Joseph Campbell


"Nine times now, since my birth," wrote Dante at the opening of his early book of poems. La Vita Nuova

the heaven of light had turned almost to the same point in its own gyration, when the glorious Lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice by many who knew not what to call her, first appeared before my eyes. She had already been in this life so long that in its course the starry heaven had moved toward the region of the East one of the twelve parts of a degree; so that at the beginning of her ninth year she appeared to me, and I near the end of my ninth year saw her. She appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson, and she was girt and adorned in such wise as befitted her very youthful age. At that instant, I say truly that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence that it appeared fearfully in the least pulses, and, trembling, said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi [Behold a god stronger than I, who coming shall rule over me]. . . 

    And further: 

When so many days had passed that nine years were exactly complete since the above described apparition of this most gentle lady, on the last of these days it happened that this admirable lady appeared to me, clothed in purest white, between two gentle ladies who were of greater age; and, passing along a street, turned her eyes toward that place where I stood very timidly; and by her ineffable courtesy, which is today rewarded in the eternal world, saluted me with such virtue that it seemed to me then that I saw all the bounds of bliss. The hour when her most sweet salutation reached me was precisely the ninth of that day. . . .

At the age of twenty-four, June 8, 1290, Beatrice Portinare died, and the whole universe for Dante became so filled thereafter with the radiance of her angelic grace that in thought of her alone his heart was lifted to her place in heaven, in the sight of God. Writing of the mystery of the cosmic measure of her glory he wrote

I say that, according to the mode of reckoning in Arabia, her most noble soul departed in the first hour of the ninth day of the month; and, according to the reckoning in Syria, she departed in the ninth month of the year, since the first month there is Tisrin, which with us is October. And according to our reckoning, she departed in that year of our indiction, that is, of the years of the Lord, in which the perfect number was completed for the ninth time in that century in which she had been set in this world; and she was of the Christians of the thirteenth century.

One reason why this number was so friendly to her may be this: since, according to Ptolemy and according to the Christian truth, there are nine heavens which move, and, according to the common astrological opinion, the said heavens work effects here below according to their respective positions, this number was her friend to the end that it might be understood that at her generation all the nine movable heavens were in most perfect relation. This is one reason thereof; but considering more subtlely and according to the infallible truth, this number was she herself; I mean by similitude, and I intend it thus: the number three is the root of nine, for without any other number, multiplied by itself it makes nine, as we see plainly that three times three make nine. Therefore, since three is the factor by itself of nine, and the Author of miracles by himself is three, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are three and one, this lady was accompanied by the number nine, that it might be understood that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, whose only root is the marvelous Trinity. . . (41)

The Pythagorean tetraktys, viewed as an upward-pointing triangle built of 9 points with a tenth, as bindu, in the center, suggests an Indian tantric diagram (yantra) symbolic of the female power in its spiritually alluring role recognized by Goethe in the last two lines of his Faust: Das Ewig- Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan!

Gimbutas, writing of the geometric diagrams engraved on the statuettes of Old Europe, ca. 7000-3500 B.C., gives special attention to the lozenge with a dot in the center. "The dot, representing seed, and the lozenge, symbolizing the sown field," she writes, "appear on sculptures of an enthroned pregnant goddess and are also incised or painted on totally schematized figurines. . . . A lozenge is often the most prominent feature, the rest of the female body serving only as a background to the ideographic concept."(42)

Among the best known of those Indian tantric diagrams known as yantras, designed to inspire and support meditation, that of the downward pointing triangle with a dot in its center is an explicit symbol of female energy in its generative role. This triangle is an adaptation of the prominent genital triangle of the typical Neolithic female statuette. The dot is known as the bindu, the "drop" (which, like a drop of oil in water, expands), and the triangle as the yoni (womb, vagina, vulva; place of origin, birth, and rest). As contemplated by the Sakti worshiper, the whole sign is of the Goddess, alone, as maya-sakti-devi, in the sense of those earliest Neolithic figurines, recognized and interpreted by Gimbutas, of the Goddess "absolute and single in her generative role," at once the cause and the substance (like the spider in its web) of this living universe and its life.

In those yantras where the dot or "drop" is unfolded, however, it is represented in India as a phallos, a lingam; so that, whereas in the dot/triangle symbol the connotation might have been appropriately read either as of the Goddess alone or as of a goddess and a god in union, here, although the "seed" and the "field" are still together within the Goddess, the image is now explicitly of the male and female organs joined. The earlier, non-dualistic image has been turned, that is to say, into a dualistic symbol, transferring from the female to the male the initiating moment and impulse of creation.

This radically distinct construction must represent and have closely followed upon the critical historic turn, dated by Gimbutas to ca. 3500 B.C., from the earlier Neolithic and Chalcolithic concept of the Goddess as sole cause and very substance of the body of this universe to an Indo-European or Semitic, dualistic manner of symbolization, where she is no longer in herself and alone "Great" but the consort of a "Great" God.

There is in Hesiod's Theogony an unmistakable hint of this change, where Gaia, the Earth, is represented as the mother of the heaven-god, her spouse.

"First of all there came Chaos and after him," we read, "came Gaia of the broad breast, to be the unshakable foundation of all the immortals . . . But Gaia's first born was one who matched her in every dimension, Ouranos, the starry sky, to cover her all over . . . She lay with Ouranos and bore him deep-swirling Okeanos. . ."(43)

Likewise in the Old Testament, Proverbs 8, the Great Goddess in her character as "Wisdom" reveals herself as having been from the beginning with Yahweh as co-creator.

The Lord created me [Hebrew, ganani, in other versions translated as "possessed me" or "acquired me"](44) at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago, I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the foundations of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. 

And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. . .  (Prov. 8:22-32)

The upward pointing triangle, both of the Indian yantras and of the Pythagorean tetraktys, like its downward pointing counterpart, is susceptible of two readings, whether as of the Goddess alone or as of the Goddess in union with a male of her own birth, who may even (as in both the Bible and the Koran) finally usurp her role and character as sole creator not of a universe identical with himself, however, but of a cosmological artifact, distinct from and subordinate to his unique, unnatural, and finally irrelevant divinity.

There is from India an astonishing tantric image known as cinna masta (pronounced chinna masta, of the "severed head"), which is of the Goddess cutting off her own head to release her devotees or children from the bondage of her maya. The Greek figure of beheaded Medusa, from the stump of whose neck the winged steed Pegasus flies to become a constellation, is a counter-part of this symbolic form. In later classical times, the winged steed in soaring flight was interpreted as allegorical of the soul released from the body to immortality, and by the masters of the Renaissance the same ascending flight was read as of poetic inspiration - which cannot come to birth until the obstacle of the rationalizing head is removed.

In medieval Christian thought, the two contrary forces symbolized in the downward and upward pointing triangles were personified, respectively, in Eve and the Virgin Mary, through the second of whom the effects of her predecessor's Original Sin were reversed. The idea is aptly rendered in the Latin pun of a popular Catholic hymn still sung to the Virgin as "Star of the Sea," Ave Maris Stella, where the upward turn is suggested simply by reversing Eva's name to Ave:

Ave marts Stella,                    Hail, 0 Star of ocean,

Dei Mater alma,                      God's own Mother blest,

Atque semper Virgo,               Ever sinless Virgin,

Felix coeli porta.                     Gate of heav'nly rest.

Sumens illud Ave                     Taking that sweet Ave

Gabrielis ore,                          Which from Gabriel came,

Funda nos in pace,                  Peace confirm within us,

Mutans hevae nomen.             Changing Eva's name.(45)


In All Her Names