Zeus and Hera: Images of a Divine Syzygy

Zeus

“He was a sky god, associated with wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, and was the master of spiritual phenomena, since it was the spirit realm that was signified by the sky and the manifestations of the weather. He was a carrier of justice and judgment, an embodiment of law and the punisher of transgression of the law, accomplished by the hurling of the thunderbolt. He was the personification of creative energy, which constantly spilled out and had an unceasing urge to impregnate, hence his perpetual love affairs.” Edward Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology

Zeus 512px-Rubens_medici_cycle_meeting_at_Lyon

In Edinger’s description of Zeus, we see the image of a powerful masculine ruler of the heavens. Although Zeus is still one of many gods, he is both leader and creator of the pantheon. And just as importantly, we see Zeus’ engagements with his wife, Hera, not as his compliment, but as a shadowy cohort. And although Zeus and Hera are said to be married, the relationship seems less relational and more pro-generative. Zeus is much less interested in a relationship with Hera, but rather a preoccupation with the power to endlessly create through the continual love affairs outside of his marriage. In the realm of the gods, we may see these creative urges as saying less about the familial, and more about the archetypal urge towards expansion through creative reproduction, or differentiating and articulating the One through the diversity of the Many.

Edinger’s own words, in which he declares Zeus as he who “…comes closest of all the members of the Pantheon to embodying the whole Self,” we see an obvious bias, still with us today, towards a preference for a more masculine style of consciousness. Hera, on the other hand, as the feminine divine, is somehow a necessary accomplice and more of a saturnine threat of imprisonment that spurs on Zeus’ impulse for freedom. If the stories of the gods are expressions of particular styles of consciousness, we are glimpsing the ways in which Western civilization values the initiatory force of masculine power, while reducing the value of the feminine, as that which induces fear in the masculine, of time-bound constraint, and the threat of limitation. Is then, the masculine impulse a prerequisite for creative action that requires an abandoned shadowy feminine? If so, is this dynamic the springboard from which Western Civilization arose?

We might pause here to remind ourselves when considering ideas about mythology to see them not so much as literal figures representing male and female, or even as ways to understand male and femaleness, but as powers of the psyche whose dynamics take hold of the cultural imagination and live through us, sanctified, although sometimes shadowy collective influences. As dynamics, these traits persist, even where individuals themselves may more or less incorporate them within a particular lifetime.

“There are long lists of the lovers of Zeus, and by and large they had an unhappy time of it. Hera, personifying the feminine embodiment of the Self, was fiercely opposed to these dalliances, and would often punish Zeus’ lovers. For example, Zeus fell in love with the beautiful Io and then turned her into a white cow so that she could escape Hera’s detection. This ruse failed and Hera set gadflies after her which, stinging, pursued her around the world.”

Edinger, Edward F.. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology

Zeus,_Semele_und_Hera._Flämisch,_3._Viertel_17._Jahrhundert_(Erasmus_Quellinus_II_oder_Jan_Erasmus_Quellinus)

Rather than the separate dynamics of masculine and feminine, aren’t we though, seeing a syzygy  within the relationship between Zeus and Hera? And, in what ways do these dynamics reassemble within our own modes of modern day consciousness? Although there’s no denying that the archetypes play out between actual men and women, and that men and women are afforded different degrees of power by virtue of their physical nature and social-political norms, can we also see the ways in which all of us have inherited a portion of Zeus’ quest for power, and Hera’s jealous ploys to address or balance the excess? For if as Jung states, the gods have become diseases, surely this syzygy is one of them! The more a Zeus-like excess threatens to destroy the world as we know it, the more outrageous the response of Hera’s house-holding economics becomes.

Where Edinger sees Zeus as the bold exhort of creativity, bringing the endless gifts of light and expanding consciousness, perhaps through the shadowy side of that light we see an insatiable desire for power accompanied by a complete disregard for consequences, desperately in need of Hera’s restraint. Does he then, not attempt to appease her with the riches of the household and all the distraction and substitution for feminine creativity it might contain?

Hera

“There are long lists of the lovers of Zeus, and by and large they had an unhappy time of it. Hera, personifying the feminine embodiment of the Self, was fiercely opposed to these dalliances, and would often punish Zeus’ lovers.” Edward Edinger

Within the syzygy, isn’t this just a little too lopsided a view of Hera’s role? While she remains that which shadows Zeus, the syzygy is deprived of the feminine aspect of creative urges. Perhaps we see in Hera the opportunity to imagine the qualities of a divine feminine as that embodiment of containment and restriction necessary for the creative powers of Zeus to be of actual service. But as the keeper of the household, amassing possessions to appease her, we see only opportunity missed.

Jupiter and Io, espied by Juno by Italian SchoolIt bears noting that if we are in the midst of an era of a lopsided patriarchal power, and that power has become the exploitative grandiosity of “too much of a good thing” that underlies so much of what is going wrong, the story of Zeus and Hera might help us to see in what ways Hera’s feminine resistance is not only missing, but could be a necessary correction. And how interesting it might be to see Hera’s plea as the desire for a more relational mode of being. It might help us too, to train the eyes for images of the masculine and feminine in syzygy that do appear in a relational dynamic in which excess and constraint are bound together, reflecting the necessity for each other.

In James Hillman’s, Mythic Figures, he echoes Edinger’s idea of the necessity for Zeus to go off on his heroic quest of never-ending expansion. Although Hillman is looking the phenomenon straight in the eye, he doesn’t apply the myth to our current cultural mess.

If we don’t know the myths, we don’t understand what fantasies we have when we go into a union. When we go into the bedroom we don’t know which myth we are enacting. He goes into the cave with the fantasy of a child of Venus. For him this is a pleasurable, delightful experience. But she is under the guidance of Juno. She goes in with the marriage fantasy of deep coupling. Soon after he gets a message from Hermes that he must get on with his job which is to go found Rome, and so he sets sail. She’s absolutely destroyed. Desertion, betrayal. For him it’s not a betrayal because he came with a different fantasy. For her, it is a radical violation of the laws of the universe, the very Queen of Heaven. And she never forgives him, because she appears in the Underworld still enraged, embittered forever.

Hillman, James. Mythic Figures. Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

He does goes on to imply that Hera might find consolation through domestication in the care and maintenance of the household which has become her domain; a place where she can invest her powers as an “upholder of civilization,” but where her creative impulse remains outwardly directed inside the house.

Society is intimately connected in Hera to the psyche and to biological laws. In that way she is the upholder of civilization, of providing the homestead, the economy, the household, the domestication, the husbandry of civilization, so that marriage becomes something dedicated to service to principles higher than personal happiness. The house stands for both civil society and my personal property.

Hillman, James. Mythic Figures. Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Where Zeus and Hera provide an archetypal background for both marriage and economy as the primary structures that uphold Western Civilization, we can perhaps begin to recognize the correlative loss of the riches once known through pagan and tribal cultures, where, although the creative impulse may never have given us the bounty that the West provided, but provided a more direct experience of the divine in its rituals and recognition of the value of the collective. Through Zeus, Hera and much of the mythology of the Greek pantheon, we get a glimpse of what truly distinguishes us, but also of what ultimately keeps us heroically driven, outwardly expanding, inwardly impoverished, all in response to the creative impulse gone wildly independent and outside of relationship. Perhaps there is a middle way that could flourish if we survive the current tests of our time.

Sacred Transgressions

“Although paranormal phenomena certainly involve material processes, they are finally organized around signs and meaning. To use the technical terms, they are semiotic and hermeneutical phenomena . Which is to say that they seem to function as representations or signs to decipher and interpret, not just movements of matter to measure and quantify.

In his book, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, Jeff Kripal takes a look at occult phenomena and their relationship to writing and reading that serve as bridges to the sacred and a superconscious realm.

“…paranormal phenomena are semiotic or hermeneutical phenomena in the sense that they signal, symbolize, or speak across a “gap” between the conscious, socialized ego and an unconscious or superconscious field.”

More than this, he attributes to reading and writing a power to:

“..replicate and realize paranormal processes, just as paranormal processes can replicate and realize textual processes.”

Reading and writing then become a participation in a process whereby we tap into a superconscious realm through story and myths of an occult or paranormal nature. Occult (meaning hidden) reading and writing, become a way in which one transgresses societal and cultural norms of perceived limits of reality. Occultism itself is a fairly modern phenomena which perhaps parallel the advent of communication technology, whereby we perceive and transcend cultural limits through access and comparison to foreign or alien (pun intended) notions of culture and reality.

The process of incorporating new ideas and symbols that shape and color perception and consciousness have always been at play. Through modern technologies that extend our view and reach, we now experience an unprecedented exchange between cultures inviting everything from amazement, disorientation, to war and destruction. Perhaps they also invite a reorientation towards a more expansive view of both the physical and non-physical boundaries of experience. It may not be surprising that the scientific aim of finding the edge of the universe coincides with expansive explorations of the boundaries of awareness through dreaming, meditation, hallucinogens, music and art. Explorations of the physical nature of the cosmos seem to be reflected in explorations of the non-material, hidden or occult nature of the world.

Even the marginalizing of the occult, for Kripal, serves a purpose by allowing irrationality to flourish off the cultural grid. He sees too, a sacred aspect to occult experience which becomes more viable in a secularized world. Ultimately serving a religious function and reclaiming for a secular society a valid experience of an invisible, imaginal, esoteric world of a superconscious field. To occulture then, is to create opportunity for a new dialectic between science and religion.

Superconsciousness then, is a realm transcending cultural differences and is accessible to anyone, regardless of time and place. Although the potential to experience superconscious awareness is ubiquitous, language and customs of culture limit awareness by creating perceptual boundaries. As I imagine it, this realm includes universal pre-figured archetypal, symbolic, religious and mythological forms as expressions of the conscious aspects of a totality that includes the physical forces and constraints of the universe.

“It is within this same dialectical context that I understand occulture as a kind of public meeting place of spirit and matter, as the place where Consciousness both occults or hides itself in material and symbolic forms and allows itself to be seen, “as if in a mirror,” so that it can be cultivated and shaped into definite, but always relative, forms. Occulture, then, both conceals and reveals.”

There remains a necessary and creative tension between the exploration of hidden dimensions of experience and the rigor of materialist science that fascinates me. I enjoy listening to popular scientists explain the necessity of space travel and cosmological laws for it often reveals symbolic and religious parallels. It doesn’t matter if scientists, or any of us are aware of this or not, it still feeds the expression of an ever-broadening cultural psyche. In the same way, occult, sci-fi and fantasy writers (think Philip K. Dick), through the esoteric dimensions of their imaginings, sometimes feed scientists with ideas for technology.

The existence of a superconscious realm also has parallels to Plato’s idea of anamnesis, or learning as remembering, especially the remembrance of archetypal and symbolic forms, whether from a personal or transpersonal past or future. If the source of consciousness and our very existence is the superconscious realm itself, it is no surprise to feel a sense of deja vu, or a hint that there is more to existence than meets the eye that only sees from within its culture, time and place.

La Vie Mysterieuse magazine, Number 55, April 1911

Why some of us experience these hints more often, I do not know. In recalling my own childhood states of awareness, I was occasionally aware of something both hidden and forbidden, never completely able to ignore the presence of something beyond my senses. In my early teens, a time when my family life was turned upside down, I began to experience frightening poltergeist phenomena accompanied by an overwhelming sense of disorientation. Because of my family situation, it’s no surprise and can be written off as a by-product, or hysteria. But the effect of this experience increased my respect for the irrational and the sometimes inexplicable nature of life.

What intrigues me about Kripal’s ideas as well as those of Frederic Myers, is the connection of writing with the occult and revelation, and specifically to the idea that we are stories being written, especially as we read and write the impossible, or Henri Corbin’s imaginal.

“Corbin understood the imaginal to be a noetic organ that accessed a real dimension of the cosmos whose appearances to us were nevertheless shaped by what he called the “creative imagination” (l’imagination créatrice).”

I think he’s on to something quite meaningful to suggest that throughout our lives, we are writing and authoring, and at the same time we are being written and authored by glimpsing the imaginal, which in turn reveals through our creativity. Also, he quite comfortably acknowledges the necessity of ambiguous ideas, which to my mind most accurately reflect the nature of human experience.

“On one level at least, the human personality for Frederic Myers is an evolving story written into and read out of the cosmos over and over again within what he calls a “progressive immortality.” Read and written thus, we are all occult novels composed by forces both entirely beyond us and well within us. As a One that is also Two, we author ourselves, and we are authored.”

There’s more to the book which, if time allows, I’ll continue to write about.

All quotes: Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2011-09-16). Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.