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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s