“In the Beginning Was Fluid”: An Interview with James L. Kelley. Part One. Ancient Cosmogony and Amniotic Light.

Leo Kelley and James L. Kelley, “’In the Beginning Was Fluid’: An Interview with James L. Kelley. Part One. Ancient Cosmogony and Amniotic Light.” May, 2016.

Leo Kelley: Okay, what we propose to do here is a series of short interviews with James L. Kelley, the purpose being to get into the fine grain of some of his positions on the history of religions and on the history of various ideologies. This one will look into James’ analysis of several ancient cosmologies or cosmogonies. I know that James is interested in finding a “meso-level” theme that can serve as a foundation stone upon which to build a comparative mythology. Once James told me that he wants to split the difference between Joseph Campbell and Walter Burkert; that is, he wants to look at themes that are widely present in ancient cultures, especially the Indo-European-derived ones. If viewed from the perspective of Eastern Orthodox theology, how does the Babylonian cosmos look? We will get into that in our second session, I hope. Right now, I believe, we will try to make some comments on ancient Egyptian views of cosmic origins and hopefully some basic comparisons with the Indo-Iranian material and wherever else we can end up. As a final note on the format, here’s what we plan on doing: James will transcribe what we say here, edit it, and add some footnotes. So this is somewhere between an interview and an article, or that’s the idea anyway.

Now, James, I have noticed that, over the last few years, your work has incorporated quite a number of new interpretive concepts. In conversation you often mention “amniotic light” as a master theme in the history of the West. What is this mysterious “amniotic light”?

James L. Kelley: Let’s take the example of ancient Egypt. In general, ancient accounts of creation say that earth and sky are the end result of an earlier, more primordial process, and the ancient Egyptian evidence follows this pattern. In the Pyramid Texts and in the Coffin Texts the first deity, Atum, realizes that an aspect of himself, a second god called Shu or “void,” has created a space or womb inside his body. Turning his divine power of illuminative vision toward his own suddenly androgynous midriff, Atum sees a whole cosmos of forms that Shu has revealed to him. Atum, now inspired, either sneezes or masturbates (depending on how you interpret the texts). Either way, the divine fluid that exits Atum’s body turns out to be the god Shu.

The newly-externalized Shu creates a space outside of Atum’s body. This space—an external mirror-image of the womb Shu has already made inside Atum—is totally filled by the force or presence of Shu, who remains unseen, though he makes everything else visible (and thus real) in the cosmos by allowing the sun to appear in his space (some versions identify the sun with Shu, actually). Another Egyptian text speaks of the sun as a child that opens up its eyes, and by doing so, “chase[s] away the clouds [and] repell[s] the darkness” by giving birth to his own image through what one text calls “self-developing.”[1] Here we have a parallel between Shu being born as a space opening up in (and out of!) Atum and the child on the lotus bringing into being the world of rocks, trees, and oxygenated atmosphere by being born, that is, by opening its eyes.

So, Shu makes this material world by producing Earth and Sky and then separating them. Shu has, in a sense, replicated Atum’s earlier situation, where Atum’s body floated as a mound of unformed matter surrounded by the undifferentiated, benighted waters of chaos, or Nun. The cosmos is a womb; bodies of gods form the outer barrier, and inside we have a child of light that makes things move and live and have their being by looking at them, by emitting light. Here light is parallel to the waters of Nun in many ways. Nun is disordered and undifferentiated; the “space” aspect of Shu, the relatively dry aspect, is inseparable from the illuminating property. The Egyptian texts say that the waters of Nun are devoid of light. But the cosmic space of Shu is created by a “wet” god, since Shu is the divine moisture emitted by Atum. However, what has been added is air or breath, that is, the spirit or force that pushed Shu from Atum’s body. The womb of illuminated space that is Shu is created by the drying, hardening, solidifying action of air or breath. This is how Atum revealed himself in the first place, as a mound of earth or congealed Nun. The air or vital breath of his own thought is Shu. Shu is Atum’s “son,” his seminal thought. Thus, the world we live in is one of amniotic light. We are in a womb of dried out air that allows ordered motion and development, since is allows the sun to give its light. But the “dried out air,” it must be stressed, is nothing more than a stabilized, ordered counterpart to the chaotic waters of Nun, wherein all the seeds of possible beings were mixed up and even interpenetrated each other.

In short, the space between Earth and Sky in the Egyptian cosmology exhibits two properties—fluidity and luminosity—that make the atmospheric womb an especially apt medium for transferring thought and desire. We find the same thing in the ancient Greeks: Hesiod writes that the cutting apart of the gods Heaven and Earth created a space bounded by their bodies and filled with light. The Greeks also understood that vision is a projection as much as a drinking-in. This is of course the ancient Greek conception of eidola, according to which the human eye ejaculates simulacra or pseudo-material species that make objects visible by touching them physically!

Leo Kelley: So, there is, at least in some foundational Western texts, a connection between vision, light, life, and sexual reproduction…

James L. Kelley: …and don’t forget cosmogony. The whole thing is tied together by the life-and-light bearing fluid that is the essence of the highest god’s body, which is developed into a universe, a cosmos, which is the god’s womb, a space he opened up in himself autoerotically, or autogeneratively at least.

Leo Kelley: Right, but does this connect at all to the ancient Hindu notion of the chakras and of the seminal fluid that becomes luminous and life-granting if it is—through meditation and other means—brought up the spinal column to the brain?

James L. Kelley: I want to go into the ancient Indian or Hindu cosmology and anthropology a bit later, but let me say for the moment that, yes, the whole idea of amniotic light is reflected, I believe, in each of the cultures that spring from the so-called Indo-Europeans. Now, I do not subscribe to any racist views, of course. Many people interested in Indo-European ideas and languages drift over into odd notions that the Indo-Europeans have some kind of superior religio-cultural knowledge that later led to Europeans inventing science, technology, and modern political forms! This kind of grand theorizing is anathema for academic thinkers, even if it is relatively free from so-called ethnocentrism. How much more is this “Aryan Indo-European” theorizing viewed as suspect! And any person on the street should see right through someone dividing the history of human culture into Indo-European and non-Indo-European.

However, the same academic establishment that frowns on any privileging of Indo-European culture (whatever that may be), has no problem critiquing the “West.” For example, a Norwegian scholar Vigdis Songe-Møller wrote a book called Philosophy Without Women: The birth of Sexism in Western Thought in which ancient Greek texts are examined to show that “Western” attitudes toward women can be traced back to their dual ideal of Truth/Beauty.[2] This ideal was imaged by the Greek as the physical body of a free, rational male; Songe-Møller shows that the ancient Greeks (at least some of them) desired the bodied of other Greek men because they devalued the female body as being no more than a passive receptacle. She was the vessel, the sack, wherein the mirror image of the (male) Self was fashioned. She was passive, but the male was active in giving birth, through his seminal fluid, to a copy of himself! And don’t forget that the Greeks saw menstrual blood as a kind of degenerate semen: if the woman had “cooked longer” in the womb, she would have been a boy, but she has a defective body and her semen, her life-blood, is also deficient—her repoductive fluid and her body “failed” to rise to the level of full personhood or maleness.

Anyway, this all leads to one thing: outside of reproduction-oriented union with wives, some Greek men pursued sexual union with Greek boys. The latter were on the threshold of manhood, and this pederasty was viewed as the child’s push into manhood. The point is not that a few Greeks liked men and boys more than women; the point is that this proclivity seems to have been inspired by the main religio-cultural complex that the Greeks inherited from the earlier Indo-European peoples who migrated into the Balkans before Homer wrote (Songe-Møller does not go into the pre-Greek background, incidentally). So, my question is, why is it so objectionable to identify some rough outlines of a cultural formation and call it “Indo-European,” but yet, out of the other side of our politically-correct mouths, we speak about the “West” as this obvious entity that we privilege over colonized cultures or whatever is “non-Western”?

In a way, I am doing a critique of certain aspects of the “West,” but without discounting the fact that the West’s roots in ancient India, Iran, Greece, Latium, Anatolia, etc., are reflected in the religious and cultural structures the medieval and modern “West.” Sometimes I think French thinker Rene Girard is right on the money when he complains that fat-and-sassy Westerners get rid of twinges of conscience by publishing articles and books against “ethnocentrism” [laughter].

Now, with all of this in mind, let me give a hint toward answering your question. The word for “male” in a number of Indo-European languages derives, it is thought, from the Proto-Indo-European root *wiHrós. So we have vīra in Sanskrit, wer in German and English, fer in Irish and vir in Latin. This root word for “male” is where our words virtue and virility come from. Well, it has been noted that this vir-root, which connotes not just “male” but also “growth,” “youth,” and “protuberance,” also seems to refer to the male seed, the life-liquid that ensures the immortality of the male through the production of a son who, in a sense, is the father.[3] As for the chakras, note that Homer used the word “aion” to mean something like “male seed,” but also “spinal fluid.” Other ancient Greek and Roman texts show a belief (very close to the ancient Indian anthropology) that tears, sweat, semen, and spinal fluid are all the same thing: the vital sap or fluid of life (the main analogy here was with plants, who bleed out their life in the form of sap when cut).

As in the chakra theory, the Greco-Roman view holds that this fluid should collect in the skull of the virtuous man; this may be behind Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus, but also remember that, in the Egyptian Ennead, Atum gives birth through some kind of masturbation that results in semen being sneezed out of his head. In Homer the presence of the aion or life-fluid in the body (but especially in the sacred sheath or spinal column) kept the flesh from rotting, and the crushing of the spine led inevitably to the body’s decomposition. Other ancient Greek texts refer to the aion leaving the body in the shape of a snake, which may have influenced the Orphics and the Ophites in later times. At any rate, the important connection is found in Homer’s Iliad, book 19, where the goddess Thetis causes drops of “ambrosia” and “red nectar” to drip into the dead body of Patroclus, this process causing the corpse to remain incorrupt.[5]

Perhaps there is an echo of this ambrosial drip-bath in the Nordic myth of Loki’s binding. A serpent drips “venom” onto Loki, which is shielded from his face, but when the shielding fails and the drops fall on his face, Loki supposedly writhes in pain. Perhaps we have here a later Christian shifting of the story, since the sources we have for the Loki myth are post-Christian. If we strip away the Christian influence, which may have turned Loki into more of a demonic figure who is punished by hellfire, we can surmise that Loki reflects the Indo-European theme of ambrosial seed according to which the spinal column is in some sense associated with a serpentine spirit that produces semen, this vital liquid literally giving life to the male whose flesh it enters. In other words, Loki was kept, I believe, in a state of suspended animation by having drops of life-fluid dripped into his nose, just enough to keep him in a coma until Ragnarok, when his serpent-overseer woke him up for the big show.

If we only had time, we could linger over other details: What is the significance of Patroclus being Achilles’ lover? Also, the texts about Loki mention his power—recall Athena’s birth from Zeus’s body and Tuisto’s birthing of Mannus in Teutonic myth—to give birth to other gods. What is this man-birth all about?[6] I think we have an issue here, one that it is not politically correct to criticize, but one that needs to be dealt with. I try to take a step toward doing so in my theory of Indo-European homogenesis, which is the tendency of these texts to eliminate the woman from the reproductive process. Though at first it may have been a story to buttress the power of chieftains who did not want to divide their wealth or influence, the theme, at some point, began to influence how society and the family was organized. Once we get to Europe and the Franks’ transformation of Roman society in the West, we get a version of Christendom that reflects this mannerbund attitude. What does Sparta have to do with Aachen?, one might say. [laughter] But that’s a whole different interview…

Leo Kelley: …which we will have in a week or so, I hope. For now though, let’s sum a few things up: we have male gods giving birth and we have societies like Athens and Sparta that view the ideal of love as between a male father and a younger male mirror-image. But where does the “light” piece of the “amniotic light” theme come into play? I see that there is fluid and water all over the place in these Indo-European myths, but is there an equal emphasis on light?

James L. Kelley: I have found two types of references. One refers specifically to light as the principle that allows the cosmos to exist as a system of distinct yet interrelated beings. This is like when Hesiod describes the separation of Earth and Heaven as the creation of a space where beings can truly exist instead of being buried in the Earth (literally!); the Greek poet Euripides speaks of the creation of the amniotic space as having “brought forth all things, sending into light trees, birds…and the race of mortals”.[7]

Other texts emphasize visibility, which still implies light, though the word light may not be mentioned. For instance, in the Iliad, Athena takes away the achlys or fog from the Diomedes’ eyes, thus allowing the latter to distinguish gods from mortals.[8] Hymn 82 of the Tenth Book of the Rig Veda mentions the gods’ original state, floating together in the amniotic waters before the creation of earth and heaven. Here the gods saw each other, this power of seeing divinity being itself the sign of each god’s divinity. Humans are defined in the Hymn, contrariwise, as beings who lack divine vision, who lack the “eye” that the highest god shared with the other gods he fathered. Humans stumble around in a “misty cloud,” unable to see divine realities.[9] The parallel is this: your power of seeing either penetrates the fluid of space without obstruction (as in the gods, who “beheld themselves together” in the primordial waters), or you see imperfectly, in a mist, as do mortals. In either case, the semantic field is one of embryos in amniotic fluid, embryos that may or may not see (and thus relate in an ordered manner) in the light of the highest Truth.[10] In another session we’ll talk about the earliest Greek philosophers and physicians and their almost unanimous use of embryology to explain the formation of the universe as a huge living womb in which all other beings are generated or incubated.

A few parting words on this topic of the “light” in the cosmic life-fluid: First of all, note that the Chāndogya Upanisad defines the gods as those who “neither eat nor drink. They become sated by just looking at this nectar.”[11] Secondly, note that the word most commonly used in Greek texts for nature—physis—takes its origin from “Fιδ-,” meaning “see.” The gods know everything because their vision takes in all of space and time with no gap or interruption. Thus, they see the whole interrelated system of reality, both its individual parts or beings and all possible interrelations between these parts of the whole. Men cannot do this, but heroes like Odysseus and Heracles become more godlike than most by seeing more things, by going on adventures or odysseys and thereby stockpiling wisdom.[12] In one of my books I quoted the passage in the Gnostic Apocryphon of John where Barbelo gives birth to a holy being of light by simply turning to look at the Father; here we have a later manifestation of the same primordial theme that seeing is knowing for both mortals and gods, with the difference that deities can actually give birth to a god of light through their luminous vision.[13]

Leo Kelley: Okay, now we are getting somewhere, but what is the “nectar” spoken of in the Upanishads; is this the same thing as the soma from the Vedas? If so, what does this have to do with the “amniotic light”?

James L. Kelley: The nectar in the Upanishad verse I cited is amrita, which means literally “deathless” and is another name for soma.[14] The soma or amrita was identified with the primeval waters that preceded all of creation in the Vedas and in the later texts of the Hindus. The God Indra pierces the primeval hill, releasing the cosmic deluge, which is a mixture of fire or light, and life-giving water.[15] This situation is parallel to the Egyptian cosmogony where the light-water has to become externalized: It is first in Atum’s mind or womb; the cosmos is the externalization of the internal womb, filled with light and water, air being a “neutralized” balance of light and water, some Greek thinkers speaking of space or air as a kind of mist through which light and rain flows. Anyway, Indra’s piercing of the primeval hill releases the trapped waters, which flow into rivers and which replenish the earth by falling, in an ordered, concentrated form, from the vault of the womb-like sky. Simultaneously, Indra’s triumph is the raising of the sun into the sky, so that the freed waters are impregnated and vivified with fiery virtue. One verse of the Rig Veda (I.24.7) refers to the newly-stabilized cosmos as being held up by an inverted cosmic tree (which may be the body of the god Vrtra, who is the penetrated hill), whose branches reach out to every being in space, like light rays (and also like streams of soma) to imbue all creatures with life and vigor, in the process allowing ordered interaction between all beings.

Leo Kelley: I have a list here of themes we might tackle next time. We should go into soma a little more, and also the Babylonian/Sumerian cosmology (Gilgamesh and the Marduk epic). Plus, Greek philosophy, which I know you’ve covered in your latest book…

James L. Kelley: Let’s do that. But just as a last thought to keep the big picture in mind: This amniotic light theme ends up at the center of the philosophy of Plotinus and the other neoplatonists. In the middle ages and especially the Renaissance, a mysticism of light is center-stage, though it is sometimes hard to see it because of the compartmentalized spectacles through which historians look at these periods. But, without a doubt, things are very tricky here. After all, we still do not have decent working definitions of either “gnosticism” or “kabbala,” and these are two conduits through which the West receives these esoteric traditions.

Leo Kelley: Alright, thanks for taking a minute to lay the groundwork for this exploration of “amniotic light.”

James L. Kelley: My pleasure.

[To Be Continued]


[1] “You chased away the clouds, you repelled the darkness, you illuminated the Two Lands.” (E. Chassinat, Le Temple d’Edfou, vol. 6 [Cairo 1931], p. 247; cited in The Gods of Egypt, translated by David Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), p.79). On Shu and Atum and “self-developing,” see Coffin Texts, spell 75, English translation James P. Allen, Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 15-16.

[2] Vigdis Songe-Møller, Philosophy Without Women: The Birth of Sexism in Western Thought, translated by Peter Cripps (London and New York: Continuum, 2002).

[3] “In several Indo-european tongues the term for ‘male’ refers to liquid emitted, i.e. the seed (e.g. hersen, cf. herse, Sanscr : large; vár ‘water’, vrsan- ‘male’, O. Norse ver ‘water, sea’) (…) I suggest that ver meant originally the liquid or sap, seed, new growth, ‘offspring’…” (Richard Broxton Onians, Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988], p. 178, footnote). Note that “hersen” (male) is based in the I-E root ͡ker-, which is also related to “brain,” heart, horn or protuberance, grain pushing out of the earth, growth, heat, and youth (kore) (“The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots Appendix,” accessed 15 May, 2016, https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/indoeurop.html#IR044300).

[4] That “sweat…and the fluid of the joints, are one and are the stuff of strength, vigour, appears…to have been part of the earliest Greek physiology, which also assimilated with these the cerebro-spinal fluid and the seed” (Onians, Origins of European Thought, 191).

[5] Homer, Iliad, book 19, accessed 2 June, 2016, http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.19.xix.html.

[6] Esther Clinton, “The Trickster, Various Motifs,” 472-480 in Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook, edited by Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy (Armonk, NY and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2005), p. 478.

[7] Euripides, fr. 484, cited in James L. Kelley, Orthodoxy, History, and Esotericism: New Studies (Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis Press, 2016), p. 143.

[8] Iliad 5.127ff; cited in M.L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 134.

[9] Rig Veda 10.82; English translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, Hymns of the Rgveda, 2 volumes (Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1963), 2.498. Cf. Rig Veda 10.81.23, in which the sun-creator god Vivakarman—who has “eyes on all sides round”opens up the heavens by “seeing all” (idem, 2.497).

[10] Cf. Rig Veda 10.85; Griffith, Hymns of the Rgveda, 2.501-505.

[11] Chāndogya Upanisad 3.6.1, translated by P. Olivelle; cited in West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, p. 157.

[12] Joel Wilcox, The Origins of Epistemology in Early Greek Thought (Lewiston, NY and Queenston, ON: Edwin Mellen, 1994), p. 131-132.

[13] Apocryphon of John 30.1ff.; translated by David Hill in Werner Foerster, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, edited by R. McL. Wilson, Volume 1: Patristic Evidence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 109; cited in Kelley, Orthodoxy, History, and Esotericism, p. 126.

[14] Sanskrit text of Chāndogya Upanisad 3.6.1 appears in Som Raj Gupta, The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man: A Translation and Interpretation of the Prasthānatrayī and Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya for the Participation of Contemporary Man, Volume Four (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001) p. 217.

[15] F.B.J. Kuiper, “The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion,” 9-22 in F.B.J. Kuiper, Ancient Indian Cosmogony (New Delhi: Vikas, 1983), p. 11-12.

This entry was posted in Amniotic light, Ancient Religions, Antiquity, Deviant Sexuality, Eastern Religions, Egyptian religion, Greeks, Hellenes, History of Sexuality, Indo-European Culture, Indo-European Homogenesis, Indo-European Religion, Mysticism of Light, Soma, Sophianic spirituality, Sophiology, Vedas, Western esotericism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “In the Beginning Was Fluid”: An Interview with James L. Kelley. Part One. Ancient Cosmogony and Amniotic Light.

  1. Interesting stuff. Is there an audio of this?

  2. redoves says:

    Whoa. This is rad. Definitely looking forward to part two.

    For my own part, I’ve been trying to identify what moment from the Genesis narrative is being parodied, spun, and/or mythologized in the Indo-European cosmogonies. The IE accounts differ so greatly from the Genesis account, and are so similar to each other, that I have some trouble believing that they are pointing to just the origins of the gods and the cosmos. All this jazz about divine sperm, life-giving light juice spraying out from eyes and suns and trees, paleoancient homoerotic misogyny–getting wildly speculative here and probably making something of a leap, but might it indicate that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil and its fruit were somehow related to… *ahem* (fallen) angel wang? That is, perhaps the cosmos–the order–taking shape in the IE cosmogonies is a highly spun/mythologized version of the fallen cosmos, brought about by Adam and Eve’s consumption of forbidden “nectar”?

    Mang, I dunno’!

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