The Unifying Myth of the Hieros Gamos

by Ann Levingston Joiner
originally published  on the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythNow Blog on October 21, 2010

It was in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space that Joseph Campbell asked the question: “What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as one harmonious whole?” In this 21st century, such a mythology is needed more than ever. What better mythical element could we find than the ancient concept of the hieros gamos, the sacred joining between god and goddess, the concept of a Sacred Marriage.

During this short century, at least two cogent metaphors have surfaced which embody this concept. One, from linguist George Lakoff, is the political metaphor describing the Democratic Party as a “nurturing parent” as opposed to the Republican “strict father.” (“Metaphor, Morality, and Politics” 1995) The nurturing parent is not just a mother, but a concept that can apply to either or both men and women, mothers and fathers working together for the good of the “children,” the citizens of the country under the leadership of government, and a step into a new paradigm, out of the patriarchal Industrial Age of competing forces into a global Age of Information. We live in a rapidly imploding world where we can no longer afford to see ourselves as separate entities.

We need a new metaphor or myth that can bring us all together in a state of cooperation rather than one of competition. We need a metaphor or myth that embraces diversity. We need a means to end patriarchal dominance, not replacing it with its opposite, a matriarchy, but with what Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade calls a “gylany,” a partnership society. What we need to do is to marry the masculine and feminine elements into an integrated whole.

That concept of marriage brings me to the second meaningful metaphor for our current time, a metaphor which has recently been literalized in such works as Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, the idea of a marriage between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene. This concept appeared in the 1970’s, in a non-fiction book written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. While the book was a bestseller, it did not create any great stir, certainly not when compared to that of Brown’s work of fiction. The DaVinci Code created a furor within the conservative community and the proponents of that “strict father” mentality observed by Lakoff. 

It is not really important which side one is on, or whether the story might or might not be literally true. What is very important is its appearance, today, and its relevance to that need for a new myth. The fact is, the concept, however expressed, of the virgin birth of a celibate god, will not work with any large number of people in our 21st century society. My own younger daughter, Susan, recently pointed out why: Those of us who live in modern western societies are living in a culture where husbands and wives both work outside the home and have their own careers. 

One primary reason for this circumstance to have come about was the development, during the early 1960’s of a practical and effective means of birth control which gave couples the freedom to enjoy a sexual relationship without the fear of unwanted conception. The rise of the Feminist Movement of the 1970’s was likely a direct result. Women could now take for themselves the Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces

But, especially during the early years of this period, there were some differences between the cycle taken by most men and that of women. Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey gives us one example of those differences. In the beginning, when patriarchal influences were stronger, and the laws supported male dominance, a woman’s first step had to involve a separation from the mother, since the tradition for women to stay at home and fill a more passive role was the prevalent situation. For a woman to go out into the world on her own, she had to identify with her father, creating a “mother/daughter split.” She had to adopt the masculine perspective if she was to journey through the “road of trials” and overcome the “myth of feminine inferiority.” In this way, she could attain the “illusory boon of success,” but afterward, invariably encountering what is described as “the father’s betrayal,” and realizes that she has lost an important part of herself along the way. Now it is time for her to “descend to the Goddess and reconnect with the Feminine.” Only in that way can the mother/daughter split be healed, and only after that can she find the Man with Heart. Murdock writes that, “women [will also] require an attitude of change on the part of society, and they need the assistance of men. Flexible roles in the family and business and legislative policy that reflect these will ultimately change the way dependency is viewed and experienced by women. Our heroine will no longer have to give herself away for the growth and development of others. Autonomy, achievement, and nurturance will be acceptable qualities for women.” It has taken two generations, in many cases, for the Women’s Movement to reach this position, with my own generation taking the first steps, and our daughters finally achieving a place where she can find Murdock’s “Man with Heart.” 

In the meantime, modern men have often found themselves in their own quagmire, as they attempt to cope with the changes in the women in their lives. One exploration of this predicament is Robert Bly’s Iron John. In his account, the journeying male must eventually come to “The Meeting with the God-Woman in the Garden.” Bly writes of men’s need for “a walled garden…a shelter from the world,” where he can, “recover from broken trust….a place to develop introspection.” In the garden, he continues, “the soul and nature marry….In the garden we cultivate yearning and longing [which] encourages true desire for the infinite more than greed for objects.” 

Putting the two sources together, Bly’s male, by cultivating his own inner garden, develops into an enlightened male who then becomes the source for what Murdock refers to as the “inner man with heart” in the woman who has successfully taken her journey. “The marriage can then take place between the man with heart and the woman of wisdom,” Murdock concludes. 

And with this healing of the split between the masculine and feminine, Murdock tells us, we are all able to move “beyond duality.” This sacred marriage can only occur, then, when we have moved out of the polarized world of either/or and into the balancing point at the center. This idea has also been expressed in quantum physics. Scientist Niels Bohr gave us the concept of complementarity, insisting that the wave and particle cannot exist separately from the other, but only in a complementary both/and relationship: a sacred marriage of energy and matter. 

So, as we see the current wave of energy materialize into a new particle, we see that the quintessential hero’s journey, the knight’s quest for the grail (often the vessel which held the blood of Christ) now becomes the Magdalene herself, as wife of Jesus and the mother of his female child. 

Among the many writers who have explored this concept are Margaret Starbird (The Woman with the Alabaster Jar) and Joan Borysenko (A Woman’s Journey to God). Starbird points out that there are several women in the Christian New Testament that are believed to be the same woman: Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha, the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil from an alabaster jar, and Mary Magdalene, who was present at the crucifixion and was the first, by some authorities, to see the risen Christ. In Starbird’s story of Mary, she is a member of the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of Jonathan, son of Saul, whose marriage to Jesus unites the families of David and Saul. In Borysenko’s version, Mary is a priestess of Asherah, one of the few Mother Goddess figures still actively worshiped in Israel. The recently discovered Gospel of Mary presents a woman who was an important leader, along with the apostles, in the beginning days of the Christian Church. Again, what is important is not any factual reality, but the persistence of a new interpretation that fits into our emerging worldview. 

Edward F. Edinger, a Jungian psychoanalyst who wrote several books which interpreted Biblical material through the work of Carl Jung, says in the opening of “The New Myth,” The Creation of Consciousness,  that, “a human society cannot long survive unless its members are psychologically contained within a controlling myth….nothing less than the discovery of a new control myth will solve the problem for the individual and society. Indeed,” he continues, “a new myth is in the making and C. G. Jung was keenly aware of that fact.” Edinger quotes from Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections,p. 326:  “The essence of the Christian message can then be understood as man’s creative confrontation with the opposites and their synthesis in the self, the wholeness of the personality…in the coniunctio oppositorium the alchemists…” 

Edinger concludes that, “The individual psyche is the Holy Grail, made holy by what it contains…the experience of opposites…the coniunctio, the mysterium coniunctionus…which symbolizes consciousness….Every human experience, to the extent that it is lived in awareness, augments the sum total of consciousness in the universe…and gives each individual a role in the ongoing drama of creation.. 

I have pulled much of the explanation of this concept of hieros gamos, or sacred marriage, or conjunction of opposites from Christian sources, since that is my personal experience, but there are many parallels in other traditions that point to a similar solution, to the joining of the disparate points of view into a single image that can hold the opposing forces together. Most of them, in one way or another, come back to the idea of the concept of marriage, a union where, ideally, the forces can be united in a new, synergistic whole, a partnership, a set of parents whose joining brings about the conception of a new paradigm, a consciousness that embraces all diversities into one collective being. The new myth cannot involve either a god or a goddess, but must center on the marriage of these two aspects of being human, where the polarities of either/or become centered as both/and. 

Ann Levingston Joiner


From either/or to both/and

  • Reposted from my comparative mythology article of January 11, 2011:

    “The secret of solving paradoxes is to start using the word “and” instead of “or.”

    Owen Waters, “New View of God”

    How do we begin to grasp the concept of both/and? A good place to start is by taking a look at what comparative mythology can teach us. Experts like Joseph Campbell, Adolph Bastian, Claude Levi-Strauss; psychologists such as Carl Jung and Rollo May; theologians like Paul Tillich, and so many writers who have explored the possibilities that open up to us as soon as we are able to increase our choices and options by broadening our perspectives can help us find the answers we need to make sound choices that work for us in this 21st century. Even the following 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe can point the way.

    The Blind Men and the Elephant

    by John Godfrey Saxe

    It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
    who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
    that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.

    The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
    against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
    “God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!”

    The second feeling of the tusk, cried: “Ho! what have we here,
    so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
    this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!”

    The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
    the squirming trunk within his hands, “I see,” quoth he,
    the elephant is very like a snake!”

    The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
    “What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.”

    The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; “E’en the blindest man
    can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!”

    The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
    than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quothe he, “the elephant is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
    each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

    So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
    tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
    and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!

    John Godfrey Saxe (1816 – 1887)

    Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Rollo May have all expressed the idea that our current dilemma, and our inability to make clear decisions, is caught up in the need for a new myth, or at least, for a new interpretation of older ones. May’s work, The Cry for Myth, says that we suffer anxiety without a sense of personal identity, of community, of forming moral values, or the ability to grasp the mysteries of life. These traits, he says, all require a valid mythology, which functions as our guide to making the paradoxical choices and decisions we face every day. In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell wrote, “The old gods are dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: “What is the new mythology to be, this mythology of this unified earth as one harmonious being?”

    Edward F. Edinger was a Jungian psychologist who focused his work on applying Jungian concepts to Judeo-Christian concepts and symbols. He writes that Carl Jung proposed such a “New Myth” in the first chapter of The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man.Jung, says Edinger, saw the answer in an alchemical coniunctio oppositorium, or a joining of opposites, a “sacred marriage” of seemingly opposing polarities that would relieve the anxiety connected to an attempt to choose between extremes.

    Rollo May was a student of the existential theologian, Paul Tillich, according to Charles Hampden-Turner in Maps of the Mind. May says that the anxiety we experience develops from “irreconcilable differences.” In Tillich’s view, according to Hampden-Turner, “We have failed to distinguish between technical reason and encompassing reason. Technical reason is that kind of means-ends rationality that gives yes/no answers to either/or questions.” What we need instead is a kind [of reasoning] that encompasses several alternatives, and which answers in terms, not of either/or, but of both/and.”

    The word “encompasses” comes up frequently in these studies. Hampden-Turner, in another of his “maps,” relates the ideological views of Left, Right, and Center, saying that the Center is “not a faint-hearted compromise…but a movement within the poles which encompasses their extremities while reconciling both within a single process.”

    So, how do we find the means to encompass such extremes? How do manage to marry the opposites into a choice of action that reduces our anxiety and allows us to move forward? First, we have to recognize that our perspectives are limited. We, like the six wise men, are blind to parts of the whole that we cannot see. By listening to the opposing arguments, we can broaden our view and increase our perspectives. We can move from a two-dimensional point of view by adding a third dimension. Two items are always in an unstable relationship to each other, but by adding a third, we create a connected object, a trinity which reconciles two views. One example, according to Edinger, could resolve the conflict between an Old Testament Father God who relies on law and justice and a New Testament Son who teaches us of love by adding a reconciling Holy Spirit which can give us the power of making positive choices. Another might come from a Sacred Marriage between the God and Goddess which results in the birth of a Child which encompasses the attributes of both the masculine and feminine perspectives of Jung’s anima and animus into one whole, individuated being.

Reflections over Morning Coffee #2

     10/24/12 at 9:59 am

Every stimulus we encounter is filtered through the content of our individual brains.

Different content means different perceptions.  There is never a right or wrong in the perception itself.  There is only what one sees, and every individual has something of value to offer to our perceptions of the Whole

We cannot control the experiences and perceptions of another. What each of us can do is to try and live life as we each believe it ought to be. If another’s experience of us is perceived as being of value, s/he might choose to incorporate that perspective into hi/r own.

And at the same time, we can each observe the other with an open mind, and perhaps decide to take in any compelling part of what we see into our own perspective.

Along those lines, I’ve just been wondering, Is there truly a beginning and end to this spectrum?  Or is it a limited two-dimensional representation – like a flattened out map of the world?

Maybe this “map” comes closer, in a sense:

Still another two-dimensional image, but if you think of them together…

Is violet the beginning and red the end of opposite poles?
Is there a good end or a bad end? Is one color more important of valuable than the other? Is one color more developed or evolved than the others?

Or are they all equal points in a spectrum.

I think I like this concept better than thinking of shades of grey between black and white.

Yes, I get that my head is taking me in strange directions this morning – just me being me again.

Happy camping



Reflections over Morning Coffee

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Reposted from my website blog – original date: September 5, 2011

Joseph Campbell’s little google widget on my igoogle page has been there so long that I thought I had seen all the quotes it contained, but this morning I read this one:

Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage, and yet, reengage. You—and here’s the beautiful formula—“participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.” You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. You are there, and that’s it.

A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living

He has written about this idea several times and in several places, but this particular perspective on it was new to me. Maybe because its from one of the few of his books that I don’t have in my library: a recent compilation of essays and speeches.

As I read it, especially the part that I’ve italicized, I immediately thought of a passage from Eliot’s Four Quartets that has always fascinated me, partly because I wasn’t certain if I completely understood what he meant.

There are three conditions which often look alike

Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment

From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference

Which resembles the others as death resembles life,

Being between two lives—unflowering, between

The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:

For liberation—not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country

Begins as attachment to our own field of action

And comes to find that action of little importance

Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,

History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,

The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

T. S. Eliot; “Little Gidding;” Four Quartets

I have always wondered how one might reach that position of “detachment,” and if was really as desirable as Eliot seemed to believe. I did not connect it to that Buddhist expression that Joe is so fond of, that “joyful participation in sorrow.” Eliot, a thorough Anglican Christian, uses references that are usually more from Hinduism than Buddhism when he is exploring other perspectives, and my personal experience of both of those other “isms” is limited.

Anyway, as I sat down here this morning, coffee in hand, and automatically, still half asleep opened that page on my computer (part of the morning ritual) and stared blankly at that passage from Campbell, a new variation of a familiar allusion, the first word that came into my head was “Eliot,” and my hand reached for the little thin copy of Four Quartets that stays on the bookshelf at my desk. for once, I knew immediately where to look within the book. Most often I have to browse through the whole 60 pages to find something I remember but can’t quite place where (he, too, uses the same ideas and expressions over and over).

So I reread them both a couple of times as the coffee started to do its morning thing and pull me out of that half-asleep stupor, and I thought, “How cool is that?” Two different theologies, both different from my own Judeo-Christian one, approaching a paradoxical idea from a completely different stand, using totally different metaphors to express this transcendent thing, and by putting them together, I come closer than I ever have to a sense of understanding the abstract concept that lies beneath them.

Ram Lopez (I should probably say Father Ramiro), the rector at the Episcopal church near my home, would often talk about the importance of a committed Christian needing to be “in the world, but not of it,” and I wondered how one was to do that. Eliot’s “detachment” seemed to me to be a little on the cold side, and neither approach, to my thinking, allowed for the passion that is a part of being human. Without passion, how could one be compassionate (“com” meaning with).

And as I read Joe’s answer this morning, “You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. ”

[Richard and his “reluctant Messiah” friend and teacher have just been to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a film that they have seen several times over, because they just like it that much. Don explains to Richard how seeing a movie is a metaphor for living a life.]

“You can hold a reel of film in your hands,” he said, “and it’s all finished and complete–beginning, middle, and end are all there that same second. The film exists beyond the time that it records, and if you know what the movie is, you know generally what’s going to happen before you walk into the theater: there’s going to be battles and excitement, winners and losers, romance, disaster; you know that’s all going to be there. but in order to get caught up and be swept away in it, in order to enjoy it to its most, you have to put it in a projector and let it go through the lens minute by minute…any illusion requires space and time to be experienced. So you pay your nickel and you get your ticket and you settle down and forget what’s going on outside the theater and the movie begins for you.”Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; Richard Bach

And when we see a good movie, or read a well-written book, we sometimes reach the point, for a little while, where we “suspend our disbelief” and get caught up in the fiction as though it were real – just like we “suspend our disbelief” in any transcendent reality when we are born into this one.

Occasionally, though, we get glimpses. Wordsworth called them “Intimations of Immortality.”

Eliot has called it “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time,” “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood,” “[Where] the impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual,”

Here the past and future

Are conquered, and reconciled,

Where action were otherwise movement

Of that which is only moved

And has in it no source of movement—

Driven by daemonic, chthonic

Powers. And right action is freedom

From past and future also.

For most of us, this is the aim

Never here to be realised;

Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying;

So, we “play the game. It hurts, but [we] know that [we] have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. [We] are [here], and that’s it.

In that state of detachment which is nothing like “indifference”: lies that “joyful participation,” because we get that it is, at last, an illusion.  We are more than this little existence.

Light out of darkness

It’s funny, sometimes, how “good” and “evil” get mixed up and thrown together.

A few days ago, we had a thunderstorm here in SA. We have had several over the past week or so, finally ending our long drought, and bringing temperatures down from over a hundred to the much more comfortable mid-90’s. How odd it seems to be saying, thank goodness, for our high today is only going to reach 91 degrees.

One thing, though, that thunderstorm caused the power to blip off, only for a few seconds, but enough to start a bit of a problem with my PC. It took a while for the reset button to work, and even after, the computer would simply shut down, for no discernible reason.

One of those shutdowns occurred late yesterday morning. I had my journal out, and was writing to myself as I worked on a new chapter for my book, or tried to, in spite of some dark little distractions. I was on my igoogle page with its little inspirational widgets and images, when the quote on my Joseph Campbell widget shifted to this one: “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation.”

It seemed so apt for my personal feelings at that moment, I picked up my pencil and began copying the message into my journal. I got the first sentence out and started on the second. “The blackest….”

Well, that was as far as I got, because all of a sudden, instead of my igoogle page, I was starting at the blackest monitor screen imaginable. The computer had blipped off again.

Once again, too, it took a while for the reset button to work, and by the time I was back on, the widget had changed its message. There was something about the timing of it all that I knew I really wanted to see the rest of that quotation, so I typed a few words of it into the search engine window and a page popped up that contained the quote I was looking for:

. First thing I did, though, I wrote the rest of that lost sentence: “The blackest moment is the moment when the message of transformation is going to come.”

The page I had found the quote on, Northstar Gallery, was part of a photographer’s online gallery. The artist, Dennis W. Felty, had written a mission statement discussing the importance of his work. He wrote of storytelling – in his case through recording images he had seen through the lens of his camera, but in a general sense, it applied to all storytellers. And every storyteller is a myth teller

Finding that article yesterday was, indeed, the high point of the day for me. Most of the rest of it was filled with black moments. In a sense, it was not a day I would wish to repeat.

It was a day, when, at the end, I found myself confronted by my own shadow. I went to bed, finally, but I did not sleep well. When I got up this morning, I had a strong urge to find and reread that artist’s statement about the value of our dark moments. I check out my browser’s history, and returned to that Northstar Gallery page, and reread Felty’s statement.

I read, “Within our being, moment by moment, each of us holds the ability to be both hero and villain. Indeed, it is only when we understand and embrace this reality that we can hope to rise above the competing duality, choosing hero.”

I found myself thinking of Luke Skywalker, in that cave on Dagoba, confronting an image of Darth Vader. In his anger, he wielded his light saber and lopped off the black-masked head, only to find himself looking at his own face. Later, he would learn that Darth Vader, that personification of evil, was his own father, and as the series ended, he faced his father and himself, and was finally able to help his father see that there was, “still good in him.”

I come back to that Jungian concept of “Shadow,” that part of each of us we are generally unwilling to recognize, and so, we tend to see those qualities in the people we conceive of as enemies – the evils that we must fight, the dragons we must slay.

But Joseph Campbell, the source of the original quotation, often spoke about the importance of “embracing the dragon.” When we try to kill it, he explained, we kill a vital part of ourselves. We are all who we are, “warts and all,” and everybody is capable of doing both great harm and great good. It is important, then, for us to explore our own darkness., because it is there , in that very spot, that the source of our light lies.

And, as the artist, Dennis W. Felty, said in the conclusion of his statement, “By following our passion and our bliss and by being willing to enter the ‘underground,’ we find paths that have been there all the while, waiting for each of us. The life we live becomes the life we should be living and one has the opportunity to know the fire of passion and the continuing renewal of the life within.”

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I began writing in my journals, stories of a hero who was forced to go under water (According to Jung, a symbol for our own unconscious self), where he found an underground cave, and in that cave, a shining red stone with healing powers.

Redstone had entered the darkness and found his own light.

As I re-explore and rewrite those stories (the journals themselves are long gone), I come to realize more and more that I am relating a universal myth, that cropped up, somehow, out of my own journeys into that archetypal collective.

We all tell the same stories. Each of us has a unique way of presenting the truths that lie at the heart of the myth, but the message of the myth remains the same.

Everyone of us is capable of shining a great light.