Axial Age and Its Place in the Evolution of Human Consciousness and Culture

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William Irwin Thompson:

"The Axial Age, with its global epiphany of prophets, from Orpheus and Pythagoras to Isaiah II, Buddha, Lao Tzu and Quetzalcoatl, seems to mark a critical turning point in the evolution of consciousness, for now the individual soul seems capable of knowing and expressing a higher truth than the received wisdom of the ancestors, the idols of the tribe.

Eric Havelock has described this transition as the evolution from the life-force of the Homeric thymos to the Socratic psyche:

At some time toward the end of the fifth century before Christ, it became possible for a few Greeks to talk about their ‘souls’ as though they had selves or personalities which were autonomous and not fragments of the atmosphere nor of a cosmic life force, but what we might call entities or real substances (Havelock, 1991, p. 197). Orphism was the vehicle in which this transition from thymos to psyche became articulated in hymns and instructions to the living on how to make their passage in the realm of the dead.

Orphism was a religion with a belief in immortality and in posthumous rewards and punishments. So far so good. But it had a more individual doctrine than that. Hades, with its prospect of torment and feasting, was not the end. There was the doctrine of the circle of birth, or cycle of births, and the possibility of ultimate escape from reincarnation to the state of perfected divinity (Guthrie, 1993, p. 164).

The figure of Orpheus, like that of Pythagoras or Quetzalcoatl, is a being of legend, so his story is more myth than history and serves as an allegorical performance of the truths to be passed from an initiate in the mysteries to the aspiring novice. Like Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica, he is a reformer who seeks to eliminate human sacrifice and carry humanity forward in its evolution from sorcery and blood magic to myth and a more stellar spirituality.

Just as Enkidu was warned not to partake of the food of the dead, less he be trapped in their underworld, so Orpheus is warned not to look back as he seeks to bring his beloved into light. In the esoteric practice of yoga nidra — the yoga of sleep meditation — the realm of imagery is an intermediate world of perception and deception, and only the realm of the nadam, of the cosmic sound, can enable the practioner of yoga to reappropriate the realm of deep dreamless sleep in the waking state of clear mind — a state of consciousness called samadhi.

Orpheus, as a musician of the heavenly harp given to him by Apollo, is an initiate of this cosmic sound — this music of the heavenly spheres — but according to the mysteries, our human star nature has been mixed with the ashes of the Titans at our emergence on Earth, and so humanity is a dyadic and contradictory creature. Our spirit is split between body and soul, between Orpheus and Euridyce. Because our star spirit has been captured in the vestiges of the elemental spirits of earth and matter, we must rescue it by shifting consciousness away from the concrete density of visual imagery to the higher realm of imageless music. But Orpheus looks back, seeking to hold his soul in sight, and so he loses her entirely. As he returns to earth, alone and embittered, he spurns the love of women and becomes a lover of men. The metaphoric complementarity of male and female as a trope for the polarity of the incarnate being is lost.

This mythic trope, as allegory for initiates, is describing a blocking of the union of ego and psyche, or waking mind and dreaming mind, in a psychological implosion of the ego in narcissism: same is bonding to same in a projected form of self love. But the male body, beautiful or not, can never serve as an answer to the problem of death. Just as the Goddess Ishtar sought her revenge against the male-bonding and defiance of the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu, so now the Maeneads seek their revenge against the violation of archaic women’s mysteries.

The blood sacrifice that the reformer Orpheus had sought to eliminate is inflicted on him as he is torn to pieces by the Maeneads — those vestiges of the neolithic

In the terms of Jean’s Gebser’s schema for the evolution of consciousness, Orpheus is the figure that marks the transition from the Magical to the Mythic structure of consciousness.4 But the collective wins out, and just as the Renaissance was followed by the Inquisition and a new baroque economy of slavery with its extravagant display of wealth, so Orpheus’s Apollonian reforms are followed by sacrificial rituals and his story is reappropriated into a cultural narrative of Dionysian ecstasy. The psyche remains trapped in the intermediate realm of imagery and the mind’s identification of consciousness with imagery — the familiar world in which ‘seeing is believing’.

But human spiritual evolution is not entirely stopped, and the reforms of the Axial Age are partially absorbed as Greek culture carries on with its transition from the Homeric thymos to the Orphic psyche — from the Bardic oral culture of the Archaic era to the new literate culture of the sacred text of the Classical era. As Steve Farmer has argued, it is the very portability of the new writing materials that serves to construct the Axial Age and spread the new values from India to Greece with Pythagoreanism in one direction, and from India to China with Buddhism in the other direction of the Silk Road.5 Indeed, in the evolution of consciousness from oral culture to literate civilization, the sacred text itself becomes the oxymoron that embodies our contradictory human nature. The text exists in the realm of imagery and is visually read, but it calls us back to a recollection (anamnesis) of our stellar nature. Death itself becomes less biological and collective — as it was in the neolithic and megalithic eras of collective burials — and becomes in the Classical era, more psychological and personal matristic culture of the sacrificial dying male and the enduring Great Mother.


"The inheritor of the contributions of the Axial Age of Pythagoras and Orpheus is, of course, Plato. But Plato does not put his faith in music as the yoga for uniting body and spirit; his distrust of the world of the senses leads him to reject the passionate stirrings of modal music and for his perfect utopian society, he send the poets into exile. In the place of Orphic music and poetry, he celebrates the abstract and the sublimed geometrical, fleshless figure in the new genre of philosophy. Plato’s myths are not the kind that they were for Orpheus; they are mythic allegories as the new mental code of the soul — ‘likely stories’ that bridge the divide separating the Sensible and Intelligible worlds. The text that embodies this transition from the Gebserian Mythic to the Mental level of consciousness is the ‘Myth of Er’ from Plato’s Republic. In this ‘likely story’ with which he ends this dialogue, Plato shifts from the dialectical search for the nature of truth, to the dramatic mode of myth and story.

In a way, the dialogue has prepared us for this shift, for it opens with a description of the Panathenaic procession in which horseman passes the torch to horseman, and this serves as a trope for the rational soul seated atop the beast of the physical body and passing the torch of the search for truth from speaker to speaker as the dialogue progresses. But logic and the dialectical method only take us so far.

Ultimately the Orphic and Pythagorean Plato returns to myth and ends his dialectical inquiry into the nature of justice with a tale of karma, forgetfulness and souls falling like shooting stars to their next birth, and their next chance to redeem themselves in a process of metempsychosis and moral refinement of their coarse appetites and passions. This essential text marks more than the first imagining of a political utopia, it expresses in itself the evolutionary shift from the shame-culture of the tribe to the guilt-culture of the individual (see Dodd, 1951), for the afterlife Er describes is now presented in moral and karmic terms of reward and punishment for one’s individual actions in life. Escape from the collective in individual transcendence and enlightenment can now be envisioned for any man, and not just a Pharoah, a Pythagorean initiate or the yogic hermit of the Upanishads.

A more physiological and internal way of considering this cultural transformation from the Homeric thymos to the Orphic psyche was articulated in the seventies by the psychologist Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).7 Indeed, one can argue that the whole movement of Consciousness Studies that followed — of which this journal is a prime expression — was greatly advanced by this seminal work. Jaynes argued that Achilles’ somnambulistic consciousness came from the projection of the processing of the imagistic mode of the right hemisphere into external space. Visions were experienced as literally taking place, so in the ‘Anger of Achilles’ Athena could be seen and felt by Achilles to restrain his anger and sword, though no one else saw Athena. Jaynes further argued that the corpus callosum was not yet functionally orchestrated to integrate the activities of the hemispheres and to recategorize hypnagoic activities exclusively to the dream-state.

Jaynes drew heavily on the German Classicist Bruno Snell’s book, The Discovery of the Mind (1982). But like many Classical scholars, Snell was not familiar with contemplative practices or even with Egyptian ideas concerning the subtle bodies, so Snell did not recognize that the Homeric thymos was not a Greek invention but simply a Greek translation of the Egyptian ka. In his understandable enthusiasm for his own fascinating insights and discoveries, Jaynes let go of the reins of scholarly restraint and tried to alter the chronology of literary texts to fit his theory. So the Gilgamesh Epic — which seemed too psychologically advanced to be so early — had to be redated and made to take on the date of its last copy in the Library of Ashurbanipal. Thus for Jaynes, the cultural transformation of the Axial Age was not caused by the rise of alphabetic and ideographic technologies or their transcultural portability; these were outward expressions of an evolutionary mutation in cerebral organization. It would not be until the 1980s and ’90s that the new sciences of complexity, as popularized by the Chaos Collective at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Santa Fe Institute, would help people to see that causation is rarely singular and linear, and that most often an emergent domain is brought forth through bottom-up chains of mutiple and mutually interacting agents. Gebser, McLuhan, Havelock, Jaynes, Steve Farmer and I were all seeing aspects of the cultural phenomenology of the evolution of consciousness, but were focusing on what was closest to our own immediate world of experience.

Nothing is clearer when one goes from the epic of the Iliad to the Odyssey than that something has happened in the world view of humanity. Indeed, one of the reasons that I accepted the old eighteenth-century idea of ‘Die Homerishe Frage’ — in which there are two Homers and not one — is because the Odyssey is so different in world view from the Iliad. Crafty Odysseus does not have the archaic somnambulistic consciousness of Achilles; his mind is clear, corpuscular and discreet; he stands at the threshold of the underworld, but does not cross over or descend. Aeneas, the demigod as son of Venus, is able to descend, into the underworld, but even he must be accompanied by the archaic figure of the Cumaen sybil. Yet even in the case of the shamanistic sybil, human consciousness is now so discreet and stabile — and no longer fluid and astrally permeable — that the god has to break in upon her if she is to become conscious of the visionary realms and prophesy. The image that Virgil presents is of the god breaking in a wild stallion. In the simile of a horseman forcing a bridle into the mouth of a wild horse, the god is presented as a hostile mode of consciousness that must be thrust into the mind and mouth of the sybil if he is to control her and speak prophetically out of her body.

It is this ancient Greek vision of the Elysian Field of Plato’s Myth of Er that Virgil both inherits and recalls, and it is clear in the entire narrative of the Aeneid that the kairos of Virgil in its cultural process of individuation has passed from the thymos of Homer to the psyche of Plato and on to the worldly ego with its dutiful sense of self in the illustrious example of ‘pius Aeneas’. In fact, the architectonic structure of the Aeneid, with its movement from Western Asia to Western Europe, and its soldierly rejection of love for a female Queen in favour of the founding of a patriarchal empire, is a recapitulation of an earlier movement from matristic to patriarchal, and is a newly energized performance of the shift from collectivist Asia to individualistic Rome with its grand imperial theatre of personal ambition, of arms and the man. But implicit in this shift from East to West is also an archetypal shift from psyche to ego. It is not the love of woman, or the experiences of the soul in subtle and immaterial realms that are to matter now; it is duty and action in the world; it is the world of Empire. Ego and Empire are co-dependantly originating psychological structures, in which humanity now leans more heavily towards rationality than towards psyche.

In terms of cultural evolution, for which mythological and literary texts serve as fossil records, we see here a developmental movement through three stages, or structures, thymos, psyche and ego. With thymos, the focus of attention is on the subtle energy body, the Egyptian ka, or the pranayamakosha in yogic psychology (see Mookerjee, 1982, p. 12). In this cultural complex, death seems to be collective, as if humans were still closely identified with the structure of a group soul rather than an individual one. With this formation in archaic Greece and ancient Egypt, we seem to be looking back towards an even more ancient formation of shamanism and animal possession. In Ice-Age art, the shaman is pictured in cave paintings and carvings as a human in animal form, or half-human, half-animal. Religion often preserves an ancient structure and envaluates it to see new formations or levels of cultural organization as evil. In the ancient culture of animal possession and blood sacrifice, Orpheus and Quetzalcoatl are threats to the ways of sorcery and magic. They represent a movement away from possession and group consciousness towards individuation. At the psychic level of organization, the individual is represented as a dyadic being, one split between conscious and unconscious, between a social life of norms and duty, and a pull backward to the unconscious through erotic transfiguration and death. This dyadic mode of being is polarized between sex and death, so the archetypal iconography for this cultural construction is that of the male body as the waking consciousness and the female soul as the dreaming and visionary consciousness: Orpheus and Euridyce. But as the process of individuation continues to develop in the classical Roman world, there is a reversal of this signification of the soul as feminine and the ego as masculine. In the myth of ‘Psyche and Eros’, as retold in Apulieus’ Golden Ass, it is the god who comes by night that is presented as masculine and the receptive personality that is presented as feminine. Indeed, the whole story of the invisible lover who must not be seen seems to echo with mystical allusions that take us back to Gnostic and Kabbalistic sources. The sisters of Psyche, who are jealous of her intimacy with the god, recall the angels who were jealous at the creation of man and refused to bow down and adore God’s latest creation — as is told in both the Hebraic Midrash and the Koran. Since the angels and jinn were made of light and fire, they were repelled at adoring a creature made out of mud. If the sisters are thus an echo of the jealous angels, then Psyche is a trope for the uniqueness of the human soul and Eros is a metaphor for the indwelling god, the hidden god that is intimately embedded with its beloved individual being. The stricture that Psyche is not to try to ‘see’ the god is, of course, an echo of the interdiction to Orpheus that he should not try to turn and ‘see’ Euridyce as he leads her out of the underworld. The mystical significance of this trope is that the divine substratum of the human being is not experienced in the waking or dreaming consciousness, but only in the fullness of a non-perceptual mind that is experienced in deep, dreamless sleep. It is this state of mind that the yogi of the Upanishads is taught to try to reappropriate in the samadhi of meditation — a mode of higher consciousness that is not dreaming or restricted to the perceptual field of wakeful consciousness. What ‘Psyche and Eros’ represents is an evolution of consciousness in which a higher self is only available to Mind — as opposed to conscious awareness — through the higher dimensional modes beyond three-dimensional perception.

In this evolution of Graeco-Roman culture from psyche to ego, there arises in the exoteric, secular realm of life a turning away from the female to the call of duties in the imperial world, and this is archetypally expressed in Aeneas turning away from Dido to found Rome and the beginnings of Western Europe. But coeval with this emergence of egohood in the classical world is a new mythic narrative in which the soul does not simply descend into the underworld, but journeys upwards through the solar and starlit heavens — as we see in the Jewish apocalyptic texts of The Book of Enoch and the Christian apocryphal Vision of Paul (see Barnstone, 1984, pp. 485, 537). Here the focus of consciousness seems to be shifting from the waking mind to another mode, one that is not unconscious or dreaming but rather of ‘spirit’ or a higher mind in which the world is no longer three dimensional, but has higher dimensionality. If we apply the yogic terminology of the energy sheaths that constitute the fully incarnate being, then the thymos is the Egyptian ka, or the Vedic pranamayakosa, and the psyche is the Egyptian ba or the Vedic manomayakosa, and the journey through the heavens is effected with the higher minds of the Pharaohonic Sahu, or the Vedic vijnanamayakosa and the anatamayakosa."


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