A Dream of Eros
“A Dream of Eros: Desire and the Art of a Pagan Mystic”
By Paul B. Rucker © 1995/2007-2009
(first print publishing in Hecate’s Loom #32, “Angels and Eroticism,” Spring 1996)
I am a visionary artist: I paint images of Gods. When a God or a Goddess appears to me in my dreams or visions, it signals me to learn why: how does that deity, that face of the World Soul, relate to me? The act of painting focuses my meditation and strengthens my connection to this being, resulting in artifacts which others may choose to interact with in a sacred manner. Each painting can potentially become a “framed temple,” an icon.
This essay is the story of how one such painting–”Eros”— came to be, and what I learned from it.
In the early spring of 1993, I briefly dreamed of Eros. For an instant I saw him– a beautiful young man with curling hair and electric blue eyes, his body shimmering with auric force. He glared at me and seemed for an instant to render my soul naked to his sight. When his eyes met mine– a glance like lightning– I awoke, at once enchanted and terrified– in awe.
Staring at the darkened ceiling, my pulse racing, I knew that I must paint this being; there is no signal more sure than such a vivid dream. Yet, in that brief contact I saw that this Eros was not the petulant youth of Apuleius’ famous fable, Eros and Psyche, nor any sexless cherub. In my dream I saw a Mystery: the young face of a cosmic power. I knew that bringing this image to canvas would both soften and clarify this mystery.
Eros literally means “want,” “lack,” or “desire for that which is missing.” Now Eros in revealing himself to me has played the role of an interlocutor: what do I lack? what do I desire? What does Desire have to do with making my art? I know already that my activity as an artist involves a falling-in-love with my subjects, an intense poetic scrutiny with the “eye of the heart.” This power of vision is eros, which bestows a passionate bond between the seer and the seen. Such erotic double seeing is magical vision: “The lover carves into his soul the model of the beloved. In that way, the soul of the lover becomes the mirror in which the image of the loved one is reflected.” (1)
Now I am faced with the challenge of creating an enduring image from a glance in a dream that lasted only seconds. The voice of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod haunts me in the blank beginning: “… the touch of Eros makes the barren Earth green.” So, a glance outward from darkness, a touching of Earth, must appear… how can I express this? To help my imagination provide itself with an answer, I examined the ways in which Eros has been pictured before.
Invoked as the “Procreator of the Universe” by the ancient Hellenic poet Hesiod, the Cosmic Eros “creates living seeds” and harmonizes the random elements of Primal Chaos and Primal Earth into a living world. Eros not only drives all organisms to procreation , but also into relationship with each other: mating, bonding, nurturing, and all other forms of desiring, not excluding hunting and preying, for passion hungers like the hunter for its prey. To me, this creation of organism through interrelationship incarnates Eros as the power that makes the Earth into a breathing world. Yet, there is more, for Hesiod’s point of view, the most ancient on record, is but the beginning.
Praxiteles is credited with sculpting Eros in human shape during classical times. A winged daimon, he belongs to that class of being which is neither Divine nor human, but which the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean held responsible for connecting Heaven and Earth. Forerunners of the modern concept of angels, the daimons dwelled in the “in-between”– the Metaxu— which translates to the “spirit world,” “the imaginal plane,” or the “home of archetypal Images.” (2)
Symbols associated with Eros become as specific and particular as his own image does, over time. By the time Plato discusses Eros in the “Symposium,” he is denoted by many weapons, such as arrows, spears, and torches, which signify the power of passion to wound and to inflame the heart. His power to spellbind the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, is betokened by flowers, perennial reminders of the Earth’s sexual beauty, and by the lyre, for through music one heart can enchant another, wordlessly. The ancients’ awareness of love’s all-pervading manifestations ripened into symbols of world influence, such as the wheel of fire and the sphere. The activity of Eros as a movement between hearts was compared by the Greeks to the bouncing back and forth of a ball: the God himself is called “Eros the Ballplayer.”
Elements from these images appear in my rendering. Onto my canvas I have drawn him: kneeling on a dry dark earth that flares into green where he rests. Holding a sphere– the Earth– he is looking outward with the same enigmatic glance as he looked toward me in my dream. His wings spread out into the night beyond, a canopy protecting the fragile world in his hands.
As my image of Eros evolves, the energy of the dream translates into something more lasting and conscious for me. Not only have I discovered attributes and characteristics of the image (or Image) of Eros, but also of Eros as the Activity of Images.
In Plato’s view, eros signified “the desire to create in beauty”— he saw eros as an active force attracting the soul from the transient material world to the Ideal plane of Perfect Love, Beauty, Truth: the Platonic realm of Eternal Verities. Thus, all material beauty kindles awareness of the Divine within the soul, beckoning it homeward. Aristotle developed further Plato’s notion of eros as a force of upward attraction not only for the individual, but for the universe itself. In his vision, not only a single soul, but the entire Cosmos converges up on the Divine through its erotic longing to unite with that source of Beauty.
It was not until the Neoplatonic revival of the Renaissance era that Art (the creation of images) referred to both Eros and the spiritual quest. At this time the individual soul was thought to be an intermediary between the earthbound body/mind and the wholly divine spirit. Renaissance magician-philosophers, schooled in Arabic and Greek esoteric philosophies, conceived the pneuma, the spirit, as both an omnipresent suspending medium for all created things, and as the individual spirit, an interior mirror (hegemonikon) in which “phantasms” of physical sensations became perceptible to the soul. Cosmic forces (Neoplatonic Ideas, Images) mirrored in the individual spirit, became phantasms (symbols and images perceptible by the senses) which could be cultivated to make the spirit of a person “more compatible with the spirit of the world.” (From that position of spiritual assimilation and balance, various other kinds of magical and creative work could be done.) All phantasmic arts of this time were practiced with the aim of aligning the magician’s spirit (pneuma) with that of the world, a form of magical practice called theurgy.
To create Images, then, is to cultivate phantasms. Just as each phantasm connotes a spiritual element in the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, so does its representation invoke that spiritual element in the soul of the image-maker. The rendering of a phantasm opens a door to its essence: to render an image of a God is to render an Image, a door to the God. The heart of the Mystery is to make the inner self at one with the outer world, not its seeming, but its essence: to achieve unity. What transforms common sensual experiences, imagery, materials, etc. into a bridge for the seeker, the magician, the artist, is intention. When charged with the intent to seek the Divine, all ways and means such as these become sacred and the preference of one “bridge” over another, a matter of one’s unique temperament.
From earliest antiquity, magical practices, including the making of Images, have been centered on the goal of unity with the Divine Presence, whether that presence is considered One or many. This is the highest expression of eros--a spiritual longing that will be satisfied with nothing less or other than intoxication with the Godhead.
Indian culture provides a further comparison in the tradition of Bhakti– the yoga (“yoking”) of Devotion. Bhakti-yoga emphasizes that the devotee must transform his or her human longing for relationship into a longing for the God that is present in all relationships. Erotic relationship with the Divine Lover opens a door in the human heart to Divine Grace and creating sacred imagery and artifacts cultivates that relationship for the artist. The artifact, created as it is in the erotic image of the divinity, can serve as a Bridge to the god-presence for anyone. One does not have to be the maker of a sacred image to participate in the act of (re) union that it signifies. There is bhakti in art appreciation as well.
In every permutation of devotion, Desire manifests, subtly purifying itself through discipline and constancy. Because discipline is so vital for the creating of art, making art can be compared to a form of yoga; a yoking-together of spirit and flesh, and a union of desire and skill. For emotion crystallizes into form through art, and without Desire there is no need for discipline: there is no creation, and no beloved for whom to make it. I create sacred images in bhakti, not only for the sake of the Gods I have seen in my dreams, but also to mirror those presences, evoke them, from the “inner sense” of those who see the work.
I embrace my idolatry with all my being, since this the gift I possess that bridges my way to the Divine. I open doors with my visions– at least for myself– to a place where the Gods and Goddesses are seen everywhere as an expression of spirit in all things– as the eros of Nature personified. Thus I come to understand my art-making as an erotic activity; my inner eros brings a visionary enchantment to the forms of the world; and allows me to glimpse the Divine in all forms of life.
The appearance of Eros has signalled me to learn how my work as an artist mirrors the creative work of Eros in calling forth beauty to dwell on the earth. In interpreting Eros, I do what Eros does, thus I realize as a result of this particular process that my eros is in all of my work. Eros makes worlds, and eros within us creates from desire the artifacts of our personal worlds. Erotic will is the shaper, and the Soul of the World the taster, of the forces the artist and the magician have fixed into form.
For the artist, the bhakta, the process of making the work is but one more step on the road to courting the Divine Lover. Images, after all, are attempts to give form to what is Formless. As such, they may serve as beacons or lures to the God, and for myself their making may be a form of meditation that makes me mindful of the God, but when the God himself appears– no images remain. There is only the Presence– only ecstasy. “The literal meaning of the word ecstasy (from the Greek exstasis) is ‘to stand forth naked.’” (3)
The movement of desire from the God to the devotee, and back again, is a dance in stillness. Lover and Beloved do not move– Desire moves between them. ”Eros is a verb.” (4) That ecstasy could be terrifying, and set apart from mere pleasure, explains why eros, even between mortals, was feared by the ancients as well as praised. It is not easy–indeed, sometimes it takes all we have– all we are–to become vulnerable for Love’s sake.
Hesiod calls Eros “the most beautiful of all the immortal gods,” yet he mentions that one of the earliest sites of worship for Eros was at Boeotia in the form of an unhewn stone column. Farther north, and in later times, similar stones were called herms (after Hermes) and in Germanic terrain the irmensol. Such stones in India were adored as the Linga, the cosmic phallus of Shiva. To see the God in the stone, the Divine in the mundane, is one of the subtlest paradoxes of Eros. For Eros here requires that the onlooker evoke the vision of Love from his or her own inner sense, bestowing it upon an external focus devoid of any special attractiveness. In so doing, the “eye of the heart” is opened and one becomes more practiced in the loving itself.
The amorous glance is capable of looking at the “unhewn stone” of a work of art that is yet to be, or a relationship that is yet to be, and seeing simultaneously the pedestrian appearance available to everyone, with all the limiations of a concept, an art medium, a person–and also the radiant face of what could be, what can be. Eros enchants us through such double seeing: bewitched, we begin our work of love with the materials at hand. For the duration of this enchantment, no other lover seems quite so rare, no other act quite so alluring.
(1) Marsilio Ficino, Sopra lo Amore, quoted by Ioan P. Couliano in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, (University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 31.
(2) In the mystical visionary tradition of Sufic Islam, this “Imaginal Plane” is called the alam ‘al-mithâl, the “Plane of Images,”* a higher and more transcendently Real creation than the visible world, which nonetheless endows everything material with a significance that brings it closer to the truth behind all appearances. The writings of Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone, and so forth, provide a superb exegesis of this philosophy.
(*Literally, the “world of image” (picture, example, simile, pattern, standard, model)
(3) Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love, (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 320.
(4) Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 17.