"Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, new insights begin." –Herman Hesse
Doorways, portals, gates and thresholds have served throughout history as the potent objects and symbols of superstition, rites and rituals (1), psychological development, and transcendent religious experience.
We commonly refer to windows of opportunity, doorways to the future, and open-door policies. Some say we must open a door at midnight to allow evil spirits to depart and that the first person to open the door on Christmas morning will have good luck. It's bad luck, some believe, to leave a house by a different door than the one used to enter the house or to eat in front of a door.
Brides, writes Tad Tuleja, are not carried over the threshold because they're incapable of walking into a house or because the groom is simply being a gentleman, but "because, as a stranger, she was taboo. It was only after she had actually entered the room – after she had, in effect, been sneaked past the guard – that the contagion of taboo was considered lifted. " (2)
Important thresholds in both psychology and transcendent mythology typically have guardians. You will see these symbolized by the lions, dragons, gargoyles, fu dogs, and other beasts at the main entrances of churches, libraries, and other buildings. Beliefs vary about the origin of portal or threshold guardians. Some say they are a projection of our own fears, while others say that the guardians are placed there by the gods.
Hero myths, and the threshold guardians involved, impact us on multiple levels. Stemming from the work of Otto Rank (3) and others who studied the heropath and its connections to the first stage of life, myths are viewed as a symbolic of the dramas experienced by an individual as s / he comes to terms with parental authority figures and manages a healthy emergence out of the family nest as an autonomous adult. Stephen Larsen writes:
"As the child ego seeks to find independence from the all-nurturing, yet all-embracing, realm of the mother, a great inner struggle must be mobilized. The dragon to be slain by the hero is the instinctive bondage to smothering mothering, especially after the child needs less nurturing and more freedom to encounter its own destiny. The aggressive attitude necessary to acquire autonomy is appropriate to the first part of the hero journey, but this is the point beyond which – unfortunately – the naïve interpretation fails to go. " (4)
The complete interpretation, in fact, not only considers an individual's adult life but also includes the continuing inner journey to the psyche's greatest depths. Mystery schools and some fraternal organizations ritualize this continuing journey through a series of thresholds and initiations. Mystics often refer to a series of gates indicating levels of transcendence. Myths dramatize the stages of the deeper journey through multiple threshold experiences.
When Jason, for example, accepted King Pelias' challenge to seek the Golden Fleece, he made a commitment that can be considered the crossing of a threshold. Subsequently, Jason and his shipmates, including Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus and Nestor set sail aboard the Argo. Ultimately, they found their passage into the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) blocked by two floating islands that crashed back and forth on the waves. These clashing rocks were called the Symplegades at the Hellespont (Dardanelles) between Europe and Asia. Heeding the advice of a wise man, the Argonauts safely followed a dove through the treacherous strait, after which Zeus anchored the rocky islands forever. This myth illustrates an important threshold on the hero's path.
The hero, like all of us, comes from a world of duality, one dominated by pairs of opposites: good / bad, dark / light, mine / yours, us / them, pleasurable / painful. These opposites are said to clash with each other obscuring the fact that opposites in each pair are the two sides of a single coin. That is – depending on your frame of reference – they are all God's thoughts, nous, spirit, the force, or manifested energy and not the polarities they appear to be. When Jason sailed past the Symplegades the clashing stopped, symbolizing what the hero or seeker finally "sees" when s / he steps out of the world of opposites. As Joseph Campbell (5) sees it:
"One can have an intuition that is beyond good and evil, that goes beyond pairs of opposites – that's the opening of this gateway into this mystery. But it's just one of those little intuitive flashes, because the conscious mind comes back again and closes the door. The idea in the hero adventure is to walk bodily through the door into the world where the dualistic rules don't apply. "
Or, as Rama C. Coomaraswamy puts it in his introduction to "Guardians of the Sundoor:"
"What could be more common than a doorway? To quote Gray Henry: 'It is more than coincidental that many doorways throughout the world exhibit a corresponding set of symbolic motifs that point to the One manifesting itself as duality – a duality and a world that must return to that One. ' One must pass through the duality of the doorjambs to the unity which is only to be found in the center. As Christ said, 'I am the door,' and 'No one comes to the Father but through Me.' The passage through the door is always a passage that at least symbolically involves a change of state … "
Doorways inhabit our lives offering hope, expanded communications, initiations into mysteries, new lives, and a glimpse at – or even a merging with – the Creator. Mythic stories of the heropath at their deepest and most profound levels speak to old archetypes that we all know at the deepest levels of our minds and provide a means through which we can perceive the route ahead.
(1) See, for example, Van Gennep, Arnold, "The Rites of Passage," Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960.
(2) Tuleja, Tad, "Curious Customs," New York, Harmony Books, 1987.
(3) Rank, Otto, "The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," in "In Quest of the Hero," Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1990.
(4) Larsen, Stephen, "The Mythic Imagination – The Quest for Meaning Through Personal Mythology," Rochester Vermont, Inner Traditions International, 1990, 1996.
(5) Campbell, Joseph, "Pathways to Bliss," (David Kudler, ed.), Novato, California, New World Library, 2004.
(6) Coomaraswamy, Rama C., in Coomaraswamy, Ananda, K., "Guardians of the Sundoor – Late Iconographic Essays and Drawings" (Robert Strom, ed.) Louisville, Kentucky, Fons Vitae, 2004.