Parallels between the “Odyssey paradox” and the “Bible paradox”

In his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1976), Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes makes an argument that in the second millennium B.C., mankind began a gradual transition from a “bicameral” or unconscious mode of thought to a subjectively conscious mode of thought, with this process accelerating in the first millennium B.C.  Prior to this “breakdown of the bicameral mind,” according to Jaynes’ argument, all human beings were more or less severely schizophrenic, unreflectingly obeying the directives issued by the “voices” that they “heard” in their own minds, which were perceived by ancient peoples to be the voices of the “gods,” but which Jaynes believes originated in the right hemisphere of the brain.  What Jaynes calls subjective “consciousness” emerged over a number of centuries as those “voices” increasingly went silent (for most people anyway), as the left hemisphere of the brain became increasingly independent of the right hemisphere, and was no longer so dominated by it.

I don’t agree with Jaynes’ overall thesis in its entirety, or with all of the more specific arguments that he makes in the course of developing that thesis.  However, I do think the themes and ideas with which he deals in the book are extremely important ones, especially including the basic proposition that people in ancient times were generally more “schizophrenic” than people in modern times—which would help to explain why, as I claim in my own writings, the sacred religious scriptures that have come down to us from ancient times appear to be essentially schizophrenic in nature.  The relationship between schizophrenia or psychosis and ancient or traditional religion—which can also be described as “esoteric religion”—is an exceedingly important one, and deserves a great deal more attention than it currently receives.  Because of the continuing importance of these ancient scriptures in modern culture due to the survival of “traditional religion” or “esoteric religion,” the predominantly “schizophrenic-like” thinking of ancient peoples is still exerting its impact on humanity even in our own time.

As I was re-reading parts of the book, one passage in particular jumped out at me, since I found it so eerily reminiscent of my own admittedly perplexing theory that there is an anti-esotericist and therefore self-neutralizing message unconsciously embedded in the esoteric writings of the Bible—a state of affairs that I sometimes refer to as the “Bible paradox.”  Jaynes writes,

Let me close this necessarily short entry on a toweringly important poem [viz., Homer’s Odyssey] by calling your attention to a mystery.  This is that the overall contour of the story itself is a myth of the very matter with which we are concerned.  It is a story of identity, of a voyage to the self that is being created in the breakdown of the bicameral mind.  I am not pretending here to be answering the profound question of why this should be so, of why the muses, those patternings of the right temporal lobe, who are singing this epic through the aoidoi [i.e., the ancient Greek bards], should be narratizing their own downfall, their own fading away into subjective thought, and celebrating the rise of a new mentality that will overwhelm the very act of their song.  For this seems to be what is happening.

I am saying—and finding it work to believe myself—that all this highly patterned legend, which so clearly can be taken as a metaphor of the huge transilience toward consciousness, was not composed, planned, and put together by poets conscious of what they were doing.  It is as if the god-side of the bicameral man was approaching consciousness before the man-side, the right hemisphere before the left.  And if belief does stick here, and we are inclined to ask scoffingly and rhetorically, how could an epic that may itself be a kind of drive toward consciousness be composed by nonconscious men?  We can also ask with the same rhetorical fervor, how could it have been composed by conscious men?  And have the same silence follow.  We do not know the answer to either question.[1]

But so it is.  And as this series of stories sweeps from its lost hero sobbing on an alien shore in bicameral thrall to his beautiful goddess Calypso, winding through its world of demigods, testings,[2] and deceits, to his defiant war whoops in a rival-routed home,[3] from trance through disguise to recognition,[4] from sea to land,[5] east to west,[6] defeat to prerogative,[7] the whole long song is an odyssey toward subjective identity and its triumphant acknowledgment out of the hallucinatory[8] enslavements[9] of the past.  From a will-less gigolo of a divinity to the gore-spattered[10] lion[11] on his own hearth,[12] Odysseus becomes ‘Odysseus’.

(Ibid., pp. 276-77; the emphases and notes are mine.)

I believe that the Bible should be regarded in much the same way that Jaynes regards the Odyssey:  as “an odyssey toward subjective identity,” and away from the mentality associated with what Jaynes calls the “bicameral mind.”  The Bible is the story—ironically, a story told in the largely unconscious language of myth and cryptic symbol—of the movement away from an unconscious, cryptically symbolic, deceptive, mythical mode of thought, and toward a more conscious, clear, honest, conceptual mode of thought.  Just like the Odyssey, the Bible should, to use Jaynes’ words, be thought of as “a kind of drive toward consciousness.”  It is using esoteric and mythical language to express the authors’ unconscious yearning to finally get free of that entire esotericist way of communicating and thinking—so that they could gain the ability to become more conscious.

Jaynes writes that in the Odyssey, the “muses” seemed to be “narratizing their own downfall, their own fading away into subjective thought, and celebrating the rise of a new mentality that will overwhelm the very act of their song.”  And I am arguing that the “angels” that inspired the writing of the Bible were doing precisely the same thing (whether one chooses to regard these “angels” as relatively literal or purely metaphorical).  That is what makes it imperative that Christians and Jews be willing to relinquish their own “song”—the Bible—by no longer regarding it as an authoritative religious writing (as opposed to literature, in the same way that modern-day Greeks regard the Odyssey as literature lacking religious authority); because I believe the ultimate purpose of the Bible has been to urge Christians and Jews to do exactly that.

In John 16:25 Jesus says,

I have spoken these things to you in figurative sayings [or allegories, or proverbs, or parables, or dark sayings: paroimia].  An hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative sayings [paroimia], but I will plainly [or openly, or forthrightly, or straightforwardly, or bluntly, or frankly, or publicly: parrésia] tell about the Father.

But that “hour” has not yet come.  And this we know because religious esotericism, and esoteric religions, are still ubiquitous in the world.  Esoteric and cryptic “prophecy”—symbolized by the archetypal “Prophet,” Jesus—has not yet been truly “crucified,” as it must sooner or later be if the entire world is to be regenerated or “resurrected.”



[1] The “mystery” of which Jaynes speaks might be made slightly less mysterious (but only slightly) if one is willing to entertain the possibility that invisible, intelligent “spirit entities”—now often called “angels,” and in the past sometimes referred to as “gods”—were actually responsible for the “voices” that people claimed to be “hearing.”  In other words, I propose that the Homeric “gods” were actually real, and not merely generated by the brains of the persons claiming to be “hearing” the “voices” of those “gods” (which is Jaynes’ position).  If my proposal is correct, then humankind’s movement in the direction of greater consciousness would not have been solely the product of natural evolution and historical contingency; it would have been the result, at least in part, of certain “nudges” given by these “angels” or “gods.”  That is to say, a full understanding of the history of the development of human consciousness would partly involve knowing the story of the “directing” or “steering” of human thought performed by these “angels” over the course of many millennia (both for better and for worse).  This theory would help to provide an answer to the questions that Jaynes raises, but finds unanswerable.  For example, Jaynes asks, “How could an epic that may itself be a kind of drive toward consciousness be composed by nonconscious men?”  I suggest that a possible answer is that they couldn’tnot by themselves, that is.

Jaynes also writes, “It is as if the god-side of the bicameral man was approaching consciousness before the man-side, the right hemisphere before the left.”  This may be an accurate assessment of what was actually taking place—so long as the very real “gods” or “angels” are understood to have been communicating with human beings through the right hemisphere of the human brain, and were not mere “epiphenomena” of the right hemisphere of the brain; and also if one thinks of bicameral man less as “approaching consciousness” entirely on his own, and more as being “gradually pulled toward consciousness” with the aid of outside agents.

[2] Cf. Matthew 4:1-11.

[3] Cf. Revelation 18:1-10; Revelation 18:15-20; Revelation 19:1-5.

Note, incidentally, that when we cross-reference Revelation 11:8 with Galatians 4:25, it becomes clear that Paul is implicitly identifying symbolic “Babylon” with the “present Jerusalem,” where Christ was killed—to be distinguished from the symbolic “new Jerusalem”—that is, the “Jerusalem” that would come into being once all of Christ’s “enemies” had finally been “routed,” so that Christ (i.e., the “new Adam”) could reclaim his own “home” (i.e., “Jerusalem,” which is implicitly being depicted in Revelation 22:1-2 as equivalent to the “Garden of Eden”), and be reunited with his “bride” (i.e., the “new Eve”), and sit upon his own rightful “throne.”

[4] Cf. Luke 24:13-35; John 20:11-18.

[5] Cf. Revelation 21:1.

[6] Cf. Matthew 24:27.

[7] Cf. Matthew 5:5; Acts 2:23-24; Hebrews 1:1-4; Revelation 3:21; Revelation 6:2; Revelation 17:14; Revelation 21:7.

[8] Cf. Revelation 18:21-23, focusing especially on the Greek word pharmakeia, which is often translated in English Bible translations as “sorcery” or “witchcraft” or “casting of magic spells,” but which more literally means “the use or administering of drugs”—which suggests to me that what the author had in mind may have been the administering of hallucinogenic drugs.  And such a notion would be strongly reminiscent of the phenomenon of religious esotericism.  Both hallucinogenic drugs and religious esotericism (as well as psychosis) can cause a person to lose his or her grip on consensus reality, and both of them tend to give rise to a “dream-like” state of mind saturated with mysteriously portentous symbols; so it would not surprise me if the author of Revelation 18:21-23 intended (perhaps somewhat unconsciously) to compare religious esotericism to a kind of “hallucinogenic drug” dispensed to “all the nations” by symbolic “Babylon.”

[9] Cf. Luke 4:18; Galatians 4:26; Galatians 4:30-31; Revelation 18:11-13.

[10] Cf. Isaiah 63:1-6; Revelation 19:13.

[11] Cf. Revelation 5:5.

[12] Cf. Revelation 21:3.