The Belly of the Whale


This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. 

   A Christian lamp of about the third century is decorated with the Jonah legend, which is symbolic of the coming of the human out of the fish condition.  So you can take a legend and read into it a mystic reading which may or may not have been there in the first place.  The Jonah story is that he was a missionary who was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but he fled on a ship and was a course of trouble to everyone.  Evidently off center and a negative presence, he was thrown overboard and consumed by a fish, but later he came out of the fish.  This motif is known as the “night sea journey.”  It’s an old, old story.  Hiawatha was consumed by a fish, the raven hero of the Northwest Coast Indians was consumed by a fish, and so forth.  This is the going down into the abyss and coming out again – the same mythologies that we’re dealing with here.


“That is why the approaches of and the entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarves, winged bulls.  These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silence within.”

1000 faces, pg 77 The mere fact that anyone can physically walk past the temple guardians does not invalidate their significance; for if the intruder is incapable of encompassing the sanctuary, he has effectually remained without.  Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach.  TMTT 200


… Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in the picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.


       “No creature,” writes Ananda Coomaraswamy, “can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.”        1000 faces, pg 77

“The hero whose attachment to ego is already annihilate passes back and forth across the horizons of the world, …1000 faces, pg 78

Cont’d in and out of the dragon, as readily as a king through all the rooms of his house.  

… And therein lies his power to save; for his passing and returning demonstrate that through all the contraries of phenomenality the Uncreate-Imperishable remains, and ther is nothing to fear.  1000 faces, pg 78

Its resemblance to the adventure of the Symplegades is obvious.  But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.  The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into the temple – where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. 

Just as, in the primitive myths, it is so stiflingly hot in the belly of the whale that the hero loses his hair, so the philosophers suffer very much from the intense heat during their confinement.  TPofT 83

The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.