The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 7, Through the Ancient Greeks Back to Shamanism
“Madness is a strangely restless creature. It finds no satisfaction in the inactivities that keep sane people contented, searches for jewels through the garbage they throw out, chases after flowers where the ground is all withered with drought”.
This is the latest in a series exploring the inner journey into the underworld of the psyche. (For what has preceded, please see this list.) My inspiration is a fascination with Carl Jung’s so-called ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ as described in his Red Book, and also in a summarised, sanitised version in one chapter of Memories, Dreams, Reflections. As I’ve noted in earlier articles, some commentators have described this period as madness, a psychosis, or a ‘creative illness’. Others have suggested that Jung was certifiably schizophrenic. Jung himself, however, said that this inner journey was highly significant for his inner development, and the inspiration for the remainder of his life’s work.
I was intending in the next article to start drawing parallels between Jung’s experience and that of ancient shamans, basing this on two books — Shamanism and the Psychology of C. G. Jung by Robert E. Ryan, and Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue by C. Michael Smith. Last night, however, something inside prompted me to dip into Peter Kingsley’s book Reality. I duly acted upon this impulse and immediately found some interesting material, including the quote above.
Kingsley, as well as being a devotee of Jung, is fascinated by the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles. Both of them, as I noted in part 3 of this series, made journeys into the Underworld similar to that of Jung, who was aware of both of them, and recognised them as precursors of his own experience.
By coincidence, an article about Parmenides has recently appeared on Medium by Christopher Kirby, who says: “If I’m being honest, Parmenides is one thinker I’d prefer not to focus on… because it’s hard for me to say anything definitive — or perhaps even coherent — about his philosophy”. He refers to the fact that less than a quarter of his main poem has survived, and that “what has survived is just really hard to interpret… It’s rife with paradoxes and contradictions that are clearly intended to point toward deeper truths, but most of those conclusions seem to have gone missing”.
Given that the poem describes a descent into the Underworld where he receives teachings from a goddess about the nature of reality, such difficulties are perhaps not surprising. Kingsley, however, believes that he does understand Parmenides, and devotes many pages in Reality (and also Catafalque) to elucidating his point of view.
That was something of an aside. The section of Kingsley’s book relevant to my theme here begins on page 438, and opens with this statement: “And all we are left with, now, is the madness. For there is no avoiding it any longer — this monster that might turn out not to be such a beast after all”.
He says that, according to Plato, “there are two basic kinds of madness. One is the pathological madness we are fairly familiar with. And yet there is also a divine kind that has the ability to pull us out from our routine world of habit and bring us close to the gods… They both have two apparently different faces. They are both able to make us less than human, or much more. And if madness can drag people into the humiliating depths of insanity it also, as Plato makes very clear, has the unique ability to purify - to ferret out with the unfailing insight of a prophet whatever has been hidden away behind the scenes, to bring freedom and final release from the most ancient of impurities”¹.
Kingsley then refers to Empedocles saying something similar in a text now lost, but summed up by a medical author writing in Latin: “One kind (of madness) is caused by the purification of the soul. The other is the result of mental alienation and has a physical cause, namely imbalance”. Both Plato and Empedocles seem to be describing something close to Jung’s experience.
(As an aside, it seems strange that Plato held these views, yet failed to recognise that Parmenides had had such an experience. He went on to “murder” his work and reputation, according to Kingsley (p303f). According to Plato in his dialogue Protagoras there had been seven earlier sages: Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Chilon. Most people nowadays will not have heard of most, perhaps not any, of the names on that list. Parmenides and Empedocles would have been far more worthy of inclusion.)
Kingsley goes on to discuss shamanism, drawing parallels with the experience of Parmenides, and by implication Jung. He says that:
- “at the heart of the shamanic traditions is the idea that, if controlled, madness can not only heal but also give access to another world”
- “madness is a tremendous power, and to keep one’s focus in the eye of the storm also requires tremendous power”
- “to try controlling it with our thinking minds is hopeless because something far deeper is needed: a trust and sense of direction that only comes from the soul”
- “madness is not only insanity. It’s also what brings release from all our little insanities — and gives sorcerers the freedom they need to do the impossible”.
He further says that “madness has to be experienced, then controlled. And to do this is to discover all kinds of sanities, of ways for operating skilfully in the world”, and that one type of madness “never finds what it looks for. The other does”. “It’s what calls to us, crying out for us to come home. And it’s what takes us home, at last”.
No wonder this journey is called the Hero’s quest. How many people are willing to undertake it in modern times? Is our failure to do so the source of the world’s problems?
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- Although Kingsley does not say so, I think that he is referring to a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus, where he ascribes these thoughts to Socrates.