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Symbolons of Love

BY Mark C.E. Peterson October 24, 2021

Rural cooking pot repaired with Kintsugi technique, Georgia, 19th century. Cropped version of the original image by Guggger submitted to Wikimedia Commons. Used via Creative Commons 4.0.

October is metamorphosis month. 

Dropping back a few thousand years, as human experience of the world changed, so too did the mythology that puts us into relationship with that world. Campbell notes that mythology seems to have evolved from framing our relationship 1) to the gods (Thor, Indra, Jehovah), then 2) to the exploits of the children of gods (Perseus, Herakles), and finally 3) to where we find ourselves today: a mythology that reflects and conditions our relationships to other human beings. A compelling example of this transition to a “creative” mythology is expressed in Plato’s account of love, the Symposium.

I would be remiss not to alert the reader to one of the key initiations connected with the discipline of philosophy: that the term “symposium” literally means a “drinking party,” which goes a long way toward explaining why people go into academic careers.

First the story, and then the reveal.

The Symposium takes place at the end of a banquet thrown to celebrate the poet Agathon’s victory in a big competition. One of the guests suggests they amuse themselves by giving speeches in praise of Love (Eros). The action famously concludes with Socrates’ description of Diotima’s “ladder of love,” the origin of what is now thought of as “Platonic love,” and a drunken Alcibiades hilariously crashing the party. A million sparkly details are scattered throughout these panegyrics, a usual feature of Plato’s dialogues, and well worth the reader’s time and effort; but I want to focus on the speech of Aristophanes, the comedian. He tells a strange tale describing the origins of humankind and why Love compels us to find our lovers.

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Creative Mythology (Masks of God 4)
The Masks of God, Volume IV: Creative Mythology

Human beings were not always as they appear to us today, he begins. Originally, humans were created in pairs: as a pair of conjoined males, a pair of conjoined females, and a pair composed of a male and a female. Each of these beings had four arms and four legs, two faces on one head, and all the other appropriate pieces we see today. They moved by walking or by cartwheeling around at terrific speeds. They were powerful, twice as strong as modern humans, so much so that they threatened to challenge even the gods.

Of course, the gods saw this coming and argued about what to do. The smart money was simply to destroy these beings but the gods figured out that, were they to do so, they’d no longer receive devotions and sacrifices and, obviously, gods need devotions and sacrifices. Pretty typical Greek god stuff. So Zeus comes up with an answer: cut them in half. 

He separated the male-male beings into two men, the female-female beings into two women, and the androgynous beings into a male and a female. A bit of surgery followed to stitch together the seams where they had been divided – and here we are, as we are, today.

You’ve probably figured out where this is going.

Aristophanes concludes that love attracts us to each other because we are missing our other half and, obviously, this is why love is so compelling: it begins with longing for what is lacking and ends in the ecstasy of recovering what was lost.

One of the subtler details in this story is that Aristophanes borrows heavily from Hippocrates’ medical terminology to describe the surgical techniques Zeus employed while sewing humans into their present form. While the function of the story is mythological, the semantics are scientific. In a sense, Aristophanes puts science in service to mythological narrative. Something to think about.

We could leave this here as another amusing and suggestive piece of Greek mythology, a relational narrative which metaphorically describes an experience common to most humans in love. This places Aristophanes’ story squarely into Campbell’s category of “creative” mythology – but, for our MythBlast-y purposes, there is a hidden gem in this story, obscured by the veils of translation.

Here it is. When Aristophanes comes to the climax of his account, the English translation can read: 

“Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since everyone shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him.”

Or sometimes this: 

“Each of us, separated from each other, is but the indenture of a man…”.

Huh? Tally? Indenture? What in the world does that mean? If I can stay within the metaphors of erotic love, we have to cast aside these veils to get at the … well, to the truth. 

The Greek word translated here as tally, or indenture, is the word σύμβολον, symbolon. A symbolon was a die or a coin cut in half, usually with a zigzag pattern (hence, indenture or tooth-like), between two friends – to show that one is completed by the other. We often see this today in pendants exchanged between friends and lovers – heart shaped, divided down the middle, with one name on each piece. The implication is that the heart is only, truly, completed by the joining of two into one.

And this is exactly what symbols do: they are one half of a coin that points beyond itself to the part that is missing; they express a truth that is only comprehended when both halves are matched and rejoined. This is a beautiful expression of relationships governed by Eros but doesn’t  it give us a deeper insight into the psychological functions of symbols in mythology? They express the longing for completeness, for reuniting the stories that frame our lives with the experience of living. 

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and former President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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Creative Mythology (Audio: Lecture II.2.5)

Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Joseph Campbell was often asked how a new mythology was going to develop. His answer was that it would have to come from poets, artists, and filmmakers. In this talk, Campbell explores what he called creative mythology — the way in which artists can and do give a sense of the transcendent in a universe apparently empty of meaning.

This lecture was recorded at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1969.

News & Updates

On Karwa Chauth (Oct. 24) throughout the Indian subcontinent, Hindu women fast all day as a prayer of petition for their husbands’ happiness.

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Once you understand symbolic things, you, too, will see symbols everywhere.

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The Masks of God™ 4: Creative Mythology

Creative Mythology is the fourth and final volume of Joseph Campbell’s major work of comparative mythology, The Masks of God. In this installment, the pre-eminent mythologist looks at the European mythology of individualism as it took flower in medieval Europe and spread, through the Renaissance, to influence modernist thought, art, and literature.

Book Club

“The ancient Greeks called the art of reworking established myths ‘mythopoesis.’ Telling an old story in a new voice and from a fresh perspective makes room for new questions and reveals new meanings. It’s an essential form of myth-making. In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint reimagines the classic Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra. These two women tell a compelling story about monsters, heroes, and the mysterious god Dionysus, and the role they played in this famous story. Ariadne is a wonderful poesis of Greek mythology and a meditation on sisterhood, heroism, fate, and free will today.”

Catherine Svehla, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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