Hades is the son of Cronus (or Cronos) and Rhea
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Hades holding the cornucopia (or Horn of plenty) – Louvre Museum
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This Titan couple, Cronus and Rhea, was responsible for the birth of the six main gods who govern human consciousness: Hestia, Hera, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Let us remember that this consciousness identifies itself with mental consciousness when Zeus, the supraconscient, swallowed Metis, ‘intelligence turned towards discernment’, thus imposing the dominance of the mind on the vital.
Rhea, the wife of Cronus, was the object of a cult centered on Mount Thaumasion, a name formed from the base of the name of Pontos’ second son, Thaumas, a symbol of the plane of the ‘true vital’. This confirms the name given to the rule of Cronus, ‘the Golden Age’, during which the reflecting mind which brings distortions and limitations to life was not yet dominant.
We have already discussed here those who are considered the Olympian gods. Over the course of his evolution man must integrate the forces which they represent so as to become their equal. The heroes of the Trojan war witnessed this, for they were able to inflict injuries on the combating gods. Once he has reached this stage of evolution, man is no longer submitted to the mental forces which scour the world in cyclical waves. He has then attained the plane of the Overmind of the Pleiad Maia, the mother of Hermes, and the corresponding realisations with the sixth son of Aeolus, Perieres, ‘he who acts in a just manner’, or ‘he who has moved beyond cycles’.
We must still discuss the sixth child of Cronos and Rhea, Hades, who has till now been set aside for he was not amongst the Olympian gods, at least not in the Homeric period. (We will discuss Dionysus later on because he holds a place apart, not being given the rank of a god and being barely mentioned in Homer’s works. This initiate probably considered the Dionysian path to be one of the several ways possible, but chose not to give it importance due to the potential mixing with vital energies.)
Let us remember that at the time of the victory over the Titans, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades divided the world amongst themselves, Hades being granted power over the underworld, the kingdom of the invisible (invisible to man).
The name Hades, Αιδης, has as structuring characters ΙΔ. It is therefore a place of reunification (Δ) of consciousness (Ι), the last stage of which is carried out in the body (once union has been realized in the mind and in the vital). The initiates of ancient times considered Hades to be ‘α-ίδε(ιν), he who is not visible’, and his kingdom is a place in which human ordinary consciousness cannot penetrate, where union is carried out in the inconscient. To reach it one must triumph over Cerberus, and not only as Heracles had done in bringing him into the conscious realm. Then one must cross over the Styx, a feat which no hero ever accomplished. When the Styx will have been crossed, when the work of Persephone will have been completed, then Man will touch upon the ‘eternal’ world (Αιδιος) of total unity. (As is commonly done, we will maintain here the masculine gender for Styx, an Oceanid assimilated into the river of Hades’ world.)
Hades’ domain is that which we refer to here as the ‘inconscient’ in keeping with Sri Aurobindo’s definition, a domain which therefore pertains to the body and its silencing of the records and memories of evolution. It is also here that dwell the ‘shades’, symbols of experiences which have fulfilled their role.
This ‘inconscient’ is in no way equivalent to that of modern psychology; the latter refers to the more superficial layers which we refer to here as the subconscious, the domain of Poseidon in which is accumulated every sensation as well as all the distortions resulting from emotional trauma. When the right time comes these distortions are awakened by Poseidon, generating gusts of wind or tumultuous storms which jostle the seeker. The causes of these can be recalled into consciousness without too much difficulty.
One must therefore never reduce the great heroes’ incursions into the kingdom of Hades to the level of the discoveries made by ordinary men in the contents of their subconscious, no matter what their means of investigation may be.
According to Homer, the only heroes to have consciously descended into Hades during their lifetime were Heracles and Ulysses. As Heracles belongs to the theoretical description of the path, only Ulysses represents an experience which borders on the yoga of the body. Later authors added Theseus and his friend Pirithoos, or cite dead heroes such as Sisyphus or Alcestis who return for longer or shorter periods to the domain of the living (the legend of Orpheus is a particular one, for it is recounted in a variety of versions which will be discussed later on). By allowing imperfectly purified and liberated heroes to access Hades, these authors either erroneously extended the kingdom of Hades to the regions of the deep subconscious, or seemed to consider the possibility of a work on the body before ‘liberation’ was wholly established. The myth in which Sisyphus, having deliberately chosen not to be buried in the way ascribed by tradition, was allowed to reemerge from the underworld can be understood in this way; as long as the vital is not completely purified, the efforts of the intellect must serve the cause of discernment even if a work on the body has already begun.
Let us also remember that the opposite of consciousness is Nescience, symbolised by Tartarus, rather than by Hades even if some later authors included the first within the second. Hades is a place of reunion, not of negation, and it is Thanatos and not Hades who is associated with the death of the physical body.
Living alternatively with her mother Demeter and her husband Hades, Persephone demonstrates that the realisation towards the highest union incarnated by Demeter -who belongs in the greatest heights of human consciousness, the overmind, for she is the sister of Zeus – is carried out by recurring journeys between the conscious and the inconscient. She ‘informs’ the body of the evolutions of consciousness, and vice versa. But at least in Homer’s times, the body is not a place for humankind’s evolution, and Hades is therefore never manifested in the life of mortals and does not dwell on Mount Olympus amongst the other gods. This is why Achilles claims that ‘I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished ‘ (Odyssey 11.467-468).
(If the body witnesses the unity of matter, the apparent immobility of Hades paired with the comings and goings of Persephone could also indicate that a seeker’s step forward spreads throughout humankind by its resonance.)
Even if the myths allude to ‘deaths’, the kingdom of Hades is therefore in no case the place of what is beyond life, but rather a world of material consciousness where past experiences are integrated and kept and where certain processes follow their work, having either reached completion in the ordinary conscious and subconscious layers or having been banished from these planes.
The fact that Homer describes evolutionary experiences as ‘shades’ or ‘psychae Ψυχαι’ (through the structuring characters signifying ‘that which penetrates into the center’), it is because they contribute to the growth of the inner being. This term does not designate any of the human faculties, which are expressed by words such as Phrenes (spirit), Thymos (the vital being, the principle of will) and Noos (the mental being, thought). It more closely refers to what in this work we call the psychic being, the body forming around the soul understood as the divine spark within each individual, and being constituted of the same nature. These ‘shades’ therefore contribute to the growth of the psychic being by adhering to the pre-existing seed or core. However, a ‘shadow’ cannot be assimilated into the psychic being if the hero has not been buried in the world of the living according to the prescribed rites, which is to say that the ‘task’ in question, whether it seems beneficent or maleficent to human eyes, has not completed its role in the realm of active consciousness. This is what allows Sisyphus, who represents ‘effort’ in the mind, to return to the world above ground.
An evolutionary process which has completed its task no longer has any reason for staying in the realm of consciousness. Logically, the dog Cerberus also impedes the ‘shades’ from returning to the realm of light, allowing only a few select heroes who have found their evolutionary past and that of humankind, and can contemplate all its elements as an absolutely coherent whole, to make the crossing again.
This concept of Hades is not common to all the mythological texts, for there occurred a gradual shift of meaning and the ‘underworld’ which originally described a particular area of consciousness eventually came to designate the destination of the dead instead.
But this is neither ‘paradise’, ‘purgatory’ nor ‘hell’, and was initially not attributed with any of the characteristics that were added later on. If certain authors make a differentiation between the regions, it is probably to be able to distinguish between the experiences which are carried on from one lifetime to the other (the Island of the Blissful) and are therefore linked to the psychic being, and those which are linked to the current existence being lived (the fields of Asphodel).
It is there that the work of the adventurers of consciousness is carried out with the aim of one day allowing humankind as a whole to cross over the Styx, which is to say to achieve a union within the physical body. Although Hades himself is not hostile, the guardians of the ultimate frontier, Cerberus and Styx, ‘freeze with terror’, for with them the seeker encounters the powerful forces at the beginnings of evolution at a point in which he is no longer protected by the presence of the ego.
Hades is known by different epithets, including ‘the wealthy’ (he who fulfills all lack and need), ‘the other Zeus’, or ‘Zeus Katachtonios’ (καταχθονιος ΧΘ), which is to say the supraconscient of the depths or ‘the supraconscient which concentrates towards the inner core of matter’.
As the deity of the underworld he is also the deity of mines and of the potentials buried in matter and in the body.
His special object is the helmet of invisibility, designating the domain which man cannot be conscious of. This helmet is perhaps also the symbol of mental silence, which must be established in those seekers who begin the descent into the body. He is often depicted holding a key and a horn of plenty; he holds the ‘key’ of life and of the rediscovery of union, offering all that is imaginable.
Although the underworld is generally located ‘below’, Homer also describes it as being in the furthest reaches of the west, for the access to the deepest inconscient memories demands a long journey into the evolutionary past. Thus, the souls of the dead gathered and came forth to meet Ulysses, the most advanced of the seekers in the process of union, after he had navigated up the currents of the river Oceanos, akin to the evolutionary currents.
So as to clearly mark both the stages of progression and the possibilities of consciousness in the underworld, Homer mentions several different rivers: the Acheron and its ferryman Charon (mentioned from the sixth century BCE by other authors as well), the Cocytus, the Periphlegethon and of course the Styx. Charon carried the shades over the river in his ferry in exchange for tribute, and was described as a brutal and tyrannical genius. The name Charon is built from the same symbolic characters (Χ+Ρ) as the river Acheron and as Chara, ‘joy’. He is therefore also the symbol of the ‘right movement of the gathering of the being’.
These rivers outline several regions, described differently depending on the authors. They include the fields of Asphodel and the Elysian fields, also known as the Islands of the Blissful, to which Pausanias added the White Islands meant specifically for the heroes of the Trojan War.
These different regions have been used to illustrate the concepts of hell, purgatory and paradise of Christian tradition.
Some have described the fields of Asphodel as a bleak and desolate land, a notion which does not seem to be shared by Homer, who most notably made them into Orion’s hunting grounds. There, the latter is said to be ‘driving together over the field of asphodel wild beasts which he himself had slain on the lonely hills’ (Odyssey 11.572-573); for a habit or behaviour driven away from the conscious plane must subsequently be chased out of the subconscious (for instance in dreams), and finally in the body’s last entrenchments; it can also be considered as a reconciliation of opposites (driving together).
The Fields of Asphodel, far from being a bleak and unpleasing river as it is most commonly described in commentaries on mythology, is in Mediterranean countries a plant with large groups of blossoms ending in a cluster of large, white, star-shaped flowers.
While the kingdom of Hades is an inexorable world in the sense that the law of Unity does not undergo a distortion of falsity there, it is in no way a place of punishment or of compensation. Those who endure punishments to be set as examples are therefore only representative of indispensable elements for evolution which prolong their ‘work’ in the inconscient before being definitively destroyed, or rather ‘exhausted’. They therefore have strictly nothing to do with moral standards of behaviour.
For instance, in the Odyssey (Odyssey 24.10-18) the souls of Penelope’s suitors, described as sinister characters, are said to be brought to the Fields of Asphodel. Although in the world of the living they represented serious obstacles on the path, they are led to the kingdom of Hades by Hermes, which is better understood if we consider that they represent what is best in the old, wisdom and sanctity. In mythology, what appears to be ‘good’ and what appears to be ‘evil’ are both aspects of evolution.
Following this train of thought, the fact that children or descendants can be punished for the crimes committed by the parents or ancestors only signifies that the corresponding elements must be redressed at a different stage of the path. This is not incompatible with the notion of a karmic law spanning generations, as seems to be confirmed by modern sciences such as psychology and genetics which are discovering that children must integrate or resolve what has not been resolved by previous generations.
The concepts of reincarnation or metempsychosis do not appear in Homer and Hesiod’s texts. These seem to have been introduced at the turning point between the archaic and classical periods between the 6thand 5th century BCE, which was marked by the tragic authors Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Pythagoreans, Plato and the first Orphics. It is from that period that began the confusion between the ‘afterlife’ and the life of the inconscient, the kingdom of Hades. This confusion can however be understood if we keep in mind that the afterlife was, and still is, a kingdom of the inconscient.
By describing the realm of Hades as the place in which ‘into Acheron flow Periphlegethon and Cocytus which is a branch of the water of the Styx (Odyssey 10.508-509), Homer specifies the relationship between the currents of consciousness active in that region. Eschatological texts interpret these names, ascribing to them meanings like ‘panic’ ‘lamentations’ and ‘burning flames’, but their true meaning will be better understood through their structuring characters.
The Styx, the river which ‘horrifies and freezes with fear’ or ‘which is hateful’, is the symbol of the ultimate barrier to be surmounted to fulfill a union with the divine within the body. It is the current of the most ancient energy-consciousness, for the Styx is the eldest daughter of Oceanos, father of all rivers and streams.
The name Styx means what ‘redresses all in accordance with Truth (ΣΤ+Ξ), or ‘rectitude or integrity on all planes of the being’. This absolute bringing into order is a fundamental necessity for one who ventures into the yoga of the body at the cellular level.
The waters of the Styx feed the Periphlegethon, ‘the fire which burns within’, and the Cocytus, ΚΩ+Κ+Τ, a ‘widening of consciousness towards spirit and matter’.
These two rivers flow in their turn into the Acheron, ‘the right movement at the core of matter (Χ+Ρ), which represents the foundation. These two rivers which ‘flow in opposite directions’ relate to the two currents of the Caduceus. They reunite before the ‘rock of black basal’’ at the very depths of consciousness, also described by the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and Satprem, which renders inaccessible to man the formidable divine powers nestling in the core of matter.
The adventurer of consciousness must descend into the nauseating marsh in which meet the two currents which nourish the evolutionary process, the one of the burning fire of union and the one of icy separation.
(Let us note that the Mother speaks of something similar to the wings at the top of the Caduceus at several points in the Agenda. In Volumes 9 for instance, in the entry from the 6th of January 1968 describing the destruction of the physical ego, she mentions this great vibration by making a gesture ‘like two great wings beating in the infinite’.)
According to Hesiod, the Styx is made up of a tenth of the river Oceanos, while he describes as follows the nine other parts; ‘With nine silver-swirling streams he winds about the earth and the sea’s wide back, and then falls into the main’ (Homer and H.G. Evelyn-White, Theogony 775). This description confirms that it is a current of consciousness in immediate contact with the body. The Styx corresponds to the energies flowing through the tenth Sephiroth, that of the densest energies in the Tree of Life (Malkut). They are the ones to feed corporeal matter.
As the first born of Oceanos, it witnesses the fact that the interruption of the ‘true movement’ was the first perturbing element to manifest itself in evolution, and the Styx therefore constitutes the last barrier on the path of return, allowing the ‘liberation’ of the body following that of the mind and the vital.
It is therefore by the waters of the Styx that the gods pronounce their most solemn oaths, for it does not allow the slightest falsehood, ‘For whoever of the deathless gods that hold the peaks of snowy Olympus pours a libation of her water is forsworn, lies breathless until a full year is completed, and never comes near to taste ambrosia and nectar, but lies spiritless and voiceless on a strewn bed: and a heavy trance overshadows him. But when he has spent a long year in his sickness, another penance and a harder follows after the first. For nine years he is cut off from the eternal gods and never joins their councils of their feasts, nine full years.’ (Theogony 784-785). The gods cannot take an oath on an element beyond the Styx, for they are not able to access the supramental world. The perjury of a god, and therefore of a representative of a world neighbouring that of Truth, the Supramental, seems to be an impossible thing unless we consider the gods to be still-developing forces. Their ‘perjuries’ therefore correspond to the highest or deepest orders of our being which have not been consequently followed. The consequence of this is a suspension of action of the corresponding force during a long period, a year of the gods. One this phase has been fulfilled, the seeker will still have great difficulty in reintegrating this force into his quest in a coordinated way, and this will take the time of a symbolic period of gestation, nine years. For instance, if the seeker does not ‘sever’ something at the moment in which he knows he must do so (a function represented by the god Ares), he will not only not have the opportunity of doing so for a long time to come, but will also find it difficult to do so in the right way. The ‘awakened ones’ describes as those who never stop are also those who follow with precision the orders coming from within, and consequently evolve swiftly.
This warning about the consequences of neglecting the orders that come from within seems to say that these are the only truly grave errors that can be made on the path, punished by the Erinyes, ‘the guardians of the right movement’. They are the ones to punish crimes committed within the family, the worst of which are considered to be those committed between parents and their children, of which the murder of the parents indicates a severing of the divine source, and the murder of the children an impediment of evolutionary progress.
This negligence can lead till the refusal of the task which the soul has set for itself for its current incarnation, a task which implies a deep Will rather than the will of the ego. Betraying this commitment is the only ‘fault’ which man can truly reproach himself for, as long as he has become conscious of the fact.
Zeus and the other Olympian Gods are therefore under the obligation of obeying the Erinyes. Born of the blood of Ouranos, they have roughly the same rank as the Titans, if not a superior rank. They are the guardians of the highest divine order at the origin of manifestation, one beyond even creation.
It must be noted that the Lethea, ‘forgetting and oblivion’, was mentioned much later on as one of the rivers of the kingdom of Hades in an eschatological texts in which it probably represents human consciousness oblivious of its origin. By crossing the Lethea, the seeker accessing the inconscient would find his ‘memory’ again. In Hesiod’s texts, Lethea is only a daughter of Eris, ‘discord’ (a meaning obtained by the inversed significance of the character Rho, and therefore a symbol of the movement of separation), who was herself a daughter of Night. It is the separation from the origin which causes oblivion.
Through the structuring characters Λ+Θ, this river represents the current of energy consciousness which ‘disconnect from inner consciousness’.
Stationed at the entrance of the kingdom of Hades, Cerberus is one of the four monstrous children of Echidna, ‘the cessation of evolution within unity’, and Typhon, ‘ignorance’. He watches over the illusion of separation, and his brother is Orthros, ‘falsehood’. Hesiod is the first to mention his name and his origin, while Homer only mentions that he is a dog.
The moment of the appearance of the four monsters in the process of evolution is a topic of controversy in mythology. According to Hesiod, ignorance, Typhon, originates from the original Nescience, Tartarus, and therefore precedes creation. But according to Homer it is a consequence of the beginning of the formation of human consciousness, for Typhon was according to this author a son of Hera, the wife of Zeus.
Meanwhile Apollodorus described Echidna as a daughter of Tartarus, placing the fundamental perversion, the cessation of evolution in unity, at the origins of manifestation. On the other hand, Hesiod describes her as a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, the third level of life, and so according to his account she would have only appeared at the time of the emergence of the animal self with the formation of the limbic brain.
Whichever the case, the action of Cerberus is situated, or rather used to be situated, in the archaic layers at the limits of the possibilities of investigation by human consciousness. And in fact he impedes an exchange between the material conscious and the inconscient, and is the guardian of the true knowledge of the phenomenon which we know as death.
Cerberus is endowed with fifty heads (or only three according to some authors), indicating a process that is well established in its forms, and with a serpent’s tail, symbolising his participation in the evolutionary process.
He represents a barrier which the initiates of ancient times considered to be insurmountable, but which is beginning to crumble in the current period. Having brought Cerberus before his uncle, Heracles had to lead him back to Hades; if we consider that a feat carried out in a mythical setting could be carried out in reality as well, the most advanced seeker could bring to his consciousness (into the light of day) the true nature of the obstacle impeding the achievement of a perfect union, including one in the body, but he could not yet enter into combat with it.
As a dog, Cerberus also represents the sense of smell, the subtle intuition which can undoubtedly be associated with the consciousness of the cells necessary to begin a work of yoga in the body.
If the underworld is in fact only a reservoir of the memories of evolution, it cannot include a place for the damned. According to later tradition three judges – Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthys – took their place in the underworld to steer the shades in one direction or the other depending on their merits. But according to Homer, ‘Rhadamanthys dwelled in a place where life was sweet and easy for men, and Minos meted out justice to the shades who asked him for it’, thus only continuing to pursue the task initiated in the conscious realm, which is to say a work of intuitive discernment aiming at an integration of experiences.
Moving away from the vision of an evolution reserved to the initiates of the mystery schools, the priests of official religious cults in the classical period probably considered it necessary to introduce an eschatology meant for the common people, the concept of the presence of justice in death ensuring more or less exemplary behaviour during life. The fear of punishment was to serve as a guard to humanity still in the stages of infancy and susceptible to unleashed impulses and behaviours.
Exemplary punishments in Hades
In Homer’s accounts only three characters are subjected to punishments in the kingdom of Hades: the giant Tityus, Tantalus and Sisyphus.
According to what has been proposed in the above text, they probably express fundamental attitudes or modes of functioning which have completed their work, or have been rejected from the mind and the vital but must still work or else disappear in the plane of the corporeal inconscient.
Tityus was a giant and a son of Gaia. He lay on the floor of the underworld and his body was covering nine acres. Two vultures on his flanks were ripping out his liver, which he did not keep away by the use of his hands. He was slain by Apollo and Artemis soon after their birth, for he had tried to violate their mother Leto, the glorious consort of Zeus, while she was on the road to Pytho (Delphi) through Panope, the city of the beautiful choirs.
Like all the giants borne by Gaia, the principle of Existence-Consciousness, Tityus represents an evolutionary need which must be vanquished at several levels.
He symbolises the fundamental distancing of man from his divine source, the feeling or the awareness of being separate or of the consciousness of ego. This ‘awareness of separation’ must be vanquished, not only in the mind through the union in Spirit, but also in the vital and in the heart through a psychic realisation, and in the body all the way down to the cellular level.
Before having been slain by Apollo he had attempted to rape Leto, thus fighting the power of union brought by the psychic. He is therefore first eliminated in the mental-vital personality when the psychic being appears, for the psychic being is incompatible with separation (although not with differentiation). Then, through an ‘enlarged consciousness which sees all’ (Pan-opeus Παν+οψ), a progressive harmony is established in the being, represented by the beautiful choirs.
But he maintains his hold at the level of the body, largely ‘covering’ it and thus blocking the access to a transformation of it.
The etymology of his name remains unclear. It has the same structure as the word Titans, which means ‘reaching forward with effort’ as well as ‘extended, reclining’, but in this discussion we have retained the meaning of the character Τ, in this case doubled (or associated to the root Τυ, ‘to be fat’), which is in other words the expression of a strong separation. Even if the union has been realised on the planes of the mind and the vital and the seeker has become a ‘liberated’ being, he must still vanquish this belief in the separation of the body.
If he do not impede the vultures from ripping out his liver, it is because this power of separation accepts at the level of the body that which founds it, the belief of its permanence or indestructibility, is destroyed little by little. In other words, the resolution of a ‘separation’ in the body, even if it seems long and laborious, is wholly accepted.
Another interpretation of Tityus could be the ‘tension’ which opposes a letting go and relaxation, and maintains itself till the level of the cells, which are certain that this tension is necessary. This tension is equally incompatible with the psychic being.
The second of these ‘damned’ characters is Tantalus, the great-grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
Homer gives no explanation of his genealogy, nor any reason for his condemnation.
He represents ‘aspiration’, and Homer describes his most well-known descendant, Agamemnon, as ‘the most greedy of Greek men’.
According to the historian Pausanias, Tantalus was a son of Zeus and Plouto, ‘wealth and abundance’, and according to others a king of Lydia, ‘the place of individuation and union’. He was said to rule at the foothills of Mount Sipylus, ‘the doorway of the human mind’, representing by this a seeker who has reached the highest summits of the mental plane. This is why he was known for his wealth, which was obtained by a vast and powerful mind.
‘Some claim that presumption was the cause of his punishment. While he was in the gods’ favour he was invited to their table, and they promised to satisfy his greatest desire. He then asked to enjoy the same life as they did. Annoyed, Zeus granted his request, but only in a formal manner, making him witness the most excellent of things but not being able to partake of them while in the kingdom of Hades.
Others say that he had stolen the nectar of ambrosia to share it amongst mortal friends.
Still others claim that he has presented the gods with a feast made up of pieces of the body of his son Pelops. But discovering the nature of this feast, the gods abstained from tasting in, except for Demeter, who was distracted by her grief over the disappearance of her daughter Persephone. The gods then brought Pelops back to life, and Demeter (or Hermes according to some versions), made him an ivory shoulder to replace the one eaten by Demeter. Even more handsome than he had been (for he had been handsome at the beginning of the story as well, being true), Pelops wed Hippodamia.‘
Whatever the reason, the punishment endured by Tantalus in the kingdom of Hades was thus described by Homer:
‘Tantalus in violent torment, standing in a pool, and the water came nigh unto his chin. He seemed as one athirst, but could not take and drink; for as often as that old man stooped down, eager to drink, so often would the water be swallowed up and vanish away, and at his feet the black earth would appear, for some god made all dry. And trees, high and leafy, let stream their fruits above his head, pears, and pomegranates, and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. But as often as that old man would reach out toward these, to clutch them with his hands, the wind would toss them to the shadowy clouds. ‘(Odyssey 10.582-592)
Different versions confirm that the seeker has reached the highest summits of human consciousness and is at the ‘higher door’, for he shares the meals of the gods.
In the version in which he is permitted to taste the nectar and the ambrosia, he partakes of the experience of immortality (non-duality), having attained an ‘awakening’ or ‘liberation’ in the spirit. But this consciousness of immortality has not penetrated into the body.
The story of the sacrifice of his son Pelops, ‘the vision of darkness’ offered as a feast to the gods, is a legend contested by both Pindar and Euripides. There is nothing surprising here, for the gods only nourish themselves with nectar and ambrosia. However, the unknown author of this version probably sought to express that the seeker had reached a level at which he could ‘offer darkness to the Divine’. He may have believed to have reached the level of the gods and have dispensed with vanquishing this shadow, which is to say exercising a complete surrender of the vital. It is only after having been made whole again by the gods that Pelops will be able to wed Hippodamia, ‘she who tames horses’, at which point the seeker can carry out this work of complete mastery. Let us remember that the work of yoga follows a process of ascension and integration, and that the more consciousness is widened and illuminated, the better it can perceive the extent of darkness. But to perceive is not to master.
The offering of darkness does not suffice to overcome the barrier of the overmind, and the gods refused to partake of the meal being offered to them. This perfect offering of oneself through the sacrifice of one’s own descendant, an extension of oneself, allows a partial access to the world of the gods however. For Demeter, ‘the power striving for union’, offers a shoulder of ivory, of a finer nature than bone and a symbol of a partial crossing (a single shoulder) of the barrier separating the plane of the gods. The shoulder or clavicle, ‘the little key’, corresponds to the ‘veil’ of the Tree of Life known as ‘the doorway of the gods’ in Kabbalistic tradition. According to some it was Hermes, the god working for the growth of the overmind, who offered the clavicle.
This power working towards union therefore continues giving its help without worrying about the demands of the seeker, going so far as to favour a certain level of union even if the purification of the vital being is not necessarily complete. Even for very advanced seekers, the ‘demands’ or claims made to the Absolute, including demands for certain experiences, still indicate the presence of the ego.
The punishment inflicted on Tantalus in Hades again demonstrates that aspiration alone is not sufficient for accessing realisations when one is undertaking a yoga of the body. Even if the adventurer of consciousness ‘sees’ the good things within his reach, they remain inaccessible to him. He finds consolation neither in the realm of spirit (the shadowy clouds) nor within existence (the black earth).
The last hero whose punishment was witnessed by Ulysses in the kingdom of Hades was Sisyphus.
He was one of the sons of Aeolus, and therefore a grandson of Hellen. He represents one of the tasks of yoga working on the mind through effort.
He united with the Pleiad Merope, ‘that which is human (in the sense dual or mortal)’, ‘a partial vision’ or ‘stable thought’, which represents the plane of the intellect.
We will study this character in greater detail further on for he is the grandfather of another of the great heroes, Bellerophon, who vanquished the Chimera, a symbol of illusion.
Homer describes his fate thus: ‘Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. ‘(Odyssey 10.593-596)
Neither Homer nor any other author specified the nature of his crime.
Since Sisyphus, ‘intellectual ability’, was one of the sons of Aeolus, we have every reason to believe that he had accomplished his task before his descent into Hades, or in other words ‘effort’ had been fruitful during the very long period preceding the yoga of the body at the cellular level.
However, by following Sri Aurobindo’s teachings we can also see in this the effort of the intellect, struggling to build up theories which collapse under their own weight as they strive to reach a truth which they can never attain. The intellect is the tool which contributes to discernment through the capacities for selection, for putting in order and distancing. It is not destined to dominate the mind however, but must only execute what is perceived by intuition. It cannot access the kingdom of Truth. Whatever it does, and irrespective of any improvements which it can imagine, it must ceaselessly begin over again. It is a tool which by its nature cannot possess a complete vision. If it is to be a tool of the soul, it is only in its capacity of execution.
But when the intellect has completed its work and all illusions in the mind and the vital have been vanquished and the seeker descends into the deep inconscient, he realises that the results are never fully acquired, and that he must indefinitely begin all over again this exhausting work. He must therefore have an endurance which is capable of undergoing any test. Sri Aurobindo presented this as one of the foundations of yoga: ‘Endure and you shall conquer’
Later authors added other characters who endured torments in the kingdom of darkness, including Ixion, who through his pride believed himself to be the equal of Hera, and also the Danaids, who we will be discussing later on. But in these two cases it is no longer a matter of the same process of consciousness, and we will therefore stay with the primitive versions;
Rather than being in the underworld, Ixion is subjected to turning eternally in the skies, tied to a winged wheel; we are told that spiritual pretensions are often ‘punished’ by a spirit which shuts itself in for an indeterminate period in mental processes that turn upon themselves.
The Danaids on their side were said to have been purified of the act of murder by Athena and Hermes, and were each married to a young athlete.
To end this description of the kingdom of Hades let us note that it is Hermes, the representative of the highest mental plane and a master of yoga of knowledge, who is best equipped to descend deeply into the subconscious and till the threshold of the inconscient. Hence his role as psychopomp, as a guide who leads towards the kingdoms of the corporeal inconscient.