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.

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.

Numinous and the numinosum

Recently I was asked to explain the word “numinous”.  So, here goes:

The word “numinous” was coined by Rudolf Otto from the Latin numen, meaning a god, cognate with the verb nuere, to nod or beckon, indicating divine approval.  This word, or its noun, the “numinosum,” refers to any phenomenon experienced as a manifestation of tremendous power felt to be objective and outside the self.  It is a crucial element of religious experience.  For Otto, the numinosum is non-rational and irreducible; it cannot be defined, only evoked and experienced.

According to Lionel Corbett, the numinous grips or stirs the soul.  The numinous produces a kind of holy terror, awe or dread which Otto describes as a feeling of the ‘mysterium tremendum.’ It can also erupt in the modern person as the experience of the uncanny or the supernatural.  Such awe may be overwhelming or it may be gentle as the still small voice.  The uncanny is not a function of intensity but rather of a specific quality. [see The Religious Function of the Psyche by Lionel Corbett for a detailed discussion on this.]

I experience the redwoods of northern California as a portal into the numinous.  The magnificence of these sentinels  “stirs my soul.”  I stand in awe of their grandeur.  There is something “uncanny” about them.  For me, these expressions of nature, I experience as supernatural.  There is something larger at work here; something that cannot be defined; only experienced.

According to Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche the numinous is also defined as something that suddenly confronts human awareness with an unexpected dimension of reality, something that is experienced as “Wholly Other” than the mundane sphere, that utterly transcends and subverts the everyday world of conventional experience, and that disrupts the very ground of one’s being as it was previously construed.  Jung’s notion of synchronicity can be recognized as the inexplicable coincidence that carries a numinous charge.

For me, myths are not necessarily numinous in and of themselves; just as the menu is not the meal, the map is not the landscape, and the road sign is not the way, etc.  What myths do is to alert us to the possibility of the numinous.  They help us recognize when we are in the grips of the mysterium tremendum.  The numinous can be beatific like Dante’s vision of Beatrice.  It can also hold a terror as when a demon visits us in a dream and we awaken breathing heavily in a cold sweat.  And, the numinous can also be experienced gently as the still small voice. Regardless of the form, the soul is deeply stirred.

My attraction to myth is many layered.  One of these layers is simply because myths are great stories.  Also, they typically contain pearls of wisdom.  They are mirrors reflecting the human condition.  And, I could go on.  However, for the purposes of this commentary, let me say that I am attracted to myths because they are metaphors for life that cannot really be explained directly.

Myths are keys opening the door beyond which lies the numinous.

Neo at the Architect's door

Neo at the Architect’s door

I hope this helps clarify the word “numinous.”  I currently do not have a forum, but I would be interested in hearing about your “numinous” experiences.