There’s nothing more boundless than our own consciousness. Although the universe is eternally expanding many of us forget the infinitely complex and confusing universe that resides in our own mind and soul.
Consciousness is more complicated than we give it credit for. There is no clear understanding of the miracle of life; no answer as to why my eyes are open and why I can say the words Cogito, Ergo Sum. “I think, therefore I am.” Moreover, no explanation as to why we have this voice in our head 24/7 and why we have no control over it.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung
In many respects, as children, we are Adam and Eve in a walled garden of unconsciousness. We think we understand the struggles of life, but it isn’t until we progress past this period, after we bite the fruit of knowledge that our consciousness begins to take form. This knowledge, however, comes at a price.
When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead!” he didn’t do it triumphantly; he believed Western civilization was going to encounter its greatest challenge. With the absence of religion, and with it the increase of atheism and nihilism, we now had to find meaning in ourselves; and Nietzsche wasn’t optimistic. If we can’t even figure out how to commit to a diet or stop smoking, or stay off porn for a week, how is it we could then figure out how to live a meaningful life with the absence of God?
Nietzsche’s prediction came true; the search for meaning in Western civilization has become desperate. I’m sure you know someone who’s grappled with the meaning of life. They aren’t asking you a general question — they’re asking you what is my meaning?
“Everything is pointless, there is no God, and we’re all going to die,” as Morty Smith from Rick and Morty points out.
No one realized our desperation for meaning more than Carl Jung and his student Erich Neuman. Jung developed analytical psychology which explores the unconscious knowledge of life and of its connection with ritual and myth.
Neuman later expanded upon this school of thought in his supremely profound book, The Origins and History of Consciousness. He explains that mythology is the product of the collective unconscious — something that we can all as humans relate to and point out as a universal truth. This unconscious wisdom comes from our ancestors and ancient stories that are still retold today.
“All these symbols with which men have sought to grasp the beginning in mythological terms are as alive today as they ever were; they have their place not only in art and religion, but in the living process of the individual psyche, in dreams and fantasies.” — Erich Neuman
Did you know, for instance, the Lion King is based on the oldest known story ever told by humans, known as the Osiris myth? In the Egyptian fairy tale, a regicidal evil brother murders his sibling in order to rule over Egypt. The murdered father is then avenged by his son who takes back his rightful kingdom and reestablishes order in the world.
There are countless other examples of modern stories that embed these ancient myths within them. In a way, it’s our ancestors still communicating to us from the dead. This is why Neuman believed we should not be so quick to kill off religion and ancient mythology. It’s also why, in stark comparison, the Eastern world is so protective of its religious values that Americans consider antiquated. Eastern leaders know that once the support beams of religion are blown out, an entire civilization stands to fall.
In turn, once-great civilizations become Sodom and Gomorrah; cities full of sin that destroy themselves.
Christ In Limbo, 1575 by Hieronymus Bosch
Does that mean we must adopt everything in our ancient texts like homophobia or Abraham sacrificing his son Issac? No, it means don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a deep psychological meaning contained in these stories. They weren’t meant to be taken at the surface level.
Take the Lion King again as an example.
You subvert reality when watching animated lions talk to each other and fight armies of manic hyenas. What enamors you is the story; that of a son avenging his father, finding love, and reclaiming his kingdom. It’s a shame then that we criticize the biblical stories as merely children’s fairy tales, taking them solely at a surface level.
Furthermore, ask yourself, where is it you find meaning instead when you’ve abandoned reading ancient stories or other great works of fiction? On YouTube? Instagram? What’s worse, as concluded by Jung and Neuman, is we’ve replaced religion with politics, and with parasitic ideologies like post-modernism and Marxism.
We’ve stolen the essence of great stories from the bible. Stories like Adam and Eve, the flood, Cain and Abel, and David and Goliath, and in-turn killed God, mythologically, and spirituality as Nietzsche predicted. We tell ourselves we’ve outgrown spirituality; that we can explain consciousness alone with logic. Yet, these ancient stories are still around us nurturing our unconscious and protecting us from chaos.
This finally leads us to the Uroboros, the oldest recurring symbol that is the closest thing I’ve found to explaining life itself.
Understanding the Uroboros and Our Search for Meaning
“There was something formless yet complete, that existed before heaven and earth; without sound, without substance, dependant on nothing, unchanging, all pervading, unfailing. One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven.” — Lao Tzu
The Uroboros is one of the most ancient symbols mankind has ever created. Human consciousness started with the Uroboros; the snake that eats itself in a cycle of infinite death and rebirth. It doesn’t represent any time or end. This symbol represents two things according to Neuman: the feminine and the masculine spirits.
The first half of the snake, beginning on the left hemisphere at the tail, represents birth and the feminine spirit. When we’re first born we cannot defend or think for ourselves. We rely on, then, the caretaking of another; the compassion of a mother.
What Neuman does, however, that separates him from Sigmund Freud’s explanation of the feminine spirit, is to point out that the feminine spirit is a symbol, not a gender role. After all, anyone can play the role of the caretaker, man or woman.
Furthermore, the spirit of nature herself protects us as children. We are most feminine at our birth; we are ignorant of the problems of the world and its injustices. This half of the Uroboros, this eternal caretaker, is known as “the Great Mother.”
“The Uroboros of the maternal world is life and psyche in one; it gives nourishment and pleasure, protects and warms, comforts and forgives. It is the refuge for all suffering, the goal of all desire.” — Neuman
Now, not only does life begin in this feminine stage, but it ends here with death. When we die we return to the Great Mother’s arms open and embrace her for an eternal slumber. We return to nothingness. The snake consumes its tail.
“Thus the Great Mother is uroboric: terrible and devouring, beneficent and creative; a helper, but also alluring and destructive; a maddening enchantress, yet a bringer of wisdom; bestial and divine, voluptuous harlot and inviolable virgin, immemorially old and eternally young.” — Erich Neumann: The Origins and History of Consciousness
The Hero’s Journey
This leads us to the paternal side of the Uroboros.
“The Uroboros, being of itself a symbol of light and dark and the union of opposites, also contains a paternal aspect,” said Neuman. “Creativity and the ability to bring forth into the world is the chief characteristic of the paternal aspect of the Uroboros.”
The paternal aspect is the “hero’s journey” myth. When the hero leaves home away from their caretakers — away from comfort and what is safe — and explores a world of chaos they become a hero. And hopefully, like Simba from the Lion King, they are able to restore order in their world. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Ellen Ripley, and Furiosa from Mad Max, all represent the hero’s journey.
Do not take away that the feminine spirit is evil because the hero must overcome it. They must also overcome the paternal evils as well. These are the dangers that the Great Mother tries to protect us from in adolescence, but that we must overcome anyway. Evil walks this Earth. You needn't look any further than World War II to know that. If you go forth into the world, you will encounter it.
This symbol is known as the “Tyrannical Father;” the spirit that abuses power and uses others for personal gain. Neuman stresses the importance of defeating this evil:
“The wicked king or personal father figure, representing the old ruling system sends the hero forth to fight the monster — Sphinx, witches, giants, wild beasts, etc. — hoping that it will prove his undoing.”
[And if the hero wins] “The old king’s expulsion of the son, the hero’s fight, and the killing of the father hang together in a meaningful way. They form a necessary canon of events which, in symbol and in fact, are presupposed by the very existence of the hero, who, as the bringer of the new, has destroyed the old.”
The Origins and History of Consciousness is the most difficult book I’ve ever read. I hope I explained the basic concepts well enough for them to change your life as they have mine.
Along our Uroboric cycle is the opportunity to break our natural progression and to regress to previous stages in life. You probably know this as “arrested development.” Many of us do not overcome the Great Mother in the Western world.
Laziness, inhibition, self-consciousness, and neuroticism are all negative traits associated with the Great Mother. When acted upon these make us feel closer to death than life. We are not a hero on our journey. And the suffering we experience feels meaningless as it doesn’t bring us anywhere.
The negative aspects of the Tyrannical Father and Great Mother must be avoided at all costs. We can all be on a hero’s journey no matter what stage we are in life. After all, Abraham didn’t leave home until he was 75 years old. At any given moment, you can change the journey you’re on.
But, if we abandon mythology and the profound stories found in religion, we will pay for it. A future of chaos is all we will be greeted with.
“The collective and the group members do not experience the world objectively, but mythologically, in archetypal images and symbols; and their reaction to it is archetypal, instinctive, and unconscious, not individual and conscious.”― Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness