On the Use of Myth: The Case of Saturn
By Dr. John White
Myth is intrinsic to most forms of occult practice. Whether we speak of classical Hermetic theurgic rites, or Christian sacraments, or designing rituals around some particular Sephirah of the Tree of Life (or countless other examples), the foundational stories and grand narratives associated with the various esoteric traditions set the tone, suggest the symbolic, gestural and structural features, and confer the networks of meaning on specific rites and practices. These stories and grand narratives, what we can generally call “myths,” are therefore the potent forces behind esoteric practices.
Why are myths so potent? There are in fact a number of reasons. Carl Jung developed a good deal of his own thought around one of those reasons, namely, the recognition that myths are to the collective psyche what dreams and fantasies are to the individual psyche. That is to say, myths are to some extent the fruit of the “collective unconscious,” i.e. a product of the deeper levels of shared psychic life of communities, nations, traditions or society as a whole. And, like dreams and fantasies in an individual person’s life, the images and imaginative tales associated with the myths tell a many-layered story about the deeper (even cosmic) meaning of societally important events and existential realities. The unconscious is, from an evolutionary standpoint, much older than consciousness and thus it rarely uses the basic tool of consciousness, speech. Rather, the “language” of the unconscious is image and affect (emotion) or, put in more common occult terms, symbol. Symbols are affectively charged images, where “image” does not necessarily mean visual image, but rather any product of the imagination (e.g. a story). The myths are therefore symbolic narratives associated with the collective unconscious and they articulate something of the ultimate meaning of an individual’s and a community’s life by underlining the nature of one’s relationship to the cosmos.
One of the challenges of working with myths is that they – like all symbols – are “multivalent,” i.e. they have many layers or levels of meaning. Thus, any esoteric use of a myth runs a number of risks, not the least of which is the risk of unintended consequences, such as evoking different energies from what was intended, or the risk of evoking contradictory energies through an undifferentiated understanding of the myth. Myths are narratives connected to what Jung calls “archetypes” or, more accurately, “archetypal energies”: divine-like energies which, for example, one calls upon while doing ritual work. Because of the potential force of such energies, it is important to consider the nature of the specific energies being called upon, as expressed in the great myths, and to have a clear intention concerning what exact link one is forging to the myth which is structuring one’s ritual work.
Relating to myths: literalizing and confusing the part for the whole
Without burdening the reader with theory, let’s just say that something is “symbolic” (for occult purposes) when it does three things: (1) refers beyond itself to higher orders of reality; (2) unites multiple meanings (usually higher order meanings) in a single sign or single narrative; (3) tends to produce an experience of partaking of those higher orders and multiple meanings in the person using or performing it. Suppose, to use a standard example, someone seeks a better relationship with his own aggressive energy and designs a ritual accordingly. In that case he might use symbols associated with Ares and with Geburah in his ritual, such as the color red (color of Ares/Mars), the number five as in five knocks or the use of a pentagon or five symbols on the altar (suggesting the fifth Sephirah), or perhaps iron nails, a cactus, or other symbols suggesting spears and other weaponry, toughness, or martial virtues associated with Ares. The material symbols are used to relate, either through tradition or through personal association (or, preferably, both), with the higher non-material order of reality represented.
Now, like this example, myths too are symbolic. However, their symbolism is – at least in practice – somewhat subtler and more difficult to manage than the example I just gave. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, we tend to draw the symbols of our rituals from the myths, using the myths therefore as a higher and perhaps definitive source for our own ritual purposes. We can easily see however that such a use of myths can have as one of its consequences a certain tendency toward fundamentalism, i.e. the treatment of myths as mere storehouses of symbols for ritual practices, rather than also being symbolic and multi-layered themselves. We are all familiar, I imagine, with popular Christian fundamentalism, an attitude which denudes the Christian scriptures of its symbols and treats the latter as if they are a body of literal statements and propositions, with no higher levels of meaning. That same attitude can occur, however, outside of the Christian context and in fact outside of religious contexts altogether – in politics, economics, and virtually any area of cultural life. Like its Christian cousin, a fundamentalist treatment of myth does not necessarily wonder about the many layers of meanings the myth itself might have, in practice simply literalizing it by picking out some piece of the myth for the practical purposes of finding symbols for one’s own work, and thinking no more about it. Such an approach will not be conducive to recognizing and understanding the manifold meanings present in the myth and how they might alter or affect one’s ritual practice.
This all suggests that it is probably a good practice to meditate, at least to some extent, on the myth which undergirds any given ritual practice, even if that takes one well beyond the limits of one’s ritual goals. It may not be sufficient, for example, simply to focus on the myth to the extent that it serves the purpose of one’s own ritual. After all, one is attempting through ritual to contact archetypal energies and relate them to one’s own personal needs, aspirations, and goals. But like C. S. Lewis often writes about Aslan (a symbol of the Christ for Lewis) in the Chronicles of Narnia, “he’s good, but he’s not tame.” The same might be said of the archetypal energies we contact through ritual.
Frater U.’.D.’. tells a story about one of his former students in his book on money magic (Money Magic. Mastering Prosperity in its True Element). Frater U.’.D.’. had previously practiced some knot magic, binding a strong breeze to a number of knots which could in turn be released by untying the knots (“wind knots”). At a later point, he gave one of the wind knots he had made to a former student who untied the knot while at a casino, thinking it might have the effect of “blowing the money off the tables.” His former student quickly learned he had confused orders of meaning, taking the “wind” in the wind knot as a metaphor, rather than actual wind. He won no money at the casino that night, but once he went out to his car, he found a powerful storm had been unleashed.
While this story is not about myth or archetypal energies, it does illustrate the general point that, in our esoteric practices, we need to understand what level of meaning is at stake, for our work to be successful. In the case of myths, in fact, there will tend to be many more than just the two levels of meaning which produced confusion in the gambler’s mind above. Without an explicit, conscious recognition of the many sides of an archetype and, following that, a disciplined focus on just the aspect one is relating to in the archetypal myth, one may find either that one gets more than one bargained for or something very different from one’s intention.
The case of the Saturn myth
There have been a number of recent texts published which make reference to the Saturn myth, none more important, I suspect, than The Game of Saturn, by Peter Mark Adams. Adams’ book, which is excellent from both the standpoint of readability and scholarship, and which is also quite beautiful due to the excellent pictures throughout, offers an interpretation of the mysterious Sola Busca tarot deck. The Sola Busca deck is unusual in a number of respects. It is one of the earliest extant tarot decks, probably produced in Ferrara in the 1480s. The deck also uses what was a new technology at the time. But the deck also does not follow the standard form, such as we see in the Marseilles deck, and includes cards with mysterious and frankly odd references, for example, to relatively unimportant historical figures. The deck has been shrouded in mystery for centuries because interpretation of its nature, meaning, and purpose has proven difficult. It does not appear to have been widely used and there is only one known complete deck. What remnants there are of this deck beyond Ferrara suggest that the deck was used exclusively among aristocratic families in Europe. Adams offers what is perhaps the first plausible interpretation of this deck.
One of the conclusions that Adams draws from his analysis is that the deck was constructed for the purposes of a substantially dark magic, one that was evidently practiced among a number of aristocratic families. Among the practices that appear hinted at in the deck is blood sacrifice, especially the blood sacrifice of children. Adams suggests that those using this deck did so for the sake of gaining strategic political and economic goals for their families. This was done, so the analysis implies, by connecting via the deck to archetypal energies, especially those energies associated with the ancient Roman Saturn cult. This ancient cult was transformed at the time of the Second Punic War, when the Romans – following their usual policy – attempted to integrate a foreign god into their pantheon, in this case the Carthaginian god Ba’al-Ammon and presumably its egregore into the Saturn cult. While parallels between the Roman Saturn and the Carthaginian Ba’al-Ammon were such as to make that identification understandable, the absorption of Ba’al-Ammon into Saturn seems to have included an acceptance among the Roman priesthood of the Carthaginian practice of the blood sacrifice of children. And, certainly, given the ancient myths of Kronos/Saturn, the connection to the sacrifice of children is in some measure merited, given that Kronos is said to have swallowed his children – presumably to kill them – for fear that he would be dethroned. Further, his own dethronement of his father Ouranos, also included blood sacrifice of a sort, Kronos having castrated his father by cutting off the latter’s genitals.
We can assume then that Rome’s absorption of Ba’al-Ammon into the Saturn cult probably resulted in the introduction of child sacrifice, with the intention of aiding the Romans to hold on to power in the face of the Carthaginian threat. Similar practices were likely used by the Renaissance families associated with the Sola Busca deck. Other texts, for example Troy McLachlan’s less scholarly “intuitive history” entitled The Saturn Death Cult, suggest that it is the body of people who continue these Saturnian practices who not only hold Western civilization but indeed much of world civilization in its grip, right into our own time.
Literalizing the Kronos/Saturn myth
Though the story Adams tells is both plausible and horrific, for our purposes it is most important as an extreme illustration of the above point about the myth. While it is true that, for example, Kronos eating his children is an inherent part of the myth, it is equally important to notice that underlining this theme treats the myth in entirely literal terms, i.e. it treats what is inherently a mythical, symbolic story as if it is a piece of history. McLachlan suggests similar literalizations run throughout the interpretation of the Kronos/Saturn myth. For example, the “Golden Age” attributed to Saturn originally referred to an age of peace and abundance but later came to be understood as literally an age of wealth and power based on the ownership of gold. From an esoteric standpoint, intention and reference to the Kronos/Saturn myth should be sufficient to draw its energy into one’s projects; hence, from a practical esoteric point of view, this sort of reference to the myth, even if literalistic, would presumably be operative. Yet one might also think that this literalistic reading all but misses the essential point of the Kronos/Saturn myth precisely because it treats the myth as factual history rather than as a symbolic narrative.
Are there ways of interpreting the Kronos/Saturn myth without crass literalism, including child killing and gold lust? We know that there are other interpretations because there are other treatments of Saturn which move outside this highly reductive and literalistic reading of the myth. Consider for example the profound praise of Kronos in the Corpus Hermeticum itself: “Indeed, those who are able to drink in more of this vision [of the supreme Good] often lose awareness of the body in this most beautiful sight as happened to our ancestors Ouranos and Cronos” (The Way of Hermes, bk. 10, 5, p. 46), a quotation suggesting a high mystical connection between Ouranos and Kronos, on the one hand, and the ultimate Good, on the other. This vision of the ultimate Good would, on the Hermetic model, not be possible for someone as bereft of virtue as the literalistic readings of a murderous and miserly Saturn suggest. Closer to our own time, even a cursory reading of Flowers’ book on the Brotherhood of Saturn (The Fraternitas Saturni. History, Doctrine, and Rituals of the Magical Order of the Brotherhood of Saturn) shows a much more expansive understanding of the Saturn myth within the Brotherhood than that associated with those whom Adams describes.
Here I offer yet another possible approach to myths. Let’s begin by considering an ancient trope used by Origen and classical Christian biblical exegetes and later used by Dante for the reading of poetry. Subtracting the specifically Christian theological elements from the schema, we could say that myths can be read not only literally, but also in terms of three other levels of meaning: a moral and political level, i.e. pertaining to the destiny of communities (“tropological level”); a level of meaning focusing on how past figures intimate the meaning of the role of later or current figures (“typological level”); and a level of meaning pertaining to ultimate spiritual things (“anagogical level”). Thus, a moral and political meaning; an historical level of meaning founded on typological parallels; and an ultimate spiritual meaning.
With this assumption in hand, we can say that, while there is no way reasonably to ignore the literal and genuinely bloody element of the Kronos/Saturn myth, the horror of those aspects of the story can easily overwhelm its more symbolic elements – which are, presumably, its point. Suppose, for example, we begin with the idea of Kronos “swallowing his children.” According to the literal reading, this is an attempted act of murder toward one’s children. Fair enough, as far as it goes. Yet, if we look at this story as a symbolic narrative rather than something resembling a statement of fact, we have to ask: what symbol is expressed in the idea of eating of one’s children? There might be many possible symbols, but one of them presumably would be associated with the future, since the generation of children is naturally associated with one’s contribution to the future. And though we can read the swallowing of the children as an attempt at murder, it is perhaps not unimportant that this act did not result in their death, since they are later released by Zeus; hence the myth, from a symbolic point of view, is not about killing children but about a relationship to the future. Similarly, if we take Kronos’ acts toward his children as a metaphor for the relationship to one’s future, we might see Kronos’ cutting off Ouranos’ genitals as a parallel theme, suggesting his relationship to his past, since he was generated by Ouranos. Consequently, the myth, on this reading, would be a symbolic narrative about one’s relationship to one’s past and future. Not surprisingly, this interpretation implies a relation of the Kronos/Saturn myth to the Renaissance image of him as “Father Time,” referencing in other words the reality of the present in contrast to, and “between,” the past and the future. Kronos/Saturn has traditionally been related to Binah, to the Sephirah which represents an original limit on the expression of the divine in the cosmos emanating from Kether through Chokmah. That first limit on the cosmos is time or temporality, i.e. the extension of the cosmos in duration, through progressive moments. This very relationship is embedded in the symbolic reading of the Kronos/Saturn myth.
Needless to say, this aspect of the Kronos/Saturn myth is quite different from blood sacrifice and gold lust. It rather highlights the sense of limits characteristic of the material cosmos, such that the cosmos works – at least in our experience – through a sense for process and movement through time. Indeed, if anything, the aspect of the Kronos/Saturn myth associated with blood sacrifice and gold lust appears to be the shadow side of the symbolic narrative: the lack of sense of limits (sacrificing one’s children) and the fantasy that material things, like gold and associated miserliness, in any way change the march of time both appear to be products of death denial – the primary unconscious anxiety and pathology that arises with a sense of time. Consequently, one might wonder if the use of the Saturn myth highlighted in Adams’ and McLachlan’s books suggests not only a literalization but actually a pathological derailment of the value of the Kronos/Saturn myth. If so, that would not undermine its occult effectiveness because, as noted above, faith in the myth in the form of reference to it and the intention to use it is sufficient for it to be effective in occult practice. Yet such a use of the myth would nonetheless appear to miss the mark on what the myth’s primary meaning is – learning how to live fully while knowing life is limited by time – and thus potentially have the result of derailing the practices rooted in it as well, since the primary meanings of the myth and consequently some of the archetypal energies evoked would appear ignored or badly interpreted – and thus also unexpected.
Going back to Origen’s differentiations in analogical meaning, at a moral and political (tropological) level, the myth would seem to be speaking about the limits of time, expressed in the differentiation of past, present, and future, thereby implying however that there is also a meaning to time, i.e., history. History is not the same thing as time but is rather the idea that some events in time seem to confer meaning on other events in time: unrepeatable events that define a Before (past) and an After (future) (see my previous post “On meditative process”). Especially given the reference to a Golden Age, the myth from a moral and political standpoint seems to be highlighting the meaning and value of history (in which there are distinct “ages”), a picture of time which is in fact one of the achievements of the ancient world (see, e.g., Order and History, vols. 1-3, Eric Voegelin), and in this case most likely referring to the meaning of the rise and fall of political communities in history.
At a typological level, the significance of the myth consists in its revelation of certain archetypal energies existing in an idealized form in the figure of Kronos/Saturn and in a lesser form in human beings of the same type. These latter would usually be powerful or influential political, cultural or religious leaders who recognize the needs and the possibilities of the moment – have a sense for their place in history – and who lead people, if not to a Golden Age, at least to something better or something perceived as better. Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar might be interpreted in this way along Saturnian lines. In American history, George Washington would perhaps be the clearest example of this, insofar as he recognized the call of the moment (history) and rose to the occasion of the Revolution – and in the process, “cut off” the fatherland which engendered what would become the United States. Washington, at least in these respects, appears as a “Kronos” type of person.
At an anagogical level, the myth suggests a spiritual break with the endless rhythm and cycle of physical birth and death, symbolized by Kronos’ seeming rejection of both Ouranos generative organs and his own children. In other words, the spiritual implication would be that sexual energy can be used for something other than the continual generation of physical life. Indeed, at this level, the Kronos/Saturn myth appears to be a symbol of the Great Work. One of the central mysteries of inner alchemy is the transformation of sexual energy – alchemical copper, associated with the Saturn chakra or inner planet – into a new form of energic being and life. As Master R. (St. Germaine) puts it in the communications to Paul Foster Case et al., “…in all alchemical transmutation the genetic process is inhibited, as one may see from all texts of alchemy, magic and yoga. There is no more oft-repeated statement than this. Thus, all the Rosicrucians of the first circle were ‘bachelors of vowed virginity’” (Paul Foster Case. His Life and Works, Paul Clark, p. 157-8). Master R. goes on to say that this “virginity” is not mere celibacy, but a specific use of sexual energy. Relating this back to the Kronos/Saturn myth, this would mean that, though sexual energy can indeed be used for generation, there are other uses for this energy, including for alchemical transformation, and this would be symbolized in Kronos castrating his father and swallowing his children, i.e., his giving up the claims of generation in favor of another use of sexual energy. On this reading, one might therefore wonder if the Golden Age is less a symbol of external prosperity than a symbol of the highest inner prosperity, the achievement of the Great Work.
Even if the readings of the myth I offer are little more than my own speculation, they at least illustrate the fundamental point I began with, namely, that myths are not merely storehouses of symbols to use for one’s own purposes but are symbolic themselves and carry many levels of meaning. If we are to use the myths without inviting energies and consequences we may want to avoid, we need to approach the myths with a profoundly meditative stance, looking beyond the surface to the range of possible meanings within any given mythologem, and focusing directly, precisely, and exclusively on the meaning we are drawing from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of drawing down different archetypal energies than we intend.
Regarding the specifics of the Kronos/Saturn cult, there may be grounds for consolation in what we have discussed. After all, if McLachlan is basically on target, the death cult of Saturn still exists in our own time and is a force behind the scenes, controlling much of human life. Whether or not that is true, if what I have said is also on target, it suggests that perhaps the downfall of any such cult is not what it does but what it fails to grasp. In the final analysis, perhaps Kronos/Saturn represents something much different from what the cults have thought. Perhaps the God represents not only something far nobler than the death cults have assumed, but even represents the highest goal of esoteric life, the achievement of the Great Work itself – something far removed from any primitive blood sacrifice of children or petty materialism. If so, the answer to anxieties over the Saturn death cult is to seek the Great Work oneself and to cooperate with the consequences if, as it turns out, the Saturn death cults mistakenly draw down an energy force far greater and far nobler than they intended.
John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh, PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests include the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He has been a student of several esoteric traditions.
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