My subject-matter in this post is the problem of interpreting religious or mythological texts literally, expressed alternatively as the total inability of some people to think symbolically. The most obvious example of this is a tendency within Christian Fundamentalism to treat everything in the Old Testament, specifically Genesis, as literally true. This led Bishop James Ussher, based upon numerical calculations of ages of figures in the Bible, to state that the world was created in October 4004 BC, something which some young-earth Creationists still believe. I’ll return to the subject of Genesis in later articles but, in the meantime, here is one simple example of the problem.
Richard Milton is an interesting figure, having challenged the scientific establishment in two books The Facts of Life: Shattering the Myth of Darwinism (1), and Forbidden Science (2). The first one attracted a deluge of vitriolic abuse from Richard Dawkins, which led me to suspect that Milton was on the right lines. He is clearly an alternative thinker, being against reductionism in science, in favour of research into ‘weird’ areas, e.g. the paranormal. It was something of a disappointment, therefore, when I read the following passage: “To the scientists of the Babylonian civilisation, it seemed reasonable to believe that the Earth was flat and was held up by elephants standing on a giant sea turtle — even though their astronomy was highly developed and they had observed the curvature of the Earth’s shadow moving across the Moon during eclipses. They held this view because they could not imagine a plausible alternative theory” (3).
It is obvious that the Babylonians did not believe and could not have believed this literally. As Milton himself explains, their understanding of astronomy and science had reached a point which made them far too sophisticated. The problem, rather, is that Milton completely fails to understand the nature of symbolism and allegory, falling into the trap of literalism. This Babylonian myth, while not offering a complete description of reality, is nevertheless brilliantly accurate in every detail; it is actually, but not literally, true.
The myth describes various levels of a hierarchical universe. It describes the Earth as flat. I assume that even in ancient times, no matter where you lived, you would be aware of the existence of mountains, so would not think of the Earth as flat. The earth here is a symbol of the material world, the lowest level of reality.
This earth is “held up by elephants”, for which I read supported or sustained by elephants. Quantum physicists now say that the material world emerges from another level of reality, perhaps the most clearly stated example of which is David Bohm’s idea of explicate and implicate orders. In ancient mythologies, this was a level of gods and goddesses, and in spiritual traditions there is talk of archetypes, Monads, Plato’s realm of Ideas, and so on. That is the level referred to in the myth by the elephants.
As is often the case with symbolism, it is not immediately obvious why the chosen image should perform this function, and that is the case with the elephants here. There seems little doubt, however, that elephants do represent the creative level of the gods. This is most obvious in Hinduism. I hope these pictures need no further commentary or explanation.
Further information on this topic is provided by the Jungian writer Marie-Louise von Franz. She discusses the meaning of the elephant symbol in her book Puer Aeternus (4). Here are a few relevant phrases:
- “a great deal of mythological fantasy was spun around the elephant”.
- “the elephant is said to represent invincible fortitude and to be an image of Christ”.
- “they represent purification, chastity, and pious worship of God”.
- “the hero archetype got projected”.
- “the elephant is the archetype of the medicine man or wise man, who also has courage but, in addition, wisdom and secret knowledge”.
- “so in their hierarchy, the elephant represents the individuated personality” (p14–15).
Even though the meaning of the content is obviously different in these examples, they all suggest a higher level of consciousness associated with the elephant, emerging from the “mythological fantasy” that she refers to.
The myth further says that the elephants are “standing on a giant sea-turtle”. The gods and goddesses could only be generated by, thus supported by the ultimate source, namely God, however you understand that term. Why is the turtle an appropriate symbol of the Divine? This one is a lot easier than the elephant. In all spiritual traditions there is an ultimate Ground of Being, conceived of as a self-contained emptiness or nothingness, complete in itself. Yet in another aspect, this emptiness is also the One, the creative source behind all that is. There are thus two aspects of the Divine, the first we might call introverted, and the second extroverted. What a perfect symbol for this is the turtle, which is equally capable of and comfortable with withdrawing its head inside its shell, or leaving it outside looking out into the world! (5)
As an afterthought, Sting once released an album called The Dream of the Blue Turtles. In the language of symbolism, the colour blue, especially light shades like sapphire and turquoise, represent spirituality — I don’t know why, but I know that it’s true. If Sting had a dream including blue turtles, I would interpret it as meaning that his spiritual path involved finding the right balance between introversion and extroversion, living in two worlds.
Also interesting is this painting by the spiritually oriented painter Magritte.
As you can see, a turtle is depicted floating above a scene taking place in the material (albeit surreal) world. Strangely, the male figures seem static; there is no sense of motion, even though they are engaged in an active sporting event. The painting is called The Secret Player! Magritte seems to think that there is a secret player hovering above this sporting scene, which is perhaps the source or support for the material world. In spiritual language we would call that God, or some similar term. He has chosen a turtle to convey that idea!
(1) Fourth Estate Ltd., 1992
(2) Fourth Estate Ltd., 1994
(3) as (2), p210
(4) Sigo Press, 1981
(5) The myth specifies that it is a sea turtle, thus living in the waters. In the language of symbolism, waters represent the fluid level of the psyche — what Jung would call the Collective Unconscious — contrasted with the solidity of matter. This is where the Divine would reside, although strictly speaking we should assume that the waters are another level of reality, generated by this Creative Principle — spiritual traditions would usually place the waters, i.e. the psyche, between the elephants and the earth. Genesis 6:6, however says: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters”, thus saying that there are two levels to the waters, which are therefore more complicated than we normally understand.