myth and poetry


Semele Complex© 2000 filmmaker Adrian Strong
by Adrian Strong March1, 2009
originally published to vol. 11 Headline January, 2001

............The annihilating face of the sublime: some implications for addiction to armed aggression

A couple of months ago in October, I was living in an apartment on Australia’s Gold Coast which is where the Honda Indy 2000 motor racing rally took place. My wife and I made a concerted effort to keep ourselves indoors during that weekend which I had elected to name the “festival of testosterone.”  However, since we lived only a few blocks away from the main drag in Surfers Paradise where the racing was to taking place, we had been subjected for the previous few days to an endless buzz of angry aluminum drones preparing for their dash through concrete canyons.

Just before the main event was to start, I was catapulted out of my bed where I had been quietly reading, by what I can only describe as a searing surge of raw power ripping through my backbone.  I jumped across to the front balcony which faced the direction of the Indy action and saw another F 1-11 fighter jet silently streaking by, barely grazing the tops of the beachfront hotels. Then it hit me again.  The screaming power of those afterburners gave vent to such a thunderous wall of sound that a physical quaking engulfed my entire body. I not only felt knocked right over but literally blown away.  It was a strangely exalting feeling – a kind of inflated state of identification with a power utterly beyond the human scale.

While my body was still vertically bouncing about, shaking in childlike awe from the experience, my head was shaking horizontally in disappointment, ashamed of this open acquiescence to what I then perceived as an expression of military aggression – stimulating primitive hormones and  taking over my mental faculty.  I decided to call my wife as a “control” to check her experience.  However, as the jet flew by again, she also experienced the same knee-quaking blitz which temporarily wiped out all our mental and political judgements and gave way to simple wonderment.

I have seen and heard supersonic fighter jets many times and in many places, but perhaps never at quite this range. This very closeness would I assumed, be the auditory experience of victims of real bombing or missile attacks. And at this distance the difference from what I’d seen and heard before seemed to bump the experience up into another dimension – into the sublime.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the sublime as an expression of prodigious energy, force or power. He explains how this term was used to describe the saturation bombing experienced by German victims of those raids during the World War II (222).  In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, he mentions the sublime in the context of beauty: “If beauty so heightens our sense of life that esthetics may be termed “applied physiology,” the sublime, transcending physical definitions, suggests magnitudes exceeding life; not refuting but augmenting life” (122).

In the context of Campbell’s thinking it is apparent that that which is potentially destructive of life is an explosive inflation linked somehow to vitality itself (perhaps like that primordial lightning strike which fathered the first form of life on Earth by electric union of molecules).  Now while I am not supporting the airforce of any country as a life-giving entity (!), and while I am also appalled by the horror of war, I would like to explore the symbolic or psychological aspects of the experience of the sublime, and ask the following question. Is there a link between the experience of the sublime and the psychic longings of those who are somehow involved in fostering or prolonging war, as for example in the Middle East?

By way of opening the door to this exploration I turn to mythology and in particular to the myth of Semele, lover of Zeus (all-powerful king of the gods) and mother of Dionysos (the god of excess, creative destruction and unlimited rapture).

The myth relates how Zeus’s jealous wife Hera, hearing that Semele is pregnant with Zeus’s child, is filled with anger and wrath.  In her calculated revenge she approaches the lovely young thing in mortal guise as Semele’s old nurse – a gossiping friendly crone. She plants a seed of doubt in the young woman’s mind as to whether the father of the child really is the great god Zeus, suggesting that many mortal men have entered the beds of unwitting young girls calling themselves a god.  She suggests that Zeus should prove his love by appearing to her in all his greatness and glory – as he displays himself to his heavenly wife.

Semele now feels she must have a concrete experience of the Godhead, and with feminine charm she gets the unsuspecting Zeus to promise whatever boon she demands.
“Show yourself to me as you appear to Hera in her arms!” she demands. 

Zeus cannot break his sacred promise to her so with the least powerful thunderbolt in his armory he approaches her in his fearsome godly form. Of course her mortal frame cannot endure the exaltation caused by his thunderous presence so she perishes in ashes. However, before her complete incineration, Zeus plucks the yet unformed child from her belly and inserted the foetus in his own thigh, for this was to be his great son Dionysos.

Now in view of the fact that Semele is the mother of Dionysos, it is hardly surprising that she possesses some of her son’s qualities such as the tendency to annihilate individual boundaries (including her own) and merge with the Void. If we take this as our premise then perhaps it is not simply due to Hera’s persuasion that Semele asks Zeus to expose his true nature to her. Rather, there is something in Semele herself which, as part of her love for divine power (Zeus), is willing even eager to be blown apart. We might say that she demands experience of the sublime which is inherently self-destructive when made literal (subsequently her unborn son Dionysos is to offer the experience symbolically in the Greek Mysteries).  Perhaps the desire for this experience is born through discontent with the merely symbolic experience of God – as lover in human form for instance. Semele needs to submit to the concretized experience of the Godhead.

Let us think now about the Middle East where conflict has reigned for decades. The physical landscape is dry, with clear blue skies above: the subtle symbolic Dionysian message of moisture flourishes only in darkness and shadow. In the bright light of the desert heat, the great monotheistic religions were forged and in the process, all gods and goddesses of mythology fled, hiding in moist cracks and gullies – underground. How does the unconscious yearning for the missing moisture principle manifest?  How is that force which breaks open desert rocks with sappy new life to be returned to the psychological landscape? And where do we find, not simply the “Mother of all wars,” but the Mother of Dionysos himself?

Years ago in Israel, I recall talking to a young pilot who flew sorties into Lebanon in a Mirage fighter-bomber. He told me how flying low level over enemy territory was an experience more utterly intense and thrilling than sexual experience with any woman.  What had happened here? Perhaps this was my first experience of what I have come to call the Semele complex. Here was a young person, so enamored with the power of the thunderbolt that he rated this power trip experience higher than a merely human expression of Eros.  What would happen I thought if such a man grew up and became a General in the Israeli army? What if his experience of the divine through the sublime became so addictive that he had a psychological need to make literal use of these weapons of great power – these concretized thunderbolts.
Recently, I was watching an interview on the news in which an Israeli army officer was being interviewed about deployment of helicopter gun-ships. His expression was tense but his voice was touched with pride when he said that Israel had not even used one percent of its military might against the Palestinians, but would be prepared to use far more firepower if necessary. I thought about that, and hoped that my old Israeli pilot friend had not made it to the top.

The behavior of the Palestinian fighters seems also to fit the Semele complex. There seems to be something self-destructive about their fervor. While the issue of land is of course fundamental to their cause, their love of God seems primary and elevated far above the earthy soil of Palestine. Sometimes it seems that there is a complete readiness or acceptance to be literally wiped out rather than attempt to solve the problem peacefully.  This pattern also seems to manifest in suicide bombing attacks – where merit is gained by being annihilated in the cause of a holy war – union with God in a big flash of white light. Is there anything more sublime that this?

Is it possible to be unconsciously addicted to the destructive aspect of the Sublime? If this is the case, how does one get over the Semele complex?  While it is nigh impossible to change peoples’ beliefs about God, is it possible to wean people away from the self-destructive aspect of the sublime by re-awakening their capacity for earthly beauty?  As Campbell has indicated, the sublime can also be seen as an aspect of art, and beauty is its sister aspect. God is also to be experienced in the beautiful – shining through a work of art, or through the eyes of another.

Another favorite theme of Campbell’s is mankind’s discovery of Beauty. In Volume One of his Historical Atlas of World Mythology (23), there is a photograph of what Campbell terms a symbol of Paleolithic man’s first discovery of beauty – an Acheulean hand axe.  A weapon of destruction, yet so perfect and pristine that it suggests aesthetic or ceremonial rather than practical use. Campbell borrows from poet Robinson Jeffers phrase in describing the axe as infused with “divinely superfluous beauty.”  In view of its size, which is too large for practical use, Campbell also suggests that this axe may have served a ritual purpose.

With this thought in mind I return to the Honda-Indy 2000 and the fly past of the supersonic jet fighter. I am beginning to reflect that such apparently coarse and brazen rituals may be needed every now and then in order to realize an unconscious craving for the sublime. Perhaps none of us are completely free of the Semele complex, for do we not all experience some primordial shiver and sense of rapture when a great peal of thunder cracks open the sky above us?  A ritual enactment can bring that which lies below the threshold of consciousness to our immediate awareness, so we can deal with it symbolically rather than literally.  Is it not far better to have such rituals for experiencing the sublime in symbolic fashion rather than act out the Semele complex in the bloody fields of war?

Work Cited

Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988

  • The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York: HarperCollins, 1986
  • The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume I. New York: Harper & Row, 1988

filmmaker Adrian Strong

Adrian Strong is currently undertaking doctoral research at
Griffith University in the field of ethnographic film, with
particular reference to the representation of
indigenous people. Adrian grew up in the UK, where he
studied Science and Philosophy before moving to Africa in
1984. Adrian's had many work incarnations ranging from farming to development work to business. It was in the late 1980s that Adrian lived and worked in the Kalahari with the Ju/’hoansi and also developed an interest in film-making. In 1997 Adrian moved from Namibia to California for additional post-graduate studies, gaining a Masters in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has been living in Australia since 2000, where he has also worn many hats, but is at his happiest teaching, researching and film-making.

additional links

Living Mythically Or Death by Myth by Adrian Strong
mythopoetics mythopoesis
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