have felt a call to restore the honor of Hercules, the Roman name for Herakles,
a mythical gentleman who has fallen far from favor in the so-called rational
world of modernity, but who embodied the progressive ideal of humanity for many
centuries. His degradation since the Renaissance parallels the paradoxical
plunge into brute ignorance that is the shadow side of the Age of Science, and
now that we are tentatively emerging from its disenchanting thrall, it is high
time to attempt to reinstate the meaning of what Hercules once stood for.
ancients had a lot of critically important, well thought-out ideas about life
they wanted to disseminate in the present and hoped to share with the future.
The myths they constructed to accomplish this were much more than a
conglomeration of cute pictures and amusing stories. They thought long and hard
about how to communicate with other civilizations that were likely to be remote
in both time and language. The Greeks were cognizant of the fleeting nature of
true civilization, moments of glory separated by long stretches of mind-numbing
ordinariness. They well knew that periods of peace and justice were ephemeral,
but that the desire for them burned passionately in every honest human breast.
They wanted to link up with those distant souls, who might even be themselves
in new incarnations, who knows? They wondered what the universal archetypes are
that can bridge the yawning gulfs between the brief peaks of civilization we
are able to establish, and what would we need to know that would be most
helpful to us, no matter in what conditions we might find ourselves?
solution took the form of myths. Myths are information packets with
universal-enough imagery to transcend local limitations. If a period of history
doesn’t understand them, they cease to have value and are lost. We live in such
an age, and there have been many such ages since the myths were composed.
Fortunately their meaning can at least be partly resurrected by anyone
anywhere, through an act of intelligent contemplation. The myths speak to us
directly, and do not depend on officially vetted interpretations, which are
often far from helpful. Because there is almost nothing available in our time
to help us decode the myths of Hercules, I have gone into them through my own
act of imaginative penetration, which has been surprisingly rewarding. Each of
the Labors turned out to convey incisive spiritual meanings, told from a unique
perspective that epitomizes the dawn of humanity’s collective wisdom.
most surprising thing I have learned since I accidentally began this exegesis
of Hercules is how little the ancient myths are understood—more, that humans
have so lost touch with their traditional wisdom that the archetypal
foundations of the psyche are by and large considered trivial and hardly worth
a passing glance. The future is all about roaring ahead into a technological
wonderland in search of salvation, or at least surcease from sorrow. Rather
than acknowledging the miraculous essence of existence and actualizing our
innate potentials, as Hercules once did, we are hell-bent on abandoning
ourselves and becoming something or someone else.
the perspective of our wise elders, such brash escapism is nothing more than an
old tragedy dressed up in modern garb. We would be better served to get to know
the vast potential lying untapped in our unconscious. The Labors of Hercules
are a teaching tool to show us how we might go about it.
humans, the world is viewed backwards, as a reflection of our awareness, as if
in a mirror. We are loving beings born into a more or less stressful and
dangerous environment, mesmerized by our reflections and projections into
turning away from our core nature. Often a substitute self appears in the
mirror before our eyes: a chimera or mirage, promising to lead us to safety.
And so we reach out endlessly toward the insubstantial phantoms that play over
the surface of our days. Few realize that what we are really seeking is already
in us, and the reason we can never find it is that we are looking in the wrong
direction, away from who we are.
only two sources I found that understand this in relation to Hercules’
Labors—both extremely obscure—have made up the bulk of my insight gathering,
other than my own meditations. They are the three stupendous volumes of The Revelation
in the Wilderness by Dr.
G.H. Mees, surveying the vast universe of ancient myths with a keen eye, and
the slim tract Sacred Mythoi of Demigods
and Heroes, by the editors of The Shrine of Wisdom, in England, which affords
some excellent insight on Hercules and on myths (or mythoi) in general. I have
quoted from both at some length because their tone is so different from my own.
Mees points out that the absence of meaning in understanding myths is nothing
new—it has been lost for millennia. Yet there is hope:
In classical Greece the meaning
of Greek myth had been all but forgotten, so much so that Hesiod and others who
are our sources of information on Greek myth, did not themselves know their
meaning. Hence occasional inconsistencies are met with, as the entertainment
value of the myths as dramatic tales sometimes developed at the expense of
symbolic meaning. But, nevertheless, at the hand of the symbolic keys, the
meaning of the myths nearly always stands out sufficiently clear. (iii, 211-12)
Mees teaches that the power of myths
is that they speak to
us on multiple levels: physical, emotional, logical and intuitive,
corresponding to earth, water, fire and air. The harmonious combination of all
the elements results in spiritual catharsis, bringing us to the quintessence or
fifth realm, corresponding symbolically to akasha or space. Part of the poverty
of modern readings of myths is that they focus only on the physical and rational
aspects, almost entirely omitting any emotional, intuitive and spiritual
order to become a hero—Greek for spiritually realized being—Hercules was
assigned twelve impossible tasks. Not all writers gave the labors in the same
order. Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12) gives the one I and many others use:
kill the Nemean Lion.
destroy the Lernaean Hydra.
capture the Ceryneian Hind.
capture the Erymanthian Boar.
clean the Augean Stables.
kill the Stymphalian Birds.
capture the Cretan Bull.
round up the Mares of Diomedes.
steal the Girdle of Hippolyte.
herd the Cattle of Geryon.
fetch the Apples of Hesperides.
of the monsters and mythical beasts that Hercules is sent to master are said to
be devastating the countryside. In spiritual terms this means that unless we
deal with our negative proclivities, they cause disasters to our environment,
psychic as well as physical. Left alone they continue to raise a ruckus. But by
Hercules overcoming them and taking them to the king—the wise seat of judgment,
or the witness—they cease causing trouble.
of the monsters are associated with Ares, the god of war, which tips us off to
their role in conflict. That they are tamed or killed symbolizes thorough
neutralization of their negative powers. Dr. Mees expounds on this in his
exegesis of the Book of Genesis:
The 26th verse tells
us that the Spiritual Man should rule the lower functions of his psyche. He
should have dominion over the fish of the sea, symbolizing the lower emotional
or erotic life, and over the fowl of the air, symbolizing the lower aspects of
the spiritual life…. Further he should have dominion over the cattle,
symbolizing the higher, creative, emotional life. Cattle yield milk. Milk is in
many traditions symbolic of “the stream of consciousness” and of the nourishing
properties of the Motherly Moon-Sphere. It yields cream, universally a symbol
of the Quintessence or Ether. The “chrism” of Christianity is a form of this
“cream.” The words are even etymologically related….
must have dominion “over all the earth.” [In other words] Man must rule the urges
in his lower mind.
man must have dominion over “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the
earth.” This has reference to the libido manifesting physically or with regard
to the material plane. (The Key to Genesis, 68-9)
had to perform his Labors because of a tragic failing of his own. In a fit of
insanity he killed his wife and children, his immediate family. For most people
our psychological faults have the most grievous impact on those close to us,
and to set things aright we must recover our sanity by wrestling with those
very faults and neutralizing them. Hercules’ success with the Labors brought
him immortality, which is an exalted state of mind rather than eternal bodily
life. Hercules did die later, as we shall see.
I will be interpreting these myths as psychological scenarios, Sacred Mythoi does
the same based on
occult spirituality. It should not be too difficult to discern the connection.
Here’s how the booklet presents the general outline of the Labors:
his famous Twelve
Labours are more or less familiar to the majority of students, yet probably few
have undertaken the work involved in their full interpretation. It is evident
from their nature that they symbolize in some manner the tasks which the Soul
must accomplish in order to gain liberation from the entanglements of the
mundane realms of Form and Sense. [These and Hercules’ other ordeals] may be
regarded as relating to the circumstances of the Soul’s descent into Matter and
its ultimate progress through the supermundane realms to the glory of final
freedom and conscious immortality. (11)
The perverted human will misuses
the force of Providence through selfishness, ignorance, or other reasons, and
thus produces all manner of abnormalities. These are symbolized by the monsters
and inordinations which Hercules has to overcome. (13)
The Meaning of Myths
are archetypal images that can transcend their period of history to communicate
their message. They don’t have to depend on interpretations by any intervening
person or institution, which is quite fortunate, since the meaning of most of
the symbols from humanity’s distant past have been lost or seriously watered
down. Ancient initiates of the secrets of so many rich traditions have died
without heirs. Even where there is a hierarchical lineage still in existence,
degeneration and perversions of the traditions have made their interpretations
dubious if not downright contrary to their original intent.
is a Herculean labor left to concerned individuals in every era to revivify the
mythic symbols with fresh understanding, taking into account the suggestions of
currently popular opinion without being blinded by them. This is certainly the
case with the Greek myths, which are now viewed through the unsympathetic lenses
of modern science and religion when examined at all. Christianity has recently
been blessed with discoveries of some ancient scrolls that bypass thousands of
years of revisionism, but such “acts of God,” while extremely fortunate, are exceedingly
rare. When they do happen, the discoveries reveal all too clearly that the
present day institutions bear little or no resemblance with the aims of their founding
is by way of admitting that while I have studied several sources regarding the
meaning of Greek myths, the interpretations I am offering are not sanctioned by
any official imprimatur. In most cases, scholars have been content to relate
the stories without probing for hidden meanings. This is fair enough, as it
allows everyone to draw whatever inspiration they can from them, and no one can
ever be completely certain what the originators had in mind or even who they
were. But it is clear to everyone that the stories have special significance;
that they are brimming with implications. They speak to us directly in our
hearts. Great art was ever thus. So in this series on Hercules I have done
nothing more than what each person might do with any myth or other work of art,
given the time and inclination. I read several versions of the story and what I
could unearth about what they might mean, and then I sat with them for a while
and just mused about them. Whenever I have had a flash of insight I jotted it
down, and when what I jotted looked good after a few days reflection I didn’t
throw it away. Before long the features began to coalesce into a coherent
narrative, which several times brought me to an incandescent realization of
deeper meanings. At those times I felt as if I was receiving rare wisdom from a
remote and long-neglected source.
a degree it is actually a blessing that so many of the ancient stories have
come down to us without being Bowdlerized by didactic interpretations, which
poison so much of the purity of the ancient tales in so-called “living” religions.
Our task is to be the disciple to the myths’ guruhood: if we ponder and learn
from them, they will shed light into our psychic darkness. This being the case,
perhaps I am doing a disservice by sharing my own insights, but I do it in the
spirit of bringing the dead back to life. My conclusions should not be taken as
gospel, but only as a jumping off place for further explorations.
this in mind, let us examine the overall myth of the Labors of Hercules. First
off, Dr. Mees, that wizard of mythology himself, reminds us “It is significant
that the name Herakles, Latinized as Hercules, means ‘renowned through Hera’.
The Consort of Zeus represents the Mother-Goddess of the Moon-Sphere. Her
garments were said to shine like the summer sea and she wore jewels like the
stars of heaven…. She was said to be the fairest of all the Goddesses, even
fairer than Venus.” (ii, 78). Such a special hero is not likely to have been
intended as a buffoon for comic relief. His name alone tips us off that there
is deep water here. The rare and curious book, Sacred Mythoi of Demigods and Heroes, agrees:
Heracles… signifies “Hera’s
Greatness and Glory.” … Hercules, as her glory, is the symbol of the ultimately
triumphant Soul; while the ordeals through which he emerges successfully are
the types of the experiences which all souls, consciously or unconsciously,
undergo in their struggles for perfection. (11)
Sacred Mythoi sets the tone for using
myths for spiritual enlightenment with a quotation of Proclus, (fifth century
CE), from his Apology for the Fables of Homer:
He who has
established Intellect (Spirit) as the leader of his life, such a one will most
opportunely participate in the illuminations concealed in mythoi; but he who is
devoid of instruction cannot safely engage in their speculation….
the hearers in an all-various manner to the investigation of Truth; attract us
to arcane knowledge; so that we are not content with superficial conceptions
and apparent probability, but are impelled to penetrate the inner significance
of the mythoi, to explore the veiled purpose of their authors, and to survey
the natures and powers which they intended to signify to posterity by means of
such mystical symbols. (5)
It seems that once upon a time people understood that myths
were far more than merely entertaining stories. Yet Mees and this anonymous
tract are the only sources I’ve encountered that provide an exegesis of the
Labors of Hercules. Here’s how the booklet sets the stage:
In the legends
and mythoi of all nations there appear great characters, heroes, demigods and
immortals, who stand out for all mortals to behold as the personification of
sublime ideals, profound truths and grand purposes. (1)
According to the
Mythos, Hercules was given the choice of a life of pleasure and ease, or one of
virtue and service, and, like all great Heroes, he unhesitatingly chose the
latter. This is the original expression of the Soul’s inherent elective power,
by which it makes the Great Choice. For every son of God is originally free,
although when united with the body of the Mundane World, the memory of this
pristine freedom becomes dim.
And since it was
to be his to make manifest the inherent strength and greatness of the human
Soul, it becomes more explicable why Hera should persistently oppose Hercules
rather than assist him in his labours; for the Soul’s own greatness is made
manifest in the manner in which it overcomes obstacles by its own latent
powers, rather than by the way in which it triumphs when co-operating with
is indeed a Hero of heroes. (12)
value of myths may be greater when they are not understood by the conscious
mind so much as allowed to speak to our deeper selves. Conscious manipulation
interferes to a greater or lesser extent with the purity of the symbolic
message, so at the very least we should acknowledge the supra-conscious impact
of what we hear or read. As Karen Armstrong, the historical chronicler of God,
puts it, “In order to work effectively, a symbol has to be experienced as a
direct link to the more elusive and transcendent reality to which it directs
Haas was a disciple of John Spiers. He wrote a lengthy Foreword to Spiers’ as
yet unpublished book, Pagan Europe,
elaborating on this point:
Mythos is a dynamic flowing (itself rooted in “history”) of cosmic
sacredness and spontaneous spiritual activity, proportionally representing and
revealing the numinous presences and powers symbolized by gods and goddesses
and lesser figures, frequently humanly represented. The knowing of a myth is in the meaningful experience of the
individual. Myth is read like a work
of art. It is a numinous structuring of reality with archetypal images which in
turn are connected to the natural world as progression, but not as mere static
is not simply knowledge of some thing. It is much more. Its “rationale” is its
pre-established trans-rationality. It is like a gigantic painting or symphony
depicting a variety of elements which “reveal” their basic intentionality to
each individual who does not willfully read into
their mystic rubric, but gets from.
(For instance, one does not listen into
a symphony in a conceptual manner—unless, perhaps, if one is an academic musicologist;
rather, one lets the symphony reveal itself, i.e. enter in.) One does not
intellectually think about myth.
Rather, one mythically thinks. A myth is a universal symbol, while a fact or a
rationalized digested portion of a myth is but a note or notes in the mythic
is not a myth maker, but a myth experiencer. Its “knowledge” is appreciation
and deep felt experience, and because myth has no common ground with dogma,
creed or catechism, its appeal is both sacred and profane, because it deals
with the whole of life, itself being free from all sadomasochistic theological
notions of sin and the accompanying “fear and trembling,” which belongs to
dogmatic ecclesiasticism. (22)
Haas’ passionate and insightful disquisition, I believe there is room for
intelligent, educated listening, alongside the childlike openness that Haas
champions. I believe it makes the meaning even more dynamic and enlightening,
as long as the openness isn’t lost. Taking his example of listening to a symphony,
I love that type of music partly because I’m familiar with it and know
something about it, where those who know little about a piece might tend to
shrug it off as of no value. While sophistication in the adult mind can block
the appreciation that a child more readily brings to many forms of
communication, it can also lead us past initial challenges to discover the
riches hidden behind them. Myths are like classical music in being “old
fashioned” and not so readily appreciated as we might hope, so some
encouragement is usually needed to give them a fair hearing. At least it is
easier to point out exciting details in a myth than it is to describe music and
successfully convey its potency.
own technique for processing myths is very simple. I first read several
versions of them and simply absorb them for a while. Initially they often
strike me as ordinary stories with no particular meaning. Later I’ll go for a
long walk in the woods, and at some point ideas will start boiling up about the
implications of the story. Each insight produces several more, in a kind of
information cascade. Being old and moldering, I then have to repeat the best
ones to myself once or twice before I can get back to the computer to record
them. It’s very frustrating to be visited by an exciting idea and then have it
vanish into the neuronal haze! My job is to safeguard the fragments until I can
commit them to digital paper.
is what we are supposed to do with myths: permit our unconscious data banks to
pour out their understanding into our consciousness. By sharing what I’ve
discovered—inescapably personal and different from the next person’s version—I
hope to stimulate a similar “corpus of discovery” in whoever is interested in
doing the same kind of mining. The last thing I want is to replace the
adventure of digging with some fixed platitude that kills the whole business.
child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in comparing fairy tales and myths,
initially makes a distinction I don’t think is wholly valid, but the
conclusions he draws from the generalization are spot on. All the following
quotes are found on page 45 of my edition of The Uses of Enchantment (NY: Vintage Books, 1977). He begins with
the invalid distinction:
Myths and fairy tales both answer
the eternal questions: What is the world really like? How am I to live my life
in it? How can I truly be myself? The answers given by myths are definite,
while the fairy tale is suggestive: its messages may imply solutions, but it
never spells them out. Fairy tales leave to the child’s fantasizing whether and
how to apply to himself what the story reveals about life and human nature.
confident that my exegesis of the Labors of Hercules, whatever its faults,
shows that these myths aren’t spelling out anything definite; certainly they
are little understood and seldom explicated. Bettelheim is writing about
children and their needs, so perhaps a better distinction is that fairy tales
are for children and myths are similar teaching tools for adults. I like to believe
that for adults there is much that can be learned by looking beneath the
surface of both myths and tales. I recap this part of Bettelheim’s argument
because it underlines the value of vagueness, which is often underappreciated,
possibly because it is a major fault in other types of writing, like journalistic
reporting and social contracts. Spiritual insights bloom from suggestive
teachings like analogies and parables, not to mention poetry, where the lack of
specificity leaves plenty of room to apply them to a wide range of
circumstances. What’s more, the relatively unformed awareness of childhood
thrives on imaginative tales and recoils from pedantry. Bettelheim continues:
The fairy tale proceeds in a
manner which conforms to the way a child thinks and experiences the world; this
is why the fairy tale is so convincing to him. He can gain much better solace
from a fairy tale than he can from an effort to comfort him based on adult
reasoning and viewpoints. A child trusts what the fairy story tells, because
its world view accords with his own.
Whatever our age, only a story conforming to the principles
underlying our thought processes carries conviction for us. If this is so for
adults… it is exclusively true for the child.
Speaking of conviction, the oral presentation of a myth
works best for children, if not trusting adults, because saying something
implies approval, while merely reading it out makes its message sound like it
is coming from far away, and is therefore open to doubt. Children intuitively
recognize the difference between a rote presentation and a spontaneous, living performance.
brain imaging studies have begun to unveil some startling and exciting truths
about who we are, which continue to bring science and religion closer together.
Alison Gopnik, in her article How Babies
Think, in Scientific American magazine of July 2010, relates an experiment
that we can now read as an examination of Bettelheim’s take on the value of
permitting people to think for themselves:
In other recent research my group
found that young children who think they are being instructed modify their
statistical analysis and may become less creative as a result. The experimenter
showed four-year-olds a toy that would play music if you performed the right
sequence of actions on it, such as pulling a handle and then squeezing a bulb.
For some children the experimenter said, “I don’t know how this toy works—let’s
figure it out.” She proceeded to try out various longer action sequences for
the children, some that ended with the short sequence and made music and some
that did not. When she asked the children to make the toy work, many of them
tried the correct short sequence, astutely omitting actions that were probably
superfluous based on the statistics of what they had seen.
other children, the experimenter said that she would teach them how the toy
worked by showing them sequences that did and did not produce music, and then
she acted on the toy in exactly the same way. When asked to make the toy work,
these children never tried a shortcut. Instead they mimicked the entire
sequence of actions. Were these children ignoring the statistics of what they
saw? Perhaps not—their behavior is accurately described by a Baysean model in
which the “teacher” is expected to choose the most instructive sequences. In
simple terms: if she knew shorter sequences worked, she would not have shown
them the unnecessary actions.
This tells us, among other things, that creative thinking
does not have to be taught. It is our true nature. Much of what passes for
teaching is actually the suppression of our innate genius in favor of
conformity, a tragic sacrifice worthy of an ancient Greek myth.
two prongs of Gopnik’s experiment are like the difference between myths and
fairy tales on the one hand, and pedagogical rationality on the other. The
former encourage creativity while the latter suppresses it. Ideally the spiritual
aspirant yogically synthesizes both approaches into a wisdom that is at once
creative and intelligent.
mystery of the magical thinking of children stands in contrast to the
straightforward rationality adults are supposed to operate under—even though
they often don’t—and the changeover is an intriguing process. Spiritual
evolution echoes the transformation, as is made clear by reading between the
lines of Bettelheim’s assertion:
[A fairy tale] directs the child’s
thinking about his own development without ever telling what it ought to be,
permitting the child to draw his own conclusions. This process alone makes for
true maturing, while telling the child what to do just replaces the bondage of
his own immaturity with a bondage of servitude to the dicta of adults.
This is a key truth that should never be lost, but sadly we
live in a world where it is often considered subversive to strive to escape
from servitude. Moreover, it takes real expertise to offer just enough and not
too much advice, so that listeners can draw their own conclusions. You might
have noticed how it is mandatory in books and movies nowadays to point out the
obvious, so that everyone can “get it.” To those who appreciate subtlety, such
heavy-handedness is at the minimum extremely unartistic, if not counterproductive.
I sincerely hope I haven’t perpetrated a similar transgression with this
providing a rational interpretation of the Hercules myth, because it is
territory that has been little explored. Bettelheim puts such myths on the side
of rationality to begin with, but they really do speak to us in
protolanguage—the language of nonverbal imagery. Some of their more prosaic
pronouncements may have been added after the fact by pedagogues in the distant
past. I am well aware of how didactic explanations run the risk of spoiling the
inspirational value of a myth. My hope, beyond discovering the intricacies of
these fascinating stories for myself, is to stimulate the interest of other
readers for what is generally passed off as an archaic tale, and to offer some
indication of their possible meanings. In any case I’m quite sure that no one
would accuse me of being a mouthpiece for the status quo…. I think we should
all have lots of creative fun!
Debasing of Myths
love to keep records, and tend to believe that what they are experiencing in
the present is the high point of all history. So all manner of beliefs, from
the worst to the best, have been preserved. Poisonous beliefs can be useful
insofar as they demonstrate what not
to do, and are not treated as divine dispensations to be adhered to. We can
also be grateful that thoughtful truth seekers in the past did yeoman’s work in
preserving much of the best of ancient wisdom and discarding the junk. Our task
is to decode and make sense of this legacy, since it is better reasoned out
than many more recent schools of thought give it credit for. We can decide for
ourselves what value the myths have, though they should be accorded the benefit
of the doubt until decently understood. Somebody up the line—usually many
somebodies—found them worthy of preservation, and took the formidable amount of
time to copy them before they disintegrated, many times over.
was delighted to discover Hercules had a place of honor in Renaissance
philosophy. It turns out that only recently has he fallen from grace to become
an object of derision, or at best an entertaining oaf. This is a testament to
the modern world’s bottomless hubris and near total ignorance of the spiritual
side of humanity’s quest for wisdom. Hercules epitomized indomitable courage
and tenacious determination to accomplish his tasks, qualities essential to
spiritual progress. In a world where every problem appears to have a pushbutton
solution, where a more efficient app is the key to success, such persistence
seems quaint and unnecessary. Perhaps that is why we are witnessing an
explosion of mediocrity: we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
could chafe at the debased level of intelligence in the modern milieu, but I
prefer to offer an alternative. The myth of Hercules is an untapped jewel
waiting to be admired. I will strip away its veils to the best of my ability
and let you decide for yourself how much austere beauty it reveals.
birth of the so-called Age of Reason in the seventeenth century took place amid
flames of persecution so egregious that honest people resolved to never again
accept anything smacking of religion or any kind of unprovable belief. We can
hardly blame them, considering the tragedies unorthodox thinkers were subjected
to, and for that matter continue to be subjected to in the twenty-first
century. Unfortunately, with the maniacal torturers close on their heels, the
baby of high values was well and truly thrown out with the filthy bathwater of
uncritical, intolerant beliefs.
Renaissance and the Romantic era treated the ancient myths as meaningful
symbols, but in our time they have been treated as fanciful stories only; good
for entertainment perhaps, but meaningless. When science subtracted meaning
from existence, it initiated a rent in the fabric of holistic thought that we
increasingly suffer from. Soul-destroying images are seen as no different from
uplifting ones—in fact, their positions are often reversed. No wonder there are
regular explosions of officially-sanctioned hatred and violence!
Calling something a myth means it is a false belief.
Revelation of Dr. Mees (1903-1955)
colleague of Carl Jung, G.H. Mees of Holland, was perhaps the most eminent
scholar of the traditional myths of humankind of the twentieth century.
Somewhere in the 1930s or early 1940s he underwent a “revelation in the
wilderness” in which he perceived links between all the various traditions of
the ancient world. He became a guru in India with his own ashram, spent much
time with his neighbor Ramana Maharshi, and penned the three volumes detailing
his vision. Eventually two small books focusing on the first book of Genesis
were added. My own guru, Nitya Chaitanya Yati, became his disciple around New
Year’s Day of 1946, and typed up the final manuscript of The Revelation in the Wilderness while living and studying at the
Kanva Ashram in Varkala, Kerala. They parted amicably in 1951. Some of this
halcyon period is recounted in Nitya’s autobiography, Love and Blessings.
Mees—Sadhu Ekarasa to his disciples—is little known to the outside world, and
his book on mythology is a neglected masterpiece. Dr. Mees lived outside the
limelight, and the few chapters about him in Nitya’s autobiography, Love and Blessings,
are by far the most
extensive record of his life. There is another brief memoir of his successor,
J.J. de Reede, available at http://www.newlives.freeola.net/interviews/36_hamsa_johannus_de_reade.php.
This quote from the de Reede memoir could have come straight from Dr. Mees’ own
Tradition, including religion,
used to serve a purpose… and it still does. But in those countries where
tradition and religion have been reduced to superstition and have been thrown
out, their children stand bare-handed under a naked sky and have to start
afresh as in the stone-age.
this sense, St. Paul said: We should serve [not] in the oldness of the letter
but in the newness of the spirit. It’s the newness of the spirit which can be
rediscovered when we find the inner meaning of tradition and religion
incorporated in the collective sub-conscious and popping out in our own
personality. In that we can find guidance, because the sages who have rigged up
ritual, mythology, mystic literature, tradition and religion knew how to reach
us according to our individual temperament and have taken us in the direction
of where we really wanted to go in the first place.
Mees has written a definitive assessment of myth in the Introduction to The Key
to Genesis. The most important part is:
Unfortunately the meaning of the
basic symbols of the ancient traditions of mankind has been long forgotten,
even though some symbolic implications have been preserved. But knowledge of a
few words of a language does not give understanding and command of that
language. As words only serve a useful purpose when they can be grouped
together to form intelligent sentences, so symbols are only of use and interest
in their interrelation. A symbol by itself, that is, taken out of its context,
has only a very vague inspirational value, largely depending on its connection
with the unconscious. A symbol grouped intelligently with other symbols in a
myth, a ritual or some other tradition remaining over from more enlightened
times, contributes to a lesson in traditional psychology which may contain,
literally, a world of meaning.
ways of teaching are predominantly rational and both follow from and contribute
to the fact that the people of the present age exist psychologically in a state
of departments, in which the various functions carry on a semi-independent life
and are often at loggerheads with one another. But ancient ways of teaching
were synthetic and syncretic, and made a simultaneous appeal to all the
functions. The ancient traditional way of teaching was by myth. Mythological
stories dealt with psychological problems and their solution, and appealed to
the emotions, the function of systematic thought, the moral man and the
intuition. They were “inspiring”, appealed to the function of faith and brought
insight into the mystery of life. When they were recited to the letter or
enacted, it was a good training for the perceptive function of the various
physical senses. The purpose of myths was to bring all functions into play at
the same time.
man has so completely forgotten what a myth is, that the expression “it is a
myth” is now being used to denote something of baseless imagination or
is the case—need it be said—because myths have been interpreted in a
literalistic manner. Mythological personalities have been taken to be
personified forces of nature, when, on the contrary, they represent aspects of
the psyche which were clothed in natural attributes. This course was
inevitable, for man has no other material to draw upon for his metaphors and
symbols than nature, both material and animate. Though modern man, in his
literature and pictorial art, is ever creating new metaphors, decorating and
illustrating types of men with attributes borrowed from nature, it has so far
not seriously occurred to him that his ancestors in past ages not only did the
very same, but carried it to the extent of an exact psychological science,
which was, as I have shown elsewhere, world-wide.
Revelation in the Wilderness.
a very long time, especially during the Renaissance, Hercules was considered a
prime example of excellence, even equated with Christ at times. Shakespeare
himself, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV, iii) mentions our hero:
For valour, is
not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Emmet Meagher, in his book Herakles Gone
Mad, (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2006), though not dealing
with the Labors, recognized Hercules’ appeal down through the ages:
In all of Greek myth there was no
hero more beloved than Hercules. He combined phenomenal strength and courage
with generosity and goodwill. He was the stuff of which legends are made, a
statue waiting to be cast. (xi)
greatest of all the Greek heroes was Hercules, one of the many offspring of the
famously philandering Zeus. More than his mightiness, however, what was most
striking about Hercules was his popularity. His cult was ubiquitous throughout
the Greek world. Deprived of a locatable grave, he was everywhere. There was no
place, and for that matter never a time, that he was not honored. The complex
of his myths is so old as to contain fossils of far earlier Neolithic, perhaps
even Paleolithic, figures—the shaman, traversing the corridor from life to
death and back again; the master of the animals, slaying and subduing monstrous
beasts; the primordial warrior taking on fabled opponents, such as centaurs and
Amazons…. His popularity was not simply a matter of the geographical reach of
his cult, it was also a matter of his vulnerability and appeal. For all his
invincibility as a superhero, he led an exhausting, laborious life that ended
rather miserably. His days were long and often thankless, and his pleasures
mostly simple. There was nothing slovenly, decadent, or arrogant about him. He
was a hero without airs or attitude. He used his privileges and power more
often for others than for himself. Like Prometheus, he was a lover of
humankind, and humankind loved him back. (37)
influential sixteenth century mythographer Natale Conti wrote about a range of
myths concerning Hercules in his
Mythologiae (1567). His chapter begins:
Hercules, who subdued and destroyed monsters, bandits, and criminals,
was justly famous and renowned for his great courage. His great and glorious
reputation was worldwide, and so firmly entrenched that he’ll always be
remembered. In fact the ancients honored him with his own temples, altars,
ceremonies, and priests. But it was his wisdom and great soul that earned those
honors; noble blood, physical strength, and political power just aren’t good
Conti, Mythologiae Book 7, Chapter 1, as translated
by John Mulryan and Steven Brown (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance
Studies, 2006), vol. 2, p. 566.
Classical Scholar and Theater historian Kathleen Riley has
written a book on Euripides’ play, Herakles. According to Riley, the
Renaissance envisioned Hercules as an ideal Christian, and occasionally even as
another Christ. She admits that some writers interpreted the Labors as
intellectual feats rather than physical exploits. She writes:
In his Iconologia (1593) Cesare Ripa depicts Hercules as a perfect fusion
of the three constituent s parts of heroic virtue: the moderation of anger; the
tempering of greed; and contempt for strife and pleasure. Hercules’ club
accordingly symbolizes reason, while his lion’s skin represents generosity of
mind and the conquest of concupiscence.
the late Middle Ages Hercules was viewed as a standard-bearer for the
Reception and Performance of Euripides’ Herakles (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008) p. 93.
weapons wielded by the Indian gods are symbolic of intellectual and spiritual
accomplishments. Divine weapons are those devices—-mainly rhetorical—-by which
problems in life are solved. For instance, a thunderbolt represents the
intensification of energy to break through an impasse. A knife dissects a
situation so it can be studied in detail, and it also separates the useful from
the useless parts, in a process known as discrimination. A sword represents the
way the intellect can cut through to the core of any issue. Hercules’ club
would then represent something like invincible determination, or as Kathleen
Riley has it, reason.
count on Joseph Campbell to home in on the important elements in humanity’s
To grasp the full value of the
mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they
are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and
acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual
principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human
history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself.
Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all
the visible structures of the world – all things and all beings – are the
effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills
them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must
ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the
Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, to the Hindus as shakti,
and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is
termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is
the structure and flux of the universe itself.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Part II - “The
Cosmogonic Cycle”; Chapter 1 - “Emanations”; Section 1 - “From Psychology to
own take on the monsters accords with Campbell’s: they are not only the
products of selfishness and stupidity manifesting as incredibly hostile
external forces, they also reflect normal ignorance and the quotidian
proclivities of human beings. Occult works tend to delight in playing up the
good vs. evil polemic. The Vedanta of India, on the other hand, treats this
dichotomy as part of the overarching problem of ignorance awaiting the light of
unitive wisdom. The monsters are our own latent powers unleashed. Still, the
Western heroic tradition very much permeates much of world culture, using
excitement and fear as goads for us to face up to the spiritual hurdles that
for the unmotivated loom up out of the darkness to keep them bound in their
place. It is certainly possible as well that the original version of the Herculean
myth has been inflated and “sexed up” over the course of time to enchant the
star has been steadily plummeting since his high honor during the Renaissance.
The modern taste for derision has had a field day with him. If you accept only
the surface details, then Hercules is easy to sneer at. Weak souls have always
tried to raise themselves up by putting others down.
a bookstore the other day I peeked in a new book on Greek myths to see what it
had to say about Hercules. What I found made me happy I have been digging into
these myths below the surface:
Heracles was the most famous hero
of a particular type in ancient Greece: He was strong, confident, and
courageous. But he was either thoughtless or dense. He solved problems with
brawn, not brain; he slew person after person, army after army, monster after
monster. He made mistakes and felt awful about them, but he never changed his
ways, he never learned from his mistakes. Yet at times he seemed almost jolly.
The Greeks revered him, but they laughed at him, too.
The Treasury of Greek Mythology, by Donna Jo Napoli (Wash DC:
National Geographic Society, 2011), p. 143.
This is typical modernist dogma: that nothing prior to the
present paradigm has any meaning or significance, beyond allowing us to
momentarily indulge in a ripple of pitying laughter before passing on to better
things. Then there’s this:
Although Herakles’ labors have multiple determinants and levels of
meaning, a recurrent theme is his attempt to demonstrate masculinity and
potency, to meet and overcome sexual challenges (e.g., the daughters of
Thespios, the Amazon queen). (http://www.greecetravel.com/greekmyths/argos8.htm)
be seriously embarrassed by the trivial way
his labors have been interpreted in modern times!
times there is a whiff of suspicion that there may be more to these myths than
meets the eye. The admirable site http://www.greekmythology.com
well reflects the present day attitude:
Heracles (or Hercules) is best
known as the strongest of all mortals, and even stronger than many gods….
his strength was a
noticeable lack of intelligence or wisdom. Once, when the temperature was very
high, he pulled his bow out and threatened to shoot at the sun. This, coupled
with strong emotions in one so powerful, frequently got Heracles in trouble.
While his friend and cousin Theseus ruled Athens, Heracles had trouble ruling
himself. His pride was easily offended. He took up grudges easily and never
forgot them. His appetites for food, wine, and women were as massive as his
strength. Many of Heracles’ great deeds occurred while doing penance for stupid
acts done in anger or carelessness.
It would be easy to view Heracles
as a muscle-bound buffoon. Indeed, many of the Greek comedy playwrights used
his character this way. Even among serious critics, he was often seen as a
primitive, brutal, and violent man. There is much evidence to support this
view; his weapon of choice was a massive club; his customary garment was a lion
skin, with the head still attached; he impiously wounded some of the gods; he
threatened a priestess of Apollo at Delphi when an answer to his questions was
not forthcoming. He created most of his own problems.
The view of Heracles shifted
considerable over time. The early view focused on how badly he managed despite
his obvious gifts. As time passed the focus shifted to his virtues. The Romans
valued him highly as he best fit their idea of a hero. He eventually had a fair
sized cult that worshiped him as a god.
scouring the net, I did find one site that hinted at but did not explore very
far into the possibilities:
Behind its outer meaning, Greek
religion often hid an inner mystical tradition, and thus the labours could be
interpreted as a symbolization of the spiritual path. This is particularly
evident in an analysis of the eleventh, in which Hercules travels to a garden
in which grows an apple tree with magical fruit, the tree of life, guarded by a
dragon and some sisters—a parallel to the biblical legend of the garden of Eden
where a snake encourages the use of an (unnamed) fruit tree, granting the knowledge
of good and evil. The last three labours (10-12) of Hercules are generally
considered metaphors about death. (http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/HeraclesLabours.html)
connecting the labors to certain
constellations, the site doesn’t provide any spiritual exploration. Basically,
in every source I have examined, the bare outlines of the myth are repeated,
but no one hazards a guess as to whether there is any symbolic meaning beyond
the cover story.
is one more example of how the ancient pearls have been trampled in the mud of
the Age of Hubris. Bestselling author Agatha Christie, in The Labors of Hercules (NY: Dell, 1968, p. 9), ridicules the
romantic attraction to the classics that prevailed in the West not too long
ago. At the behest of a priggish academic type enamored of the age-old
romances, ace detective Hercule Poirot—himself named after Hercules—is perusing
the Greek myths and thinks:
Take this Hercules—this hero!
Hero indeed? What was he but a large muscular creature of low intelligence and
criminal tendencies!... This ancient Hercules probably suffered from grand mal.
No, Poirot shook his head, if
that was the Greeks’ idea of a hero, then
measured by modern standards it certainly would not do. The whole classical
pattern shocked him. These gods and goddesses—they seemed to have as many
different aliases as a modern criminal. Indeed they seemed to be definitely
criminal types. Drink, debauchery, incest, rape, loot, homicide and
chicanery—enough to keep a juge d’Instruction
constantly busy. No decent family life. No order, no method. Even in their
crimes, no order or method!
“Hercules indeed!” said Hercule Poirot, rising to his feet,
a materialist, virtually all the wisdom of the ancients
is nothing more than tedious superstition and unscientific speculation. But, as
we have rediscovered in scrutinizing Hercules, myths are like the Absolute
itself: hiding in plain sight, waiting patiently to be noticed for the
treasures they safeguard.
The Labors Connected
with the Zodiac
Mees (and others)
1 Lion – Sagittarius
2 Hydra – Scorpio
3 Boar – Libra
4 Hind – Virgo
5 Birds – Leo
6 Girdle – Cancer
7 Stable – Gemini
8 Bull – Taurus
9 Mares – Aries
10 Cattle – Pisces
11 Golden Apples – Aquarius
12 Cerberus – Capricorn
1 Mares – Aries
2 Bull – Taurus
3 Cattle – Gemini
4 Hydra – Cancer
5 Lion – Leo
6 Boar – Virgo
7 Stable – Libra
8 Birds – Scorpio
9 Hind (Stag) –
10 Cerberus – Capricorn
11 Girdle – Aquarius
12 Golden Apples – Pisces