Burne-Jones, Edward; Psyche Giving the Coin to Charon (Palace Green Murals); Birmingham Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/psyche-giving-the-coin-to-charon-palace-green-murals-33727


Soul-making does imply a metaphysical fantasy, and the implied metaphysics of archetypal psychology are best found in The Dream and the Underworld (Hillman 1979a), which elaborates the relations between psyche and death. There the dream is taken as the paradigm of the psyche – where the psyche presents itself encompassing the ego and engaged in its own work (dream-work). From the dream, one may assume that the psyche is fundamentally concerned with its imaginings and only secondarily concerned with subjective experiences in the day-world which the dream transforms into images, i.e., into soul. The dream is thus making soul each night. Images become the means of translating life-events into soul, and this work, aided by the conscious elaboration of imagination, builds an imaginal vessel, or “ship of death” (a phrase taken from D. H. Lawrence), that is similar to the subtle body, or ochema of the Neoplatonists (cf. Avens 1982b).1 

For the past fifteen years, I have strived to relate my imaginings of Soul, as well as other thinkers’. The images have been polluted through the centuries by well-meaning religious zealots and philosophers who simply did not understand the vast landscape that Soul encompasses, nor its purpose in the affairs of  humans. 

The above quotation from James Hillman is, I think, very profound. In a very succinct manner, he spells out the primary process that is occurring within all of us. The importance of the dream being “the paradigm of the psyche,” which is really a process whereby our death-vehicle, our ochema, is being constructed nightly. It will, someday, ferry us over the Great Divide.

The goal of life is death, but death is not a telos. We build our death-vessel day by day. Within us, there are laborers toiling, hammering, nailing, constructing, tearing down, rebuilding. This is an ongoing phenomenon, day after day, year after year. We do not begin to “get our house in order” at the point of death, but at birth.

Our ochema can be as ornate as we can imagine, or as banal. It depends on how we engage in imagination.

I have come to embrace the idea that Soul is the death-body I am constructing in this life to allow me to successfully cross to the next experience. Soul is a bridge between worlds, the intermediate place between all polarities, the metaxy. It’s an old belief, one that is rarely discussed anymore. Plato described the idea of metaxy in the Symposium.  All that I experience in this world is part of the construction of the death-vessel, my soul. All the suffering I endure is for the good of my death-body. 

Professor of Classics, John F. Finamore, writes,

The vehicle is intended to join together two diametrically opposed entities: the incorporeal soul and the corporeal body. It is, therefore, neither material nor immaterial, but a mean between these two extremes.2 

The idea has been discussed on this blog at length in years past. A search of the term, “metaxy,” should prove fruitful. This intermediate reality, this death-vessel, is, according to Neoplatonists and Archetypal psychologists, being built every night by our dreams. The characters who emerge from our unconscious are busy putting it all together for us. The finished “reality” (for want of a better term) is what will usher us through the portals of the dead, and into the unknown. 

Why do we need a death-vessel? Because the waters are rising, and we need an ark of safety to carry us into eternity, lest we be swallowed by the oceans of the unconscious. D.H. Lawrence says it best:

The Ship of Death
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.
And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.
Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.
The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thundrous, on the hardened earth.
And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! can’t you smell it?
And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.
And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?
With daggers, bodkins, bullets, man can make
a bruise or break of exit for his life;
but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?
Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder
ever a quietus make?
O let us talk of quiet that we know,
that we can know, the deep and lovely quiet
of a strong heart at peace!
How can we this, our own quietus, make?
Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.
And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.
Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.
Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.
Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.
Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul
has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.
We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying
and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us
and soon it will rise on the world, on the outside world.
We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying
and our strength leaves us,
and our soul cowers naked in the dark rain over the flood,
cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life.
We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.
A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements
fitting and ready for the departing soul.
Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.
There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening black darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.
And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.
It is the end, it is oblivion.
And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.
Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.
Wait, wait, the little ship
drifting, beneath the deathly ashy grey
of a flood-dawn.
Wait, wait! even so, a flush of yellow
and strangely, O chilled wan soul, a flush of rose.
A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.
The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell
emerges strange and lovely.
And the little ship wings home, faltering and lapsing
on the pink flood,
and the frail soul steps out, into the house again
filling the heart with peace.
Swings the heart renewed with peace
even of oblivion.
Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.3


Works Cited

Finamore, John F. Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul. The American Philological Association, 1985.

Hillman, James. Archetypal Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 1) . Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.

Lawrence, D.H. The Ship of Death. 1932


  1. Hillman, loc. 412
  2. Finamore, p. 1
  3. Lawrence, The Ship of Death, 1932

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