Guide and Pilgrim Archetypal Images in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Whether we are on a quest for animal photography in Africa, attempting to traverse the corporate maze, or maintain some semblance of equanimity in the demands of parenting who can we turn to for guidance? Too often in this journey we call life we begin the journey without a guide and rarely find one along the way.

Where is the guide we can turn to?

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Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso shows us what the archetypal guide can be to the weary pilgrim. An example comes from Book One, Inferno. In Canto VIII we meet rebel angels who invite Dante’s guide, Virgil, to desert Dante. This is a significant point in the canto.

The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place of hell inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate his situation.  Without Virgil, could he continue? Without Virgil could he return to his everyday world? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil, “returning here seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

Forget your fear, no one can hinder/our passage; One so great has granted it. / . . .feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I / will not abandon you in this low world.

There is a two way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He or she is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. The one on the quest should not falter in determination to gain the journey’s end nor hinder the guide. In great measure, the pilgrim should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante:

You—though I am vexed— /Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored, once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly. What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And, is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

I do not envy Dante his journey, but, I am slightly envious of his remarkable guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey nor can we return to journey’s starting point without a guide, it’s no wonder that so many of us falter or even fail for lack of one. In a culture where guidance is often rejected in the name of independence, Dante’s image and commentary remind us of the value of this age-old companion.

The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

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The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.


Mundus Imaginalis – A Panel Discussion

Recently, I was reviewing class notes from university courses I took, now over a decade ago. I came across this little gem on a panel discussion on the Mundus Imaginalis or imaginal world. James Hillman credits Henry Corbin as the source of this notion. Corbin, a French philosopher, is principally known for his interpretation of Islamic thought. From Corbin comes from the idea that the mundus archetypalis is also the mundus imaginalis. The mundus imaginalis offers an ontological mode of locating the archetypes of the psyche as the fundamental structures of the imagination or as fundamentally imaginative phenomena that are transcendent to the world of sense in their value if not their appearance. (This from James Hillman’s book: Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account).

Hopefully this little summary of the panel discussion will open up the notion of “imaginal” for you and help you to differentiate it from “image” or “imaginative”.  And, remember: The primary and irreducible language of archetypal patterns is the metaphorical discourse of myths.

Panel Discussion of the “Mundus Imaginalis”

Our group discussion fairly immediately came across the first obstacle regarding the imaginalis, that of language. The difficulty of translating the experience and the “language” of the imaginal into everyday reality is much the same as attempting to fit a mystical shape into a practical mold. (The group also did not overlook the aspect of translating Arabic terms into English, which is already one step removed from the original translation of mystical to “sensible”). The danger of misinterpretation lies deep in the heart of any translation. When we talk about the levels and layers of meaning within culture, we are immediately at the mercy of the danger of our own assumptions. These assumptions of course come from the core of our own cultural schemata and its inherent limitations.

The limitations of our scientific civilization – which is said to have gained mastery over images, and is even referred to as the “civilization of the image” – are in its radical misunderstanding, or complete misapprehension of the image (the root and vehicle of the imaginal). Instead of the image being raised to the level of the world to which it belongs, instead of being invested with a symbolic function that would lead to inner meaning, the image tends to be reduced simply to the level of sensible perception and thus to be definitely degraded. Might one not have to say that the greater the success of this reduction, the more people lose their sense of the imaginal and the more they are condemned to produce nothing but fiction. In other words (worlds), the image/imaginal is brought down to the lowest common denominator and thus completely loses its potency.

If all is thus lost in translation, how can the imaginal be communicated? Perhaps this is entirely the wrong question, the wrong approach. At one point in our group discussion a subtle shift occurred that we might not have been quite conscious of at the time. This shift revealed itself in the realization that one cannot truly communicate one’s imaginal level of experience fully, directly or even clearly. But that we may be able to “read” or receive another’s experience of the imaginal as it connects to our own. The other’s experience/communications then acts as a trigger for us to enter our own imaginal experience. In other words, the memory of our own experience of the imaginal can be triggered by that of the other person’s; can create an entry point to the imaginal. And that creativity could in fact be a process of the magneticism of these entry points; invitations to the openings, so to speak.

From this vantage point we may be able to admit that we cannot communicate the imaginal because of the limitations of our “language”. But that this limitation is certainly not imposed on the imaginal, as it communicates to us constantly through forms that exist within and without us. And that truly our task and desire, even compulsion is to give shape to its integrity; To give color to its ecstasy; To know its gnosis; To step into the dimension of non-duality; To step out of time. And to do all of this we must access a certain kind of vulnerability that is a suspension of all we know yet maintaining a sense of all knowing. The quintessential paradox that creates an incredible surge of energy that may override the sense of helplessness we are confronted with in our constant struggle to give form to the formless, fitting the mystical into the sensible. Perhaps if we were to magically pull a mystical shape out of a practical mold we might finally be making meaning rather than just making sense.

Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite: The Beauty/Soul Connection – Part II

In my last post (Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite Part I) I presented an overview of the myth of The Invisible Lover. I continue my reflections on this myth with tasks the goddess of Beauty and Love, Aphrodite, demanded of Psyche.

The Tasks

Aphrodite assigns tasks to Psyche that Aphrodite is confident Psyche will be unable to fulfill. The first task requires Psyche to separate a vast heap of seeds as the first of four seemingly impossible tasks. Seeds imply a masculine principle. In order for soul to come to terms with beauty an ordering of the masculine principle is required. But in this Psyche herself does not participate but is served by the small but energetic industrious and plentiful ants. Psyche neither asks for help nor commands it. She does, however, allow the ants to come to her aid.

The ants act out of pity for Psyche’s plight and objection to the cruelty of Aphrodite. Both the seeds and the ants have an earthly quality. Although Psyche isn’t involved with the activity, this scene represents an alignment with the earth element.

For the second task, Aphrodite requires Psyche to harvest wisps of wool from sheep whose fleeces shine with hue of gold. This time Psyche’s aid comes in the form of advice from a reed of the river near where the sheep graze. Psyche for a second time contemplates suicide by drowning but the reed intervenes. The vegetative advisor tells Psyche that the sheep shine with hue of gold because they borrow fierce heat from the blazing sun. If Psyche delays her approach until after “the sun has assuaged its burning and the beasts are lulled to sleep by the soft river breeze, and gather not the from the sheep directly but rather from a grove where their wool has been rubbed off onto crooked twigs.”

The image of these sheep who borrow fierce heat from the blazing sun and are prone to wild destructive frenzy suggests a powerful solar masculine energy. If Psyche were to approach them directly during the apex of their strength, she surely would be destroyed, which is probably the point the of the exercise from Aphrodite’s perspective. However, through the wisdom of the supple reed, by biding her time until the noon day sun is on the wane and harvesting their fleece from an indirect source, the demands of Aphrodite will still be met without risking harm to Psyche.

Throughout the four ordeals, Psyche is “big with child”. The third task tests “whether you have a stout heart.” Psyche is sent to draw a small urn of water. Like the previous tasks, this is assumed by Aphrodite to be impossible to accomplish, for the waters flow from an inaccessible mountain cliff with dragon sentinels protecting it from anyone’s approach.

To accomplish this task, Psyche is aided by an eagle of Zeus who is allowed to pass by the sentinels because he says he is on an errand of the great goddess. The eagle fills the urn and returns the water to Psyche. Although Psyche is greatly relieved to be able to satisfy the demands of Aphrodite, the great goddess is not appeased.

So far Psyche has been assisted by ants, a water reed and an eagle. Earth, water and air realms are represented. The ants introduce order to the chaos of the heap of seeds. Through the water reed’s advice the ‘fierce and frenzied’ power of fire (the heat of these solar sheep) is tempered. And the third task by means of the medium of air, the water element is delivered to Aphrodite.

If we use this myth as a guideline for the connection between Beauty and Soul, what do these three tasks reveal about that relationship? In each of these three tasks assigned by Aphrodite to Psyche, Psyche doesn’t “do” anything. For the soul to mature, as Psyche assuredly does throughout the myth, beauty must first of all be acknowledged as the divine energy that it is.  The soul must also not turn away from the demands of the power of beauty.

As this myth unfolds, we see Soul with a tendency to be overwhelmed by the enormity or impossibility of the tasks. However, this myth tells us that just by being present to the demands of beauty, those demands will be satisfied on behalf of soul in ways the rational mind could never conceive.

It is often through unpleasant impossible tasks that the soul matures. Its mettle is tested even as unusual resources come to its aid. If you deeply contemplate this statement reflecting on the examples from the myth, you may bring to mind specific examples in your personal life experience.

In my next post, I will present the fourth and final task.

Psyche, Eros, and Aphrodite: The Beauty/Soul Connection Part I

The Beauty/Soul Connection

The myth of Psyche (the word “psyche” means “soul” in Greek), Cupid, her invisible lover (Eros in Greek), and Cupid’s mother, the goddess of beauty and love, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), illustrates how deeply Beauty, Soul, and Love are interrelated. This relationship can show up in a modern context of the spa experience.  The many spa treatments readily available might be presumed to be merely pampering and possibly even decadent. However, if approached in the right frame of mind, they have the potential to touch us deeply and nurture the soul.


The story of “The Invisible Lover” is a chapter from the greater work of The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass)

by a Roman, Lucius Apuleius, who is credited with recording it in the second century CE. However, there is no doubt that a tradition transmitted by Plato from six centuries earlier played an important part in shaping the myth.  Although Apuleius uses the Roman names for the deities, in this commentary, I will refer to their Greek names.

The primary character of this story is a stunningly beautiful young daughter of a king, Psyche. Her beauty is so extraordinary that people neglect the temples of the Aphrodite and worship the mortal, Psyche. This enrages the divine Aphrodite who sends her son, Eros to mete out her punishment. Aphrodite commands Eros to cause Psyche to be consumed with passion for the vilest of men; a man who is destined to have neither health, nor wealth, nor honor; one whose misery has no equal. On his way to fulfill this command, Eros is pricked by his own arrow so that he, himself, falls in love with Psyche. This curious triangle of characters sets up a potent story of metamorphosis.


It is not uncommon for the experience of beauty to touch us deeply. These encounters have a tendency to lead us more deeply into soul. There is some quintessential relationship between soul and beauty. In The Metamorphosis (The Golden Ass) by Apuleius, this relationship is personified through the beautiful and mortal, Psyche and the great goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite presides over three primary domains. She is the goddess of love, desire, and beauty. Her dominion over beauty relates directly to the conflict in the tale. This connection between the realm of Aphrodite and her future daughter-in-law, Psyche, exemplifies the relation between beauty and soul.

Beauty is a universal concept; its representation is not.

The representation and personal experience of beauty tends to emerge from a cultural context, historical moment, personal genius and possibly innate predispositions. Various forms and media have been used to represent beauty, yet a precise definition seems to be elusive. Nevertheless, when beauty touches us, the experience is profound and recognizable.

The ingredients in the recipe which describes this experience may include awe, a generous dollop of aesthetic arrest and a pleasant sprinkling of delight. Due to the archetypal nature of beauty, psychic energy may be released when beauty is confronted which may be experienced as sublime.

This essay focuses on beauty’s relationship to soul using a general notion of beauty and Aphrodite as its representation. What does this particular story have to tell us about the nature of the relation between Beauty and Soul?

In the story, the reader meets an enraged Aphrodite. Aphrodite is a major deity in the pantheon with significant power and influence over mortals as well as divine beings. She is also a jealous and vengeful goddess.

The Greek word “Psyche” translates to the English word “soul.” In Greek art, Psyche was frequently depicted as a moth or butterfly. Psyche in this story is worshipped as if she is Aphrodite. There is a natural beauty of the soul. The beauty of Psyche is so striking that people turn to her in worship and in so doing turn away from Aphrodite, the true goddess of beauty. Through this adoration and veneration Psyche did not have her own identity. She was not seen as herself. Nonetheless, it is through the beauty of soul, the extraordinary beauty of Psyche, that the goddess of beauty takes an interest in her. Aphrodite commands her son, Eros, to aim his arrows so that Psyche would love a base and unfortunate man.

However, quite the opposite is what actually happens. Eros himself is pricked by his own arrow and falls in love with Psyche. Out of fear of his mother’s wrath, Eros hides Psyche in a remote area and remains unseen, coming to Psyche only in the cover of night. Psyche is naïve and unquestioning as she lives in a paradise tended by disembodied voices, without care or strife and yet forbidden to look upon her husband.

Although Psyche’s sisters are presented as jealous and mean, it is through their prompting that ultimately sends Psyche on her path. Believing her sisters’ lies that her husband is a monster with a monstrous snake body, she prepares to illuminate this monstrosity as he sleeps and slay him.

In the process of shedding light on him while he is sleeping, she is pricked by the arrow of love and falls in love with Eros. Eros, realizing that Psyche has seen and recognized him, punishes Psyche by abandoning her.

Psyche realizes what fate has befallen her. After a failed attempt at suicide, she destroys the voices that brought her to the disunion with her love. In what appears as acts of vengeance, Psyche sends the voices to their doom.

Don’t we all have voices in our lives we would like to still as effectively as Psyche quiets those of poor council? All of this drama leads eventually to Psyche supplicating herself at the feet of the great goddess Aphrodite. What appears as a circuitous route nevertheless leads Psyche to the house of Aphrodite.

If this myth is a reasonable representation of the relation of soul to beauty, then it can be said that the natural beauty of soul is not an unqualified boon. It is because of this natural beauty that Psyche is introduced to her future husband. So that is a good thing. It is also because of this natural beauty that she finds herself at the receiving end of the wrath of the great goddess, Aphrodite, which is a bad thing. Up to this point in the story, Psyche, or soul, is immature, naïve, or both. There does not appear to be any recognition of the importance of Beauty.

Since Psyche is worshipped as the new “Earth-born” Aphrodite, Psyche, has no identity of her own. However, there is no indication that Psyche attempts to evade the situation of being worshipped as a goddess. At whose temple does Psyche worship?

Later in the story Psyche approaches the place of worship of Demeter and Hera asking for protection, only to be rebuffed. It is only when she surrenders to her situation that Psyche meets Aphrodite. This is no great reunion. Aphrodite is a viper. Even though Psyche is pregnant with the future grandchild of Aphrodite, she shows Psyche no mercy. After physically and verbally abusing Psyche, Aphrodite sets several impossible task before Psyche.

Up to this point in the myth, Love, Beauty, and Soul appear to have a disharmonious connection.  Both Psyche and Eros are living a lie.  Aphrodite is out of countenance and viciously jealous.

Every archetype has a shadow side. This myth begins with these shadow aspects of these archetypal characters.

How honest is love that is hidden in the dark and lives in fear?

How mature is a soul who naively questions nothing?

How unattractive is beauty that is so venomous and myopic?

In my next post I will continue with the tale by focussing on The Four Tasks Aphrodite assigns Psyche.  Until then be alert to the Beauty/Love/Soul connection in your world.  Let me know what you see.