Coco de Mer
Part Two: The Shock of the Beautiful
The mature seed, the largest in the plant kingdom, immediately suggests female anatomy, leading to mythical attribution of magical or self-propagating powers typical of the Divine Feminine.
Google "coco de mer" and the first entry that comes up is a pornographic site with video streaming guaranted to satisfy your most extreme desires. Further down "an up-market ladies erotic fashion and toy shop" in Covent Garden, a finalist in the 2002 Erotic Awards in the category for "Erotic Disability-Friendliness." Erotic disability? Now there's a concept that invites some ripe reflection. (More on this issue below.)
In southern India, where coco de mer seeds often wash ashore, locals enshrine the sleek, wet, glistening object in the inner sanctum of their village temples where it is "worshipped as an image of the vulva of the Goddess" (Philip Rawson, Tantra: Indian Cult of Ecstasy, p. 23). What kind of perception makes such a natural object into a religious icon? Asian tradition presents many examples of erotic-religious crossover (as it might bec called): the yab-yum, icon of mating gods, in Tibetan Buddhism, or the interlocked lingam and yoni of Indian Tantricism (on right).
It would be a mistake to attribute this visualization to an overheated sex drive, or "primitive" fascination with human genitalia. In fact, erotic-religious crossover occurs almost exclusively in the most refined and intellectually sophisticated systems of Asian metaphysics, Hindu and Tibetan Tantra. In Asian teachings, the highest stage of consciousness attained by yoga and meditation is Sat-Chit-Ananda, the unity of "being-conscious-in-bliss." In Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners imagine the radiant unmanifested ground awareness at the source all that exists in unity with the power to manifest in the erotic imagery of copulating gods. Apparently, the way to perceive the world most compatible with the highest attainment of pure awareness is erotic and sensuous, but not necessarily just sexual. Scholars stress that the sexual symbolism of Tantric Buddhist iconography must not be taken lierally, i.e., on sexual terms, but this is not entirely true, either.
So what's the difference between literal and symbolic sexuality? And how does the distinction between erotic and sexual figure into the process of participate in the Dreaming of Gaia-Sophia?
For those who click on www.coco-de-mer.co.uk for some
minutes of titillation via video streaming from the grey void
of cyberspace, no such distinction may be considered. But for
those who would have their moments of extreme delight in physical
embodiment, conjoined with Gaia, the distinction is an esthetic issue, and may be a survival
issue, as well. The seed of the coco de mer is a supremely erotic object, that refers the mind and senses to a sexual object: woman. I would suggest that sexual allure (in woman or man) is a special case of
erotic impact. And I would add that the desire for erotic impact, and the capacity to receive and sustain it, distinguishes those who can enter empathically into Gaia's field of emanation.
In her book on the Divine Sophia, Caitlin Matthews observes that "the erotic nature of Sophia has been tidied away as not consistent with her virginal stereotype," by which she means, of course, the Virgin Mary. For centuries, the desexualized Virgin Mother has both co-opted and concealed the erotic aspect of the Goddess in Western religious tradition. The Virgin Mary is a Caltholically enforced anodyne repressive substitute for Sophia. Marian devotionalism and idolatry impede human perception of the sensuous beauty of Gaia. The role of the Virgin as mother of the messiah totally deviates humanity from its coevolutionary bond to Gaia-Sophia. The Aeon Sophia, morphed into the planet earth, has no male counterpart to fertilize her womb, not even a dove.
At this point, one is tempted to exclaim, "Thank God for Mary Magdalene!" The red-headed harlot of Gnostic heresy restores the erotic component to our notions of divinity—hence her destabilizing impact on mainstream religious sensibilities, outstripping her murky portrayal in The Da Vinci Code.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Mother of God is identified with the Hagia Sophia, Divine Wisdom, and given the name Theodokos, "god-bearing," to signify that she was, not merely the mother of the human instrument of God, Jesus, but she herself was an instrument of God. There is no room for Mary Magdalene in this scheme of Marian glorification of procreation. Equally so, there is no place in Marion glorification for the outrageous beauty of the harlot who consorts for the sheer pleasure of it and desires no progeny, human or deemed divine.
"The erotic shock is the way of revealing beauty in the world," writes Matthew Fox in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ ( p. 172). This assertion suggests that beauty reveals itself in the world in the manner of divine intervention, a theophany comparable to the Incarnation. Granting that this could be so, we must capitalize both Beauty and Eros. These words merit capitalizaton as much as Christ and Holy Ghost.
And what if Eros is the Holy Ghost?
This is likely to have been the case for Gnostic religion, if certain clues found in the polemics of the Church Fathers are to be trusted. Recounting the Gnostic creation myth, Irenaeus (I, 5.2: Book One, Ch. 5, section 2 of Against Heresies) says of the "mother" who produced both the Archons and the human world "they [the Gnostics] also called [her] Ogdoad (the 8th), Sophia, Terra, Jerusalem, Holy Spirit, and, with a masculine reference, Lord."
The identification of Sophia with the earth could not be more explicit, but upon deeper reading it appears that Gnostics considered the Holy Spirit to be, not Sophia herself, but a particular expression of the Goddess in Her terrestrial form. Another Church Father, Tertullian, is more explicit and (seemingly) precise in his paraphrase of Gnostic cosmology than Irenaeus. Consistent with Christian denial that nature could be spiritual, Tertullian ridicules the Gnostic identification of Sophia with "spiritual essences" and the terrestrial realm:
To humanity Sophia imparts the germ of nous, spiritual mind. This is our wisdom endowment, the intuitive intelligence of the heart that enables us to know what it means to be human. Sophia imparts a special power to the earth, as well as to humanity (Anthropos in Gnostic terminology). The fact that She becomes embodied in the earth does not mean that all Her force is exhausted in telluric physics. As an Aeon, She is greater than any planet. Her deific power remains in excess of its physical manifestation. In short, Sophia is able to imbue the physical Earth with supernatural properties. The most potent and pervasive of these properties is Eros as described codices II, 5 and XIII, 2 (On the Origin of the World, found in two versions in the Nag Hammadi cache):
The earth was purified on account of the blood of the virgin (parthenos). But most of all, the water was purified through the likeness of the Pistis Sophia, who had appeared to the prime parent in the waters... Out of that first blood, Eros appeared, being androgynous. His masculinity is Himeros, being fire from light. His femininity, innate to him as well, is the soul of blood, the solution of the Pronoia... He is very lovely in his beauty, having charm beyond all the creatures of chaos. Then all the gods and their angels, when they beheld Eros, became enamored. And appearing in all of them Eros set them ablaze... (NHL II, 5, 108.25 - 109.25)
Here again is a fragment of Gaian creation myth, an account of formative events framed in mystical and symbolic language. It would take too long to translate the passage line for line, but let's note that "the blood of the virgin" readily suggests volcanic magma, present from the earliest formation of the terrestrial globe. "The water purified through the likeness of the Pistis Sophia" may be mythic shorthand for the purge of oxygen from the primordial seas. This momentous event occurred over a 400-million-year stretch of time from 2.2 billion to 1.8 billion years ago. In the Archean period preceding this event, the oxygen associated with the forming earth was locked deep in the oceans. There was hardly any oxygen in the open atmosphere at all. Due to the action of a microscopic entity, the cynobacterium known as blue-green algae, oxygen was massively purged from the ocean and shifted into the atmosphere. The algae catalyst "swarmed in the photic zone, the region illuminated and irradiated by the sun and extending to no more than 100 hundred meters below the ocean surface." (Lynn Margulis, What is Life?, p. 105) As a result of this massive shift, photosynthesis was possible, and life on earth entered its most lavishly productive phase, which persists to this day.
How does this activity indicate an effect of "the likeness of the Sophia?" Well, the action occurring in the photic zone of the ocean was bacterial, and confined to a ultra-thin layer of the primordial seas, but the effect of the sun interacting with the algae in this layer was similar to the growth of a culture in a petri dish. Let's recall that Aeons are hyper-porous, mass-free currents with autopoetic powers, and as such the mere presence of an Aeon in a field of atomic matter confers order upon chaos. The "likeness of the Sophia" was her autopoetic effect, a mirroring of Her form, for cynobacteria were the first life-forms to emerge as a direct reflection of Sophia's own life-force.
To enter imaginally into the Gnostic vision of the Fallen Sophia, we must conceive that the Aeon is forming into the earth, and forming the earth, at the same time. She is the dancer and the dance. The part of Sophia that remains an Aeon, mass-free and non-devolved, impresses its life-force into the materializing earth. One could say that with Sophia Her soul defines Her body. The Coptic texts and polemics make this distinction by using "Achamoth" for the part of the Aeon that materializes. (In some versions of the myth, Sophia does not entirely depart from the Pleroma, but a part of Her "substance" extrudes and materializes. I have chosen to follow the versions in which Sophia is entirely externalized.)
The bisexuality of Eros recalls the Tibetan yab-yum and mythic intuitions of the sexes associated with the Coco de Mer. Both genders of Eros are described in vivid ways: the masculine (electrical) aspect is "fire from light," and feminine (magnetic) aspect is "the soul of blood." Here the Gnostic cosmology refers to human biological features which are coeval with terrestrial events. "Fire from light" is the electrochemical component in the human organism, the hidden fire compressed in the lightning-like spinal current of Kundalini. The "soul of blood" is plasma, the watery component of our blood, yet because the blood carries iron, this watery component is charged with magnetism (desire).
The interplay of the two genders of Eros ("fire from light," the male, and "the soul of blood," the female) generates the soul-life of humanity: "And the first soul (psyche) loved Eros, who was merged with her, and she poured her blood upon him and the earth." (111.5-15) As the Gnostics saw it, human blood was formed coevally with complimentary elements in the planetary body. Earth and psyche, body and soul, co-evolve together from the earliest stages of life on earth.
Orig. World describes how Eros pervades the physical world: "Just as from a single lamp many lamps are lit, and one and the same light is there, but the lamp is not diminished. And in this way Eros came to permeate all the beings created from chaos, and was not diminished." (109: 10 - 15) Here Gnostic emanationism makes a perfect match with Tantric cosmology. Woodruffe explains that at "every stage of the emanation-process prior to real evolution (sensuous and physical processes)," Shakti, the supreme mothering power, "remains what it is," whilst ever producing new features of evolution. He specifies:
Now imagine that we have a force in us, a kind of alternating current that plays between the blood and the nervous system; hence it carries a rhythm, directly sensed in the pulsing of the blood, and an electrical charge, an internal buzz of excitement. These are, physiologically speaking, the gender functions (masculine and feminine energies) of Eros incorporated into our bodies. Yet imagine as well that the Erotic components installed in our organism do not operate self-referentially, as if in an empty field. On Earth, we are immersed in an immense sea of electromagnetism, the macrocosmic counterpart to the bipolar Erotic forces locked into our body structure. Tantrics teach that Kundalini exists in two forms: it assumes a compressed form in the human body, and a telluric form, Maha-Kundala, the massive "serpent power" of the earth. (The suffix -ini, like "eeny-weeny," means"small, miniscule.")
The Erotic charge in our bodies is imparted by the electro-magnetic
field of the earth and responds to it, constantly. We are not
given a limited dose of Eros and then left to our own devices,
helpless to do anything as it gets used up and finally runs out. We
are continually resupplied. Eros never runs out because
the flame-to-flame dynamic permits constant renewal, orrecharge.
It does run down, however, if we are not consciously receptive
to the process. Just think of a certain kind of excitement you
can feel that becomes more charged the more you express it. This
is the euphoric hit of Eros. It operates flame-by-flame. Erotic
euphoria is not diminished by imparting or sharing it, but by
our closing ourselves off to receive it in the first place.
Just as from the midpoint of light and darkness Eros appeared,
then at the midpoint of angels and humanity the sexual
union of Eros was consummated, so that from the earth primal
pleasure came to blossom. (Orig. World, NHLE 1990,
p. 178. Italics added.)
In Gnostic creation myth, Eros is the Holy Spirit that fills the earth and enthralls humanity, rather like the flaming Paraclete was said to descend upon the disciples of Jesus at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit sent by Sophia is unmistakably Erotic. (More than one scholar has noted that the Pentecostal scene in the Gospels is a modified version of Pagan orgiastic rites.) This is not love, or even Love with a capital L, but Eros as such.
Unfortunately, the Greek word eros found in Plato and other classic literature has traditionally been translated as love. The correction of this semantic glitch is not difficult to make if we go directly back to the source for a fresh understanding. The source in this case is a woman called Diotima, a seeress and midwife from Mantinea in the Peloponessus. By Socrates' own account, reported in Plato's Symposium, she was his initiatrix into "love matters" (ta erotika). Diotima is famed for telling Socrates that Daimon megas, kai gar pan to daimonion metachu esti theou te kai thenetou: "Eros is a mighty daimon, for its power mediates what is divine and what is mortal." (Symp. 202 E) This pronouncement sounds close to the Gnostic text already cited: "at the midpoint of angels and humanity the sexual union of Eros was consummated." This specific feat of "sexual union" is not of man and woman, nor even of Eros with another diety, but of the two-gendered force of Eros, the polarities that come together in the telluric field of electromagnetism and in the human form, co-actively. We exist bodily in that divine sexual embrace, as if we were pressed between Gods making love.
And that is not all Diotima taught Socrates. Their dialogue goes on for some thirty pages in the Symposium. It culminates in the famous description of the four stages of beauty, leading from the physical to the ethereal, but this eloquent passage is a Platonic extravagance maladroitly tacked on to the wise woman's instruction. (The instruction ends at 210 A, but the Platonic elaboration, lifting beauty out of the sensorial world and thus legitimating the quest for extra-terrestrial transcendence in Western culture, continues to 212 B.) Eros in the Gnostic creation myth is a Gaian attribute, totally grounded in the earth and the realm of the senses.
"The erotic shock is the way of revealing beauty in the world." It could be said that the Coco de Mer is enshrined as an iconic form of the vulva of the Goddess precisely to preserve the capacity for this Erotic shock, and to test it. If, upon beholding this object, you do not feel the shock, you may be unplugged from Earth! What a great way to check out your Gaia connection.
Socrates felt the shock of the Beautiful, to kalon. He recognized that beauty in the natural world is really supernatural. His initiation into the Mysteries of Eros with Diotima was the highpoint of his spiritual life, leaving him with a message he never forgot. But this is not the message that comes from the Platonic dialogues, except through a rare crack in the gleaming carapace of Hellenistic intellectualism. When Socrates proposes that "Eros is a part of the beautiful (to kalon)," Diotima corrects him with Gnostic precision, saying "No, love - that is, Eros - tes genneseos kai tou tokou en to kalo. In English: "Eros is an esthetic bent, the passion for engendering and expressing the Beautiful." This is in Symposium, 206E, but you will never find it translated that way because the inveterate error of translating Eros as "love" has blindsighted generations from the realization that Eros is the passion for the Beautiful. Yet this passion, the "esthetic bent" as Diotima called it, is intimately linked to our capacity for love. Love and Eros enhance and complement each other at every turn. Love includes the capacity to embrace and transmit the Beautiful.
When we receive Eros, or when we let it pour through us toward others, we feel pleasure. What then is the relation of this pleasure to the experience of loving and being loved? The pleasure is like a trainer or simulator for love. It teaches us, as Diotima taught Socrates, that love, when it's true, feels good and not otherwise. The priority of pleasure is essential to the Pagan philosophy of love. Grounded in the senses and the natural world, Pagan sensibility saw the educative and admonitory value of pleasure in showing how love feels and how it functions at the bodily level. Symposium 201 D through 210 A is a view of carnal wisdom lavishly encrusted with insights about the magical or "daimonic" attributes of the Holy Pagan Trinity: Beauty, Love, Pleasure. Eros is at the center of this Trinity, but Eros is not love. If it were it could not be at the center, "the midpoint of light and darkness," where Orig. World puts it.
The love we experience on Earth is not only a source of human bonding, it it also a key catalyst in the cosmic designs of the Goddess who has infused our world with Eros, for our pleasure. And Hers.
"From the earth primal pleasure came to blossom." We are to the earth as pollen to the flowering Godhead. We are the sacrament of Gaia's remembering. This is what Gnostic religion looks like: a path through love to the supreme pleasure that never abandons the earth, but allows us to transcend everything that separates us from Her. All the Mysteries were consecrated to the Magna Mater.
I haven't shopped at Coco de Mer in Covent Garden, so I don't know what friendly arrangements they have made for the erotically disabled. I do know, however, that there is great need for such arrangements in the society of our time.
Obsessed with Sex and Oblivious to Eros
— could be the epitapth for Western society in the 21st century. Obsession with sex takes two forms: pro and con. Puritan prurience is as much a sexual disorder as nymphomania. (It could be and has been argued that these two syndromes need and feed each other.) Today most of the excess is simulated, a faking of sexual disinhibition, a craze of vulgarity, not a celebration of the Beautiful. We must wonder, Is it possible to restore Erotic sensibility to a decadent species? This is like asking how to rejuvenate spoiled fruit.
Paul Shepard has argued that our species' essential rapport with the habitat, its erotic and animistic bond with Sacred Nature, was preserved by rites of passage, including the vision quest and seasonal ceremonies honoring the Goddess. In Nature and Madness he explains how adolescence is the key period when the erotic bond to nature can be educated. It is already there in the child, but needs to be nurtured in the adolescent for two main reasons: to make sure the empathic bond with nature is carried ahead into adult life, and to prepare the adolescent to acquire and live with a social identity without sacrificing that empathy to other, all-too-human concerns. In other words, the purpose of initiatory rights in nature-based societies of the past was to prepare the individual to avoid the conflict of nature and nurture that we all face by virtue of living in a social order made up of human dependencies and obligations.
In the Mysteries the social identity of the neophyte, the focus of the self-regarding person, was temporarily dissolved so that the individual could experience "wide-field" cognitive ecstasy in the presence of the Other. This technique of ego-loss is a logical - no, an organic extension of the adolescent initiatory rites described by Shepard and others. Today there is nothing equivalent, and it seems highly improbable that such a system for adolescent and adult initiation could be re-established in our time. (Robert Lawlor apparently has tried to do just this by introducing young boys to animistic rites on a remote island near Tasmania.. His first-hand experiences are recounted in Earth Honoring.)
There are many ways of holding the ego sacred: insistence on "family values," for instance. The glorification of personal success, for instance. The control of others, often disguised by benign posing, for instance. Toxic infatuation with the myth of romantic love, for instance. It may seem a stretch to describe these familiar syndromes as ways to sanctify the ego, but I don't think so. The problem with perceiving how we hold the ego sacred is that this particular form of sanctification goes far deeper than we tend to look, or care to look. Self-concern usurps spiritual power and stymies Eros. Personal empowerment is totally inconsistent with Erotic sensibility. If love is about sharing, Eros is about surrender. One could balance a long meditation on the difference.
In the Mysteries the culminating experience of initiation could be induced easily and quickly, but it took years of preparatory work before that experience was accessible. For intitiation to be undergone in a way that assured that the content of illumination would be retained, a long process of depersonalization was required. The moment came in the Piscean Age (starting circa 120 BCE) when concern for personal salvation became dominant throughout the Roman Empire. The Mysteries, being unable to satisfy this concern, had to come up with a new agenda, or phase out. The initiates did come up with a new agenda for initiation, customized for the intensified self-concern of the times, but the extreme hostility from the early adherents of the salvationist faith enshrined in Christianity snuffed out the light of Pagan spirituality.
All forms of sanctification of the personal self, from the most banal ("Don't hurt my feelings or you will be regarded as a bad person") to the most insidious ("I am righteous and imposing in my faith in God, although I will never say so up front because I am too humble"), inhibit the person who enacts them. In a society of such individuals, repression is the norm. Where self-concern reigns, envy prevails - and let's note the Gnostic warning that envy is the signature of the Archons. Envy and generosity cannot coexist, but generosity comes naturally with surrender to Eros.
Beholding the Coco de Mer is a litmus test for this surrender.
In a politically correct society we are obliged to speak of the "seeing-impaired," and the "movement-impaired," so it might be helpful to add the "feeling-impaired." Those who suffer from this condition differ in a radical way from other impaired people, however. Someone who is seeing-impaired might pose a few problems on a dance floor. But because she knows she is seeing-impaired, the blind dancer can learn to make her own space and dance beautifully without bumping anyone. Or perhaps even dance with others, rhythmically and intuitively connected to the group, flowing with the same music, caught in the shared euphoria.
But imagine a blind person who does not admit she is blind. Instead of saying, "I can't see what's out there," she insists there's nothing there. Then, when she runs into something she says, "That hurts me, that's difficult, it gets in my way." This is pathological behavior. Such is actually the case with the feeling-impaired, for it is symptomatic of this disease that the individual who feels inadequately, or not at all, denies their lack of feeling and attributes the problem of emotional impairment to others. In effect such a person says, " I can't feel anything about the Beautiful, so it doesn't exist." The feeling-impaired are victims of Erotic deprivation.
The Trap of Narcissism
Decentered from Eros, teetering continually between excess and deprivation, uprooted from empathic rapport with Sacred Nature, alienated from our authentic selves by the very social identities we assume to define ourselves, deviated in our religious instincts by the "blackmail of transcendence," shackled with guilt, driven to shame by the media-fuelled craze for desirability, success and celebrity, intimidated by the constant lies and threats of political gangsters, enslaved by work that does not engage our genuine talents — the teachers of the Mysteries would have a challenge on their hands, were they to tackle the human condition today. After two thousand years of ever deepening narcissism, the species may be bottoming out on self-concern. In an article entitled "The Death of Intimacy" (Guardian Weekly, September 24-30, 2004), Martin Jacques observed that "we are becoming less and less intimate with the human conditon itself." In "an ego-market society," where "life becomes shopping," there is a danger that we will lose our humanity in our obsession with our selves. The mirroring menace of self-concern is the Sphinx of our time.
As we face this menace, what Diotima taught Socrates may be more important than ever. In the Symposium, the wise midwife relates a folk legend to explain the birth of Eros:
The moral of the story here is: to serve Aphrodite, balance what you lack with what you have in excess, reconcile your deprivation and your gifts. Resource (the inner wealth of human potential) is the son of Cunning, Metidos. This term is used in Homer for the "many-wiled" Odysseus, polymetis. Humans are many-wiled creatures, endowed with many gifts, but our deprivations, en masse or in singlar cases, can impede us from offering our gifts, or even from knowing we have them to offer. The key to the marriage by which we escape this tragic fate is Aphrodite, a goddess born from the foam of a god's severed genitals (another tale). She is the patron of sensual pleasure.
Let's recall the Holy Trinity of Paganism: Love, Beauty, Pleasure. With Eros at the center. If we are Erotically disabled, the entire trinity collapses! Diotima told Socrates that Eros is a mediator. We may imagine that Eros, central to the Trinity, effectuates the dynamic exchanges between the three components. The flow of energy around the Trinity is euphoric. The moral signature of Eros is selfless generosity. All this is inherent to the fable, but the Piscean Age is ruled by another charming tale, the story of Narcissus. When the narcissistic virus of self-concern runs rampant, infecting our eyes, our taste and our touch, and corrupts the unconditional love that dwells in the depths of our hearts, the Trinity collapses.Coco de Mer is the cure for narcissism, a glorious fruit that that induces bliss and lures us out of the trap of self-concern.
Learning in Love
Eros is not love, but the passion for transformation, the passion that transfuses and transfigures all forms, sweeping one form-thing-being through another, interfusing self and other, human and divine, perpetuating the eternal mystery of these brief encounters. The learning frame for this mystery is our relation to Sacred Nature, the divinity-in-residence, Gaia-Sophia, the Hostess with the Mostess.
And the fruit of our learning is Beauty begotten of Love.
Gaia’s priorities are esthetic. This is what the Coco
de Mer shows us. This is what Socrates learned from Diotima.
* * *
It would be fitting to close with some words from Audre Lorde, Black lesbian feminist, activist, and poet:
We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused,
and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially
erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority;
on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel
both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.
Return to Coco de Mer, Part One: The Human Role in Gaia's Dreaming.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.