Last time I discussed the archetypal psychologist James Hillman’s comments about ancient myths of Aphrodite and pornography today. This time I’d like to focus on modern ritual. The connection between these topics, for me as for Hillman, is that polytheistic religion provides resources for addressing psycho-social problems. In The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman writes that “Depth psychology, despite professing scientific materialism … , nonetheless performs the chief function of religion: connecting the individual by means of practical ritual with the realm of death” (74). By “realm of death” I believe he loosely means the home of soulfulness, the ground of meaningfulness. So Hillman is claiming that “deep” psychotherapies connect patients to ultimate matrices of meaning in a manner analogous to religious rituals. Is that right?
Let’s start with therapy, several elements of which are “ritualistic.” If you’ve been in long-term therapy, think about it: every session you trace the same route, encounter the same sights and smells, enter the same building, and occupy the same special role (“patient”) in the same rules-bound drama (“therapy”). Moreover, you do this in the belief it will affect “deep” powers (unconscious complexes, drives, dispositional belief sets, etc.), leading to personal transformation. In all of these ways therapy can indeed be analogous to religious ritual.
But now let’s compare a religious ritual, taking as our example the cult of Aphrodite in Gardens. In ancient Athens, “in Gardens” (ἐν κήποις) was probably an epithet of Aphrodite at her shrine on the slopes of the Acropolis, beneath the Erechtheion. The night before the great civic festival of the Panathenaia, two of the four young girls tasked with weaving a tunic for Civic Athena would be given “sacred things” by the priestess of Athena, “neither the giver knowing what she gave nor the bearers understanding it” (Paus. 1.27.2). They would carry these things down to a subterranean passage near the temple of Aphrodite in Gardens, where they would receive something else, again something wrapped up. As soon as they brought out this second package, their year-long service as “secret bearers” would be over, and they would be replaced.
We need to add that this ritual of carrying secrets reenacted a myth about the daughters of Cecrops, legendary first king of Athens, who was half snake. In this same originary time, the smith-god Hephaestus tried in vain to seduce and rape Athena. In the process his semen fell to earth, where it generated the future second king of Athens, Erichthonius. Athena put him in a box with guardian serpents and entrusted it to the daughters of Cecrops, telling them never to open it. Two of the three disobeyed, were driven mad, and threw themselves from the acropolis. Their shrines were on the slopes, not far from Athena in Gardens. The shrine of the one who obeyed Athena was above on the hilltop.
This mythical background provides a branching pathway of meaning potentials, not a simple moral. Between Civic Athena, who presides over the socialization of psychological potentials, and Aphrodite in Gardens, who presides over the pre-social powers of birth, flourishing, and death, there is a complementarity rather than an opposition. This complementarity can be mapped many ways. The myth splits the attributes between the obedient and disobedient daughters. The obedient daughter stays close to Athena both as virgin and as patron of political order. The disobedient daughters express an Aphrodisian impetus both by “opening the box” with its phallic snakes (recalling the serpentine father) and by disregarding Athena’s organizational instruction. But the ritual conjugates these polarities in various ways, like the journey from one goddess to another, the exchange of unopened sacred packages, and of course the beginning, performance, and ending of service as “secret bearers.”
The main point that I want to make is similar to the one I made about pornography, namely: Hillman underestimates the importance of spatial and material factors in psychological change. For instance, “the journey down” is not just a symbol; it makes a great difference whether we visualize a journey down, or actually climb down a rocky slope. This is doubly true if the actual slope in question is invested with sacred energy. Whether we call that energy a collective libidinal investment or a manifestation of transcendent power makes no difference; the important thing is that the sensorimotor experience affects the psyche. The same is true of carrying a secret package: what does it look and feel like? How does it “sponsor” psychological effects? Especially if you carry it on your head. And what are the sensory properties of that subterranean passage by the shrine on the slopes?
It’s time to wrap up. Compare the shrine of Aphrodite in Gardens in the photo above. This shrine is on a downhill slope in an old-growth boggy woodland in Wales, not far from the bottom of this little vale. The natural spring in the picture is clear, but covered in water spiders. The air is thick with gnats. Further up the slope is a beautifully kept pagan center. Now imagine how a modern ritual can target the integration of political socialization and disorganized vitality (in another idiom, the [super]ego and the drives) by drawing not only on the meaning potential of the myths, but also on the kinetic and sensory potentials of the sacralized space. This, I suggest, is one of the important distinctions between the “ritual” of therapy and the “rituals” of modern paganism.
Note I’m not saying pagan ritual is “better than” therapy! There’s a lot more to say about this topic, to which I’ll return in other posts.
On Aphrodite in Gardens, see V. Pirenne-Delforge, L‘Aphrodite Grecque, 48-51; C. Calame, “Identity of Gods and Heroes: Athenian Garden Sanctuaries and Gendered Rites of Passage,” in The Gods of Ancient Greece, ed. J. Bremmer and A. Erskine (Edinburgh). On spatial and material objects “sponsoring” psychological experience, see C. Bollas, Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience (1992).