Emissaries of the Soul

Opportunity and Regret, by Girolamo da Carpi (1541)


Words, like angels, are powers that have invisible power over us. 1

Hidden deep in the mists of time is a truth we have almost completely forgotten. The words that make up human languages possess real power, especially what James Hillman called “big words.” These kinds of words have inherent substance, being powers unto themselves. Some examples are words like “Being,” “Spirit,” “Justice,” “Truth,” and God.”  We once capitalized these words to imbue them with power. Our Western scientific and philosophic traditions have hammered away at the innate power of such words, via nominalism, until now they are merely viewed as labels for things, devoid of any substance of their own whatsoever. It was partly nominalism that resulted in Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God. By Nietzsche’s day, the word, “God,” had been emptied of all its previous potency in human language.

In reality, words are carriers of soul. Hillman calls them “angels,” referring to the original meaning of the word as “messenger,” or “message-bearer.” The messages they carry contain soul. These soul-messages are conveyed from one psyche to another. Things that have the utmost importance for the soul can be transmitted via words from psyche to psyche. Words are images, and, as with all images, meanings are myriad. Hillman goes so far as to say that “words are persons.” 2 Continuing, he says,

This aspect of the word transcends their nominalistic definitions and context and evokes in our souls a universal resonance. Without the inherence of soul in words, speech would not move us, words would not provide forms for carrying our lives and giving sense to our deaths. “Death” itself, and “soul,” “Gods,” “persons,” would become, as Antiphon the Sophist said thousands of years ago, mere conventions and artifacts.” 3

Entire mythologies, etymologies, and genealogies have been created and preserved via words. Think of the myths and stories that move us so overwhelmingly, the Greek myths, especially (I speak as a Western man). These were not always written down. Originally, they were transmitted via oral tradition, through memorization. There is something very powerful about memorizing certain sets of words. In doing so, one ingests them so completely that the power inherent in them becomes part of the person. This is why memorization plays such an important role in the mystery religions.

The personification of the powers of the psyche began with the Greeks and Romans, who actually erected shrines to worship and propitiate them. These possessed names like Fame, Fortune, Hope, Insolence, Mercy, and Peace. These are “big words” that contain innate substance and potency. Hillman says that

many consider this practice to merely animistic, but it was really an act of ensouling; for there is no question that the personifying of the ancient Greeks and Romans provided altars for configurations of the soul. When these are not provided for, when these Gods and daemons are not given their proper place and recognition, they become diseases–a point Jung made often enough. 4

The primary reasons why the personification of words is so important is to provide containers for the soul that can be transmitted to other psyches. We gain knowledge of the soul as a people, but also individually. These soul receptacles enable us, like in a mirror, to catch images of its many aspects. The act of personifying

offers another avenue of loving, of imagining things in a personal form so that we can find access to them with our hearts. Words with capital letters are charged with affect, they jump out of their sentences and become images. The tradition of depersonifying recognized full well that personified words tend to become cherished and sacred, affecting the reason of the heart. But this very recognition, that personifying emotionalizes, shifts the discussion from nominalism to imagination, from head to heart. 5

To the soul spelunker, words are very important, indeed. Each ensouled word is a cavern to be explored. Its meanderings may take many twists and turns that may turn out to be quite dangerous. As long as we are following after the soul and Her many persons, we can be assured we will not be lost.

  1. Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975, p. 9.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid., p. 9-10
  4. ibid., p. 13-14.
  5. ibid., p.14
Share Button