(Essay 1) The Power of Metaphor: Spelling Ourselves, Our World by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

Meet Mago Contributor Glenys Livingstone.

[This essay is part 1 of an edited excerpt from the Introduction to her book PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion.]

Metaphor is not merely a matter of language, it is pervasive in everyday thought and action; “the way we think, what we experience, and what we do everyday is very much a matter of metaphor.”[i] Lakoff and Johnson say that conventional ways of talking about anything “pre-suppose a metaphor that we are hardly ever conscious of”.[ii] They make the point that “the metaphor is not merely in the words we use”, that it is in our very concept of the thing.[iii] They say that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”;[iv] so (for my purpose here), “the Divine” or however one names what is Deepest in existence, is perhaps not ultimately gendered: that is, not female and not male, though the metaphor used may suggest a likeness. The Webster’s Dictionary defines “metaphor” as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”,[v] and further that metaphor is an implied comparison, as opposed to an explicit comparison. As Starhawk notes, “an overt metaphor is a map, a description we may find useful or not, may accept or reject”,[vi] whereas if the metaphor is covert it is free “to restructure our reality by leading us to accept the map as the territory without questioning where we are going or whose interests are being served.”[vii] The fact that the Divine, the Essence of existence, is so ubiquitously called upon as “God”, systematically influences the shape “the Divine” takes, and the way it is talked about.[viii] It suggests a likeness and it is usually a covert metaphor that restructures our reality without question.

Inanna/Ishtar in "Mother of Living Nature" by Adele Getty, p.39
Metaphor systematically influences the shape ‘the Divine’ takes … structures our reality

“The Divine” may be metaphorised many other ways – “vibratory flux”, “creativity”, “relatedness”.[ix] Thus I frequently imply the Divine in many terms – “Deep”, “Change”, “Dark” – and capitalize the terms to signify this. I feel this is a necessary process for the changing and diversifying of minds. Mary Daly points out that “the word metaphor is derived from the Greek meta plus pherein, meaning to bear, carry” and that “metapherein means to transfer, change”.[x] Metaphors may thus “transform/transfer our perceptions of reality, enabling us to ‘break set’ and thus to break out of linguistic prisons.”[xi]

Joseph Campbell describes a functioning mythology as “an organization of metaphorical figures connotative of states of mind that are not finally of this or that place and time …”,[xii] and such are made known in visual art and verbal narrative (written and oral). It is applied to communal life by way of a calendar of symbolic rites, festivals and ceremonies, that enable the community to participate “with its universe in eternity.”[xiii] Campbell notes how, in the popular mind, “such metaphors of transcendence” get locked into chiefly functions of control and socializing, but that “the way of the mystic and of proper art (and we might also add, religion) is of recognizing through the metaphors an epiphany beyond words.”[xiv] Campbell was convinced of the necessity – “a social as well as spiritual necessity”[xv] – of a new mythology that he felt was “already implicit among us as knowledge a priori, native to the mind.”[xvi]

At the heart of the metaphorical change that re-storying (and thus re-spelling) may enable, is a change of the felt need in the cultural psyche to “slay the dragon” – to be free of the matter, out of which we and all, arise. Re-storying may enable “embracing of the dragon”. The Dragon – the serpent – represents a cosmology that assents to change, IS about change. Our culture and its metaphors have craved permanence, and are unable to deal with loss – which is essentially Change. The “Moon Goddess”, the Female Metaphor in Her three aspects, passes through waning into the Darkness, from which there is renewal. Brian Swimme says that to enter into the terror of loss, offers the opportunity to accept what is real, and it is the way to unite with what is eternal.[xvii] I am not suggesting that human hunger for the eternal is aberrant; it may be met, in and through the Matter in which we are.

In my Search, which I have been able to also document academically, I have been seeking the essential nature of all things. This was also the aim of the early Greek philosophers and they called this essential nature “physis”. As Capra notes: “The term ‘physics’ is derived from this Greek word and meant therefore, originally, the endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things.”[xviii] My quest is therefore very related to physics poetically – physics itself and my quest are both a kind of Poetry.[xix] My understanding of “Goddess” is as a creative metaphor for the essential nature of all things. In Her three aspects, She is the “Triskele” of energy, the dynamics of Cosmogenesis, “the innate triplicity of the Cosmos … that runs through every part of the universe”[xx] and is available to all. DrumThe “triskele” is a sacred symbol of the Celtic peoples, which consists of three interlocking spirals or sometimes three bent legs radiating from a centre, understood to be in perpetual motion. To draw upon this triple-limbed wheel was to “grace our lives with an ever-living energy that encompasses the beginning, middle and end of everything we undertake”.[xxi] The term “triskele” itself, and its symbolic representation, could be said to be metaphor for the triple-action biospheric reality described by Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky:

At each moment there are a hundred million million tons of living matter in the biosphere, always in a state of movement. The mass is decomposed, forms itself anew mainly by multiplication. Generations are thus born … unceasingly.[xxii]

She – and We – may be described with overt, poetic, and scientific metaphor that links us directly to the Territory in which we actually are, and thus re-structure our reality, our everyday experience and actions, accordingly. It is my feeling that “She” – the Female Metaphor – is central to the new mythology that Joseph Campbell spoke of: for She is already implicit among us as knowledge a priori, native to the mind.

© Glenys Livingstone 2014


[i] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.3.

[ii] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.5.

[iii] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.5.

[iv] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.5.

[v] Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language, p.1420.

[vi] Starhawk, Truth or Dare, p.21.

[vii] Starhawk, Truth or Dare, p.21.

[viii] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.7. They are speaking of metaphor in general using the example of the word “argument”. They are not adressing “the Divine” specifically here, though they do address metaphor and the “ineffable God” (sic) in Philosophy in the Flesh pp.567-568), saying that “passionate spirituality” requires metaphor.

[ix] Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: the Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, p.25.

[x] Mary Daly, Pure Lust, p.26.

[xi] Mary Daly, Pure Lust, p.26

[xii] Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p.21.

[xiii] Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p.20.

[xiv] Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p.21

[xv] Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p.21

[xvi] Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, p.19.

[xvii] Brian Swimme, Canticle to the Cosmos video 5.

[xviii] Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, p.6.

[xix] I capitalize this term, as I use it in the sense of a language – a language of the Universe – much as one would capitalize “English” or “French”. “English” or “French” are not generally thought of consciously as “sacred” media, although the terms are frequently treated as such. In this book, “Poetry” is definitely being used to refer to a sacred medium. [xx] Caitlin Matthews, The Celtic Spirit, p.366.

[xxi] Caitlin Matthews, The Celtic Spirit, p.366.

[xxii] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.34.

The image of Inanna/Ishtar is from Adele Getty, Goddess, Mother of Living Nature, p.39.


Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. NY: HarperPerrenial, 1995.

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. NY: Bantam, 1975.

Daly, Mary. Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy.Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. NY: Basic Books, 1999.

____________________________ Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.

Matthews, Caitlin. The Celtic Spirit. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.

Spretnak, Charlene. States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. SF: HarperCollins, 1993.

Starhawk. Truth or DareSF: Harper and Row, 1990.

Swimme, Brian. Canticle to the Cosmos. DVD series, 1990. http://www.storyoftheuniverse.org/dvd/canticle-to-the-cosmos-2/

Vernadsky, Vladimir. The Biosphere. London: Synergetic Press, 1986 (1929).

Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1986.

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