"If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded". - Mircea Eliade
I write this in the midst of the hurricane, now bearing down on the coasts of Long Island, New York. As the air is charged with the electricity and energy of the storm, so too blowing in is a wave of inspiration. Here in the Northeastern coast of the United States, we are not very familiar with the realities of disaster, which, elsewhere in the world, can be part of daily existence. But something more is going on than a simple hurricane, and we can sense that. Often it is the artists who foretell a change in the weather, so to speak, and intuit that a shift in both world and worldview is occurring. We can look to the unintended meaning that the artist picks up like a receiver, assimilating the subtle signs that surround us but escape our conscious mind from recognition. For the individual, these intuitions come to us in dreams, but on a collective level, movies, myths and books are our culture's dreams. Therefore, it's important to listen to them. Sometimes fiction can say things that are surprisingly reflective what is really going on.
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have been fascinated with dragons. From the Americas, to Europe, the Middle-East and China, the mythical creature has reared its head in local mythology. Why is that? What is it about the image about the dragon that wields such potent meaning that it occurs the world over? Perhaps it is that very act - occurrence, that is, of the world itself, that the dragon yields its significance.
"The dragon," says Mircea Eliade, "is the paradigmatic figure of the marine monster, of the primordial snake, symbol of the cosmic waters, of darkness, night, and death--in short, of the amorphous and virtual, of everything that has not yet acquired a "form."
Perhaps it is appropriate that I felt inspired to write about these primordial sea serpents as one bears down upon New York's shores. The ocean itself, the primordial sea, is a symbol of all that has not been fashioned into order. It is the formless world out of which the sacred itself was able to triumph. An irruption of the sacred, says Eliade, is at the heart of what it meant to live in an ancient religious society. One cannot build a city without re-enacting the creation of the world, and every year, "the victory of the gods over the dragon must be symbollically repeated...for each year the world must be created a new." Hence the importance of ritual. The difference, then, between a sacred space and a profane is as clear as a lotus from the mud--it is the irruption of a higher order out of the cosmic, undifferentiated waters of chaos. When we think about our contemporary scientific narrative, whereby a swirling formless nebula condensed to form our solar system, we can appreciate just how powerful this archetypal story is.
"It is worth observing that the same images are still used in our own day to formulate the dangers that threaten a certain type of civilization; we speak of the chaos, the disorder, the darkness that will overwhelm 'our world." All these terms express the abolution of an order, a cosmos, an organic structure, and reimmersion in the state of fluidity, of formlesslness--in short, chaos." - Eliade
The serpent is also a potent symbol of divine consciousness. The primordial spark that rests within us at the base of the spine awaits activation, and through the process of initiation and Kundalini, we can reverse the Fall. Ouroboros is a serpent that, in consuming itself, recreates the world. Shakti is the divine and creative ecstasy, the movement of the world and the power of becoming. She is the counterpart to Shiva, the still and primordial deity that does not become, but simply is. The two, together, create a dance, and together they express the manifest and unmanifest divine.
It might even be thought of as a synchronicity that days before Irene, a 6.0 earthquake rattled D.C., leaving a symbolic crack atop the Washington monument (1). But what does this mean, beside the implications of doom and gloom? If we take a few hints from what some theorists are saying about cultural evolution, we can suggest that a chaotic period often exists between the emergence of new equilibrium. These chaotic bifurcations overturn a world order, and in the fray between, establish new centers of gravity for the dust to settle. Similar to this idea from chaos theory is Stephen Jay Gould's punctuated equilibrium: rather than a linear state of cumulative adaptations, evolution has relatively stable periods followed by rapid emergence of adaptations.
When we take all these ideas and bring them back to what Eliade describes as a hierophany, a manifestation of the sacred, we can contemplate the evolutionary cycles both in biology and culture as a performance of genesis, or the divine act of creating the cosmos. This dance, between chaos and creation, life and death, together tell us the larger story of the Earth. So it is precisely in these times of utter chaos and collapse that the seeds of a new order are sewn, carefully, and wait for the soil to be overturned so that they may spring to life.
The ancient human societies viewed time as purely cylical. It manifested in the seasons and went round and round, from Dark Age to Golden Age, winter to summer. The Hindu Yugas are an excellent example of just such a cosmology. What I find to be more interesting is taking this imaginative and sacred understanding of time and placing it in the presence of scientific narratives. What we have then is a kind of cycle of history where human beings go through periods of Dark Ages, followed by new cultural epochs which generate whole new relationships to the Earth, each other, and cosmos (and what we consider the cosmos changes). What often precipitated these dark ages was a series of catastophies, gradually wearing down a culture and its lifelines until there was simply too much chaos to maintain equilibrium, and collapse followed. According to William Thompson, we have gone through at least four dark ages:
1. Mesolithic- 9500 B.C.E.
2. Kurgan Invasions - 4500 B.C.E.
3. Aegean - 1400-800 B.C.E.
4. European - 476-800 C.E.
What often causes these Dark Ages is usually linked to some intrinsic habit a culture is doing, and cannot stop itself from in order to prevent collapse. Usually, these are the Achilles heels of a civilization. For us, our supreme ability to harvest resources and manipulate the physical environment is our addiction and our lifeline, and it will also be our downfall. You can attribute this to another evolutionary idea--natural drift. This is a more positive side to evolution, whereby a series of little events, let's say, a hunter-gatherer collecting grains, eventually leads to a buildup of a new way of life and a social transformation. Normal, relative behavior leads to an unforeseen but natural emergence of new order.
So what is the significance of our current age? We have been doing this thing called "civilization" for a while now. More specifically, our industrial, global civilization which runs on fossil fuels and based upon endless economic profit--is the "age" that is potentially at an end. Human beings will always rise above the ages they live in, just as life itself rises above any catastrophe or mass extinction it might experience. The question, however, is whether the Earth will allow us to sustain ourselves. Will it endure human beings, who do not seem to able to manage themselves or find a sustainable co-existence with the Earth?
Most importantly how can we change our relationship to the serpent known as chaos? Civilization has demonized the serpent, and in our creation stories we have chopped up the chaos and made order upon it. Perhaps we do not need to transcend this idea as much as we have to re-contextualize it for our planetary, ecological age. If you believe that these evolutionary cycles, which occur in rhythms, have a larger theme to them--and that is emergence--then around this bend of the spiral, how can the human imagination learn to work with this watery serpent? Can we perform a "Dance of Dragons?"
(Note the mythopoetic imagery. Both serpent and woman have been potent symbols of Nature, creation and chaos)
Back to mythopoeisis for a moment: last spring HBO aired its latest show, Game of Thrones, and it was a major hit. I often try to note the synchronistic appearances of certain images and themes in popular culture as they relate to what's going on in the world. Note the story behind Game of Thrones: dragons are a thing of the past (long ago conquered - the only remains are now fossils), and supernatural beings are also a faded memory (the White Walkers). Yet, "winter is coming," and what we thought was buried in the past was only biding its time for another return.
In this age, Tiamat has returned. We can no longer defeat the beast in the ways which we had once did. Just as chaos has returned in a novel way, we must rise to the challenge with an equally novel creative act, and bring order to the cosmos (or perhaps just human societies) once again. Along the spiral of evolution, history repeats itself. Cyclic time occurs, but in the wisdom of Vico, it does so novelly and often with a new form of transcendence that was not possible before.
It's also worth considering that evolution is not linear, but spiral-like: a combination of both archetypal cycles and seasons and novel reiterations and performances of those seasons. This creates emergence, and history then becomes an unfolding. Of what? That we could save for another story.
(This article was originally published at Evolutionary Landscapes)
(1) The Arunta tribe's creation myth involves a sacred pole fashioned by Numbakula, a divine being, from a gum tree. The pole, like many sacred symbols, is a cosmic axis that connects our world with the world of divine, and thus makes our world habitable. If the pole is broken, it signifies both a symbolic and literal (the two were not differentiated) end of the world, and a collapse back into chaos. The fact that the Washington monument, both an ancient Egyptian symbol and icon of an American "cosmic axis," was cracked by the D.C. Earthquake is telling. If you believe in these sorts of things, it is certainly something to contemplate.
Thompson, William Irwin. Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. New York: St. Martin's, 1996. Print.
Eliade, Mircea, and Willard R. Trask. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Print.