With considerable justice, it can be said that the Greeks named the experience of synchronicity ‘Hermes.’ Murray Stein, In Midlife
by Leslie Allan Combs
With considerable justice, it can be said that the Greeks named the experience of synchronicity ‘Hermes.’ Murray Stein, In Midlife
Themes carried by archetypes are universal. Moreover, they are neither wholly internal nor wholly objective, but are woven into the deepest fabric of the world. This notion is supported by Jung’s idea that archetypes have their origins in the unus mundus, or ‘one world,’ which is at the foundation of the psyche as well as the objective physical world. David Bohm’s concept a holographic universe offers similar possibilities. It follows that myths as expressions of archetypes might be expected to portray certain aspects of the objective world as well as depicting psychological realities. Indeed, many of the Greek gods represent aspects of reality that overarch both the inner worlds of human experience and the external worlds of nature and society.
Zeus, for example, literally means ‘light’ or ‘shower of light.’ In the world of nature, Zeus is associated with the bright sky and was seen as the source of atmospheric phenomena. Perhaps the most dramatic of such phenomena are lightning and thunder, which are unusually common in certain of the mountainous areas of Greece and with which Zeus was particularly affiliated. As the central figure in the religion of Homeric Greece, however, he symbolized the inner experience of light and illumination. His illumination kindles the spirit of lucidity that permeates the other Gods, and indeed the entire ancient Greek culture. It is mirrored in the art, poetry, and philosophy which characterized the Greek world. Indeed, the other Greek gods can be seen as outward projections of the numerous aspects of his nature.
Understanding Zeus we come to understand something of the Greek experience itself. We also see that as myth, Zeus represents valid aspects of both inner human consciousness and outer atmospheric phenomena. Both are as real today as they were to the Homeric Greeks. Thus, the myth is a signpost pointing to actual features of the real world of mental and physical events.
Of special interest is an aspect of nature that is seen both in the realms of myth and of objective reality, in the inner world of the psyche and the outer world of external events. This is synchronicity, the uncanny intrusion of the unexpected into the otherwise uneventful flow of commonplace happenstance, an intrusion that hints at an undisclosed realm of meaning, a disparate landscape of reality that momentarily intersects with our own. No realm of human experience is free from intrusions of the unexpected. Synchronistic coincidences, such as the entry of the beetle into Jung’s study at just the right moment, stand out from the background of everyday events because of the sense of purpose or meaning that accompanies them. At the same time, they violate our confidence in a world of events chronologically ordered and based on cause and effect. They seem to create a conspicuous discontinuity in ordinary reality, an opening to the miraculous. In the mythologies of many peoples, the embodiment of the unexpected is the trickster. It is he who steps godlike through cracks and flaws in the ordered world of ordinary reality, bringing good luck and bad, profit and loss.
The trickster god is universal. Known to the Native American peoples as Ictinike, Coyote, Rabbit and others, he is Mauito the Polynesian Islanders, Loki to the old Germanic tribes of Europe, and Krishna in the sacred mythology of India. Best known to most of us in the West is the god who represents the most comprehensive and sophisticated manifestation of the trickster, the Greek god Hermes. Homer calls him the ‘Bringer of Luck.’ He is also known, in one of the many paradoxes that characterize Hermes and other trickster gods, as the patron of both travelers and thieves. He is the Guide of Souls to the underworld and messenger to the gods. As all of these roles suggest, he is the quintessential master of boundaries and transitions.
The Boundary Dweller
As the master of the unexpected, Hermes performs his magic by virtue of his command of boundaries and his ability effortlessly to cross them. Where a situation is defined by boundaries or boundary crossing, there Hermes’ presence is natural. He is the god of thresholds and transitions. In the Iliad he appears to old king Priam as the latter approaches the boundary of the Greek encampment in an effort to reclaim the body of his dead son Hector. Hermes comes to him as a young man, a guide, who leads him safely into the enemy camp, then out again. In the Odyssey, Hermes appears before Odysseus when, on Circe’s island, he approaches the witch’s dwelling in search of lost crew members that she had turned into swine. The god in the form of a youth shows the hero a magic plant to protect him from the sorceress’ charms.
In both instances the trickster bestows good fortune. Hermes is indeed ‘the friendliest of the gods to man.’ These two episodes, however, reveal a more basic aspect of the god: his appearance in boundary or threshold situations. Indeed, Hermes is the god not only of thresholds, not only physical thresholds but, more importantly, thresholds between states of human experience: between day and night, sleep and wakefulness, between consciousness and that of which we are unconscious, between life and death.
Karl Kerenyi, the classical scholar who has done most to enrich our understanding of Hermes, explains in Hermes: Guide of Souls his effect at psychological boundaries in terms of Hermetic journeying. Whereas ordinary traveling simply involves physical movement from one place to another, the hermetic voyager enters a boundary zone, a liminal space between ordinary states of experience. ‘In reality, he [the traveler] makes himself vanish (‘volatizes’ himself) to everyone, also to himself.’ This is the deeper meaning of the presence of a herm, the stone block representations of Hermes, at entrances to homes and along ancient highways. His presence at entryways and gates in particular suggests the condition of liminality, as do various inscriptions written on doorways and dedicated to him.
Because he is at the ‘pivot point’ between the transformations from life to death and back again, Hermes is at just that psychological nexus where transformation occurs, where for example, we are changed by new experiences and undergo transformations into different and new persons. Wherever human experience breaks through frontiers to the unexpected or undergoes transitions, there we may find the Hermes archetype.
Synchronistic coincidences are, from the Jungian perspective, boundary events. They manifest as transitions across the margins between psychological reality on the one hand and physical reality on the other. The beetle of Jung’s patient, as well as various representations of fish experienced by Jung himself while working on the meaning of the fish symbol, can be seen as translations into the material world of psychological actualities. Such coincidences, like dreams, also carry symbolic messages across the boundary of the unconscious into consciousness. As with dreams, their meaning may not be apparent, though they may still transmit a strong emotional message. Upon seeing the actual beetle fly into the consultation room, for example, Jung’s patient was so emotionally jarred that she was able to begin to free herself of a neurotically rigid worldview.
We seem most accessible to the synchronistic gifts of the trickster when we ourselves are at or near boundaries or are experiencing transition states. For example, meditation, which seems to catalyze meaningful coincidences and carries consciousness beyond its ordinary boundaries. One effect of meditation, for instance, is to soften the barriers between the conscious and unconscious. Ken Wilber suggests that, in addition, meditation gradually elevates consciousness to a point at which ‘various high archetypal illuminations and intuitions occur.’ If this is the case, it is perhaps not surprising that meditation would tend to facilitate the activity of archetypes that lie at the root of synchronicities.
In the authors’ experience, traveling, especially by public transportation such as plane, bus, or train, is also a catalyst for synchronicity; not only of chance encounters with other persons, which are often remarkably meaningful, but ‘accidental’discoveries of books, magazine articles, and so on. Traveling is a transition in physical space, one that is also accompanied by a transition in one`s state of mind. We leave one environment, perhaps home, to travel to another—perhaps a business meeting or a vacation—that carries a distinctly different mood. While we are physically crossing geographic boundaries, we subjectively are making a transition from one mental atmosphere to another. The whole experience of being on a trip carries a psychological sense of transition, expectation, and openness to new experience.
Similarly, periods of major life transition seem to be occasioned by an abundance of meaningful coincidences. Personal growth, for example, seems not only to facilitate synchronicity, but in turn to be facilitated by it. In the book, In Midlife, Murray Stein, notes that the period of the midlife transition, or midlife crisis, is visited by more than its share of synchronicity, and further that the patron of this transition is Hermes himself. The story of Hermes’ appearance as guide to king Priam who seeks the body of his son Hector is symbolic of the midlife search for the corpse of lost heroic youth. It is necessary to bury this corpse—to put it to rest, as it were, in order to get on with the business of the latter half of life. This latter period, in Jung’s thinking, is a time for fulfilling one’s unique calling in life. Other major life transitions such as career changes may be similarly visited by frequent and dramatic synchronistic episodes.
The most dramatic transition of all is death. Here we find Hermes in the role of psychopompos, literally the ‘spirit who shows the way,’ or Guide of Souls to the underworld. It has been noted by many observers that no other event in human experience is associated with so rich of an array of psychic phenomena as is death, and synchronicity would seem to be included. There are few who could not tell some story from their own family history that relates a meaningful coincidence to someone’s death. Many such stories have to do with omens, synchronistic coincidences that seem to foretell of the death before it happens. The second example that Jung recounts in his original 1952 essay on synchronicity, in fact, concerns such an omen. It is about a woman who had witnessed large numbers of birds gathering outside her house at the deaths of both her mother and grandmother. Her own husband’s death involved a similar incident, and came in a most unexpected way. It seems that he was one of Jung’s own clients, and was completing his treatment when Jung noticed some apparently innocuous symptoms which seemed to him, with his medical training, to represent a possible heart disease. Jung referred the man to a specialist who found nothing wrong with him. In the meantime, his wife at home was becoming increasingly alarmed by a flock of birds that had gathered on the house. On his way home the man collapsed, his medical report in his pocket, to be taken home to die.
Reflecting on the symbolic significance of the birds, Jung observes that in ancient Babylon the souls in the underworld wore a ‘feather dress,’ and that in Egypt the ba, or soul, was thought of as a bird. Homer and other classical sources report the souls of the dead ‘twitter’ and to flutter about. Such examples suggest that, in certain contexts, birds symbolize death or the departure of the soul.
Hermes and the Imagination
A colourful version of the trickster appears in the stories of the Native Americans, where he is well known as the unpredictable Coyote. Here he plays a central role in the mythic order of the world. In some stories he actually is said to have created it. But the trickster is nothing if not paradoxical, and so he is also a joker, as selfish and unreliable as they come; and his faults are often ridiculously evident. One Indian remarked:
Coyote taught the people how to eat, how to wear clothes, make houses, hunt, fish, etc. Coyote did a great deal of good, but he did not finish everything properly. Sometimes he made mistakes, and although he was wise and powerful, he did many foolish things. He was too fond of playing tricks for his own amusement. He was also selfish, boastful, and vain. (Teit et al., 1917)
Coyote is at once a clown and a creator, gift giver and thief. Above all, he mocks and disrupts convention, order, and pre-conception.
Hermes, Coyote and the other trickster gods are filled with irreverent vitality and creativity. In this they seem to embody the life-giving power of the human imagination. Otto observes that Hermes ‘mysteriously bobs up everywhere… It is his nature not to belong to any locality and not to possess any permanent abode’ (Otto, 1954). Like other tricksters, the imagination knows no boundaries and may appear anywhere. As patron of travelers and Guide of Souls, Hermes, who personifies the imagination, leads us to the heights or depths of experience, to the light of Olympus or to the shadows of Hades. He also guides us across the boundaries of ordinary reality to experience other states of consciousness.
For instance, it is Hermes who symbolically conducts our nightly transition to the dream world. In doing so he reenacts his timeless role as Guide of Souls to Hades. In the underworld of dreams, events are seen from a perspective that is reversed from that of the daytime world, as if we were looking at our lives from behind the stage. Jungian analyst James Hillman, in The Dream and the Underworld, notes that the Egyptian underworld was literally upside down to the ordinary world, with its inhabitants walking on their heads. From this altered perspective we can obtain insights into the nature of our personal lives and the problems that we have in day-to-day living. Carl Jung expressed this reversed aspect of the dream world in terms of compensation; dreams, he noted, compensate for inadequacies in the way we see the world when we are awake. They show us what is missing.
Suppose, for instance, that during the day I argue with my wife, trying to ‘get her goat.’ At night, I dream that she and I are a two-person team in a foot race, and I push her off the track; it dawns powerfully upon me in the dream that I have just defeated my own team. Perhaps the next day I will feel more cooperative with her, even if I don’t retain any more than the final feeling residue of the dream. That feeling, of defeating my own team by spiting my wife, is the inverse of what I felt the day before during the argument. It is what was missing, and it is what was needed to mend my relationship with her. Of course, the more I consciously work with the dream in order to understand its meaning, the more likely I will be able to correct what is inadequate in my attitude toward my wife.
Hermes was considered by the Greeks to be both an Olympian, filled with life and far removed from the world of the dead, and Hermes Chthonios, the epithet under which he was worshipped during the ancient Greek Anthesteria or all-souls festival. The title Chthonios, meaning ‘from under the earth’ indicates that Hermes belongs also to the underworld. Like the imagination, he can manifest in Hades as well as on Olympus, or at any point between. Flying on winged sandals, he can take us to the height of inspiration or the depth of depression.
In his discussion of Hermes’ chthonic origins, Kerenyi goes so far as to say that we come from the same place he does: ‘the same dark depth of being.’ What better way of saying that as an archetype, the trickster, the boundary dweller, finds expression through human imagination and experience?
Hermes, Coyote, or tricksters by any name bring the divine world, both within and without, into human life by passing through the hidden boundaries which we create and yet of which we remain unaware. Through the trickster’s play we enter myth, the imaginative awareness of life that answers questions about who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. This entrance we make symbolically, through acausal connections, the synchronicity that is the gift of the trickster.
Portions of this essay are abstracted with permission from:
Combs, A., & Holland, M. (1990) Synchronicity: Science, Myth and the Trickster. New York: Paragon House.
Leslie Allan Combs is Professor of Consciousness Studies at the California Institute for Integral Studies. He is author or coauthor of over 200 publications on consciousness, including Synchronicity: Science, Myth, and the Trickster; The Radiance of Being, best-book award-winner of the Scientific and Medical Network; Consciousness Explained Better: An Integral Understanding of Consciousness; and Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth.
Brown, N.O. (1969) Hermes the Thief. New York: Vintage Books.
Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row.
Jung, C.G. (1973) Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. CW, Vol. VIII, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Kerenyi, K. (1976) Hermes Guide of Souls: The Mythologem of the Masculine Source of Life. Dallas: Spring.
Otto, W.F. (1954) The Homeric Gods. Trans., M. Hadas. New York: Pantheon.
Stein. M. (1983. In Midlife: A Jungian Perspective. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, Inc.
Teit, A., Farrand, L., Gould, M.K., & Spinden, H.J. (1917) Folktales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes. F. Boas, Ed.; Lancaster, PA: G.E. Stechert.
Wilber, K. (1983) Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm. New York: Doubleday.