There be dragons!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Theotokos and the Madonna and Child

In use as early as the 3rd century AD (the official proclamation of Mary as "God Bearer" was at the council of Ephesus in 431) the Theotokos is the typical Orthodox depiction of the Virgin and her son.  A combination of two Greek words, Θεός "god" and τόκος "childbirth", the image conveys primarily the theological doctrine of the hypostatic union; Jesus as both god and man.  The general formula for the artwork consists of a regally seated woman, clothed in black, dark blue, or dark red, holding, not a child, but a little prince or king on her lap.  Normally the figures are surrounded by the uniform golden background of the celestial illumination. The Madonna and Child is a later, Renaissance depiction, the title stemming from the Italian word for "My Lady" (ma donna).  This formula for depicting the Virgin and her son normally involves a naked or lightly clothed baby, more relaxed posture of the figures, softer colors, and a heightened sense of realism in figure and background.  Though both forms of artwork are depicting the Virgin and Child, there is a great chasm of difference between the two forms of art.

The Theotokos has the Virgin Mary looking directly at the viewer. Her eyes are penetrating and imperial and the viewer is put in the position of vassal or servant appealing to a Queen (a Regina, or Βασίλισσα, in Greek).  Moreover, the Theotokos forces the viewer to look upon a certain truth, not just the regal nature of the mother of god but the "otherness" of the divine realm (Kadosh, in Jewish, or Άγιος, in Greek) .  

Both she and the child Jesus are very stylized, rigid, as though presenting a reality that is idyllic but very removed from common human toil and suffering.  Yet the depictions are beautiful.  They glow with gold and light, a static gold patina suffusing the background and reminding us of the eternal brilliance of the divine realm.  
Both theotokos and child are also direct representations of the geometry that organizes their composition.  The three circles of earth, heaven, and enlightenment; the golden rectangle surrounding them; the golden spiral emanating out from her eye to her halo to his little body.  The whole work isn't just based on geometry, it is geometry; as though the pure world of mathematics and the complex world of the physical are separated only by a thin veil. 

Nor is the theology of the composition without meaning.  Not only does the Theotokos depict the intense doctrine of the hypostatic union, so clearly laid out at the council of Nicea in 325, it also embodies the relationship of Christ to the Earth Mother, and thus the metaphysical to the physical world.  The deep black of the Virgin's robe indicates that she is a form, a trope, of the ancient image of the chaos mother; Tiamat.  In the ancient world this figure was not "evil" but was darkness and chaos, Tehom, the deep, out of which life emerges and by which life is eventually engulfed.  

Yet in the Theotokos the Tehom (Tiamat) has been transformed into the mother of god.  She is our queen, our Vasilissa, but is herself the being out of which the salvific form of the incarnate word emerges - surrounding him, engulfing him, yet also enthroning him.  Just as the old formula of the sun god defeating the Tiamat dragon, the Christos "walks" as it were through the middle of the defeated/converted darkness.  

What does this say about our suffering and the darkness (The Chaos) that begins and ends life?  Is it made holy by Christ?  Is her true nature revealed as no longer sinister and horrific as much as imperial?  

The Theotokos stands in powerful contrast to the Madonna and Child of the Renaissance.  Early Frankish and medieval depictions of the Virgin and child frequently parallel the Orthodox Theotokos, employing a stylized posture, exaggerated features, imperial stance, and adult, ruling baby.  By the time of the Renaissance artists of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, a rather new image emerges in Europe.  
Here the eyes of the Virgin are frequently averted from the viewer of the painting - looking at the child, off into the distance, or down in modesty.  The viewer stands not as suppliant to a Regina but as onlooker or witness to some miraculous reality.  Yet the viewer could just as easily be looking at his own wife and child, or sister and nephew.

Both mother and child are much softer, chubbier, more human; sometimes even painted with flaws or distinguishing marks.  The Theotokos could have been any woman and no woman but the Madonna seems to be a woman one could meet in the market or street; the model for each one is almost identifiable as a particular woman known to the artist.  As the Theotokos is a universal ideal, the Madonna is a particular; this woman, this baby.  

In contrast to the uniform background of brilliance in the Orthodox depictions, the background of the Madonna & Child is frequently an actual scene from Italy or Germany or France which, although highly symbolic, still could be the scene out anyone's back door.  Again, the scene is focused on the particular rather than oriented toward the universal. 

The colors of deep black and brilliant gold in the Eastern depictions are often changed to deep blue, red, and white, or even diaphanous material; no longer the colors of the mysterious deeps, but the night or evening sky (with stars even), the dawn, and the sunset.  Halos which in the Theotokos image are remarkably pronounced even if blending with the gold background, almost disappear in the Renaissance depictions becoming thin, wispy hints of holiness that ornament the heads of the characters.  Again, it would seem that the distinguishing mark of sanctity cannot be seen in the natural world, and similarly is barely seen in these paintings, creating a far less universal and more particular rendition.

Madonna and child might be smiling or playing with each other, looking at a book or bauble, or greeting visitors; actions which could be engaged by anyone on earth and which seem to show that in the daily commonplace activities lies a hidden mystery.  

In almost every Renaissance painting there is an underlying geometry which, once noted, determines the composition of the piece. Yet the geometry is not so readily apparent as in the Theotokos. The geometry of the Madonna paintings is not so noticeable, though still present as though it had gone deeper into the incarnate flesh - embedded and not so obvious.  Again, this is similar to the everyday experience of the individual who does not immediately see geometry ruling the physical world.  The paintings, though governed by geometry, do not immediately display the universal language of geometry but rather the particular language of the world of things around us.

In the Madonna paintings, the baby is a fat little baby - not the "little man" (homunculus) that rules imperially from the lap of the Regina.  One can see the little fellow, a putto in Italian, making the sign of peace to the viewer, looking directly out of the painting, or doing an activity beyond his age level (such as reading a book), but his interaction is normally with the Virgin herself - leaning against her, suckling from her breast, chin-chucking her or playing with her hair.  He acts not as a regent but as a normal, playful, baby might act with his mother.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Child frequently is naked, lightly clothed, or nude - his little man parts hanging out for all to see.  As Leo Steinberg so accurately notes in "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion" this detail is of remarkable significance as it shows not only the "maleness" of the incarnate being but his ability to sire children and eventual desire to "impregnate" all the world with his image (metaphorically speaking).  Such a thing is inconceivable in the Theotokos image which so vividly proclaims the "otherness" of the little man - or perhaps more accurately, is attempting to show both the otherness of his divinity and the intimacy of his humanity.
Therein, perhaps, lies the real distinction between the two forms.  The Theotokos attempts to show the hypostatic union, but in so doing sacrifices the familiarity of the commonplace, physical world in lieu of an unfamiliar eternal divinity.  The Madonna & Child, attempting to depict the immediacy of the incarnation almost loses the perfection of the eternal divinity.  Both forms of artwork are attempting to depict a paradox, namely, how can Christ be both god and man?  If he is man does he not lose the god part in the gritty, flawed, particulars of daily existence?  If he is god, is there any room for knowing  mortal suffering in the midst of his divine, beautiful and terrifying eternity?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thracian Horsemen, Bellerophon, Saint George

I've been pondering the study of changes in artistic imagery.  Not so much what changes are made in imagery as the repetition of similar images throughout time.  It isn't that people just repeat earlier patterns (though they do) so much as that they employ patterns they have learned and have in their memory (phantasmagoria) in order to express a thought or insight similar to what the earlier pattern tried to express.  So not that "we do this b/c we always do this" (even though tradition is frequently the motivating factor) but rather "we're doing it this way b/c it expresses what we want to express"... "but with this alteration".  The alteration Bernard Batto successfully calls "mythopoeic speculation" - the change or alteration in a traditionally mythic image to express a new idea or insight.  What, then, is the study of these similarities called?  I want to coin the term "archetypal morphology" - not b/c I think Jung was correct with his definition of archetypes as "a collectively-inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present in individual psyches" but rather as "a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology".

So for instance, the Thracian hero

which is repeated in the character of Bellerophon

and in Christian art as Saint George

seems to be an example of mythopoeic speculation on the part of the artists.  I, looking at these things and knowing that they had cultural interconnectivity, would be examining archetypal morphology between the three pieces; what is similar? what changed? what are the artists trying similarly to express in each? what is the underlying principle involved?  what is the mathematics governing the composition of all three pieces?  or perhaps, can their be an interrelatedness between works that are attempting to express the same notion such as this:
Osiris in the Underworld (note the flail and the crozier)
The ChiRo - symbol of Christ as Lord of the Resurrection

or this

Horus on the left; Osiris in the Underworld; the Ogdoad 
(Eight gods of creation; male/female, brother/sister, husband/wife pairs = four major powers)
The Tetragrammaton; sacred word of the creating deity in Jewish mythos
Iesus Nazareneus Rex Iudaeorum; posted over the head of the recreating god about to enter the Underworld

or this

Apollo (god of the Sun, Art and Reason) with the four-horse (Ogdoad) chariot

Dionysus at leisure surrounded with the fructifaction of Nature

Christus Invictus; Roman tile mosaic depicting Christ driving a four-horse chariot, rays of the sun emerging from his brow, surrounded by the fructifaction of Nature (grape vines)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, Eros and Psyche

It's been awhile since I blogged (all summer, really - too much hanging out at the pool and enjoying myself) but here is a sketch idea.

The Egyptian "Opening of the Mouth Ceremony" consisted of the following steps
  • Episodes 1–9 Preliminary rites
  • Episodes 10–22 Animation of the statue
  • Episodes 23–42 Meat offerings aligned with upper Egypt
  • Episodes 43–46 Meat offerings aligned with lower Egypt
  • Episodes 47–71 Funerary meal
  • Episodes 72–75 Closing rites

It was performed on statues and effigies of humans with the idea that the spirit power connected to the statue would become a living thing in the divine realm.  With a deceased person the ritual united the two main parts of the soul, the Ka (the vital spark) with the Ba (individual personality) in order to form the Akh (fully alive man, or effective man - re: "Cosmic Man"); the other parts of the soul in Egyptian being

  • The Ib (the heart)
  • The Sheut (the shadow)
  • The Ren (the name)

This ceremony is a parallel to the resurrection mythology of Osiris/Ra/Horakhti who descends into the Duat, fights Apophis, and returns to his zenith as the solar, or "cosmic" form - a pattern the Egyptians referred to as Ma'at and Greeks later adopted as the Logos; as above, so below.

"The idea of a purely immaterial existence was so foreign to Egyptian thought that when Christianity spread in Egypt they borrowed the Greek word psyche to describe the concept of soul and not the term Ba."

This led me to think that perhaps there is a connection between the story of Eros and Psyche and the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.  

All stories have their origins in prior stories (mythopoeic speculation) and so those who have ears can hear the echoes of previous cultures in each story; not that the stories are the same, b/c stories change and morph over time - frequently improving on prior stories or losing elements of prior stories or gathering other elements of story like barnacles on a ship.  Thus what we have are "Echoes" not identities.

Still, Psyche ("the soul") thinks her beloved, Eros, is a monster - she thinks that the reality of her faith/love is a horror rather than a blessing.  In seeking to discern "the truth" she sees for a moment his real beauty but then loses him due to her mistrust.  She has to wander alone and in pain through foreign lands, performing labors and rituals for Aphrodite in order to win Eros back.  Her last labor involves a "box of the beauty of Persephone, queen of the underworld" - a box which Psyche opens (like Orpheus turning to see Eurydice) and immediately she falls into a sleep/death.  Only the love of Eros returning to her brings her back to life and she is raised up to divine status, apotheosized.

The parallel of Psyche (as the invididual soul) to Ba and Eros (as the vital spark of life) to Ka is startling.  The two are reunited in a ceremony that involves an "eating" of sorts (a wedding feast, or funeral banquet), whereupon Psyche, the soul, is raised up to become a star, a divine, an Akhu.  

The ceremony also has implications further forward in history as the Christian rite, relying on the idea of the soul being apotheosized after death and a "wedding of the lamb" to the Lord of Love, the anointed one (same name used for Osiris).  The Christian ceremony of the Mass, finalized under Charlemagne in 800, had more or less retained the following form from early on:

But where did this structure come from?  If the followers of "The Way" were delving into their own culture they probably were looking to Eleusis and the mythological system of the Thesmophoros, the giver of the law, Demeter/Persephone.  This Greek story is troped in the story of Psyche and Eros; Demeter loses Persephone to death, mother wanders/labors for daughter, the two are united and the daughter, Kore "the virgin" is apotheosized into the "Cosmic Mother", Deimater, becoming part of the eternal pattern of Logos.  Such a story, taken from Egyptian "opening of the mouth ceremony" and stories of the Ka and the Ba united in the Akh would have continued down the ages and found its way into Christian ritual.

Benjamin Urrutia has noted a strong parallel between the words of the Egyptian ceremony and Psalm 51 and numerous connections exist between the prayers of Christianity and the Egyptian hymn to the Sun (Ra).  It is not inconceivable that our Christian religion is a continuation - mythological trope of - the Greek & Egyptian religions which, though distantly removed, still echo in the strains of our Easter and Sunday celebrations.
So as Little Bear says.... "Interesting".

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Nick Mount on The Wasteland

Nick Mount of the University of Toronto gives this excellent speech on Eliot's Wasteland.

Really fine observations, especially the connection to the Fisher King, The Grail, and Percival.  Much thanks to Dr. Mount for his swift and generous response.  (check out the University of Toronto, kids).

The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25)

Here again is an example of my incomprehension.  The passage is Matthew 25 - the wise and foolish virgins.  This has always been close to my heart (hearth?) since as a child we would sing that great Bach cantata about

Rise up with willing feet

Now the first question I would ask is, why ten?   Why do the five and five parthenoi go out to meet the nymphos?  Shouldn't the one bride go out to meet the bridegroom?  Wouldn't the story (if it is only a story) make more sense to be a meeting between the bride and bridegroom?  Are these ten gals seeking to steal away this handsome buck before he gets married?

Then the Basileia, the rule of Ouranos, the heavens, will be made like ten virgins, Parthenoi / Koroi, who took their own lamps went out to meet the veiled one, nymph, bridegroom.

Five of these were insipid, dull, sluggish morons and five sensible, prudent, sagacious.  

Why does the author give the numbers of five and five?  What is the meaning of this passage (instead of just a moral imperative to "be wise")?  Is it five in the realm of the dead and five in the world of the living?  Five is the number of man - what gives here?  Is this more a message about the living vs. the dead (I think it might be)? The Parthenoi represent what Jung called duality, man dead vs. man alive.  

Foolishness is death (and the light that has gone out) whilst Wisdom is life (and thus divine fire that never dies). Education, life, wisdom, fire - all these images are conflated to speak about the man who is awake to his life in the Christ.

Now why parthenoi?  why virgins?  my Greek is not good enough to discern whether the virgins are men or women.  Does it matter?  Is the imagery of five women more significant than five men here?  or is the more important thing the virginal quality, that is, the as yet not sullied person; or the kouroi of the ancient world who descends into the underworld of Hades and comes back in spring to become Ceres?  

Finally, the line isn't really about a "bridegroom" is it?  I mean

ἐξῆλθον εἰς ὑπάντησιν τοῦ νυμφίου.

... if the word is "nymphios" that has the denotation of "bridegroom" but also has the connotation of veiled one, hidden one, cloaked one; - like Cupid is cloaked to Psyche; the reality of the divine is cloaked to the human mind.  So "bridegroom" in this sense is metaphor for meeting the divine; connected to the incomplete stages of metamorphosis in the butterfly (nymph, chrysalis, adult), an ancient metaphor for spiritual transfiguration. 

I don't know.  But I have a gut feeling the answer to all this is "yes".

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Lamellae and the Woman at the Well

This from Nannos Marinatos in her article, The So-called Hell and Sinners in the Odyssey and Homeric Cosmology;

Also very compatible with Egyptian beliefs is the description of Tantalos who is close to a lake from which he cannot drink. This strongly evokes Egyptian New Kingdom texts and vignettes from funerary papyri showing the deceased drinking greedily from a lake to refresh his soul. Water revives the dead (Burkert 2004:87–87; Hornung 1999: 128–30).  The Tantalos scene is evocative also of inscribed Greek Bacchic lamellae. On several specimens from Eleutherna Crete, the deceased demands water because he otherwise will perish: “I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink.” Behind all these texts and images lies the idea that water is essential to preserve the dead and especially their memory.

The idea of water as essential to the dead is an intriguing idea.  The water image shows up in Greek and Egyptian funerary papyri and lamellae, or totenpasses - essentially a document for the dead, on gold, papyrus or clay, that served both as passport to get through the border guards of the underworld and as crib notes for answering the questions asked of the dead that allowed them to progress further.

This from the Wikipedia which describes totenpasses as ...

inscribed tablets or metal leaves found in burials primarily of those presumed to be initiates into OrphicDionysiac, and some ancient Egyptian and Semitic religions. The term may be understood in English as a “passport for the dead.”  The so-called Orphic gold tablets are perhaps the best-known example.

Totenpässe are placed on or near the body as a phylactery, or rolled and inserted into a capsule often worn around the neck as an amulet. The inscription instructs the initiate on how to navigate the afterlife, including directions for avoiding hazards in the landscape of the dead and formulaic responses to the underworld judges.

As Yannis Tzifopoulos most extensively notes, a large majority of these lamellae conjure a scene of meeting at a well near a cypress tree; the traveler asks the well-guardian for water because he is parched and near death.  In return, the guardian asks the traveler who he is and the response is "I am the son of Earth and starry Sky."  

I am parched with thirst and I am perishing; but (give) me to drink from the ever-flowing spring to the right; there! the cypress. ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you from?’ I am the son of Earth and starry Sky.

As Tzifopoulos notes

...the thirst-motif in the lamellae is meant to emphasize the choice the mystes faces as he decides which spring/lake to drink from, a choice which will affect his future condition in Hades; in the moirologia, however, thirstiness only accentuates the unnatural state of the dead, who do not drink and are not instructed to do so, because in fact they cannot.  Moreover, Alexiou admits that the forgetfulness-and-memory motif of the texts on the lamellae has no convincing parallels in the moirologia, as the living are rather encouraged in the laments to remember the dead and not forget them.  In the lamellae, on the other hand, the motif belongs exclusively to the dead, who must remember which of two springs/lakes to drink from in order to be reborn.

What is most exciting about this, to me, is how the stories involved get changed, altered, recycled over time (mythopoeic speculation, as Batto says).  Thus the image of seeking water from a well that appears in the  Eleusynian mysteries shows up later in the gospel of John:

Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. 
There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. 
(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)  
Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.  
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. (John 4)

ην δε εκει πηγη του ιακωβ ο ουν ιησους κεκοπιακως εκ της οδοιποριας εκαθεζετο ουτως επι τη πηγη ωρα ην ωσει εκτη.
ερχεται γυνη εκ της σαμαρειας αντλησαι υδωρ λεγει αυτη ο ιησους δος μοι πιειν.
(οι γαρ μαθηται αυτου απεληλυθεισαν εις την πολιν ινα τροφας αγορασωσιν.) 
λεγει ουν αυτω η γυνη η σαμαρειτις πως συ ιουδαιος ων παρ εμου πιειν αιτεις ουσης γυναικος σαμαρειτιδος ου γαρ συγχρωνται ιουδαιοι σαμαρειταις.
απεκριθη ιησους και ειπεν αυτη ει ηδεις την δωρεαν του θεου και τις εστιν ο λεγων σοι δος μοι πιειν συ αν ητησας αυτον και εδωκεν αν σοι υδωρ ζων.

This, of course, calls into question the historical veracity of John's gospel, but more importantly it illuminates the remarkable artistic depth of the Evangelist.  The land around Jacob's well is covered in cypress trees - the well itself traditionally was given from Jacob to his son, Joseph.  But what is most startling are three details.  First, the disciples have gone to buy meat (τροφας) - showing a concern with the carnal, the things of the physical world - they have sought out provisions from the city of men, not from the afterlife.  Samaria was the land of the north, the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Tirzah.  Israel was captured by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC and most of its citizens were led into captivity.  When these citizens returned to the land after their liberation by the Persians they considered those who had remained, the Samarians, to be outcasts from the religion of life - they were essentially in the land of the dead.  

The woman at the well, then, stands in for one of the denizens of the underworld, an interrogator who holds the key to progression.  The traveler, then, is the Christ who must answer correctly or be barred from entering the land of life.  But here the Evangelist tropes the image.  Christ asks for water ("μοι πιειν") - in an almost identical manner as the lamella above ("ΑΛΛΑ ΠΙΕΜ ΜΟΥ̣"); in other editions of the Greek the wording is slightly changed, but the idea is still the same - I am parched with thirst and am perishing; but (give) me to drink. - πίνω in Greek.

Thus Christ is the traveler asking for the water (υδωρ) and the woman is the guardian blocking the way.  But the scene is troped, b/c Christ proclaims that if she knew who he was she would ask him for living water (υδωρ ζων; or to use the formula of the lamellae, Κ̣ΡΑΝΑΣ ΛΙΕΝΑΩ ΕΠΙ ΔΕ[.]ΙΑ).  He is the source of life in the land of the dead and, as he later would with Lazarus, he comes to raise (resurrect) those who are dead back to life.  Thus at the end of the passage Christ reveals that she has outlived (or consumed, perhaps, like a black widow) five husbands and now lives with a sixth - a number identical to the time of day Christ visits the well (ωρα ην ωσει εκτη) - in the sixth verse, no less.  Reading with an eye toward gematria or kabbalic meaning in the text the conclusion is that the number six has meaning here.  Certainly the sixth hour (from sunrise) would be when the solar power was at its strongest, i.e. noon.  But the sixth hour from entering the land of Samaria, the land of the dead or the duat, would be the sixth hour after sundown or midnight.  Christ is at the greatest ebb of solar power and into that darkness flows the light returning (like the return of the fire to the Church at Easter vigil).

For this reason in verse 25 the woman indicates that she knows eventually a Messiah will come who will be the anointed one:

οιδα οτι μεσσιας ερχεται, ο λεγομενος χριστος: οταν ελθη εκεινος αναγγελει ημιν παντα.
I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.

Essentially she says to him, "Who are you?" (ΤΙΣ Δ'ΕΣΙ ΠΩ Δ'ΕΣΙ)
To this Christ responds εγω ειμι ο λαλων σοι - "I am the one who talks to you." (with echoes of the "I AM" of YHWH, and connections to the later passage of the resurrected Christ speaking to Mary Magdalena at the tomb.)

He is the Christ, the Anointed one, who in Egyptian mythology (and later Greek) was the son of Earth and of Starry Sky - uniting both the material and the spiritual realms in one Incarnation and embodying a parallel to AmunRa (or Horus), the sun deity who, in his form of Osiris, passes through the underworld of the Duat to emerge resurrected with the new dawn.  Unlike the Egyptian story, however, the Christ does not defeat the feminine serpent of Apophis that threatens to consume him but rather sets her free so that she runs back to her own people with news of joy  (whilst the disciples try to ply Christ with food from the land of the living).

The trope is marvelous and ought to bring into focus our own understanding that our hope is in Christ; our hope is that we are Christ, the anointed one.  When we come to that realm in the underworld we, like Christ, move through the land of the dead as children of the Earth and of the Starry Sky.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Heroic Macbeth

A recent essay on Macbeth:

There is a long standing tradition in drama that one doesn’t say the name of the play you are going to see tonight.  It is “The Scottish Play” or sometimes “The Cursed Play” or “MacBee” or even “Mackie Bee”.  This superstitious claptrap may be due to the fact that the play contains witches, murder, betrayal, and even Hecate.  Or it may be because the play normally plays on a black set with black costumes and low lighting so players trip a lot.  On the surface, the literal level, the play seems to be about an individual soul entering into damnation.  Indeed that is one good literal reading of the play.  But I suggest here an alternate view on Shakespeare’s great “Scottish Play.”  The historical context of the play seems to hint to us that instead of rotten villain, evil to the core, Macbeth may arguably be the supreme hero of Shakespearean drama.
The work certainly begins with a heroic, albeit flawed, protagonist.  Macbeth is described as “brave Macbeth” and “noble Macbeth”, fearless in facing his enemies on the battlefield.  Yet he is also “full o’ the milk of human kindness”, reflects on “pity like a naked newborn babe”, and he seems to truly love his wife.  He is, however, very violent – steeped in war – brooding, moody, solitary – a real emo.  He is also childless which, on the Elizabethan stage, constituted a great flaw in the character and, though evidence does exist in the play that Mr. and Mrs. M did have at least one child, by the time of the play’s opening they have gone through the death of “all their pretty chickens… in one fell swoop” and now seem incapable of having any new ones.  There is no Macbeth legacy.
Macbeth’s desire to become more powerful in this world, then, seems his downfall and he enters into a job of murder which he thinks will secure him the throne but secures him only nightmares and further murders and further terror and violence until he sees time as drudgery progressing as “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (which) creeps in the this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.”  At the end he is left wifeless, childless, friendless and he himself proclaims that his life “has fallen into the sewer” – gone down the toilet.  Certainly he seems to have been the architect of his own ruin.
Yet, Shakespeare is never simple.  To understand his nuance we need a little history.  Macbeth was written between 1599 and 1606 - most commonly dated 1606.  Queen Elizabeth I, of the House of Tudor, was already three years dead and her successor, James I, of the House of Stuart, had come to power on 24 March 1603.  James was a learned man and he authored or approved several works, including the King James Bible.  He was very interested in witchcraft and the study of demons and even wrote a book called Daemonology in 1597.  Interest in spiritual powers and the dark arts was, understandably, quite popular in Shakespearean England.
But more to the point, political unrest, suspicion and terror dominated the English populace at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century.  One event in particular seems to have figured prominently in the reign of James I and undoubtedly in Shakespeare’s life as well.  This event was in November of 1605 and involved a plot led by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament and institute a Catholic government in England. 
The plan, called “The Gunpowder Plot” was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James's nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the English Catholic head of state. 
Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot! 
The plot was foiled due to an anonymous letter and at their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the surviving “Powder Men” (as they were called), including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  The Gunpowder Plot was seen by many as an instance of demonic intervention to destroy the holy rule of James. A Treatise of Equivocation, by Henry Garnett a Jesuit priest involved in the plot, was found on one of the plotters.  This treatise was “a book whereupon men may read strange matters.”
Technically “Equivocation” is
“the use of equivocal or ambiguous expressions, especially in order to mislead or hedge; prevarication.  In Logic it is a fallacy caused by the double meaning of a word.”
But according to Janet E. Haley, in her excellent article, “Equivocation and the legal conflict over religious identity in early modern England”, this particular work on equivocation
“…was written to instruct priests sent on a ‘mission’ established by the Society of Jesus, whose aim was to preserve the Catholic Church in the newest heathen territory, England.  The Treatise prepared priests to face the perilous questions asked of them by official interrogators, who as enforcers of the Anglican settlement had devised a series of interrogatories widely known as the ‘bloody questions’ because they could force a Catholic priest to elect between the Queen and the Pope.”
During the latter part of her reign, Elizabeth had brutally persecuted Catholics in England and hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had by 1605, faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed.  During the time of the persecutions Catholic priests were banned from saying the Mass, and could be imprisoned if they did.  To counter this ban the Catholic Church had been sending missionaries, mostly Jesuits, to England to secretly minister to those Catholics who remained.  These missionary Jesuits would be imprisoned, tortured and put to death if found on English soil.  Thus they were encouraged and trained to bend the truth in order to elude their interrogators.  In short, they were encouraged to equivocate.  Janet Haley notes that, in order to survive, Jesuits and Catholics “endorsed a form of response which gave the interpreter no indication of its possible ambiguities.”  Thus, by necessity, men lied to survive and the real motives of a man were inevitably suspect.
This time of distrust and crisis came to be referred to as “the equivocation controversy.” Anti-Catholic sentiment & patriotic support of the king in England were very high.  As is frequently the case, self-reflection & humility were proportionately low.  To survive in such a nationalistic tempest, both clergy and laity had to learn to equivocate; “to beguile the time” they had to “look like the time.”  It is, therefore, highly likely that Shakespeare was writing a piece of artwork which, on the surface, seems to praise authority and give to wrongdoers their just desserts; “a rope, a rope”.  But while doing so, Shakespeare may be “looking like the innocent flower but being the serpent under’t” – he seems to have embodied in the play a remarkable sympathy for the protagonist who may actually be heroic in his final moments.
Indeed in such a climate where to say the wrong thing meant death and to say the right thing sometimes also meant death, where other men tried to hound out the inner workings of an individual’s heart, where conformity and right thinking (orthodoxy) became tools of a totalitarian state, and where violence lurked around every corner how else was one to survive than to hide away behind a mask the real intentions and loyalties one held.  “Mental reservation,” Haley notes, “was a key strategy in preserving secret identity, and it was objectionable in direct proportion to its tendency to undermine a state program increasingly committed to policing personal identity on the basis of religious affiliation.”
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn'orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him. 
One major clue as to what Shakespeare is doing, then, can be found in the speech of The Porter in Act II, 3.
Thomas De Quincey reads the scene as a returning to normalcy after a monstrous deed;
"When the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them."
The door warden is the simple and human in contrast to Macbeth’s monstrous and inhuman nature.  He’s funny and we laugh that such things as treachery and regicide might have merely been night terrors.
Yet as FREDERIC B. TROMLY in his article “Macbeth and His Porter” notes this scene is all too quickly read as comic relief;“(the scene’s) placement immediately after the murder of Duncan suggests that its primary purpose is to adjust and clarify the audience's response to Macbeth's "deed."
Tromly goes on to assert that,
“the Porter's significance resides in his similarities to his master; he shakily stands as a metaphor or figure for Macbeth. The ultimate function of the scene is to humanize the murderer by forcing us to recognize him in the "ordinary" Porter and perhaps in ourselves as well.”
Recall that equivocation is “the use of equivocal or ambiguous expressions, especially in order to mislead or hedge; prevarication.  In Logic it is a fallacy caused by the double meaning of a word.”
Indeed the Porter himself uses the word, linking it to a devil -
Knock, knock! Who's there, in th'other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator. (Act II, 3)
And in fact, this technique of equivocation, of ambiguity or “hedging”, runs throughout Shakespeare’s corpus of work; in Hamlet, Lear, Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice – indeed it constitutes the art of the poet who relies on nuances of words for his craft – sometimes intentionally leading us to one conclusion when really we ought to get another.
What better thing for a playwright to do during a time of national crisis and patriotic fervor, then to learn to equivocate and put his real meaning hidden within an obvious meaning, one that confirmed all the popular sentiments?  For Shakespeare, Inverness represents hell, made so by the crime of regicide, and the door warden represents a porter at the gates of hell.   He himself jokes that, “If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.” But by suggesting that he lets into hell not just the big crimes of murder, torture, or genocide, but the little crimes as well such as putting in cheap cloth instead of expensive, or trying to corner the market on grain futures, the porter character makes a connection between Macbeth and ourselves.  Macbeth is an example of the literary figure of MAN IN EXTREMIS, that is, an ordinary guy put into an extraordinary situation in order to observe how human nature works.  He is “man writ large” to echo a phrase from Plato’s “Republic.”
What happens when someone sins?  Not just the big sins like murder, but the small sins such as lying to a friend, cheating on a test, and getting caught up in patriotic zeal against the Pope or religious zeal against the infidel?  How did men respond during the EXTREMIS of the equivocation controversy?  How would we respond in such extreme situations?
It seems from the start of the play we have a decent from the heroic figure of Cawdor, a man juxtaposed to Macbeth and who seems heroic because
He confess'd his treasons,
Implored your highness' pardon and set forth
A deep repentance: nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle.
But as Duncan notices immediately afterwards
There is no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
The outer face that we show to the world often hides deep, tortured elements of our soul known only to God. "For God seeth not as man seeth: for man looketh upon the outward appearance, but the Lord beholdeth the heart."  Duncan thought he saw a noble man in Cawdor, when behind the smiling mask of courtly obeisance lay a rebel soul.  Conversely, we think we are seeing an evil man in Macbeth and indeed we may be; but what depths of sorrow, what struggles, what fears, and even what nobility might reside within the man, only God knows.
The play seeks to answer this question.  What happens to Macbeth?  And not just Macbeth but every one of us?  What happens to man in extreme situations; MAN IN EXTREMIS?  Can he remain courageous in the extreme deprivations of hell; on the battlefield, in the midst of a soured relationship, facing cancer, having committed a horrible crime that he cannot fix.  As Dostoevsky later notes, the crime, though important, is not the most important thing; it is the despair brought on by the crime that is.
Whatever his initial motives for killing Duncan, whether for sheer power, or because he rightly saw Duncan doing a poor job as king (why else would Cawdor have rebelled), or as some substitute for the barrenness of his marriage (“he has no children” says MacDuff), the end result of Macbeth’s life is not pretty.  He has night terrors.  He is “unmanned” by fear. He is made less manly and more womanish by visions.  He sees shades that no one else sees.  He futilely seeks to alleviate his pain by making others suffer.  He alienates and kills his only friend.  He alienates his own wife.  He views life as wearisome and pointless.  His erstwhile friends become hounds seeking out his innermost secrets.  Eventually he finds himself teetering on the brink of despair, lost in a state where
that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
Yet Macbeth is a thinking man.  He considers and reasons and deliberates even more than Hamlet.  His soliloquys reveal a tremendous consideration of the reasons for good acts, of the afterlife, of the power of words and images.  And perhaps it is this thinking that leads him to defy despair.  Because eventually he decides NOT to be cowed by the fears and terrors which seek to destroy him.
The mind I sway by and the heart I bear
Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear (he vows)
And as each assurance from the witches that “everything will be okay” proves itself to be a falsehood, Macbeth concludes that he has only one course to follow.  Eventually he realizes,
They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But, bear-like, I must fight the course.
In this case, however, “the course” is not just the destiny laid down for him or the inevitable end of his diabolic actions.  Rather “the course” is the river of tears, despair, which courses toward him like a flood.  Like King Cnut he is fighting the tide of ruin rather than submitting to it.  The witches who, like the devil, were seemingly his friends and allies but who proved his deceivers are rejected by Macbeth when he vows
be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. 

Thus during the end battle Macbeth is not just a raging demon of violence.  
In fact, he checks himself from killing Macduff because his soul is “too much charged” with the blood of Macduff’s family.  But when Macduff taunts him saying
Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' the time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted on a pole, and underwrit,
'Here may you see the tyrant.’
Macbeth responds with defiance saying,
I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Even though all that had hitherto pointed to his success now is gone, even
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane
And (Macduff) opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last.
The last what?  The extreme ambiguity of the word leads us back to an equivocation.  Does Shakespeare here mean that Macbeth is defiant of the will of God even at the end, and thus damned?  Is Macbeth’s clinging to life set in contrast to noble Cawdor’s throwing away life “like a trifle”?  Or could it be that Shakespeare means that even when all good things are gone, something in man, something steely and unbroken, still defies despair and clings resiliently to hope?  What after all does the Enemy want from us but that we despair?  Did Robert Southwell despair during the extreme tortures of Mr. Topclyfe?  Did Guy Fawkes despair as his arms and legs were ripped from his body?
Perhaps in the mind of Shakespeare the deep damnation of our taking off lies not in breaking the commandments but in despairing that we can ever rectify the situation after we inevitably do break them.  Perhaps what the play shows us through the use of MAN IN EXTREMIS is that to defy despair is the ultimate act of courage, the supreme heroism of life’s drama. 
Perhaps it is here, in this world, pressed “upon this bank of shoal of time” that we must decide not to submit to our own destruction but actually to say with Macbeth –
Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Works Cited:
Janet E. Haley, Equivocation and the Legal Conflict Over Religious Identity in Early Modern England.  (Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, 1991), Vol 3:33

Frederic B. Tromly, “Macbeth and his porter.”  Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 151-156