The Ship, the Island and the Soul
The story of the Shipwrecked Sailor was written in the Middle Kingdom era of ancient Egypt. It is approximately 4000 years old.
In ancient Egypt, a ship was returning to the harbour. The sailors looked forward to celebrating their return, but their commander refused to leave his cabin. He sat on his bed, frozen and terrified. The ship’s lieutenant tried to comfort him by showing interest in his reason for not leaving. The commander admitted that he failed the adventure’s commercial mission and was afraid the pharaoh would order his death. His fear was so great that the wise lieutenant decided to tell him about his past adventure.
The Lieutenant’s Story
I was sailing with a crew of 120 experienced sailors, but despite their bravery and offerings to the gods, they could not overcome the rage of a mighty storm. The ship was split into pieces, and all the sailors drowned. I was the only one who survived. I was floating on the green waves, carried on a broken piece of wood for days, which seemed like an eternity until one starry night, I was placed on an island.
On the island, all my needs were fulfilled. I found fresh, sweet water, delicious vegetables, fruits, and fish. I had plenty of rest and burnt offerings to the gods, thanking them for saving my life. One afternoon, I was awakened by an earth-cracking noise. When I opened my eyes, I saw a huge golden serpent with the face of a man, a big beard, and eyebrows made of real lapis lazuli. He was coiled up in front. I was petrified and even more devastated when he asked me in a demanding voice: “Who is it who has brought you, little one; who is it who has brought you? If you delay in telling me who has brought you to this island, I shall see that you find yourself as ashes, transformed into one who was not seen”.
I could not reply because I didn’t hear his words with my ears, though he was speaking to me. I heard him without hearing, and I lost all knowledge of myself in his presence. Gently, he took me to his nest and did not harm me in any way. My fears gradually disappeared. I felt safe in my new abode. One day, the serpent told me: “Do not fear, do not fear, little one, do not turn white. You have reached me. Destiny has allowed you to live. Fate has brought you to this Island of the Ka, the island of the soul, within which there is not anything which does not exist.” The serpent explained that those who suffered misfortune, like me, and who acknowledge their pain and share their stories with others can also experience the goodness in life. He then told me his story, which took place on the island.
“I lived on the island with 75 members of my serpent family. One of them was my beloved daughter. Then, a star fell from the sky and exploded on the island. The great fire burnt everybody except me. But I died within when I discovered their heap of corpses.” The serpent turned his gaze, now looking at me, and said “Surrender to your desire to change the past. You were unable to save your crew from drowning. You will return home and will dwell with your loved ones.”
Excited about the news that I’d return home, I thanked the serpent and offered him precious gifts, jewels, incense, and oils from the treasures of Egypt. But the serpent declined my gifts. Instead, he asked me to share the story of the good serpent on the island of the soul with my people.
Here I am, I said to the commander, sharing my story of misfortune that turned into a life of good fortune. Surrender to your desire to control and change your misfortune. Come out of the ship and be truthful to the pharaoh.
The bitter commander looked at my hopeful face and said in a dull voice: “Do not act as an astute man, my friend. Who would give water to the duck at daybreak, when it is to be slaughtered in the morning?”
Timeless Wisdom. What do we need it for?
Who will listen to counsel given by a serpent on a mythical island? In tackling past, present or even future misfortune, is it practical to retreat to the island of the soul? Is it not a tale of mere escapism? What’s the point of the island of the soul when engaging with practical daily issues? It may be a children’s fairy tale.
The story of the Shipwrecked Sailor was written in the Middle Kingdom era of ancient Egypt. It is approximately 4000 years old. Prof. Peter Der Manuelian of the Harvard Department of Anthropology contends that the story of “The Shipwrecked Sailor” should take its place among the better pieces of wisdom literature, and its theme could be considered as applicable today as it was to its contemporaries. It is a concise and practical manual for living.” Moreover, “its simplicity of style serves to contribute all the more to the force of its message.”
In addition, the story demonstrates the best of ancient transpersonal literature in which the god/s, though honoured, are not blamed or held responsible for natural disasters and human misfortune. The individual Self is at the centre of the quest, and the soul is the arena where the pursuit transpires. The story of the one is the story of the people; the soul is personal and transpersonal in its capacity to know and guide the Self in the World.
The Imaginal Island of the Soul
When the lieutenant reaches the island, the hieroglyphic text indicates that it is the island of Ka, i.e., the island of the soul. According to ancient Egyptian belief, the Ka is the double of the living individual. It can endure for eternity and encompasses all the characteristics of the mortal person. The island is, therefore, the imaginal abode of the double and includes all that sustains the soul. There is plenty of physical and spiritual sustenance to be found, and the serpent, as the consciousness of the island, stirs an awakening.
The Imaginal Art of Self-Knowledge and Self-Realisation
In contemporary terms, finding wisdom, guidance and solutions to existential dilemmas in the imaginal realm of the soul is a psycho-spiritual practice initially developed by C.G. Jung, James Hillman, Marion Woodman and later by many other practitioners. It has been utilised for over a century in various holistic and creative therapies and cultural and artistic practices. The imaginal has a distinct flavour as it differs from mere imagination or fantasy. Imaginal method of active imagination does not require any belief system but a willingness to explore the unchartered territories of one’s psyche or consciousness without needing additional stimuli or unique talents. The imaginal process is self-led, and self-consciousness is maintained throughout; thus, losing oneself on an island in the middle of nowhere is unlikely. Yet, there are many surprises, unexpected encounters and synchronicities.
Jung’s Red Book is the first manuscript to illustrate and record imaginal proceedings. The Alef Trust’s Spirituality and Imaginal course provides MSc students and open learners an Imaginal Laboratory for safe and informed imaginal practice and research.
Adventures in the Imaginal
I was drawn to the imaginal practice through my practice-based MA and PhD research in film, dance, performance and contemporary art. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by the profound layers of the psyche and the imaginal archetypal patterns as they are manifested in the arts and in the artefacts of ancient cultures. Later, I studied these archetypal patterns in contemporary cultural productions and their function in mental health, healing, self-knowledge and self-realisation. I teach the Spirituality and the Imaginal course on the basis of over 30 years of perpetual research and practice.
The imaginal is always mesmerising. It can be found in the mystery we see in nature, music or works of art that take our breath away and keep us wordless. The imaginal is in the creative link that connects the vision with its manifestation, the idea with its realisation. James Hillman termed the imaginal practice as soul-making and cleverly connected the individual soul with the environment and the mind with the world.
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the imaginal practice is the auspicious synchronicities that occur that help complete the parts of any puzzle. The only requirement is the willingness to leave the confines of one’s cabin and be ready for the adventures on the imaginal island.
Der Manuelian, P. (1992). Interpreting the Shipwrecked Sailor. H. von Ingrid Gamer-Wallert und W. Helck, Festschrift für Emma Btunner-Traut, Attempto Verlag Tübingen, 223-233.
Text and images by Dr Lila Moore