Seeing Things

The Daimonic Nature of Reality

Patrick Harpur

As we know from parables and fairy-tales, whatever is least regarded often turns out to be the most important thing. In the quest for reality, whether that of monotheistic religions or atheistic science, one of the main casualties has been those entities orDaimon Image 3 principles which the Greeks called daimons. This is the more surprising because there is no culture which does not, or has not at one time, recognized and revered daimons; and I would like to suggest that by ignoring, even reviling, them we violate reality and deprive ourselves of its fullness.

When Lady Augusta Gregory compiled a description from local informants of the daimons they called the Sidhe in County Galway, Ireland, she provided us with a list of characteristics pretty much common to all daimons. The Sidhe are shape-shifters. They can appear large or small; as birds, beasts, or blasts of wind; as lights which fly through the air. Their country is Tir-na-nOg, the Country of the Young, which is located under the ground or under the sea, or perhaps in islands out in the west; or it may not be far from any of us. Fighting is heard among them, and music that is more beautiful than any of this world; if they are seen, they are often dancing or playing. The Sidhe will help a man with his work or even tell him where to find treasure; they will teach certain wise men and women where to find lost livestock, and how to cure the sick. They call many over to their world through the evil eye, or by a touch, a blow, a sudden terror. Those who receive such a stroke will waste away from this world, as their strength is lent to the Sidhe. Young men are taken to help with their games and their wars; young mothers are taken to suckle their newborn children; girls that they may themselves become mothers there. The dead are often seen among them. The Sidhe have been, like the angels, from before the making of the world.

It is not to our credit, I think, that we now call Tir-na-nOg, the unconscious, and the daimons, such things as “archetypes” – although C.G. Jung recognized that archetypes “manifest themselves as daimones, as personal agencies, and are not ‘figments of the imagination’ as rationalism would have us believe.”

In China, daimons called kwei-shins variously inhabit hills and rocks, preside over land, live among the ancestors, and are omnipresent, usually visible, sometimes not, being both material and immaterial. In Arabia, Jinns are composed of subtle fire, able to take on whatever shape they please. For the Romans, daimons were everywhere, genii loci, from the fauni of the woods to the Lares and Penates of farms and houses. Trolls and hulder-folk inhabit Scandinavia; elves were widespread throughout western Europe – a tall handsome race like the Sidhe, who were called in Wales Tylwyth Teg, “the fair folk.” Every county in England had a different name for them, from the pixies of Cornwall to the farisees of Norfolk. Whether or not the Sidhe are the same as the “Little People,” we cannot be sure. We know only that, as a fairy once remarked to a Sligo man; “I am bigger than I appear to you now. We can make the old young, the big small, the small big.”

The comicalness of the Little People helps us to laugh them out of court (although we would be ill-advised to laugh at them to their face). For example, the Little People are eighteen inches tall, perfectly proportioned, with hair that grows down to their heels. Some wear gold caps; others go bareheaded. Their footsteps and voices wake people at night, but if you get up you find nothing – although food might be missing… This is how two Cherokee women described the Yunw Tsunsdi who live a hidden life parallel to the Cherokee people of North Carolina. The Little People who helped the Inuit shaman described by the Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, were called aua – little women no larger than an arm’s length, with pointed caps, short bearskin trousers, and high boots, which held upward turned feet so that they seemed to walk on their heels. The Little People of Ghana, West Africa, are called Asamanukpai. They are slightly bigger than a monkey, colored black, white, or red, and their feet are turned back to front. If you visit their haunts it is advisable to make offerings of rum; for if they are annoyed they stone the offender and lead him into the depths of the forest, and lose him there. However, like the aua who are also the agents of the shaman’s greatest enlightenment, the Asamanukpai may teach you all they know, squeezing into your eyes and ears and mouth the juice of a plant which enables you thereafter to hear everyone’s thoughts and to foresee all events. Thus the ridiculous daimons are also the source of the most sublime truth.

I want to emphasize the chief attributes of daimons because these are also crucial attributes, often neglected, of the ground of reality itself. Firstly, they are ambiguous, even contradictory, for instance both material and immaterial (anthropologists who tend to call them “spirits” are misleading). They are both benevolent and malign, always tricky – at best mischievous, at worst life-threatening. Secondly, they are elusive, fast-moving, appearing and disappearing in the twinkling of an eye. Thirdly, they are shape-shifters, like Proteus nearly impossible to pin down. Whenever, therefore, we think we have a fix on reality, we will find when we look again that the image, concept, or formulation we proudly hold up is an empty mask whose living daimon has already slipped away. The nature of daimons tells us besides that reality is better represented by concrete, personified images than abstract and impersonal concepts. If we want to catch them, we cannot use plodding logic or precise rationality; we have to use our own quickest, most highly colored, shape-shifting faculty: imagination. Fourthly, daimons are always marginal creatures who favor liminal zones or times for their appearances – bridges, crossroads, seashores, no less than the turning of the day at midnight or of the old year at Halloween. They are always, too, marginalized by “official” culture, whether of science or of the Churches.

A fifth characteristic of daimons is emphasized by Plato in The Symposium, where Socrates tells us that we can have no contact with the gods or God except through the daimons who “interpret and convey the wishes of men to the gods and the will of gods to men.” “Only through the daimons,” he says, “is there conversation between men and gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep.” Here we understand the essentially intermediary nature of daimons, mediating between the material and the nonmaterial, the personal and impersonal, between this world and the Otherworld. Those who are expert in daimonic intercourse used to be called cunning men or wise women, medicine men, and witch doctors, but are now generally called shamans. Such individuals often marry a daimon who, like a poet’s muse, is the supernatural source of insight and power.

All of us are traditionally enjoined to leave food out for the daimons. They do not literally eat the food, but are said to feed off its essence. Metaphors of nourishing and marriage, then, express the reciprocal relationship between us and the Otherworld – and psychotherapists might do well to bear them in mind. For we feed the daimons in order to prevent them from becoming unruly, or worse; and we maintain a close, even erotic relationship with them so that they are not compelled to relate to us by force. Notoriously, daimons take our children, replacing them with sickly children – changelings – of their own. They take young mothers to nurse their young, and young men to help them in their battles. It is as if, as the Irish poet W.B. Yeats remarked, “we need their wisdom as they need our strength.” If we do not feed them – that is, heed them – they grow increasingly importunate. Ignored in their natural habitats, they return from outside Nature, as extraterrestrials who not only steal young mothers but their fetuses as well. The lack of reciprocity in this interesting folklore was later amended when it became widely believed that the “aliens” were in cahoots with the government, who sanctioned their abductions in exchange for their “wisdom” – an advanced alien technology.

Thus the daimons are still alive and well, although just as outcast from official culture as they ever were. The reason why they have been forced to shape-shift into extraterrestrials – to cut their cloth to suit the times – is that they suffered badly in their traditional forms at the hands of Christendom. No daimon was allowed to mediate between mankind and God, as Plato had allowed, because Jesus Christ was now the one and only Mediator. When St. Paul spoke of daimonia, he meant devils. All daimons were demonized. At best they were assimilated to Christianity: the old daimons of hills, rivers, rocks, and trees were christianized into the saints and the Virgin Mary, who supplanted many a nymph of stream and holy well. But both processes of demonizing and christianizing imply a polarizing of the daimons’ contradictory nature. Like all monotheistic religions, Christianity is intolerant of daimonic ambiguity. Daimons cannot, for example, be allowed to be both benevolent and malign – they must be polarized into either angels or devils.

Although the Otherworld in which the daimons are said to live is, of course, nonspatial (just as it is timeless), it always represents itself in spatial metaphors – it is beside this world, or beneath it, or above it, or concealed within it (and “not very far from any of us”). Multi-spatiality stands for nonspatiality. Yet the Otherworld takes precedence over, and is more real than, this world – as we suspect when we are seized by a dream or ravished by a vision, before “common sense” re-asserts itself. The Otherworld is probably where we come from, if Plato is to be credited, and certainly where we go when we die. It is usually the reverse of this world, like a mirror image. Daimonic men and women can enter it or communicate with it at will, just as the heroes of old traveled there to learn the arts of culture or to steal the secret of fire or agriculture.

One of the innovations of the modern Western world has been to turn the Otherworld into an abstraction. It has been formulated in three main ways: as the Greek psyche tou kosmou, or Soul of the World; as the imagination; and as the collective unconscious. The last two models of the Otherworld have the added eccentricity of being located within us. Historically, all three models have been outcast by Western orthodoxy – Christian theology no less than modern rationalism. But wherever they have as it were broken the surface and emerged from their “esoteric,” even “occult” underworld, they have been accompanied by the most extraordinary efflorescence of creative life. In Renaissance Florence, and again, among the German and English Romantics three hundred years later, imagination was exalted not only as the most important human faculty, but as the very ground of reality. “The Primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception,” proclaimed Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM….”

The only concern of the Primary Imagination, wrote another poet, W.H. Auden, is with sacred beings and events. They cannot be anticipated, he says – they must be encountered. Our response to them is a passion of awe. It may be terror or panic, wonder or joy, but it must be awe-full. Auden’s sacred beings and events are our daimons, archetypal images which Imagination generates. They are chiefly personifications but Imagination can, like the “glamour” the fairies cast over objects, enchant anything so that what we had formerly overlooked is suddenly seen as ensouled, a presence, as if it were a powerful living person.

Thus Romantic Imagination is pretty much the opposite of what it has come to mean – something unreal and invented, what Coleridge called “fancy.” “The nature of Imagination is very little known,” lamented the visionary artist and poet William Blake, “& the Eternal nature and permanence of its ever Existent Images is considered as less permanent than the things of Vegetative and Generative Nature.” Indeed. Imagination is independent and autonomous; it precedes and underpins mere perception; and it spontaneously produces those images – gods, daimons, and heroes – who interact in the mysterious unauthored narratives we call myths.

The prototype of this myth-making imagination was the Soul of the World posited by the Neoplatonists who, like Plato, understood that daimons are intermediate between mortals and gods. And they developed this insight, recognizing a whole daimonic realm, partly physical, partly spiritual, which mediates between our sensory material world and the spiritual or “intelligible” world of Forms – Plato’s abstract gods that provide the ideal models for everything that exists. This world-soul where the daimons come from was sometimes imagined hierarchically, with the intelligible world above and our world below – but all three emanating from an unknowable source simply called the One. At other times it was pictured as a single dynamic realm with two aspects: one intelligible (spiritual) and one sensory (material). And this is how the Western esoteric tradition has generally imagined it. All Neoplatonists, Hermetic philosophers, alchemists and Kabbalists have asserted that the cosmos is animated by a collective soul which manifests itself now spiritually, now physically, now – daimonically, both at once; but which above all holds all phenomena together. It is a macrocosm, containing all images, daimons, individual souls, including the human soul. But because it is daimonically contradictory, it can also be seen as a microcosm – an individual soul containing a profound collective level, in which we are connected to each other and, indeed, to all living things.

In Plato’s Timaeus, where the Soul of the World is first described, it is infused throughout the cosmos by the Demiurge, Plato’s creator-god, who thus makes a living ensouled universe. (The Soul of the World remains the root metaphor for all conceptions of the world as organism, including modern ecological ideas). In other words, as well as being transcendent, one level above our world, the world-soul is also immanent, just as traditional cultures imagine it. Not that they always have a concept for the world-soul – they do not abstract from the world but rather see the world in the first instance as animate, instinct with soul. “All things,” according to the ancients, from Thales to Plutarch, “are full of gods.”

Those who have emptied Nature of soul and reduced it to dead matter obeying mechanical laws, pejoratively call the traditional world-view animism – a term which effectively writes off what it claims to describe. To “animistic” cultures there is no such thing as animism. There is only Nature presenting itself in all its immediacy as daimon-ridden. Every sacred object and place had its genius or Jinn, its numen or naiad, as the case may be. The Romantics imagined Nature in this way. For them, Imagination was co-extensive with Creation, just like the Soul of the World. Every natural object was ambivalent, both spiritual and physical, as if dryad and tree were the inside and outside of the same thing. “To the eyes of a man of Imagination,” wrote Blake, “Nature is Imagination itself.”

When Jung discovered a collective unconscious beneath the personal unconscious – Freud’s subconscious – full of the repressed contents of our personal histories, he was consciously reviving the idea of the Soul of the World. The “archetypes” which dwell in the collective unconscious are as difficult to grasp as the gods to which Jung often compared them. Like their antecedents – Plato’s Forms and Kant’s a priori categories – they are abstract entities that nevertheless constitute the substrate of reality. The archetypes are, says Jung, unknowable in themselves; but, paradoxically, they can be known because they manifest themselves in images. The Neoplatonists put it another way: the gods who are in themselves “formless and unfigured” appear as daimons, many of whom are different images of the same god. Since Creation myths always place the gods prior to mankind, it seems just as likely that the gods imagine us as we imagine them. And this is what Jung claimed for the archetypes: “All we know is that we seem unable to imagine without them…. If we invent them, then we invent them according to the patterns they lay down.”

The archetypes do not only appear as single images; they also appear as those structures and patterns which form the recurring motifs of every mythology, such as the death and rebirth of the hero, the quest for hidden treasure, the journey to the Underworld, and the abduction of a mortal by a god. When he wanted to describe the dynamics of the psyche, Freud drew instinctively on myths for he understood that they are the true stories of the soul. However, while he confined himself to very few, such as the myth of Oedipus and of Electra, Jung went further and realized that all the myths are alive in the collective unconscious. What he did not perhaps realize so clearly is that no interpretation of myth really throws light on that myth. For instance, we may interpret the hero’s slaying of the dragon as the ego’s struggle to break free from the overpowering unconscious, but this tells us nothing new – it is merely a rather dreary variant of the original, more colorful archetypal story. Like the daimons who inhabit them, myths shape-shift to provide new versions of themselves for every generation; and I will shortly be suggesting that the modern myths we call “scientific fact” are new variations on old tales.

It was while he was investigating alchemy that Jung came to realize that imagination was “perhaps the most important key to the understanding of the opus.” He began to see it as something powerful and concrete, “a concentrated extract of the life forces, both physical and psychic” – in other words, “an intermediate realm between mind and matter, i.e. a psychic realm of subtle bodies.” Imagination was identical to the vital principle of alchemy, Mercurius, who was at once a substance and a god; the beginning, middle and end of all things; both Prime Matter and Philosophers’ Stone; common as dung yet the highest principle imaginable. To find his equivalent we would have to look outside Western culture altogether – to the Tao (or Dao) perhaps, or to the Hindu god Shiva, who dances the cosmos into existence, or to the Lord Krishna who is Lord of the Universe, yet not above causing domestic disorder and teasing milkmaids like a fairy.

While the Otherworld is both within us and outside us – both microcosm and macrocosm – depending on our point of view, psychology has located it exclusively within. Once again, it was Jung who, through his own experience of a shamanic descent into the underworld of myth, pioneered the idea that “there may well be a psyche ‘outside-the-body,’ a region so utterly different from my psychic sphere that one has to get out of oneself… to get there.” He re-imagined the unconscious as an “alien country outside the ego,” an Otherworld of gods, ancestors, and daimons just as traditional cultures describe. If it is within us, it is also as if, were we to travel deeply enough within, the unconscious turns inside out. “At bottom,” said Jung, “psyche is simply ‘the world.’”

How did the unconscious come to be situated inside us? The short answer lies with the new kind of consciousness – our own modern Western consciousness, in fact – which emerged at the beginning of the 17th century. Its novelty lay in two extraordinary claims for which Descartes was the spokesman. Firstly, it asserted that it was entirely separate from the world, which henceforth was to be regarded as exclusively outside us – it was the subject in relation to which everything else was an object. Secondly, it claimed to be the whole of the psyche, effectively denying the existence of the unconscious. Instead of the old interaction of microcosm and macrocosm, of human psyche and world, where each mirrored the other’s oceanic richness with marvelous congruence, we are left with an inner world diminished to mere consciousness, and cut off from a stark and soulless outer world.

The new consciousness was centered around a subject, an ego as we now call it, which was so bright, so focused, so narrow, that it threw the rest of the psyche into deep shadow. All the twilight intercourse between consciousness and the unconscious ceased. From the ego’s point of view, the unconscious did not exist. From its own point of view, of course, the unconscious existed more profoundly, more darkly, sealed off as it was from direct expression through consciousness. Its stifled cries were not heard for three hundred years, when they came to light in the depth psychologists’ consulting-rooms. Indeed, psychology was founded specifically to disinter this buried part of the psyche; or we could say that the suppressed unconscious grew so importunate that we were compelled to invent psychology in order to contain it. Being immortal, the daimons cannot be done away with but will always return to subvert the very ideologies that deny them, tormenting the over-ascetic in their cells or labs, maddening the over-rational with their irrationality. Scoured from Nature in the 19th century, they reappeared in our drawing-rooms as spirits of the séance; banned from the planet they return from on high as menacing extraterrestrials; denied by urban sophisticates, they cry out with alien voices from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

From the daimonic outlook, the situation could be simply put like this: banished from the outer world, soul and its daimons were forced to take refuge in the only place left to them – the human psyche. But this inner world had in turn been straitened to a brilliant but inhospitable consciousness, compelling them to hide in the darkness behind. The unconscious was filled with the outcast daimons – except that they did not so much fill it as form it. The modern unconscious was created by the new ego-consciousness’s separation of itself from the rest of the psyche and from the world at large. Although I have described this separation as two different movements, they are really one because, as Jung noticed, psyche is the world. To cut oneself off from psyche, soul, the unconscious, is also to become estranged from Nature.

The very strength of the modern Western ego is also its greatest shortcoming, namely its literalism. You are led to believe a lie, Blake wrote in a poem, “when you see not thro’ the eye.” To see with the eye alone is to see the world as if in single vision, as two-dimensional only, as literal. To see the world through the eye is to cultivate what Blake called “double vision,” which perceives in greater depth, beyond the literal to the metaphorical. He asked himself the question: “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” “O no, no,” he replies, “I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’” Single vision sees the sun only as the ordinary Guinea-sun; double vision sees it also as a heavenly host. We need double vision to see the daimons – to see that they are real, but not literally so. Unfortunately we have become so literal-minded that the only reality we recognize is literal reality which, by definition, rules out daimons.

Reality is far from being intrinsically literal. It is literalized by the peculiar perspective of our modern consciousness. It is peculiar because it is the only perspective which insists that it is not a perspective at all but a true vision of the actual world. It has in fact lost perspective because “perspective” means “seeing through,” and it fails to see through itself. So forceful is the literalism of our world-view that it is almost impossible for us to grasp that it is exactly that – a view – and not the world. The world we inhabit, then, is seen through a particular perspective, framed by imagination – in short, by a myth. There is always another world according to other perspectives, other myths. The collective unconscious, imagination, and the Soul of the World are all models of this Otherworld, all analogous to each other, all metaphors for a daimonic reality – which is itself another metaphor. The ultimate reality to which these models refer is unknown. It is a mystery.

The first task for us moderns is to learn to see through our literalism in order to restore Romantic double vision. For example, if I may recapitulate for a moment: the daimons inhabit another, often subterranean, world which fleetingly interacts with ours. They are both material and immaterial, both there and not-there – often small, always elusive shape-shifters whose world is characterized by distortions of time and space and, above all, by an intrinsic uncertainty. The point is that the words “subatomic particles” could be substituted for the word “daimons” without any loss of accuracy. This is not a coincidence – the subatomic realm, like the unconscious, is where the daimons took refuge once they were banished from their natural habitats. We understand such particles as electrons literally – we even use them in our war against materialism. But electrons might be specifically designed to re-introduce us to the reality of daimons. They cannot, that is, be taken any more literally than the little people (or any less).

If the realm of subatomic particles is a literalized image of the immanent Otherworld, the transcendent Otherworld is literalized by our picture of the cosmos, whose fantastic denizens – Black Holes, Quasars, Dark Matter – resemble the ogres of fairy tales or else the elements of some ancient Gnostic myth. Within a black hole, for instance, there lurks a singularity about which nothing can be known because all the laws of physics break down at this point. Nor can it ever be observed directly because nothing can escape from it, not even light. Since time slows to nothing at the speed of light, anything crossing the “event horizon” of a black hole will (from the viewpoint of an observer outside) take an infinite amount of time to reach the center. And so on. It is easy to see that whatever else a black hole is, it is a knot of mythic resonances, an Otherworld where as usual everything is reversed and where time is distorted. Like an archetype or god, its influence is all the more powerful for being invisible and unknowable. As a daimon in a soulless universe, a black hole can only manifest itself as a devouring Charybdis that whirls everything in its vicinity into oblivion. It is incomparably smaller than a star but its power is commensurately greater. It shape-shifts – black holes as tiny as atomic nuclei have been proposed. It is a materialistic image of the Unknown God who dwells in the unfathomable abyss and a negative image of the One beloved of the Neoplatonists.

The rational ego cannot finally cut itself off from soul, but its denial of soul’s myriad images leaves an empty void which in turn is mirrored in the universe at large.

The dark abyss of space punctuated by tiny lights, like the Gnostic’s soul-sparks, is the image of the modern soul – or soullessness. The cosmologists try to fill the void with their gods, which are Big Numbers. But the millions of light years and squillions of stars fail to recapture a soul which is impervious to quantity and can only be replenished by quality. Thus, no matter how cosmologists multiply the numbers of galaxies, they still find themselves about ninety per cent short of the matter they need to account for the equilibrium of the universe. They have to postulate the existence of a vast amount of invisible “dark matter.” Most of this has to consist of exotic kinds of “virtual particles,” unlike any actually detected by nuclear physicists. These particles are extremely transitory and elusive yet all around us without our knowing it…. We can see them for what they are by now, I hope. Modern cosmology tells us as much about the modern unconscious as about the universe. For whatever we repress gathers force in the unconscious and throws a shadow over the world; and “dark matter” is precisely the shadow of the imaginative fullness we have denied to our cosmos.

Once we begin to see through literalisms, we begin to see them everywhere. For example, take Darwin’s theory of evolution. It predicts a vast number of fossils to link one genus to another (e.g. fishes to reptiles, birds to mammals) and even more fossils to link one species to another (e.g. the earliest mammal, possibly a small rodent, to humans). In fact, not a single intermediate fossil has been found, except possibly one (viz: archaeopteryx – which may well be a forgery). Why do evolutionists go on believing in evolution? Because it is a powerful Creation myth which demands belief.

The place where species really change into another is not in Nature but in myth. Species of gods and daimons are always appearing to humans in animal form. The interchangeability of humans and animals is a metaphor for the reciprocal relationship between this world and the Otherworld. All “missing links” are literal versions of the mediating daimons; the idea of species mutating, a literalization of daimonic shape-changing. Many traditional cultures from West Africa to Australia believe that the ancestors from which they are descended are god-like animals. Yet they would be incredulous at our literal belief in this, and our attempts to prove that we are descended from a common ancestor of apes and ourselves. The evolutionary chain is a literalization of mythic genealogy.

Besides, the theory of evolution is not as new a myth as we usually think. Structural anthropology has shown how myths that look very different on the surface are in fact variants of the same myth. For example, Creation myths are traditionally devolutionary. They describe how we are descended from gods or god-like ancestors, and our present state is fallen, a regression from the perfection of the past. We are inferior to our forebears. Our task is to recreate the conditions of Eden or Arcadia, the state of past harmony.

Only our Western Creation myth is evolutionary. It describes how we have ascended from animals and our present state is advanced, a progress from the imperfection of the past. We are superior to our forebears. Our task is to create the conditions of the New Jerusalem or Utopia, the state of future harmony.

We notice that these two myths are not so very different. They are symmetrical but inverted. So, while the evolutionary myth claims that it is not a myth at all, but history – and superseding all other myths – we see that it is really a variant of the devolutionary myth, an eccentric variant that wants to take itself literally.

The modern ego’s literalizing drive means that its scientific myths have to be acted out; the Otherworld has to be turned into this world. The supernatural and magical powers of the heroes and shamans who travel through the Otherworld are mechanically approximated by our technology. Guns and bullets supply the ability to do occult harm at a distance; telephony and radio supply the ability to communicate telepathically over long distances (the telescope is a kind of second sight, a way of seeing what is happening far away); X-rays and surgery literalize the shaman’s ability to “see inside” his patients and to extract (by hand or by sucking!) the cause of the disease; aircraft and rockets literalize magical flight. The search for electricity was originally the quest for the “light of Nature,” a mystical counterpart to the ordinary light of fire or sun which could shine suddenly in the darkest night, surrounding every visit of a god or goddess, such as the Virgin Mary, or indeed every visitation from an angel or UFO. The closer science came to harnessing it, the more its elusive volatile nature, as the alchemists say, became fixed. Its mystical properties were distilled away, leaving only the dross of ordinary light. Illumination was literalized into mere light, whose profane brightness and glare were inimical to the dim sacred light in which true enlightenment occurs.

Television’s strange power to addict us stems from its literalization of Imagination itself: we gaze enchanted at the “little people” in the artificial Otherworld on the screen. Because television feeds us images which are not, as Plato would say, representations of Eternal Forms (or, as we might say, Art), we remain – our souls remain – unnourished. We crave more images, and more, in the vain hope of that repletion which only relations with an authentic Otherworld can give. Indeed, whenever technology is divorced from true imagination it always proliferates manically, and we always want more – more machines, more images, and now more “information,” as if this quantitative “more” could fill the void; as if “information” were knowledge. Hence, however useful a tool a world-wide web of information is, it will never become the world-soul it is unconsciously imitating because it is a web spun out of our own entrails. Computer technology constantly drives towards the literalizing of daimonic reality. Its “chips” are little souls to animate everything from “smart” toasters to bombs; its cyberspace is a fantasy Otherworld; “virtual reality” a counterfeit daimonic reality. We are fooled by the cleverness of computers into thinking that we can create an Otherworld and manipulate it. But the Otherworld is not our creation – if anything, it creates us. Nor can we manipulate it – we can only be transformed by it.

The transformation central to all cultures and essential to our own is death, not of the body, but of the ego. Because the ego of its nature clings violently to life – that is, to the reality it thinks is the only reality – it can only be uprooted by external violence. This is what is meant by the traditional performance of initiation rites. The pattern of initiation is laid down by the gods or ancestors, and embodied most fully in the initiations of the tribe’s shamans, who, in trance or ecstasy, travel into the Otherworld to be dismembered by daimons, raised up again and given supernatural knowledge and power. It is of course not the literal body which is dismembered but the literalistic perspective of the ego (which is so often carried by the body).

The rites of passage accorded young people at puberty are commonly a replication of shamanic initiation, but in concrete form, with the daimons being played by the elders of the tribe. The initiates are abducted at dead of night and systematically terrorised: they are left without food and water for days in a pit, sometimes buried in the darkness of a symbolic grave; they are beaten, pierced, given scars or tattoos, and, above all, painfully circumcised. Finally, after this near-death experience, they are vouchsafed a blinding revelation: all the most secret myths and lore of the tribe.

Puberty rites transform the child into an adult. If they are delayed, young people can sometimes reach their early twenties while still remaining children. No initiation, no adulthood. Ritual transformation – imaginative transformation – takes precedence over merely biological, only literal, change. It is little wonder, then, that Western adolescents – who are deprived of any official initiation rites – seek them out through home-made Dionysian cults of drugs, sex, drink, and wild dancing. They naturally long to get out of their heads and into the Otherworld. They positively need fear and pain and deprivation to know if they can stand it, know if they are men and women, know who they are. They want scars, tattoos, and piercings to show off. Some even commit crimes specifically to incur punishment – the initiation of prison – only to be given “counseling” instead.

Our humane liberal culture has a horror of that fear and pain which seems to be essential to initiation. Still, luckily, there is always enough suffering to go round. Bereavement, loss, sickness numb and gut and dismember us. We are usually encouraged to seek a cure for these experiences rather than to use them for transformation, for self-initiation. But it is often a mistake to medicalize suffering – and death – because they are primarily matters of the soul, not the body. If I were Supreme Ruler, I would institute Mystery Schools like those of the Greeks at Eleusis where young people would be initiated into a vision of the Soul of the World which would inform their whole lives.

Until that happens, it might be advisable to seek out whatever contact with the Otherworld we may, and especially to pay attention to daimons in whatever guise they appear; for “whoever denies the daimons,” wrote that great Neoplatonist Plutarch, “breaks the chain that unites the world to God.” We should try and restore the Soul of the World. This may not be impossible. Just as the individual soul was re-discovered through psychopathological symptoms, so might the ecological crisis be read as the collective soul crying out for attention. Everything in Nature that we could turn to if all else failed, has apparently turned against us: air, sunlight, rainfall – all are said to be polluted, carcinogenic, acid, harboring poison. Part of the pollution is the way that, even if literal pollution is not certain, we feel it to be so. Paranoia is a way of life as we sense attack from unseen agents all around us – barely detectable, shape-changing viruses, germs, invisible “rays” (such as microwaves) in the air and even poisons in food full of putative pesticides and chemicals. And so on.

This paranoid sense of the world conspiring against us is also, of course, a symptom of the world reviving. We have declared it so much dead machinery for so long that when it comes back to life, ensouled – animated – as of old, it comes back seemingly as death itself. The outcast daimons return as the vengeful Furies of lethal pathological symptoms.

If we want to enthrone the Soul of the World in her original glory, we will have to do more than introduce environmental remedies which, however well meaning, tend to stand at an equal and opposite pole – that is, to be as literalistic as the damage we do. We have to cultivate a new perspective, or seeing through; and a sense of metaphor, a seeing double. It may even take a bit a madness, a smidgen of ecstasy, if we are to shift our obdurate literalism and impeach the imperious ego. We can always make a start by developing a better aesthetic sense, an appreciation of beauty, which is the first attribute of soul. For the way we see the world can restore its soul, and the way the world is ensouled can restore our vision.

This article was previously published in Elixir Magazine, Issue 3 on Dreamlife, Autumn 2006.

Patrick Harpur published two novels, The Serpent's Circle and The Rapture, before embarking on a long study of the Western esoteric tradition which found expression in his alchemical romance Mercurius; or, the Marriage of Heaven and Earth; in his study of visions and apparitions, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld; and in his history of the Imagination, The Philosophers' Secret Fire. Harpur's most recent title is A Complete Guide to the Soul published by Rider in 2010.

Read more about Patrick Harpur

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24 February 2011

Tagged Under
cosmology, wisdom, transformation, creation, mystery school, Christianity, Gods, Otherworld, daimons, myth, Underworld, Greek,
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