The hostility, power, magic, integrity, and possibility of the threshold


In preparation for a retreat this weekend, I’ve been reading up on the meaning, lore, and mythology of thresholds. I’ve written about this before, but thought I’d share some fresh thoughts here.

Mythology has many guardians of the threshold, but Janus is the main one. He is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways, passages, and endings. He is depicted as having two faces, so he can look in both directions – toward the past and the future. The month January is aptly named for him.

Janus symbolized change and transitions, and was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest and planting times, as well as at marriages, deaths and other beginnings. He represented the middle ground between barbarism and civilization, between rural and urban space, youth and adulthood.

Joseph Campbell observed that crossing the threshold is one of the steps on the Hero’s Journey—his compendium of mythic tales from throughout human history and culture. The threshold is the point of leaving behind all that the hero knows and venturing into uncharted territory. It leads to the road of trials, to unknown threats and dangers. And it is only by passing through that door that the hero summons the aid and magic that will be necessary for success.

Heidegger, Bachelard, and others identify the threshold as a place of pain and hostility. This reinforces the mythic understanding that the exchange of inside for outside, and vice versa, is not accomplished without some sacrifice. (Heidegger also insists that the between, the very space of the threshold, has its own integrity and identity. Rather than being a necessary but fleeting stage, threshold is the dependable space that makes the relationship between inside and outside possible.)

It’s interesting that the very etymology of our word for “threshold,” is disputed. There are several theories, but no definitive explanation for the two parts of the word and how they came to be combined. This is fitting, as though the threshold is too powerful and magical a place to pinned down by mere language. The best we can do is approximate.

Old English had wold as the second half of the word, which means “forest.” Not only are thresholds everywhere in the forest, but the whole place, in a sense, is a threshold. The forest is a betwixt and between. And this season, autumn, is, too, as we leave summer’s passion and bounty, and prepare to enter the long nights and stillness and waiting of winter.

We live in a culture that pushes us to choose. It keeps insisting that there are right and wrong answers, winners and losers. This black and white thinking is a hallmark of the adolescent brain. Subtlety, shades of gray, both/and —these are alien to the adolescent mind. And so, to our culture that denies the rite of initiation and leaves us in a state of perpetual adolescence.

It is, then, an act of subversion, a radical act, to entertain this notion that we can tolerate both/and. That we can dwell on the threshold for a time, or for a lifetime, while also working in countless ways to shift to stories of connection and belonging, to kinship, abundance, humility, wonder, and awe.

What are the ways in which you practice not just tolerating the both/and of the threshold, but thriving in this space that is outside of ordinary time and so rich with possibility?


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  1. Pingback: Learning to walk in the dark | Thriving on the Threshold

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