The Ancient Image Language
of Myth, Art, & Dreams

L. Caruana

The image itself will show you the way...
Corpus Hermeticum (IV, 11)



And what of our human art?
Must we not say that... it produces
...a man-made dream for waking eyes?

      – Plato, Sophist (266c)(1)


I. The Lost Fragment

      An ancient heretical text buried for seventeen hundred years and only resurfacing in our century bore within its aged pages one short but endlessly intriguing fragment. The text, a Gnostic Christian work of the third century, was discovered in 1945 when two Muslim peasants accidentally unearthed a jar near Nag Hammadi Egypt containing twelve leather-bound books. Although one of the books was burned by their widowed mother for fuel, most of the volumes were brought to Cairo by a one-eyed merchant, where French scholars immediately recognized them as a fantastic cache of Gnostic gospels, preserving a long-forgotten outlook onto the world. Among the fifty two tractates, a single fragment of text enjoins us, quite mysteriously, to “...enter through the image.” (2)To regain the Ancient Philosophy behind this fragment is the journey that awaits us, keeping ever in mind that “the image itself will show you the way...”(3)
      In all cultural manifestations of the Sacred, from Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cylinder seals to Buddhist mandalas and Byzantine icons, an ancient mythic outlook is preserved in meaningful arrangements of images. To enter through the images of these older cultures is to behold, once again, the Sacred that lies at their source. Though these relics of art and remnants of their myths have been passed down to us, we have lost the key that, with its gentle turning, would release the mysteries locked within them. To step across their hallowed thresholds requires that we approach the images themselves, think in accord with their constructs, and so regain the ancient manner of image-thinking still contained in their ever-silent forms.
      Like art and myth, our dreams each night also create meaningful arrangements of images, improvising narratives that continually evolve into visions of eternal significance. The more ancient manner of image-thinking also manifests itself in dreamwork – a style of thought our cultural ancestors pursued in their sacred art and story telling, seeking thus to elevate its unknown workings into our understanding. If we wish to enter through the images of ancient culture, we must re-acquire their forgotten Image-Language, a language which continues its silent monologue still in our dreams. The ancient manner of thinking that underlies this Image-Language is precisely what we shall intend by the term ‘iconologic’.
      Iconologic, simply put, means thinking through images. In dreams, in myths, and in works of art, images are so composed as to bear their own unique message. The recurrence of certain motifs, now here in a dream, now there in a myth, suggests that an inherent order or logic underlies these arrangements. To uncover their forgotten language and expose its latent logic – or ‘iconologic’ – is the pressing task that presently lies before us. For, with this archaic knowledge, we will be able to enter through the images of ancient culture, and regain their ancient outlook onto life and the Sacred. What is more, with this knowledge, we will also be able to re-enter our dreams, and recover a view onto life long-since unconsidered.
      Iconologic, then, underlies the ancient Image-Language, and organizes our images into meaningful arrangements, be they the image-clusters of myth, art, or dreams. Those image-clusters which betray a recognizable meaning and arrangement shall be refered to, henceforth, as ‘iconologues’. Symbols, mythologems, and mythic narratives constitute the most obvious iconologues, though many others exist. For, symbols may be combined, myths may cross one another, and mythologems may be displaced from one culture to another. Hence, these continuous transformations shall also be included among those iconologues which will concern us over the course of our inquiry.
      The ultimate aim of this work is to uncover an array of such iconologues, and to think again through their antiquated forms to the Sacred at their source. For, through an understanding of their ancient Image-Language, we may regain an older, indeed, forgotten view unto life – a more ancient philosophy that sees life itself as a gradual unfolding of the Sacred.

II. The Quest for Iconologic

Our quest for iconologic is not new. Many of our culture’s greatest thinkers have betrayed, through certain fragments in their works, the desire to seek out this lost manner of thinking. In each case, they saw image-thinking as a more ancient style of thought. For example, after a lifetime of tireless wandering through the dark forests and twisting caverns of his own innermost thought, Nietzsche realized that:
      In our sleep and in our dreams, we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity. I mean, in the same way that man reasons in his dreams, he reasoned when in the waking state many thousands of years ...
      The dream carries us back into earlier states of human culture, and affords us a means of understanding it better.

      This lone thinker, standing on the outermost edge and staring down into the abyss within himself, came to the important realization that man ‘reasons in dreams’ - just as man once reasoned while awake thousands of years ago. Presumably, Nietzsche meant in our ancient mythology, for he recognized that “myth itself is a kind or style of thinking.” (5)But, his insight also bespeaks the possibility of an iconologic, persisting over thousands of years, and sounding silently still in our own century.
      While it has indeed survived and remains with us unconsciously in dreams, this unique style of thinking was gradually forgotten over the course of Man’s history. It was replaced by a more logic-oriented discourse, based on the predicate logic of our spoken and written language. But, considering that Mankind formulated his ‘First Philosophy’ through mythical thinking, linking things mundane to those transcendent via symbol and metaphor, the loss of this older mode of thought was of profound consequence – for Mankind had thus lost the ancient image-language which allowed himto see the Sacred and speak of it, as was indeed the case in the distant past. Martin Heidegger, one of Nietzsche’s philosophical heirs, has written extensively(6)of the finis metaphysicae: how our age has witnessed the end of metaphysics, due to modern Man’s loss of the power to create a mythopoeic philosophy, as he did in more ancient times.

III. The ‘Archaic Vestiges’ and
‘Mental Antiquities’ of Dreams

      Another of this century’s seekers after the Ancient Image-Language, emerging shortly after Nietzsche’s plunge into madness and also seeking his destiny in the dark underground world of dreams, was Sigmund Freud. If Nietzsche’s Zarathustra unfolds like a dream in some ways symptomatic of his incipient madness, then Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, written twenty years later, reveals an intense striving to find in dreams the way out of such madness. Like Nietzsche, Freud suffered traumatically from the occasion of his father’s death. He acquired a neurosis which he was only able to cure by journeying into his dreams and re-emerging once more with the key to their decryption.
      In the process, Freud made a series of startling discoveries regarding the ways in which images are arranged in dreams. He discovered, first of all, that the images of dreams are symbols which, once interpreted in light of the dreamer’s free associations, reveal unconscious thoughts, wishes, and desires – even the lost memories of earliest childhood – which underlie our forgotten life-conflicts and otherwise hinder life’s on-going development. But, of even greater consequence, Freud came to realize in a chapter entitled ‘the Means of Representation in Dreams’ that ‘symbolization’ is not the only way in which images are arranged in dreams. ‘Condensation’, ‘displacement’, ‘reversal’ and other forms of ‘dreamwork’ also compose images into dream narratives – sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring the deeper significance reposing beneath them. This series of ‘iconologues’ uncovered by Freud is not unique to dreams alone: ancient myths also betray a tendency to reverse, displace, and condense their images, thereby revealing or obscuring their underlying source.
       Like Nietzsche, Freud was enamoured of Ancient Greek culture, and saw the interpretation of dreams as a new hermeneutic capable of unveiling aspects of ancient cultures hitherto lost and forgotten. Indeed, Depth Psychology could be considered a veiled attempt to recover the ancient manner of thinking at the root of our lost Image-Language. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote:

      We can guess how much to the point is Nietzsche’s assertion that in dreams, ‘some primæval relic of humanity is at work which we can now scarcely reach any longer by a direct path’; and we may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychically innate in him.
      Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis can claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the beginnings of the human race.

      In Sophocles’ tragedy of Oedipus Rex, Freud found an ancient myth that still functioned dynamically in the psyche of modern Man. It followed that, if such an ancient myth could illuminate the dark workings of the modern mind then, vice versa, an investigation into our present day-to-day fantasies, dreams, and delusions could reveal lost and forgotten fragments of mythologies past. Could, for example, the plot of the second and third parts of Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy – which, only fragments thereof have come down to us through time – be recovered by seeking out parallels of its narrative in our dreams? Would the Promethean fire, extinguished in our age, thereby be rekindled?
      It was Freud’s former disciple and eventual heretic, C. G. Jung, who extended the journey into darker realms of the unconscious, discovering beneath the personal figures populating dreams a whole host of archetypes from past mythologies. Jung distinguished between the dreamer’s ‘personal unconscious’, as explored by Freud, and this newly discovered cultural or ‘collective unconscious’, which he explored as a result of his traumatic break with Freud, who had always assumed the role of Jewish elder and patriarch.(8)
      Jung eventually realized that the figures in dreams were not only personal acquaintances from the dreamer’s waking world, but more archaic and universal figures, which the analyst was able to recognize through his knowledge of art and myth. These mythic figures arose from the older and darker recesses of the unconscious, das kollektive Unbewusste, an ancient fount of archaic memories. Jung described the collective unconscious as “a fund of unconscious images... a matrix of mythopoetic imagination which has vanished from our rational age.” (9)
      A knowledge of mythology thus became the means to orienting us further through dreams and, conversely, dreams could lead us further into the dark origins of our own earliest thinking. Following up Nietzsche and Freud’s original inspiration, Jung wrote:

      Many... mythological motifs... are also found in dreams, often with precisely the same significance... The comparison of dream motifs with those of mythology suggests the idea – already put forward by Nietzsche – that dream thinking should be regarded as a phylogenetically older mode of thought.

      Jung’s contribution to the attempt, in our times, to regain this lost and forgotten manner of image-thinking comes with his discovery of the Archetypes. The Archetypes are precisely what myths and dreams share in common. In Jung’s own words, they are “...forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and, at the same time, as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin.”(11) Thus, figures such as ‘the Child’, ‘the Wise Old Man’, or ‘the Fool’ arise in dreams, fantasies, and delusions, but, as spontaneous products of our imagination, are also to be found in myths, fairy tales, and even Tarot cards.

IV. Myth, Narrative, and Time

      There are other figures who, during these darkened times, have journeyed into the chthonic realms of our primordial thinking. But, rather than following the dark forest path of dreams and madness, they travelled instead beside the dried river bed of ancient myth. The task was to re-animate the decayed structures and skeletal forms still encrusted like fossils along its banks.
      And the world that subsequently revealed itself in myth was not unlike the world of dreams and madness: full of wonder, terror, and pity; an everturning wheel of joy and woe, where delight quickly dissolved to darkened illusion and moments of agony broke through to God’s revelation.
      Especially in the writings of Northrop Frye, Mircea Eliade, Heinrich Zimmer, and Joseph Campbell, the attempt was made to bring ancient myths back to the fore of our modern consciousness. In particular, they discovered how myths are an arrangement of images in time. This is true both of Cosmogonic myths, involving the world’s creation or destruction; and Hero myths, involving the hero’s departure, descent, and deed performed at the darkest nadir, followed by his subsequent ascent and return. Hero myths in particular arrange their images in accord with distinctive narrative patterns, which arise in different forms due to differences in the hero’s task.
      In his final works, Northrop Frye explored the temporal structure and narrative patterns underlying our own cultural myth, realizing that the Christian narrative arranges images over linear time, which transpires in a once-only unfoldment of history. Over the course of linear history, certain images from the Creation recurr, undergoing modification from the Old Testament to the New, until they finally re-appear and resolve in the Apocalypse. Though Adam falls from Paradise at the beginning of time, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and other saviours culminating in Christ descend in their myths to a dark nadir, so as to restore that lost paradise. Only at the end of time, during the Apocalypse, will that vision of Paradise be fully restored.
      Hence, the narratives of Judæo-Christianity transpire in linear-historical time, and acquire, according to Frye, a U-shaped narrative structure. The hero task of Christianity is to restore, in the end, that paradise which was lost at the beginning. In this way, the Bible has become for our culture a ‘Great Code’, which we have followed unerringly in all our mythic arrangements of images in literature, poetry, and art. It is also the code which our culture, in its attempts to understand the art and myths of other cultures, inevitably projects upon them.
      Meanwhile, Heinrich Zimmer and Joseph Campbell delved into the Sanskrit and Pali canons of Hindu and Buddhist scripture, and discovered differently shaped narrative structures which arrange their images in ever-recurring cycles of time. (Although this view of time was already known to our culture in its ancient Bronze Age, the oncoming centuries of Christianity gradually obscured it). Due to cyclic time, the narrative structures of Hindu-Buddism, Campbell claimed, are O-shaped. Figures like Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva continually create, destroy, and restore the cosmos. And so the Buddha’s task, in contrast to Christ’s, is to find that one stilled point at the centre of time’s ever-swirling illusion.
      But, these two opposing views on time came to be further augmented by Mircea Eliade. In his bookThe Myth of the Eternal Return, he recognized the existence of another, more ancient mode of time, which he called ‘Mythical Time’. Like Zimmer and Campbell, Eliade had begun his studies in Hindu scriptures, but quickly moved beyond them to a broader analysis of all the world’s religions. He also delved into the shamanistic practises of Primitive cultures, whose beliefs may constitute the primordial origins of all religions. His analysis revealed a view on time decidedly different from Judæo-Christianity and Hindu-Buddhism, because ancient narratives arrange their images in a more remote ‘Mythical Time’ – a sacred and Eternal Time which transpires before and after linear history, and is closed off from time’s ever-recurring cycles.
      In Cosmogonic myths, a momentary Epiphany transpires, as the eternally Sacred is revealed at the beginnning of Creation or at the end of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, in sacred Hero myths, a momentary Epiphany also transpires, but in the middle of linear or cyclic history, when the hero himself experiences a momentary death, rebirth, and awakening. What is more, the measures of linear or cyclic time are temporarily removed, as the hero momentarily re-enters the eternal Mythic Time. In short, during these brief moments, a timeless Epiphany transpires: the hero momentarily beholds the eternally Sacred.
      Such images of Epiphany constitute each myth’s most important moment. In our study, we shall have cause to refer to them, time and again, as Threshold Images. Typically, Threshold Images arise in the first few moments of a Creation myth, at the last few moments of an Apocalyptic myth, and at the nadir of a Hero myth. In sacred statuary and art, these Threshold Images are preserved for all time, where that moment of Epiphany is forever ‘frozen still’. And so, as we slowly regain the ancient language of images, we will learn how to ‘enter through’ this particular type of image.
      In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell developed a model of the hero-narrative as it recurrs in most if not all mythologies, naming it ‘the Monomyth’. With this important device, he was able to compare the narratives of many of the world’s mythologies. And in his attempt to encompass them all, he saw that, behind all the multifarious ‘masks of God’, there lies, ultimately, one visage – shared by all cultures, but ultimately inscrutible and unknown. Hence, the eternally Sacred, which is revealed time and again in the momentary Epiphanies of art and myth, must remain, per force, unnamed. Nevertheless, such a timeless Presence will be felt again and again each time an image is successfully ‘entered through’. As such, being called upon to name the unnameable, we may refer to it in these pages, variously, as the ancient Sacramentum, Mysterion, or even as ‘the Ancient One’.
      The iconologues of time, narrative, and the hero-task become keys that unlock the gates of, not only myth, but dreams as well. For myths and works of art have continually sought their source-imagery in dreams. Yet, by giving these fleeting apparitions more solid form, they have thereby elevated the dark mechanisms of dreamwork into the light of consciousness. Dreams, like myths, are also an arrangement of images in time, and unfold according to certain set narrative structures. In them, the dreamer is given some task to accomplish, and must cross over a dangerous life-threshold to complete it. And so, as Campbell concluded after a lifetime of research into mythology, “In myth... we enter the sphere of dream awake.” (12)
      In this way, Campbell slowly became conscious of the same deep accord which Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung had also detected between dreams and myth. For myths, in a more structured way, use the same symbols and narratives which arise, almost spontaneously, in dreams. “Imagery, especially the imagery of dreams,” Campbell remarked, “is the basis of mythology.”(13) And Eliade echoed this sentiment: “In the oneiric universe, we find again and again the symbols, the images, the figures and events of which mythologies are constituted.”(14)
      Hence, the ancient Image-Language silently speaks to us in the images of, not only dreams, but myths. And so myths must also be considered as arrangements of images where, ‘some primæval relic of humanity is still at work’; they too manifest the ‘mental antiquities’ and ‘older modes of thought’ characteristic of iconologic. Thus, among the discoveries of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, among the various symbols, archetypes, condensations and displacements which arrange images into dreams, we must also include the mythic structures of task, narrative, and time discovered by Frye, Eliade, Zimmer, and Campbell.
       In recent times, there have also been certain artists and writers who, through the peculiar arrangements of images in their works, have betrayed a secret desire to seek out iconologic’s lost manner of thinking. Our inquiry into an ancient Image-Language would not be complete unless we also considered more recent works of art wherein the ancient tendencies still persist. And so, we shall have cause to call upon the works of certain twentieth century artists and writers, so as to illustrate the mythological and dream-like motifs of the ancient Image-Language. Among the artists who have pursued dream imagery in their works stand such Surrealist painters as Dalí and Magritte, as well as the more modern Visionary artists Ernst Fuchs and Johfra. Among the novelists who have crossed ancient myths in their more modern works stand Nikos Kazantzakis and Hermann Hesse. All have demonstrated in their works a gradual awakening and awareness of the ancient Image-Language, and the attempt to enter, once more, through the image.