Corona Initiation – a clue to our fate

The corona crisis has tipped the world into hysteria, fleeing from death in desperation and digging ourselves into a pit of our making. The way out, we’re told, is to hand more control to technology – to build higher walls and defend against nature at any cost. How will this end? Patrick Harpur gives us some clues in A Complete Guide to the Soul:

“Hercules is most famous for his ‘twelve labours’ [which] mostly involve capturing or slaughtering exotic creatures, such as a legendary lion, a miraculous deer, the many-headed Hydra, a giant boar. Since they symbolise the Otherworldly powers of the Imagination, it is doubtful whether the tasks should have been approached in this way, or even undertaken at all. For example, in his fifth labour he undertook to clean out what should clearly be left alone – the vast and filthy Augean stables, whose dung and putrefaction signal them as a place for allowing images to brew and simmer in an alchemical fashion.

“The most telling labour from our point of view is his last: the capture of Cerberos, the three-headed hound who guards the way to Hades. Hercules behaves in an extraordinary and disgraceful way. Brandishing his club, he bludgeons his way into the Underworld. … But Hercules is incapable of learning that shades, eidola, are real – as images; but are unreal as soon as we take them literally. He treats everything as literal. The shades of the dead flee from him in terror, just as the daimons run from our strong-arm rationalism. …

“The natural way to enter Hades is to die. But you do not necessarily have to die literally. You may, like Orpheus – like all shamans – die metaphorically. This means the death of the ego and its literalistic perspective in order that the daimonic, imaginative self can come into being. This death is the kind experienced during…initiation.

“In fact, before his last labour Hercules specifically asked to experience this kind of death by being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. He knew that only by becoming assimilated to death, as it were, could he pass freely into the Underworld. However, he was refused permission. So, denied a metaphorical death, Hercules inverts the situation – and kills literally.

“The daimons or images which would have initiated him if he had met them with humility madden him instead. He cannot grasp any reality he cannot grapple with, or club. He fears and shuns imagination, image, daimon – just as our modern rational worldview does. Instead of embracing the god Hades in his realm, as the welcome death of his literalistic stance, Hercules attacks him, wounding him in the shoulder and driving him from his throne. …

“Like Hercules, the rational ego does not recognise images, daimons or even death. It regards all viewpoints other than its own as delusional, and does not notice that the literal world it inhabits is the product of its own perspective. If we want to know what will happen to us if we cling to the life of the rational ego alone, if we deny soul and the initiatory death that its recognition implies, we have only to consider the final fate of Hercules.

“His wife, Deianeira, is unhappy at Hercules’ neglect of her. When he asks her to weave him a special shirt to be worn at a sacrifice, she sees her chance to rekindle his interest. She has procured a love-potion from a centaur called Nessus and made out of his blood. She dips the shirt in the blood and sends it off to her husband.

“Deianeira represents Hercules’ soul, as the wives and girlfriends of heroes usually do. Like all our souls she is constant and patient and goes on loving us no matter how much we forget or neglect her. But if we are determined to deny her, her love can only reach us in a distorted form. It may even appear destructive because it is love directed at our true selves, not at our egos – the very means by which we shut soul out. The soul’s love, in other words, can look like forcible initiation as it assaults the stone walls of the ego.

“Consequently, the blood that the shirt is dipped in is, unknown to Deianeira, not a love-potion but a poison. For Nessus the centaur is a vengeful daimon whose comrades Hercules has previously killed. … The myth tells us that poison is sometimes the only way love can reach us. It is a metaphor for the corrosive force that love is perceived to be by the impregnable Herculean ego which, if it will not die to itself, must finally consume itself.

“So Hercules puts on the shirt, whose poison eats into his flesh. Mad with pain he tries to tear it off; but it cannot be removed, and he succeeds only in tearing himself to pieces.”


The virus is not the problem. Our denial and fear of soul, the source of our humanity, is making us insane. We suffer from the same problem as Hercules – we make everything too literal – and his story reveals our fate if we refuse to wake up. By trying to keep nature at bay using technology, we will bring about our own destruction.

6 comments

  1. Part of the inexhaustible riches of myth is its mulivalence. I appreciate what you are saying and there is real truth in it. At the same time, I feel there is a risk of subverting categories so much that they lose their meaning and we can no longer communicate.

    I think of this often if I hear from Neo-Gnostic types who insist that the devil is good and angels are bad. “Fine, you can call good bad and vice-versa, but anyone who can learn from history knows that ‘the Revolution always eats itself.'”

    I wonder if you have any thoughts about this. Again, I think everything you wrote is very insightful, but it reminded me of this question.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There may be more subtlety to his argument if you read the whole section in the book – this is a tiny extract so I probably haven’t done it justice here. Whether something is good or evil often comes down to our perception of it but that doesn’t mean good becomes evil and evil becomes good. The soul becomes destructive to the ego if the ego refuses to learn humility – that doesn’t mean the destruction is good. It is what it is. Fire can cook your food and burn down your house. Water is essential to life but you can also drown.

      Oxygen is also essential but it destroys the integrity of your cells, hence the need for anti-oxidents. Every breath you take is slowly killing you but if you don’t breathe you die. It’s the paradox of life. Fire, water and oxygen aren’t either good or evil – they simply are.

      We’re the ones who create the categories and then get ourselves all tangled up in them because we take them literally and get attached to them. So it’s really about learning to see through the categories (or labels) altogether, to whatever reality is beyond our limited rational perspective. This doesn’t mean the ego’s perspective is wrong or bad or evil – it’s just limited, and so limiting and potentially destructive.

      It’s the same with technology – it’s not inherently bad; it’s how we use it and why that causes problems. Perhaps language is the same?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Jessica. I agree with everything you wrote, and it would be kind of silly to argue. But to me, the question is “are myths literal or archetypal?” I will try to explain what I mean. If they are literal, then you have answered the questions with all of the relative evaluations of literal things that you noted. “Seawater is the purest and the most deleterious: for fishes, salutary and drinkable, for men, most destructive.” But if myths are archetypal, then they are much more akin to the language you used to convey your meaning to me than the specific things you mentioned.
        Here:
        It’s the same with technology – it’s not inherently bad; it’s how we use it and why that causes problems. Perhaps language is the same?
        They are the same in one way if language is treated as a technology (i.e. a means to achieve some end with greater efficiency—it’s very interesting that techne + logos is basically just this). But language is not only a means/techne, but also the articulation of meaning, of logos as such. In the first case, everything can be good and bad, the lowest and the highest, purest and most impure, etc. But in the second case, it cannot since if I say “good” but mean “bad,” then I have begun to disassemble the foundations for saying anything at all. Again I think of “the Revolution that eats itself.” I think that myths are more akin to the second kind of language than the first and this was my reservation about taking the revisionist reading of myth too far. Once heroes are not heroic, then the subversion of all other points of reference will soon follow. Patrick Harpur’s reading depends on the standard reading being still immanent in people’s minds. If his reading replaces the traditional one, it will lose its significance. I guess this is the same nihilism that deconstruction is always flirting with. I am reminded of Jeff Bridges’ “Oh yeah? Well, that’s just, like, your opinion man.”
        All of this being said, I think Harpur’s interpretation is very compelling and true as far as it goes. I am most concerned about whether it is possible to honour both the liberal and the conservative tendencies here.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Why do myths have to be either literal or archetypal – can’t they be both? – on different levels or from different perspectives, etc. This ties in with the idea of fiction being more true than real life because it points towards a deeper truth – same with myth.

          We’re in danger of getting lost in the consciousness hall of mirrors here!

          Liked by 1 person

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