The Mythology of Rebirth
What do Jonah and Hercules have in common? Both underwent the
mythological rebirth symbolized by being swallowed by a sea monster
only to be regurgitated later (sorry, there just isn't a good word
The symbolism is fairly straight-forward. The womb and the stomach
are pretty much in the same place.
This convergence of bodily functions is pretty standard practice in stories
With the exception of being swallowed by a 30 foot cockroach in the modern movie,
Men In Black, most stories involve sea monsters like whales.
Another notable exception is the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
Speaking of which, why is it every time I read another version of
the Red Hood story, the swallowing of everyone by the wolf
is changed to being locked in the closet. What's up with
that? What kind of symbolism are we talking about (unless we are
equating rebirth with "coming out of the closet").
Womb of Rushes
Another similar symbol is the basket, box or barrel containing a
child that floats down the river. This symbol was in vogue long before
Moses tried it out, and has made its way in many stories
(see the story of Three Golden Hairs for a good example).
Joseph Campbell compares the symbolism of the basket of rushes
to the coffin or sarcophagus (of the Egyptian god of rebirth, Osiris).
The womb or tomb can be seen as the same thing (symbolically-speaking,
of course) for both prepare the body for its eventual birth
[See The Hero with a Thousand Faces, page 92, where
Joseph Campbell compares going through the jaws of the sea beast
with the journey and return from the rebirth ceremonies in the
For parallels between Joseph and Moses (and how these stories
parallel the Egyptian god, Osiris), check out B'shallach by Harry Freedman.
Second Set of Parents
Normally, the symbol of womb of rushes is hooked up
with another rebirth symbol of having a second set of parents.
The first set of parents, give half of the hero's ability
(often the aspect of fate, as in both Moses and
Oedipus), and the second set of parents give the other half.
The influence of these parents are shown in the two
stages of life, but in reverse. For instance, with Moses, the
world of the Pharaoh influences Moses as a young adult, but the
second half of life belongs to the influence of his infant parents.
In ancient Celtic and Teutonic culture, the second set of parents
were faeries, or guardian spirits (also guardian angels).
This symbolism was integrated in the Catholic Church by way of
the godfather and godmother during the
rebirth ceremony (baptism) of the child.
BTW: This is why Cinderella's fairy godmother watches over and helps
her during her rebirth into Cinderella's new life as a princess.
Carl Jung discuss this second set of parents (and the rebirth
symbolism) as a psychological aspect of the psyche:
Thanks to this motif of the dual birth, children today, instead
of having good and evil fairies who magically "adopt" them at
birth with blessings or curses, are given sponsors- a
"godfather" and a "godmother."
The idea of a second birth is found at all times and in all
places. … It is the central mystical experience; it is the key
idea in medieval, occult philosophy, and, last but not least, it
is an infantile fantasy occurring in numberless children who
believe that their parents are not their real parents but merely
foster-parents to whom they were handed over.
(from The Concept of the Collective Unconscious, page 63 in the collection
of Jung writings, The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell)
Related to this is the fact that most heroes are also
orphans. The death of the parents often bring out the
necessary change of heart (rebirth) for the hero to embark on
his spiritual journey (just look at most hero-oriented
movies, like Star Wars to notice this symbol).
Jung also discusses this as another psychological aspect
related to a rebirth:
The wine of youth does not always clear with advancing
years; sometimes it grows turbid. Their appearance, it seems
to me, is often delayed by the fact that the parents of the
person in question are still alive. It is then
as if the period of youth were being unduly
drawn out. I have seen this especially in the case of men
whose fathers were long-lived. The death of the father then
has the effect of a precipitate and almost catastrophic
ripening. (from The Stages of Life, page 13 in the The Portable Jung)
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