Continuing here the series of chapter by chapter reviews of Jesus Potter Harry Christ by Derek Murphy. The series is archived here and on the JesusMysteries discussion group.
This chapter, titled Jesus the Handsome Prince: Reuniting With the Higher Self, surveys the way ancients appeared to interpret many of their myths as symbolic of spiritual processes common to all humanity. The central mythical idea he explores in this chapter, and one with clear links to the Christian myth, is the one that tells the tale of a descent into a world of matter, often accompanied with torment, and a desire to return to an earlier blissful state, often accomplished through another who descends for the purpose of rescue, ascension and reunification.
Murphy is aware of the danger of over generalizing and explains that
not every myth should be interpreted strictly in this manner, and many have other cultural or historical meanings. Still, it is relevant to understand that Greek and Roman myths were usually intimately tied with ethical and spiritual teachings, and intended to hide esoteric truths. The myth of Demeter and Persephone, for example, which is often taken as a simplistic vegetation story describing the changing seasons, was also the foundational myth of the Eleusinian mysteries . . . . (p. 258)
Murphy quotes from Mystery Religions by Joscelyn Godwin to use this particular myth to illustrate this chapter’s theme:
Sir James Frazer rightly saw in the central myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries an allegory of the vegetation cycle, in which Persephone is the power of fertility which disappears underground in winter and returns with the spring: but like all exoteric commentators he was blind to other meanings, without which the ancients would scarcely have taken the Mysteries as seriously as they indubitably did. The stolen goddess represents the soul, alternatively descending at birth for ‘half a year’ in the underworld of bodily existence, and returning at death to the familiar fruitful fields of her true home. (p. 5 of Mystery Religions quoted on p. 258 of JPHC)
Some of the interpretation of the myths may be conjectural, but it is by no means unreasonable conjecture:
Although it is difficult to know exactly what the mystery schools taught or believed in, it would be careless not to assume a deeper significance behind their rites or symbols.
So in the myth of Psyche and Eros we are picturing the interactions of the Soul and Love. Psyche (meaning “Soul”) was beautiful arouse envy among the gods, so was consigned to marry “a monster” without ever being able to see his face. When she did break the rules and came face to face with her husband she discovered he was the handsome god Eros (meaning “Love”). So once they recognized each other, Eros escaped from Psyche, leaving Psyche to pursue him and enduring many difficult tasks to be reunited with him.
Murphy points out that this pattern of story is found repeatedly in many of the myths, such as the myths of Ariadne and Dionysus, Perseus and Andromeda, Daphne and Apollo, Orpheus and Eurydice, Isis and Osiris. Sometimes there is a dragon or monster apparently representing the flesh or physical world that needs to be conquered; sometimes the different roles can be taken by different genders or more than one actant.
Early Christian myths, Murphy explains, are taken from the same template, as illustrated by Logos and Sophia in the early Christian Gnostic work Sophia of Jesus Christ. Sophia fell to the physical world so Logos had to debase himself by descending to bring her back to the highest heavens. Murphy shows readers the way Logos and Sophia are variously depicted in Christian gnostic and Jewish wisdom literature, and how the same motifs are extended right through to later Christian art where Mary appears to take the role of Sophia.
Serpents are associated with creator divinities in China and among the Jews, in the form of the Nuwa and in the seraphim or fiery serpents attending God. Architectural tools associated with the Chinese creator are found also added in artistic renditions of God or Jesus, also to indicate their creator-functions.
The ongoing cultural conveyance of such mythical ideas and imagery is still with us in stories such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with the ancient motifs of seven, mirrors, whiteness and purity, the poison apple, the rescuing prince, etc. I think, however, it would have been preferable had Derek Murphy placed is aside notes on fractal geometry’s Mandelbrot apple and the scientific seven spectrum colours to footnotes since they do not advance his argument for culturally shared and resilient mythical ideas.
Murphy shows us the thread of the same essential mythical idea of the reunification of divided polarities, of lost souls escaping their bodies to be restored to some form of “kingdom of heaven”, as it is found in Christian iconographic tradition, the symbols and myths associated with Osiris, Gnostic mythologies, some of the myths mentioned above, and even on down to our modern Ice Queen in Narnia and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Discussions of central concepts to Eastern and Buddhist meditation, Kabbalah traditions, alchemy show how universal these basic images and ideas are.
Murphy then takes us through the rich symbolism that has been associated with Satan from the Bible to Tarot cards and alchemy. He explores early Christian depictions of the anchor, noting that this was a more common symbol than the cross in early Christian art, and how this image has also been transmitted through cultural ages.
Although most of the discussion above has relied on liberal interpretation, I believe that these symbols hold specific mystical meaning that was recognized by early spiritual traditions . . . .
In the West, myths were created about gallant knights who would go out and slay dragons. Hercules, for example, has to defeat the dragon Ladon in the garden of Hesperides to seize the golden apples (an interesting reversal of Adam and Eve’s “seduction” by the serpent). In the East, the dragon represented our spiritual energy, winding upwards to be reunited with the universal Tao or Shakti. What is common to these various traditions is the idea of balancing energies, which will someday be reunited. (p. 274-5)
The teachings associated with these myths were passed on in schools or secret societies or “mystery religions”, with initiates learning higher truths as they progressed through various stages of understanding. Christianity, Murphy will argue in the following section of the book, began as one of these schools.
I see this chapter is another discussion starter, an attempt to raise awareness and provoke questions. Not everyone will feel comfortable with Derek Murphy’s “liberal interpretations” and will wonder how much of the detail he addresses in meanings of various symbols were really part of ancient thinking. Interpretations of the Greek myths also evolved through different eras of history. Nonetheless, Murphy does demonstrate that the core idea of the Christian myth is not unique but that it is quite clearly but one expression of an idea or ideas that were shared and have continued to be shared at a deep pscyho-cultural level almost universally.
My own view of myths is influenced by secondary literature applying the findings of Claude Lévi-Strauss to myths of the ancient Levant and Hellenistic worlds. Derek Murphy appears to be attempting to find common meanings in all the symbols and components of the myths, but if we view myths in the way Lévi-Strauss came to understand them through his study of the myths of the North American Indians, then a more rewarding approach is to study them through models of language and music, and to map the way the sub-units are remixed and matched as new myths emerge and evolve within and across cultures. To find a common meaning to them all is, in effect, to create a new myth. By interpreting the development of myths, in particular the comparing of later myths with earlier ones to which they are culturally related, according to Lévi-Strauss’s “linguistic” model, we only need to study the way the subunits (“mythemes”) of older myths are reconstructed in the new myth (Christianity). This is enough to demonstrate the “genetic” link between the two, much as we can see how the French, Spanish and Italian languages have evolved in their own directions from a Latin base. Whether we view the question through Derek Murphy’s attempt to find common meanings, or the Lévi-Strauss model that maps mytheme reconstructions, the Christian myth can be explained as a mutation of preceding myths. Few scholars will deny that there are mythical overlays and interpretations of the Christ story. But of course what Murphy is addressing is more radical than that.
Murphy has not yet related his explorations to the emergence of Christianity. That is the topic of the next section’s three chapters.
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