Thursday, January 19, 2006

In the Dark Places of Wisdom (Peter Kingsley)

This book is about re-interpreting what has become commonly accepted as historical truth in western philosophy, and even more, re-discovering what has been ignored or deemed unimportant. This is a monumental achievement as it promises to unravel and refashion the fabric of the Western world. The book is about bringing to awareness the experience underlying the foundations of an ancient philosophy that has been lost in modern conceptions of what we now call 'Western philosophy'.

Kingsley maintains that what we haven't been told is that a spiritual tradition lies at the roots of Western civilization. A tradition that plunges one into an experience so powerful, but so elusive that people have tried for thousands of years to make sense of it, and have always failed. The essence of this truth tells us that if we want to grow up and become true men and women, we have to face death before we die. What Kingsley is referring to here is what we might call psychological death, where one passes through the death of the egoic mind to emerge on the other side.

There were a group of people, Kingsley points out, whose culture had evolved to encourage the experience of precisely this state of consciousness. They were the Phocaeans, the most daring adventurers among the ancient Greeks, called by some 'the Vikings of antiquity'. They were from Phocaea in the western coastal regions of Anatolia (or modern-day Turkey), and the nearby island of Samos, which was the home of Pythagoras (who later sailed west to south Italy in 530 BC). Ancient Greece maintained strong links with Persia, Babylonia, Egypt, and India. Greek culture was much less self-enclosed than we have been led to believe. There was a great deal of trade and travel, with the attendant exchange of ideas, philosophies, and religion. However, the people of Phocaea eventually were driven from their homes in the coastal regions of Anatolia by the Persians, for religious, economic, and political reasons. Many sailed westward and established colonies in Corsica, and later in southern Italy. The city they eventually founded in south Italy was called Velia, and here they remained for centuries.

Kingsley states that there is one man who influenced the western world in a way no one else did. To some specialists he's known as 'the central problem' in making sense of what happened to philosophy before Plato. He's said to have created the idea of metaphysics. It's said that he invented logic: the basis of our reasoning, the foundation of every single discipline that has come into existence in the West. His influence on Plato was immense, and Kingsley indicates that just as it is sometimes said that the whole of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, so Plato's philosophy in its developed form could be called a series of footnotes to this man: Parmenides of Velia.

Parmenides was, among other things, a poet, and Kingsley tells us that he wrote one work in particular, in the metre of the epic poems of the ancient past; poetry revealing what humans rarely see or know, describing the world of gods, the world of humans, and the meeting between gods and humans. The poem was written in three parts. The first part describes his journey to the goddess who has no name. The second describes what she taught him about reality. And the third part begins with the goddess saying she will now deceive him as she goes on to describe in detail the world we believe we live in.

Kingsley states that Parmenides in his poem was journeying down to the underworld in the regions of Hades, and Tartarus from where no one usually returns. He was consciously and willingly travelling in the direction of his own death. And the only way to describe this hero's journey is in the language of myth. We quote at length that part of Parmenides' poem that appears in Kingsley's book:

The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
road of the divinity that carries the man who knows
through the vast and dark unknown. And on I was carried
as the mares, aware just where to go, kept carrying me
straining at the chariot; and young women led the way.
And the axle in the hubs let out the sound of a pipe
blazing from the pressure of the two well-rounded wheels
at either side, as they rapidly led on: young women, girls,
daughters of the Sun who had left the mansions of Night
for the light and pushed back the veils from their faces
with their hands.
There are the gates of the pathways of Night and Day,
held fast in place between the lintel above and a threshold of stone;
and they reach up into the heavens, filled with gigantic doors.
And the keys—that now open, now lock—are held fast by
Justice: she who always demands exact returns. And with
soft seductive words the girls cunningly persuaded her to
push back immediately, just for them, the bar that bolts
the gates. And as the doors flew open, making the bronze
axles with their pegs and nails spin—now one, now the other—
in their pipes, they created a gaping chasm. Straight through and
on the girls held fast their course for the chariot and horses,
straight down the road.
And the goddess welcomed me kindly, and took
my right hand in hers and spoke these words as she addressed me:
'Welcome young man, partnered by immortal charioteers,
reaching our home with the mares that carry you. For it was
no hard fate that sent you travelling this road—so far away
from the beaten track of humans—but Rightness, and Justice.
And what's needed is for you to learn all things: both the unshaken
heart of persuasive Truth and the opinions of mortals,
in which there's nothing that can truthfully be trusted at all.
But even so, this too you will learn—how beliefs based on
appearance ought to be believable as they travel all through
all there is.'

Kingsley goes on to explain the symbolism in the poem substantiating his claims with recent archaeological evidence and many textual sources. He arrives, with insightful attention to detail, at the discovery of a process that was long ago understood, but whose knowledge has been virtually lost today. And that is the process of dying before one dies: entering into the underworld (or the collective unconscious in Jungian terms) while still living. This mind-shattering experience promises a deep knowledge and understanding that is based on a direct personal experience of who and what we really are.

A number of important key words were encountered in inscriptions on archaeological finds and through more careful examination of original Greek texts. These are, Phôlarchos, Ouliadês, Iatromantis, and Apollo. The meaning of these words, especially when taken in relationship, is quite revealing. Phôlarchos is translated as 'Lord of the Lair'; Ouliadês literally meant 'son of Oulios' or 'son of Apollo'; and Iatromantis is translated as 'prophet-healer'. Apollo originally meant 'deadly', 'destructive', and 'cruel', as every god or goddess has his or her destructive side, but the Greeks also explained it as, 'he who makes whole.' This more completely describes Apollo, "the destroyer who heals, the healer who destroys." In addition, Kingsley reports four vocations in this tradition that are said to give human beings a special closeness to the divine: prophet, poet, healer, and political leader or lawgiver. Interestingly, all of these activities are sacred to the same god: Apollo.

A golden thread connecting Apollo, healing, prophecy, and dark dwelling places becomes readily apparent. In this way, Kingsley shows that Apollo was in fact connected with the night, dark places, with the underworld and death. Apollo's temple was right above the cave leading down into the underworld, and this was the case at many famous oracle centres in Anatolia. These caves were entered by initiates and priests at the dead of night. Apollo was later associated with the sun, but this was a matter for initiates only. It is in the dark night that there is healing, which subsequently allows one to enter into the true light of day.

Today, Apollo is mistakenly rationalized to be the embodiment of reason. The gods are not 'rational' in the sense we know. Reason is a product of the mind, and to enter into conversation with the gods requires leaving the mind and reason behind. Kingsley tells us that light belongs in the underworld, that this is where its home is—that the source of light is at home in the darkness. This was well understood in southern Italy, as a whole mythology grew up around the figure of the sun god as he's driven in his chariot by the horses that carry him out of the underworld before they take him down again. This was true for Velia, and also certain men and women known as Pythagoreans—people who had gathered around Pythagoras when he came to southern Italy from the East. These were people intimately familiar with Orphic traditions. All these people understood that there is no heaven without going through hell. To them the fire in the underworld was purifying, transforming, and immortalizing. Everything had to be experienced, and to find clarity meant facing utter darkness. For these people it was all about going right through the darkness to what lies on the other side.

Kingsley recounts how the early Christians spoke of the 'depths' of the divine, and how the Jewish mystics spoke of 'descending' to the divine. These notions, however, were eventually silenced. As Kingsley states, "... the trouble is that when the divine is removed from the depths, we loose our depth, and start viewing the depths with fear and end up struggling, running from ourselves ..."

Through more impressive detective work, Kingsley reveals some of the details of the process that serves to take initiates into the experience of reality. He speaks of a process involving lying motionless in a cave in a state of 'incubation' sometimes for days on end. It is through these ritual practices of incubation that certain states of 'suspended animation' were achieved, through which, access to powerful healing abilities and esoteric knowledge was obtained. This suspended animation has parallels to various other religious traditions, specifically forms of meditation, where one enters into states of deep stillness, where the breath ceases, the action of the heart diminishes, and the mind stops.

Kingsley tells how ancient Greek accounts of incubation repeatedly mention certain signs that mark the point of entry into another world—into another state of awareness. One such sign involves becoming aware of a rapid spinning movement, and the other involves hearing a powerful vibration produced by a piping, whistling, hissing sound. In India, precisely the same signs are described as a prelude to entering samadhi. And this is also directly related to the process known as the awakening of kundalini, or the awakening of the serpent power.

This brings us to another aspect of Apollo that was relegated to darkness, namely, his affiliation with snakes. Kingsley states that in ritual art snakes were sacred to Apollo. His fight with the snake he killed at Delphi symbolized absorption of the prophetic powers that the snake represents. When he appeared in the middle of the night to those who visited his incubation shrine, he might assume the form of a snake, or a hissing sound would reveal his presence.

"The purpose of these techniques was to free peoples attention from distractions, to turn it in another direction so that awareness could start operating in a completely different way. The stillness had a point to it, and that was to create an opening into a world unlike anything we're used to: a world that can only be entered in deep meditation, ecstasies and dreams."

And it is precisely this stillness that allows us to make the hero's journey into another world, to the source of light in darkness, and bring back the timeless knowledge we encounter there.

A fascinating account of gods and goddesses, prophets and healers, and Western culture's true spiritual legacy—one that promises to infuse fresh vitality into the heart of a withering Western philosophy and science.