Dante (Convivio, II,1) said stories can have four levels of meaning.

  • The first is the literal meaning, where the story is understood on the surface. To take a popular example, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings may be understood as just an adventure story that takes place in a fictional, fantastic land called Middle Earth.
  • The second level of meaning is the moral one, where in the same story, the Fellowship of the Ring, (the good guys) battle Sauron and his minions (the bad guys). This story can be read on the literal level only, but loses much of its impact if the struggle between good and evil is not fully appreciated. (In fact, several critics thought Tolkien’s story was really about the conflicts in World War II, which he denied.)
  • The third level of story is the allegorical level, which was used more in the Greek myths, medieval writing and the Bible than it is used in modern works, including LOTR, because today we view allegory as trite and obvious (although Orwell’s Animal Farm is one such modern example). In allegory, each element of the surface story–each person, place, thing and idea–is a metaphor for something else. Indeed, the surface story may make little sense by itself (although this has not kept some from insisting that the literal level is the only level present). The New Testament Gospels abound with parables, which are short allegorical stories. For example, when Jesus says do not cast pearls before swine, he is not talking about pearls inside oysters and pigs; he is saying do not waste spiritual truths on those unable to understand them. Pearls and swine are both metaphors for other things. Dante calls allegory “a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction.”
  • The fourth level of meaning is the anagogical level, which Dante says, is a level of meaning beyond the senses. It is the spiritual sense of a story, the spiritually higher or super-sensible level. From the Greek, anagoge means uplifting in the spiritual sense, to elevate or lead upwards. Returning to Tolkien, beyond the literal and moral levels, we wonder at the true nature of Gandalf and Galadriel: Who were they? What was the nature of the spiritual realm from which they came? We wonder where Frodo and later Sam sailed off to at the end of the story. “Over Sea,” says Tolkien, but that is a metaphor taken from the Norse myths, and its true meaning is a mystery. Ultimately, we compare our own qualities to these noble Hobbits and wonder to what extent we share them, and if we might have a similar, glorious fate, somehow.

Most stories and myths that have any kind of spiritual dimension have one or more of these levels beyond the apparent literal meaning. In fact, on the allegorical level, the literal meaning may be nonsensical or misleading. Even so, what is true on one level may be complementary or analogous to a truth on another level. Easily seeing that pigs have no use for pearls helps us see that those with no spiritual interest have no use for spiritual truths.

William Irwin Thompson calls myth

a polyphonic fugue. One single myth can be a narrative about the formation of the solar system, the seasonal movement of planets and stars, the formation of civilization in the shift from Neolithic matriarchy to the patriarchal state, the development of consciousness in the emergence from the Great Mother to the fully individuated being, and, finally, the transformation of the central nervous system in the yogic achievement of illumination. (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, p. 213.)

In all of what follows, we will take care to look past the literal level, which may have a different or even contradictory sense than do the other levels. The gravest mistake is to take the literal or moral meanings as the truth, and discard the allegorical and anagogical meanings, or miss them all together. For this is to insist that all there is to life are the literal “A” influences and ignore the metaphorical and symbolic “B” influences, which is how the spiritual realm–the realm accessible to The Few–interpenetrates the material realm. The Many are content with the literal and moral levels of life, and are insensitive to the anagogical level. The Fool learns to discriminate the difference between “A” and “B” influences, and trains himself or herself to become aware of and act upon the latter. Only in this manner may the Few be approached.

There is one more parallel of meaning to be noted. This is the hermetic axiom, “As above, so below,” which we will consider in the sense of, “As without, so within.” Just as one event can have both literal and metaphorical meanings, a symbol may have both an objective or ontological meaning and a meaning interior to a human being. For example, a serpent, in addition to being an ordinary snake, may be a symbol of wisdom, or a tempter, as portrayed in the story of Adam and Eve, or as a symbol of the Shakti energy called kundalini, coiled three and a half times in the mooladhara or root chakra. Mt. Meru is a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology where many of the Hindu gods reside. It is considered to be the center of the universe, but also a point located above the head in the location of the sahasrara or crown chakra. This double meaning sheds light on the true nature of the gods, and the potential nature of ourselves, that is unobtainable from either meaning alone. A third example, which we will develop further on, are the various modes of communication available in the modern world–telephone, fax, email, and so on–as metaphors for innate abilities we all have to telecommunicate without any of the equipment that seems necessary at first glance. Again, a surprising idea when inner and outer ideas are combined.

Just as literal and anagogical levels cannot always be separated, neither can inner and outer senses of the same symbol or concept always be separated. To insist on one sense, to the exclusion of the other senses, is to miss valuable clues as to the total meaning conveyed. If the result of such compound symbolic meanings seem to blur the distinction between what is Self and what is Other, this is usually exactly what is intended. The desired effect is to weaken the hold the ego of the personality holds over the true Self. A god in any religious or spiritual tradition seems at first to be as distinct as possible from a human contemplating that god, but the esoteric (inner or hidden) traditions of those same religions teach how we as humans can become those gods and goddesses in a sense that is not metaphorical but literal. This is, it need not be said, extremely difficult, and few accomplish it fully. But the Fool, by disposition and force of will, dares to try.