MORE THAN MERE METAPHORS
An introduction to the suprahuman
THE TERROR OF HISTORY
In Mircea Eliade’s view, ancient peoples believed their myths to occur in a remote ‘sacred time’. Opposite of this was the ‘profane time’ of their own, and our, day-to-day lives. Profane time followed a linear path, accumulating changes and unique events as it went on. Sacred time had a more limited amount of content, usually a cosmic creation, sagas of heroes and gods, a final dissolution, and an eventual rebirth. It was sacred time that was more revered by the ancients. Sacred time was the central point of the cosmos which our world only imitated. We were the incidental bystanders to far greater processes.
These cycles may have been natural for the gods and spirits, but our own lives weren’t as predictable. Seeking to overcome the uncertainty of our existence, we once tried to link the events of our personal and communal lives with those of the myths in hopes of gaining a sense of direction and purpose. Understanding the deeper significance of a creation myth or the trials of a cultural hero gave us insight into the nature of the world and the values we should live by. The patterns in the sacred sphere reflected those in the profane. Achievements of harmony or victory in the heavens gave inspiration to those below. Likewise, defeats and raptures gave warning that all entities within the cosmos, the gods included, were bound to certain limits.
Imagining sacred time can be difficult on the first encounter with the term. It may be helpful to add an additional sense of space to it, but that may conflate it with some kind of other dimension, which isn’t quite it either. Sacred time occurred here, in a sense, but not here in another. No description will be exact and it varies over cultures and across time. Trying to give sacred time a literal definition is not the point. The concept exists to explain something that is beyond literal description. For now, imagine it this way:
You are a member of an impoverished community. Everyday carries the risk of total ruin. You are surrounded on all sides by enemies and the land itself can be fickle. Then one day a blueprint arrives. Perhaps it was dropped from the sky as a gift, perhaps it was stolen by a cunning individual. The blueprint comes from a far off and greatly revered people and describes the construction of some immense infrastructure project, something like a dam or a powerplant. The people from which the plan came were afflicted by the same threats and now you have one of their secrets to stability. You’ve heard rumors of these far-off people, some in the community even claim to have had contact with them at times. It’s not clear if they’re still around or how powerful they currently are but, in the meantime, you have this plan that describes what must be built, what kind of jobs must be assigned in order to build it, and what rules should be in place once the project is operational. Perhaps what your community builds won’t be as great as the original, but it will make an incredible difference. And so, you get to work.
Now, the above description is quite general. It describes the right conduct for a united group of people in order to replicate something that occurred in sacred time. Other myths may speak to individuals, some even suggesting the violation of sacred planning. The takeaway is to understand that the denizens of the sacred and the profane often dealt with the same issues. The Greek Gods were in constant turmoil with each other over all sorts of soap-opera drama. The Ancient Egyptian afterlife went even further with the similarities between the heavenly and earthly. Those who crossed over to the other side could look forward to more the same: The flow of an afterlife Nile, irrigating afterlife fields, tended to by afterlife farmers.
Ancient myths can be further broken down into smaller components. We call these pieces archetypes, from the Greek ‘arche’ (old) and ‘types’ (image). The word itself can get confusing because an archetype is not necessarily the literal image itself but the pattern or purpose behind it. In order to qualify as an archetype, the image has to be found in all cultures, be present in all eras of human history, and be able to symbolically represent something. Take the archetype of ‘the mountain’. It could refer to a literal mountain, such as Mount Sinai. Or it could refer to any raised, solitary place where a holy person goes to commune with the divine, such as a stupa. The mountain archetype can also be found in a place like Sauron’s tower. The tower is still a mountain in that it serves as an intermediary point between the world and a higher power, but for Middle Earth it’s understood to be broadcasting something much more malevolent into the world. And certainly, what’s held to be a holy mountain by one group may be considered evil by another, but that discussion on relativism is best saved for another time when it can be given a deeper measure of attention.
Much of the work on archetypes was done by Carl Gustav Jung. Jung made the myths and archetypes out to be very personal, inner experiences. They were psychological phenomenon. The tale of an adventurer who travels out into the unknown world mirrored the experience of an individual who began an inner journey into their own mind. All external myths spoke to an internal reflection. Consider what unites these two adventure stories,
-Odysseus and his crew begin the long journey home after the sacking of Troy
-Captain Katheryn Janeway brings the Voyager home after a mishap throws her ship into deep space
Pretty obvious, right? Now try this one,
-After a strange curse befalls her island, Moana journeys out to restore the heart fire to her people’s Mother Goddess.
There’s a relation between all three. The first two seem to be fairly literal, heroes trying to come home. The third also centers around the homecoming of a hero but with the implication that the ‘home’ archetype refers to a broader sense of community, drawing in more psychological elements. The curse that had fallen over the island resulted from her tribe having lost a sense of connection to their heritage and therefore displaced them from their ‘spiritual home’. Much more work on the similarities between myths has been done by Joseph Campbell.
MODERNITY AND MASTERY
For the ancients, the world was a place where events proceeded largely beyond their control. At its best, this encouraged a sense of accepting the world as it was. At its worst, it instilled a spirit of fatalism, that nothing could come by effort if not preordained in the heavens. Either way, the world was an endless cycle of the same occurrences and so, the myths. The myths and archetypes that explained what was happening and what we could do to brace ourselves against the so called terror of history.
Modernity is the counter-swing to this, and perhaps overreaction. We no longer see ourselves as parts within nature but as parts on top of nature. We believe we’re in control and if we can just figure out all the little ticks and quirks of the world around us, it can all be refigured as needed. The once rich spiritual taxonomies that described us as scaffolded into the rest of existence collapsed into the two simple categories of human and everything else. We no longer feel any commonality between the rhythms of the world and the rhythms of our lives. This changes the esteem we hold for our myths. They are no longer felt to describe cycles and processes that once begun, carried us along with them to their natural ends. Myths retreated into our heads where their motifs now connect to momentary feelings rather than all-encompassing motions.
THE ETERNAL RETURN
It should be obvious (I hope) to anyone that either extreme is undesirable. But I do not think the answer lies in finding some kind of single, balanced point between the two. Rather, it would be better to imagine our lives as in constant interval between the two, in need of continuous reappraisal and adjustment. For now, it is necessary to consider that the integrity of myth was dissolved when we failed to find humanity beyond humans, but to further recognize this nothing in that observation prevents the same immense otherness from looking back and finding only more of itself. To understand that we may not be as free and autonomous as the last few centuries of development would lead us to believe, and that we may accept this without giving into fatalism nor the reactionary impulse to throttle ourselves back into an unreflective and illusory ideal of a time passed. That the archetypes and myths can neither be discarded as irrelevant nor serve as an object of self-flagellation for an inheritance lost. Finally, to consider the paradox of how these suprahuman elements reintegrate us into a word from which we never fully separated.