There Be Dragons! Or Mythopoeisis, Chaos, Catastrophe and Evolution

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"If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded". - Mircea Eliade

olaus-magnus-sea-serpent

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."

tiamar.jpeg.scaled500In order to bring the world into being, the chaos must be sublimated into a form. It must be yielded to order. The Sumerian creation myth holds that Marduk fashioned the world only after having slain Tiamat, the great marine monster, and constructed the world out of its body. Yahweh was able to create the universe after defeating the monster Rahab.

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.

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"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.

marcianus.gif.scaled500In this age, chaos is no longer a stranger. The borderline, no matter how artificial, between the human world and the larger life of the planet in which we are embedded can no longer be sustained. As global climate change continues, storms hit where they hadn't before, and many areas of the world are already suffering the effect of such drastic shifts in global temperature. These affect everything from ecosystems to submerged coastlines, where cities are a critical part of human cultural ecosystems.

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)

Endnotes

(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.

Sources

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.

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7 comments

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 16 September 2011 07:46 posted by Bergen Vermette

    As a Canadian I didn't know the significance of the Washington monument, so I looked it up. And damn, its cracking is one powerful symbol.

    For those like me who don't know about this monument: It was once the tallest structure in the world, it remains the tallest stone structure and was erected in honour of the first US president George Washington, back in the 1800's.

    If the monument reminds us of the virtus of the American hero George Washington, its cracking could symbolize a betrayal of those values, or a deterioration of the State that was build upon those values. Wikipedia describes GW a bit below. The quote lends further potency to the symbol's cracking:

    "Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution… successfully brought rival factions together to create a unified nation… built a strong, well-financed national government that avoided war… George Washington's farewell address was a primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars."

    Yep, I'd definitely say GW's original intentions, like his monument, have seen better days. Of course, it's easy to read too much into these things, we don't want to start burning witches. But speaking about signs and symbols lends situations meaning and illuminates truths in ways that speak to us with subtlety and poetry.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 16 September 2011 07:50 posted by Bergen Vermette

    One other small but not insignificant point - - I completely agree with your statement: "evolution is not linear, but spiral-like: a combination of both archetypal cycles and seasons and novel reiterations and performances of those seasons. "

    I often catch myself thinking about the idea of evolution, or even history, in a linear way. I know it can't be true but it's such a habit of our time and culture. It takes effort to break. One re-imagining of evolution that I've found helpful is that of a crashing wall of water.

    Imagine the floodgates of a dam are opened onto a causeway, water comes rushing out, crashing forward. The water pushes forward, but the same water doesn't always lead the way. Water that was once in the front will get sucked under and back, as new water from the rear crashes over it - now leading the way. Then even newer water crashes over that water until it too is folded back into the larger body. In this cyclical yet forward-moving way the water pushes ahead while simultaneously collapsing back in on itself. The whole scene becomes a churning with discernible direction but no telling what will be happening at any given time. It's powerful and relentless, but dynamic and supple. It's also one process, no part is fully separate from the rest.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 17 September 2011 01:07 posted by Chris Dierkes

    The Washington Monument crack is interesting. But I wouldn't push it too too far.

    In terms of spirals, I like Michael Lind's notion that the US is already in its 4th Republic (4th iteration):

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2008/11/07/fourth_republic

    The US is so radically removed--for so many reasons--from its foundation that somebody like Ron Paul is so out there.

    http://www.beamsandstruts.com/bits-a-pieces/item/595-ron-paul-a-tablespoon-of-common-sense-with-a-dash-of-just-plain-crazy

    (I just crossed threads...I know in Ghostbusters they said not to do that :).

    And now I would say we exist in the limbo between the 3rd Republic (The New Deal) and the full establishment of the 4th (yet to be named).

    Since we're on grand historical arcs, there's an interesting parallel I think between Lind's 4 US Republics and a book I just finished reading: Capitalism 4.0 by Anatole Kaletsky.

    http://www.amazon.com/Capitalism-4-0-Economy-Aftermath-ebook/dp/B003P9XCHG

    His 4 iterations of capitalism basically line up with Lind's 4 Republics.

    Capitalism 1: early liberal trade era (Smith, Ricardo, etc.)
    Capitalism 2: Later Industrial Revolution (up to Great Depres.)
    Capitalism 3: New Deal
    Capitalism 4: post New Deal, contemporary

    The recent economic depression is the death of Capitalism 3.0 (or should be), both in its left-wing Keynesian formulations and its right-wing neoliberal formulations.

    I would say the major failure of the progressives to gain a foothold in the midst of all this has not been Obama's bipartisan tendencies. But the fact that they don't have another economic theory on tap to offer a new social contract.

    -
    Sidenotes: This is a great piece, thanks J. And Berg I love the water on the causeway analogy.

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Wednesday, 21 September 2011 18:03 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Bergen!

    "But speaking about signs and symbols lends situations meaning and illuminates truths in ways that speak to us with subtlety and poetry."

    Yes! Totally agree here. Symbols can help illuminate and enrich our understanding of events which occur, they layer them or reveal some kind of depth to their significance at our place in time.

    "Imagine the floodgates of a dam are opened onto a causeway, water comes rushing out, crashing forward. The water pushes forward, but the same water doesn't always lead the way. Water that was once in the front will get sucked under and back, as new water from the rear crashes over it - now leading the way. Then even newer water crashes over that water until it too is folded back into the larger body. "

    Goodness, I think this is one of the best metaphors for evolution I've heard. :-o

    Love the image and it does the movement of evolution great justice. Sure, there's a general flow or stream or thrust and we can observe that over vast stretches of time - but the way in which it moves is not in a simplistic, linear direction, but splashing all over the place. Maybe this has something to say about self-emergent systems. How should, or could we, view chaos? As merely a the splashing about of streams or the eventual emergence of a flow, which is observable if we are patient and perhaps imaginative enough to try to perceive the big picture?

    Heya Chris!

    Thanks for sharing all of this with us. I was not familiar with Michael Lind. I imagine that the new republic, or era, will be influenced heavily by the new digital, international and global era. I hope nothing congeals too quickly, because the global communications revolution is still rapidly re-wiring social organization. In my opinion at least, I'm betting there will be new political and economic systems that arise and resemble more the self-emergent and autopoietic systems in biology and the web than legal systems that the last republic was formed in. just a hunch!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 28 September 2011 21:43 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Hi Jeremy, thanks for this great piece. I feel it's such an important voice to have around in this extremely turbulent and volatile time. That uncertainty can bring about so much fear and gloom, but turn it just slightly as you've done and you realize it's also a time of great potential, actually a really wonderful time to be alive.

    One of the (many) things I love about your writing is your inclusion of mythos and the mythic. I know from following links in your Facebook feed that you're at least somewhat connected to a movement that surrounds a revival in myth and ways of understanding and integrating the mythic dimension.

    In your post on EL called "Whose Cultural Transformation", you write:

    "The larger cultural transformation does not belong to any one community--but is being articulated by many philosophers and sub-cultures in particular ways. I think this is important to keep in mind, and hopefully encourage dialogue to be globally and historically perspective (a-perspectival)".

    http://evolutionarylandscapes.com/whose-cultural-transformation

    In the spirit of that statement, I was wondering if you could tell myself and other readers about this mythic revival (if that's the right way to frame it) and how you see it in the larger picture(s). A few resources would be great too, websites or authors to look into. I've been turned on to John David Ebert through your Facebook postings, and I'm really loving his work. In fact, his essay "Ancient Myth and Modern Science: A Reconsideration" is still blowing my mind and rattling some wind throughout my system. Here's one passage from that that sticks out:

    “Today we turn to science for our knowledge of what the universe looks like, and when we turn to examine certain scientific narratives of the origins of things with an eye for the deep structures that these narratives might have in common with ancient myths, we find surprising parallels. An example is the current scientific story of the creation of the universe. The idea of what has come to be known as the Big Bang was first put forth by a Catholic priest, the Abbe Georges Lemaitre, who in 1927 suggested that the universe might have arisen from a sort of “primal atom” of matter and energy. The idea of the emergence of the universe from a cosmic egg is, however, a mythological one as well, found all over the world. Here is another creation myth from the Upanishads:

    In the beginning, this world was nonbeing. This nonbeing became being. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay there for a year. It burst asunder. One part of the eggshell was of silver, the other part was of gold”.

    The essay is loaded with fascinating examples like this, and my system/worldview is still trying to rejig to incorporate the view of that essay. Anyway, Ebert is one example, but I'm sure you know of others. It would be nice for us here at Beams to locate that movement and to try and start integrating more and more of the work being done there. Thanks as always Jeremy, keep up the great work!

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Thursday, 13 October 2011 05:52 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hey Trevor,

    I'd love to share a bit of my adventures into these mythic-revival communities. The gist of their philosophy is a revival of the imagination and the esoteric in a technocratic and hyper-rational culture, which avoids delving too deeply into either the unconscious or the mystical. If there are many paths to a spiritual awakening, or transformation, then I suppose you could say the fascination with myth is a vehicle and path for transcendence and connectivity with the divine.

    Imagination and mysticism, creativity and the Creator have always gone hand in hand. So these folks are interested in the same passions that are present in Blake's poetry or in the strange imagination of the medieval alchemists.

    Myth is relevant for us because it informs us about ourselves. It is an excellent teacher and often contains within it infinite interpretations and paths (a myth is never singular, it's like the many arms of shiva - always revealing something and always re-contextualizing itself). This is the wonder of the imagination, or what Henry Corbin called the "imaginalis mundi." It has a sort of ontological status, or dimension to itself. And it is often more than the waking, conscious egoic consciousness can contain. So we have to go into altered states, like a dream or a stream-of-consciousness painting, or an artist's vision of a painting, in order to access it. And even then, sometimes the imagination is so densely packed with insight and paradox its insight is not recognized immediately.

    Premodern societies sort of used the imagination as a kind of "given," in the same way scientists use their assumptions about material reality and reason as a "given" in which to work out knowledge. So our ancestors used the imagination quite naturally in order to know the world, as Ebert so aptly pointed out. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that there are two kinds of science: intuitive and rational. The latter is what we have today, based upon a limited causality (x specifically causes y). But the former is an infinite causality, in which one thing is connected to all things in a seamless web of meaning. Neither intuitive science nor rational science alone are the answer to our modern predicament. The elite of the past had an inner science of Pythagoras and the music of the spheres to work with, today we have geneticists and engineers and quantum physicists. In many ways, the mythic imagination is the mirror opposite of our contemporary world's scientific imagination. But that's just it, both are mirrors of each other. Science is mythic in its narratives, myth is scientific in its dreaming. I find this inter-penetrating to be the most fascinating aspect!

    What I find to be the most hopeful about contemporary science, which has taken the role of myth, is that it can potentially decentralize knowledge - now there will always be a priestly class, so to speak, but their role in relationship to the rest of society can change. Priests can be mystics, as the shaman was to the tribe. So I'm hoping that the transparency of the information age (hopefully transparent) will decentralize the scientist, so he is not merely someone inventing our future at MIT but also working locally to transform human life for the better, and in accordance with the rest of the biosphere. If the scientist is the mirror image of the ancient priest, can he/she now become the mirror image of the mystic?

    And that's another challenge the mystic has always had. There has never been a time where mysticism was the right of all, accessible and transparent to all. The secrets of Pythagoras were never given to the world openly. It remained for an educated upper class. Esotericism has never truly been democratized. So maybe in this age, with the return of myth as an important recognized dimension of reality, of the human experience, we can bring the two together. Mystics an scientists, artists and engineers. The inner and outer worlds, really.

    I guess the one dimension that's often missed today, because of our bias as a technocratic society, is the importance of the unconscious and the imagination. These societies are attempting to incorporate those very things in order to create a more holistic culture.

    So what some of these communities are trying to do is create a kind of Esoteric Renaissance: http://www.esalenctr.org/display/ren.cfm ~ Scarlet Imprint, an esoteric publishing house, has a good article about the recent Breaking Convention, a multidisciplinary meeting on psychedelic consciousness: http://scarletimprint.blogspot.com/2011/04/cognitive-sovereignty-breaking.html

    Then there was the Daimonic Imagination Conference:

    http://scarletimprint.blogspot.com/2011/05/daimonic-imagination.html

    "Anthropologists, Jungians, philosophers and historians all rubbed elbow patches, and none questioned the existence of the Daimon, but rather how we can meaningfully discuss the experience. It was a delightful banquet of parthenogenesis and psychedelics, fairies and Ficino. Debate and conversation was lively and well intentioned, the boundaries between disciplines were found to be permeable."

    Finally there is Weaponized, a publishing house which just released The Immanence of Myth, a big collaborative publication on mythology in the modern world. I'd recommend that as a great place to start (at least check out the introduction, and free chapters they offer): http://www.weaponized.net/post/9410759757/weaponized-is-proud-to-announce-that-the

    "Thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Karl Kerenyi, and many others have helped to popularize an awareness of the psychological significance of archaic myth inside, as well as outside, the ivory tower of academia. However, the vast majority of their work has been focused on understanding and legitimizing the myths of the past.

    The Immanence of Myth uses a deep but also conversational, honest and even subversive approach towards looking at the issue of mythology in our lives today, especially as the book moves towards personal mythology and conversations with current mythic artists."


    A few examples I've come across (though in no way limited to this...)

    Modern Mythology - http://www.modernmythology.net/

    An excellent blog writing about contemporary issues, like politics or media or the mythic dimensions of the super hero.

    Sophia Perennis - http://www.sophiaperennis.com/

    a hub of Perennialist scholars. They are extremely well read and you will find some great works there. Just be wary of their dismissive attitude towards evolution and anything contemporary. They really romanticize premodern societies, because they rightly point out modern societies have lost a sense of the sacred and no longer hold transcendence to be at the core of their societies. I've found this to be a challenge, because with their knowledge, I can think of no better position to be in to do a jig with the scientists and find parallels between myth and science.

    The Eyeless Owl is a great blog by a friend of mine, David Metcalfe (he did the logo art for EL).

    http://theeyelessowl.wordpress.com/about/

    His blog varies in subject but he is widely read in esoteric and traditional works. Overall, he is as enthusiastic in an esoteric/mythical revival or renaissance in the modern day, re-contextualized for the 21st century but without losing the potency of esoteric traditions.

    Esalen Center's Esoteric Renaissance: http://www.esalenctr.org/display/ren.cfm

    Phoenix Rising Academy: Esoteric Studies, Creative Arts
    http://phoenixrising.org.gr/ - See the founder's interview with David Metcalfe: Art, Initiation, and the Inner Ontological Shift: http://theeyelessowl.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/749/

    Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung are all excellent places to start. Unlike some of their proponents, each of these thinkers can produce wonderful fruits when placed in the same garden as scientific and contemporary authors (There be Dragons, and Ebert's article are a perfect example). But someone who definitely weaves them all together is Bill Thompson and his work, Falling Bodies, Imaginary Landscape, and Coming into Being.

    Anyhow, this answer is so long! Did I get all the questions?

    Thanks for your input Trevor, this is always exciting to explore in dialogue.

    All the best,

    Jeremy

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 17 October 2011 20:56 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks for taking the time to do that Jeremy, great resources and breakdown of what the mythic-revival movement is all about. That should keep folks busy for a while. :) Looking forward to following as many as these threads as possible, thanks again.

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