived from an Akkadian root, the high literary language of ancient Babylon. I had a vertiginous sense of personal connection to that ancient and marvelous culture, mediated by a frozen artifact of language, transmitted over thousands of years in a lineage of speech linking me to the authors of the epic of Gilgamesh.
Language carries meanings over great expanses of time, and so too with religious symbols. They are the outer sign of an inner meaning, preserved in fixed structures as the details are altered over their long lives. The life of the spirit is fixed within them like an insect trapped in amber.
That life can speak to us from out of frozen forms and archaic stories precisely because they echo the inner life, and outward gradually leads inward, to the dark places of the self, the quiet resources where the immortal light shines.
From Rilke’s Book of Hours:
I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots embrace:
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.