The Symbolic Meaning of the Belly of the Whale

Giving yourself over to something completely, letting yourself be ‘swallowed’ by it, as it were, (symbolically, psychologically) with the faith that you are not going to be annihilated but rather transformed, ‘reborn’ into your true hero, adventurous self: That’s the sense of the ‘belly of the whale’ motif in mythology.

Stephen Pickering
For Country Music artists, such as Sierra Ferrell above, one form of the initiatory “belly of the whale” experience is busking in the streets of Nashville. Ordeals like this do two things: force you to become better 2) force you to ask yourself whether you love doing this (the “inside out” philosophy) internally, no matter what the outside circumstance. It acts as a test or trial, which is another important motif in mythology.

The Beatles are metaphorical for the “belly of the whale” motif in mythology. I never realized it myself until I read “Anthology” and realized that they had spent almost 2.5 years in Hamburg playing 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now this isn’t literally true. They did have breaks. They definitely went home many times for breaks, but the most important aspect is that it is psychologically true. Apparently the clubs were physically below the street level, like walking down into a subway, and I do remember a compadre of theirs saying, “We’d go down there and wouldn’t come up for air for a week.” Now this obviously is not literally true. But one understands the psychological, metaphorical implication: giving yourself over to something completely. That’s the idea of the belly of the whale motif in mythology. Even the the locals of the Cavern Club in Liverpool seemed to be stunned by the transformation of the post Hamburg Beatles. That’s the central idea of the “Belly of the Whale” motif. It’s exactly analogous to the idea of the male initiatory experience: You go in one person and come out the other side with a completely transformed consciousness. All mythology, as Joseph Campbell said, is about the transformation of consciousness. Transformation of Consciousness is the goal of Mythology as well as Initiatory Experiences. They can happen involuntarily (You’re born into a certain group) or voluntarily (You have an intent to become someone new.) Regardless, the method is the same: extended periods of “submersion” in which there is “no way out.” Only under those circumstances does a crucial part of the brain “switch” and a true transformation take place.

Complete immersion is the key for tripping some kind of metaphorical “wire” in the brain whose effect is transformation of consciousness. You see this in initiatory experiences all through history all over the world. This is at least one of the metaphorical meanings of the “Belly of the Whale” motif in mythology. You’re in it all the way. You’re committed. You’ve made a decision. This is when things start to happen, and your life becomes like an adventure. This is one way of applying the metaphorical messages of myth to your real life.”

Stephen Pickering

I’d say there are two main aspects to the Belly of the Whale symbolism and they are psychologically connected although in the world express themselves in two different ways: 1) As noted above with the Beatles is the aspect of a career. The way to get to the top is complete emersion, giving yourself over to it completely, allowing yourself to be “swallowed up.” This is the appropriate attitude for a young person, say 20-30, deciding on their career. They have to know the irony that this immersion, once a decision has been made, will free them, not confine them, as long as it’s their true calling, not someone else’s.

2) Is more metaphysical in the sense primarily of acceptance. The trash compactor scene from Star Wars comes to mind. If you just take the literal, mechanical view of nature, then its all about a group of adventurers who are most certainly going to die in a horrible way. At best their chances are 50/50. But what in the deepest sense does this scene really mean?

On a lighter level, I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve lost something, that it suddenly appears the moment I truly accept that its gone. It really does feel like magic. I really wish I had documented all the times. My only problem with acceptance is that I can’t seem to willfully bring it on. Many times even when I believe I’ve accepted something it’ll still be “gnawing” or nagging me in the back of my mind. Intent does help, but seems some other thing in my mind has to happen in order for true acceptance to really be the state I’m in.

Update 6/13/20: I realized as I was watching a lot of music production videos on Youtube, and as their algorithm keeps bringing you more, I realized that the amount of content I could watch on this subject is nearly endless. And then I realized, that’s it! You keep at something non-stop until you break through to another level. The irony is its your laser-like focus on one subject that opens up the entire world to you.

Now, I would say there is at least one caveat: whatever that subject is, I think it needs to be your true soul’s calling. In other words, if your only reason for doing it is to get rich and famous, it still might work, but there’s something lost in translation. And the whole process will not be fun. If it is your true soul’s calling, then it will be feeding you the whole way in terms of inspiration, joy, and fulfillment, even in this so-called “Belly of the Whale” period in which you are not getting outside attention or rewards. I’d say that’s the test for your true calling: If you feel emotional reward from the act itself, then that’s it. Stephen King and writing is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this analogy. Especially if you want to be a writer, go watch some of his speeches and interviews on Youtube. He mentions this aspect as being primary.

Update 6/13/21 —— Here’s a thought I had this evening about the matter: “The more you get into something (into the “belly” so to speak), the more your world expands.”

One reason for this is because there is a huge market for uniqueness. People don’t tune into the Olympics for average performances, nor do they to movies, books, music, and even business itself. They are looking for the “hero” in these things for a lot of different reasons, but among them it inspires them to awaken their own dormant desire to break out themselves. And everyone has the capability to do it.

It’s paradoxical, like the line from the Peter Gabriel song, “You gotta get in to get out.” It may not seem like it if you are swimming in circles and or places of what I’d call “striving for mediocrity” or “striving to fit into the local group” because those folks there are programmed in a certain way. And if you are a young person thinking in terms of a career by “getting into” you’ve got to move to a place where they produce uniqueness (LA, NY, Nashville, London) instead of merely consume it (most other cities you can think of.)

Update 8/15/21 — It’s just occurred to me why this metaphor, if it can be interpreted and practically applied to one’s particular situation, works in real life: Our brains are built for resistance first and foremost especially to foreign or unknown stimuli. That old saying “Shoot first and ask questions later” comes to mind.

Last night after a rain storm I was walking down the steps of my deck and, scaring me, out ran an opossum who had been sheltering under there, streaking into the forest. He wasn’t asking questions first. That instinct was hard wired into him, just as my startled emotion and tense reaction to the occurrence was. This is just the way of nature. This behavior was “selected for” simply by fact that the creatures who inherited it tended to live as opposed to the ones who were wired to be inquisitive and congenial right out of the gate.

I remember Shad Helmstetter said about “Self-Talk, “Repetition is a powerful argument” when he was explaining how the practice would eventually effect and change your emotions and behavior. I also remember reading Ogilvy on Advertising when I was running a small store in the nineties, and he wrote something to the effect of “The first time you see an ad it angers you. The tenth time you see it you’re pulling your check book out to buy it.”

This may be a negative way of putting it, but the brain is also hard wired for submission in the face of what it perceives as an insurmountable power, (again, this behavior was selected for at some point along the line) and repetition is perceived as an insurmountable power that one either submits to or is crushed by.
I think of those folks who learn a new language by living in the origin country for instance or even how we learn our first language. There’s no thinking or ‘work’ involved (at least as far as I can remember) and yet there it is, seemingly by magic one day you are effortlessly doing a very complicated and hard thing, fluently speaking a language.
That’s because, metaphorical of the “Belly of the Whale” motif, you were inundated by it with no relief, with “no way out” so to speak, and so the adaptation instincts were triggered which turned off the resistance and the shields came down. Biologically speaking (I know it takes the romance out of it!) positive hormones were released rewarding the new behavior of acceptance and assimilation.

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