Threshold Guardians And What To Do About Them.
Life is a series of thresholds — beginning and ending with the big two — birth and death, but punctuated by many smaller ones along the way:
- Starting school
- Joining clubs
- Starting jobs
- Losing jobs
- Starting families
- Losing loved ones
Life is about crossing these thresholds. And, with every threshold you attempt to cross, you are likely to encounter a threshold guardian — a gatekeeper. A, usually, a self-appointed sentinel who has placed themselves at the entrance of this new world in order to keep out visitors and newbies.
At school, maybe it’s an older student or a bully who tries to make you feel unwelcome.
When you graduate school and enter the workforce you will face many forces that make your transition into adulthood difficult — everything from obstacles to entering the workforce, limited living opportunities, to clinging parent.
When seeking to date or marry you may feel self-doubt or like more eligible bachelors or bachelorettes stand between you and prospective dates
If entering a new career or hobby there are often more experienced practitioners who insist you don’t have enough knowledge, expertise, or skill to join the club.
Threshold guardians are a part of life. And, as such, must be dealt with.
I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan. His monomyth — his “hero’s journey” has been a valuable map for me throughout the last ten years of my life. Another big Campbell fan was a guy named Christopher Voegler. He wrote a book called The Writer’s Journey that attempted to break down Campbell’s monomyth into a system that screenwriters and television professionals could use to create content for television.
Voegler spends some time talking about threshold guardians. One of the points he makes is that a threshold guardian is never your true enemy — a threshold guardian is never the big boss that you need to defeat in order to succeed on your quest. As a matter of fact, a threshold guardian isn’t really your enemy at all. You don’t need to do battle with a threshold guardian or defeat them or even really worry about them. In most cases, you can simply go around them. They pose no real obstacle. Their interest in stopping you from crossing a threshold is usually motivated by fear — fear that you’ll gain access to the thing they think makes them special. Fear you’ll achieve more than them. Fear you’ll make them look bad. They’re paper dragons that way. More than anything, they probably deserve your pity or understanding.
Another point that Voegler makes is that threshold guardians are a sign you’re on the right path. No one feels the need to guard a worthless treasure — so the fact that someone has appointed themselves to bar your journey, means you’re on the right track.
Voegler mentions something Campbell writes about in The Hero With 1000 Faces — outside many Buddhist temples are statues of fearsome-looking demons meant to bar intruders looking to enter. At first glance, the demons hold out a hand in a policeman like, “STOP” posture. A clear indication that you are to go no further. But, looking closer, the other hand, lower, not as prominent, is beckoning you forward. What initially appears to block your path is also urging you to continue. In that way, all threshold guardians encourage you to stick with your journey.
Some time ago, I embarked on a path of esoteric study — diving into ideas that were new to me like Qabala, ceremonial magick, and accompanying practices around depth psychology. This in an area where there are a lot of gatekeepers — enthusiastic students who try to bar the way of seekers — because… well, who knows why.
At any rate, if you’re just getting started in these areas, the number of gatekeepers can be intimidating. For me, they caused me to look inside and ask if I was serious about learning. Did I have the internal fortitude to take up this path instead of just being a tourist?
That’s something else gatekeepers do. They make you look inside yourself and maybe do a little introspection-guided work. They make you set down what doesn’t serve you.
We see this played out in a mythological story. I call the story, “Inanna Goes to Hell.” It’s one of my guiding myths.
Inanna is the Persian queen of heaven.
Her sister is the queen of Hell.
For some reason, it’s a different reason in different tellings, Inanna has to go to Hell to visit her sister. Some versions say it’s for a wedding. Some versions say it’s for a funeral.
She decks herself out in her queenly attire so everyone knows who they’re dealing with.
She enters the pathway to Hell.
As she descends, she comes to a gate with a gatekeeper — a threshold guardian. The keeper tells her before she can continue her journey, she must hand over the rod she carries that reveals her station as the goddess of Heaven. Inanna asks why. The gatekeeper responds those are just the rules. Inanna complies and passes through the gate.
She soon comes to another gate with another keeper. This keeper also ask her to take off and turn over a part of her queenly raiment, asserting that those are just the rules. Inanna does what she is told.
This happens five more times.
By the time Inanna reaches the underworld, she is completely naked — stripped of all the signs of her identity.
This isn’t how the story ends. Inanna gets strung up on meathooks for three days and then emerges with the help of the Gods and ends up taking over Hell. It’s a real feel-good story.
But, I want to focus on her trip to Hell, through the seven gates.
When we encounter a threshold and a guardian, we may be required to examine ourselves and let go of some of what we consider to be our identity. Sometimes, who we and what we think we know is a poor fit for this new territory. Sometimes facing a threshold guardian is a good reminder of this.