In the Beginning Was a Verb

Originally printed in the May - June 2003 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: O. Howell, Alice. "In the Beginning Was a Verb." Quest  91.3 (MAY - JUNE 2003):

By Alice O. Howell

Panta rhea—everything flows.

Theosophical Society - Alice O. Howell is an author and astrologer based in western Massachusetts. Her works include The Web in the Sea; The Dove in the Stone; and The Heavens Declare: Astrological Ages and the Evolution of Consciousness, all published by Quest Books.Jungian archetypes have been the subject of a growing confusion over the years. For some the archetype is a primordial image, for others it is a god or a character in a fairy tale, and so forth. All such views are true on different levels, and thus arguments about them represent a dilemma of layers.

The great obstacle in understanding the essence of an archetype is that we have to use words to define what is essentially a direct experience. We cannot even mention a verb without turning it into a noun! To say "swimming is delightful" is to turn the gerund into the subject of the sentence, that is, into a noun; similarly, in "to swim is delightful," the infinitive to swim is the subject of the sentence, a verb having become a noun. All our hows turn into linguistic whats. A mercurial trickster stops the flow of the action as though action were frames in a reel of film. So to write of archetypes is at best a challenge.

"In the beginning was a verb" is simply a paraphrase of the words of John: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God." The word verb means "word." This is so obvious, it takes a simpleton like myself to get the joke. If we say that God is a verb, we are on the right track to understanding the essence of an archetype because the essential nature of archetypes is a process, a verb. And postulating energy (God), for lack of a better word, as the Primal Verb, then the archetypes become the various modalities inherent in both the invisible and the visible worlds. Jung refers in one of his letters (to Dr. H., August 30, 1951) to the essentially transcendental nature of the archetype as an "arranger" of psychic forms inside and outside the psyche (in theoretical physics the archetype corresponds to the model of a radioactive atom, with the difference that the atom consists of quantitative, and the archetype of qualitative, i.e. meaningful, relationships . . .).

To use a much simpler but similar process, imagine energy as the sugar in a cosmic pastry-baker's frosting sack with different templates for making stars, swirls, spirals, and so on. The substance is the same but the forms differ. Jung also uses a far more effective example tracing how an archetype, as an invisible modulator of energy, becomes visible (letter to Pastor Max Frischkenecht, February 8, 1946):

In order to clarify this somewhat difficult concept, I would like to take a parallel from mineralogy, the so-called crystal lattice. This lattice represents the axial system of the crystal. In the mother liquor it is invisible, as though not present, and yet it is present since first the ions aggregate round the (ideal) axial points of intersection, and then the molecules. There is only one crystal lattice for millions of crystals of the same chemical composition. No individual crystal can speak of its lattice, since the lattice is the identical precondition for all of them (none of which concretizes it perfectly!). It is everywhere the same and eternal.

To help resolve the dilemma of layers, we can refocus from the transcendental and eternal aspect of the archetype, which Jung wrote of in the passages just quoted, to the next layer, that of the "primordial image," which is still an abstraction. We must assume that prehistoric humanity observed these archetypal expressions in nature and, deeming them to be universal, considered them pine: light, darkness; expansion, contraction; penetration, reception, and so on—and, in order to speak of them, gave them names of gods and goddesses. So the second layer of perception of an archetype would lie in its personification, to wit, the Greek deities Chaos, Erebus, Hemera, Zeus, Kronos, Ares, and the rest. There can be no argument against this because, though the gods and goddesses in different cultures bear a variety of names in different languages, the associated process of each has remained a constant throughout history. Jung also writes:

Archetypes are forms of different aspects expressing the creative psychic background. They are and always have been numinous and therefore "pine." In a very generalizing way we can therefore define them as aspects of the Creator.

The next layer is the external projection and concretization of these personifications in statues and temples with rituals and taboos. Rules and regulations develop into religious institutions with a priesthood, and alas eventually the true nature of the archetype is in danger of being lost until, with the changing of the ages, the husk of one religion is destroyed and a new expression arises with the same archetypal components. You cannot kill an archetype! If we could only grasp this, we might be able to stop killing each other in the name of religion. And it is the perception of these archetypes that could form a common denominator for mutual tolerance. This also may explain the efficacy of certain shamanic, nomadic, or mystical practices because they tap directly into the primordial layer of archetypes, thereby avoiding reification in institutions.

Yet another layer is the hiding of archetypes as symbols in myths, fairy tales, plays, books, movies, and even down to the comic strips we enjoy every day. And it pays to remember that each process has both a positive and negative expression. Internally, our most cruel critic can be transformed into the Wise Old Man because they represent the same process. The sweet young ingenue is the positive aspect of the bitch; the good mother, of the witch; and the mortal hero, of the villain.

All of the anthropocentric factors listed above can be seen as human projections of therefore define contents of the human psyche, and this insight is one of the great contributions thatJung has offered us because "it takes one to know one," and within ourselves we resonate with the awesome archetypal flow of the mystery we know as the cosmos (a word meaning beauty). Thus the archetypal process unites our inner and outer worlds, providing an opportunity for the ego to make the process conscious and meaningful. This uniting also accounts for synchronicities and may explain why astrology works. When the processes unite, there is a flashing glimpse of the unus mundus—the "One World."

Agrippa von Nettesheim, the alchemist, wrote, Virtutes pinae in res diffusae—"Divine powers are hidden in things." This reflects the insight that not a single object, either manifest in nature or manufactured by human hands, can exist without concealing archetypal processes. Thus it can be truly said that we can also find the sacred in the commonplace and so, by uncovering or discovering it, we can begin to appreciate the wondrous differentiation of the primal energy at the source of all manifestation. Nader Ardalan and Lelah Bhaktiar, writing in The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, express this beautifully from a Sufi viewpoint:

Symbols themselves are theophanies of the absolute in the relative. . . . The central postulate of the Way is that there is a hidden meaning in all things. Every thing has an outer as well as an inner meaning. Every external form is complemented by an inner reality which is its hidden eternal essence.

Another alchemist, Petrus Bonus ("good stone") wrote that to discover the Philosopher's Stone meant "looking with the eyes and seeing with the heart," which would mean viewing the world with a loving eye. When we do this, we begin to learn how to enter the unus mundus—the one world that is the dwelling of the Self or our Divine Guest. As outer and inner become one, life can become both more meaningful and sacramental. As Jesus says in the Gospel according to Thomas, "Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it." Or as someone has observed, "There is another world, and it's hidden in this one!" Alchemy has an extensive list of processes designated by high-sounding Latin verbs. But those processes are applied over and over unconsciously by any cook in any kitchen! Try Sublimatio Souffle or Scrambled eggs Coagulatio!

The key lies in our ability to think symbolically. The Greek verb symbolein means "to throw together" or "to unite." The symbol unites an outer and visible thing or event with an inner and spiritual meaning. (The antonym diabolein means "to separate" and is the origin of diabolos or devil! But that's another story.)

Taking God as a verb, the process we most clearly associate with this central mystery surely is creating. All myths universally start with some form of creation. So, out of darkness and chaos emerge light, life, and warmth. The "primordial image" is an abstraction that is pine. The next step is naming an unmanifest God of gods, next a manifest god or goddess. Keep in mind, these are still abstractions of verbs! The primal processes require a father (yang) god and a mother (yin) goddess, because only the process of mothering can give form to life, and the word matter comes from mater "mother."

The source of life and light in our solar system is the sun. The planets with their moons orbit the sun. So symbolically, for early mankind the Sun was a symbol of God, the Creator, and the gods and goddesses were reflections or attributes of that primal source of Spirit. A modern five-year-old little girl, Tamar, said, "I close my eyes when I talk to God because God is like a great big sun (Ruth Seligman and Jonathan Mark, When Will the Lord Be Two?). That is the way an Egyptian would have addressed the god Ra three thousand years ago.

From the sun as an archetypal expression of the creative force, we pass to yet another layer—the number of religions using solar light or fire as symbols in their rituals and building their temples or churches to provide a sacred space or temenos to honor the Source. Fire is the element that multiplies; it can be shared over and over without losing its light.

Similarly, one seed when grown produces hundreds more. One work of art becomes as many as there are people to see it, because no two people react to it exactly the same. One lecture becomes a hundred lectures, if a hundred people are present. It is not what is said but what is heard; not what is written but what is read. So subtly we can observe the archetypal how of "creating" moving through all the whats.

Turning inward within the psyche, we find that every esoteric branch of every exoteric religion postulates an inner Light (Atman or Christ Within), which Jung termed the Self (as opposed to the ego). This Self is the center point of the symbolic circle or mandala of the psyche. Thus the same symbol,    is used in astronomy for the sun and in metallurgy for gold. The ego (who we think we are) is symbolically at the circumference, mediating between outer and inner realities and circumambulating the centerpoint of the Self (who we really are).

Accordingly, in myths and fairy tales, the figure of central authority is the king; in a tribe,the chief; in a democracy, the president; in a business, the boss. Fairy tales involving a throne usurped by a wrongful ruler to the detriment of the land describe the fairly common problem of our placing on the throne our ego instead of our Divine Guest. In a family, the father expresses that archetype. Fathers give life; mothers give the form life takes. Now, as we enter a new eon, the central archetype may be heading for the hierogamos or "sacred wedding." We are heading toward "the Woman clothed with the Sun" of Revelations. Anyone reading and reacting to this politically has fallen into the trap of literalism and forgotten the fundamental verbs. Only a fertilized egg yields a new life. It still takes two to tango in the manifest world.

In science, we learn that every atom has a "sun." Thus everything in nature, from animal through vegetable to mineral, is an expression of the primal verb of creating. When we read that man is made in the image of God, we can rethink that statement in terms of our sharing the ability to co-create (which is a process), rather than taking it literally and projecting an anthropomorphic god. To think symbolically is a key to wisdom because it allows us to see the same process moving at different levels, like octaves in music.

An amusing example: what common object makes one out of two going up (symbolos) and two out of one going down (diabolos)? The answer is a zipper! We can recognize the same process in the caduceus of Hermes (Mercury), the personification of communicating, or in the ida and pingala of the chakra system, or in the switcherooing process of our optic nerves, or in our DNA and RNA. When Hermes connects, he is the psychopomp; and when he disconnects or confuses, we call him the Trickster. These are positive and negative aspects of the same process.

A joyful approach to life is playing "Sophia's Game." Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, originally the term for the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and described as the personification ofWisdom in the Old Testament, is a delightful archetype:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way,
          Before his works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning,
          Ere ever the earth was. . . .
When he established the heavens, I was there . . .
When he marked out the foundations of the earth
          I was by him, as a master workman
And I was daily his delight,
          Rejoicing always before him,
          Rejoicing in his habitable earth;
And my delight was with the sons of men.

Proverbs (8:22-31)

Sophia is co-creator of the manifest world, but language, the Trickster, obscured her when Greek Hagia Sophia was translated into Latin as Spiritus Sanctus, which term requires a masculine pronoun. Thus the Christian triune Godhead became all male to the historic detriment of women and nature in Western civilization.

Sophia is also an archetype who takes refuge in fairy tales. Another term for the Holy Ghost is the Paraclete—Greek for "Comforter." It is not difficult to spot her presence at this level as theFairy Godmother, whose benevolent process is mediating between the invisible and visible worlds with practical and helpful advice. Thus Sophia is the process within each of us that we call intuition. Her motto is ego coniungo—"I unite." And, as we will be hearing more and more about her, we need to remember this: Sophia is non-threatening.

Take a cup. What do cups do? They contain, fill and empty, so the hidden process is receptive, yin,womblike, feminine. Symbolically, it usually appears as a cauldron in myths, but these days Sophia's process is honored on the Sabbath as a chalice or the Judaic Sabbath cup. All three are vehicles for rebirth and renewal. Raised another level, Sophia's cup becomes the central problem of a great western myth, the Holy Grail. The problem: it's lost! What have we lost? The feminine approach to wisdom. A philosopher is a lover (philo) of Sophia. When this archetype is raised to its highest expression, we reach the Mother Goddess, who even in prehistoric times was fashioned in clay holding the moon (the Venus of Willendorf, about 25,000 BC) or covered with engraved birds and beasts—an early personification of the process of giving form to life. A child announced that Mother Nature is God's wife!

This way of symbolic thinking is not taught, yet it is hinted at in the Emerald Tablet of HermesTrismegistus: "As above, so below." We need only add, "As within, so without."

In the end we will discover the verb—panta rhea.

Alice O. Howell is a Jungian and an astrologer, whose books include The Dove in the Stone:Finding the Sacred in the Commonplace, Jungian Synchronicity in Astrological Signs and Ages, Stars,Cycles, and Psyche: Psychological Aspects of Astrology, The Web in the Sea: Jung, Sophia, and theGeometry of the Soul (all Quest Books), and her most recent, a delightful fantasy, The Beejum Book, reviewed in the November-December 2002 Quest.