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The Archetype of the Divine Healer

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 102: The Archetype of the Divine Healer

Friends, In the course of the last seven weeks we've been dealing not with conceptual material, as one usually does in the course of a series of lectures. We've been dealing with non-conceptual material. We've been dealing with parables, with myths, and with symbols. We've been dealing specifically with the parables, the myths, and the symbols of Mahayana Buddhism, that is to say with Buddhism in its universal perspective. Parables, myths, and symbols of Mahayana Buddhism in the White Lotus Sutra. And in the course of the seven lectures that we've had so far I have offered a certain amount of comment, certain amount of explanation, with regard to these parables, myths, and symbols, but on the whole we've not been trying to understand them intellectually. We've been trying rather to experience them, to feel them, been trying to allow these parables, myths, and symbols to speak to us; to speak not just to our conscious minds, but to speak to our hidden, even secret, depths.

Now tonight we come to something which though similar to what has gone before is at the same time a little different. We've been dealing with parables, myths, symbols. Well, tonight we come to an archetype. Tonight we come to the Archetype of the Divine Healer. Now although in the course of the last seven weeks we've been dealing with these parables, myths, and symbols, we've nowhere defined these terms, not even in passing. 'Parable' is a relatively well-known term, but 'Myth' and 'Symbol' are comparatively obscure. But at the same time we haven't tried to give any sort of definition of these terms, and this has been quite deliberate. I've tried to allow the nature of parables, the nature of myths, the nature of symbols, to emerge not from any formal definition but rather from concrete given examples, and it's this procedure that we're going to follow in the case of archetype. I'm not going to attempt to give any formal definition of what an archetype is or what an archetype may be. The term itself is of course moderately familiar to us. It's been popularised in recent decades through the work of Jung and his disciples and followers, but it's rather noticeable that Jung himself, though he has written quite a lot about archetypes, is rather chary of giving formal clear-cut definitions of what the archetypes are, or what the archetype is.

Sometimes, indeed, describing archetypes he seems to say one thing, at other times describing archetypes he seems to say something else. So we're going to follow, as it were, in the footsteps of Jung, not only with regard to archetypes in general, but with regard to that archetype with which we're particularly concerned tonight, that is to say, the Archetype of the Divine Healer.

We're not going to deal in definitions, we're going to cite different examples. We're going, we may even say, to conjure up, to call forth, if you like to invoke, different forms of this archetype, different manifestations of this archetype, and try even to see them visibly before our inner eye.

First of all we're going to conjure up one, or evoke one, from ancient Egypt. Thoth. Thoth was the name of one of the major Egyptian deities, and like all the major Egyptian deities Thoth, as the Greeks called him, is a very complex figure. He's a lunar divinity, that is to say he is associated with the moon rather than with the sun, and he's represented, so far as his body is concerned at least, in human form. But that human form carries an animal, or rather a bird, head.

Thoth is represented with the head of the sacred Egyptian bird, the ibis, with a long curved bill.

And this ibis head of Thoth is sometimes surmounted by a lunar crescent, and sometimes again by not just a crescent, but a crescent with a lunar disc superimposed upon it - in other words, the full moon and the crescent moon together. And Thoth in a sense is the wisest, the most intelligent, and in some ways the best of all the gods. And amongst other things Thoth is the inventor of all arts, all sciences, in fact the originator, the father, of culture and civilisation itself.

And especially is he the inventor of writing, in this case of course of hieroglyphic writing. And he's the inventor too of medicine. He is the Divine Healer of the Egyptian pantheon. In Egyptian myth, in Egyptian mythology and legend, Thoth is especially associated with the gods Isis, Osiris, and Horus, who constitute a well-known Trinity. In fact in some legends Thoth appears as Osiris's vizier and scribe and record-keeper. And even after the tragic death of Osiris at the hands of the forces of darkness, Thoth remained faithful to him, faithful to his memory. It was he in Lecture 102: The Archetype of the Divine Healer Page 1 fact, again according to Egyptian myth and legend, who helped the goddess Isis to purify the dismembered body of Osiris. And when Horus, the son, the infant son, of Isis and Osiris was stung by a great black scorpion, it was Thoth in his capacity of Divine Healer who drove out the poison from the bite. Later on we read that Thoth cured Horus of a tumour and healed a wound inflicted on the god Set.

Now the ancient Greeks considered Thoth to be the counterpart of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, or rather they considered Hermes to be the counterpart, in terms of their own mythology, of Thoth. But really we may say that Thoth is much more like the Greek divinity Apollo.

Admittedly Thoth is a lunar divinity, Apollo is a solar divinity, but Apollo, like Thoth, is the patron of the arts and the sciences, and Apollo, as we all know, because this tradition has descended even to our own time, Apollo is the patron of music and of poetry in all their forms.

And as we know from surviving examples, even fragments, of classical and pre-classical Greek sculpture, Apollo is usually represented in the form of a beautiful young man in the prime of life.

And Apollo again like Thoth is associated with the art, with the divine art, of healing. And in the case of Apollo this apparently is one of the consequences of his being a solar divinity, because light, sunlight, sunshine, is necessary to health and to restoration to health.

But though Apollo has these healing attributes in his capacity as solar divinity, the real Greek god of healing is Asklepios. And Asklepios, significantly, is the son of Apollo by a mortal maiden, so Asklepios is a sort of demi-god. Asklepios is sometimes represented as a serpent or in the form of a serpent, but more usually he's represented as a tall, well-built, middle-aged man, of very noble, very dignified, appearance, and with an extremely wise and compassionate expression, and I would say that some of the statues, some of the images, of Asklepios are amongst the most impressive, from a spiritual point of view, that have come down to us from classical antiquity. We know that the Gandhara image of the Buddha was modelled on the Graeco-Roman Apollo, but I can't help thinking that we might have achieved, or those artists might have achieved, even more impressive results if they'd started by modelling the Gandharan Buddha not so much on Apollo as on the figure of Asklepios. In Greek legend there are many stories of the miraculous cures wrought by Asklepios, and it is even reported that so great was his skill, so great was that divine gift of healing which he possessed, that he could not only cure diseases, not only restore the sick to health, but he could even bring back the dead to life. So much so was that the case, we are told, that the King of the Dead became anxious, became even angry, because fewer and fewer people were arriving in his realm. Not only that, but having arrived they were being rudely plucked back by Asklepios before the King of Death could get his hands on them properly, and that would not do. So he went to Zeus, the King of the Gods, and he complained, he bitterly complained that he was being deprived of his dues. So Zeus apparently had just one way of settling things - he just hurled a thunderbolt, and that was the end, according to legend, of Asklepios. But they had reckoned without Apollo, apparently, who was the father of Asklepios. Apollo was very very annoyed to say the least, so he slew the Cyclops that forged the thunderbolt with which Zeus destroyed Asklepios, and Zeus of course punished Apollo, but that's another story - that's how it goes on, just as on the earth among human beings.

Now Asklepios was very much worshipped in ancient Greece; we don't always realise the extent of his cult. We think of the ancient Greeks worshipping Pallas Athene and Apollo and Zeus and Hera and Aphrodite of course, mustn't forget her, and that's about all. But the Greeks did have a very very important and powerful cult of their Divine Healer, Asklepios, and it's because of this that a very large number of statues of Asklepios have survived down to the present time. And we may say, and this is rather interesting, that the cult of Asklepios was both a religion and at the same time a system of therapeutics. And the doctors in ancient Greece were priests of Asklepios; the priests were the doctors, the doctors were the priests. And they had, or the cult of Asklepios had, a number of celebrated sanctuaries. They were centres of religious worship, they were centres of healing too; the two things were completely fused. And these great sanctuaries, which were celebrated all over the Grecian world, all over the Hellenic world, they were built outside towns, and they were built on sites which were especially healthy, and there people used to go for treatment, and worship, because the two were the same. And the method of treatment, or if Lecture 102: The Archetype of the Divine Healer Page 2 you like the method of worship, was very very interesting. Upon his arrival the patient would be ceremonially purified. ...

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