• Michael Martin

Recently, a reader of my work emailed asking me what sophiological fiction I might recommend. In my reply, I mentioned Goethe’s Faust, Solovyov’s Three Meetings, and David Bentley Hart’s recent offering, Roland in Moonlight (and might I add that his forthcoming novel, Kenogaia, may be his most sophiological work yet—and, in my opinion, the best thing he’s written). Unfortunately, I forgot to mention Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. But I did not omit what may be the greatest sophiological novel of all time, Apuleius’s The Transformations of Lucius, known better under its more popular title, The Golden Ass.

Written in the second century AD, The Golden Ass is a rollicking, picaresque novel telling the story of Lucius, a young man making his way in the world before he gets caught up with witched and magic and, through his insatiable curiosity, inadvertently turns himself into an ass while mucking about with a witch’s ointment (he thought it would turn him into an owl).

Most of the story traces Lucius’s misadventures as an ass, as he falls in with robbers, does a stint at a stud farm, is abused by a group of eunuch priests (I could do a whole thing right here), works turning a mill wheel, has the wife of a councilor fall in love with him, and nearly ends up in a performance of late-antiquity animal porn. Finally, despondent and utterly destroyed, the goddess Isis (Sophia to you and me) intervenes. Lucius, still in ass form, is blessed in a theophany of the goddess, who tells him how he may be returned to his original form by eating roses offered to him by one of her priests at a procession in her honor the following day. There is only one catch: now Lucius belongs to her.

The novel—which is often riotously hilarious, often ribald, and never dull—is at its heart an allegory of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis (or the Great Mother), much in the way Mozart’s The Magic Flute is an allegory of initiation into Freemasonry (and don’t even get me started on the three-chord motif at the beginning, middle, and end of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture). But, as with Mozart’s opera, one need not know anything about the model to appreciate the adventure.

An important feature of the novel is the attention Apuleius gives to the myth of Eros and Psyche, told in Lucius the ass’s hearing by one of the robbers. The story, if you don’t know it, is likewise an allegory of the soul’s (psyche means “soul,” after all) alienation from the Divine and the challenges that accompany to journey back to union with divine love (eros, of course, means “love”).

The employment of foreshadowing and symbolism in the novel, particularly with the symbol of the rose, is stunning, not to mention the fall into ignorance and bestiality signified by Lucius’s transformation. In short, it’s a spiritual Everyman tale and its motif plays out in other works of literature: in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (obviously) as well as in Collodi’s Pinocchio (if you haven’t read the original, you may be surprised to find that the puppet is a devious little miscreant and not at all the cute moppet of Walt Disney’s treatment). It also shows up in Grimm’s fairy-tale, “The Lettuce Donkey.”

One episode of the novel concerns Lucius’s (unwitting) participation (prior to his metamorphosis) in The Festival of Laughter. Our protagonist is put on trial for murder, but it turns out it was all a setup—and a joke at his expense. The entire town is in on it and they bust their sides laughing. This is a comedy of humiliation. Ritual humiliation, it seems, was a component into initiation into the Mysteries—and from what I understand, a much milder piece of ritual humiliation accompanies initiation into Freemasonry. On the other hand, we’ve had our own takes on the comedy of humiliation over the past eighteen months, to be sure—but no one’s laughing; at least not yet.

Lucius’s greatest frustration in ass form is that he has human thoughts, but cannot express himself in human language. We might say today that his humanity is deplatformed. He has words, but no one is allowed to hear them. It happens (all the time, actually). The closest he gets to using human language as an ass is in the episode with the eunuch priests undertake to rape a young man, a labourer. (Religious hypocrisy and pederasty are nothing new, apparently). As Lucius relates it, in Robert Graves’s enjoyable translation, “I tried to shout: ‘Help, help! Rape! Rape! Arrest these he-whores!’ But all that came out was ‘He-whore, He-whore,’ in fine ringing tones that would have done credit to any ass alive.”

In general, though, Lucius’s adventures bear witness to the depths of human depravity and corruption to which only initiation into the Mysteries (in the world and belief of Apuleius) can offer escape. We, too, have been witnessing the depths of human depravity (Epstein Island, anyone?) and corruption (do I need to elaborate?) at an accelerated pace recently. But, like Lucius, we can find a way out only through grace.

Distraught and at the point of suicide, Lucius finally surrenders his will. Isis appears:

Not long afterwards I awoke in sudden terror. A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at secret hour that the Moon-goddess, sole sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortune seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.

Jumping up and shaking off my drowsiness, I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:

“‘Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.’

When I had finished my prayer and poured out the full bitterness of my oppressed heart, I returned to my sandy hollow, where once more sleep overcame me. I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.

Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with cars of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what aught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.

In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp witch pulled throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.

All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.

My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.

The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.

Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”

Apuleius’s Isis shares many characteristics with Sophia, or, in Margaret Barker’s apt description, The Lady in the Temple, Yahweh’s consort in Proverbs 8 among other places.

I don’t know where this strange initiation we’ve been living in is heading, but I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with building anything or anyone back better. But I do know that the only antidote to this madness is to reorient ourselves to the Real: to the Divine, on the one hand, and the glory of the Creation on the other. And that is impossible without the metaxu, the between, she whom “The Lord brought... forth as the first of his works.”

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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  • Michael Martin

“Pentheus is torn by his mother and sisters.”

What follows is a blogpost I contributed to a now defunct news website so long ago I forget exactly when it was, though I do know it was during the Obama administration. Today, while pulling weeds in my leek bed, I started musing about Euripides and his figure of Dionysus and remembered that I’d written this. I still think it has something to say.

I have been teaching Euripides’s play The Bacchae recently, one of the more disturbing tragedies in a Greek canon rife with disturbing subject matter. For an excavation of the social and psychological implications of incest, fratricide, matricide, patricide, and cannibalism, nobody beats the Greeks. And for a brutal examination of the phenomenology of new cultural paradigms, nothing can beat The Bacchae.

The core of the story concerns the arrival of a new religion in Thebes, the cult of Dionysus. The god of the vine and of wine, Dionysus (Bacchus in Latin) inspires many to take up his worship, and has particular success with initiating women into his mysteries. Women in his cult have great power. At times their power is expressed through the fecundity and strength lent them by the god. They scratch their nails over the ground and rivers of milk spring forth. They thrust their ceremonial wands (called thyrsi) into the soil and fountains of wine appear. At other times, they display their power through more violent means: they dismember cattle with their bare hands, tear infants from their homes, and even slaughter their own children while intoxicated with the god.

Cultural historians and scholars of Greek have recognized in the story the transmission of the cultivation of the vine and the accompanying cult of its god as it spread southward from Thrace (Asia Minor) and the attendant cultural anxieties that it must have triggered in its new home. Eventually, the cult of Dionysus found great success in Greece and the Dionysian Mysteries, celebrated at Athens, were the site of a great yearly festival marked by initiation into the rite and the presentation of plays, many of which are still performed.

In The Bacchae, Pentheus, the young ruler of Thebes, distrusts the new cult—even though his mother Agave and his grandfather Cadmus are initiates. Pentheus is a bit of a conservative or traditionalist and views with suspicion this new god who makes women act strangely and reveals his power by releasing his devotees from self-control and social decorum. Pentheus vows to banish the cult and arrests the young man encouraging worship of the new god—a young man who happens to be Dionysus in disguise.

Pentheus meets with no little disparagement throughout the play. The blind seer Tiresias upbraids him for hubris: “Though your sick imagination makes you think it, don’t believe you’re sane.” Cadmus admonishes his grandson, saying, “Don’t break tradition…even if the god isn’t a god, say he is: it’s a pious lie.” And Dionysus, the god himself, tells Pentheus, “You’re unholy. You can’t see.” In order to punish Pentheus, Dionysus intoxicates him, makes him dress in women’s clothes, and leads him to a place in the fields where the frenzied bacchantes (Pentheus’s mother and her fellow worshippers) tear the young king to shreds with their bare hands.

I think this is exactly what happens when new cults rise to power. And they don’t necessarily need to have anything to do with religion. These cults start by ridiculing the mores that preceded their arrival. Then they humiliate those who adhere to the customs they consider passé, or irrelevant, or absurd. They offer intoxication and power, the intoxication of power. They take the young from their traditions, their metaphorical homes. They slaughter their own children, figuratively and literally. They systematically attempt to dismantle culture in name of the cult, and everyone is expected to play along. If cooperation is not forthcoming, they have other methods. And everywhere we look are pious lies.

This trailer!

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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  • Michael Martin

“The Death of Arthur” by Julia Margaret Cameron

What follows is my introduction to Jesus the Imagination, Volume 5: The Divine Feminine, published last month by Angelico Presss.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” ~ Julia Kristeva [1]

I have never felt comfortable with Simone de Beauvoir’s bristling in The Second Sex in regards to Goethe’s concluding lines of Faust: “the Eternal Feminine leads us ever onward.” De Beauvoir extends this complaint to allegorical representations of principles (like Liberty or the Church, for example) as female, to Dante’s Beatrice, to divine figures such as the Virgin Mary and the Sophia of Gnosticism. De Beauvoir seems to operate under the assumption (note the term) that only feminine figures are idealized in Western culture, and that such are incommensurate with the actual reality of women. Idealization, however, is a universally human interpretive gesture; and that it is often personified can hardly be evidence of a conspiracy theory of male oppression, as if any man could live up to the model of Jesus, the Buddha, Odin All-Father, or even Pa Ingalls. Figuration leads us ever onward, Simone.

Julia Kristeva, much more generous of spirit and, as a result, much more human, acknowledges the West’s—and particularly Christianity’s—psychic relationship to the feminine, especially as regards the image of the Mother. “The question is,” she writes, “whether this was simply an appropriation of the Maternal by men and therefore, according to our working hypothesis, just a fantasy hiding the primary narcissism from view, or was it perhaps also a mechanism of enigmatic sublimation? This may have been masculine sublimation, assuming that for Freud imagining Leonardo—and even for Leonardo himself—taming the Maternal—or primary narcissistic—economy is a necessary precondition of artistic or literary achievement.” [2] This notion can be applied, with some qualifications of course, to Goethe’s pronouncement.

Goethe the poet, who was Goethe the scientist as well, however, was also giving utterance to a metaphysical principle. Inspired by his reading of Boehme and the example of Novalis, an incipient Sophiology haunts the conclusion to Goethe’s Faust. Many feminist commentators, like de Beauvoir, have chastised Goethe for not having Faust justly punished for his mistreatment of Gretchen—and the fact that Gretchen even prays for Faust’s redemption from the heavenly realm during his apotheosis in the play’s conclusion further offends them. But such a disposition profoundly misreads Goethe—and Christianity, for that matter. Faust’s denouement is a picture of apocatastasis, the redemption of all, an idea that profoundly colors Sophiology.

What political discourses routinely miss when projecting their biases onto works of literature and metaphysics—to say nothing religion, science, or nature—is that not only the natural world, but the world of the spirit is also gendered. Try as we might, through whatever optics or interventions, we cannot ultimately avoid this reality. It is a matter of primal ontology.

Often sterilized in mistaken conceptions of neutrality, a gendered one-sidedness, as both Alison Milbank and Therese Schroeder-Sheker argue in this volume, is detrimental to everyone, regardless of gender. We act as though this is a reality we are only just now discovering—since the advent of feminism and ideas of gender equity—but this is not at all the case. It is my claim that the Western psyche has been clamoring for a regenerated imagination of the ontological reality of gender for at least a thousand years—and, as Margaret Barker discusses in my interview with her here—the same Western psyche has been in search of a holistic and healthy imagination of gender from at least the time of Lady Wisdom’s expulsion from worship in First Temple Judaism under the reforms of King Josiah.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian psyche was on the way to rectifying this situation. Beguine mysticism, with its holy feminine eroticism, Franciscan spirituality, with its deep relationship to Nature, and the lays of the Troubadours and their adoration of the Lady all rendered witness to the need of the re-entrance of the Divine Feminine into culture. That reformation was not to be fully realized, alas, though the dream lived on. Its palimpsest bleeds through Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, in which the hero’s development depends upon the counsel and examples of both women and men, even though he often misinterprets things at first. As we all do.

But perhaps the most accurate depiction of the phenomenon of which I speak in medieval literature is Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. The great medieval historian Jan Huizinga describes the late-medieval period in which Malory wrote as a time when “somber melancholy weighs on men’s souls,” [3] and nowhere is this more evident than in Malory. Malory’s Arthurian realm doesn’t end in cataclysm so much as in dissipation and self-sabotage. As with Wolfram, women also figure in this story, but they also contribute to the ruin of the land and of chivalry. The knights who survive the Battle of Camlann, even the great Lancelot, end their lives as monks, priests, or hermits. Queen Guinevere herself dies in the cloister. A tremendous ennui taxed with apocalyptic sterility burdens both Malory’s text and its readers. In the nineteenth century, Malory’s melancholia reappeared in that of Tennyson, nowhere so strongly as in his Idylls of the King, a melancholic tableau brought to beautiful realization in the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Malory is not entirely without hope (though what hope he offers is as delicate as frost), as Arthur does not die in the text. Malory tells us that in a mysterious bark “resceyved hym three ladyes with grete mournyng. And so they sette hem downe, and in one of their lappis kyng Arthure layd hys hede.” [4] and ferried him to the Isle of Avalon to be healed of his grievous wounds with the promise to one day return in parousaic triumph. Avalon is an island of women; it is only there where Arthur can find healing.

I have often thought, over this past, most melancholic of years, that Malory’s tale is precisely the homeopathic medicine required for our particular moment. The West, and especially the Christian West, suffers from a grievous wound and it is only the Divine Feminine which can bring it healing. What was lost must be restored. In our end is our beginning. For the Divine Feminine leads us ever onward.

Toss that Freudian symbol back to the unconscious, my mans!

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Poetics Today 6, no. 1/2 The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspective (1985); 133-52, at 134.

2. Ibid., 135.

3. J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study in the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries (St. Martin’s Press, 1924), 22.

4. Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1971), 716.

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