To modern sensibility the fact of a story’s being allegorical makes it less likely to be an accurate depiction of real events. Modern writers try to drain their texts of meaning, to flatten them out in order to make them more naturalistic.
To the ancients, who believed that every single thing that happens on earth is guided by the motions of the stars and planets, the more a narrative brought out these ‘poetic’ patterns, the truer and more realistic the text.
So, it may be tempting to view the journeys into the Underworld made by Hercules, Theseus, and Orpheus as mere metaphor. It is true that on one level their adventures represent the beginning of humanity’s coming to terms with the reality of death. But, as we try to imagine the adventures underground of Hercules, Theseus, and the others, we must not conceive of them as to be purely internal or mental journeys, such as we might contemplate today. When they battled with monsters and demons, they were confronting forces that infested their own beings, the corrupted human flesh, the dark labyrinth of the human brain. But they were also fighting real monsters of flesh and blood.
— The Secret History of the World, p. 146
Thetis:What a dangerous precedent! What if one day there were other heroes like him?Hera:What if courage and imagination were to become everyday mortal qualities? What would become of us?Zeus:We would no longer be needed. But for the moment there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever.
— “Clash of the Titans” (1981)
Michael Garibaldi:He’s lying. I can tell.Jeffrey Sinclair:Everyone lies, Michael. The innocent lie because they don’t want to be blamed for something they didn’t do, and guilty lie because they don’t have any other choice. Find out why he’s lying; the rest will take care of itself.
— “And the Sky Full of Stars” – Babylon 5, Season 1
What are the two things that are most important to know about a stranger? Or a group of strangers?
Social psychologists know. But so did the early authors of D&D.
The stereotype content model, elaborated by Susan Fiske and other social psychologists, describes how we organize beliefs about other people and social groups—traits and stereotypes. Over the past 20 years, dozens of studies have supported the idea that two key traits, warmth and competence, are major players in our attitudes and behaviors toward other groups.
Warmth is how cooperative the group appears to us. Competence is how strong—how able to do meaningful things—they look. So, jolly halflings might be seen as high in warmth but low in competence. Dour dwarves are the other way around, not very warm but very good at what they do. Kobolds, maybe, are low in both.
When two groups meet in an adventure, the rules of most early forms of D&D have them sizing up each other precisely on these two dimensions….
…[The] soldier’s view [on a battlefield] will also be much more complicated than the commander’s. The latter fights his battle in a comparatively stable environment—that of his headquarters, peopled by staff officers who will, because for efficiency’s sake they must, retain a rational calm; and he visualizes the events of and parties to the battle, again because for efficiency’s sake he must, in fairly abstract terms…. The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear-cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment; he may spend much of his time in combat as a mildly apprehensive spectator, granted, by some freak of events, a comparatively danger-free grandstand view of others fighting; then he may suddenly be able to see nothing but the clods on which he has flung himself for safety, there to crouch—he cannot anticipate—for minutes or for hours; he may feel in turn boredom, exultation, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, even that sublime emotion we call courage….
[The Odyssey] is not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geography of those who hear it. Every aspect of it is grand metaphor. Odysseus is not sailing on the Mediterranean but through the fears and desires of a man’s life. The gods are not distant creators but elements within us: their careless pitilessness, their flaky and transient interests, their indifference, their casual selfishness, their deceit, their earth-shaking footfalls….
Let’s begin by looking at the most widespread and celebrated of all mythic monsters—the dragon. This creature, in one guise or another, appears in almost every mythology and has been the subject of many books and countless articles. Perhaps the most intriguing of these examinations is An Instinct for Dragons by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.
— Deadly Powers, pp. 162-63
Regardless of their different sizes, features, and forms, monsters have one trait in common—they eat humans. Whatever else they may do for us psychologically, monsters express—and ex-press—our dread of being torn apart, eviscerated, chewed, swallowed, and then shit out. This shameful fate of those who are eaten is confronted in an African myth in which a giant predatory bird swallows the hero whole day after day and then excretes him. Myth after myth confronts the stark facts of being consumed by a larger creature, obsessively depicting in graphic detail what both monsters and animal predators naturally do—turn humans into excrement. The stories express “the most basic anxiety of every living being”: “being swallowed and eaten.” One sees this anxiety throughout world myth.
— Deadly Powers, p. 158
The Bronze Age was an era that preferred to put things in personal terms rather than in abstractions. Instead of justice, security, or any of the other issues that would be part of a war debate today, the Bronze Age tended to speak of family and friendship, crime and punishment. Near Eastern kings proclaim in their inscriptions that they fought to take vengeance on their enemies and on rebels; they fought those who boasted or who transgressed their path or who violated the king’s boundaries or raised their bows against royal allies; they fought to widen their borders and bring gifts to their loyal friends. A Hittite king says that his enemies attacked him when he came to the throne because they judged him young and weak—their mistake! Allies are royal vassals, obliged to have the same friends and enemies as the king.
For the ancient Greeks, psyche was not a thing but a process, a dynamic continuum and relationship among humans, gods, and nature. The Greek notion of psyche was one of radiating but personalized fields that cross-fertilized all structures of reality, making archetypes available to men, and making intimate the universal patterns found in nature and story alike. As Charles Hampden-Turner observes about the Greeks in his splendid book Maps of the Mind:
They walked with Truth [Apollo] and Beauty [Aphrodite] at their sides. They raced with daemons of excellence, the spirits of past athletes running beside them, urging them on. They travelled with Hermes, danced and drank with Dionysius, and sailed the seas under the guardianship of Poseidon. They fought for the rights of married women, children and the home with the tenacity of Hera and harvested the crops with Demeter beside them… The concept of psyche gave the Greeks their infinite love and delight in nature and an extraordinary courage in exploring it. Into every nook and cranny of the world the spirits of gods or heroes had already ventured. Men crossed the seas in the path of Odysseus, entered labyrinths of mind or nature wherein Theseus had already slain the Minotaur…
By perceiving psyche as a resonance phenomenon, a radiant field of living energies that include gods and cosmic principles, the building blocks of mind, myth, and nature, the human being has the capacity within his or her mind and body to become an instrument through which the world can be re-created and the soul of humankind can touch the creative Source of all becoming.
How different indeed was the psychological world of these Greeks from our own. We in the present day persist in looking for cause and effect and remain monotheistic (having one god or supreme principle), monophrenic (having one personality), and monocular (having one way of seeing) in our epistemology. We tend to think that everything can be known in a straightforward, linear fashion. All we need do is accumulate enough facts and look at them rationally and the truth—of which there is only one—will reveal itself….
But the Homerically-inspired Greek mind, which found its finest flowering in the Athens of Pericles, was polycentric (having many centers), polytheistic (having many gods), polyphrenic (having many selves), and polyocular (having many ways of seeing), conceiving of many different causes—all of which provided a rich weave of explanation. They viewed reality as a field of unity in diversity with the One, deriving its Oneness only from the interconnecting patterns of the many.
Victory in ancient battle did not go to the ‘big battalions’, as the processes of combat were very different to the mutually devastating firepower duels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [C.E.]. Fatalities from missile fire or mêlée seem to have been remarkably light until one force turned tail and exposed itself to one-sided slaughter. When victorious armies did suffer significant losses, these were usually concentrated in parts of their force that had given way before the eventual triumph. Hence, raw numbers were much less important than fighting spirit and a fearsome reputation, as good troops could stand firm even against great odds and could sometimes panic less-resolute adversaries into flight even before physical combat was joined. By far the most important variable in the model is troop quality, to reflect this psychological factor and also to show how good troops like Spartan hoplites and Roman legionaries could use their superiority in drill and discipline to achieve tactical advantage.
…Although combat did not involve heavy mutual fatalities, it does seem to have revolved around shorter-term attritional mechanisms such as wounds, exhaustion, psychological strain and ammunition depletion, so the distinction between fresh troops and those who have become ‘spent’ becomes a key means of tracking the progressive loss of resilience.
The appeal of magic was twofold: it identified the cause of your troubles and it promised hope in even the most desperate situation. Magic was described by Malinowski as ritualized optimism. In the sense that it satisfied the participants, Egyptian magic worked. Protective magic presumably gave people the comfort of believing that they had taken all possible precautions. This may have made tragedies such as the death of a child a little easier to bear.
The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind—whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life—that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within.
Attention is selectivity applied to perception. It is an inward decision, usually made unconsciously, about what is worth perceiving and what isn’t. Attention both finds meaning and creates meaning. When we adopt the principle of “separate the subtle from the gross,” we are deciding on purpose where we want our attention to go, temporarily withholding it from what is obvious and bestowing it instead on what is inconspicuous and elusive.
In the world of spirit, attention is the equivalent of physical movement. It carries us toward the knowledge and acquaintances we seek and away from influences that we have determined to be harmful or useless. If you can’t control your attention, you can’t move properly, can’t get where you want to go when you want to go there. To the extent that you allow your attention to be jerked around by whatever happens to be manifesting most insistently, you look to other spiritual beings like a spastic. Control of attention is thus the first skill an aspiring magician must master, and perhaps the most important.
— On Becoming an Alchemist, pp. 52-53
Because attention determines what will or will not appear in consciousness, and because it is also required to make any other mental events—such as remembering, thinking, feeling, and making decisions—happen there, it is useful to think of it as psychic energy. Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.
Whole dimensions lie glistening on the dark side of even the most dull and commonplace thought.
The wise men and women of the ancient world knew how to work with these dimensions, and over many millennia they created and refined images which would perform just this function. As taught in the Mystery schools, the very early history of the world unfolds in a series of images of this type.…
Therefore let us now [try imagining] ourselves into the mind of someone about two and a half thousand years ago, walking through woodland to a sacred grove or a temple such as Newgrange in Ireland, or Eleusis in Greece.…
To such a person the wood and everything in it was alive. Everything was watching him. Unseen spirits whispered in the movements of the trees. A breeze brushing against his cheek was the gesture of a god. If the buffeting of blocks of air in the sky created lightning, this was an outbreak of cosmic will—and maybe he walked a little faster. Perhaps he sheltered in a cave?
When ancient man ventured into a cave he had a strange sense of being inside his own skull, cut off in his own private mental space. If he climbed to the top of a hill, he felt his consciousness race to the horizon in every direction, out towards the edges of the cosmos—and he felt at one with it. At night he experienced the sky as the mind of the cosmos.
When he walked along a woodland pathway he would have had a strong sense of following his destiny. Today any of us may wonder, How did I end up in this life that seems to have little or nothing to do with me? Such a thought would have been conceivable to someone in the ancient world, where everyone was conscious of his or her place in the cosmos.
Everything that happened to him—even the sight of a mote in a sunbeam, the sound of the flight of a bee or the sight of a falling sparrow—was meant to happen. Everything spoke to him. Everything was a punishment, a reward, a warning or a premonition. If he saw an owl, for example, this wasn’t just a symbol of the goddess, this was Athena. Part of her, a warning finger perhaps, was protruding into the physical world and into his own consciousness.
Author’s emphasis in italics. Mine in bold.
Wooing was a frequent metaphor in medieval alchemy. The troubadours’ ballads of courtly love can be read as coded instructions on how to get to Platform 9¾. The suitor was admonished to become infinitely patient, gentle, and attentive to the lady’s fluctuating moods and whims. To win her, he must learn to empathize with her, tone down his boisterous masculinity, and attune to her feminine style. The central paradox of these stories is that to attain a magician’s power, one must relinquish the impulse to force and conquer. To change anything in an alchemical way, you must allow it to change you.
— On Becoming an Alchemist, p. 32
Wherever it may lead, the perilous journey is always, of course, perilous. The hero, traditionally a young man, must defend himself against beast and foe. In Celtic folktales and faery tales he often risks physical danger, bodily harm, even death, as he quests for a marvelous object that he believes will bring luck, health, or a richer life: a magical sword, a cauldron of wisdom, a cup of knowledge, or a faery lover. On the shaman’s initiation journey the danger is psychic—the disintegration and reintegration of personality. The object of the quest is a “new soul,” a shamanic soul with its disorienting and upsetting vision of reality. On subsequent journeys, the shaman’s quest may still be for nothing less than the human soul of a patient who is sick, of someone severely depressed, or of a person recently deceased. As psychologists and symbologists note, the archetypal journey is always one of initiation and self-discovery. The physical objects sought on the quest are symbols of psychic wholeness, health, and the integrated soul, or in Jungian terms, the Self.
Coming from who knows where, a lucky find is potentially unsettling to whatever world it enters. The moralists will be likely to complain, the gamblers will be pleased, while everyone else will wait to see if it really is amusing, this new thing. Whatever the case, before we can have a full sense of the disruptions and delights that come in the wake of a lucky find, we need fuller examples to work with. In 1965 [C.E.] George Foster, an anthropologist who had worked in Mexico and Italy, published an essay that is partly about how peasants respond when their neighbors’ fortunes suddenly change. In “Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good,” Foster argues that many othervise perplexing details of peasant behavior can be understood by assuming that peasants believe there is a fixed quantity of wealth in the community and therefore that if someone in the group suddenly becomes richer it must be because someone else, or the group as a whole, has become poorer. The idea holds if we imagine, as Foster does, a closed community, or—to put it the other way—the idea finds its exceptions in cases in which wealth clearly comes from outside the nominal bounds of the group. Peasants do not feel ripped off if one of their number becomes richer as “a result of selling labor as a migrant worker, for it is clear that wages so earned come from across the border. More telling for my purposes are the other ways to get wealth without being subjected to group opprobrium. In peasant communities in southern Italy, for example, the neighbors won’t harass someone whose sudden success comes as a “gift of Fortune,” as, for example, when “a rich gentleman gave a poor boy a violin,” or when “a rich gentlewoman adopted an abandoned child,” when a man “hit upon a hidden treasure” buried in the woods, and when “another was lucky enough to win in the lottery.”