Hieratic Myths and Symbols
Hermes, in Jacob Bryant’s antiquarian research, ‘ A new system or analysis of Mythology’, London 1775 in 3 volumes. The engraver, James Basire was William Blake’s master with whom he studied and did his apprenticeship.
‘For Plato ‘s Socrates, myths must be subjected to interpretation in a way that assists self-knowledge. This means that, instead of studying the historical traditions of myth-making, one is asked to interpret myths non-literally and regard them as a complex mirror of divine and human realities. This mirror allows the philosopher-exegete (hermeneus) or the sacred scribe (hierogrammateus) to identify himself with the events narrated in the story- their mythical paradigms, images, and symbols which operates in a non-discursive way and are able to elevate the interpreter to first principles.
According to Hellenic Neoplatonists, there are different kinds of myths. The highest theological myths are those which do not attach themselves to any material object, but regard the actual natures of the gods: they are ‘divine’ (theioi) because they are used by the gods (theoi). The gods themselves in oracles have employed myths. According to Sallustius, who followed Iamblichus in this respect, the universe itself can be called a myth:
‘So the myth represents the gods in respect of that which is speakable and that which is unspeakable (arrheton), of that which is clear and that which is hidden, and represents the goodness of the gods; just as the gods have given to all alike the benefits to be drawn from objects perceptible to the senses while restricting to the wise the enjoyment of those received from objects perceptible to the intellect, so the myths proclaims to all that the gods exist, telling who they are and of what sort to those able to know it. Again, myths represent the active operation of the gods (kai tas energias de mimountai ton theon). The universe itself can be called a myth (exesti gar kai ton kosmon muthon eipein), since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and intellect are concealed’ (‘Of the gods and of the world’, III, 1-15 Nock)
This attitude is analogous to the archaic of the Egyptian theological discourse which at the level of aesthetic imagination, sometimes abolishes any clear distinction between body (though bodies themselves are of different kinds) and luminous spirits, between corporeality and spirituality. In Egypt, knowledge and language are understood in bodily terms and are symbolized by the semiotic set of concrete corporeal icons. This is because ‘the body invites to adoration by its very theomorphic form; and that is why it can be the vehicle of a celestial presence and in principle is salvific’, according to F. Schuon. However, as Iamblichus pointed out, the Egyptians acknowledge 1. A noetic, or spiritual, 2. A psychic, and 3. A natural, or material, realm:
‘They distinguish both the life of the soul (psuche) and that of the intellect (nous) from the life of nature, and not just in the cosmic spheres, but as regards us (i.e. the human being) as well’ (De Myster. VIII, 4.266. 9-267.1)
In fact, ‘the body and the soul are two masks superimposed on the spirit’. The Egyptians did not regard the doctrines of the ruling Intellect as merely theoretical, but tried to ascend to this noetic realm by means of hieratic theurgy. Since the ‘name’ of God, as the transcendent and immanent unity of all ‘medu neter’, extends through all manifested reality, a ‘myth’ may be likened to a mysterious token (sunthena), both veiled and unveiled. The operative sacred dimension of myth is lost when its contents are translated into the medium of abstract propositions and arguments.
The hieratic myths may function in the same way as rituals for those ‘who have power to grasp from the symbols of myth with ease, in a secret way, the truth concerning the gods’ (Proclus, In Rep. 83. 9-10). This is so because there is a mysterious relationship between the symbols of mythic narrative and that divine world these symbols are able to evoke. A myth itself may be monstrous and bizarre regarding its external account, however, the seeming unlikeness of the symbol to that at which it secretly hints, is essential to its symbolic function, because ’symbols are not representations of those things of which they are symbols’ (In Rep. 198.15).
To teach using inspired mythical accounts means to encounter both 1. The iconic ‘mimesis’ ( if eikon is regarded as a visible likeness of the invisible structure of the cosmos) and 2. The symbolic mode of representation which is not concerned with a one-to-one likeness between copy and model. As Proclus says in defense of the ‘bodily’ and ‘symbolic’ nature of myth:
‘The art, therefore, governing sacred matters (he ton hieron techne) distributes, in a fitting way, the whole of ritual among the gods and the attendants of the gods (i.e. the daimons), in order that none of those who attend the gods eternally should be left without a share in the religious service due to them. This art calls on the gods with the holiest rites and mystic symbols (tai hagiotatais teletais kai tois mustikois sumbolois), and invokes the gifts of the daimons through the medium of a secret sympathy by means of visible passions. In the same way, the fathers of such myths as we have been discussing, having gazed on virtually the entire procession of divine reality, and being eager to connect the myths with the whole chain which proceeds from each god, made the surface images of their myths analogous to the lowest races of being which presides over lowest, material sufferings. However, what was hidden and unknown to the many they handed down to those whose passion it is to look upon being, in a form which revealed the transcendent being of the gods concealed in inaccessible places. As a consequence, although every myth is daimonic on its surface, it is divine with respect to its secret doctrine’ (daimonios men estin kata to phainomenon, theios de kata ten aporrheton theoran, In Rep. 78.18-79.4)