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A Truce For Christmas

A Truce for Christmas 

November 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. Within two months of its beginning, it had devolved into the stalemate we know as trench warfare. The opposing forces established a line along the Western Front extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border that would not fundamentally change for the next four years. The armies settled into a perpetual clash under the most barbaric and miserable conditions: soggy, frozen trenches, constant bombardment, suicidal attacks against massed machine guns, and hordes of rats consuming the corpses; by Christmas there were over a million casualties. In this essay, I write about the massive and completely unnecessary sacrifice of thousands of young men on the very last day of the war.

During those four years, because of the close proximity of the opposing trenches (in some case, as little as 80 yards) and the extreme danger of being shot if they peeked over the parapets, many men reported never seeing the sky except by looking straight up. They rarely saw enemy soldiers, except in their rifle sights.

But that same proximity allowed for something else, something unpredictable and extraordinary: unofficial, spontaneous cessations of hostility.

On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops in the region of Ypres, Belgium decorated the areas around their trenches. They placed candles and Christmas trees on the parapets and celebrated the holiday with singing. The British responded by singing carols of their own. Soon, the two sides were shouting Christmas greetings to each other. The word went out all along the Front.

On Christmas Day, men on both sides – perhaps 100,000 of them – disobeyed their generals, rose out of their frozen trenches and met their opponents face to face in No Man's Land, where they exchanged small gifts such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as pictures of loved ones, buttons and hats. The artillery fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell for the dead to be buried. Joint religious services were held. Football games occurred, giving one of the most enduring images of the truce, which lasted until New Years in some sectors.

Was the Christmas Truce unique? There had been other truces, but none so universally subscribed to, and there would be few others. These men chose to emphasize their common humanity and common suffering, rather than their hatred. And this is how we choose to remember them, because, for a few days, they created a model for us all to emulate. In a time when the world was descending into a time in which the fathers were literally sacrificing their children to the war gods, these men briefly acknowledged the humanity of the Other. It has been called the last moment of the nineteenth century.

Generals on both sides were horrified at this display and feared that it might happen again. In some cases they removed or punished the units that had participated. They made sure that the war would go on, and for four years an average of seven to ten thousand young men would die every single day. But there was one day when common people ignored the hatred and the will to destroy.

You can see actual photos of the truce. Here is a 2004 interview with one of the last known participants. Here are two videos about the truce. It has been a rich source of inspiration for artists and musicians. Here is John McCutcheon performing Christmas in the Trenches. The truce occurs in several movies, including the excellent 2005 fictional drama Joyeux Noël.  For more in-depth reading, see Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, by Stanley Weintraub.

There are also many accounts of soldiers refusing to fire on their enemies, even without truces. Of 112 French divisions on the Western Front, 68 experienced mutinies. Fifty men were killed by firing squads for refusing to fight any longer. Three of those executions became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Gloryin which a pompous general castigates his unwilling soldiers and lectures them “patriotism.” Another officer (played by Kirk Douglas) defends his men and enrages the general by quoting Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

There have been many significant truces throughout history when opposing sides agreed that the rituals of tending to the suffering and the dead had higher priority than those of the War God. One curious and isolated event happened in World War Two. Indeed, the percentages of front-line American infantrymen in that war who never fired their weapons was so high that, afterwards, the military instituted large-scale, mandatory operant conditioning programs deliberately intended to raise those percentages. By the time of the Viet Nam War, firing rates rose significantly. Even so, I have read about informal agreements between American enlisted men and their Vietnamese opponents in which each side agreed not to fire upon each other unless provoked. Ed Tick describes one instance of such spontaneous respect in War and the Soul.

In 1992, after some ten to twenty thousand young people had been killed in gang violence, the Los Angeles Bloods and Crips called a truce that would last for over ten years and resulted in a major decline in violence. Gangs in Honduras and El Salvador, sick of their own carnage, copied it. This video was made on the 20th anniversary. You can see some images from that truce here.

Despite all the political, economic, social and even religious pressure to turn young men into unfeeling automatons and killers, there is something very deep in us that insists on commonality with the Other. I would call this an archetypal aspect of the soul. Greek myth recognizes this. Truce scenes occur in the Iliad that reflect the very long tradition of halting all fighting every four years for the Olympic games.

It is customary to wish each other “Peace on Earth” at this time of year, yet a glance at the news always threatens to drop us into despair. Well, how about calling a truce at least? And who better to suggest it with than the warring voices in your own head? A truce is not necessarily time-bound; it can always be extended, from one moment to the next. While you are at it, consider the military metaphors we all tend to use in our daily speech.

For these holidays, I wish you this kind of truce. If world violence is ever to end, it will happen when enough individuals determine to call a truce with it in their own souls and no longer need to inflict it upon others or watch others harming each other on electronic media.

For even a short time, may we realize, as John McCutcheon sings, “…that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”



Read more…

John F. Kennedy and America’s Obsession with Innocence 


If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now. – John F. Kennedy, 1962

Assassinations, murder – and war, to – begin this way. This revolution is not just outside us in the streets and jails and detention homes and clinics, or in Texas, but is the Shadow in each of us that is trying to             come out. – James Hillman, 11/22/1963


Part One: Myths

At book talks I used to ask: When did you lose your innocence?  Common answers include 9/11/2001 and the various political assassinations of the 1960s. Then I would ask: When did you lose it again? The trick question was meant to provoke people into thinking about a uniquely American situation. Myths are stories we tell ourselves about significant people, real or imagined. But these stories are ultimately and always about ourselves. They are narratives we create, are drawn to or selectively remember, so as to view our own values and obsessions projected outside of ourselves.

The idea of innocence lies at the foundation of our national identity. It is as fundamental to our sense of who think we are as alcohol is to an alcoholic. Life for (white) Americans is simply unthinkable without the assumption that they are pure and blameless in terms of racial and foreign policy matters, and the parallel assumption that our anxieties are always caused by some evil Other.

For this reason, whenever the terrible complexity of human existence pulls us out of denial and causes us to lose our innocence, we very quickly back away from the precipice, revive that innocence and re-constitute it. The cracks that appear in our national veneer of innocence scab over quickly, sealing in the microbes – or the truths – that will inevitably rise to the surface as new infections. Then we lose our innocence again. And each time we do, the experience of disillusionment is so overwhelming that it feels like the first time, because we never really lost it the previous time.

It was not always this way. In the tribal world, initiation rituals were intended to be so effective that those who survived them (and many didn’t) were permanently altered, and their communities perceived them as such. Initiates lost their childish innocence and were recognized as adults who possessed a realistic, tragic view of the world, tempered by a clear sense of their own purpose in that world, of the relations with the unseen world and of their importance to their community.

As a mythologist, I have very little interest in the actual person John F. Kennedy, nor in what he accomplished, nor in what he believed. Indeed, the tsunami of Kennedy literature has made it impossible to know much about these things anyway. Like all essentially mythic figures, he and his entire clan (along with those other martyrs, Martin and Malcolm) have become Rorschach projection figures for our imagination. lists some 6,000 books on the Kennedys. Another source lists 40,000. In November 2013 alone, at least 140 new books were released, timed for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. All purport to tell the “truth.” But to a mythologist, one truth merely points to another truth, and sometimes that truth looks like the opposite of the first one.

Nor, in this article, am I interested in the question of who killed him or why – you already have your own opinion – except as how the issue has become part of our modern narrative. What I am interested in is the mythological issues: how we create our myths drive us and how they drive our emotions.

In American historical memory the Kennedy administration offers us three mythic images or narratives, all of them driven by electronic media.


A New Start

John David Ebert explains that

Kennedy was the first president to understand, and effectively use, the new medium (of television) to his own advantage…a whole series of televisual firsts: the first ever televised presidential debates; the first televised weekly press conferences; Jackie's first televised tour of the White House; and later, with Kennedy's assassination, we will have the first 24-hour news coverage of a traumatic event; with Ruby's shooting of Oswald, the first live murder caught on television.

This new image represented youth, romance, vigor, virility, health, enthusiasm, promise and a revival of the nation’s ideals. Kennedy’s warm, loving family was an electronic ideal of the new suburban nuclear family, and it mirrored the American public as it wanted to see itself at the time. Furthermore, it

…activated a mythological consciousness in the American psyche in which Kennedy appeared like an Arthurian knight questing for the grail in a Wasteland filled with decrepit old men and scheming villains….On television, the public could see that Kennedy, just past the age of forty, was young enough to appear capable of slaying the dragons of communism and banishing the old men back to their caverns. It is thus no accident that the youngest president ever to be voted into office coincided with the first presidential candidate to become familiar to his voters via television.

Television in 1960 was a form of low resolution technology that produced fuzzy, distorted, hazy images. As Marshal McLuhan pointed out, TV is therefore highly participational, since it requires "fill in" by the viewer for the completion of its images. We are talking now about a two-way street, about the relationship between, on the one hand, deliberately created images and on the other, the deep longing on the part of those who view them, always ready to project meaning onto them.

Watching Kennedy's televised weekly press conferences gave one the feeling of having the President discourse upon international affairs inside one's house. The impression was created thereby of having a personal, private chat with this new, young, approachable president right inside one's own living room…With television, (he) forged an American tribal identity based upon a tightly interwoven conception of himself as a chieftain at the head of his electro-serf peasantry. The American public, through the relationship which Kennedy created with them by means of television, felt very close to him, and that any decision he made on their behalf affected them directly. It is possible that no American president since Kennedy has had this sort of a relationship with his public.

His rhetoric of a “New Frontier” evoked the nation of boundless possibilities. The idea of the new start is at the very core of the myth of America. It is, in fact, the very meaning of America. Our mythology, however, tends to ignore the universal and ecological understanding that initiation requires the death of what came before. So does our New Age thinking, which highlights rebirth without acknowledging death.

But the emotional tone that Kennedy aroused went even deeper. In 1960 millions were fed up with both the anxieties and the conformism of the previous decades. As Peter Gabel wrote, JFK represented “an opening-up of desire.”

It was this feeling…that more than any ideology threatened the system of cultural and erotic control that dominated the fifties and that still dominated the governmental elites of the early sixties…Kennedy's evocative power spoke to people's longing for some transcendent community and in so doing, it allowed people to make themselves vulnerable enough to experience both hope and, indirectly, the legacy of pain  and isolation that had been essentially sealed from public awareness since the end of the New Deal...


The Kennedy myth – at least until the assassination, and possibly until his brother’s death 4 ½ years later – reinforced the characteristically American notion that history moves inexorably toward a state of more freedom, more opportunity, more equality and an American Dream for everyone, including all those poor folks in the Third World who so need to be saved and liberated by American armies. As we’ll see below, however, the myth of Camelot helped negate the belief in progress for millions.


Americans share a superficial aversion to the trappings of European royalty. After all, the Founding Fathers (itself a mythic reference to a kind of royalty) and their generation rejected the notion of inherited authority for their own racially flawed idea of equality. But America was formed in what Joseph Campbell called a “demythologized world” that has long lacked transcendent mythic figures. So precisely because of our egalitarian ideology – and especially since the age of the movies began – we have searched for public figures who can hold our projections of Kings and Queens. As Paul Fussell observed in his book Class, this is the shadow side of a society that claims democratic values and refuses to admit the fact (obvious to poor people) that it is not classless. Usually these ideal figures have been movie stars, singers and athletes, the stock characters of our cult of celebrity.

But actual royals carry an extra attraction. To this day, it is no coincidence that a typical week of PBS television culminating on Sunday evening includes endless adulation of the British royal family and its related aristocracy, including the denizens of Downton Abbey. Every November, however, as a warm-up for Thanksgiving, that adulation shifts to the American royal family. 

The Kennedys, unlike their benign but boring predecessor Dwight Eisenhower or the fatuous and hypocritical Bushes who followed them, were glamorous, sophisticated, physically attractive, well educated, articulate and cultured. They seemed to be comfortable around actual movie stars. And they were only too happy to help perpetuate the image of aristocracy. It was easy to imagine JFK as a king of divine right out of a much earlier time. He looked convincing as a leader, writes Rick Shenkman:

…he became Hollywood’s idea of a president. Presidents in the movies don’t look like Eisenhower…they look like John Kennedy. The man and the myth come together in pictures. And the pictures in our head come easily to mind because the pictures are readily available to us. We don’t have to struggle to call up flattering images of Kennedy. The human brain allows us to call them to mind quickly because our brain readily digests information in the form of images.

He was, wrote one writer, “the subject of endless reverie about his capacity to renew the world.” This capacity to stand at the center of the realm and ritually proclaim the annual renewal of the world, the crops (and the psyche) is one of the characteristics of the archetype of the King. It is the very essence of the idea of the “New Start.” The King is the central archetype of the collective unconscious. He represents order, fertility, stability and blessing. He is a focal point for communal desire and selfless service devoted to a higher order of existence.

In 1960 Kennedy perceived this massive longing for meaning, tapped into it and reframed the classic American value of opportunity, which had always meant getting rich, or to “con” someone else, or (to conservative critics of the New Deal) to take advantage of government aid. Shortly after taking office, he established the Peace Corps, and thousands quickly joined up, delighted to be part of a non-militaristic attempt to make a better world. Now (despite the government’s ongoing anti-communism), opportunity implied the chance to participate in something greater, to build a new world without either the violence of empire or the trappings of Christian fundamentalism.

Kennedy, like his predecessors, cut taxes on the rich, denounced Soviet aggression and glorified American freedom. Yet this advent of the archetypal King energy was, in a very subtle way, calling into question some of the basic values of capitalism itself. At a time when the nation hadn’t fully completed its transformation from Protestant frugality to a consumer culture, this (in the eyes of what we now call the Deep State) may have been his greatest transgression. And it’s probably why the public has often ranked him among the top three American Presidents.

A secondary aspect of the archetype of the King is our longing for the return of the King, as exemplified by the Greek stories of Odysseus, the Hebrew expectation of the Messiah (originally mashiah, and rendered in the Septuagint translation as the Greek Khristos) and significantly, King Arthur of Camelot. This is a universal mythic theme, but it has particular meaning for us, because as Michael Meade has pointed out, American myth confuses the King with another archetype, the Warrior, in his immature form, the Hero. The Hero’s primary characteristic is that once he saves the innocent community, he leaves that community. Our Hero-Kings have all moved on, westward, toward the setting sun and the Other World, and we long for the imagined times and places where they once peacefully ruled over us and our service to them gave our lives meaning.

That longing for a savior figure grows along with our dissatisfaction with our sense of the nation. It is so strong that in the age of Trumpus, it allows us to overlook a fascist strongman’s obvious human frailties, at least for a while. Many Trumpus voters are old enough to have voted for Kennedy in 1960, and, curiously, polls tell us that many of them voted for Obama 48 years later.

Where has the King gone? Indeed, where is Camelot? These are the kind of questions that evoke the power of mythic images. In British myth, the original Camelot had no specific location. Thus, writes Arthurian scholar Norris Lacy, "Camelot, located nowhere in particular, can be anywhere."


Part Two – Myth Making

I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedys?"

When after all it was you and me.  – Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Those lines make perfect poetic sense, but what do they really mean? Were the Kennedys scapegoats who died for our sins? If so, were those sins of commission or omission? Sins of deliberate evil or willful innocence? Must all mythic Kings die annually so that the land may be fertilized? Or do we Americans have such a diminished national imagination and such personal dark shadows that we simply cannot tolerate any shining individuals who prove unable to hold our projections?

Inventing Camelot

The Kennedy clan began to manipulate the media images of JFK and his immediate family long before his election and has continued to do so decades after his death. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, JFK, fully aware of both the political moment and the mythic implications, told a historian, "If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now."

Then came Camelot – a story of a magical kingdom ruled by a wise, brave and benevolent young king who was unshakably devoted to his beautiful queen and their children. Born into privilege, he – like the Buddha – chose to serve truth and justice.

However, the word “Camelot” never appeared in print to describe the Kennedy years until after his death. Only a week after the funeral, his widow put her definitive stamp on the new myth, telling Life Magazine and its thirty million readers that the President had been especially fond of the music from Camelot, the popular Broadway musical about King Arthur. He and Jackie had enjoyed listening to a recording of the title song before going to bed at night. JFK, she said, had been especially fond of the concluding couplet:

Don’t ever let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was Camelot.

I invite you to speak that last sentence out loud and notice if some unidentifiable emotion washes over you.

Jackie was determined to convince the nation that her husband’s presidency was a unique and magical moment, and one that was now forever lost. “There will be great presidents again,” she said, “but there will never be another Camelot.” JFK, as his widow wanted him to be remembered, was The King – a peacemaker, like King Arthur, who died in a campaign to pacify the warring factions of mankind. The Camelot myth of the 1960s was born, a retelling of the earlier one.

But the Camelot image as applied to the Kennedy presidency had some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences, writes James Piereson:

By turning President Kennedy into a liberal idealist (which he was not) and a near legendary figure, Mrs. Kennedy inadvertently contributed to the unwinding of the tradition of American liberalism...The images she advanced had a double effect: first, to establish Kennedy as a transcendent political figure far superior to any contemporary rival; and, second, to highlight what the nation had lost when he was killed. The two elements were mirror images of one another. The Camelot myth magnified the sense of loss felt as a consequence of Kennedy’s death and the dashing of liberal hopes and possibilities…the best of times were now in the past and could not be recovered…The Camelot myth posed a challenge to the liberal idea of history as a progressive enterprise, always moving forward despite setbacks here and there toward the elusive goal of perfecting the American experiment in self-government. Mrs. Kennedy’s image fostered nostalgia for the past in the belief that the Kennedy administration represented a peak of achievement that could not be duplicated.

Millions of baby-boomers date their initial disillusionment and loss of idealism – their loss of innocence – from this point. To them, democracy died along with the President. The assassination was, plainly and simply, a military coup, and since then elites in media and government have colluded in maintaining the con: a veneer of legitimate, democratic process. Sociologist Linda Brigance wrote that without their heroic king, Americans began to feel "…a paradoxical combination of romantic yearning and fatalistic inevitability…(that) set the stage for the political cynicism and civic disengagement that characterized post-assassination America."

A few years later, Americans began and have continued to maintain one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the industrialized world, with typical voting levels of 50% in presidential elections. Consider for example the “Reagan revolution” of 1980 that the pundits tell us ushered in a great swing to the right in political opinion. It actually was propelled by just over 50% of the vote count, or about 26% of potential voters. This was a lower percentage than Adolph Hitler won in 1932.

The characteristically American myth of unending Progress suffered a terrible blow. The assassination, writes Charles Eisenstein,

…is like a radioactive pellet lodged inside the body politic, generating an endlessly metastasizing cancer that no one has been able to trace to its source. (It) opened a gulf between people and government that no bridge can span. It was the death of America – the America of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” People and government are now separate.

Since that time, half of American adults have withdrawn from civic involvement, more or less permanently. Countless others, influenced by unrelenting media barrages, still seem to be able to resurrect their sense of innocence after each political outrage or school shooting. “We’re better than that,” they say. May it be so.

The mythmaking Industry

In the age of the Internet, the mythmaking (and the anti-mythmaking, which is its mirror opposite) have grown into industries.

It has continued on both the right (Kennedy, they say, was more militaristic, more corrupt, more conservative and accomplished far less than Richard Nixon) and the left (Kennedy, they say, was murdered because he was intent on withdrawing from Viet Nam). Consider the ongoing controversy of his National Security Memorandum # 263. James Galbraith argues that Kennedy’s intention to withdraw after the 1964 election, articulated on October 11, 1963, was “…the formal policy of the United States government on the day he died.” And we also note that Lyndon Johnson’s NSAM 273, which authorized planning to begin for graduated offensive operations against North Vietnam, was issued on November 26th, only four days after the assassination. 

Back and forth they go, to this day. Gore Vidal, a ruling class insider turned critic who knew Kennedy well, said:

And it is now part of the Kennedy legend, that had he lived, this war would not have taken place…or would not have escalated. I can promise you…that he would have been as deeply in it as (Lyndon) Johnson…I liked him tremendously, and I hang his picture in my library, not as an icon, not as a memory of Camelot, not as a memory of glorious nights at the White House or in Bel-Air; but never again to be taken in by anybody's charm. He was one of the most charming men I've ever known, one of the most intelligent, and one of the most disastrous presidents I think we've ever had.

Vidal made that last statement long before the age of Bush / Obama / Trumpus, so we must put it context. But it does have bearing on how we consume our myths.


Here we encounter another aspect of American history and culture that has taken on a mythic function, what I call gatekeeping, or the conspiracy of the center. It’s a huge topic that I address here, but it boils down to this. In Campbell’s terms, one of the four functions of mythology is the sociological function, which works to support and validate the existing social order and bind the individual to the society, its rulers and its alleged purposes.

In the tribal experience, the world of real initiation ritual, this function was entirely appropriate. But in our demythologized world of mass, urban civilization the sociological function of myth is to support nothing other than consumerism, nationalism and (in America) the stories of exceptionalism and manifest destiny that justify a world-wide empire and military-industrial complex. 

This of course brings us to the issue of fake news. But for now, all we need to know is that for at least seventy years (or well over one hundred, if we consider official pro-war propaganda during World War One), the National Security State has controlled much of what the mainstream media has had to say, with agents embedded in literally hundreds of media outlets. I don’t have the space here to convince you of this, but I encourage you to do your own research. You can find a large number of references here or here. Or you could begin with Edward S. Herman’s essay, Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017.

Since the end of World War Two, gatekeepers of all political persuasions have served – on a daily basis – to remind most middle-class white people of just exactly who or what is outside the pale of acceptable discourse. And one of the main tools at their disposal has been false equivalency: lumping loonies such as Obama “birthers” in the same sentences as those who question accepted political narratives such as the Kennedy assassinations and 9-11. Consciously or not, such voices offer a very tempting proposal: if only we were to turn off our cynical (or logical) minds, we could be accepted into the brotherhood of the reasonable center. We would be within the pale. We would (accurately or not) know who we are, and we would clearly identify those outside the pale. 

We can understand liberal mythmaking about JFK in the context of lost innocence and longing for the return of the King. But a careful look at media articles around the 50th anniversary of the assassination reveals that the great majority of them continued to take the official narrative for granted and used various subtle means of demonizing critics.

By the way, it isn’t even the official narrative anymore, and hasn’t been since 1978. That year, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations found that in addition to Oswald, there likely was a second gunman. The commission concluded that the shooters were part of a "conspiracy," without determining exactly who was behind it. And, speaking of official narratives, few realize that in a 1999 civil lawsuit in Memphis, a jury reached a unanimous verdict that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. That you probably don’t know that is a testament to the power of the mass media, which can marginalize dissent, either by demonizing or, in this case, by simply ignoring it.

But let’s get back to Kennedy: History professor and gatekeeper Steven Gillon dismisses both the House report and Oliver Stone’s movie by inserting simple but patronizing modifiers into his text:

…the House Committee came to the bizarre conclusion that there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, and that shooter fired at the President, but missed…In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone tapped into these doubts, and added his own paranoid twist, to create the popular movie, JFK (my italics).

The gatekeepers have their assignment, self-imposed or not, and it hasn’t changed for decades. It is essential to the myth of American innocence that a so-called “troubled individual” killed Kennedy. The Lone Gunman has become another stock character in American myth, evoked whenever (weekly in 2017) a mass shooting occurs – and, following it, every time, some pundit is sure to bloviate that “we’ve lost our innocence.” The stereotypical Lone Gunman functions very specifically to divert our attention from the mass violence that we perpetrate daily upon the Third Word and upon our own children. He is a fundamental cog in the establishment – and regular re-establishment – of our sense of innocence.

Ironically, the Lone Gunman is the mirror opposite of the Western Hero, who, in dozens of movies) defeats the villains by himself, without the aid of the citizenry. High Noon is the classic example. Both of these Lone Gunmen, one directly and one in reverse, symbolize and teach our foundational value of American rugged individualism – and, equally foundational – the resolution of disputes through extreme violence. This is one reason why the gatekeepers continue to marginalize the “conspiracy buffs.” But even one of those gatekeepers – NBC News (10/2917) – admits:

Search data going back all the way to 2004 indicate that interest in the topic (the Kennedy assassination) surpasses interest in more recent political events including the Watergate scandal and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

The implications are quite significant. If indeed Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone, if in fact a wide-ranging military-industrial-organized crime conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s death, if the C.I.A. murdered him (as 62% of us still believed as recently as 2013) – then America is not exceptional, no different, no freer, no better than any other nation. And if we call that idea into question, then the whole, monolithic edifice of American innocence (empire, capitalism, masculinity, misogyny and white privilege, not to mention freedom and opportunity) come up for review, as they did by the late 1960s.

In mythological terms, Dionysus causes cracks in the great walls of Thebes, and all the repressed parts of the psyche, all of the un-grieved ghosts of the past, come roaring into the city, intent on revenge.

Peter Gabel wrote about the trauma that the nation experienced:

But the real trauma, if we move beyond the abstraction of "the nation," was the sudden, violent loss for millions of people of the part of themselves that had been opened up, or had begun to open up during Kennedy's presidency…In order to contain the desire released by the Kennedy presidency and the sense of loss and sudden disintegration caused by the assassination, government officials had to create a process that would rapidly "prove" – to the satisfaction of people's emotions – that the assassination and loss were the result of socially innocent causes…the lone gunman theory...isolates the evil source of the experience in one antisocial individual, and leaves the image of society as a whole…untarnished and still "good."…(and)…reinstitutes the legitimacy of existing social and political authority as a whole because it silently conveys the idea that our elected officials and the organs of government, among them the CIA and the FBI, share our innocence and continue to express our democratic will.

But from a larger psychosocial point of view, the effect was to begin to close up the link between desire and politics that Kennedy had partially elicited, and at the same time to impose a new repression of our painful feelings of isolation and disconnection beneath the facade of our reconstituted but imaginary political unity…The interest we share with the mainstream media and with government and corporate elites is to maintain, through a kind of unconscious collusion, the alienated structures of power and social identity that protect us from having to risk emerging from our sealed cubicles and allowing our fragile longing for true community to become a public force.

In 1967 the CIA coined a new phrase in response to widespread skepticism of the Warren Commission. It sent out specific instructions for “countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists” (my italics). The Agency recommended using assets such as “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” who could be provided with ready-made talking points. Since then, as I mentioned above, gatekeepers throughout academia and the major media have lumped together all critics of the dominant narratives of American history under this phrase. 

Here are two recent links to further commentary on the issue of media gatekeeping.

The Obama administration (like all that followed Johnson’s) continued to give ammunition to those who question the dominant narrative. In 2010, a federal archivist stated that only about one percent of the five million pages of government files on the assassination had been withheld from public view. But that amounted to some 50,000 pages, and Obama did nothing to facilitate that process. In October 2017, Trumpus announced that he had ordered all the remaining files to be released. As usual, he was taking credit for legislation mandating the release that had been passed in 1992. But very quickly and very publically, the CIA disagreed (with extreme prejudice, one might say), and Trumpus, whatever his actual motives, caved in. Mainstream media gatekeepers typically noted that 2,800 documents had been released and 300 remain withheld. However, writes Rex Bradford, “They are off by a factor of 100.”

In fact, tens of thousands of documents…remain sealed at the National Archives…This includes 3,147 “withheld in full” records never seen, and an unknown number of redacted documents estimated at about 30,000. Intensely lobbied by federal agencies including the CIA, Trump instead authorized the withholding of well over 90% of these documents. 52 of the 3,147 withheld-in-full records were released and put online…less than 2%, and 2,839 of the redacted documents were released, which is probably less than 10% of that set.

“The biggest revelation from last week’s limited release of the JFK files,” wrote Caitlin Johnstone “is the fact that the FBI and CIA still desperately need to keep secrets about something that happened 54 years ago.” Former high-ranking CIA man Ray McGovern wrote:

…occasionally the reality of how power works pokes through in some unguarded remark by a Washington insider, someone like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York…he also is an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee…with MSNBC’S Rachel Maddow, Schumer (said) “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you. So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.” So, President Trump has been in office long enough to have learned how the game is played and the “six ways from Sunday” that the intelligence community has for “getting back at you.” He appears to be as intimidated as was President Obama.

In October of 2021, 58 years after the event, Joe Biden postponed the full release of the files. In November of 2022 (30 years after JFK), Oliver Stone released his film JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. Quite predictably, it provoked the usual howls of derision, with the once-progressive Rolling Stone calling him a “tinfoil-hatted fabricator”.

But the gatekeepers have never been able to close their case, because we are dealing with the powerful psychological issue of projection, and its opposite, disillusionment. Eisenstein writes:

Many present-day conspiracy theories embed the Kennedy assassinations within a larger mythology; it is an integral structural element. That doesn’t mean that the truth of a particular Kennedy conspiracy theory entails the truth of any of these larger conspiracy theories. It does mean that without the JFK assassination and cover-up, most of these other theories would not have been born…Certainly most are objectively false…but also they are all true in their basic motif. They give voice to a profound alienation, an endemic and well-deserved distrust of authority. Today huge numbers of people believe the election was stolen, that the vaccines are a deliberate depopulation scheme, even that the moon landing was fake…The monstrous act of deception that was November 22, 1963 makes all of these a lot more plausible, suggesting, “They are capable of anything.”

(That “anything” even includes the notion that JFK Junior is still alive and is a beacon to the QAnon crowd. But their perspective contains an internal logic: If the Deep State killed his father and the government has lied about it all these years, then what else are they lying about?)

From a mythic perspective, however, the entire assassination dispute addresses a rather superficial question – did they or didn’t they? We need to go deeper and consider how the ongoing mystery surrounding Kennedy and his death reflects much deeper, archetypal mysteries about his – and our – lives.



Wow! I never realized that Kennedy and Vietnam was to your generation what Princess Diana and 9/11 is to ours. – A thirty-something

The Dying God (1)

He was known in Sumer as Dumuzi, the consort of the Goddess Inanna. Later in Babylon he was known as Tammuz, in Egypt as Osiris and Serapis, in Asia Minor as Attis, in Persia as Mythra, in Italy as Bacchus, in Syria as Adonis, as Fufluns among the Etruscans, as Dionysus in Greece and as Jesus when the Pagan world collapsed.

The ancients marked as sacred not the places where gods and heroes had been born, but the places where they had died. Christianity replaced them with the saints and added, along with their relics, the dates of their deaths. Our modern toxic mimic of that world, the culture of celebrity, does the same thing. Who remembers the birthdays of JFK, Diana or Elvis?

Steven Stark itemizes the long list of Pop culture celebrities who died young, Elvis most prominently, and he points out the mythic connection:

Dying young freezes the stars at their peak: like the promise of Hollywood itself, they remain forever young and beautiful – the perfect icons for the immortality that films and records purport to offer…As a cultural symbol whose life can now be made into anything with impunity, Kennedy, like Presley, has become, in Greil Marcus's words, "an anarchy of possibilities" – a reflection of the public's mass fears and aspirations and also a constant vehicle for discussing those sentiments…Thus Presley and the Kennedys have evolved into a collection of cultural deities – modern-day equivalents of the Greek gods, who were immortal while sharing the characteristics of the human beings who worshipped them…

Stark’s conclusion makes intuitive sense to any perceptive observer of mass media. Today, much, perhaps most political rhetoric, especially the deliberately provocative variety, is not intended to persuade the opposition to change its mind on a given subject. Politicians offer their statements to rile up their own constituencies, not to convince another. The lie repeated often enough becomes the accepted reality. Every time you roll your eyebrows at one of these lies, however, somebody who has already been entertaining them is becoming even more certain. This is known as confirmation bias. Preaching to their own separate choirs, these demagogues (and entire TV networks) are essentially entertainers rather than advocates in the realm of public ideas. Stark concludes:

Myth tells us that Dionysus was always followed by a band of raving, ecstatic women known as the Maenads, a word related to mania. Young people, who had been so identified with JFK’s symbolic renewal of the world, took his death particularly hard. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a new form of maenadism erupted only two months later in February 1964, when the Beatles performed before seventy million Americans on the Ed Sullivan show. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “At no time during their U.S. tours was the group audible above the shrieking.” Someone dubbed the experience “Beatlemania” and the phrase stuck. Sociologist Susan Douglas argues that the resonance between Kennedy and the Beatles allowed for “a powerful and collective transfer of hope.”

But only some of that hope was channeled into collective political action, because idealism, for many, had already been degraded into its opposite, cynicism (see Chapter Eleven of Madness at the Gates of the City for a more in-depth discussion). Cynicism led to apathy; apathy led to abandonment of hope that change could occur through conventional politics; and reduced voting eventually begat Reagan, the Bushes, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, Trumpus and our current Supreme Court.

Sixty Years Later

Like almost all politicians, most media pundits are, quite simply, entertainers charged with diverting the public from the men behind the screen – and from the collective weight of our unexpressed anger and grief, from the anxiety of our diminished, alienated lives and from the pain of remembering that we once dreamed of serving the great King of our souls. The pundits entertain us with silly concepts such as the “red state/blue state” divide, when in fact both major political parties are far more conservative than they were in 1963, indeed far more conservative than the nation as a whole today.

In the context of the myths about John Kennedy, the real divide today is between two other groups. The first group is composed of those who still accept the dominant narratives about both his death and American exceptionalism. They tend to be white and old (Roger Ailes, may he burn in Hell, famously admitted, “I created a TV network for people 55 to dead.”) Many consider themselves “moderates,” or “independents” who thoughtfully weigh the issues and vote Democratic as often as they vote Republican. And they are either very angry or very scared, because it is harder and harder to cling to their sense of innocence. They tend to be evangelical or mainline Protestants. They respect the police and many of them believe that white people are more discriminated against than black people. They support all of America’s wars, if reluctantly.

The second group is younger, darker-skinned, more tech-savvy, much less affluent and more cynical, despite their youth. They have very little hope of any good coming out of the political process, because they see it as either hopelessly broken or deliberately rigged to perpetuate power and privilege. They hate the police. Many are rooted in communities that never subscribed to the myth of innocence. As novelist Walter Mosley has said,

I have never met an African-American who was surprised by the attack on the World Trade Center. Blacks do not see America as the great liberator of the world. Blacks understand how the rest of the world sees us, because we have also been the victims of American imperialism.

Many of them feel that they have nothing to lose. Granted, their disdain for the cesspool of national politics leaves the field to the very worst people in the world. But who can blame them for not voting?

Many others in this second group, however, have permanently rejected the patriarchal, homophobic, racist, violent, imperialistic, individualistic, competitive, monotheistic values of the dominant culture in favor of non-political (or at least local), collective, creative, soulful, pagan, meditative attention to truly human and environmental values, values of the Whole Earth, who is the ultimate transcendent cause.

Here I recall the Rumi quote that opens my book:

I have lived on the lip of insanity wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!

Members of the first group occasionally view the madness behind the door. Horrified, they slam it shut, and as G.W. Bush exhorted after 9-11, they go back to shopping. For them, a quick glimpse into the margins where cracks appear in the seemingly solid walls of the myth of innocence is too much to bear.

But others have chosen to live there, because they know that when the King has vacated the center of the realm, the realm rots from the center outward. And healing comes from the margins.

The Dying God (2)

Only the Goddess lives on, unchanging. The God – or the King – must die, because his rebirth awakens the world (or the psyche) to the necessity and the possibility of renewal. His capacity to die to what he had been so as to be reborn into what he could be is the very essence of initiation. And this is why we long for his return, not because he might save us, but because he symbolizes our own renewal.

It is our responsibility to determine the fact, the literal truth of a situation and then to refine, reframe, re-imagine and retell it in its mythic context. We look at what people do and re-imagine how they would act if they were in alignment with their higher purpose. Ironically, JFK himself quoted George Bernard Shaw: You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?” Political rhetoric? Of course. Archetypal thinking? Certainly.

Even Gore Vidal, that strong critic of Kennedy’s imperial policies, admitted:

The thing about myths and legends, should we allow reality to intrude; the Kennedy legend is a very good one for the world, and it's a very good one for the United States. And as a critic, I am sort of split; because on the one hand, I know it's not true, and on the other hand I think, Well, if it's not true – it ought to be true.

One of the few factual things that we can say about JFK is that, like Barack Obama, he did not take office as a liberal. He redbaited the Republicans to get elected. In Noam Chomsky’s words, “Kennedy launched a huge terrorist campaign against Cuba (and) laid the basis for the huge wave of repression that spread over Latin America…” He built up the American forces in Viet Nam from a few dozen to 17,000 men. Ronald Reagan praised him for having lowered taxes on business. He initially tried to prevent the March on Washington and didn’t speak out on Civil Rights until circumstances forced him to.

Unlike Obama, however, he actually became more liberal. And he did speak out. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he told Arthur Schlesinger, “I want to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” In June of 1963 he gave a remarkable speech that seemed to offer a just, workable peace to the U.S.S.R., and it quickly led to the first arms control treaty.

As I mentioned in Part Two of this essay, he may well have been about to pull the nation out of Viet Nam. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims that on the morning of November 21st, as JFK prepared to leave for Texas, he told his assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff,

It's time for us to get out…After I come back from Texas, that's going to change. There's no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.

To be fair, we should note that Noam Chomsky completely disagrees with the claim that JFK was planning to withdraw from Viet Nam (Chomsky also subscribes to both the “lone shooter” narrative and the official 9/11 explanation). Michael Parenti and John Judge criticize Chomsky’s position. But Allen Dulles, whom JFK had fired as CIA chief (and who later “served” on the Warren Commission), said, "That little Kennedy…he thought he was a god."

Some writers claim that Kennedy’s deepest values (imagine even using that phrase to describe any of his successors!) had undergone profound transformation. Consider the liberating influence that Mary Pinchot Meyer, his mistress, may have had on him.

But so much of what we think we know remains in the category of allegations and has been well managed by the Kennedy clan. John F. Kennedy remains a chimera, and because he is more myth than human, we all remember him through our own highly subjective lens. So I, like Vidal, choose to remember who he – and we – might have become.

Ultimately, the pull of JFK’s image in our national memory evokes that same symbolism I began this essay with, the same image that allows us to picture America in its most ideal light: the New Start.

As Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold.” Perhaps this is a good thing. When the center is rotten – when the King dies – the renewal of the world must come not from there but from the margins. Perhaps only those who inhabit the margins of the culture – the realms of Hermes, Dionysus, Coyote and Kokopelli – are capable of reframing the American story.

Perhaps history is forcing us to learn the languages of mythology and psychology. Perhaps renewal will come when enough of us discover that we have projected too much of ourselves onto public figures. It is time, as Robert Bly said, to withdraw our projections. The archetypal King that Kennedy attempted to embody – that we wished he’d embodied – will not return until enough of us realize that the King lies within each of us.



Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good win out in the end. – Aeschylus

As a mythologist (and sharing our common curiosity about these things), I felt responsible to watch several 2013 documentaries and read much of what passed for journalism on the Kennedys that was published that year. On TV, pundits lined up to calmly and rationally discuss the major issues and then conclude, predictably, that we should all trust the dominant narratives of John F. Kennedy’s life, of his death, and by implication, of our own innocence.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s work rises above the general level of bogus pontification. His essay on the Kennedys is noteworthy for two reasons: First, and very rarely among prominent journalists, because he addresses social issues from the perspective of Greek myth. And second, because, like the New Yorker itself, he functions ultimately as a gatekeeper.

It is a great gift to American thinking to point out that we can discern very old stories in our national obsessions and repetitive behavior. But it is a great disservice to use mythology to subtly manipulate that thinking, to define, as all gatekeepers do, the proper range of acceptable discussion, and to demonize those who stand outside it. It reduces mythic images from mystery to parable.

Myth says: Here is a story. Take ten or twenty years of your life to let it work on you and consider what it tells you about yourself. Parable says: This is how you should interpret the image. Myth serves the soul. Parable serves the dominant ideology.

Mendelsohn acknowledges that Jacqueline Kennedy made Camelot the official myth of the Kennedy Administration. But, he says, Greek tragedy may be more appropriate, because

Athenian drama returns obsessively – as we do, every November 22nd – to the shocking and yet seemingly inevitable spectacle of the fallen king, of power and beauty and privilege violently laid low.

He mentions another familiar mythic theme evoked by the Kennedy saga, that of family curses and original sins that come back to haunt the innocents. The list is quite long: brother Joseph’s death in war; brother Robert’s assassination; brother Ted’s scandal at Chappaquiddick; three lost Presidential opportunities; airplane crashes, madness, murder scandals and drug addictions – all stemming from the alleged crimes of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy.

Mendelsohn suggests that this is tragic thinking: “…assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen…” Using the Oedipus and Oresteia myths as examples, he reminds us that

…the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light...lies at the heart of Greek drama. You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past…slowly uncovering the deeper meanings of things…

This desire underlies much of our curiosity about the Kennedys and the national trauma we associate with them. So we “…constantly revisit it, as much to convince ourselves that such a thing could happen as to hope, each time we go back, that it might turn out differently.”

Indeed, we annually revisit both the assassination as well as the entire weekend that followed, from the first news through the Jack Ruby’s alleged revenge killing of Oswald to the grand funeral procession that (for a time) re-established our national sense of continuity and purpose.

This suggests that the conclusion to be drawn is not about “the role of the media” – about news and how we get it – but about drama: about our need, as ancient as the Greeks, to see certain elemental plots re-enacted before our eyes, at once familiar but always fresh.

So far, so good. Mendelsohn then moves to the theme of the King/God/Hero as sacrificial victim, which, he says, has deeply influenced our fifty-year-long response to these stories (not to mention, I might add, our even older fascination with Abraham Lincoln:

Hero and victim: our ambiguous relationship to the great – our need to idolize and idealize them, inextricable from our impulse to degrade and destroy them – is, in the end, the motor of tragedy, which first elevates and then topples its heroes…

But we are talking about an American story, which was born, as I have said, in what Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” This world suffers from a profoundly diminished imagination. It’s not that we have no myths, but that we are generally unconscious of them, of how profoundly they determine our identity, and of how little they nourish us.

Indeed, the myth of American Innocence offers only one alternative to the Hero: the Victim. If Americans feel the constant need to revisit the theme of the Hero reduced to victim, perhaps it is because many of us sense that our long-assumed sense of white, male privilege that underlies our national identity and military/industrial empire is collapsing. Perhaps this is why so many white people are, like deer in a headlight, staring at its shadow of victimization. Perhaps we all know at some deep level that the cracks in the veneer of the walls of the City are exposing a rot that we cannot ignore much longer.

And, once again, this is where the gatekeepers come in. Their function – as intellectuals, professors, writers, broadcasters, pundits and journalists, as managers of elite opinion for our middle- and upper-middle classes – is to control the spin and sheer up those cracks in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is where Mendelsohn (as a staff writer for the New Yorker) shifts from classicist to gatekeeper:

The tragic conviction that there are long-hidden reasons for the fall of kings finds its most extreme expression, today, in the obsessive desire to find “plots” of another kind in the Kennedy story: here you can’t help thinking of the conspiracy theories. With their Rube Goldberg-esque ingenuity, their elaborateness directly proportional to their preposterousness, these can end up looking suspiciously like madness (that other favorite tragic subject.)

Note the similarity of his patronizing attitude to that of Steven Gillon in Part Two of this essay. Mendelsohn the classicist wrote ninety-five percent of a very insightful article, but Mendelsohn the gatekeeper inserted the above paragraph, and by doing so, revealed his real agenda. Patronizing: the attitude of the patriarch. Trust him.

What are the differences between the old myths and ours? Greek drama, like all art forms deriving from indigenous myth, expresses archetypal themes and is embedded in the physical places where some of those themes were first told. As such, it still retains the soul-making potential to connect readers and audiences to their essential natures. It still carries the possibilities of a functioning mythology. It is and will continue to be re-told to modern audiences because its themes are our own. It remains relevant to an understanding of both who we are (what Euripides, in the words of Sophocles, showed) and who we might become (what Sophocles himself tried to show).

The myth of American innocence, by contrast, functions essentially on Campbell’s sociological level – to enable us to rationalize the contradictions of our lives and our belief systems, to live in a mad system without going mad, by projecting that madness upon the Others of the world. As such, our myth is profoundly unstable. The truth (its mythic image is Dionysus at the gates of Thebes) always threatens to intrude upon our fantasies of innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism. Because these cracks in the myth continually appear, because we are clamoring for a different story, the gatekeepers must continually re-tell it, as if one more re-telling will put us back to sleep.

In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the gatekeepers are well aware that most Americans doubt the dominant narrative. They know that if that doubt were to become universally expressed, then we would have to call many other aspects of our American story into question. So the gatekeepers have been working overtime, as they do every November, so that we might sit down for Thanksgiving dinner to feed on fantasies instead of on dreams.

Public education, writes Chomsky, is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. “A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things...that are threatening to power interests.”

From this perspective, it is the thinking of the “educated” classes – the teachers, managers, professionals, donors and conventional activists – us – that must remain within the bounds of acceptable debate. In this realm, our most important gatekeeping institutions are not the major TV networks (their function is obvious enough), but the media consumed most innocently by these classes, the so-called liberal media: The Public Broadcasting System, the New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker.

I’m not calling for a boycott of these venerable institutions. I’m suggesting that as you read and watch them, it is more important than ever to remember the necessity of understanding their real intentions. If, as Mendelsohn says, “…all tragedy is about the process of discovery,” then why not let people discover the truth – and the tragedy – for themselves, instead of spoon-feeding them with such heavily-loaded words and phrases as “preposterousness,” and “Rube Goldberg-esque”?

Conclusion: Innocence

Again, I’m not really interested in the superficial political questions, or even, for that matter, in answers. I’m interested in deepening the questions themselves. I began this inquiry by asking two of them: When did you lose your innocence? and When did you lose it again? Now let’s reframe them: Did you really lose it? Can we afford to remain innocent?

As a moderate-liberal, do you still hold to the single-gunman narrative that has functioned for nearly sixty years to shore up the holes in your national identity? How does such thinking affect your views of contemporary issues, from abortion and Black Lives Matter to Iran, North Korea and “the Russians?”

As a progressive, what does your acknowledgement that the CIA really did kill JFK really mean? Knowing that every President since 1963 has been held captive to the dictates of the Deep State, did you vote for the last two Democratic candidates? Were you hedging bets against your own cynicism, or were you, once again, caught up in the temptation of “hope?” Do you still long for the days of Barack Obama?

Please don’t misinterpret my meaning. I’m not arguing against involvement and activism, but rather, as Campbell also said, to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” To do that, however, we have to wake from our national daydreams

An authentic capacity to think mythologically brings with it the knowledge that any truth, rather than ending the discussion, merely points us further down the road to deeper truths. It dispenses with one-dimensional parables and soothing reassurances in favor of metaphor, nuance and symbol. It gifts us with better questions, not cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all conclusions. It invites us further into both the tragedy and the mystery at the core of our stories, our behavior and our identity, and then it encourages us to imagine models for who we – and our nation – might become if we were truly in alignment with our soul’s purpose. It expands our thinking rather than constricting it. It speaks truth to power. And that is why we need to be familiar with mythology: not for armchair pontification, but to change the world.


















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Part One

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. – It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. – Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)

If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.  – Rudyard Kipling

So if you love your Uncle Sam
Bring them home, bring them home
Support our boys in Vietnam
Bring them home, bring them home – Pete Seeger

My good sir, what are you doing? Don’t you know the armistice goes into effect at 11:00 o’clock? – German officer under a white flag, to American officer

We’ll be back in twenty years. – Another German officer

Veterans Day was established in 1954 to celebrate all U.S. military veterans. In our modern memory, however, it has lost its connection with its original name, Armistice Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of World War I in 1918 and is still observed as such in Belgium, France, Brittan and many other countries. In 1938 Congress had made Armistice Day a holiday explicitly dedicated to perpetuating world peace. The shift from that stance to one praising those who fight, taken during the Cold War, should tell us much about the American psyche and the American empire. And an honest look at why so many died for so little might just compel us to consider renaming this holiday once again.

We cannot imagine the extent of the suffering. The Western Front stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Casualties on both sides averaged 2,250 dead and almost 5,000 wounded every day. Over four years, 3,250,000 were killed and 7,750,000 were wounded there. Total losses – including the Eastern Front, the Balkans, Austria, Italy, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa – were 8,400,000 dead and 21,400,000 wounded (of which seven million were permanently maimed), bringing total casualties to almost thirty million. Another 6,300,000 civilian deaths were attributed to the war. Then, the Spanish Flu, spreading before the end of the war and certainly exacerbated by it, killed an additional 25-50 million people.

Some soldiers refused to fight. Of 112 French divisions, 68 had mutinies. Fifty men were shot by firing squads. Three of those executions became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Gloryin which a pompous general castigates his soldiers for retreating and talks of “patriotism.” Kirk Douglas, the officer who defends his men, enrages the general by quoting Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

This essay is about that last day of the war – actually, it’s about the last six hours. After arguing for three days, emissaries of the belligerents signed the armistice document at 5:00 AM on November 11th, agreeing that fighting on the Western Front would formally end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That left six hours, during which all the French and British generals and most of the Americans insisted on advancing everywhere, taking as much ground as possible (even though the armistice clearly demarcated what the new boundaries would be) and punishing the Germans until the very last moment.

I was reminded – brutally – of what happened during those last hours when I viewed Netflix’sall-quiet-on-the-western-front-2-scaled-1.webp?w=366&h=205&profile=RESIZE_400xnew production of All Quiet on the Western Front. The new film departs from both Erich Maria Remarque’s book and the classic 1930 film in two significant ways:

1 – Most of the story takes place during the last three days of the war, regularly cutting back and forth between the ongoing carnage suffered by 18-year-olds in the trenches and the well-dressed, well fed diplomats and generals negotiating the precise terms of the armistice document in a finely-furnished rail car. It’s a clear contrast and an indictment of the old men who always send young men to sacrifice themselves.

2 – It depicts certain German generals as being so humiliated by the terms of the armistice and the personal loss of honor that, unwilling to surrender, they order a final, bloody attack on the allies. It ends with the protagonist dying, not from a sniper’s bullet on an “all quiet” morning (as in the 1930 film), but from wounds he suffers in those final, frenzied moments.

Both the original film and this new one are deeply anti-war and should be required viewing for all high school students. But any film presents a narrative with a point of view, and I was bothered by this one, because those last scenes invert history. It wasn’t the authoritarian Germans who flung thousands of boys at massed machine guns and artillery, knowing full well that the armistice had already been signed. It was the democratic French, British and Americans.

Hostilities on the Eastern Front had ended months before. Everyone was hearing rumors that the German Kaiser had abdicated and left the country, that Germany had become a republic, that Berlin was already a scene of revolutionary riots. German artillery had fallen silent in many places, only firing in response to Allied artillery. Some German troops were retreating toward home. Several units had mutinied. Over ten thousand had surrendered in the last week.

But the Allied generals insisted on more artillery bombardments and yet more mass infantry attacks, often uphill, over open ground – against entrenched machine guns – that should not stop until precisely 11:00 AM. They threatened to court martial any field commanders who might consider the humane decision to disobey, avoid any useless casualties and keep their men in the trenches until the shooting stopped. A few did just that, risking their careers, but the commanders of nine of the sixteen American divisions obeyed, sending their men forward. Some of the attacks began as late as 10:00 AM, and some units who had not heard the ceasefire order kept fighting (and dying) until 4:00 PM.51anka5vakl._sx325_bo1204203200_.jpg?w=197&h=300&profile=RESIZE_400x

According to the most conservative estimates, during those last hours following the signing of the armistice, all sides on the Western Front suffered over 2,700 deaths (including at least 320 Americans) and 11,000 total casualties, 10% more than would occur on D-Day, 26 years later. “There was, however,” writes Joseph Persico, “a vast difference”:

The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided.

Why the mad, final advance and utterly unnecessary slaughter on 11/11/11? There seem to be two obvious themes here, and a third that requires a greater imagination of us.

The first is simple, understandable vindictiveness and the desire for maximum vengeance on the part of the French, whose farms, towns, forests and cities had been churned up for four years, and whose people had died in the millions.

The second, regrettably, was a final opportunity for glory and the possibility of career advancement. Accounts written by many of the senior officers such as Douglas MacArthur and George Patton make this quite clear. Patton, at least, was honest about his martial vocation:

We can but hope that e’re we drown

‘Neath treacle floods of grace,

The tuneless horns of mighty Mars

Once more shall rouse the Race.

When such times come, Oh! God of War

Grant that we pass midst strife,

Knowing once more the whitehot joy

Of taking human life.

We need to go deeper.


Part Two

You can’t stop me. I spend 30,000 men a month. – Napoleon

I would rather have a dead son than a disobedient one.  – Martin Luther

¡Que viva la muerte! – Francisco Franco 

Yes, the desire for vengeance and the hope of glory and promotion are two convincing explanations for why commanders would override their natural, paternal concern for the men under their command. But these answers don’t go far enough to satisfy me. After all, this was world war, and the carnage had not relented (except for the first Christmas) for four years.


                                                                                                            Christmas Truce 1914

Old men had been making these decisions and – maybe more of a mystery – young men had been obeying them with few exceptions all this time. Neither economics nor religion nor dialectical materialism nor even psychology can explain the source, the intensity and the mutual culpability of this madness. Only mythological thinking can get us to the core.

My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence attempts to understand the enduring power of the foundational myth underlying all Western culture, the narrative of the killing of the children. This story is first articulated in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his loyalty to God in the tale known as the Aqidahth-7.jpg?w=283&h=221&profile=RESIZE_400xIt then moves through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and blossoms in the twenty centuries of abuse, betrayal and the profound depression – or unquenchable desire for vengeance – that characterize modern history and modern families. Most specifically, it provides a template for every ensuing generation of young men who, desperately but unconsciously seeking to die to their boyhoods and be reborn as men, go willingly to the literal death that older men have planned for them. It is about powerful but uninitiated men indoctrinating uninitiated, powerless men into the worship of a vengeful god, and later of his substitute, the national state.

These stories are absolutely central to Western consciousness. They show us how long it has been since initiation rituals broke down. For at least three millennia, patriarchs have conducted pseudo-initiations, feeding their sons into the infinite maw of literalized violence. Indeed, it was their great genius – and primordial crime – to extend child-sacrifice from the family to the state. Boys eventually were forced to participate in the sacrifice. No longer comprehending the idea of surrender to a symbolic death, they learned to, in a sense, overcome death by inflicting it on others, to kill for some great, transpersonal cause or ideology.

Ultimately dying for the cause became a more meaningful act than to kill for it. Within the suffocating confines of monotheism and patriarchy, martyrdom became an ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate. “Uniquely among the religions of the world,” writes Bruce Chilton,

…the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah – a central virtue for the faithful as a whole.

By the late 19th century, with nationalism replacing religion as a central unifying factor, the sky gods of Greek myth, Ouranos and his son Kronos came to rule the unconscious of modern man. For three or four generations, as Robert Bly taught, relations between fathers and sons had been changing fundamentally when men left their homes and farms for the factories. Fathers became absent fathers, and sons found themselves without close role models – just as the entire Western world was becoming subject to the most rapid technological changes in history. It was a period comparable only to our own.

One Frenchman (who was fated to die in the first weeks of the Great War) wrote that the world had changed more since he had been in school than it had since the Romans. In the thirty years between 1884 and 1914, humanity encountered mass electrification, telephones, automobiles, radio, movies, airplanes, submarines, elevators, refrigeration, public education, radioactivity, feminism, Darwin, Marx (who wrote, “All that is solid melts into air”), Picasso and Freud. It is particularly ironic that just as modern people were learning of the unconscious, they found themselves forced to act out the old myths of the sacrifice of the children.

Now everyone was judged by how useful they were under capitalism. In 1900 George Simmel wrote that existence in the urban factories had diminished human passions in favor of a reserved, cynical attitude. This had created a compensatory craving for excitement and sensation, which for some was partially satisfied by the emerging consumer culture. But others needed something even more extreme, more Dionysian, to make them feel alive. The mass euphoria of belligerent nationalism provided it.

Ouranos had been in the ascendant. But he soon evoked his opposite. As a group, the generation of older men of 1914 were embodying Kronos, the god who ate his own children. The pace of technological change simply exceeded humanity’s capacity to understand it, and the pressure upon the soul of the world exploded into world war.

How did this play out on the battlefield? Any honest military historian will admit that the generals (or in this context, the ritual elders) learned absolutely nothing in those four years. They began in August 1914 by exhorting the troops with Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori and then sending wave after wave of boys just out of high school against massed, fortified machine guns. A million died in just the first four months. Yet four years later, in late 1918, tactics hadn’t changed at all. The poet Wilfred Owen (who would die in the last week of the war in yet another senseless and suicidal assault) described the terrible irony of the soldiers’ experience:

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

These are profound mysteries. Perhaps the old men did learn some things, even if none would dare articulate them: that myth trumps fact; that they remained free to enact these horrific narratives; that far from being punished, the worst of the warmongers would go on to live with the highest honors and privileges – and that the story would go on unchanged.

On November eleventh, 1943, the Nazi S.S. memorialized the 25th anniversary of the armistice with a display – uncommon even for them – of gratuitous cruelty. They forced the 40,000 residents of the Terezin ghetto in Czechoslovakia to stand at attention in a freezing, rainy field all day for a head count that didn’t happen until late afternoon. Anyone who moved was shot. Three hundred collapsed and died before they were allowed to return to their barracks.

It had to end in 1945, we’d like to think.

Certainly, twenty years after the end of the Second World War, after Korea, the generals had finally learned that it was useless to send infantry against machine guns, right? Wrong. Throughout the Viet Nam war, the U.S. Army’s primary tactic – “search and destroy”, or “target acquisition” – was the sacrifice of infantry units to flush out the concealed enemy. Helicopters intentionally dropped troops into “hot zones,” where they were often pinned down by enemy fire. They defended themselves until air strikes hit the enemy positions, and then the American survivors left the terrain to the enemy’s survivors. No actual ground was liberated or acquired, and few precautions were taken. Sociologist William Gibson writes,

Story after story…concerns commanders who knew large enemy formations were in a given area but did not tell their subordinates because they did not want them to be cautious.

In countless other examples, the Army expended American lives to force the North Vietnamese off steep mountains for no discernable purpose. The 1987 movie Hamburger Hill depicts the nine-day assault on “Hill 937”, designated as such because it’s height was 937 meters, and costing 72 American lives and hundreds of wounded. The film ends with a victory celebration. What it doesn’t show, however, is that most of the North Vietnamese escaped and that the Americans abandoned the hill two weeks later.

Abandonment and betrayal (mythologically, Ouranos and Kronos) became the primary metaphors understood by hundreds of thousands of Americans, even if they’d never heard a Greek myth. Psychologist Jonathan Shay writes that the soldier’s common experience was violation of the moral order, or betrayal. He quotes one veteran: “The U.S. Army…was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by (their) father…”

In the decades after the end of that war, American elites, with the assistance of Hollywood filmmakers, made a determined effort to rehabilitate its criminal memory as (at worst) an honorable crusade and (at best) a tragic “mistake”. In the public mind the veteran was now either a violent thug or a victim – not of a culture that ate its children, but of liberal politicians and cruel Vietnamese torturers directed by scheming Russian overlords.

I invite you to consider, however, whether the war was really a mistake. Cui Bono, follow the money. Great fortunes were made, as they would be made during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and as they are being made right now while the U.S. intervenes in Ukraine, Yemen and Ethiopia and funnels billions to the arms industry.

Perhaps more importantly, the mythic fix is in as well, in the shape of the “good war”. The public remembers Viet Nam as a tragic mistake conducted by men who had the very best of intentions. It remembers Iraq and Afghanistan in precisely the same mythic terms. It will remember Ukraine in the same way. The myth of American innocence is being reconstituted and revived for yet another generation of old men who are already anticipating the next opportunity to feed more young men into Kronos’ gaping maw.

All this leads me to suggest that when you consider speaking to a veteran today, think before you do. What precisely will be your intention? Will it be, as veteran James Kelly writes, “…an empty platitude, something you just say because it is politically correct”? Will it “…massage away some of the guilt at not participating themselves”? Will it be “…almost the equivalent of ‘I haven’t thought about any of this’”? Kelly also writes:

After all, despite the various reasons that people join the military, from free college to a steady paycheck to something much more patriotic or idealistic, there is one thing we all have in common: Our passion for our country and your rights and freedoms that we swore to protect.

May it be so, and may passion for country grow into passion for the Earth.

Full disclosure: I acknowledge that I am not a veteran, and I have no concrete, felt understanding of a veteran’s experience, let alone the experience of combat, wounding or trauma, or even of their family’s pain. But I must tread – lightly but firmly – into this “morass” (to coin a phrase). I sincerely hope that Mr. Kelly would support this statement: We fought to defend your free-speech right to completely disagree with our reasons for fighting.

Myth and politics (radical politics) can meet. Howard Zinn, who became a pacifist after serving as a bombardier in World War Two, put Veterans Day in what I consider to be its proper perspective:

Our decent impulse, to recognize the ordeal of our veterans, has been used to obscure the fact that they died, they were crippled, for no good cause other than the power and profit of a few. Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking with hypocrisy. Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism. As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. At the end of that war, in which 50 million died, the people of the world should have shouted “Enough!” We should have decided that from that moment on, we would renounce war… war in our time – whatever “humanitarian” motives are claimed by our political leaders – is always a war against children…Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

How often does the statement “Thank you for your service” serve as a personal apology for the knowledge of how shameful the nation’s actual treatment of vets has been? No one really knows how many veterans have (or had) “passion for their country,” or how many believe that it is a sweet and noble thing to die for it. But the mythmakers and gatekeepers are going to extraordinary lengths to convince you that they do, and to marginalize anyone in media who disagrees. Caitlin Johnstone writes:

Don’t say “Thank you for your service” to veterans. Don’t pretend to agree with them when they claim to have fought for your freedom and democracy. Openly disagree with people who promulgate this narrative. Treat Veterans Day and Memorial Day as days of grieving and truth-telling, not celebration and glorification…“But Caitlin!” you may say. “What about World War Two veterans?” Well, fine, but…do you notice how far back you had to reach in U.S. history to find a war in which veterans arguably fought for a just cause?…There are no war heroes. There are only war victims.

To counter the onslaught of what really is fake news, imagining a new way of being requires a reframing of “the old lie”. One step would be to rename Veterans Day as Armistice Day and celebrate its original meaning. As Chelsea Manning tweeted,

Want to support veterans!? Stop sending us overseas to kill or be killed for your nationalist fairy tales. We can do better.

If America were to miraculously awake from its 400-year dream of innocence and denial and speak honestly for once, we might admit that Veteran’s Day is really Sacrifice of the Children Day. Here’s an alternative to “Thank you for your service”: I can never know what you went through, but if you’re willing to speak about it, I’m willing to listen. And if possible, I’m willing to share your grief.

Yes, praise the vet, not the war. Praise real elders like Howard Zinn, not the con men who avoid military service and feed a bloated defense budget. Praise grief processions, not parades of military hardware. Praise a veteran’s willingness to help us change, not romanticization of his battles. Praise the desire for initiation, not the sacrifice of the children. Praise commonalities, not otherness.

My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War One I’ve learned it’s lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same
– John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches”

Some related essays of mine:

A Truce for Christmas

Myth, Memory and the National Mall

Redeeming the World 

Thank You for Your Service

The Myth of the Good War

To Sacrifice Everything

Read more…

Part Five

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. – George Orwell

I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.  – George H.W. Bush

Universities commonly mirror what students have already endured. Public education reverses the age-old tradition of identifying a child’s innate and unique gifts. Indigenous cultures emphasized what the Romans called educare – to identify, encourage and welcome that which that already exists. Progressive educators such as John Pulliam acknowledge this:

The true purpose of education…is to study the principles operant within an activity in order to facilitate new questions and new answers. In essence, education requires an environment in which students are not asked questions for which the answers are known; if the questions involve predetermined conclusions, the process is training.

But America ignored educare and institutionalized instruere (to build into). The Yiddish word is more poetic: assuming that children enter the world with nothing in their heads, schooling schtups them full of information.francoise_foliot_-_la_radio_a_lecole-scaled-1.jpg?w=241&h=138&profile=RESIZE_400x

Much of that information has less to do with what to know than with how and even when to know. Everything became standardized. David Henkin writes:

As daily school attendance became a normative activity outside the southern US in the early 19th century, masses of schoolchildren learned early and often to expect certain regular activities (examinations, early recesses, special classes) to take place on the same day of the week.

Standardized testing converts natural curiosity into docility and narcissism and trains middle class students not in critical thinking but merely in how to take tests. For the rest, the cruel euphemism of “No Child Left Behind” relies on threats and punishment, imposes narrow agendas, overrules local control and punishes entire schools for the failures of the few. Finally, it ignores the impact of poverty, which leads to the familiar vicious circle of inadequate funding and migration to charter schools.

We can explain why white, suburban students perform so much better on the tests with the simple fact that their school systems spend far more per pupil than urban systems can. th-1.jpg?w=292&h=204&profile=RESIZE_400xThe reason is that the U.S., nearly unique in the world, requires local jurisdictions to fund education through local property taxes. And our national obsession with scapegoating, punishment and blaming the youthful victims of capitalism has produced a situation in which most states spend more on prisons than they do on education. California is the worst, investing $65,000 per prisoner compared to $11,500 per student. But to ask why they do that – and why we allow them to do it – is to question the most fundamental aspects of American myth.

“Zero tolerance” policies allow school administrators no leeway for interpretation. Examples are endless, if tragic. A valedictorian is charged with a felony and banned from her graduation for mistakenly leaving a kitchen knife in her car. A thirteen-year-old who brings a model rocket to show in class is suspended. An eleven-year-old is jailed for bringing a plastic knife in her lunch box. A ten-year-old girl is charged with sexual harassment and suspended for asking a boy if he liked her. Mall police turn away girl scouts for being “similarly dressed.” A third of the students of a Chicago high school are expelled because of zero tolerance. It began not through political correctness, but because governments that cannot enact real gun control for adults divert the spotlight onto children. And youths convicted of any drug offense permanently lose federal financial aid (over 130,000 when I wrote my book ten years ago), even if possession laws are later overturned.

We’re talking about public programs, but we’re also talking about those 25-35% of Americans who are evangelicals and who have strangleholds on state and federal budgets.

Ten percent of the sixty million students in the country attend private schools, three-quarters of which are religious. Large numbers of these 4.5 million students learn in atmospheres that are misogynist at best and racist at worst. Their parents are Trumpus’ base. According to Christian researcher Robert P. Jones,

…white Christians – including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics –  are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans…White Christians are also about 20% more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”

Thirty-seven states require that when schools offer sex education, they must discuss abstinence. In 2017, a third of the $300 million federal funding for teen sexual health education programs was for abstinence education. All told, the feds have spent well over $2 billion on it. However, claims researcher Laura Lindberg, “…it leaves our young people without the information and skills that they need…We fail our young people when we don’t provide them with complete and medically accurate information.”

The government continues to throw money at these programs even though its own studies have shown that they have no effect on sexual behavior among youth. Worse, they generally withhold information about pregnancy and STD prevention. They don’t reduce pregnancy or STD rates, and they have no effect on adolescents delaying intercourse. However, when they do become active, many teens fail to use condoms, unlike their peers in other countries who have routine access to contraceptive education and counseling.

The final insult is that language used in abstinence-based curricula often reinforces gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness – attitudes that often correlate with domestic violence. The cumulative result: It is likely in vast areas of the country for a girl who has been raped and impregnated by a relative to have no access to abortion (family rape is the source of 40% of teen pregnancies). She might run away with her child to escape the ongoing abuse, go on welfare (until the funds run out and the state takes the child) and become a homeless prostitute. She would be a sacrificial victim, no different in any respect from similar girls in the Middle East. But she would also carry the uniquely American, Puritan blame for her own suffering.

This entire issue of how our institutions function to dumb us down is part of something even larger than the myth of American Innocence. The myth of the killing of the children is the most fundamental narrative upon which all of Western patriarchal culture is founded. In Chapters Six and Ten of my book I discuss the immensely long story – beginning with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to impress his god – in which fathers learned to invert ancient male initiation practices into the literal sacrifice of male children in the cauldron of war.

For the rest of us, beginning with mandatory public education and continuing with the spell of advertising and mass media, that ancient process has perpetuated conditions in which our innate intelligence – our ability to discriminate and think critically – has atrophied. As historian John Crossan writes,

It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

Indeed, even if we retain our belief in the value of public education, this process has produced a nasty feedback mechanism in which the most ethically-challenged and pathologically ambitious individuals rise to the highest corporate and political heights, and then we continue to elect them as they shamelessly, even proudly go about destroying that institution. th-3.jpg?w=268&h=205&profile=RESIZE_400xWhy? Because they work for people who know that if the rest of us really learned how the world works, we might rise up and throw them out.







Part Six

History is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become. – James Loewen

Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors who, when their turn comes, will manufacture professors. – Simone Weil

I love the poorly educated. – Trumpus

Before college it’s mostly about textbooks, as James Loewen and Donald Yacovone have shown. Consider The American Pageant, a high school Advanced Placement history textbook assigned to over five million students annually. Its gross racism can be excused because it was first published in1956. Updated sixteen times, most recently in 2019 by Pulitzer Prize winner David Kennedy (Stanford), it has been described as “a patriotic work that celebrates American progress and the free enterprise system, while largely ignoring dissenting political viewpoints…”

Loewen, however, wrote, “It is likely that Houghton Mifflin (the publishers) took pains to avoid the subject (of slavery) lest some southern state textbook adoption board take offense.” Ibram X. Kendi notes that the 17th edition still contains false representations of slavery, for instance by referring to kidnapped and enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and stating that free people of mixed race were “usually the emancipated children of a white planter and his black mistress.” The N-word is not mentioned anywhere, but there is a list of racial terms used against poor white people.

If, on the sixteenth revision, this garbage is still in the book, we can only assume four possibilities: the esteemed Professor Kennedy is senile and hasn’t noticed it; he only lent his name to the title and hasn’t even read it; he thinks it is not insulting to People of Color; or he wants it to remain for more nefarious reasons.

Texas established a textbook committee in the early 1960s. It required that texts omit any references to Pete Seeger, Langston Hughes or anyone else attacked by the House Un-American Activities Committee; another proposal would require every public school teacher to swear to a belief in a supreme being.

Gatekeeping works through exclusion, as above, or through marginalization: As I noted in “False Equivalencies – How Media Gatekeepers Marginalize Alternative Voices”, only a few years ago liberal Harvard invoked a shady, right-wing “fact checker” and used false equivalencies to blacklist large swarths of progressive media.  Conservative David Horowitz has taken the next logical step in book-burning, publishing his The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, claiming they are sympathetic to terrorists.

Despite all the commies he claims have taken over the teaching of History, the reality of course is quite different. In 1995, Loewen published Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, which reflected his lengthy survey of 12 leading high school textbooks. It revealed a dull Eurocentric history presented with a mix of bland optimism, blind patriotism and misinformation. He also polled thousands of undergraduates on their political views. Although 90% of the public assumed that college-educated persons were both more knowledgeable and more dovish,

Educated people disproportionately supported the Vietnam War…the grade-school-educated were always the most dovish…we must conclude that the more educated a person was, the more likely she/he was to be wrong about the war…education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act…the more traditional schooling in history that Americans have, the less they will understand Vietnam or any other historically based problem…education correlates with hawkishness.

This only happens in history education:

Education does not have this impact in other areas of study. People who have taken more mathematics courses are more proficient at math than those who have not. The same holds true for English, foreign languages and almost every other subject. Only in History is stupidity the result of more, not less, schooling.

Chomsky agrees: the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. At a certain level, the distinction between stupidity and ignorance slides into willful denial. For those privileged to attend the best universities and train to become the next generation of corporate, political and media leaders, “…you just don’t think certain things”. Others who display their psychopathic inability to feel empathy for others are channeled into the foreign service and learn the arts of manipulation. In a rare moment of candor, Henry Kissinger admits:

This (foreign policy) is not an honorable business conducted by honorable men in an honorable way. Don’t assume I’m that way and you shouldn’t be.

William Deresiewicz, formerly of Yale, echoes Chomsky’s views on gatekeeper training:

At Yale…the message is reinforced in embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university – its quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and wrought-iron portals – is constituted by the locked gate set into the encircling wall. Everyone carries around an ID card that determines which gates they can enter. The gate, in other words, is a kind of governing metaphor – because the social form of the university, as is true of every elite school, is constituted the same way. Elite colleges are walled domains guarded by locked gates, with admission granted only to the elect. The aptitude with which students absorb this lesson is demonstrated by the avidity with which they erect still more gates within those gates, special realms of ever-greater exclusivity – at Yale, the famous secret societies, or as they should probably be called, the open-secret societies, since true secrecy would defeat their purpose. There’s no point in excluding people unless they know they’ve been excluded.

Such “secret” societies reveal 1968-skull-bones.webp?w=336&h=194&profile=RESIZE_400xhow modern culture has taken the universal desire among young men to be recognized and welcomed into mature adulthood by their elders and perverted it to serve the needs of capitalism. As I write in Chapter Five of my book,

Fraternity initiations can seem quite realistic. But they typically allow boys to remain boys while cementing future business and political unions. In these ceremonies of entitlement, their elite group identity excludes the vast majority of their own social class, let alone the rest of the polis.

…America is still deeply influenced by its heritage of Puritanism. This has left a residue of moralistic education – teaching and schooling through denial, both of the wisdom of the body as well as of the innate needs for initiation and purpose. It is more concerned with restrictions on behavior and speech than on hearing what may be emerging from a young person’s soul.

Since tribal societies valued all their young men, their initiations were communal and usually mandatory. The dangers were real, but all were encouraged to complete the transition. By contrast, the primary function of our advanced degrees, professional licensing exams and corporate promotion is to choose who will succeed, not to ensure that all will. In business, academics and sports, definitions of success and masculinity require the failure of others. Thus, money and consumer goods – rather than wisdom – mark successfully socialized men.

Deresiewicz continues:

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not…As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni…The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.

The most elite of the elite receive their initiations into the traditions of those secret societies, most notably Skull and Bones, which has nurtured William Howard Taft, Potter Stewart, William Bundy, McGeorge Bundy, William F. Buckley, skull-and-bones.webp?w=265&h=159&profile=RESIZE_400xRobert Taft, Henry Luce, Prescott Bush, G.H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush, John Kerry, David McCullough, Steven Mnuchin, Dana Milbank, J.J. Angleton and many other warriors for empire who have made their bones (and their fortunes) in the C.I.A. and the State Department.


Part Seven

After “The Vietnam War,” I’ll have to lie low. A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes…I want to bring everybody in. – Ken Burns

All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. – Frank Herbert

…and academics in offstage clothes who watch, say nothing, and think they know, because they do not drink wine in the ordinary bars. – Antonio Machado

Academic historians, of course, whether consensus gatekeepers or leftist revisionists not named Zinn, have little impact on anyone (outside of the future gatekeepers they instruct), because their books don’t sell much. They don’t dirty themselves in the world where politics, popular art and entertainment have become almost indistinguishable.

That’s mostly the job and privilege of biographers and creators of historical fiction – gifted and ambitious writers who speak directly to the people – to convey digestible versions of American myth to mass audiences. The novelist E.L. Doctorow wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened; the novelist will tell you what it felt like”. Vladimir Nabokov, however, wrote:

Can anybody be so naïve as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? Certainly not…The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales.

Another novelist, novelist Hilary Mantel, writes that “history is not the past – it is the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past.”

We also have the genre of “popular” historians who emphasize consensus narratives and heroic personalities. This group includes Bruce Catton, Stephen Ambrose, Jill Lepore, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Ron Chernow (whose sanitized Alexander Hamilton has been criticized as simplistic hagiography) and “Lost Cause” popularizer Shelby Foote. Some academics have demeaned popular history as “a seductive and captivating distraction that opens the heart but castrates the mind.”

Two popular historians have attained the status of household name. For better or worse, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln has sold over 2.2 million copies and spawned an entire series (Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, Killing Patton, Killing Reagan, Killing the Rising Sun). Each has sold over a million copies. Andrew Bacevich laments that O’Reilly Is America’s best-selling historian:

In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels. So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly…Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable. But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business.

I would argue that whenever history books (popular, fictional or academic) set out to confirm the basic premises of our national mythology, all it takes is a decent writing style to make them “entertaining.” We want – sometimes desperately – to have our myths confirmed.

Finally, we have Ken Burns, and his massively popular (and massively promoted) historical documentaries. Time Magazine called him “the master film chronicler of America’s past”. Stephen Ambrose has said that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” Since he is America’s most famous historian, we need to spend some time on him.

His vast field of interests and subjects have opened him to much criticism, that he has consistently minimized alternative voices in favor of a highly sanitized vision of American exceptionalism. His hugely popular and influential The Civil War claims that the war was caused not by slavery but by a failure to compromise, that the Confederacy fought for a noble cause. He gave Shelby Foote 45 minutes of screen time and allowed him to praise the brute Nathan Bedford Forrest and idolize the slaveowner Robert E. Lee. Irrelevant? 1652949-59466-clp-950.jpg?w=162&h=91&profile=RESIZE_180x180A quick image search for the series reveals four types: romantic pictures of canons, iconic 19th-century photos, pictures of Burns and pictures of Foote.

David Harlan writes that “Burns is a traditional liberal, clinging to that narrow ledge of psychic landscape that lies between the capacity for doubt and the will to believe.” Since Burns seems to believe in the possibility of national redemption, he is willing to discount or completely ignore radical critiques of America. And, since he really wants us all to get along with each other, his typical stance is to situate himself right in the center and create false equivalencies.   “In their ostentatious rejection of ideology,” writes Alex Shephard,

…they (Burns and his co-writers) have sneakily put forth their own: that these rival perspectives are of equal value…This is Burns’s reconciliation in action…the Confederates were just as human as the Union soldiers, and presented in the same sentimental light. The problem, as Charlottesville made abundantly clear, is that those divisions still define American life and keep roaring back.

Leon Litwack noted how the last episode jumps ahead to the gatherings of Union and Confederate veterans, at Gettysburg, in 1913 and 1938. The effect is “to underscore and celebrate national reunification and the birth of the modern American nation, while ignoring the brutality, violence, and racial repression on which that reconciliation rested.” Eric Foner, similarly, wrote that “Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation.”

Burns amplified his gatekeeping role in his series on the Vietnam war, which, writes Jeffrey Kimball,

…gathers testimony from over eighty people, including United States soldiers, intelligence officials, politicians, journalists, and an anti-war activist or two…In their zeal to reconcile these various factions, however, Burns and Novick handle division with kid gloves. They portray it, sure, but mournfully, as a kind of unavoidable, human tragedy. There’s a reluctance to assert that these divisions grow out of real forces that continue to influence American culture…While it can’t forgive the presidents who lied, it’s too forgiving of everyone else…It also betrays a flawed conception at the heart of Burns’s enterprise…a requiem for a time that never really existed – a period before the 1960s, when this country was supposedly unified.

His coverage of the antiwar movement has been described as “inaccurate, disjointed, incomplete, and fundamentally negative”. He never interviewed Zinn, Chomsky or any other radical historian. If he had, he might have heard Chomsky argue that America invaded Viet Nam, to prevent it “…from becoming a successful model of economic and social development…”

Burns completely ignored the questions of U.S. imperialism, the causes of the Cold War and capitalist economic motives in favor of the feel-good mythology of benign intentions and crusading idealism gone wrong. He portrayed this vast tragedy in exactly the same terms as any other centrist voice: We screwed up, but we meant well. His introductory statement – “It was begun in good faith by decent people…” – is the quintessential expression of the myth of American innocence.

The series on Country Music danced cynically around the issues of race. To not acknowledge the popularity of reactionary politicians from Tom Watson to George Wallace to Trumpus among Country fans was a sin of omission. Most recently, his series on Ernest Hemingway had plenty of time to address the writer’s lifelong leftist politics but chose instead to give excessive attention to his love life.

Burns’ work, while immensely entertaining, has established itself as a predictable, uncontroversial and much more palatable version of the MAGA narrative that surprised liberals, seemingly arising spontaneously in 2016. In fact, that narrative had been nurtured not only by right wing media and televangelists but also by centrist historians.

Meanwhile, even when those centrists get it right, they may still have to negotiate the real world of politics. In 1983 a coalition of academics warned that the U.S. was falling behind other nations and needed to define goals for history curricula. By 1994, however, a backlash deploring “political correctness” led to the U.S. Senate voting 99-1 for a resolution disavowing the proposed standards and demanding that any future guidelines show “a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization”. Further pressure resulted in the Department of Education destroying 300,000 copies of a pamphlet, Helping Your Child Learn History. 

As mythology trumps facts, Academia reflects politics. Despite the common notion that university history departments are filled with younger progressives, those gatekeepers who have proudly proclaimed their conservative prejudices have continued to dominate intellectual discourse around empire, white supremacy and American innocence. The great majority have attended or taught at Ivy League universities: George Kennan (Princeton), Gil Troy (Harvard), Robert Tucker (Johns Hopkins), Robert Maddox (Penn. State), Bruce Catton (Oberlin), Victor Hanson (Stanford), Michel Oren (Harvard), Donald Kagan (Brown), Daniel Boorstin (Harvard), Daniel Yergin (Yale), C.V. Woodward (Yale), Niall Ferguson (Harvard), Oscar Handlin (Harvard), Timothy Snyder (Harvard, Yale), Kimberly Kagan (Yale), Fred Kagan (Yale), George Nash (Harvard), Richard Pipes (Harvard), Daniel Pipes (Harvard), Paul Gottfried (Yale), Walter Lord (Yale), Herbert Feis (Harvard) and Sean Willentz (Yale).

Ivy League historians such as these have instructed fifteen U.S. Presidents; all but one of the current Supreme Court Justices; six of Biden’s fifteen Cabinet members; politicians Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), Elise Stefanik (Harvard), J.D.Vance (Yale), Josh Hawley (Yale), Ben Sasse (Harvard), Mitt Romney (Harvard), Amy Klobuchar (Yale), Kirstin Gillibrand (Dartmouth), Chuck Schumer (Harvard) and Tom Cotton (Harvard); and notable warmongers Madeleine Albright (Columbia), William Colby (Princeton), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Harvard), Dick Cheney (Yale), both George Bush’s (Yale), Prescott Bush (Yale), Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton), Anthony Blinken (Harvard), Max Boot (Yale), Michael Novak (Harvard), Nathan Glazer (Harvard), Steve Bannon (Harvard), Norman Podhoretz (Columbia), George Schulz (Princeton), Jeane Kirkpatrick (Columbia), Richard Perle (Princeton), Bill Kristol (Harvard), Charles Krauthammer (Harvard), Laura Ingraham (Dartmouth), David Horowitz (Columbia), Dinesh D’Souza (Dartmouth), Ann Coulter (Cornell), Pat Buchanan (Columbia), William F. Buckley (Yale), Elliot Abrams (Harvard), Robert Kagan (Harvard, Yale), Scooter Libby (Yale), John Ashcroft (Yale), John Bolton (Yale), Steve Forbes (Princeton), Victoria Nuland (Brown), Jake Sullivan (Yale), David Frum (Harvard, Yale), George Will (Princeton), Francis Fukuyama (Harvard), Paul Wolfowitz (Cornell), James Baker (Princeton), Michael Bloomberg (Harvard), Dick Cheney (Yale), Michael Walzer (Harvard), Robert Gates (Georgetown) and Lawrence Summers (Harvard). This is how prospective leaders and servants of empire are formed.

Please note that nowhere in this essay do I blame teachers, thousands of whom understand exactly what I’m talking about and persist within the system to educate – rather than instruct – their students. But in our demythologized world, we can only offer one of two possibilities about the institution of American education. Either it, like all our institutions, is collapsing as the myth of innocence itself loses potency; or that system, like all the others, was specifically designed to bring out the worst in us, not the best, and it’s working quite well.

We need to imagine something better. We need to re-imagine the telling of history itself.


Part Eight

Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. – Albert Einstein

The visionary is the only true realist. – Federico Fellini

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. – W.B. Yeats

In remembrance is the beginning of redemption. – The Baal Shem Tov

Poetry is something more scientific and serious than history. – Aristotle

We are at the end of an age. We exist uncomfortably between those years when our historian gatekeepers provided stories about ourselves with a sense of shared meaning, and some unknown future when new stories might arise to express what we might become.

American culture raises sociopaths and psychopaths to the highest levels. As long as we prioritize stories of heroism, innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism (and still refuse to address the darker stories of white supremacy, empire, brutality and alienation below them), we will always have intellectuals who will be willing to police the boundaries of memory and acceptable thinking. Some of them will rise to become primary gatekeepers because they will enjoy manipulating other people; some for the rewards they will receive; and others because they will have been so well educated as to actually share those beliefs. This third group has always been the more persuasive. We need to imagine something better.

Those revisionists (from Beard to Zinn and beyond) who began to tell the truth about American history (from Columbus to Viet Nam and beyond) provided the first necessary step in a long process of waking up. Zinn wrote that memory

…can liberate us when the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature. Memory can remind us of possibilities that we have forgotten, and history can suggest to us alternatives that we would never otherwise consider…the past suggests what can be, not what must be. It shows not all of what is necessary, but some of what is possible…The only way to compensate for the bullying nature of history is to behave as if we are freer than our “rational” calculations tell us we are.

So here is something for us to do: we can begin the withdrawal of allegiance from the state and its machines of war, from business and its ferocious  drive for profit, from all states…all dogmas. We can begin to suggest, and to act out, alternative ways of living with one another. It is possible…that we can be a cause of change, that coming generations will have a new history.

Now it is possible, despite all the censoring, de-platforming and marginalizing that still continues and is actually increasing, to read the texts and know the dark truth of who we actually are as a nation and how the story of welcoming the Other into the Polis continues its agonizingly slow process.125235576_10223803330208267_1288715780457896793_n.jpg?w=204&h=247&profile=RESIZE_400x

But a second step is equally necessary.

Our task is to do more than simply deconstruct outmoded belief systems. They hold us not merely because of generations of indoctrination, but because of their mythic content. They grab us, as all myths do, because they refer to profound truths at the core of things. Although those truths have been corrupted to serve a culture of death, they still remain truths, and they remain accessible through the creative imagination. The methods for doing so are ritual, art and seeing through – de-literalizing. It means telling the same stories but reframing them until we discover their essence. In Native American terms, we will need to search for our original medicine.

America provides a unique challenge in the study of myth because, except for Native stories, our myths do not arise from this ground, nor do they easily invite us to the work of the soul. Still, they have no less a hold on us because they are only ten or fifteen generations old. Understanding their contradictions will not make them go away. But if we assume telos – purpose – we must imagine that even the myths of American innocence and violent redemption can lead us to the universal archetypes. If we can hold the tension of these opposites (the myths and the realities) perhaps we can begin to re-articulate meaning in a world that is descending alternately into chaos and fascism. If we cannot disengage from our myths, then we need to look deeper into them.

To speculate on the deeper meaning of our civil religion is to risk falling into a morass of cliché. For 400 years, apologists from preachers and dime novelists to Radio Free Europe and Tucker Carlson have presented an America divinely ordained to defend freedom (or: assassinations and military coups), nurture democracy (repress self-determination), spread prosperity (steal resources) and inspire opportunity (enforce oppression). But this mythic language tugs at our emotions. Even when we know better, we want America to be what it claims to be – we want to believe – or disappointed, we become cynical and disengaged.

But what if America were born so that freedom could spread everywhere some day? What if our uniquely good fortune has been the container for a story that has not yet been told? Why not look at history from the perspective of mythology, archetypal psychology and indigenous wisdom? What if we were to move from history to mystery?

My kind of history tries to seek out the mythic patterns that underlie events and ideas in areas as diverse as Psychology, Literature, Religion, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, American Studies and Popular Culture. The writers I like proudly admit to being amateurs (Latin: amare, “to love”); we love stories. We aren’t scientists or theologians, but like Heinrich Zimmer, reckless dilettantes (“to take delight”). He writes:

The moment we abandon this dilettante attitude toward the images…to feel certain about their proper interpretation…we deprive ourselves of the quickening contact, the demonic and inspiring assault…What characterizes the dilettante is his delight in the always preliminary nature of his never-to-be-culminated understanding…We can never exhaust the depths – of that we may be certain…a cupped handful of the fresh waters of life is sweeter than a whole reservoir of dogma…

Our American cosmogony begins, as all do, with the original “deities” (the Pilgrims and founding fathers) who created a world out of “nothing.” Taking a radical perspective, we acknowledge that from the start, their “city on a hill” functioned to steal, concentrate and perpetuate wealth. American history becomes a series of conquests, painful expansions of freedom and counter-measures to protect privilege, culminating in today’s bleak realities. The rich vs. the poor, or the predatory and paranoid imaginations vs. the return of the repressed.

Alternatively, we can take a philosophical approach. Jacob Needleman insisted that the founding fathers were adherents of a timeless wisdom who created a system to “allow men and women to seek their own higher principles within themselves.” The nation was formed of unique ideals and potentials, not from ethnicity; and this explains its universal appeal, even if those ideals have been perverted into their opposites. The American Dream vs. the nightmare of dreams deferred.

Or we can muse poetically about what is approaching, if we could only recognize its song. Time (Kronos) vs. Memory (Mnemosyne). From this perspective, we could read our history as a baffling, painful, contraction- and contradiction-filled birth passage in which the literal has always hinted at the symbolic.

An unveiled look at American history reveals an enormous catalogue of injustice. As painful as it is to contemplate, knowing the truth enables us to see how the dominant myths of innocence and good intentions were constructed to serve the privileged few. But we can also use history as a springboard for imagining the story that has yet to manifest. In two profound essays, Psychologist Stephen Diggs and journalist Michael Ventura do that. Diggs (“Alchemy of the Blues”) proposes

…two histories of America: one is conscious and economic, the other unconscious and alchemical. Nowhere is this experienced more than in race. Africans were stolen into American slavery to satisfy the conscious economic desire to create wealth but also to satisfy the unconscious alchemical desire for psychological transformation…saving the Western soul from its psychotic flight from the body.

This story describes and predicts America’s slow process of transformation and descent from the Apollonian heights of the heroic, isolated ego and the abstract, distanced killing of life. It tells of America’s return to its body, to the communal experience of shared joy and suffering – through the unique forms of music created on this continent.

Michael Ventura’s  “Hear That Long Snake Moan” is indispensable to understanding this secret history of America. You can read it here. He writes:

Every true work of culture is a work of resurrection, a work of remembrance that creates the remembered moment anew and blends it with the present moment to create the possibilities of the future…(This) is the story of how the American sense of the body changed and deepened in the twentieth century – how Americans began the slow, painful process, still barely started now, of transcending the mind-body split they’d inherited from European culture.

This was the first necessary step in a process of healing that has been taking place at the deepest levels of our culture ever since, and that continues its difficult way…It is the great strength of this music that it has been able both to reveal the disease and further its healing. And the disease, again and again, whether manifesting itself as racism or an armaments race, is the Western divorce of consciousness from flesh.https___bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_2296a0d8-91a5-4ef6-9e75-59e07bb55b2e_474x607.jpeg?w=211&h=270&profile=RESIZE_400x

The history of America is, as much as it is anything, the history of the American body as it sought to unite with its spirit, with its consciousness, to heal itself and to stand against the enormous forces that work to destroy a Westerner’s relationship to his, to her, own flesh. This music, largely unaware of itself; carried forward through the momentum of deeply rooted instinct; contradicting itself in many places; perverting its own purposes in many instances; sinking many times under the weight of its own intensity…and trivializing its own meanings at many a crucial turn – this music yet rushed and rushes through every area of this country’s life in an aural “great awakening” all its own, to quicken the body and excite the spirit, and, quite literally, to waken the dead.

That’s my kind of history. Here is some more:

When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once moreTo unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken. –Novalis (Trans. Robert Bly)

This is not the age of information. This is not the age of information. Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen. This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand. — David Whyte







Read more…

Part One

What went before, as told by those who think they know it. – Gary Snyder

Everything comes to the reader as interpreted by the historian. Everything is seen through the medium of his personality. The facts of history when they are used to teach a moral lesson do not reach us in their entirety…but selected and arranged according to the overmastering ideal in the mind of the historian. The reader is at the historian’s mercy. – Peter Novick

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. – Winston Churchill

I invoke the muse of history, Clio, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory).


Book banning in America dates back to 1637,  a year after Harvard College was founded. Recent efforts across the country have hit their highest level in twenty years,  partially because in 2021 Fox News stoked the Culture Wars by mentioning critical race theory 1,300 times in four months. Now, Senate candidates are going full-paranoid on white replacement theory.

Along with the threats, the levels of comic hypocrisy have gone through the roof. Republicans can’t resist mis-quoting Martin Luther King Jr. One of the groups lobbying for book banning is Moms For Liberty!  Meanwhile, a “scholar” from the American Enterprise Institute suggests, “Ban critical race theory now. States must assert the power to enforce the principles of the Civil Rights Act!”

At least four states have done that, and another dozen are debating the issue, which is – do I really need to say this? – performative idiocy at best, and cynical, unrepentant racism and misogyny at worst. In addition, dozens of states are or soon will be considering anti-LGBTQ bills.   And now we have the mendacious Supreme Court admitting its plans to ban abortion rights by citing a 17th-century witch hunter. Gotta laugh to keep from crying.

Everywhere, reactionaries are scurrying to shore up the latest cracks in the façade of the myth of American innocence by controlling the narrative of history, how it is taught and even if it is taught.

It’s all being done, of course, by Republicans, usually in safely Republican states, meant primarily as entertainment for the choir, since most public and private history education in those states has already been controlled for generations by the racists and religious inquisitors who have served as the gatekeepers of culture and memory in the former Confederacy. I’ve addressed this theme in detail here. Naturally, powerful Southerners want to retain their influence by any means, including perpetuation of ignorance, division of the working class and outright violence.

They want to decide how their – and increasingly your – children think and what they know about two main issues characteristic of 1950s white thinking. The first would accept discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation as reflections of acceptable traditional values.

The second – propelled mostly by Democrats – involves reviving the old Cold War narrative of a bipolar world. One side, led by the United States, is allegedly a “free world”, a “global community” whose intentions are universally benign, and the other, led by Russia and China, is a hostile, dictatorial and expansionist world. Pure black and white.

But this essay is pursuing bigger game. For most of human history, the shamans and poets and later the priesthood served as the gatekeepers of culture, channeling their populations into the narrow confines of acceptable opinion regarding everything from personal behavior to national identity to which “Other” people to hate.  The result is what used to be our generally agreed-upon collective memories, which Jeremy Yamashiro describes as

…those representations of the shared past that members of a community hold in common. Collective memory is different from history. Whereas historians aim to create a relatively objective account of the past using rigorous professional standards of what counts as evidence, when members of a community recall their collective past, they do so through the filter of a contemporary set of concerns…These selective renderings help us create imagined communities – nations, races, religions, “the West” – by endowing those communities with a story of continuity and self-sameness across time.

Do historians create objective accounts of the past? Is there work really any different from collective memory? We’ll have to see about that.

Another way of talking about collective memory is to use the language of mythology. Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions. The mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life as defined by each culture.

Fourth – and most pervasive – the social function validates the social order and integrates individuals within it. Originally, this was a good thing: it oriented people to the mystery by presenting noble figures at the center of the realm who radiated the blessings that flowed through them from the other world. These figures showed that everyone carried such potential.

The word “noble” is related to “knowledge.” A noble, mythologically speaking, is one who knows him or herself. If people still revere royalty in places like Britain and Thailand, they may be accessing some vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant. We know who we are and where we fit in because the gatekeepers have taught us. However, in modern culture, “it is this sociological function of myth that has taken over,” wrote Campbell, “…and it is out of date.”

When I speak of myth in this article, I am referring to it as it has devolved in a world that, as Campbell wrote, is demythologized. That is to say, the first three functions are essentially gone, and we are left with only the fourth, sociological function. In a demythologized world this function is essentially identical with the narratives put forth by the ruling elites to serve only their interests. It does not feed the soul, and when we are honest with ourselves, we admit it.

But we need stories to tell us who we are, even if we know they are false. They provide us with a bare minimum of truth about ourselves, just enough to keep us alive (in Chapter Ten of my book I write about Robert Johnson’s concept of “low-quality Dionysus”). And it’s possible that even such low-quality mythologies may lead us to deeper mysteries.

Myth shapes our values, organizes our experience, brings emotion to our festivals and sacrifices, sets the boundaries of dissent, names the children, sends them off to war and justifies their deaths. It is the most compelling story we tell ourselves about who we are, especially when we hear it from the noble ones, those upon whom we project our own nobility. And frequently it is the story of who we are not – the Other. Howard Zinn wrote:

The more widespread is education in a society, the more mystification is required to conceal what is wrong: church, school, and the written word work together for that concealment. This is not the work of a conspiracy; the privileged of society are as much victims of the going mythology as the teachers, priests, and journalists who spread it. All simply do what comes naturally…to say what has always been said, to believe what has always been believed.

In this post-modern world, more than at any other time in history, we are quickly losing any collectively shared sense of what is real, or true, or to be trusted. With our identities shaken to the core, millions of us are searching for leaders or ideologies to revive some sense of meaning, even as a return to racism or misogyny.

In American secular culture (the South and parts of the Midwest aside), religion has long lost its gatekeeping function. It has been replaced by mainstream media, by consumerism, by the culture of celebrity, and – for the upper middle class – by elite educational institutions, especially in the teaching of our national stories. Since cultural and political gatekeeping no longer reaches us through revealed truth, these secular gatekeepers have assumed greater importance. I’ve written several articles about gatekeeping in America:

Deconstructing a Gatekeeper

Gatekeepers, Provocations and Cover-Ups

Howard Zinn and the Academic Gatekeepers 

Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA Recruitment Film 

For a long time we’ve known – or should have known – that all politicians lie. But we need to pursue that statement to its antecedents: those politicians went to college, and most of those who have risen to the highest levels (including Trumpus, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Chuck Schumer, J.D.Vance, Josh Hawley, Mitt Romney, Amy Klobuchar, Kirstin Gillibrand, Elise Stefanik and Tom Cotton) attended Ivy League institutions.

America’s elite universities have served, consciously or not, to maintain the mythology of American innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism (which necessarily involves faith in white supremacy and imperial privilege) since the middle of the 19th century. gatekeeper-2.jpg?w=212&h=134&profile=RESIZE_400xSo it can be useful to know who taught these people, and who taught their teachers.

Students interested in journalism, politics, public administration, international relations or the more rarified realms of college teaching all enter what Noam Chomsky calls “a system of imposed ignorance” and emerge from the elite universities as the most highly indoctrinated future gatekeepers:

A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests …which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society…you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions…

People within them, who don’t adjust to that structure, who don’t accept it and internalize it (you can’t really work with it unless you internalize it, and believe it)…are likely to be weeded out along the way…There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience…The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. (In) a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on.

All historians sift through the historical record and cherry pick the facts that will best buttress their arguments. Again, some gatekeepers are nothing but liars and con men who faithfully serve the powerful. Some of them are honest racists and propagandists for empire. But the most convincing are the ones who have emerged from these institutions as true believers in the myth of American innocence.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Yes, some would still excuse men such as Thomas Jefferson who never freed their slaves as “men of their times”, men who were so blinded by their prejudices that they simply did not know any better. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, writes that even Jefferson’s cousin John Randolph did so, and

…In the two decades after the Revolutionary War, so many planters freed slaves that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from less than one percent in 1782 to 13.5 percent in 1810…The notion that Jefferson was merely following the crowd, and that everyone else did the same thing is convenient for us.

At some point a historian must – or ought to – look deeper. Let’s dispense with the excuse that men didn’t know better. If they didn’t, it was because of their own moral failure. Ten of the first twelve presidents (and two others) were slave owners, as were 27 Supreme Court Justices. These men knew precisely what they were doing, and how they were profiting. And they surrounded themselves with other men who were smart enough to articulate justifications for their actions – and teach them to following generations.

How did the leadership of the exceptional nation that had only recently proclaimed that all men are created equal justify themselves? The French philosopher Montesquieu explained:

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures (Blacks) to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.

Slavery was big business. Most early American fortunes were derived at least partially from it, and most 18th-century intellectuals (with many exceptions) grew up taking it, or at least the assumptions of white supremacy, for granted.

Religious authorities were still the primary gatekeepers. But in Colonial America this necessarily had to do with race. Two of the period’s most influential preachers, associated with the First “Great Awakening”, Jonathan Edwards (also a President of Princeton) and George Whitefield, owned slaves. In the South, preachers (including college professor and Woodrow Wilson’s father) J.R. Wilson continued to justify slavery during the Civil War and for decades afterwards. th.jpg?w=277&h=130&profile=RESIZE_400xPastor Thornton Stringfellow wrote that slavery “…was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God”.

Sociologist Orlando Patterson writes that well into the 20th century, “The cross – Christianity’s central symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death – became identified with the crucifixion of the Negro.”   Clergymen presided over many lynchings from 1880 onwards, and perhaps 40,000 of them joined the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. White supremacy was inseparable from Southern religion, wrote theologian James Sellers; therefore, all threats to it took on mythic importance:

Segregation is a system of belief…It therefore becomes a holy path, complete with commandments, priests, theologians…

Psychologist Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth, and it was strongest in the North. In the 1820s the French visitor Alexis De Tocqueville noticed that

Prejudice appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.

The two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the first to outlaw “miscegenation.” Five early presidents of Harvard owned slaves, and the University is only recently beginning to admit how much it profited from slavery.

For the entire 19th century, Ivy league professors were among the gatekeepers of the Northern consensus on race. Since that time, elite educational establishments have maintained that essentially religious function: preventing, or at least marginalizing, heresy. They especially target those tasked with maintaining our sense of identity through construction of memory: the professional historians and those they mentor who go on to become teachers themselves. To understand how we got to this point, we’ll need to look at the history of history in America. 


Part Two

No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history. – Cornell West

Why is it that, in a land founded on the secular belief that “all men are created equal,” we are so obsessed with the need to find a scientific basis for human inequality? – Orlando Patterson

Philosophers were hired by the comfortable classes to prove everything is all right. – Brooks Adams

Antebellum college textbooks reflected regional prejudices. Some published in the North questioned slavery, even though Early American History (1841) by Yale’s Noah Webster, often considered the first American history textbook, mentions no African Americans. Southern historians such as William Simms and Thomas Dew (President of The College of William and Mary) published pro-slavery histories.

Other issues claimed people’s attention in the late 1840’s. One was spreading the gospel of enlightened Anglo-Saxon republicanism to Mexico and the western part of the continent through invasion and conquest. Hampton Sides writes:

At universities across the country, the youth had become smitten with the notion of American exceptionalism, and…a fashionable campus craze called the Young America Movement, which, among other things, advocated westward expansion. Even the country’s literary elite seemed to buy into Manifest Destiny. Herman Melville declared that “America can hardly be said to have any western bound but the ocean that washes Asia.” Walt Whitman thought that Mexico must be taught a “vigorous lesson”.

Other intellectuals who supported the movement were William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, George Evans, Edwin De Leon and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

After the Civil War, white people everywhere were forced to confront the fearful notion that black people could be voting citizens, theoretically equal to themselves. It was a time of deep insecurity about notions of race and identity (not unlike the present), and university teachers could no longer ignore these issues. But they could certainly channel the discussion into very narrow confines of opinion acceptable to the elites.

One of the privileges of “men of their times” is that they don’t need to be consistent. Consider popular historian Francis Parkman, who claimed that the conquest and displacement of Native Americans represented a triumph of civilization over savagery. Their “own ferocity and intractable indolence” had caused their demise. Apparently, Parkman didn’t notice that he’d confused two opposite traits, because both aggression and laziness were sins in the eyes of his Puritan ancestors, and “othering” does not have to be logical, even for upper-class academics. Much later, Martin Luther King Jr would correct the record:

Generally we think of white supremacist views as having their origins with the unlettered, underprivileged, poorer-class whites. But the social obstetricians who presided at the birth of racist views in our country were from the aristocracy: rich merchants, influential clergyman, men of medical science, historians and political scientists from some of the leading universities of the nation. With such a distinguished company of the elite working so assiduously to disseminate racist views, what was there to inspire poor, illiterate, unskilled white farmers to think otherwise?

Nell Irvin Painter, in The History of White People, lists many 19th-century American intellectuals who spread pseudo-scientific justifications of imperialism, manifest destiny and white supremacy.

The list begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and includes anthropologists Samuel Morton (Pennsylvania Medical College), Daniel Brinton (U. Pennsylvania), John Burgess (Columbia), George Gliddon and Louis Agassiz (Harvard); ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft; paleontologists Edward Cope and Nathaniel Shaler (Dean of Sciences at Harvard); economists William Ripley (Columbia) and Francis Walker (President of M.I.T.); sociologists George Fitzhugh and Edward Ross (President of the American Sociological Association); political scientist Francis Giddings; philosopher John Fiske (Harvard); historians Henry Adams (Harvard), Parkman (Harvard), Henry Cabot Lodge (Harvard), George Bancroft (Harvard) and two presidents of the American Historical Association (James Rhoades and Theodore Roosevelt).

Physicians seem to have been particularly invested in policing the racial narrative. John Van Evrie wrote books warning against “mongrelization” of the white race. Samuel Cartwright said that the plantation was “converting the African barbarian into a moral, rational and civilized being”. Josiah Nott claimed that “no full-blooded Negro…has ever written a page worthy of being remembered.” James Sims, the father of modern gynecology, did his research on un-anaesthetized Black female slaves.

Twisting the idea of natural selection into “scientific racism” and “Social Darwinism,” many intellectuals claimed that America’s wealth proved its virtue, that exploitation and elimination of the weak were natural processes and that unregulated competition resulted in the survival of the fittest. 79-40_21.jpg?w=253&h=133&profile=RESIZE_400xThe next step was to infer that only the affluent were worthy of survival. They were merely restating the Calvinist view of poverty as a condition of the spirit. Life was a harsh, unsatisfying prelude to the afterlife, redeemable only through discipline.

Deeply religious people passionately argued that the suffering of the poor was good because it provoked remorse and repentance. A hundred and fifty years later, some academics still claim that giving money to the poor makes them lazier, while giving it to the rich makes them nobler.

William Harper, first president of the University of Chicago, was more candid: “It is all very well to sympathize with the working man, but we get our money from those on the other side, and we can’t afford to offend them.”

Secular apologists, meanwhile, simply substituted “nature” for “God” and used Social Darwinism to justify colonialism. Competition for survival had produced a new human type, the Anglo-Saxon, with the moral sense to accept the White Man’s burden. Such men were uniquely qualified to help civilize those who couldn’t improve themselves without the prolonged tutelage of enlightened colonial rule – or to prevent those (predominantly dark-skinned) people who were inherently stupid from breeding before they sullied the purity of the better races.eugenics.webp?w=344&h=257&profile=RESIZE_400x

The American eugenics movement included prominent academics such as biologists Paul Popenoe (Stanford), Charles Davenport (Harvard) and Harry Laughlin; geologist Henry Osborn (Princeton); psychologists Carl Brigham (Princeton), Henry Goddard, William Sadler, Thomas Bailey, Hugo Munsterberg (Harvard), Elmer Southard (Harvard) and Robert Yerkes (Radcliffe); biologist Charles Davenport (Harvard); theologian Oscar McCulloch; historians Lothrop Stoddard, Carleton Coon (Harvard) and William McDougall (Harvard); economist Irving Fisher (Yale); doctors John Kellogg and Clarence Gamble; lawyer Prescott Hall; sociologist Richard Dugdale; theologian Joseph Fletcher (Yale); conservationists Charles Goethe, Gifford Pinchot (Yale) and Madison Grant; philanthropist E.S. Gosney; botanist (and President of Stanford) David Starr Jordan; and Charles Eliot (President of Harvard). Physicist William Shockley (M.I.T.) revived this nonsense in the 1960s, and Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (both of Harvard) proposed connections between race and intelligence well into in the 1990s.

Other Eugenics proponents included Luther Burbank, Calvin Coolidge, Daniel Gilman (Yale), John D. Rockefeller, Jr (Brown U.), Alexander Graham Bell, Wickliffe Draper (Harvard), screen-shot-2022-06-09-at-2.31.04-pm.jpeg?w=234&h=208&profile=RESIZE_400xOliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard), W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Margaret Sanger, Nikola Tesla, Robert Graham (who created a “Nobel sperm bank” in 1980) and, of course, the Nazis, whose forced sterilization program was partly inspired by that of California.

But let’s take a brief detour and discuss public education. John Gatto, former New York State “Teacher of the Year”, writes:

We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform…you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children.

Much later, millions of us are really dumb – or to be generous, profoundly misinformed – despite our educational system. Or, we must ask, is it because of this system? In Chapter Five of my book I compare indigenous initiation traditions to mandatory – that is, forced – public education and refer to Gatto’s book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. The Social Darwinists and eugenicists who designed America’s educational system modeled it on that of the militaristic Prussian state. Since then, seven generations have endured a routine designed to restrain dissent and originality and reduce everyone to a uniform, standardized level. Gatto asks, “Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure that not one (child) ever really grows up?”  

By the 1890s, many were demanding schoolbooks that would bind the nation together, while minimizing sectional differences. For Confederate veterans, reconciliation meant a reunion of whites across regional lines while rejecting both racial equality and a strong central government that would enforce civil rights. Mainstream publishers responded to the southern market, minimizing discussion of slavery.

As public education evolved, it had two specific goals: (1) to make and keep the young only as literate and skilled as necessary for an evolving capitalist economy and (2) to teach political loyalty in a time when religion was being replaced by nationalism. Duke historian William Laprade candidly acknowledged that the function of history in the schools was “the inculcation of a species of patriotic religion.” Ellwood Cubberley, Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education from 1917 until 1933, wrote:

Our schools are…factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned…And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

Much later,  James Loewen wrote:

Textbook authors need not concern themselves unduly with what actually happened in history, since publishers use patriotism, rather than scholarship, to sell their books…the requirement to take American History originated as part of a nationalist flag-waving campaign early in the (20th) century…Many history teachers don’t know much history: a national survey of 257 teachers in 1990 revealed that 13% had never taken a single college history course…

The situation might well be worse if they had taken university history courses, as we’ll see. Despite stereotypes of the 1960s, the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to support America’s imperial wars. 

Quoting from early texts, Gatto distills schooling’s intent into six functions:

1 – Adjusting: establishing fixed habits of reaction to authority to preclude critical judgment.

2 – Integrating: making people as alike as possible.

3 – Diagnosing: determining everyone’s proper social role.

4 – Differentiating: sorting children by role and training them “only so far as their destination in the social machine permits.”

5 – Selecting: identifying the unfit at an early age.

6 – The propaedeutic function: teaching a minority to manage the rest, who are “deliberately dumbed down and declawed…”

Public schooling taught children to exchange obedience for favors and advantages. It was never intended to create citizens, but servile laborers and consumers. After a few generations it left children vulnerable to marketing, which ensured that they would grow older but never grow up. And it reversed the age-old tradition of identifying a child’s unique gifts. By the 1950s an unexpected bi-product would be an epidemic of illiteracy.

In 1909, Wilson, then president of Princeton (which would refuse to admit black undergraduates for another forty years), told teachers,

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class…a very much larger class…to forgo the privilege…

From that point (when the system was installed universally), literacy began to decline from nearly 100% to a point when, in 1973, functional illiteracy kept 27% of men from military service. Now, claims Gatto, “40% of blacks and 17% of whites can’t read at all.” At one end of the spectrum, 45 million adults are functionally illiterate, and at the other, 42% of college students never read a book after they graduate.

Meanwhile, as a growing Catholic population desired history books that were less steeped in Protestant prejudices, their presses began issuing books for parochial schools. By the 1920s, some large publishers were producing books that were acceptable to Catholics while others were appeasing Southerners.

An exception, An American History (1911) by David Muzzey became a standard text until it came under fire during the 1920s Red Scare when conservatives attacked it as subversive.

In 1925, the Tennessee “Scopes Monkey Trial” highlighted religious attacks on evolution. That state’s Butler Act (not repealed until 1967) banned teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” During that decade, 37 bills were introduced in 20 states to prohibit the teaching of evolution.

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. –  American college student.

You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test. – George W. Bush

Students – at all levels – were reading what local gatekeepers wanted them to read, if they could read at all. We’ve all seen statistics about ignorance of basic facts in America.


Part Three

Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields. – Frederick Nietzsche

For empires, the past is just another overseas territory ripe for reconstruction, even reinvention. – Alfred McCoy

Let’s return to our main theme, the history of history.

The gatekeepers were succeeding. By 1900 descendants of the Confederate aristocracy were in complete control of the racial narrative, as I write here.  Immediately after the war, Edward Pollard’s book The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the Confederates portrayed the Old South as a multicultural paradise of racial harmony untouched by the evils of industrial capitalism. s-l640.jpg?w=197&h=297&profile=RESIZE_400xIt recast the struggle to perpetuate slavery as a noble defense of a traditional way of life, led by gallant gentleman-officers and fought by loyal soldiers in the “War of Northern Aggression”. The fact that tens of thousands had deserted was not included in the story.

Within two generations, most white Americans remembered the war as one “between brothers”, fought over states’ rights rather than slavery. And they believed that blacks hadn’t been ready for freedom because, as one preacher wrote, the former slaves couldn’t “sacrifice their lusts.”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1894) erected some 700 monuments to the Lost Cause, most of them in the 1950s. But their most effective tool was the propaganda they forced into the schools. The primary focus was on insuring that Southern schools used only those history books that defended slavery and praised the Ku Klux Klan, and banned those books that didn’t.1920px-monument1-1.jpg?w=212&h=283&profile=RESIZE_400x

The 1908 History of Virginia claimed, “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” Another textbook, Virginia: History, Government, Geography, used in seventh-grade classrooms into the 1970s (!), claimed, “Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner…” A high school textbook described a slave’s life:

He did not work as hard as the average free laborer since he did not have to worry about losing his job…his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected, his leisure carefree. He did not have to worry about hard times, unemployment, or old age.

How ubiquitous were these texts? Greg Huffman estimates that seventy million students were enrolled in the South’s public elementary and secondary schools for the 80 years between 1889 and 1969. All of them were subjected to this “Born With the Wind” version of history. And they exerted great influence on Northern book publishers as well, who

…had decisions to make if they wanted to sell books to Southern schools. Go all in with Lost Cause dogma and…sell the book only in the South? Or have two versions of the same book – one with…watered-down history for the South, and another one with historical facts for everyone else? The latter was often the choice.

Mississippi’s public schools used Lost Cause textbooks exclusively until a federal court forced them to stop in 1980.

But we have bigger fish to fry. Two social myths – a reunited America with a national purpose and the hugely popular Horatio Alger tales of enterprising young men who prospered without government assistance – were just what the oligarchs of both North and South needed to divide the working classes.

So we need to talk about the teaching of Lost Cause mythology in the North, where most intellectuals accepted the continuation of white supremacy. They learned their trades not in Bible schools but in the most elite institutions. Donald Yacovone surveyed 3,000 textbooks that they wrote and concluded:

For the most part, the textbooks from the pre-Civil War period through the end of the century followed a basic format: They would go from exploration to colonization to revolution to creation of the American republic, and then every succeeding presidential administration. Anything outside of the political narrative was not considered history and was not taught.

But as recently as the 1940s,

…it was astonishing to see positive assessments of slavery in American history textbooks, which taught that the African American’s natural environment was the institution of slavery, where they were cared for from cradle to grave…They dismissed the slave narratives as propaganda, downplayed the history of Africans before slavery, and ignored the work of African American scholars…

Again, much of this deadly nonsense centers around Wilson, the only president with a PhD – in History – and even by the standards of his time, a racist. In 1915 he showed the film Birth of a Nation bon.jpg?w=294&h=111&profile=RESIZE_400xin the White House, making it the first mega-hit. Depicting heroic whites rescuing young women from the clutches of their drooling black abductors, it quickly led to a massive resurgence of the KKK. Earlier, Wilson had written of Reconstruction:

…the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded…The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation – until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.

On immigration, he contrasted “the men of the sturdy stocks of the north” with “the more sordid and hopeless elements” of southern Europe, who had “neither skill nor quick intelligence.”

In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration, I stand for the national policy of exclusion. We cannot make a homogenous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.

Two forces contributed to what Peter Novick calls a “racist historiographical consensus” around the turn of the century. One was the nationalism that was quickly replacing religion, even in the South, as a central unifying cultural and political factor. The second was the increase in racism among intellectuals who relied on Social Darwinism and Eugenics to back the concept with the new religion, science.

…professional historians worked to revise previous northern views on several related questions. They became as harshly critical of the abolitionists as they were of “irresponsible agitators” in the contemporary world, they accepted a considerably softened picture of slavery, and they abandoned theories of the “slave power conspiracy.” Above all, they joined whole-heartedly with southerners in denouncing the “criminal outrages” of Reconstruction…

For another forty years, the “Dunning School” dominated the writing of post-Civil War history. To these learned men, black suffrage had been a political blunder. Republican state governments had been corrupt, unrepresentative and oppressive. The revisionist historian Eric Foner condemns this perspective as

…not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the right to vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction…a justification for the white South resisting outside efforts in changing race relations…helped to freeze the minds of the white South in resistance to any change whatsoever…historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system in this country.

William Dunning headed both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association and edited their journals. At Columbia, he directed much graduate work in U.S. history, teaching that blacks were incapable of self-government, that the North’s greatest sin consisted of relinquishing control of the Southern governments to “ignorant, half-civilized former slaves (who) had…no aspiration or ideals save to be like whites.” His influence was enormous.

His student Ulrich Phillips taught at Tulane, Michigan and Yale, critiquing slavery (inaccurately) as an unprofitable economic system, but one that had value in civilizing “savage Africans”. His books remained the standard texts on slavery for decades. John Burgess, who taught at Columbia, wrote that “a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason.” George Beer (Columbia) wrote that “the negro race has hitherto shown no capacity for progressive development except under the tutelage of other peoples.” Other members of the school included James Garner (U. Illinois), William Davis (U. Kansas), J. G. Hamilton (U. North Carolina), Walter Fleming (chair in history at Vanderbilt), Charles Ramsdell (U. Texas), Mildred Thompson (History Chair at Vassar), the Holocaust denier Harry Barnes (Smith College) and Ellis Oberholzer (U. Pennsylvania), who claimed that Yankees didn’t understand slavery because they “had never seen a nigger except Fred Douglass…Blacks were as credulous as children, which in intellect they in many ways resembled.”

Avery Craven (Harvard) took pro-slavery positions. Milo Quaife (U. Chicago) derided the “absurd doctrine of racial equality.” Ellis Coulter, who taught at Georgia for sixty years, founded the Southern Historical Association and edited the Georgia Historical Quarterly for fifty years, pontificated:

…most of the Negroes (would) spend their last piece of money for a drink of whisky…Black participation in government was a diabolical development, to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.

But the gatekeeping didn’t end with unrepentant racists. Henry Commager (Columbia) and Samuel Morison’s (Harvard) The Growth of the American Republic, read by generations of college freshmen, claimed that slaves “suffered less than any other class in the South…The majority…were apparently happy.” Such respected Anglo-Saxon eminences could produce high school-level prose without ever being questioned. In The Founding of Harvard College, Morison wrote: “They (the Puritans) were a free and happy people”. Many years later, Howard Zinn would observe that such “sloppy generalizations…contribute to the common glorification of this country’s early years…feed arrogance and dull the critical faculties…”

Arthur Schlesinger Sr (Harvard), suggested that high achievement among some blacks could only be the result of an “infusion of white blood.” Seymour Lipset (Harvard) wrote, “America has been a universalistic culture, slavery and the black situation apart.” Jon Meacham, Editor-in-Chief of Newsweekreceived the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, which covers the Trail of Tears in four paragraphs. Arthur Schlesinger Jr (Harvard) also won the Pulitzer for The Age of Jackson without mentioning it at all.

Of course, there were occasional exceptions. Harold Rugg’s high school social studies textbook series traced the evolution of American democracy in the face of pervasive social problems. But conservatives attacked it as subversive, and by the early 1940s it was removed from schools.


Part Four

This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state…a “terrible anti-American academic. – Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University, on Howard Zinn

It’s not an unbiased account. So what? If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story. – Howard Zinn

You’ve got to graduate from an Ivy League university and read all the latest reports from the most esteemed think tanks to get smart enough to understand why it’s a good idea to fight Russia and China at the same time. – Caitlin Johnstone

The overwhelming majority of information is classified to protect political security, not national security. – Julian Assange

Academics also directed the narrative of American imperialism, one of our most deeply held stories about ourselves, how the nation never starts wars but only fights to aid deserving people. Seven generations of schoolchildren have learned that the nation of extreme individualism is an individual among nations, the exceptional one, chosen by Divine Providence to redeem the world. If we were honest with ourselves, most of us – at least most whites – would still admit some adherence to this story, of which World War Two is our most shining example, and which still drives our support for sanctions, coups and direct military intervention in Ukraine, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Nicaragua and countless other places.

To those outside our mythic bubble, however, this is a story that we regularly need to tell ourselves, to still our doubts that our long-distance murder and denial of self-determination to other people have moral meaning. This helps explain why our gatekeepers – historians and journalists – speak with nearly one voice (as they do now, concerning Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and other whistle blowers) to condemn anyone who might question our stories, regardless of their popularity or stature in their profession. American myth is highly unstable and questioning any particular aspect of it can lead to skepticism about all of it.

Historians claim to be objective, even scientific. Yet during World War One, historians in all the combatant countries eagerly endorsed the war effort and wrote books proclaiming the essential goodness of their own sides. In the U.S. the first university survey courses on the history of Western civilization taught that America was fighting to defend the progressive values supposedly embodied in British and French history and contradicted by German universities, and most certainly by socialism.51h6nlvpbzl._sx373_bo1204203200_.jpg?w=110&h=146&profile=RESIZE_180x180

Immediately after the war, the U.S. and twelve other nations attacked the Soviet Union in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent consolidation of communist rule. Afterwards, compliant intellectuals inverted history; Yale historian John Gaddis terms this invasion a “defensive” action.

Between the wars, writes Novick, the old guard of increasingly insecure Protestant historians expressed widespread anti-Semitism. One professor regularly warned Jewish graduate students that “History belongs to the Anglo-Saxons. You belong in economics or sociology.”

Letters of recommendation repeatedly tried to reassure prospective employers on this point: Oscar Handlin “has none of the offensive traits which some people associate with his race,” and Bert Loewenberg “by temperament and spirit…measures up to the whitest Gentile I know”…Daniel Boorstin “is a Jew, though not the kind to which one takes exception”, and Richard Leopold was “of course a Jew, but since he is a Princeton graduate, you may be reasonably certain that he is not of the offensive type”…Solomon Katz was “quite un-Jewish, if one considers the undesirable side of the race”.

Since World War Two is closer in memory, academic Gatekeepers still insist on controlling the narrative, both of how we got into it and how we got out. This is the myth of the Good War. 

The social function of myth is to validate the social order. At this level of understanding, myth equals ideology plus narrative. Stories help us digest the ideology. Myths determine perception, like the lenses of a pair of glasses. They are not what we see, but what we see with. We can’t see outside our bubble (but outsiders can see us.) We give our attention to one set of possibilities rather than another, and our intentions and dreams follow. So, myth creates fact. Indeed, myth trumps fact.

We draw stories from our past and abstract them into evocative icons (the Alamo, Pearl Harbor) that contain the essential elements of our worldview. So obvious that they never have to be “explained”, they transform history into sacred legends that describe reality to us and prescribe our choices and behavior within acceptable limits. “Myth,” writes Richard Slotkin, “is history successfully disguised as archetype.”

Curiously, if we add Custer’s Last Stand, the sinking of The Maine and 9-11 and to that list, we find that most of those iconic images are of our most famous defeats. On one level, this reflects the complex interweaving between the American Hero (or winner) and his shadow, the victim (or loser), that our mythology has been dreaming for four hundred years. The innocent nation, once again, finds itself victimized, under attack by evil men, with dark skins. Since, as G. W. Bush said, they hate us for our freedoms, we are justified in responding with Biblical ferocity, as we did to the Japanese – the racialized Other – much more so than to the Germans.

From the very beginning, history and myth intersect throughout the story of America, and it’s almost impossible to tease out the differences. But let’s be clear about this: we’re not simply talking about lies, distortions, omissions and propaganda. That’s “myth” in the lesser meaning of the term. We are talking about why we frame our stories about ourselves in the way we do, and why we are – increasingly – desperate to believe them, to use them to re-stabilize the crumbling building blocks of our collective self-image.

Franklin Roosevelt had decided by 1940 on the necessity of defeating Germany. But to overcome strong anti-war sentiment he needed to lure the Japanese (whose codes had been broken and whose exact intentions were well known) into attacking Pearl Harbor, after which treaty obligations would force the Germans to declare war on the U.S.

But every American has been taught that America suffered a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, was drawn into the war reluctantly and then proceeded to save the world from evil. This scenario of only fighting when provoked is a bedrock aspect of our national mythology. It provides the essential energy of disillusioned innocence – why would they attack us? –  that has propelled the nation into every war since the invasion of Mexico.

Historians have long been charged with maintaining this narrative – and ostracizing those who question it. To really understand what the gatekeepers can do, consider Charles Beard.

Beard, like Dunning before him, served as president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. Historian and retired military officer Andrew Bacevich writes:

…Beard stood alone at the pinnacle of his profession. As a historian and public intellectual, he was prolific, influential, fiercely independent, and equally adept at writing for scholarly audiences or for the general public.

In 1947 the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him their gold medal for the best historical work of  the preceding decade. But that same year he published President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, which accused FDR of lying to the nation. He also revealed (in “Who’s to Write the History of the War?”) that the Rockefeller Foundation had subsidized an official history of how the war had come about. Yes, writes Gary North,

…the victors always write the history books, but when the historians are actually policy-setting participants in the war, the words “court history” take on new meaning.

Indeed, some of those who did write such histories attained high government positions, and many of them, including Samuel Morison, savagely attacked Beard as at best an “isolationist” and at worst a senile old fool. They quickly and permanently destroyed his reputation because he had committed the grave sin of questioning their heroic “Good War” narrative, or in current terms, of promoting a conspiracy theory. Beard died in 1949. His book on Roosevelt quickly went out of print and was not reprinted until 2003. Today the public has forgotten him. Within the profession, however, Beard remains a reviled and discredited figure. North writes:

This is why there are no tenured World War II revisionists who write in this still-taboo and well-policed field. The guild screened them out, beginning in the early 1950′s…What the guild did to…Beard (and others) posted a warning sign: Dead End.

For more detail on how Roosevelt provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, see Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit. 

The other half of the “Greatest Generation” myth conveyed by most historians is how the nation avoided a costly invasion of Japan and ended the war with the atom bomb. However, revisionist writers such as Gar Alperovitz have shown that the U.S. didn’t need to drop the bombs, that the mass atrocities had much more to do with the approaching confrontation with the Soviet Union. Read herehere or here.

The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. – President Dwight  Eisenhower

The actual narrative of World War Two is full of accounts of similarly unnecessary, mass atrocities that the Allies committed, and the lies that followed to justify them. Zinn himself gives accounts of two such crimes that he personally participated in as a bombardier: the bombings of Plzen, Czechoslovakia and Royan, France. 

Still, most Americans hold to the story that the Exceptional Nation fought the Good War reluctantly 54420.jpg?w=124&h=181&profile=RESIZE_180x180and ended it with humanitarian motives (at least in terms of American lives saved). Bacevich concludes:

Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true…Today the Good War narrative survives fully intact. For politicians and pundits eager to explain why it is incumbent upon the United States to lead or to come to the aid of those yearning to be free, it offers an ever-ready reference point…

In that sense, the persistence of the Good War narrative robs Americans of any capacity to think realistically about their nation’s role in the existing world. Instead, it’s always 1938, with appeasement the ultimate sin to be avoided at all costs. Or it’s 1941, when an innocent nation subjected to a dastardly attack from out of the blue is summoned to embark upon a new crusade to smite the evildoers. Or it’s 1945, with history calling upon the United States to remake the world in its own image.

(Or it’s 2022 and liberal Democratic congresspersons unanimously support over $50 billion to extend the war in Ukraine.)

After the war both liberal and conservative historians encouraged an overwhelmingly affirmative and celebratory stance toward the American experience, in three basic themes. The first was nearly-universal justification of the cold war and the development of government-supported social science research which assumed that the nation’s foreign policy was identical with the promotion of peace and freedom.

And this could still arrive along with sloppy writing and generalization. Ernest May (Harvard), who had prepared a confidential study of strategic arms buildups and would later advise the 9/11 Commission, wrote of the Spanish-American War: “American public opinion had frenziedly demanded war.” Zinn responded that in 1898 “…there were no ways of testing general public opinion…the frenzy was mostly the fulminating of a few very important newspapers.” Is this a silly example? Only if we don’t realize that May was really offering a historian’s rationale for current warmongering:

Such a generalization obscures the way decisions for war are made by a handful of men at the top, and the way public opinion is manipulated…to build support for it.

The second was specialization and escape into trivia. Zinn criticized 1960s academics who held such:

…cluster of beliefs…roughly expressed by the phrases “disinterested scholarship”… ”dispassionate learning”…”objective study”…”scientific method” – all adding up to the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper…Knowledge can also serve the purposes of social stability in another way – by being squandered on trivia. Thus the university becomes a playpen in which the society invites its favored children to play – and gives them toys and prizes, to keep them out of trouble…The larger interests are internalized in the motivations of the scholar: promotion, tenure, higher salaries, prestige – all of which are best secured by innovating in prescribed directions…There is no question, then, of a disinterested” community of scholars, only a question about what interests scholars serve.

This reinforced the third theme. Many academics were still colluding in the nation’s refusal to address its original sin of racism. Zinn discovered that

From 1960-1966…of 3,265 dissertations in modern history, eighteen dealt with this problem (race)…Of 446 articles in The American Historical Review from 1945 to 1968, five dealt with the Negro question.

The Daughters of the American Revolution helped blacklist 170 textbooks that did not sufficiently reflect Christian and anticommunist values. African American history remained on the margins of academic scholarship, and blacks were excluded from teaching positions at most universities. Meanwhile, many of the “best and the brightest” academics, including the future war criminal Henry Kissinger, entered the revolving door circuit between academia, media, business and government. Novick writes:

“Intellect has associated itself with power as perhaps never before in history,” Lionel Trilling observed in 1952. With the exceptions of physics, it would be difficult to think of any academic discipline which, during World War II and the cold war, participated more wholeheartedly in that association than did history…There was, in fact, criticism within the CIA concerning what some considered the overrepresentation of historians within its ranks.

After the 1960s the culture wars began in earnest. In 1974 local schools in Kanawha County, West Virginia adopted new textbooks and works by Eldridge Cleaver, Arthur Miller and George Orwell. Opponents firebombed school buildings, shot up buses, beat journalists and shut down the school system.

On campuses the 1960s had seen a new generation of politically active historians including Jesse Lemisch, Herbert Apthecker, William Appleman Williams and Staughton Lynd. They collectively promoted “history from the bottom up”, a more inclusive and comprehensive formulation that brought all subjects, especially blacks and women, more fully into the discipline. It was an explicit challenge to the elitist and insular traditions of historical writing within the academy, and more specifically to the deadening “consensus” approach to the American past that had grown out of the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War. Zinn’s People’s History of the United States followed in 1980.

Centrist historians ignored most of these radicals.  For example, a recent introduction to historiography (the writing of history) mentions Lemisch once, and Chomsky (not a historian but certainly a major world intellectual on historical issues) not at all. Nor does it address the question of political bias in the profession. It does mention Beard, but not his marginalization. An online list of 269 “Famous American Historians” doesn’t mention Zinn, Chomsky, Lemisch or Lynd.

However, as with Beard, the gatekeepers really couldn’t ignore Zinn. And twelve years after his death, they still can’t. Why? After the turbulence of the sixties and disillusionment of the seventies, people were hungry for history that acknowledged what they could see with their own eyes. Millions now knew how the nation had raped Viet Nam and countless other nations, and they wanted context. Forty-two years after its publication, A People’s History has exceeded 3.6 million copies in the U.S. edition alone. And, where the book burners haven’t fully established their restrictions, over 100,000 teachers have registered with the Zinn Education Project.

Gatekeeper criticisms of Zinn tend toward two common themes:

1 – He was too left-wing for decent academics. The sole mention of him on the History Today website attacks People’s History with this gem:

Among the (otherwise entirely noble) contributors are several known Communist agents, a pederast, a terrorist and two men involved in a bloody prison revolt.

2 – While Zinn was acceptable for idealistic teenagers, wrote Jill Lepore (Harvard), he was not (like them) a serious scholar.  He was not objective or dispassionate. Worst of all, he was “politicized” and had “contempt for society’s elites”. David Greenberg (Yale) sniffs:

Zinn was in effect saying that Big-Time History – with its formidable air of authority, its footnotes and archival documentation, its vetting by communities of expert scholars—had really just served to shore up the power of established elites and put down stirrings of protest.

Well, yeahClement Lime responds:

David Greenberg doesn’t hate Howard Zinn because he was a bad scholar, but because he was a radical…Most historians, as educated and privileged offspring of the middle class, are ideologically invested in a liberal ideal of America as a place where various groups…negotiated their differences through a clash of forces that produced some reasonable outcome, and for many this becomes the only way to tell the story.

Zinn responded to the inquisitors:

Holding certain fundamental values does not require that historians find certain desirable answers in the past, it just turns their attention to certain useful questions.

It was perhaps a matter of timing. Zinn opened the door in ways that earlier revisionists had not. Since A People’s History, dozens of excellent histories written “from the ground up” have appeared, both within academia and without, even if few of their authors have attained anywhere near the influence and old school reputations of their elders. Proud that Zinn blurbed my book, I’ve written about his accusers  here. And he wrote plays also:

They are all proclaiming that my ideas are dead! It’s nothing new. These clowns have been saying this for more than a hundred years. Don’t you wonder: why is it necessary to declare me dead again and again? – Zinn, as Karl Marx, in “Marx in Soho

Chico Marx put it even more plainly:

Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?







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Barry’s Blog # 77: Evolution of a Song

Part 1 – Framing the Message

Most American men above the age of sixty who learned about masculinity by watching John Wayne movies as children are familiar with this melody without knowing its name, let alone its history. Here it is.

Recognize it? The tune is called “Garryowen,” and it has been featured as a military marching song in several movies, including The Fighting 69th, They Died with their Boots On, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Long Gray Line, Little Big Man, Son of the Morning Star, Gangs of New York, Rough Riders and We Were Soldiers Once… And Young.

But it is far older than Hollywood, and it has a fascinating history. The tune is first documented as an Irish jig, Auld Bessy, in 1788. The word Garryowen combines the proper name Eóghan (“born of the yew tree”) and the word for garden garrai – thus “Eóghan’s Garden.” It refers to the neighborhood of Garryowen (first described in the 13th century) near the city of Limerick, a general rendezvous for those with leisure time on their hands and hell to raise. These young gentlemen amused themselves by vandalizing street lamps, harassing passers-by, beating up workingmen and singing Garryowen:

Let Bacchus’ sons be not dismayed,

But join with me, each jovial blade;

Come booze and sing, and lend your aid,

To help me with the chorus.


Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale,

And pay the reck’ning on the nail;

No man for debt shall go to jail

From Garryowen in glory,

We are the boys that take delight in

Smashing the Limerick lights when lighting,

Through the streets like sporters fighting

And tearing all before us. (Chorus)

We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors,

The watch knock down by threes and fours;

Then let the doctors work their cures,

And tinker up our bruises. (Chorus)

We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun,

We’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run;

We are the boys no man dares dun,

If he regards a whole skin. (Chorus)

Our hearts so stout have got us fame,

For soon ’tis known from whence we came;

Where’er we go they dread the name

Of Garryowen in glory. (Chorus)

This drinking song – it calls upon Dionysus, or Bacchus – soon became very popular among British soldiers who, along with these Protestant Irish, were engaged in the centuries-long, settler-colonialist suppression of Catholic Ireland.

A quick look at the lyrics might elicit a “boys will be boys” response. Yes, these “boys” brag of their rowdy but good-natured adolescent behavior (known in other contexts as “gang” behavior), but the deeper meaning is that this is the folk music of privilege. These were sons of the Protestant rulers who knew that they could expect few consequences for their destructive actions. At the same time, in America, the sons of Southern planters enjoyed similar privileges, including the right to rape their slaves. For a contemporary comparison, consider the West Bank area of Palestine, where Jewish settlers abuse their Palestinian neighbors, knowing that they are protected by the Israeli military. This is settler colonialism.

Back in Ireland, the Catholics lost their land and most of them became dirt-poor. Because of their impoverished condition, many generations of their young men had little choice but to join the army and become mercenaries for the very empire that had conquered them. They sang Garryowen in the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. Later, the tune became associated with a number of British military units, as well as theIrish Regiment of Canada.

But this is an American story. It’s about how we frame the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The Protestant Scots-Irish were one of the largest ethnic groups to settle the American South during the 17th and 18th centuries, some as freemen and thousands of others as indentured servants. Some prospered in the atmosphere of white privilege that they encountered, and they participated in the western migration over the mountains. In the 19th century they formed the backbone of the Confederate army. At least half of all American Presidents have Scots-Irish blood.

The Catholic Irish began to come to America in the 1840’s, as refugees from the Great Famine. The failed revolution of 1848 forced many more of them to emigrate, mostly to the large northern cities, where many joined the U.S. army. Some of them deserted during the Mexican war, formed the “St. Patrick’s Battalion”, fought on the Mexican side and inspired their own songs.

In 1851 they formed the first Irish-American regiment, New York’s 69th, the “Fighting Irish,” made famous by the James Cagney film, The Fighting 69thAnd they brought Garryowen with them as their marching tune.

As they continued to arrive in the 1860’s, thousands found themselves impressed into the Union army almost as soon as they disembarked in New York. Once again, as in Ireland (and as in the next century), the Irish found themselves on opposite sides in a Civil War, which was in large part fought between Irish Protestants of the South and Irish Catholics of the North. The 69th saw considerable action, and many others heard them singing Garryowen.

Another tune popular on both sides was When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Soldiers and civilians sang it as they looked forward to the return of the victorious – and healthy – soldiers:

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Oh, the men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay when
Johnny comes marching home

This song eventually entered the canon of universally acceptable and teachable American pop-folk music. I remember singing it in grammar school in the 1950s ninety years after the end of the war. Its melody is so catchy (in its speeded-up form) that it may be more popular now as a silly children’s tune.

Some say that the song, however, was a rewrite of the much older and much darker Irish lament Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,  which describes the true cost of war on one returning and very damaged soldier and his wife (others disagree, arguing that both songs were created in the 1860s). For another example of the evolution of a song associated with the Civil War, see my essay Driving Dixie Down.

There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry. – George Armstrong Custer

After the war, many Irish veterans of the 69th joined George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, bringing their song along with them. In the winter of 1868, a mere three years after they had “fought to make men free”,  they became complicit in destroying the freedom of Native Americans so that Euro-Americans could expand across the continent.

On the Washita River in western Oklahoma, the regimental band played Garryowen to signal the attack on a peaceful Cheyenne village that resulted in a massacre of over 100 Indians.  Eight years later, it was the last tune played as they rode out towards the Little Big Horn.

By that time the narrative of Western expansion, in which benevolent and god-fearing men led a new nation that was morally and physically destined to fill a continent and spread freedom everywhere (deterred only by bloodthirsty savages), was already two hundred years old. But the story of “Custer’s Last Stand”, depicted over the years in some 300 books and 1000 paintings (one of which was reproduced over a million times),


established its mythic status. And 45 movies and TV shows. 

33160905_sa.jpg?w=123&h=176&profile=RESIZE_180x180Hollywood connected Garryowen with John Wayne and made it recognizable to millions by including versions of it in every movie it made about Custer. Here, in They Died With Their Boots On, with Errol Flynn in the lead role, is Warner Brothers’ version of how it was adopted as the quintessential Cavalry soundtrack. Watch the whole three-minute clip to get a full sense of its mythmaking power.

Fourteen years after Custer’s defeat the 7th Cavalry achieved its revenge when it massacred over 300 Lakotas at Wounded Knee in 1890. It went on to serve in all the wars of the 20th century, and to this unitcrest.png?w=182&h=180&profile=RESIZE_192Xday it sports this regimental crest.

In 1905, the regiment added their own official lyrics:

We are the pride of the Army

And a regiment of great renown.

Our name’s on the pages of history

From sixty-six on down.

If you think we stop or falter

While into the fray we’re going

Just watch our steps with our heads erect

While our band plays Garryowen.

In the Fighting Seventh’s the place for me,

It’s the cream of all the cavalry;

No other regiment can ever claim

Its pride, honor, glory and undying fame…etc

Popular myth uses the evolution of these men from ethnic outcasts to defenders of the westward expansion to liberators of oppressed people everywhere as a metaphor for the nation itself. The 2006 film Rough Riders uses the (by now) stirringly patriotic Garryowen to show how the nation “healed” the wounds of the Civil War (by rejecting Reconstruction’s attempt to mandate racial equality) and became unified.  As the band plays and the soldiers embark to “liberate” Cuba from Spain, a surprised young Southern boy remarks to his grandfather, a former Confederate, “They’re Yankees.” The old vet proudly responds, “No, they’re Americans!”

The Seventh Cavalry traded in its horses for tanks in World War Two and for helicopters when the U.S. invaded Viet Nam. It became the “Air Cavalry” that was depicted re-enacting its Washita massacre by attacking a “hostile” village in Apocalypse Now. And despite that film’s fictional usage of Ride of the Valkyries, the regiment has retained Garryowen as its official tune. (Actually, that scene may not be totally fictional: the 7th had also perpetrated the massacre at No Gun Ri in Korea in 1950, killing between 200 and 400 civilians).

Regardless, by the end of the 20th century Garryowen had become synonymous with patriotic service in the armed forces, and the name was being used in many contexts. There is a Camp Garry Owen in South Korea, and there was a base Garryowen during the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the fact that the “Air Cav” has used Garryowen as the soundtrack for a recruitment video is evidence of how familiar it is to young men in this country. The phrase is used as a password in combat conditions. Members of the regiment shout “Garryowen!” to each other, in the same way that Marines shout “Hoo-rah!” It is now the soundtrack for a nation of uninitiated, macho men who have dedicated themselves to killing the Others of the world, to maintain a mythology of exceptionalism and innocence. There is a Garryowen Pub in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The culture of death has an appetite for images, even those images that true artists create. Ronald Reagan co-opted Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA; beer and car companies sponsor tours by musicians; loudspeakers play We will rock you as the bombers take off; CIA torturers blast Heavy Metal into prisons to disorient prisoners; and Jimmie Hendrix’s Voodoo Child is played at boot-camp initiations. Skinheads sell racist rock over the Internet, while misogyny drives much Hip Hop. The volume increases as civic involvement declines.

Our myths, including the myth of American Innocence, are conveyed through images. It is easy enough to understand the effect of graphic images – pictures, film, TV and digital – but sound images also contribute to the regular socialization of the young and the internalization of group norms. Some researchers call this process entrainment, and music is integral to its effect. To feel the impact of Garryowen, simply re-play any of the music video links in this essay and imagine yourself marching to it, along with hundreds of young men desperate for initiation, desperate to serve a cause, any cause. Or, in its 19th century context, image yourself astride a stallion, prancing along to the regimental band with Errol Flynn.

Or: imagine the tune slowed way down in tempo.


Part Two – Reframing the Message

Myths change very slowly, but they can transform when enough of us begin to consider (“to be with the stars”) our unconscious attention to the stories we have been telling ourselves about ourselves. This is likely to be a painful process; perhaps that’s why it is called paying attention. And it may require that we counter the voracious god of Time – Kronos – by slowing down our unconscious responses to the parade of both mental (internal) and environmental (external) imagery that constantly bombards us, or in this context, the military parade.


A piccolo played, then a drum.
Feet began to come – a part of the music.

Here comes a horse, clippety clop, away.

My mother said, “Don’t run –
the army is after someone other than us.

If you stay you’ll learn our enemy.”

Then he came, the speaker.

He stood in the square. He told us who to hate.

I watched my mother’s face, its quiet.

“That’s him,” she said. – William Stafford

The musical examples I’ve used in this essay are instructive. Consider the emotional difference between the up-tempo When Johnny Comes Marching Home and the slow lament Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye. 

Part of the necessary practice of reframing our myths requires deliberately, and perhaps painfully, sorting out the images and imagining how to perceive them as if they were meant to deepen our soul work instead of reinforcing our nationalist prejudices. One songwriter, Robert Emmet Dunlap, has done just that with the Garryowen tune – by slowing it down and adding new lyrics that put Custer and the Seventh Cavalry into a very different perspective. As Native American writer Vine DeLoria wrote, Custer Died For Your Sins. Reframing Garryowen and the entire mythic framework that it evokes means excavating the emotions of pride, aggression and group identity to find the deep grief that underlies them.

Dunlap explains:

“Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a ghost story about two brothers who escape post-famine Ireland for the Land of the Free, and fight for the Union in the War Between the States. Mick stays in the army and ends up dying with Custer at Little Big Horn; forever haunted by, and to, the tune of “The Garryowen.” (official tune of the 7th Cavalry and the fighting 69th, and God knows how many military units full of Irishmen fighting for flags that were not green, and lands that were not Ireland).

Here are two renditions of Mick Ryan’s Lament:–qvlaWL9R8

Here are the lyrics:

Well my name is Mick Ryan, I’m lyin still

In a lonely spot near where I was killed

By a red man defending his native land

In the place that they call Little Big Horn

And I swear I did not see the irony

When I rode with the Seventh Cavalry

I thought that we fought for the land of the free

When we rode from Fort Lincoln that morning

And the band they played the Garryowen

Brass was shining, flags a flowin

I swear if I had only known

I’d have wished that I’d died back at Vicksburg

For my brother and me, we had barely escaped

From the hell that was Ireland in forty eight

Two angry young lads who had learned how to hate

But we loved the idea of Amerikay

And we cursed our cousins who fought and bled

In their bloody coats of bloody red

The sun never sets on the bloody dead

Of those who have chosen an empire

But we’d find a better life somehow

In the land where no man has to bow

It seemed right then and it seems right now

That Paddy he died for the union

Ah, but Michael he somehow got turned around

He had stolen the dream that he thought he’d found

Now I never will see that holy ground

For I turned into something I hated

And I’m haunted by the Garryowen

Drums a beating, bugles blowin’

I swear if I had only known

I’d lie with my brother in Vicksburg

And the band they played that Garryowen

Brass was shin, flags a flowin’

I swear if I had only known,

I’d lie with my brother at Vicksburg

The song is so resonant because in changing the cavalry cadence to a dirge of disillusionment and regret it reverses the upward arc of the hero – and the heroic nation. The American Hero expresses radical individualism, potency, production, infinite growth and racist, manifest destiny. But perhaps he conquers the Others of the world because in saving the world he thinks he can save himself.

Garryowen, after all, is a theme for men who boast, drink, brawl and fight in places where they were never invited. They are the kind of men who can (and did) refer to Viet Nam as “Indian country” and its civilians as “gooks.” And in this context, they were the kind of men who proudly flew the Confederate battle flag in World War Two, confederate_flag_wwii_cc_img.jpg?w=150&h=94&profile=RESIZE_180x180Viet Nam and Iraq.




From an indigenous perspective, however, they – and the politicians who send them – are uninitiated men, who attempt to find meaning through the most literal of initiations.

But all indigenous mythologies understand that the Hero must die. That is, he must eventually enter the flames of initiation, shed an outmoded sense of himself and return to be in service to the greater collective. This individualizing process requires that he pass through the realms of reconsideration, regret and remorse. He must die symbolically so that he can be reborn. 

Mick Ryan’s Lament does this by turning an anthem of uninitiated men into a cry of regret for having “turned into something I hated” sung by a ghost. It expresses the pain of any veteran of any colonial war who realizes what he has turned into – or of any soul that has come to consciousness and had its innocence or false identity shattered. It carries those emotions, but it also carries potential, the terrible knowledge that only from such deep loss can any new birth arise. The protagonist’s body lies at the Little Big Horn, but his soul resides among the ancestors. The Hero has died to become one of them. The tragedy is that he had to die literally to do so.

Disillusionment and the death of the Hero can lead to cynicism, self-hatred and, for so many veterans, suicide. But mythology leaves open the possibility of transformation into something greater than the Hero – the archetype of the Warrior.  Psychologists such as Ed Tick  and Jonathan Shay have brought such mythological thinking to their work with war veterans, PTSD and the moral injuries they suffer from. For more on this issue see my essay Myth, Memory and the National Mall.

People can change. If enough people change, a culture can change. Reconciliation is possible. We recall Custer’s massacre of the Cheyenne on the Washita River in 1868. On its 100th anniversary in 1968 (while the 7th Air Cavalry was on active duty in Viet Nam), descendants of the Indian survivors met in a ceremony with descendants of the perpetrators, whose leader told the Cheyenne elders: “We are sorry that ‘Garryowen’ was played that day 100 years ago and never again will it be played against your people.’”

And some versions of Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye have an added, final verse:

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again
But they won’t take back our sons again!
No they’ll will never take back our sons again
Johnny, I’m swearing to ye.

This is how we can imagine reframing the myth of American innocence – one image, one song at a time.


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Barry’s Blog # 398: An Epiphany Story

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – Benjamin Franklin

I was married 18 years, two kids, unfulfilling work; alienated from society, heritage, creativity and former spiritual interests; never cried as an adult, rarely felt either joy or anger; had a cynical, judgmental, self-deprecating sense of humor; was more like my father than I knew, needier for maternal for affection than I knew.

Then my wife had an affair with a musician and the marriage fell apart. I was thrown into an intense midlife crisis. Suddenly, I was crying every day for her, for the family’s breakup, for all the wasted years, for my lost sense of purpose, for an inner child I’d neglected.

Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?

Round-faced troublemaker,

quick to find a joke, slow to be serious.

Red shirt, perfect coordination, sly, strong muscles,

with things always in his back pocket.

Reed flute, ivory pick, polished and ready for his talent.

You know that one. Have you heard stories about him?

Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world

collapsed for such a Joseph.

I would gladly spend years getting word of him,

even third- or fourth-hand.

– Rumi

I began to realize how much of life I’d missed by hiding in an emotional shell; heard that the only heart worth having is a broken one; heard that in some cases, each partner in a toxic relationship secretly desires for the outbreak of something new, but that only one has the courage to initiate it; started therapy, got Rolfed, did breath work; got more comfortable in my body; went to men’s conferences; got interested in ritual, joined a men’s group; heard Robert Bly talk about Iron John and the hand that reaches out from the pool of the underworld and drags down those who refuse the call to do it themselves; heard him recite Antonio Machado’s poem:

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’
the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

My men’s group included a guy named Fred, who (even I could see) controlled everything with droning, unexpressive talk whenever anyone got close to real emotion. He showed absolutely no emotion, often causing the rest of us to almost leave our own bodies. You know the type.

One night, just before Thanksgiving, the leader suggested we speak about our childhood memories of the holiday. We went around the circle, sharing all kinds of sad, funny and angry memories. We laughed; some men cried.

Then it was Fred’s turn. He droned on in his boring style for perhaps ten minutes, mentioning some memories that were “pleasant” and others that were “unpleasant” – and then he repeated himself, on and on, it seemed forever. I noticed that none of his memories (and, I realized, nothing he ever told us about himself) were more positive than pleasant, and none were more negative than unpleasant. He’d ensconced himself in that safe cave and banished intensity in any form.

Epiphany: from the Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance, festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place”.

Suddenly, I found myself visualizing that chart you may remember from high school physics class of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy, where the tiny range of visible light is bounded on one side by an infinite space of infrared light and on the other by an equally infinite range of ultraviolet light. All the light we cannot see.

I realized — with a shock that brought tears — that I, like Fred, had lived my forty years never ranging outside that same, thin emotional range of “pleasant to unpleasant.” And for the first time, a year after she’d left me, I silently exclaimed, “Thank God for this divorce!”

Coda: Three years later, I was able to thank my ex directly for having divorced me, that I had not been aware enough to realize how I’d needed profound change, how I’d needed to break out (be broken out) of my masculine conditioning. We started talking. One thing led to another. We cried together, did ritual together, made a funeral for the death of the old marriage. Years later, we got re-married. Many years later, I met the man she’d left me for. He apologized to me for breaking up my marriage, but I thanked him for having done so, for having embodied that God of the epiphany.

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Barry’s Blog # 121: Driving Dixie Down

Part One

Na na na nana na, nana na na na nana na na…

Why does  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down continue to move us over 50 years after The Band first recorded it?

The fact that so many people continue to debate its meaning online (see links here, herehere and here) is a mirror of America’s ongoing uncertainty about the motives of the Civil War’s opposing sides, of its resolution and of its meaning for our time. In other words, the war (and the Viet Nam war during which The Night was composed) is still not over.

Music critic Ralph Gleason wrote:

Nothing I have read…has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon (Helms) and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.

Even though the lyrics might play a bit loose with the truth, we’re talking about emotional authenticity. And for this reason, The Night has always been particularly challenging for progressive people, because it forces us to consider the internal experience of someone most of us would have considered an enemy. It forces us into a confrontation between our politics and our innate empathy for those who suffer.

In a mere three verses, the song evokes a fundamental aspect of American myth, with all its complexity and ambiguity, the war of brother against brother. And that story in turn directs us to a similar conflict within every soul. Every American is – or should be – struggling with the paradox of identity, between our national ideals and the realities of our actual behavior in the world.

But it condenses its tragic nature into the story of one Confederate veteran, Virgil Caine, who makes no claim for anyone else, a man who is clearly too poor to have ever owned slaves. Indeed, the song never mentions race, slavery, state’s rights or the issue of secession. He simply wants us to understand, writes Greil Marcus, “…that the war has cost him everything he has.”

It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Caine’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth – not the whole truth, simply his truth – and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day, none of us has escaped its impact. What we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.

In the first verse we learn:

 Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train

Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65 we were hungry, just barely alive

By May the 10th Richmond had fell, it was a night I remember oh so well.


 The night they drove old Dixie down and all the bells were ringing

The night they drove old Dixie down and all the people were singing

They went, Na nana…

Caine remembers the winter of 1865, close to the end of the war, when his unit unsuccessfully attempted to stop Union General Stoneman’s scorched earth strategy of destroying all crops and resources (tore up the tracks again) that might have enabled the Confederacy to defend its capital. Historian Bruce Catton writes:

(Ulysses S.) Grant’s instructions were grimly specific. He wanted the rich farmlands so thoroughly despoiled that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told (General Phillip) Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across the Valley would have to carry its own rations…Few campaigns in the war aroused more bitterness than this one.

David Powell writes:

Even though Stoneman, on the surface, may appear to be just a footnote in the history of the Civil War, in that part of the U.S. where the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina & Virginia meet, his name lives in infamy. The exploits of his plundering cavalry troops in the last days of a defeated Confederacy are still a part of local legend.

The siege of Richmond lasted ten months. Before retreating on April 2nd, the Confederate Army set much of the city on fire to deny Union troops any usable resources. The overcrowded civilian population was starving. (May 10 marked the capture of President Jefferson Davis.)


Can we – are we willing to – imagine the suffering? Does it matter that these people had supported a cruel and unjust system? Does it matter that Americans then and now often prefer not to experience grief but rather to turn it into denial, resentment and racialized victimization?


A full assessment of that moment must include the African American voice. Garland White was chaplain to the 28th Indiana Colored Volunteers, the first Federal soldiers to enter the burning city:

A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him…We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose…The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging…I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world.

But suffering is suffering. Back with his wife in Tennessee, Virgil Caine is not concerned with retribution or punishment. He merely asks us to know his despair.

That despair, however, is set within a mythic theme: The Lost Cause. For generations after the war, white Southerners, in an extended but highly selective memory, mourned the destruction of a noble, refined, chivalrous “way of life.” The myth explained their military defeat with a story that only the North’s massive numerical and industrial force could overwhelm the South’s superior military skill, gallantry and courage. The myth, of course, does not care to examine the underlying causes of the war. That’s one reason why it still retains such emotional resiliency.

It had, claimed this myth, not been a fair fight. It had, however, been a four-year slaughter that expressed a different and much older narrative. The armies, predicting the far greater destruction to come in 1914, were enacting the old myth of the sacrifice of the children. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book Madness at the Gates of the City, the Myth of American Innocence:

War became impersonal and industrialized, with the objective of maximizing the killing. But even though technology had changed things irrevocably, tactics didn’t change; old men sent young men marching in closed ranks against massed cannonry and repeating rifles. Six hundred thousand died and 500,000 were wounded, in a country of thirty million. One-fifth of the South’s adult white male population perished.

A hundred and fifty years later, we wonder why several hundred thousand dirt-poor whites who couldn’t afford to own slaves defended this cause so savagely. We must conclude that they fought not to save slavery (which was against their own economic interests), but to perpetuate white privilege. It was all they had.

We could also ask why the descendants of these people continue to vote against their own economic interests, and we have to conclude, as I did here, that the fear of losing their white privilege remains their primary motivation. We could also ask whether the South actually won the war.

The song, however, says nothing of these things. To Virgil’s credit, we can assume that his primary motivation had been simply to defend his family. And he had been unsuccessful. The South was the only American region to ever undergo occupation by an enemy power. Below the glorious myth of the Lost Cause, there remained a deep sense of crushing, humiliating defeat, followed by the Reconstruction period, during which, in many cases, Black men actually governed white men.

Robertson (a Canadian and a Native American) writes of his first visits to the South in the late 1950s – when local White people feared that once again a beautiful system might be disrupted, this time by the Civil Rights movement:

I remember that a quite common expression would be, “Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.” At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, “God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.”

Second Verse:

 Back with my wife in Tennessee when one day she called to me

`Virgil, quick come see, there goes Robert E. Lee’

Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood and I don’t care if the money’s no good

You take what you need and leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best.

There is deliberate ambiguity here. Does his wife see the fabled General Lee himself riding by their Tennessee farm – or is the steamboat “Robert E. Lee” passing by on the river? It really depends on which record you hear. On The Band’s final recording of the song (the film The Last Waltz), Levon Helm seems to be adding a “the” in front of the General’s name:

In any event, Virgil seems to have a brief, final glimpse or memory of the man who personified the cause, the officer he once would have died for. But the memory soon fades, and he is left with the grim reality of having to chop wood (probably for someone else) for a living, because his Confederate dollars are worthless.

But the vision of the great man has stimulated something else. Exactly whom is Virgil addressing when he laments, “You take what you need and leave the rest”? The Northern soldiers and carpetbaggers? A generalized “you”? Himself? I don’t think so. I think that he’s addressing General Lee and all of his generation on both sides, all of the politicians, industrialists, plantation owners, clergy, newspapermen and anyone else among the  fathers who sat comfortably in their armchairs as their sons marched into the furious cannonades at Gettysburg, where over fifty thousand were killed or injured in three days.

He is addressing the great God Kronos, who heard a prophesy that one of his sons would overthrow him and attempted to eat them all to prevent that from happening.

“…They should never have taken the very best,” wails Virgil, thinking undoubtedly of his brother who will die in the third verse. What Virgil doesn’t understand, however, is that the point, the very essence of human sacrifice is in fact to offer up the very best of the younger generations to the infinite hunger of the gods of the new order. How else to justify the madness of history but through such sacrifice: It must have been worth it! Look what we gave up!


Part Two

In the Bible Cain slew Abel and East of Eden he was cast. You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past. – Bruce Springsteen

Here is the third Verse of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down:

Like my father before me I will work the land

Like my brother above me who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave

I swear by the mud below my feet, you can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

The ambiguity of the earlier stanzas continues: many people have heard the first line of this verse as “Like my father before me I’m a working man.” Still more: as Virgil sings of his dead brother he makes a pun on the small mischief people used to describe as “raising cane.” But the real issue here is that, by repeating his surname (and his brother’s surname), Virgil evokes another Biblical myth, the original war between brothers that we all know as the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the model for all subsequent wars.

Cain was the first human to be born and Abel was the first human to die. Cain, refusing to be his “brother’s keeper,” murdered Abel out of envy. Cain had offered “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” But God favored the shepherd Abel, who offered “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.”

741px-bouguereau-the_first_mourning-1888.jpg?w=282&h=227&profile=RESIZE_400x“The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel)” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Was it God, as Robertson sings, who had taken the very best? And when he heard of the subsequent murder, he cast the first curse:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Still, Cain received a mark of protection from God, who allowed him to marry and have children. In pop music lyrics, however, the mark is usually seen as something negative:

The landed aristocracy, exploiting all your enmity,

All your daddies fought in vain,

Leave you with the Mark of Cain. – Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls

Virgil Caine’s land will no longer support his family; he must chop wood to make ends meet. So we ask again, whom is he addressing when he cries, “You take what you need and leave the rest”? Nine years after The Night, Bruce Springsteen recorded Adam Raised a Cainwhich include the lyrics at the top of Part Two Part Two and the ambiguous image of the father possibly raising a cane to strike his son.


Cain, by Henri Vidal

Ambiguity and our need to resolve it produces the emotional force that drives some songs and some myths. And there is irony here as well. According to Shi’a Muslim belief, Abel (Arabic: “Habeel”) is buried in the Nabi Habeel Mosque west of Damascus, Syria. Here in 2022 the latest war of brothers continues to rage, a war that would not be happening without American money and armaments.

Below the Cain and Abel story lies another one, as I write in Chapter Nine of my book. Our economic myths follow from our historic assumptions about the infinite resources of an “empty” American land. However,

In truth, modernity assumes scarce resources – fuel, food, education, power, freedom, knowledge and especially love. These assumptions begin in our monolithic creation myth, the expulsion from Eden, and lie, along with the compensating belief in progress, at the core of all western thought. The Old Testament provides occasional visions of plenitude (manna from Heaven); but these are followed by laws and restrictions, which, when disobeyed, result in expulsion. It is, writes (historian Regina) Schwartz, a world “where lying, cheating, stealing, adultery and killing are such tempting responses to scarcity that they must be legislated against.”

Biblical stories of fathers and sons are utterly rooted in scarcity assumptions. Isaac cannot bless both of his sons; apparently there isn’t enough to go around. Forced to compete for the blessing, they establish a pattern in which the father rejects the loser. Earlier, Jehovah preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s. Even God doesn’t have enough blessing to satisfy everyone. Jealousy, rivalry and murder all follow. This core text of monotheism defines identity as something that is won through competition, at someone else’s expense.

More ambiguity: the line “…but a Yankee laid him in his grave” fits the meter of the song, and it certainly sounds authentically archaic. But Robertson could have written it differently and still fit it into the rhyme and meter. In the context of fratricide – death at the hands of one’s own brother – “laid him in his grave” actually sounds like a gentle act of respect and reverence, a holy ritual. Indeed, the phrase doesn’t clearly indicate that the Yankee had actually killed Virgil’s brother, only that this “proud and brave” teenager was dead. Indeed, as we consider the mythic implications, the “band of brothers” on either side of the firing line have much more in common with each other than they do with the plantation owners and industrialists – the fathers and the father gods – who have set them against each other.

To follow the Biblical tone of the stanza, all we really know is that a jealous god, holder of a very limited capacity for blessing, required – repeatedly – that brothers compete with each other. Why? To prove their worth, or simply for his own amusement? What if history and theology didn’t literalize this image? What if we knew the Latin root of “compete” as “to strive together,” or “to supplicate the gods together”? What we do know is this: that even generations later, Abraham, a member of this same family, would be willing to sacrifice his only son to prove his worth before this same god.

Our American myth of (white) brother-against-brother offers us a seemingly happy ending. The nation was torn asunder and then reborn when Reconstruction ended. But it could only do so by colluding in a newer but equally toxic story in which the original wounds of racism were covered over rather than healed. The wounds sat festering for another hundred years, as I write:

Fratricide perfectly describes the impact of the war upon the American soul, which more than that of any other nation is split against itself. The word evokes such emotion precisely because Americans still hope to heal that split in the psyche. Contemporary battle re-enactments express this longing. Because the issue of race went unresolved, however, the nation achieved only a superficial healing.

We are back to the sacrifice of the innocents, and I invite you to consider the first verse once again: In the winter of ’65. The song does not say eighteen-sixty five. Am I seeing too much here? Of course the song is about the American Civil War, and of course it describes the last year of the war. And yet…Robertson wrote it when the Viet Nam war was at its height, when a hundred Yankees were being laid in their graves every week. And yet…for every American death there were hundreds of Vietnamese deaths. His original 1969 version was followed two years later by the Joan Baez version, which, sung by a woman and civil rights activist, added both pathos and more paradox. Martin, Malcolm and the Kennedys were dead; perhaps, writes Jonah Begone, the song could speak to a larger sense of defeat for the left, a feeling of disappointment of early promise that had gone unfulfilled.

Stoneman’s destruction of Virginia’s infrastructure and burning of its crops, resulting in mass starvation of the civilian population, was a war crime. This is known in international law as “collective punishment” for individual actions. It’s what the Nazis did to countless towns such as Lidice.  It’s what the Hebrews did to the population of Jericho when “the walls came tumbling down”, and it’s what their descendants do every time they invade Gaza. 

In 1965 Vietnamese peasants were “just barely alive”. Massive aerial bombardment and spraying of toxic herbicides over huge swaths of the country was amounting to genocide. Americans may be the only nation in history to declare the concept of “free fire zones”, and they may have learned it in 1865.

1965 saw resistance in Viet Nam and also in the streets of Watts, California – a century after the fall of Richmond, the Civil War was still raging. A half-century further on, urban police, the descendants of the Southern slave patrols, with few exceptions, can still murder an unarmed Black man with impunity.

In mythological terms, to “drive Dixie (or anyone) down” is cata-strophic, to be turned away from our obsession with the light, with the gods of the sky, with the myths of growth and national purpose, with the flights of the ego and the spirit, and back towards soul. It is to be humiliated, to return to contact with the humus, the earth.  But it is also to be offered the possibility of grieving, reconciliation and healing.

So the song certainly evokes Hebrew myth (Cain & Abel), Greek myth (Kronos) and American myth (progress, scarcity). And now we can see why the narrator’s first name is Virgil. The Roman poet Virgil is best known for having composed the Aeneid, the epic that tells how Rome was founded by the last survivors of Troy, another city that, like Richmond, invaders had destroyed. A thousand years later, Dante, in The Divine Comedy, chose this same Virgil to be his guide in the underworld, the place of soul-retrieval.

Ultimately, Virgil Caine’s helpless lament is not only for the South. It is for America’s soul, and this is why The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down remains such an emotionally powerful piece of art. In a culture that continues to deny death, that condemns a quarter of its children into poverty, that refuses (like the Southern oligarchs) to accept that its time is over, that enacts the old myths of the sky gods at every opportunity, that is (in W.S. Merwin’s words) “up to its chin in shame, living in the stench it has chosen”, that has so few grief songs, we need to hear it and sing it out loud.

We need to think about Joshua Chamberlain, a general in the Union Army and hero of the Gettysburg meatgrinder, wounded six times.  He was present at the awesome spectacle of Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865, a week after “Richmond had fell.” th-2.jpg?w=349&h=183&profile=RESIZE_400xHe looked closely, perhaps for the first time, at those starving “Jonnie Rebs” who so recently had been on the other side of the firing line:

Before us in proud humiliation stood…men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now…thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond…What visions thronged as we looked into each other’s eyes!…On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer…but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!…How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!…For they were fellow-soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms…We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces…and think of personal hate and mean revenge…Forgive us, therefore, if from stern, steadfast faces eyes dimmed with tears gazed at each other…

A fine place to end. But one Confederate general refused to join the ritual of reconciliation:

You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.

One hundred and fifty-seven years later, we admit that the South really didn’t lose the Civil War and that the Lost Cause myth is still alive. Many Southerners see The Night and other songs such as Sweet Home Alabama and I’m A Good Old Rebel as emblems of regional pride.f8203c22939aedfe8e9a1c151c0ee42d.jpg?w=231&h=173&profile=RESIZE_400x

However, a study of history and psychology should also remind us that it took – and continues to take – massive amounts of money and continuous, overwhelming marketing to manipulate the white working class into ignoring their own best economic interests and the possibility of solidarity with other oppressed people in favor of the politics of hatred. This fact alone should remind us that people are not inherently biased against each other. We have to be taught to hate.

And not all Southerners are charged by the old myths. One challenge for an artist, especially one born to privilege, is to reframe them, or in this case to re-write song lyrics, as Early James did with The Night. 

In the first verse, he changes a time I remember oh so well to a time to bid farewell. His version of the chorus, instead of mourning that downfall, is Tonight, we drive old Dixie down. 

Most notably, in his final verse, he rejects both the Lost Cause and the myth of the Killing of the Children:

Unlike my father before me, who I will never understand
Unlike the others below me, who took a rebel stand
Depraved and powered to enslave
I think it’s time we laid hate in its grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
That monument won’t stand, no matter how much concrete…

What do we conclude from all this? We need as many grief songs as we can find. We need to constantly interrogate our mythic productions (including popular music) and reframe them for our children. And as for our history of demonizing the “Other”, I like what the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said: “There are no others.”





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Barry's Blog # 145: Do Black Lives Matter?

Part One 

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What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe. – James Baldwin

Back in 2015, before the White public became familiar with the long litany of murdered Black people from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery, I attended several performances of the National Poetry Slam in Oakland. maxresdefault.jpeg?w=234&h=173&profile=RESIZE_400xOver 400 young people in 72 teams from around the country spilled their guts in highly sensitive, creative, politically-charged, original poetry. No one read their poems; they all recited, often weeping with shamelessly strong emotion. To get a sense of what they were doing, check out or

Most of the performers were people of color, and many were gender-non-conforming. The most common theme was grief and anger over the continuing police killings of hundreds of unarmed people, and not just of men. This website lists fifty women of color killed by police since 2015.

I want you to know that when one of the poets spoke of “human sacrifice,” everyone in the audience knew exactly what he meant.

Six years later, I suspect that most POC would agree that the situation has not improved but worsened, despite those rare events when justice is served. So perhaps it’s time to ask, “Do Black lives matter?”

For starters, if you are one of those well-meaning but innocent people who has resonated with the phrase “all lives matter,” please read this or this, and subscribe to Tim Wise’s essays.

Every 28 hours, an African-American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. Year after year, 80% of the victims are unarmed, and almost none of the perpetrators are prosecuted, let alone punished. The Arbery case was an exception that came to light 74 days after his death only because the White murderers freely shared their own snuff video.

When this happens to white people, you can chant “All lives matter”. Until then, please show some respect.

A Google search on this subject finds plenty of posts, all by conservatives, that claim to refute those numbers. Sure, let’s play their game: what if the true figure was only 50% of that claim of 28 hours? Should we be any less ashamed that such police-on-Black homicides occur only every 56 hours?

This is mostly unrelated to the sobering statistics on intra-ethnic violence. Father Gregory Boyle (read his books) writes that in Los Angeles alone there were over a thousand gang-related homicides in the peak year of 1992. Those numbers plummeted for several years, but Oakland and a dozen other cities have seen record increases in the past two years, due primarily to massive job losses caused by the Covid pandemic. This kind of violence has always followed the unemployment statistics. As his Homeboy Industries t-shirts say, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job”.

But we are talking here about the first kind of violence, sanctioned in almost all cases by the state, either by its hired agents “fearing for their lives”,  or as legalized “Stand Your Ground” shootings by White civilians,  but not by Black civilians.kwhipple_thetrace_standyourground-1920x1000-c-top.jpg?w=279&h=145&profile=RESIZE_400x

No one with a heart and access to a real education can open him- or herself to the reality of racialized violence in this nation and not agree that Black lives matter – that is, anyone who can still retain the basic human empathy that they were born with. I’d like to think that this category includes the vast majority of Americans, even most of those who have been so dehumanized by the economy, the propaganda machine and the victim-blaming heritage of Protestantism as to support the con men who promise to relieve their anxiety with the rhetoric of hate and gun ownership.

Unfortunately, however, I’m not talking about actual, feeling human beings; I’m talking now about those sociopaths who control the reins of power at the corporate, media and political levels, th.jpg?w=246&h=136&profile=RESIZE_400xthe ones who authorize and encourage everything from racial profiling policies such as “Stop and Frisk” to organized gangs of White supremacist cops.

I’m talking about advanced capitalism in a world of military madness, tightened budgets, and lowered expectations; a world – or at least a nation – where the population greatly exceeds the number of available jobs.

From this point of view, the American population includes a very large number of essentially useless people. These are people who have no marketable skills in what has become a primarily service economy and – because of an irrelevant education system  and the exporting of production to the Third World – will never have those skills.

In the eyes and schemes of our corporate masters, such people can be allowed to exist mainly as cannon fodder or as consumers. But a person without a job doesn’t qualify as a consumer. So millions of them, primarily POC, have become, quite simply, expendable.

Capitalism no longer needs them as it needed their grandparents who worked the factory jobs that once sustained a middle class. Those jobs still exist, of course, but – since the 1970s – mostly in the Third World.

From the strictly rational point of view of economics, whether liberal or libertarian, it makes no difference whatsoever if people starve or murder each other on the streets, with one exception: they can still fill our prisons. In this sense, they are neither producers nor consumers; they are the raw material, the natural resource (exactly like oil or slave-produced cotton) without which our massive and lucrative prison-industrial complex could not exist.

But please don’t allow yourself to think that these sociopaths act in a vacuum. They are the extreme expression of our American mythology. They act in our name.

They act in our name in other places as well, such as Israel, where those who manage the ongoing blockade of Gaza brag that they have calculated the precise, minimum amount of calories a Palestinian person can be allowed to consume before starvation sets in, and set their import restrictions accordingly.

Do Palestinian lives matter? For thirty years the U.S. government has subsidized a program in which over a thousand police officers and corporate security executives have received training by the Israeli military. Clearly, the aim of cops in both countries is similar: periodically killing large numbers of their minorities, literally keeping their numbers down to manageable levels. The Israelis call this policy “mowing the lawn.” 

In our name.


Part Two

You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

White Americans need to interrogate ourselves and our deepest-held values. We will never begin to find healing until we understand why police everywhere in America apparently feel free to murder POC in broad daylight – knowing full well that their actions are being recorded by bystanders with cell phones. In 2014, as I was considering the terrible possibility of state-sanctioned human sacrifice, people everywhere were chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” We don’t hear those words anymore; they’ve been replaced by “Black lives matter!” Why? Because the earlier chant was ironic; it was intended (like the old chants of the Civil Rights movement) to shame the nation into moral action.

But in this dark time, as a third of us still support the con man Trumpus, as the Supreme Court is about to take abortion rights away and as several Republican legislatures are gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to taking over Congress, we have become, quite simply, shameless.

And we as a nation appear to have no shame about our institutions of social control. Once, we believed that democratic institutions were intended to encourage our highest potentials. But over our lifetimes, as great holes have appeared in the myth of American innocence, it has become clear that those institutions – politics, education, religion, the courts, entertainment – exist to bring out the worst in us. And in the case of policing, this seems to have been a deliberate process from the beginning.

My article, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus” takes a deep dive into the mythological and sociological roots of this question.

We need the mythological dimension for our analysis. When we think in terms of the myths that govern our thinking at the deepest levels and provide a sense of identity in fast-changing times, it is difficult not to conclude that Black lives do matter – but only as the “Other”. To perpetuate the sense of White American innocence, the nation will always need a dark, demonized Other to measure its own lightness by. In religious terms, we need to know, to see exactly who we have deemed unworthy of being saved in order to convince ourselves that we – White folks – are among the elect. This is the essentially religious assumption at the base of American identity that I address in Chapter Seven of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.

As our own repressed awareness gnaws at us, it gets harder and harder to ignore who we are and what we as a nation have done. So we, like the Aztecs of the 16th century, push away the guilt more and more often by killing more and more Others. We need the Other. Black lives matter. What would America do if it didn’t have them available?

If we have to, let’s reduce this to simple economic terms, supply and demand. What would defense contractors do if all the “terrorists” gave up and went away? What would the security and prison industries do if the government ended the War on Drugs? What would the cancer industry do if it acknowledged the many proven and inexpensive cures that already exist? What would happen to Big Pharma’s stockholders if their drugs actually defeated disease? Or Big Insurance, if we switched to single payer? Or Big Oil, if we got serious about reversing global warming?

What would happen to the American Empire and its generals if young people lost interest in sacrificing themselves for “freedom”?

What would happen to the whole, wasteful, soul-killing edifice of consumerism if, as the 18th-century poet Novalis wrote,

When geometric diagrams and digits

Are no longer the keys to living things,

When people who go about singing or kissing

Know deeper things than the great scholars,

When society is returned once more

To unimprisoned life, and to the universe,

And when light and darkness mate

Once more and make something entirely transparent,

And people see in poems and fairy tales

The true history of the world,

Then our entire twisted nature will turn

And run when a single secret word is spoken.

Cui bono: follow the money. Of course, the “defense” and “security” and “penal” industries are making billions off our fear of Black men. But this goes deeper; it’s about identity, how we define ourselves in terms of the Other. The simple truth is that, to remain “America,” this nation requires a population of people perceived as deservedly suffering, and therefore evil Others within the borders just as it needs an identifiably evil population of terrorist Others lurking outside the borders. I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that just as we – we – are reducing voting rights for POC, Congress has just given the military an even larger budget than they asked for, even though the occupation of Afghanistan has ended, and that the Biden administration is provoking nuclear confrontation in three separate areas of the world. 

Now we can revisit that question of “All lives matter.” In the relentless, cold logic of late capitalism, no lives matter, unless they can be forced into one of the few square holes of the system: consumer, producer, entertainer (which includes almost all politicians, academics, journalists and news networks), prisoner, scapegoat or killer-enforcer. Life itself is of no value except as a natural resource.

Back in 2015, many progressive people were willing to deny what was right in front of their eyes. The mere existence of a Black president, even one who served Wall Street, Israel and the Pentagon, was enough for them to keep hope alive.  Now no rational person can pretend that the worst proponents of White supremacy have received permission to burst out of the national unconscious.

So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. They know that representatives of the National Security State, from local prosecutors (as in the Arbery case) to the White House, will protect them.

I’d like to offer something positive, and here is the only thing I can think of: societies engage in mass human sacrifice when their mythic worlds are collapsing. Think Aztecs, Nazis, Hawaiians (yes, Hawaiians).  We can’t yet see what the new mythology will look like. But as America turns its violent gaze back upon its old, tried-and-true human scapegoat, we know that the old story no longer works for most of us.


                                                                       Memorial at Oakland’s Lake Merritt

I won’t live long enough to see the new story emerge fully. Perhaps my grandchildren will. And I know that even that statement is an expression of white privilege.

Meanwhile, seeing young people offering their visions through slam poetry is one of the few things that gives me hope. But to be in their presence requires being present, as they tell their grief in hopes that we are listening. The most emotionally moving poem I heard at the Slam festival was told by a black woman who phones her brother every day – just to find out if he is still alive.

More articles of mine on race in America:

The Mythic Sources of White Rage


Affirmative Action for Whites

The Race Card

The Sandy Hook Murders, Innocence and Race in America 

Did the South Win the Civil War? 

The Election of 2016

 The Dionysian Moment – Trump Lets the Dogs Out







Read more…

Part Six

A myth never says what to do; it points out where the difficulties will arise. – Ginette Paris

The past isn’t dead. It is not even past. – William Faulkner

At this point things get far more complicated, just as they do in the unconscious mind. Pelops and Hippodamia had many children, but his favorite was an illegitimate son, Chrysippus. Hippodamia convinced her own sons Atreus and Thyestes to murder him. Pelops banished them, and Hippodamia hanged herself. The exiled brothers went to Mycenae because an oracle had prophesied that its vacant throne would eventually belong to one of Pelops’ sons. There, the royal sibling rivalry commenced. Roberto Calasso writes:

Every story of two is always a story of three: two pairs of hands grab the same thing at the same time and tug in opposite directions.

Atreus, the eldest, claimed the throne. He married Aerope, who bore him two sons, Agamemnon and Meneleus (although some say the real father was her brother-in-law Thyestes). He vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis. However, when he discovered that there was a golden lamb in his flock, he decided to hide it from the goddess and gave it to Aerope for safekeeping.

But Aerope, who’d been sleeping with Thyestes, gave it to him instead. He then convinced Atreus to agree that whoever possessed this lamb should be king. Thyestes produced it and claimed the throne, agreeing to give the kingdom back to Atreus only if the sun should move backwards in the sky – a feat that Zeus, who favored Atreus, accomplished. Atreus retook the throne, banished Thyestes and might have been satisfied. However, having learned of the adultery, he devised an atrocious revenge. Now, writes Calasso,

…the conflict is raised to a higher power: it is the winner who wants to revenge himself on the loser, and…wants his revenge to outdo all others.

Atreus invited Thyestes to a banquet. Then he had his brother’s children (one of whom was named Tantulus) killed, dismembered and cooked, except for their hands and feet. seneca-thyestes-illustration.jpg?w=232&h=357&profile=RESIZE_400xThyestes unknowingly consumed their flesh. After taunting him with their hands and feet, Atreus again forced him into exile. Once again innocent children were eaten at a grizzly banquet.

From this point on the vendetta between the two brothers loses all touch with psychology, becomes pure virtuosity…

Thyestes sought an even greater vengeance, one that would attack future generations. An oracle advised him to rape his own daughter, Pelopia, whose son would then kill Atreus. Some say that Thyestes, like Oedipus, didn’t know that she was his daughter. If he did know, then he was willing to ruin her just to get that revenge. In either case (just as with Oedipus), myth is concerned with action rather than with motivation. Psychology asks why it happened, but myth only tells what happened.

After giving birth to the boy, she abandoned him. Atreus murdered Aerope for her infidelity. Desiring a new wife, he married Pelopia, not knowing her parentage. A shepherd found the infant Aegisthus and gave him to Atreus, who raised him as his own son. Meanwhile, the region around Mycenae suffered a terrible drought, which would end, said an oracle, only if Thyestes returned. Atreus located his brother and brought him back to prison, where he ordered the boy to kill him. When Thyestes revealed himself to Aegisthus as his both his father and his grandfather, Pelopia killed herself. Instead of killing him, the boy killed Atreus, and Thyestes became king. But, writes Calasso,

…the grindstone that had accelerated during their feud would go on crushing bones, for one, two, three generations to come.

The Seventh Generation

Agamemnon and Menelaus escaped to Sparta, where King Tyndareus sheltered them and helped them return to overthrow Thyestes. Tyndareus offered his daughters Clytemnestra and Helen (half-sisters to Castor and Pollux, but that’s another story) to Agamemnon and Menelaus as wives. Menelaus became king of Sparta and Helen gave birth to Harmonia. Agamemnon ascended to the throne of Mycenae and Clytemnestra bore Orestes, Elektra, Iphigenia, Erigone and others. Some say that her first husband had been yet another Tantalus, grandson of the original Tantalus, and that Agamemnon had killed him.

We are familiar with the seventh generation from the stories of the Trojan War, which had its roots in the wedding of the mortal Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. Previously, Zeus and Poseidon had courted her, but they withdrew when they heard that her son would be more famous than the father (the actual son would be Achilles). In safely marrying her off to Peleus, Zeus planned a grand wedding. It turned out to be the last one that mortals and immortals celebrated together. All the gods and goddesses were invited, with one exception – Eris (Discord), twin sister of Ares, another of Zeus’ rejected children. Why hadn’t they invited her?  Ginette Paris writes:

A reality (marriage) that invites so many gods and goddess cannot be separated from its shadow…no powers exist without a dark side, and when they are denied, murderous feelings become murderous behaviors.

Enraged, Eris barged in anyway and rolled a golden apple marked “for the fairest” into the hall, quickly provoking an argument between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena.

They asked Zeus to judge between them, but he refused to get involved. He sent them to Mount lda, near Troy, telling them that Paris would be the judge. the-golden-apple-of-discord-630x628-1.jpg?w=265&h=264&profile=RESIZE_400xThis prince had been sent away because his father, King Priam, had heard yet another prophecy that Paris would someday be the ruin of his country. Each of the goddesses offered a bribe, but he preferred Aphrodite’s – the fairest woman in the world. In choosing her, he – and Troy – earned the enmity of the other two goddesses.

That woman, of course, was Helen, another daughter of Zeus, who had seduced her mother, Leda, in the form of a swan. As we’ve seen, Leda’s husband Tyndareus gave Helen as wife to Menelaus. But before announcing his choice, Tyndareus made all the Greek princes promise to support Helen’s husband. Later, Aphrodite directed Paris to Sparta and Helen as his promised reward. When Paris and Helen eloped, all the Greek leaders were bound by their promise to help Menelaus get her back. They mobilized a thousand ships and an entire generation of young men, with Agamemnon as commander, all for the sake of one woman.

We may think of this “one woman” in at least three ways. Since possession of Helen symbolized regal sovereignty, she had to be recovered. But Menelaus, son of the cruel Atreus, had his own childhood wounds. In this age of recovery, we can see his willingness to risk his fortune, his life, and the lives of thousands of men to get her back as the essence of co-dependency. He sought the answer to his unmet infantile needs in a relationship with the Golden Woman. Or, from a Jungian perspective, he was seeking his anima, in a necessary journey of individuation.

But why the huge mobilization of all the “Argive host”?


Wasn’t Helen an idea, a belief system, an ideology? Both archetypal psychology and traditional indigenous wisdom see any ideology, religious or political, as an addiction. When carried to its extreme it becomes dogmatic fanaticism, an all-encompassing, paranoid world view which necessarily dehumanizes all non-believers. Fanaticism encloses us in a warm, comfortable womb of like-minded individuals and stimulates our participation in group action that (only) temporarily satisfies our need for ritual and community. In providing a superficial connection to others, it covers up our narcissistic wounds and cuts us off from true relationship.

In short, whether Helen was the unreachable object of an immature relationship, a Golden Anima figure or the spirit-crushing panacea of fanatic ideology, she represented a hiding place for the shame people receive from parents who couldn’t be what they needed when they needed it.

Part Seven

…we live in an age of Moms, for the culture is secular and the ordinary mortal must carry archetypal loads without help from the gods. The mothers must support our survival without support themselves, having to become like Goddesses, everything too much, and they sacrifice us to their frustration as we in turn…sacrifice our children to the same civilization. – James Hillman

I am pregnant with murder. The pains are coming faster now, and not all your anesthetics nor even my own screams can stop them. – Robin Morgan 

The Eighth Generation


                                                                                 Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The curse appeared in the form of a tragic dilemma at the port of Aulis. The north wind blew continually, preventing the ships from embarking for Troy and provoking discontent among the troops. Agamemnon learned that he’d offended Artemis by killing one of her favorite animals. There was only one way to appease her and change the winds: his daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed.

Making the fatal choice for fame and against family, he convinced Clytemnestra to send the girl, believing that she would be married to Achilles. Instead, the men murdered her at the ritual alter. The winds ceased and the fleet – stained by guilt – sailed for Troy. Jean Bolen comments:

They sacrifice the possibility of closeness to their children to their jobs, their roles. And they also sacrifice their own “inner child”, the playful, spontaneous, trusting, emotionally expressive part of themselves…Agamemnon was thus another father (like Abraham) who was rewarded by his willingness to kill his child…the father who violates the trust of a daughter and destroys her innocence, destroys a corresponding part of himself.


His reward did not last. During the years that Agamemnon was at Troy, Aegisthus returned and seduced Clytemnestra. They sent Orestes out of the country, neglected Electra and plotted against Agamemnon. When he returned, they killed him and his concubine Cassandra in the narrative we know best from the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon.

For lack of time, we limit our attention to three aspects of the play. The first is the repetition of the lament, Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end…Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer, which sums up the necessity of grieving.

The second is how the citizens of Argos waited eagerly for news of the return of the king. Agamemnon was a narcissist and a war criminal and a terrible father. He’d been an Ouranos father to Orestes and Electra, by abandoning them to his heroic quests, and he’d been a Kronos to Iphigenia, literally killing her. But to his people, he represented the Sacred King, a figure that embodies order, fertility and blessing. The longing for the Return of the King is an archetypal theme that appears everywhere, especially in Hebrew and Christian mythology, with significant political implications in modern America.

Despite his personal failings, Agamemnon also represented an initiated, male to Orestes, who desired a positive connection with him in life or death. Joseph Campbell wrote:

The finding of the father has to do with finding your own character and destiny. There’s a notion that the character is inherited from the father, and the body and very often the mind from the mother. But it’s your character that is the mystery, and your character is your destiny. So it is the discovery of your destiny that is symbolized by the father quest.

Third, Clytemnestra had long nursed a mother’s fury for his crimes and, despite her royal privileges, carried the collective resentment of hundreds of generations of oppressed women. She was convinced that she was meant to be the agent of his fate and needed no prodding from any god: “We could not do otherwise than we did.”

Seven years later (in the second play, The Libation Bearers), Electra hated her mother and desired only revenge. She carried the set of emotional obsessions that Freud, searching for a parallel to the Oedipus Complex, would later term the “Electra Complex.”

Orestes secretly returned with his cousin Pylades, having been directed by Apollo to be the agent of vengeance – in contrast to Clytemnestra’s usurping of that role. If this tale were focusing on Electra alone, we might well see continuation of the violence into the next generation. But Orestes, faced with the terrible task of having to kill his mother to avenge his father, appealed to higher powers: Hermes, Zeus and especially Apollo:

For he charged me to win through this hazard, with divination of much, and speech articulate, the winters of disaster under the warm heart were I to fail against my father’s murderers; told me to cut them down in their own fashion, turn to the bull’s fury in the loss of my estates. He said that else I must myself pay penalty with my own life, and suffer much sad punishment…

We can think of Apollo as an inner voice that offers Orestes the means to attain initiation to a new life that will not be predetermined by his family history. He can connect to the king-father’s realm only through a brutal separation from the mother’s realm. The quest for the father, according to Campbell, “…begins not with any initiative of his own but with a call.”

Orestes heard that Clytemnestra had dreamed that she’d given birth to a snake which had torn her nipple and drawn blood along with milk:

…it fellows then, that as she nursed this hideous thing of prophecy, she must be cruelly murdered. I turn snake to kill her.

References to snakes, serpents and vipers appear continually in the trilogy, generally with negative connotations. But here the snake has a positive tone. Campbell wrote:

The wonderful ability of the serpent to slough its skin and so renew its youth has earned for it throughout the world the character of the master of the mystery of rebirth.

Bly adds: “Initiation asks the son to move his love energy away from the attractive mother to the relatively unattractive serpent father.”

Orestes and Pylades quickly killed Aegisthus, but when they came face to face with Clytemnestra, she warned:

Your mother’s curse, like dogs, will drag you down.

At the initiatory moment Orestes was immobilized by indecision. But Pylades reminded him:

What then becomes thereafter of the oracles declared by Loxias (Apollo) at Pytho? What of sworn oaths? Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

Orestes fulfilled Apollo’s command and murdered his mother as savagely as she’d killed his father.

But we have to ask, what (rather than whom) did he kill? When the father is absent, with no masculine energy in the household, the archetypal Great Mother can overlap with and get confused with the human mother in a boy’s mind. Jung wrote that the mother archetype can be “terrifying and inescapable like fate.” For men it becomes mixed with projections of the anima, and statements of men about the mother “are always emotionally prejudiced…showing ‘animosity.’” The bad mother in myth or the subconscious is a man’s mother complex: that flawed relationship with the feminine part of his own soul, which, as Robert Johnson wrote:

… would like to return to a dependency on his mother and be a child again…a man’s wish to fail, his defeatist capacity, his subterranean fascination with death or accident, his demand to be taken care of.

This symbolic, inner figure determines how a man sees all relationships. The real tragedy is that if he who cannot “kill” his mother complex, he may turn his depression or misdirected rage onto actual women, perpetuating the conditions of patriarchy. Such a man can’t experience initiatory transformation, can’t realize his purpose and can’t love a real woman, or anyone else. But he will force both nature and women to take the blame that might be better directed at his father.

Still, Clytemnestra’s rage speaks for all women throughout time. Who can blame women who strike back at abusive spouses?  And yet her murder may well have served as a model for men to continue the abuse. We acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and we tread delicately.

But we miss a great opportunity when we take mythic images literally. These are symbolic murders that we perceive as literal only if we have lost the capacity for metaphorical thinking. Hillman wrote: “The way to ‘solve the mother complex’ would be not to cut from Mom, but to cut the antagonism that makes me heroic and her negative.”

And let’s be very clear about this once more: We are not blaming actual, living, human mothers here. If anyone is to blame it is patriarchy itself.

Orestes knew the consequences of his actions, and the appropriate human response:

I grieve for the thing done, the death, and all our race. I have won; but my victory is soiled and has no pride.

By the end, he was alone with the the horrible vision of the dog-faced Furies: 9869163261?profile=RESIZE_710x

…they come like gorgons, they wear robes of black, and they are wreathed in a tangle of snakes. I can no longer stay…the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate. Ah, Lord Apollo, how they grow and multiply, repulsive for the blood drops of their dripping eyes…You cannot see them, but I see them. I am driven from this place…

The act of separation from the mother does not imply an instantaneous resolution, only the beginning of a long healing process. Orestes had to grieve the loss of both parents and a sister and also face intense guilt, symbolized by the Furies. Pursued by the hideous apparitions, he hoped to find sanctuary at Apollo’s shrine.

But we find the possibility of healing in the differences between Orestes’ actions and Clytemnestra’s. Each committed a horrible crime. The third part of the trilogy involves much legalistic hair-splitting over which crime is worse. But our interest lies in two other areas, motive and response. The difference in response is simple: Orestes lamented and Clytemnestra didn’t. Indeed, none of their ancestors but Niobe had grieved the consequences of their actions.

The difference in response is due to the difference in motive. Orestes acted because of a call from Apollo, whom he couldn’t refuse. She, on the other hand, acted without any call from a god, but purely out of her own rage and hatred. Her excuse had been that she’d been an agent of fate. In reality, she had usurped the role of the god. She was inflated, according to Edinger:

It is a state in which something small (the ego) has arrogated to itself the qualities of something larger (the Self) and hence is blown up beyond the limits of its proper size…We can identify a state of inflation whenever we see someone (including ourselves) living out an attribute of deity, i.e., whenever one is transcending proper human limits…The urge to vengeance is also identification with deity. At such times one might recall the injunction, “’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord,” i.e., not yours. The whole body of Greek tragedy depicts the fatal consequences when man takes the vengeance of God into his own hands.

We act “shamelessly” (including rage, arrogance, criticism, perfectionism, patronizing and other modes) to deny the felt sense of toxic shame. In contrast, Bradshaw defined natural, “healthy” shame as:

…the emotion which gives us permission to be human…Our shame tells us we are not God. Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. lt is the source of spirituality.

The Furies attacked Orestes and no one else in the long story. The implication is that he was the only person to allow them in. He chose to go down into grief. They didn’t attack Clytemnestra because she felt no remorse. She was shameless. Her story ended with her de-flation.

Orestes’ action, however, was justified by the call from Apollo. Edinger speaks of “necessary crimes” in dreams and mythology:

What is a crime at one stage of psychological development is lawful at another and one cannot reach a new stage…without daring to challenge the code of the old…Hence, every new step is experienced as a crime and is accompanied by guilt, because the old standards, the old way of being, have not yet been transcended…The acquisition of consciousness is a crime, an act of hybris against the powers-that-be; but it is a necessary crime, leading to a necessary alienation from the natural unconscious state of wholeness…in order to emerge at all, the ego is obliged to set itself against the unconscious out of which it came and assert its relative autonomy by an inflated act…Any step in individuation is experienced as a crime against the collective.

Campbell notes that rites of passage

…are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

Orestes had spent most of his youth at the court of his uncle Strophius, king of Phocis. He had been educated along with Pylades, and they had become close friends. Though Strophius does not appear in the play, and Pylades has but one, though crucial, line, the legend may be implying that Orestes’ initiatory process had already begun among the older men at Phocis.

Bly, once again, cautions us not to blame the mother but the absent father:

We must repeat that it isn’t the personal mother who imprisons the son…lt is the possessive or primitive side of the Great Mother that keeps him locked up…One needs to be able to say these truths without laying a lot of blame on the mother, for Freud has already singled her out, wrongly, for the main responsibility. The whole initiatory tradition, of which Freud knew very little, lays the primary responsibility on men, particularly on the older men and the ritual elders. They are to call the boys away. When they don’t do that, the possessive side of the Great Mother will start its imprisonment…

Orestes’ momentous act of cutting the chord between him and his mother was but one step in a lifelong process of grief and reconciliation. However, his path to initiation is not the only one we find in Greek myth. In two other essays, The Spell of the Mother and Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth, I compare him to his cousin Telemachus and other figures, including Dionysus, Herakles, Oedipus, Hephaestus and Pentheus.

Part Eight

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but good wins out in the end – Aeschylus

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. – Richard Rohr

Whoever isn’t busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan

The Eumenides

In the final play of the trilogy Orestes, pursued by the Furies, traveled from Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi to Athens. The gods had referred his fate to Athena and a jury of mortal men. When their vote came out even, the Goddess cast the tie-­breaking vote in favor of Orestes, and the Furies were propitiated by a new religious cult.

How do we resolve the conflict between fate and justice? The Furies (or Erinyes in their primitive form) argued that fear consequent on wrongdoing is the basis of law, humility and respect, that without loyalty to kin there is chaos; while Apollo, defending Orestes, appealed to duty. theatre_scene_painted_by_python_ancient_greek_vase_painter.jpg?w=241&h=251&profile=RESIZE_400xThe play also presents a secondary theme, the older, matriarchal order vs. the newer, patriarchal one. The Furies, bloodthirsty in their desire for revenge, insisted on the fact against the idea, ignoring Orestes’ motivations. Apollo responded with arrogance and threats. Richard Lattimore describes the resolution:

Athene, whose nature reconciles female with male, has a wisdom deeper than the intelligence of Apollo. She clears Orestes but concedes to the detested Furies what they had not known they wanted, a place in the affections of a civilized community of men, as well as in the divine hierarchy. There, gracious and transformed though they are, their place in the world is still made potent by the unchanged base of their character…Man cannot obliterate, and should not repress, the unintelligible emotions. Or again, in different terms, man’s nature being what it is and Fury being a part of it, Justice must go armed with Terror before it can work…Thus, through the dilemma of Orestes and its resolution, the drama of the House of Atreus was transformed into a grand parable of progress. Persuasion…has been turned to good by Athene as she wins the Furies to accept of their own free will a new and better place in the world.hqdefault.jpg?w=300&h=225&profile=RESIZE_400x

But we continue to ask, in which direction does the energy move? Who are these women? “Fury” comes from the Latin “to rage”. They may represent a part of ourselves that rages against other parts of ourselves. The Erinyes, according to Hesiod, were the daughters of Earth and sprang from the blood of the mutilated Ouranos. Aeschylus calls them daughters of Night. In Sophocles, they are daughters of Darkness and Earth. Their names are Alecto (unceasing in anger), Tisiphone (avenger of murder) and Megaera (Jealous). They rise from their home below to punish the worst transgressions.

The underworld is the unconscious. The Erinyes emerge from the deep self, forcing themselves upon ego consciousness with vitally important messages, although the whole history of humans and gods as told in these eight generations describe our infinitely varied attempts to ignore them. The messages are simple: Something is terribly wrong here! You have unfinished business to deal with.

We may experience them variously as guilt or shame, depending on whether we feel, deep inside, that we have done something wrong, or that we are something wrong. All our ego defenses are attempts to avoid these feelings and the pain that arises with them. However, as we have noted, since they present us with the reality of our original childhood wounds, they also offer opportunities for healing.

As above, so below. Orestes’ struggle mirrored the earlier experience of his initiator Apollo, who had also confronted the female principle. He had come to Delphi as a child, where he killed Python, its original guardian, and expiated his crime by serving the mortal Admetus for eight years. Apollo knew a thing or two about restitution, or restorative justice.

But Orestes experienced the symbolic death of his old self and the descent into madness.

Perhaps his grief was not merely for himself but for both his criminal ancestors and his descendants. (We recall the Native American Haudenosaunee /Iroquois tradition that the decisions we make should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.) Yet only after years of atonement would Athena and the elders of Athens judge him as sufficiently transformed to be admitted to the community of mature adults, the polis.

How has time moved?  At the beginning of the play, Apollo’s priestess described the tormented Orestes, surrounded by the sleeping Furies “with blood dripping from his hands and from a new-drawn sword.” But the implication is that much time has passed. In myth, one day can equal many of our years, wrote Edith Hamilton:

When next he came to his country, years had passed. He had been a wanderer in many lands, always pursued by the same terrible shapes. He was worn with suffering, but in his loss of everything men prize there was a gain too. “I have been taught by misery,” he said. He had learned that no crime was beyond atonement, that even he, defiled by a mother’s murder, could be made clean again…the black stain of his guilt had grown fainter and fainter through his years of lonely wandering and pain.

The Erinyes arose from their sleep for one final dispute. Or perhaps if healing occurs in a spiral pattern, they arise periodically as the initiate approaches each new stage. Having directed Orestes to flee to “Pallas’ Citadel” (Athens), Apollo prophesied that suffering will turn intelligence into wisdom:

Thus you will be rid of your afflictions, once for all. For it was I who made you strike your mother down.

Apollo claimed that “the wanderer has rights which Zeus acknowledges.” The movement is from the head-intelligence he symbolizes to the heart-wisdom of Athena.

Orestes was, in a sense, playing with fire, evoking his devils along with his angels. The Erinyes could shift back and forth from guilt-messengers to shame-messengers:

Cursed suppliant, he shall feel against his head another murderer rising out of the same seed.

In the final scene, Orestes came as a suppliant to the statue of Athena on the Acropolis,

…blunted at last, and worn and battered on the outland habitations and the beaten ways of men.

The Furies threatened to drag him down to Hades, but Orestes responded that he had already experienced the most profound suffering:

I have been beaten and been taught. I understand the many rules of absolution, where it is right to speak and where be silent. In this action now speech has been ordered by my teacher, who is wise. The stain of blood dulls now and fades upon my hand. My blot of matricide is being washed away. When it was fresh still, at the hearth of the god, Phoebus (Apollo), this was absolved and driven out by sacrifice of swine, and the list were long if I went back to tell of all I met who were not hurt by being with me. Time in his aging overtakes all things alike.

Orestes had accomplished the initiatory transition from “Hero” to “Warrior”. Robert Moore described these two archetypes:

There is much confusion about the archetype of the Hero…The Hero is, in fact, only an advanced farm of Boy psychology – the most advanced form, the peak, actually, of the masculine energies of the boy, the archetype that characterizes the best in the adolescent stage of development. Yet it is immature, and when it is carried over into adulthood as the governing archetype, it blocks men from full maturity…the Hero is overly tied to the mother (and) has a driving need to overcome her.

By contrast, the Warrior is an aspect of mature, initiated masculinity, capable of protective, restrained, aggressive action in the service of a transpersonal goal:

When the Warrior is connected with the King, he is consciously stewarding the “realm,” and his decisive actions, clarity of thinking, discipline and courage are, in fact, creative and generative.

“The list were long” of those whom Orestes had met and not harmed. Though fully capable of aggressively passing on the energy, he had remained focused on his goal of transformation through grief. By the beginning of the play, Orestes had already achieved his healing. The trial that followed merely confirmed this truth:

lt is the law that the man of the bloody hand must speak no word until, by action of one who can cleanse, blood from a young victim has washed his blood away. Long since, at the homes of others, I have been absolved thus, both by running waters and by victims slain.

The waters were his own tears, and the victims were parts of himself, for, as Bly writes, “Some deaths stand for the naiveté that dies when the son accepts the father’s world.”

The Erinyes grudgingly mirrored lines spoken in Agamemnon:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.

At this point I acknowledge that feminist scholars, for good reasons, have long considered the Oresteia a foundational text of patriarchy and can offer many statements by both Apollo and Athena as proof. But we also need to understand that myth can provide many levels of meaning. I encourage readers to stay focused on the symbolic meaning.

On one level, the verdict of innocence (even if it took Athena’s tie-breaking vote) was certainly a condemnation of the feminine; but on another it was further confirmation of Orestes’ transformation. The sacrifice of his innocence had resulted in the achievement of his father’s blessing, symbolized by his assumption of the throne of Argos:

Among the Hellenes (Greeks) they shall say: “A man of Argos lives again in the estates of his father…”

Finally, Athena persuaded the Erinyes to accept their own initiation into a new role in society and religion.m072784-88_the-eumenides.jpg?w=224&h=187&profile=RESIZE_400x

The focus of events had shifted from Argos, city of conflict, to Athens, city of wisdom. In yet another process of enantiodromia, the Erinyes were transformed into something very much like their opposites. They became the Eumenides, the “kindly, well-disposed ones”. At the end of the play, their rite de passage from Erinyes to Eumenides was symbolized by a grand procession through Athens. Subjectively, this is confirmation that grief fully experienced can lead ultimately to healing. Edith Hamilton concludes:

“…I have been cleansed of my guilt.” These were words never spoken before by any of the House of Atreus. The killers of that race had never suffered from their guilt and sought to be made clean…with the words of acquittal the spirit of evil which had haunted his house for so long was banished. Orestes went forth from Athena’s tribunal a free man. Neither he nor any descendant of his would ever again be driven into evil by the irresistible power of the past. The curse of the House of Atreus was ended.

Part Nine

To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile. – Ben Okri

… wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance, long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake, which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify. – D. H. Lawrence 

Alternative Stories

Like all the great myths, this story generated countless variants. The Athenians claimed that their ancestors had shunned the tormented Orestes, forcing him to do his drinking alone. Much later, they incorporated this memory into the celebration of their Anthesteria festival, as if to imply that even after the verdict of innocence, the Furies still followed him.



This aspect of public ritual seems to fit the massive paradox of a civilization – not unlike our own – that praised individual freedom, equality and philosophical enquiry but was in fact a brutal empire that couldn’t function without slave labor.

In another story, Orestes killed Aletes, son of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, took the throne of Mycenae and married their daughter Erigone, who bore a son named Penthilus. Some say the child was killed by wolves, and that his father established a festival of mourning, the Penthilia, in his honor. Others say he (the ninth generation) survived, founded a city and became the ancestor to another dynasty of kings. Others assert that Erigone brought Orestes to another trial for the murder of her mother and hanged herself when he was acquitted.

Still others said that Menelaus and Helen’s daughter Hermione (“Harmony”) had been betrothed to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. Orestes killed him and married Hermione, who bore him a son, Tisamenus (another member of the ninth generation). Orestes then gave Electra as wife to Pylades, and both couples lived in peace. In this version, Orestes lived to a very old age and died, curiously, of a snakebite (on his heel, like Achilles). Bly notes another tale:

…Orestes, while being pursued by the Furious Invisible Women, after he murdered his mother, bit off a finger and threw it at them; when they saw that, some of them turned white, and left him alone.

Perhaps the finger symbolizes not phallic potency but the brittle masculine armoring that veils the insecurities of those who haven’t cut the maternal chord. Finally, writes Calasso,

…years later, people came to look for his bones, for much the same reason that had prompted other people to look for the bones of his grandfather Pelops.

Grief , Suffering and Redemption

We recall Jung’s statement that all neurosis is but a substitute for legitimate suffering. Cutting past neurotic suffering (our vast arrays of compulsions, addictions, and dysfunctional styles) to legitimate, or authentic suffering, we open to the possibility of attaining knowledge, and we are back to Aeschylus:  “Justice so moves that those only learn who suffer.” And what moves us from neurotic suffering to legitimate suffering to knowledge is the active decision to open up to grief.

Just as there are two forms of suffering, there are two forms of grief. In the first, we grieve what has happened to us, what we have lost, never had or know we will lose in the future. Francis Weller, in The Wild Edge of Sorrowwrites that any of us can enter the great communal hall of grief through any of five gates:

1 – Everything We Love, We Will Lose

2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love

3 – The Sorrows of the World

4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive

5 – Ancestral Grief

If we can learn to walk the fine line between numbness and acting out, if we can withstand the temptation to pass the energy onward to others, our grief can lead to healing. The emotion associated with this form of grief is shame. Initiation into adulthood offers the possibility of transmuting this shame into self-esteem.

With the one exception of Niobe, none of Orestes’ ancestors grieved their personal losses or pain. No one cried out that their parents “ate” their individuality, abused them, neglected them, or used them as surrogate spouses. Since children believe that their pain was their own fault, perhaps this is the original cause of neurotic suffering.

The second major form of grief rises from guilt for the harm we have done. We grieve the consequences of our (or our group’s, community’s, nation’s, race’s, etc.) actions upon others (exterior or interior). We accept that we did something wrong, not that we are something wrong.  We have acted wrongly, we admit the guilt, and we grieve. Theologically, we have sinned, and hope for redemption through repentance. So, to simplify, we grieve that others have sinned against us, or we grieve because we have sinned against others.  And no one in the Oresteia or any of its preceding generations has accepted the terrible burden of either of these griefs until we meet Orestes and Electra.

These two forms of grief meet in the murder of Clytemnestra. The mother-complex will keep a man from experiencing his original wounds, what happened to him. Ideally, cutting through to that core (work facilitated by the male initiators) releases the bound up energy that leads to both painful knowledge and healing.

But separation from the mother risks separation from the feminine in its positive aspects as well. It really is a choice of the lesser of two evils. The major part of Orestes’ grief is the second kind, an acknowledgement of guilt, a cry of remorse for what he had to do.

Bly taught that there is a component of grief in the male psyche which is not present to the same degree in the female. Perhaps this is what he meant: men, to grow up, must give up their deepest emotional attachment, the most important thing they have. And for this reason, they must endure a guilt, and a grief, that women, for all their sorrows, don’t know, because they generally do identify with their mothers. In time, men may re-establish a relationship to that inner feminine, but that is a different initiation and calls for different stories. Perhaps the fact that Athena is the arbiter of Orestes’ fate indicates that his healing path will ultimately achieve a balance between the feminine and the masculine.

We also note that the Athenians had a word for those who refused to participate in public life: idiota. Perhaps Aeschylus was also describing the condition of those who act in the realm of politics, who must continually compromise between evils, where the perfect too often is the enemy of the good.

I’ve quoted Bly often to emphasize that participants in the men’s conferences that he began have confronted these issues for two generations. He always insisted on the active nature of grief. After spending lifetimes searching for pleasure and avoiding pain, at some point we must decide to go down into grief. Bly distinguished grief from depression using an image from the old story Iron John: if we refuse the imperative to descend, a hand may come up from the water, grab us, and pull us down, perhaps for good. That, said Bly, is depression. If we choose to go down, however, we retain the option of someday choosing to come back up. In this spirit, Orestes chose one kind of death so that his real life could begin. 

Bly emphasized that the development of male consciousness is a spiral movement, as men go through the various stages of initiation incompletely, sometimes embodying several stages at once. In this continual returning, the mother complex is not murdered in a single stroke of a sword:

For Hamlet it meant giving up the immortality or the safe life promised to the faithful mother’s son, and accepting the risk of death always imminent in the father’s realm…When a man has reclaimed his grief and investigated his wound, he may find that they resemble the grief and the wound his father had, and the reclaiming puts him in touch with his father’s soul…Moving to the father’s world does not necessarily mean rejecting the mother or shouting at her – Hamlet is off in that respect – but rather the movement involves convincing the naive boy…to die. Other interior boys remain alive; this one dies…But independence from the mother’s womb world goes in agonizingly slow motion for developing men. One wants to run, but the legs will not move. We wake exhausted.

However, concludes Alice Miller,

That probably greatest of narcissistic wounds – not to have been loved just as one truly was – cannot heal without the work of mourning…When the patient, in the course of his analysis, has consciously repeatedly experienced (and not only learned from the analyst’s interpretations) how the whole process of his bringing-up did manipulate him in his childhood, and what desires for revenge this has left him with, then he will see through manipulation quicker than before and will himself have less need to manipulate others. Such a person will be able to join groups without again becoming helplessly dependent or bound…in less danger of idealizing people or systems…a person who has consciously worked through the whole tragedy of his own fate will recognize another’s suffering more clearly and quickly…He will not be scornful of another’s feelings, whatever their nature, because he can take his own feelings seriously. He surely will not help to keep the vicious circle of contempt turning.

This is our dual condition, as told in the myths: It’s always been this way – and healing is possible. The bad news is that the old initiation rituals are nearly gone. More than ever, the most powerful people are deeply wounded, desperate to deny their pain by passing it on to others, and willing to destroy all life in the process.

The good news is that we have never lost the ability to imagine, and that we have greater access to old wisdom than our parents had. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien used to teach a guided meditation from her Basque tradition:

Imagine seven generations of your male ancestors emerging from the underworld to stand behind your right shoulder. Imagine seven generations of your female ancestors behind your left shoulder. Imagine that as you enter the fire of initiation, they are speaking with great excitement to each other:

"Oh, may this be the one who will bring forward the good, true and beautiful in our family lineage. Will this be the one to break the harmful family or cultural patterns? Oh may this be the one to break the curse! May it be so!"





Read more…

Part One

In memory of Robert Bly 

A little rest for the wounds – who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.) – Yehuda Amichai

Why do some stories stay with us over long periods of time? All the classic stories (Dante, Shakespeare, Melville and, of course, the Greek and Bible myths) deal with universal, archetypal themes that live to some extent in every human heart, every society and every family. Mythic figures, as well as those persons who populate our culture of celebrity, stand out from the norm so that we can see our own stories more clearly. In other words, myths are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

In 2005 Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (revised, 2017) hit a raw yet familiar nerve. She argued that millions of African Americans suffer from unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder arising from the experience of slavery, transmitted across generations down to the present. This manifests as physical problems such as hypertension, as well as emotional and behavioral issues such as lack of self-esteem, persistent anger and internalized racist beliefs, all of which contribute to a vicious circle of underachieving and further marginalization by the larger society.

My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocenceapplied this thinking to the entire culture. Although people of color clearly suffer this condition most acutely, I argue that all modern people, especially Americans, live a deeply diminished life conditioned by – and passed on from – the crimes and mistakes of the past. Ultimately, all these patterns stem from the myth of the killing of the children, the foundational myth of Western Culture.

With Degruy’s book what was once considered an old poetic idea has entered the scientific realm. Both psychologists and geneticists have begun to contemplate the idea of epigenetic trauma, that emotional pain and stress can really be passed on through the generations.

But we transmit ideas through stories. How old is this poetic idea? At least three thousand years old.

The Killing of the Children in Myth

We idealize the family as the ultimate “safe container.” Yet we experience the breakdown of culture most directly in the crimes and betrayals that adults inflict upon children. Myth suggests that it has always been this way – or at least since the triumph of patriarchy.

Greek myth is replete with stories of family violence and the suffering of innocent children. Medea killed her sons just to spite their father. Procne killed her son, cooked him, and served him to her husband, who’d raped her sister. Zeus had an affair with Lamia, who bore him children. When Hera found out, she killed the children. Driven insane with grief, Lamia began devouring other children. Hera also caused Heracles to murder six of his children by mistake. The infant Oedipus was abandoned because of a prophecy that a son would be the father’s undoing. Dionysus caused many people to go mad enough to kill their own children. And on it goes…the innocent suffered for their parents’ sins.

The Bible is inconsistent. Sons bear the sins of their fathers in certain passages (Exodus 20:5 and 34:6-7 and Deuteronomy 5:9), “to the third and the fourth generations”, while in other places (Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20), they do not.

When Ham accidentally discovered his father Noah naked, Noah cursed all of Ham’s descendants. (Genesis 9:20-27, 10:6-20). Noah’s other sons escaped the curse by covering their eyes, and by assenting to Ham’s curse, they gained Noah’s approval. Indeed, biblical brothers often fight each other (Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Amnon/Absolom) instead of their fathers. Unlike the Greeks, the Hebrew patriarchs seemed to deliberately promote sibling rivalry, knowing that if brothers were to love each other, they might unite and overthrow them.

Child sacrifice is another Old Testament theme. Jehovah accused the Israelites: “… you slaughtered my children and presented them as offerings!” (Ezek. 16:19-21). Like the pagans, they “shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters,” wrote the Psalmist, “whom they sacrificed unto the altars of Canaan…” (Ps. 106:38). When Phineas murdered a Hebrew for sleeping with a pagan woman (he murdered her as well), God was pleased: “Phineas turned my wrath away…he was zealous for my sake, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy” (Num. 25:11).  Lot offered Sodom his two virgin daughters to “do ye to them as is good in your eyes.”

Most significantly, Abraham – father of Judeo-Christian-Moslem monotheism – was willing to sacrifice Isaac to prove his loyalty to God. Bruce Chilton writes, “Different versions of Genesis 22 circulated in an immensely varied tradition called the Aqedah or “Binding” of Isaac in Rabbinic sources and…in both Christian and Islamic texts.” 180421-moss-abraham_and_isaac-hero_vsqwlq.jpg?w=384&h=215&profile=RESIZE_400xIn many of these later versions, Isaac was indeed sacrificed, and he came to embody the only sacrifice acceptable to God. Generally, however, the patriarchs couldn’t openly admit such barbaric capability, so their mythmakers projected child sacrifice onto the gods – such as Moloch – of other people.

In the New Testament, God confirmed this fundamental theme when he abandoned his only son. Herod, hearing of Jesus’ birth, had murdered all boys of two years or less in Bethlehem. (Mathew 2:16) Later, when Jesus asked, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting the ancient Psalm 22, which acknowledged centuries of abuse, betrayal, and the depression – or thirst for vengeance – that follows.

Whether Hebrew or Greek (as we’ll see), the patriarchs feared rivals among their subjects or their children, pursued the most terrible of initiations and slaughtered the innocent. Those who survived modeled themselves on their fathers, often becoming killers themselves, to pass on the curses.

These patriarchs display different styles of fathering and authority, but they have two things in common. First, they narcissistically refuse to acknowledge the independent, subjective souls of their children. Second, by refusing to bless them equally, they encourage either sibling rivalry or rebellion and confirm that all good things – from food to love to natural resources – are scarce and must be earned through sacrifice.

Freud argued that civilization requires control of instinctual forces. This generates guilt and aggressive efforts to displace and deny the power of conscience. To him, the devouring of the children represents refusal to let new generations replace older ones. Jungians suggest that the father is less a sexual rival to his sons than an obstructive personification of the old order necessary for a mature ego to emerge out of the unconscious.

Killing the Children Throughout History

These stories are absolutely central to Western consciousness. They indicate how long it has been since indigenous initiation rituals broke down. For at least three millennia, the patriarchs have conducted pseudo-initiations, feeding their sons into the infinite maw of literalized violence. Indeed, it was their great genius – and primordial crime – to extend child- sacrifice from the family to the state. Boys eventually were forced to participate in the sacrifice. No longer being subjected to ritualized, symbolic death, they learned to overcome death by inflicting it on others, killing for a cause.

Ultimately, sacrifice – dying for the cause – became as important as physical survival. Martyrdom became an ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate. Chilton writes,

Uniquely among the religions of the world, the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah – a central virtue for the faithful…

When the state replaces both God and the fathers, boys must become patriots (Latin: pater, father) to become men. Those who most excel in this madness become sociopathic killers, leaders and mentors to future generations. Such fathers feel pride, but as the myths tell us, they also fear the possibility of being overthrown. For hundreds of years, what has passed for initiation ritual in modern culture has always contained both a threat and a deal: You will sacrifice your emotions and relational capacity and submit to our authority in all matters. In exchange, you may dominate your women, your children and the Earth just as we abuse you.

Yet don’t we idealize our children? Don’t parents commonly deny their own needs so that “the children” might have a better future, and don’t governments rush to punish those even suspected of harming them? We have to think mythologically.

The universal archetype of the child symbolizes mind undivided from body. This is the lost unity all adults long for – something, however, which they cannot recover without being psychologically torn apart. So the image of an actual child evokes both the grief over what we have lost as well as the suffering we must endure on the road back to wholeness. Consequently, adults are often compelled to deny that grief, remove that image from consciousness and replace it with something much simpler – idealization, while some adults cannot resist the temptation to literally destroy that image.

Why else would we emphasize family values while destroying social programs that keep families together, or punish 25 percent of American children simply because their parents are poor? This can only happen in a society that is deeply ambivalent about its own children. “Some things,” writes psychologist David Bakan, “are simply too terrible to think about if one believes them. Thus one does not believe them in order to make it possible to think about them.” Idealization is the way we keep the secret that our culture is built upon sacrifice of our actual children.

Lloyd Demause surveyed the literature on European child-raising and concluded: “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awake.” Christians long believed that children were inherently perverse, as one 17th-century theologian claimed: “The new-born babe is full of the stains and pollution of sin, which it inherits from our first parents through our loins.” They required extreme discipline and early baptism, which used to include actual exorcism of the Devil. Initiation rites became literalized in child abuse, with customs ranging from tight swaddling and steel collars to foot binding, genital circumcision and rape.

He offers considerable evidence of the literal killing of both illegitimate children (until the 19th century) and legitimate ones, especially girls, in Europe. He argues that physical and sexual abuse were so common that most children born prior to the 18th century were what would today be termed “battered children.” However, the medical syndrome itself didn’t arise among doctors until the 1960s, when regular use of x-rays revealed widespread multiple fractures in the limbs of small children who were too young to complain verbally.

De Mause argues that war and genocide do “…not occur in the absence of widespread early abuse and neglect,” that nations with particularly abusive and punitive childrearing practices emphasize military solutions and state violence in resolving social conflicts. Furthermore, “Children brought up with love and respect simply do not scapegoat…”

“Americans,” wrote James Hillman, “love the idea of childhood no matter how brutal or vacuous their actual childhoods may have been.” We idealize childhood because our actual childhoods rarely served their purpose, which was to provide a container of welcome into the world. Without it, we assume that alienation is our true nature. And if humans have no true animating spark, neither does the natural world. So generation after generation of young men are motivated to project their own need to die and be reborn onto the world itself. This is how Patriarchy perpetuates itself. In each generation, millions of abused children identify with their adult oppressors and become perpetrators themselves. In what Joseph Campbell called our “demythologized” world, they have no choice but to act out the myths of the killing of the children on a massive scale.

In this context, what is a “dysfunctional family”? If the survival of the system itself depends on successively new cohorts of unsatisfied, angry, addicted or even murderous children, then family curses serve the system. Greek legend described one such family through eight generations.

Part Two

All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. – Joseph Campbell

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me. – Sigmund Freud

Two Ways to Work with Myth

1 – Family Systems

How does energy move in a system? Those who act out of balance usually suffer consequences, in the familiar concept of karma. In the story that we’ll be looking at, King Agamemnon killed and sacrificed his daughter. Ten years later his wife extracted her vengeance by murdering him. Throughout the tragic tale of the House of Atreus, murderous deeds provoked even more terrible ones and the pendulum swung wildly back and forth, until Orestes ended the cycle.

Still, things are never that tidy. Atreus killed his brother’s children and fed them to him; this was as grizzly a crime as we could imagine. Certainly, the curse landed upon the children, but the myths tell us little more about Atreus himself, other than that he was ultimately murdered. If we believed in reincarnation or the afterlife, we might speculate about Atreus’ punishment after his death. But there is no story of him in Hades suffering some eternal crime. Like countless historical tyrants, he seems to have lived out a long and happy life until his luck ran out.

Too often, myth offers a familiar (related of course to “family”), uni-directional scheme. The older, more powerful brother slaps the middle brother, who, unable to retaliate, vents his frustration upon the youngest brother. This one in turn looks for someone weaker. History displays countless examples of how those reactions impact the innocent rather than the guilty.

How long has this been going on? Thirty years ago, Robert Bly argued that the alienation of fathers and sons began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution first dragged large numbers of European fathers off the farms, into the factories and away from regular physical contact with their sons. Very soon afterwards, nationalism replaced religion as the primary organizing factor in society, and those fathers sent their sons off to war in numbers never seen before.

Joseph Campbell suggested that the precursor to this condition began around the twelfth century, when the Christian myth that had organized daily life in Europe began to break down. Feminists date it much earlier, all the way back to the origins of patriarchy itself. Perhaps most people would simply agree that “…it’s always been this way.”

We can use two methods to interpret the stories associated with this cycle of myths. The first is loosely based on Murray Bowens’ Family Systems Theory. His most basic insight was to see the family as an emotional unit and the individual as part of that unit, rather than as an autonomous entity. He defined the family by the interaction and inter-relationships of its parts, rather than by their sum. Whenever a part of the system is out of balance, the rest of the members of the system try to bring it back into balance. The children may take on rigid roles necessitated by the family’s need for balance. You can read more here and here.

This is a useful model for understanding families in the world of myth, or what myth tells us about families. From its perspective, all families are, to some extent, dysfunctional – because they are simply not capable of providing for the soul’s deeper needs. We now have a framework for considering the “narcissistic wound”, a term coined by Alice Miller:

The child has a primary need to be regarded and respected…as the central actor in his own activity…a need that is narcissistic, but nevertheless legitimate, and whose fulfillment is essential…If they are to furnish these prerequisites for a healthy narcissism, the parents themselves ought to have grown up in such an atmosphere…Parents who did not experience this climate as children are themselves narcissistically deprived; throughout their lives they are looking for what their own parents could not give them at the correct time…a person with this unsatisfied and unconscious (because repressed) need is compelled to attempt its gratification through substitute means. The most appropriate objects for gratification are a parent’s own children.

The narcissistic wounding produces shame, the internal experience of unexpected exposure, that parents pass on to children. When unfulfilled parents use children for their own needs – through mild enmeshment or more extreme abandonment or abuse – the children grow up wounded, prepared by history to repeat the cycle.

In the extreme cases – those we moralistically label as “dysfunctional” so as to distance ourselves from them – the natural reaction to inappropriate intimacy or violation is to cry out in anger and pain. But when authority figures forbid such expression with the threat of more punishment, the child may repress the memory of the trauma and learn to identify with the aggressor. Later, disconnected from the original cause and the original feelings, they may act them out against others in racist or criminal behavior, or against themselves in drug addiction, prostitution, eating disorders and/or suicide.

All gangs and all armies are filled with such young men: unwelcomed, unseen, uninitiated, and desperate for the attention of older men, who inevitably turn out to be victims of similar woundings.the-cairo-gang.jpg?w=300&profile=RESIZE_400x

Francis Weller writes of how long eons of evolution have programmed the soul

…to anticipate being welcomed in the world, to experience what our ancestors knew as their birthright – the container of the village. We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals that keep us in connection with the sacred. Their absence in our lives haunts us, even if we can’t give them a name, and we feel their loss as an ache, a vague sadness.

Part of that expectation of being welcomed is our innate love of stories. Another is the drive to enact those stories, to play “as if.” All but the most traumatized children embody the transformation of ritual into theater. This is the point at which psychology and mythology agree: the only way out is further in. In order to heal and take the responsibility for not passing our wounds on to our children, in order to move on, to act in the present and to give ourselves fully to the world, we must grieve our lost childhood, and that often involves turning pain into art.

In a sense we have two choices. The first is to continue altering our moods through addictions, compulsions, fundamentalisms, consumerism and the willingness to condone violence against the “Others” of the world. Then our children must live out our pain and continue the cycle indefinitely. The second is to re-experience the pain and begin the healing process. As Caroline Casey says, “Create theater or live melodrama.”

2 – Mythopoetic Mode

Carl Jung wrote, “Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation.” When we think mythologically, we train ourselves to search for the archetypal nature of any phenomenon, to perceive meaning on several levels simultaneously. The literal, psychological and symbolic dimensions of reality complement and interpenetrate each other to make a greater whole. Truth (aletheia, non-forgetting) is memory; and myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce the world to one single perspective.

The family system approach moves outward toward the objective and emphasizes the reciprocal role each individual plays in the greater unit of the family, while the mythopoetic moves inward, toward the subjective, where each of the characters in a story (as in a dream) can sometimes represent various elements of one psyche.

I acknowledge a certain danger here – reducing myth to psychology. To counter that tendency, we imagine that the characters of the story also represent corresponding aspects of increasingly greater worlds: tribe, nation, humanity, universe. As above, so below.

Another concern in these times of loosened identity is to use polarized gender terms. But this is how myth speaks to us.

The key is how dreams and myth parallel each other. As Campbell wrote, a myth is the dream of a society, and a dream is the myth of an individual. For Jung, myth serves to reveal the existence of the unconscious (what we are not conscious of) and help us explore it. Another thing myth offers is social: “Since myth describes the hero’s own rediscovery of that (deeper) reality, his story functions…as a model for others.”

hermes-hermes-551914995-59cc179ad963ac001107f75e.jpg?w=300&profile=RESIZE_400xThe threshold is the realm of Hermes Psychopompus, the guide of souls to the underworld, or the collective unconscious. When we understand that the deeper purpose of myth is to conduct us down to the level of soul, we are in the mythopoetic mode; we are dealing with profound questions of identity, ritual and initiation. And sometimes it reveals that an innate drive pushes us toward wholeness. Jung called this lifelong process individuation. Our indigenous souls know this, and enter the world expecting parents and a community that will welcome, identify and facilitate the gifts we bring. As Weller noted above, the realization that such a welcome rarely exists is the source of our deepest grief.

Edward Edinger writes, “Each new level of integration must submit to further transformation if development is to proceed.” However, although individuation as a process is an innate part of our socio-biology, there is no guarantee of success. Often, the wounds with which we enter the world overwhelm us, especially when we discover that the protective container of community is also lacking.

Some myths, however, invite us to approach the narcissistic wound not as a permanent restriction on our human potential, but as an opportunity. Robert Bly wrote, “…where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be.” Here is where archetypal psychology meets indigenous wisdom: the healing of the individual is necessarily connected to the healing of the community, which understands that it needs the gift (“original medicine” in Native American terms) of each of its members for culture to survive. Not the culture of patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, environmental degradation and constant warfare; but authentic, sustainable culture.

The practical work of myth and ritual is to connect that wound and the suffering it causes with the gift that may emerge. This may mean more suffering, but perhaps the suffering fate has meant us to experience. Jung wrote, “…neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” The mythopoetic approach attempts to reconstruct an imagination that can address what Campbell called our demythologized world. So our two systems of understanding may sometimes converge into one.

Part Three

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women…patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. – bell hooks

Those who think they are not wounded in ways that need conscious attention and careful healing are usually the most wounded of all. – Michael Meade

In the Beginning

The Greeks knew many variants of their stories and imagined their deities from differing points of view. They learned those viewpoints from their poets, not from their priests. We will consider the story of a dysfunctional family that stretches at least eight generations as told by their poets, one of which, Sophocles, said of himself, “I show people who they might be,” and said of another, Euripides, “…and he shows people as they are.” It’s a story that offers us two lessons. The first is: It’s always been this way. The second is: Healing is possible.

Can we handle such contradictions? Yes, if we think of them as a elements of a mysterious paradox and are willing to bear the tension of the opposites. Physicist Niels Bohr said that the opposite of a correct statement is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.

The First Generation

Hesiod’s Theogony begins with the appearance of “Broad-bosomed Earth”, Gaia, who was born spontaneously out of Chaos, or Night. Without a husband, she conceived of Ouranos, Father Sky, who became the ruler of the universe.

The Second Generation

When they mated, the first race, the twelve Titans,  came into existence:

Insolent children, each with a hundred arms…

…And these most awful sons of Earth and Heaven

Were hated by their father from the first.

As soon as each was born Ouranos hid

The child in a secret hiding-place in Earth

And would not let it come to see the light,

And he enjoyed this wickedness….

Ouranos had heard a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. So one by one, he rejected them as they were born, pushing them back into the body of his wife Gaia. Here the Greek mythic tradition comes as close as possible to identifying history’s original sin, perpetrated by the original father god. This act begot the intra-familial violence that followed in subsequent generations. And the violence, curiously, often stemmed from (or was rationalized by) a prophecy that a son would overthrow his father.

But Gaia helped one son, Kronos, escape. The next time Ouranos came to mate with her, Kronos emerged from hiding and castrated him with a sickle provided by his mother. His testicles dropped into the sea, and some say that they turned into the goddess Aphrodite. This was the original return of the repressed, and it set a pattern that resulted in more tyranny. Kronos was now the most powerful god, and he ruled the universe with the help of his Titanic siblings:

But the great father Ouranos reproached his sons, and called them Titans, for, he said, they strained in insolence, and did a deed for which they would be punished afterwards.

Now it was Kronos’ turn to hear a prophecy that a son would overthrow him. So as each of his children emerged from their mother, he ate them. Kronos (in his later Roman form as Saturn) eventually came to personify Time, who devours all things.

Then, as each child issued from the holy womb

And lay upon its mother’s knees, each one

Was seized by mighty Kronos and gulped down….

For he had learned from Earth

And starry Heaven, that his destiny

Was to be overcome, great though he was,

By one of his own sons.

Ouranos and Kronos

The Sky Gods of patriarchy are authoritarian, jealous males who live in the Heavens or on mountaintops (or, in skyscrapers) and rule from vast distances.

Robert Bly saw the genesis of two polar-opposite models of dysfunctional fathering in these two figures. Ouranos and Kronos symbolize what I have called the paranoid and predatory imaginations. The paranoid impulse arose from fear of those (significantly, one’s own children) who desired to claim their inheritance. Once they had defined the “Other” as outside the pale, the predatory mind was free to exploit him.

Right at the beginning, here is the pattern men will repeat over and over: the energy in the system is passed on, rather than back towards its source. Elders commit horrific crimes upon the young, and sometimes the young retaliate. But hardly anyone grieves or does the difficult work of acknowledging their losses.

In mythology, the prophecy is the common rationalization for fathers who try to kill sons. In Jungian psychology, the formulation would be projection of the shadow. Fathers are hostile to their sons not necessarily because of the Oedipal conflict, but because they learned from their own fathers. Bly wrote:

The father may act the part of a distant and angry Sky god who views his son as a threat to his position. Since his rage is irrational, the son initially becomes confused and hurt. This situation grows into mutual resentment and estrangement; paradoxically, it also helps shape the son into behaving like his father when he grows up…this arises because the son “identifies with the aggressor” instead of with the victim he really was. He comes to reject the qualities in himself that provoked his father’s anger.

Ouranos and Kronos were both sky fathers, but the nature of their hostility toward their children differed:

Not receiving any blessing from your father is an injury…Not seeing your father when you are small, never being with him, having a remote father, an absent father, a workaholic father, is an injury.

This father (the Ouranos type) can be too spiritual, abstract, absent, and, of course, dead and gone, or hidden behind the newspaper, brushing off needy children with, “Ask your mother.” His distance or absence pushes the son back toward the mother (who, for her own reasons, may “eat” him) or mythologically, back into the Earth. Most American boys grow up with Ouranos as their prime model of masculinity and fathering:

Jung…said that when the son is introduced primarily by the mother to feeling, he will learn the female attitude toward masculinity and take a female view of his own father and of his own masculinity. He will see his father through his mother’s eyes.

This father’s absence may provoke self-destructive attempts to get his (or a substitute’s) attention. All teachers, military officers, coaches and small business owners experience this displacement.

The other model is the Kronos-type who insults, abuses, beats, shames and curses the son. He’s not absent enough. Since he demands that they share his values, what he eats is their individuality. What he provokes is rebellion. Ouranos neglects the children, but Kronos kills them with his unreasonable and unquestionable expectations. kro4scx.jpg?w=171&profile=RESIZE_400xMany artists have depicted Kronos, but the most famous image is Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons. Jay Scott Morgan describes this masterpiece:

Cover the right side of the face, and we see a Titan caught in the act, defying anyone to stop him, the bulging left eye staring wildly at some unseen witness to his savagery, his piratical coarseness heightened by the sharp vertical lines of the eyebrow, crossed like the stitches of a scar. Cover his left eye, and we are confronted by a being in pain, the dark pupil gazing down in horror at his own uncontrolled murderousness, the eyebrow curved upwards like an inverted question mark, as if he were asking, “Why am I compelled to do this?”

Kronos is the fabric of our daily lives. Benjamin Franklin equated Time, the ancient god, with money, the new one. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver told the Lilliputians that his watch determined every action of his life. They concluded that it must be his god. Now we carry Time’s temple with us continually, on our wrists.

These two are extreme models, and one of the sources of the son’s deep confusion and ambivalence is that most fathers exhibit aspects of both extremes. In reaction, the sons may overthrow the father. Superficially, the energy in the system seems to move backward, toward the source of the shaming. However, wrote Bly,

…the high intensity of emotionality, or pressure for togetherness, prevents a child from growing to think, feel, and act for himself. The child functions in reaction to others. A good example is a rebellious adolescent. His rebellion reflects the lack of differentiation that exists between him and his parents.

More importantly, it’s clear from the way these rebels commonly treat their own children that the energy is being passed on, not back. And, finally, critically, despite all the anger and rage, no one (with one exception, as we will see) grieves.

The relationships between the Gods, as between human family members, are complex, as Robert Segal notes:

Certainly there is matrimonial as well as generational conflict…but the matrimonial strife is the consequence of the generational one: the mother sides with her children against their father.

Family Systems Theory agrees that the mother is involved. In fact, Bowen insisted that interlocking triangles are the essence of the family relationship system:

Once the emotional circuitry of a triangle is in place, it usually outlives the people who participate in it. lf one member of the triangle dies, another person usually replaces him. The actors come and go, but the play lives on through the generations. Children may act out a conflict that was never resolved between their great-grandparents. So a particular triangle was not necessarily created by its present participants…When anxiety in the emotional field of a triangle is low, two people, the insiders, are comfortably close, and the third is a less comfortable outsider. This is not a static system. Both insiders continually make adjustments to preserve their comfortable togetherness, less one become uncomfortable and draw closer to the outsider. The outsider does not stand idly by but continually attempts to draw closer to one of the insiders…an important aspect of understanding triangles…is being able to recognize a communication as reflecting the activity of a triangle rather than being a straightforward comment by one person to another.

But mothers are involved for their own reasons, not just to defend their children from abusive or distant fathers. As Alice Miller pointed out, if the mother has not received her “narcissistic supplies” from her own parents, and especially if her relationship with the father is not emotionally satisfying, she may experience an unconscious yet irresistible need to use the child, especially the male child, to complete her emotional life. If the father is unavailable, says Bly, it may be the mother who “eats” the child, in a kind of “psychic incest”. At men’s conferences over the past forty years, countless men have related their sense that their mothers had needed them to be surrogate husbands, generally because of distant fathers.

The Third Generation

Kronos’ wife Rhea bore one last son in secret and hid him in a cave. Then she gave Kronos a stone covered in a blanket which he ate, thinking it was the child. Zeus grew to adulthood and eventually returned in disguise to serve as Kronos’s cupbearer. He poisoned his father’s wine, forcing him to vomit up the other siblings: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. The siblings then joined Zeus in a ten year revolt. Eventually they prevailed and banished Kronos and most of his allies to Tartarus, the underworld’s deepest region. There were some exceptions, including Oceanus, Themis and Mnemosyne (Memory), with whom Zeus would eventually couple and birth the nine Muses.

The new King of Heaven was Zeus. But violence had begotten violence into the third generation.

Part Four

Perhaps the greatest stories are those which disturb us, which shake us from our complacency, which threaten our well-being. It is better to enter into the danger of such a story than to keep safely away in a space where the imagination lies dormant. – N. Scott Momaday

The Fourth Generation

Zeus and his brothers divided the universe into their respective domains of Earth, Ocean and Underworld. Then Zeus married his sister Hera and began to populate the world with their children and, soon enough, with children from liaisons with other goddesses and eventually with human women. The first thing we need to know about the relationship between Zeus and Hera is that there are few examples of good marriages in the deeply patriarchal world of Greek myth, which is filled with stories of his affairs and her wrathful responses.


                                                                                                                   Zeus and Hera

How does the energy move through the system? How are unresolved, painful issues dealt with, or ignored, and how does this marriage serve as a model for modern relationships? Why was Zeus so unfaithful, why was Hera so jealous, and how did their children turn out? Christine Downing writes:

For Hera, the relation to husband takes precedence over all other relationships …whatever she may have been earlier, Hera was not the Great Mother but rather the spouse…she is not mother as mother but mother as wife. The pervasive influence of this aspect of the mother on our entire lives is a central theme in Sigmund Freud’s psychological vision. This is the mother whom we discover as already somebody’s wife, the mother of the Oedipus triangle whose exclusive love we covet but will never receive.

Are these mere abstractions? Let’s take a brief detour into our American condition, as I write in Chapter Nine of my book:

After World War Two, when young couples left the inner cities for the suburbs, they also left their networks of extended families. With husbands away at the office, countless isolated, suburban mothers had only their children to share their emotional lives. Baby Boomers matured in possibly the most extreme Oedipal conditions in history, expecting all emotional needs to be met from the scarce resources of one person. Such unrealistic demands led to massive disillusionment, and soon the Boomers experienced the highest divorce rates in history.

In a few years, men were continuing to earn appropriate incomes, while millions of women and their children were falling into poverty. By 1978, sociologists were speaking about the “feminization of poverty.” Three years later, only 25% of American women who’d been awarded child support were receiving anything from the fathers of their children.

Men who avoided marriage had been considered “deviant” in the fifties; now, it was normal to enact Ouranos’ flight from commitment. By 1990 a third of all children (60% of black children) lived apart from their fathers, and 50% of children of divorced families saw their fathers once or twice per year, or not at all. Half of all American children spend part of their childhood with one parent. Two generations later, we have hardly begun to assess the consequences.

For centuries Zeus and Hera have embodied the tensions that undermine the stability of the family. Since she expected a more total commitment than he could give, she experienced him as betraying her. But much of what happened was contaminated by their prior histories. Both entered the marriage as persons already involved in a complex interpersonal system. Clearly, both hated their father.

Perhaps Zeus was constantly searching beyond the primary relationship because he couldn’t handle the strong feelings at home, while Hera so deeply undervalued herself that her self-image was wrapped up in her connection to him. Downing continues:

Since Zeus began as his mother’s pawn in her struggle against her husband, he not surprisingly inherits his father’s anxiety that he, too, might someday be overthrown…Zeus may have been contaminated by a childhood spent too exclusively in the female realm, with his mother and grandmother and their nymphs, and thus have grown up with the typical mother’s son’s anxieties about his ability to ever fulfill her expectations or to be more than her phallus, the instrument of her power. Similarly, Hera may have spent too much of her early life swallowed up by her father. Losing her mother too soon may have provoked…what Jung calls a negative mother complex, an overidentification with her own masculine, aggressive side…Hera grows up expecting from men the nurturing and confirmation for which many women turn to other females.

We will meet this negative mother complex again. The psychological literature on Zeus’ children is vast, and we can’t spend the time here we’d like to. Still, we should understand a few things about the relationships between the Olympians. In what direction does the energy move?

Zeus’ cousin Metis (wisdom) had helped him by providing the emetic which forced Kronos to vomit forth his children, and she had been his first lover. Soon, however, he heard that she would bear a son who would eventually overthrow his father. To prevent this, Zeus tricked her into turning herself into a fly and then swallowed her, as his father before him had done to him. Eventually, Athena was born from Zeus’ forehead, implying (said the poets) that she’d inherited her wisdom from him instead of from her mother.

Apollo, Artemis, Hermes and Dionysus (as well as Herakles, Theseus and many other heroes) issued from Zeus’ affairs, and some of their mothers suffered Hera’s wrath.  Zeus and Hera, or some say, Hera alone, produced Ares and Hephaestus. Some say Aphrodite emerged from Kronos’ severed testicles, while others say she was Zeus’ daughter by yet another liaison.

Zeus was the first patriarch to have any positive relationship with his children, but he was very selective in his affection. He favored Athena and Apollo, and to a lesser extent, Hermes,  because they shared his values and did his bidding. He loved Aphrodite, Artemis and Dionysus, but their realms were somewhat tangential to the work of running the universe. Both Zeus and Hera tended to ignore Hephaestus because he was ugly, and Zeus utterly despised Ares, the War God.

In the Family System, Ares would be the “I. P.”, the “identified patient” who acts out the family’s unspoken rage so that no one else will need to acknowledge it. He may be the violent one, or the alcoholic. In 12-step language, he points to the “elephant in the living room”. To Jungians, he carries the family’s shadow, as opposed to Athena, who brought wisdom and persuasion to situations of conflict. Apollo and Dionysus were half-brothers whose realms complemented each other. But Ares and Hephaestus, who sometimes attempted to be a peacemaker, were wounded children of wounded parents, says Downing:

…when Hera discovers that Zeus will not or cannot complete her, cannot be her animus, she looks to her male children to fulfill that role. Hera’s and Zeus’ relation to their children reflects the power struggle continually going on between them…Children born to such a marriage grow up resentful at not receiving the unstinted love from either parent for which they long; they are pulled into fighting for one side or another or into believing it is up to them to establish a reconciliation.

Much later, perhaps mirroring this condition, the gods would favor opposing sides during the Trojan War and even fight each other.

Which way does the energy move? What unresolved conflicts lie below the surface? Zeus condemned his father and uncles to Tartarus, but they remained a threat to emerge someday and challenge him once again. And although his affair with Metis produced only a daughter (Athena), the prophesy remained that he would one day have to fight a son for control of Olympus. Roberto Calasso suggested that this son was Apollo:

Over the never-ending Olympian banquet, a father and son are watching each other, while between them, invisible to all but themselves, sparkles the serrated sickle Kronos used to slice off the testicles of his father, Uranus.

Or perhaps the threat was from an unborn son. What is “unborn”? Isn’t it the truth which we have not allowed into consciousness? The real danger, according to Alice Miller, isn’t a physical threat to the father, but the possibility that one of the children might express or evoke authentic emotion. Shaming the child into repressing his feelings allows the parents to keep from examining their own pain.

(What) all these expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings…So long as one despises the other person and undervalues one’s own achievements…one does not have to mourn the fact that love is not forthcoming without achievement. Nevertheless, avoiding this mourning means that one remains at bottom the one who is despised…

The Gods (unlike the Hebrew Jehovah) did experience grief. Apollo lamented the loss of his son Phaethon. Various love affairs went badly for both him and Hephaestus. Aphrodite lost Adonis. It seems that they experienced normal feelings of loss. But only Dionysus and Demeter went down into grief. Edith Hamilton remarks that it was no accident that they are both associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries:


The other immortals were untouched by lasting grief. Though Demeter and Dionysus were the happy gods of the harvest, during the winter it was clear that they were altogether different. They sorrowed and the earth was sad…Demeter, goddess of the harvest wealth, was still more the divine sorrowing mother who saw her daughter die each year… Persephone was never again the gay young creature who had played in the flowery meadow…She did indeed rise from the dead each spring, but she brought with her the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright beauty there was something strange and awesome about her. She was often said to be “the maiden whose name may not be spoken”…Like Persephone, Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in others by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again…He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god.

By carrying the roles of those who must descend, Dionysus and Persephone offer the potential for those who have spent their lives in the overly-clear light of Apollo and Athena to achieve balance. And Hermes will be present as conductor between the realms. But in this human family, almost no one took the opportunity.




Part Five

Humans…are never so much attached to anything as they are to their suffering…  Nothing can be attained without suffering, but at the same time one must begin by sacrificing suffering. – P. D. Ouspensky

Some powerful river of desire goes on flowing through him. He never phrased what he desired, and I am his son. – Robert Bly


Of the many stories of how humanity was created, the legend of the five races or ages seems most relevant. The gods first created a golden age, which was followed by progressively worse ages of silver and brass. Then came the race of heroes, who died out after the Trojan War. In the final age of iron, men now walk the Earth. Hesiod wrote:

They live in evil times and their nature too has much of evil, so that they never have rest from toil and sorrow. As the generations pass, they grow worse; sons are always inferior to their fathers. A time will come when they have grown so wicked that they will worship power; might will be right to them, and reverence for the good will cease to be. At last, when no man is angry any more at wrongdoing or feels shame in the presence of the miserable, Zeus will destroy them too.

Humans entered this accursed world in the fourth generation of our story. Tantalus, king of Lydia, was another son of Zeus.

A curse seemed to hang over the family, making men sin in spite of themselves and bringing suffering and death down upon the innocent as well as the guilty.

The gods honored this lucky man beyond all mortals, allowing him the honor of eating at their table and tasting their nectar and ambrosia (which, some say, he stole). They even agreed to dine at his palace. But the irresistible urge to slaughter the children was already in his blood.

Tantalus had his only son, Pelops, killed. Then he ordered the corpse cut up, boiled and served to the gods. Did he think they wouldn’t notice? Or did he unconsciously desire to be caught? In retaliation they devised a punishment so cruel that no man would dare insult them again.


They killed him and sent him down to Hades, where generations later, Odysseus would visit:

And I saw Tantalus also, suffering hard pains, standing in lake water that came up to his chin, and thirsty as he was, he tried to drink, but could capture nothing; for every time the old man, trying to drink, stooped over, the water would drain and disappear, and the black earth showed at his feet, and the wind dried it away. Over his head trees with lofty branches had fruit like a shower descending…but each time the old man would straighten up and reach with his hands for them the wind would toss them away…

Later, the phrase “tantalean punishments” described those who have good things but are not permitted (or don’t permit themselves) to enjoy them. They are “tantalized”.

What are we to make of motives that even the poets couldn’t explain? His crime was so specific, yet so familiar. But let’s not interpret things too literally. Perhaps he “killed” his own inner child essence, turning the ancestral rage against himself, rather than toward its source. One definition of shame is rage turned inward. Shame, or depression, in Miller’s terms, are merely the mirror opposite of grandiosity:

Although the outward picture of depression is quite the opposite of that of grandiosity and has a quality that expresses the tragedy of the loss of self to a great extent, they have the same roots in the narcissistic disturbance.

The two seemingly opposite conditions appear to have motivated his actions. What could be more grandiose than to attempt to fool the gods, and what could be more self-destructive than to kill one’s own child?

His perpetual frustration in Hades, like that of Sisyphus, recalls Buddhism’s “Realm of the Hungry Ghosts”hungry-ghosts-realm-shambhalasun-com.jpg?w=185&h=199&profile=RESIZE_192XIts inhabitants have gaping bellies and tiny mouths that never let in enough food to satisfy their hunger. They are compelled to repeat unsuccessful strategies in fruitless attempts to get needs met as adults which could only have been met when they were children.

The family curse placed Tantalus in the center of a vicious circle of shame and retribution that could only increase that shame. Another child was eaten, and the energy moved on.

The Fifth Generation

Tantalus’ daughter Niobe and her husband Amphion, another son of Zeus, ruled Thebes in great prosperity until the curse arrived. Like her father, she was inflated and challenged an immortal. Having born seven sons and seven daughters, she bragged that she was greater than the goddess Leto, who had birthed but two – the archers Apollo and Artemis.



Leto sent them to avenge the insult, and they killed Amphion and all fourteen children. Then,

…like a stone the childless matron sat. Around her the dead bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband. There, no motion of the wind stirred through her hair, her color gone, bloodless her melancholy face, her eyes stared, fixed on nothingness, nor was there any sign of life within that image…yet eyes still wept, and she was whirled away in a great wind back to her native country, where on a mountaintop she weeps and even now, tears fall in rivulets from a statue’s face.

The main characters, now primarily humans, act arrogantly, out of hubris, and the gods strike them down for their transgressions. In other words, grandiosity and inflation can flip into alienation or depression. The gods do not endure such changes. But mortals may embody certain values to such extremes that they eventually evoke their opposites, in a process of enantiodromia (enantio = opposite, dromos = running).

Niobe was the only character in the story so far who grieved her losses (if not her self-destructive behavior). But since she contributed no surviving progeny to the next generation, she is tangential, serving only perhaps as a contrast to the other human characters. The main thrust of the story moved through her brother’s line.

This time the innocent one did not die for his father’s sins. The Gods revived Pelops and reassembled his body parts. But Demeter, distracted by the recent loss of her own daughter, had inadvertently eaten a bit of the terrible meal – his shoulder. So she asked Hephaistos to fashion a new one out of ivory. Then, Poseidon, dazzled by the boy’s beauty, abducted him, took him to Olympus and taught him to drive the divine chariot. When Zeus found out, he threw Pelops out of Olympus.

Pelops grew up to become king of Lydia. Later, he crossed the sea to southern Greece (later to be called the Peloponnese, the “Isle of Pelops”), which was ruled by Oenomaus, father of the beautiful Hippodamia. It had been foretold that he would be killed by a son-in-law, so any marriage was out of the question. Still, eighteen previous suitors had challenged him for her hand in chariot races. But Oenomaus had defeated and killed them all.

But Pelops and Hippodamia fell in love, and he offered the same racing challenge to Oenomaus. Knowing the odds, Pelops appealed to Poseidon, his former lover, who gave him a chariot drawn by winged horses, and Hippodamia bribed Myrtilus, the king’s charioteer,  promising to sleep with him. She convinced him to replace the bronze linchpins attaching the wheels to the axle with fake ones made of beeswax. In the resulting accident Myrtilus survived, but Oenomaus was dragged to death by his horses. Afterwards, Myrtilus, the only witness to the crime, attempted to claim Hippodamia, but Pelops threw him off a cliff into the sea. Falling to his death, he cursed Pelops, Hippodamia and all their descendants.

Some say that the Olympic Games were created in Oenomaus’ memory. Others say they commemorate Pelops’ victory, and after his death he was worshipped at Olympia. Perhaps history is written by the winners. Among the tales the Greeks told about him was the one about a giant shoulder blade that the Greeks brought to Troy to ensure their victory.

But why didn’t the Gods punish Pelops? After all, fourteen children died simply because his sister was a braggart. Perhaps, as Athena will argue later in the story, the murder of a non-relative (or a commoner) was not as bad as that of a blood relative or a royal person. Ethical hair-splitting doesn’t get us very far. Perhaps the gods gave Pelops a chance to do right, despite his abusive childhood. If so, he didn’t accept the invitation.

Are we compelled to re-enact our childhood wounds so we can see them more clearly? Years later, Pelops murdered Stymphalus, king of Arcadia and had him cut to pieces, just as his father had done to him long before, and the body parts were scattered across the countryside. A famine followed throughout Greece.

Parts Six - Nine will continue this theme.





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How old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know…For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.  – Susan Griffin

I am convinced that we would solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief…The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common. – Miguel De Unamuno

I first learned about the importance of reviving the old traditions of communal grief rituals in the early 1990s. I was participating in men’s conferences led by Michael Meade and Malidoma Somé at the Mendocino Woodlands camp in Northern California. For the Dagara people of West Africa, there is no community without ritual and no ritual without community. And although their traditional funerals involve the entire community and take three full days to complete, Malidoma insisted that neither of those factors should inhibit our attempts to learn this work and share it with the public.

Another teacher at these men’s gatherings was Martín Prechtel, who passed on Mayan teachings from Guatemala, where the ancestors require two basic things from us: our beauty and our tears. The fullness of our grief, expressed in colorful, poetic, communal events, feeds the dead when they visit on certain auspicious dates, such as Day of the Dead, so that when they return to the other world, they can be of help to us who remain on this side of the veil.alter-2018.jpg?w=458&h=343&profile=RESIZE_584x

Around that time, my wife Maya and I began attending San Francisco’s annual Spiral Dance and Day of the Dead Processions. By the end of that decade, the two of us were hosting an annual Day of the Dead Ritual. In 2010, I also started to lead grief rituals at the Redwood Men’s Conference, also in Mendocino. We continued leading these events until Covid prevented us.

This article isn’t about why we need to do this, but how, since a couple of friends have been moved to hold their own events and have asked for our advice. For more thoughts on why, please go to these links:

The Background to Our Day of the Dead Grief Ritual

Rituals of Grief

Grief and Remembrance in Greece

Cultural Appropriation?

Our website

We understand that there may be other ways of doing these ceremonies, and that some people may prefer shorter, smaller events. And in 2021 of course, most such events must be held online. But these are the forms that we evolved for our rituals.

Malidoma’s General Principles of Radical or Transformative Ritual

1 – You can plan what will happen, but you can’t predict the outcome. Before you begin, you own the journey. Once you begin, the journey owns you.

2 – Spontaneous, strong feeling indicates the presence of spirit.

3 – Radical ritual must be done in community.

4 – An overwhelming dose of beauty and mystery is necessary. Shrines to the Other World should be as elaborate as possible.

5 – Everyone should bring something personal for the shrine. Giving equals participating.

6 – Invocation and de-vocation must be specific. The more specific, the more emotion.

7 – Leaders must be willing to risk criticism in order to rid the process of pretense.

8 – The purpose of radical ritual is always to restore balance.

9 – People who embody certain elements may become the gatekeepers for those elements.

10 – The level of success is proportionate to the level of surrender one can achieve.

11 – Community ritual can succeed only when every participant maintains a personal spiritual connection and is not a passive observer.

Some further principles of grief rituals that we evolved

1 – Even if we haven’t lost loved ones recently, even if we have attended many grief rituals in the past, we all carry immense loads of unexpressed grief.

2 – Beings on the other side of the veil call to us continually because they desire healing as much as we do. But it is our responsibility to approach them through ritual.

3 – Grieving may never completely end, but we can clarify our intentions to achieve closure with old wounds and with those who are no longer with us. Unfinished business keeps us from focusing on future goals. Dropping some of that weight makes room for a new imagination.

4 – Releasing emotions requires a safe space and a caring community. A person sick with grief can sicken the whole village, so grieving must be communal work.

5 – Having inherited a Western tradition deeply suspicious of the imagination, we know how difficult it is to let go. So we tell poems (preferably recited, rather than read), guide meditations, name the past year’s dead, and build altars. Stories and grief songs from many indigenous traditions help pull us out of normal, emotionally restrained consciousness.

6 – We must move the emotions. When ritual involves the body, the soul takes notice.

7 – “Radical ritual” is by nature, unpredictable. We respectfully invoke the spirits, but we never know how things will end.

8 – Ritual of this nature, like any initiation process, involves sacrifice. We attempt to release whatever holds us back, sabotages our relationships or keeps us stuck in unproductive patterns. In this imagination, the ancestors are eager for signs of our commitment and sincerity. What appears toxic to us, that which we wish to sacrifice, becomes food to them, and they gladly feast upon it.

So: you’ve been to one or more grief rituals before and are inspired to offer one yourself. But you cannot do this yourself! You must plan this several months ahead, and you will need a village to make it happen.

Planning the Ritual:

– Find an appropriate venue and make a clear agreement with its managers, including costs, kitchen responsibilities, arrival and departure times, acceptable noise levels, pre-event preparation and post-event cleanup.

– Be realistic about expenses and appropriate (sliding scale) admission prices. This should be a non-profit event. Some people may need to pay with labor rather than money. Don’t exclude them if they can’t afford the admission fee. Expect some people to not show up without telling you and others to arrive without having signed up ahead.

– Gather a group of committed facilitators, including poets, musicians, small-group leaders and – especially – drummers. One or two experienced drummers are sufficient, or four to six inexperienced. It’s best to have one real drummer who can lead and monitor the others. You may need to print out instructions to the kitchen crew and group leaders.

– Expect a very long day. Expect to be exhausted by the end. Offer discounts or scholarships for kitchen and cleanup people. You will need more help than you expect.

– Do appropriate PR well ahead and repeat often as the event approaches.

Email instructions and suggestions a few days before the event (here is a sample): 

Dear Friends:

We are really looking forward to this year’s Day of the Dead Ritual on Saturday, November 2nd, and don’t we need to come together and grieve in community!

Place: Hillside Community Church – 1422 Navellier Street, El Cerrito

Time: Please try to arrive by 9:00 and no later than 9:30. The time between 9:00 and 9:30 will be spent in registration, creating the altar, and silent contemplation. We will then begin the ritual, and it would be somewhat disruptive to enter after that point. It is difficult to say when it will end (spirit will determine that), but we anticipate 5 P.M. or so, followed by a potluck dinner. Please do try to stay for the dinner.

Food: Have a good breakfast!  We are expecting a deeply meaningful and emotional day, and everyone’s presence, attention and participation is vitally important. We will take a silent lunch break.

Please bring:

– Pillow, blanket, or low chair

– Journal / writing materials

– Pictures of ancestors

– A light bag lunch for yourself and a contribution to the potluck diner

– A poem or song if you want to share one

– Loose, comfortable clothing. Dress in layers, as it may be warm or cold.

– Beautiful items for the altar (pictures, flowers, especially marigolds, sacred objects) — as many as possible! Let’s feed the ancestors with beauty!

– If you’d like to help with setting up the altars, we will be at the church between 2:00 and 5:00 PM on Friday and would love your help.

Preparing the Space (on the day before if possible)

– Building Shrines: The major shrine to the ancestors should be at one end of the room. If possible, the group can build a second shrine at the opposite end to symbolize the village, and smaller shrines around the room to symbolize the elemental spirits. If possible, tape grief poems to the walls.

– Kitchen: Set up hot water heaters, utensils, napkins, Kleenex, etc. Have snacks for those who forget to bring food.

– Signs for parking

– Set up a front desk for sign-ins and payments


When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found. – Sufi proverb

Brother, when God gets ready, you’ve got to move – Reverend Gary Davis

“Bobo malay, shu-shu maya!” (Lord, make this body dance!) – West Africa

If you don’t have ancestors, you have ghosts. – Martin Shaw


The Day of the Ritual:

These are ideas and forms that we have found useful. There won’t be time for all of them, so pick and choose among them. Feel free to contact us for more details, especially for ideas marked with an asterisk*. Keep in mind that some people may need to grieve in ways that that can interfere with the plan. There is no perfect way to do this.

But remember the basic premise: the first part of the day involves doing whatever you can to get people to drop down into their bodies and their emotions, which may well involve talking about their emotions. The second part of the day is about actively grieving, not talking about it.

And please understand the critical importance of holding the container. This means that the leaders may need to sacrifice their own need to grieve to keep track of how others are doing.

– Preparing the kitchen: One or two volunteers direct people where to put their clothes, drums, lunches and offerings for the post-ritual potluck dinner. Prepare hot water for tea. It’s best for all this to be done in silence if possible.

– Preparing the main room: Turn on heat, light candles, play some background music.

– Before people arrive: The facilitators should make a circle in the main room and do a short prayer acknowledging their inexperience. They should ask for help and protection and set the intention to do the best job possible and not take on anyone else’s grief.

– As guests arrive: One or two greeters should arrange for silent entrance into the room and do some kind of ritual greeting such as smudging (consider non-smoke versions). People should enter one-at-a-time, bringing only what they really need. Encourage them to add photos and other sacred objects to the shrine. A well-considered question can help them clarify their intentions. It’s natural for participants to feel uncomfortable, so try to make them feel welcome. Know that for some people, even such efforts may trigger old wounds.

Introducing the ritual

There is a fine line between explaining concepts and lecturing to people who have already decided that they need to grieve. The leaders must intuit who needs to hear these ideas and how much to speak before risking the possibility of taking people out of their bodies.

–  Introductory poem or chant*

– “Lost Boys of the Sudan” welcoming exercise: (“Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho!”)*

– Remind people to turn off cellphones.

– Introduce group leaders. Explain location of hot water, bathrooms, etc.

— Explain the purpose of the ritual: to release the weight of unexpressed grief we carry that blocks our creativity.

– Acknowledge recent tragedies: Mass shootings, children separated from their families, fires, hurricanes, Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Myanmar, drowned refugees, Covid, etc. It’s been a hard year.

– Speak about Samhain – the veil between worlds – We’ll use elements from different cultures.

– Honor each other for tending our griefs.

– Speak about epistemic, ancestral trauma.* The emotions you will feel may not be your own.

– This will be a safe container for you to experience whatever arises. But it will not be predictable, and we don’t know when it will end. Some aspects may work for you better than others. But we need everyone. When grieving, grieve fully. When not, hold the space for others. Expect to feel and hear strong emotions – ask for support if needed. We cannot grieve and still remain composed.

– Agreements: confidentiality, no physical violence.

– Martin Prechtel’s words: We feed the dead and help move them completely to the other side with beauty and tears. Only then can they become ancestors and be of help to us.

– Describe the day – altars, logistics (tea, names on cups, food and pee breaks) – There are snacks for those who forgot to bring lunch – After lunch we may have a community time to offer poems and personal stories.

– Use the time well, as if we’ve known each other all our lives

– try not to let the energy leak – let us know if you absolutely need to leave early – silence or quiet talk during breaks – silent lunch with your dead, potluck; candle awareness. Don’t disappear with feelings of isolation. Ask for help, a hug.

– Rather than thinking, “What can I get out of this day?” think, “What can I offer to this community?

– Who’s here for the first time? Give them an extra welcome.

— Welcome late arrivals.


First Half of the Day, Building up Grief

– Invocations, Calling in directions. This may be a good time to involve other people.

– Poetry, music*

– Hand out stones*

– Everyone introduces themselves, speaks one word that they’re feeling.

– Read the names of the dead from the past year. Then ask the group to contribute names of their own dead (without giving extended explanations). Know that this can take a long time.

– “Cross the Line” exercise*

– Guided Ancestor Meditation*

– Blue cloth in middle of the room to symbolize a river of grief*

– Story: Each year we tell a story (usually mythic, but sometimes historic) to encourage the gradual buildup of emotion, structured around certain recurrent themes, such as exile, imprisonment or regret.

– Writing exercise: write quick answers to prompts, such as What haunts you? Are you in exile from home? Family? Society? Have you exiled or hurt others? Personal losses? Choices not to have children? What have you sacrificed in order to survive? Are you clinging to something that must die so that you can live?

– Break up into pairs and share your responses.

– Here are some suggestions for speaking to the group:

Sufi Saying: Before speaking, let your words pass through three gates:

1 – Is it true?

2 – Is it necessary?

3 – Is it kind?

Angeles Arrien:

1 – Show up.

2 – Pay attention.

3 – Speak the truth without blame or judgment.

4 – Be unattached to the results.

WAIT: Ask yourself, Why Am I Talking?

Suggestions for Small Group Leaders

– Do introductions. Ask: If big emotions come up, is touch welcome or would you prefer not to be touched?

– Agree on confidentiality

– The purpose of the small groups is for everyone to have a chance to tell their stories, since there may not be time to speak to the full group (and it may be less intimidating to speak with a few people).

– Make time for each person to speak and be heard, without cross-talk or comment. Advise people to not give advice unless it is requested.

– People can read what they’ve written, speak to the theme or simply talk about why they have come to the ritual.

– There will be time for each person, but they should be mindful of not taking up so much time that it restricts others’ participation.

– Do a simple closing ritual before rejoining the larger group.

Silent Lunch with the Dead (outside if possible, or in front of shrine) – leave a food offering.


Second Part of Day, Releasing the Grief

Preparing the water ritual

– Drummers and chant leaders may need to go outside to practice and review the rhythm* and the chant*. The chant should be easy to teach and to sing (remember, it may have to last for two hours or more!). It should not be in English.* The chant leader should choose a key that isn’t too high or too low. The chant is a prayer, not an affirmation.

– Meanwhile, this is a good time to encourage participants to tell stories about their dead.

– Designate one experienced person to remain near the shrine to offer help (not condolence) and keep people from going into silent meditation. If they aren’t actively grieving (or trying to), they should return to the village.

– Light candles, turn down the lights, set out bowls of water and floor pads* and prepare seats for the drummers, who will sit facing the shrine but immediately behind the village. The lead drummer may need to drum continually without a break, while others can substitute in and out.

– Everyone: final pee break, then we all process back into the room. This may be a good time for people to bring a candle to the shrine. Then all stand at the end opposite the main shrine, which now has candles lit, bowls of water and floor pads.

Instructions to Grievers

– You may feel both the “pull” of the ancestors and the “push” of the village encouraging you. We’ll have your back. Feel free to ask someone to accompany you.

– Move grief through the body: feel free to move, dance, scream, make big gestures!

– Welcome the dead who appear to you. You may be surprised by who shows up and you may experience different emotions from what you expected. All are appropriate and all are welcome. Rage can lead to grief, and vice versa.

– Wait for spirit to move you, feel it in your body. But go at least once, to pay your respects. Go often as you like but return to the village if you aren’t feeling it. The shrine is for release, not for meditation.

– Feeling our strong emotions, the spirits become interested. They stand with you, many generations behind each shoulder, saying “perhaps this will be the one!”*

Instructions to the Village

– We all have a big responsibility to keep the chant going and support the grievers.

– All should stand if possible, facing the shrine, keeping your attention and your love on the grievers, who will be doing difficult but necessary work for themselves and the world. Try to stay focused. Your work of holding the container is very important.

– Keep up the chant. Dance!

– Give everyone a huge welcome. The return is as important as the grieving. We need to be seen by the village, returning from this hero’s journey with a new face.

– If people return from the shrine and are still weeping, they are not done. Gently turn them around and guide them back to the shrine.

– Keep chanting even if the drumming stops momentarily.

– We’ll end when everyone has delivered all they can to the shrine and returned to the village. This may take a very long time.

– Teach the chant until everyone gets it. They don’t need to know its meaning.

– Begin the water ritual with more invocations.

During the water ritual

– Leaders continually encourage members of the village to keep up the chant, go to the shrine at least once and not leave the room. They watch the faces of those returning from the shrine to see if they are still grieving.

– Lead drummer continually monitors the drummers and keeps them from speeding up the rhythm.

– A volunteer may choose to offer drinking water to the drummers.

– Be sensitive to how and when to end the water ritual. If few people remain at the shrine, remind the villagers to make a final visit if they need to. If the last person stays too long, gently encourage them to finish up and rejoin the village.

– Once a few minutes have passed with no one left at the shrine, have the village turn around to face the drummers. One option is to have the drummers stop while the village slowly sings the chant acapella. Another is for the drum leader to synchronize a final stop on the last beat. A sign that the ritual has been effective is the open, relaxed, compassionate looks on the faces of the villagers.

– A leader may add a brief poem acknowledging the hard work everyone has done and thanking the ancestors.


Third Part of the Day

– We’re all exhausted, but we’re not quite finished with the ritual. Everyone please sit down.

– Do a simple closure ritual that helps turn people from grieving the past to imagining a better future, for example: Break up into pairs or threesomes and speak positive intentions for the new year* (5-10 minutes). Name any babies that have been born in the past year.

– Make a final circle, standing up. Remind people that grieving is a long process; today may have been only the beginning. After a few days, reach out to others who are here if you need to. Honor confidentiality. Don’t tell details to others; speak only of your own experiences. Remember that you’ve been in ritual space all day, so be extra careful driving home. Don’t leave right away unless you need to.

– Devoke, thank the spirits and all volunteers and share a final gratitude poem or song such as “Hallelujah”.


Ask for volunteers to help take down the shrines and clean up.


Next Day

Go to a body of water and cleanse yourself of any emotions that may have “stuck” to you.


Two-Three Days After the Ritual

Send out an email to the group praising them for the courageous work they’ve done. Remind them to reach out. Send the lyrics to poems and songs that people told. Good luck! Have compassion for yourself and know that we are all still quite new at this!






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Barry’s Blog # 382: A Death and an Apology

Part One

My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. ― John Dominic Crossan

Two events in late July and early August of this year (2021) seemed very significant for me. dadax0394581547-600x600-1.jpg?w=252&h=252&profile=RESIZE_400xThe first, on July 28th, was the death of Roberto Calasso, best known for his 1993 retelling of Greek Myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

It’s a difficult book, and I don’t recommend it for beginners. But in Chapter Three, I find the essence of his argument, and with it I feel a deep sense of the loss all modern people experience, even if we don’t realize it. He tells us that the connection between humans and the Gods has gone through three kinds of relationships.

1 – He calls the first conviviality. In the earliest times, humans knew the gods:

…an age when the gods would sit down alongside mortals, as they did at Cadmus and Harmony’s wedding feast in Thebes. At this point gods and men had no difficulty recognizing each other; sometimes they were even companions in adventure… Relative roles in the cosmos were not disputed, since they had already been assigned; hence gods and men met simply to share some feast before returning each to his own business.


This is how an Eskimo shaman put it a hundred years ago:

In the earliest time,

When both people and animals lived on earth,

A person could become an animal if he wanted to

And an animal could become a human being.

Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals

And there was no difference. All spoke the same language.

That was the time when words were like magic.

The human mind had mysterious powers.

A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences.

It would suddenly come alive

And what people wanted to happen could happen —

All you had to do was say it. Nobody could explain this:

That’s the way it was.

They – ancient, indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, animistic – could tell their stories and imagine their deities without forcing them into literalistic belief systems. James Hillman wrote, “The Gods don’t require my belief for their existence, nor do I require belief for my experience of their existence.” For tribal people, to explain is not a matter of presenting literal facts, but to tell a story, which is judged, writes David Abram, by “…whether it makes sense…to enliven the senses” to multiple levels of meaning.

They told many versions of their stories, because they met the beings from the Other World  in specific places. Place was critical, even if time wasn’t: “This happened here, once upon a time…” There was an Aphrodite of this place, and another of that place. So stories emerged from those places, and the different versions or variants of any myth had equal value. Calasso writes, “No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of a thousand segments.”

Their gods were amoral. They did not set out required modes of moral or ascetic behavior. There was no end game in which humans might attain their status, reach Heaven or be redeemed. However, they did want to be entertained, and, writes Calasso, “…to be recognized.”

…the way they imposed themselves was first and foremost aesthetic…More than acts of worship, it was beauty that offered a firm link between the life of the city and that of the Olympians. Mortals and immortals communicated through beauty, without any need for ceremonies.

Later on, humans made the connection through story and ritual. As the Mayan shamans say, they fed them through sacrifice. This was a world of reciprocal relations, in which the inhabitants of each of the two worlds gave and received. Our ancestors fed them with beauty, and (according to Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel)  with their tears. That is to say, the choice cuts of sacrificed animals they offered represented their deepest truths, emotions and potentials. In this imagination, the gods wanted humans to recognize the gifts they came into the world with, and to give them to the world.

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. – Pablo Picasso

In return, they would sometimes answer prayers and intercede in human events. It was a world in which humans gathered in great public festivals to honor the gods. In Classical Greece, writes Alexandra Kandanou,

It was during the Golden Age of the Athenian democracy that Eleusis, with its Mysteries, reached its utmost splendor. It was a huge, collective event. Participants shared a highly spiritual experience. It included different stages of emotional tension, frenzy and relief that would solidly bond their sense of identity as well as their sense of communion. Holding together a whole society, the Mysteries were there to make life livable. Eleusis is clearly not only a place of worship for the Greeks, but for humanity itself, a place where humans perform a ritual in deep connection with Nature…The goal of this form of spirituality…is about realizing happiness rather than redemption and salvation. “Happy is he who has seen these things before leaving this world: he realizes the beginning and the end of life, as ordained by Zeus”, writes Pindar.

The animistic world was full of the spirits of place: Nymphs, Naiads, Corybants, Dactyls and countless others. Two of the Greek gods who served as mediators between their world and ours were Hermes  and his son Pan, who expressed nature as an independent, living, animistic force of generativity. But nature deprived of that connection becomes a very scary place.

2 – Among Cadmus’ many accomplishments was his invention of the alphabet. With it, the Greeks began to experience the gods “in the silence of the mind”, writes Calasso, “and no longer in the full and normal presence…”

After that remote time,

…when gods and men and been on familiar terms, to invite the gods to one’s house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a source of wrongs and curses, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise in relations between Heaven and Earth.

Tantalus invited the gods for a banquet and served his murdered son to them in a stew, setting off a multi-generational curse. A later marriage, between the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis, led to the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan War and the deaths of thousands.

For more reasons than we can count, humans separated from the divine, and no longer performed such sacrifices. James Hillman wrote:

A cry went out through late antiquity: “Great Pan is dead!”…nature had become deprived of its creative voice. It was no longer an independent living force of generativity. What had had soul lost it: or lost was the psychic connection with nature…They had lost their light and fell easily to asceticism, following sheepishly without instinctual rebellion their new shepherd, Christ, with his new means of management. Nature no longer spoke to us – or we could no longer hear…Pan the mediator, like an ether who invisibly enveloped all natural things with personal meaning, with brightness, had vanished… When Pan is alive then nature is too, so the owl’s hoot is Athena and the mollusk on the shore is Aphrodite… When Pan is dead, then nature can be controlled by the will of the new God, man, modeled in the image of Prometheus or Hercules, creating from it and polluting in it without a troubled conscious…As the human loses personal connection with a personified nature and personified instinct, the image of Pan and the image of the devil merge.

Anticipating the advent of Christianity, humans had begun to lose the capacity for symbolic thinking and were replacing it with rigid, codified systems of belief. Now the Gods could only make themselves known by intruding into the human world. But because people no longer recognized them, they perceived such intrusions as violent, unnecessary and unwanted, rather than as invitations. In the classic stories, this is a polarized, highly gendered world, and people perceived such intrusions, literal or not, as rape. In this period, wrote Calasso,

…The image of rape establishes the canonical relationship the divine now has with a world…contact is still possible, but it is no longer the contact of a shared meal; rather it is the sudden, obsessive invasion that plucks away the flower of thought.

With deep apology to actual rape victims, I ask you to momentarily step back from the literal implications of the word rape and consider (“to be with the stars”) its etymology: “seize prey; abduct, take and carry off by force”. It is related to rapid, ravenous and raptor, the bird that seizes its prey and flies off. Going further, however, we find other words: rapt (“carried away in an ecstatic trance”) and, most notably, rapture (“spiritual ecstasy, state of mental transport…exalted or passionate feeling in words or music”). The connecting notion is a sudden or violent taking and carrying away.

In this phase, a god might not be recognized, wrote Calasso:

As a result the god had to assume the role…of the Unknown Guest, the Stranger. One day the sons of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, invited to their table an unknown laborer who was in fact Zeus. Eager to know whether they were speaking to a real god, they sacrificed a child


 and mixed his flesh with that of the sacred victims, thinking that if the stranger was a god he would discover what they had done. Furious, Zeus pushed over the table…After that banquet, Zeus made only rare appearances as the Unknown Guest. The role passed, for the most part, to other gods. Now, when Zeus chose to tread the earth, his usual manifestation was through rape. This is the sign of the overwhelming power of the divine, of the residual capacity of distant gods to invade mortal minds and bodies. Rape is at once possessing and possession. With the old convivial familiarity between god and man lost, with ceremonial contact through sacrifice impoverished, man’s soul was left exposed to a gusting violence, an amorous persecution…Such are the stories of which mythology is woven: they tell how mortal mind and body are still subject to the divine, even when they are no longer seeking it out, even when the ritual approaches to the divine have become confused.

When men lost interest in the gods, they also began to lose interest in each other. The Greeks knew the stranger as xenos, from which we get xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Hillman reminded us that Pan is the root of the word panic: “…nature alive means Pan, and panic flings open a door into this reality.”With the old mesocosmic framework no longer available to us, an unfiltered look into reality quite naturally results in panic. And in 2021 we can’t ignore the other meaning of pan as a prefix: “all, every, whole, all-inclusive,” as in panorama, pandemonium – and pandemic. 

Again, we need to get past the literal implications. If, in this second type of relationship, the only way the gods can enter our world – to get our attention – is through the violent emotional interruptions and penetrations that we sometimes interpret as rape, or as Carl Jung said, “…phobias, obsessions, and..neurotic symptoms”, then this still means that they may want something from us. They still want to be fed. And it’s even possible to imagine that they still care about us. It’s a dangerous world, but it does carry some potential, some vestigial memory of early and happier times, whether we refer to those times as Edenic or as a Golden Age.  The Greek imagination understood this: xenos also meant “guest.”


Part Two

To read a myth as prose (denotation) rather than as poetry (connotation) is a grave mistake and destroys the meaning of the story. All too often we humans do this with our religious texts. – Joseph Campbell

Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison 

The grief and sense of loss that we often attribute to a failure in our personality is actually an emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered. — Paul Shepard

The third type of relationship, sadly, no longer carries either kind of potential, conviviality or rape. Calasso called it indifference:

… the gods have already withdrawn, and, hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise. Such is the peculiar situation of the modern world.

Man’s rational and scientistic soul may be indifferent, but it is even more exposed to that “gusting violence”. Greek myth describes the transition from phase one all the way to phase three in one short story. Zeus’ mortal lover Semele became pregnant. Enraged with jealousy, his wife Hera appeared in disguise and advised her to request that Zeus prove his divinity by revealing his immortal form. Zeus knew that humans could not survive such visions, but he had promised to honor any request of hers, and he could not refuse. Reluctantly, he obeyed, and his lightning destroyed Semele. Zeus sewed the fetus into his own thigh and later it was born as Dionysus.

Semele’s fateful decision transformed her – and us – from a condition in which she could be with Zeus in his convivial, human form to a world in which she could no longer be protected from unfiltered, absolute reality, a demythologized world. It is a world lacking any of the intermediating figures of Greek myth, especially the heroes, almost all of whom died at Troy. After the death of the last of them, Odysseus,

…What happens is mere history…man’s approach to primordial beings and places could only take place through literature.

Joseph Campbell argued that we’ve lived in such a world since Christianity began to lose potency around the 12th century A.D. I suggest, however, that in what we call the “Western World” myth (as the glue of society, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) has been slowly breaking down for a far longer period of time. What remain, exposed like archeological layers, are immensely old stories: the myths of father/son and brother/brother conflict, and the literalization of initiation ritual into the brutal socialization and sacrifice of children.

It is not that we don’t have myths; we have plenty of them, even if they are mostly unconscious (see Chapter Nine of my book). The critical fact is they no longer nurture us. Clearly, both Greek and Hebrew stories were tracking this process. And we only have one version of our primary myths; we no longer have variants associated with specific places. The Christianist myth, for example, is supposed to be universal, even if Catholicism grudgingly allows countless Virgins connected to various places. But the practice of religion, especially its mass spectacles that link it to the objectives of the modern state (why are there American flags in every church?) changed profoundly, writes Calasso: “…man now discovers that sacrifice is just as effective as a tool of social manipulation as it was to appease the gods.”

The Aqedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), first written down around 1,000 B.C., illustrates this pattern. 6e27fac6-4fef-4291-a6b5-ef8741a76bf2.sized-1000x1000-1.jpg?w=189&h=286&profile=RESIZE_192XScholars of all three “Abrahamic” religions have debated its meaning for generations, but for me, the ending – whether the act was consummated or not – is irrelevant.  All that matters is that Abraham was willing to murder his son to glorify his god, or, in modern terms, to send the son off to war to die for his nation. He was willing to prioritize allegiance to an abstract principle, a belief system (religion, nationalism, patriotism, etc) over any human relationship.

In some later versions, Isaac was indeed murdered, and he came to embody the only sacrifice acceptable to God. Generally, however, the patriarchs couldn’t openly admit that they or the people they embodied were capable of such barbaric acts, so their mythmakers projected the idea of child sacrifice onto the gods – such as Moloch – of other people to justify their wars of aggression.

A thousand years later, this same God confirmed this same theme, abandoning his only son in his hour of need. When Jesus asked on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting Psalm 22. Already quite old, this lament acknowledged centuries of abuse and betrayal and the profound depression – or unquenchable desire for vengeance – they produce. Whether Hebrew or Greek, patriarchs feared rivals among their subjects or children, pursued the most terrible of initiations and slaughtered the innocent, teaching the survivors to become killers themselves. Jesus was acknowledging that Western culture had already reduced the old rituals of initiation, of the symbolic death of the child, into literal child sacrifice.

Nearly two thousand years after that, Wilfred Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, written from the trenches of Northern France in 1917, acknowledges that the fathers of modernity continue to enact this child sacrifice on a massive scale.

…When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Women, of course, have always understood this. African-American writer bell hooks writes:

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.

We all know this in our bones. Our souls all came into this life with the old expectations intact, that we would be wrapped in protective layers of myth and community. So the idea of that long-gone, convivial relationship between men and gods is profoundly important because it reminds us that there were times when myth symbolically described macrocosmic dimensions of the world in terms that enabled people to situate themselves individually, or microcosmically. How did this happen? Ritual and other forms of culture, with their mesocosmic function, mediated between the two. By analogy, consider the atmospheric ozone layer. It mediates between living things and necessary but harmful solar radiation, allowing an appropriate flow between the worlds.

We can think of the macrocosm as the unitary dimension of experience in which all polarities are resolved. It is both transcendent as divinity and immanent as nature. We humans make up the microcosm that reflects it. But direct, unmediated experience of the macrocosm – the rush of overwhelming archetypal energies – is far too intense for humans. Consider Semele again, how she demanded that Zeus appear in his true form. With the mesocosm (his human form) removed, she was exposed to a cosmic intensity that no mortal could endure. In psychological terms, she became exposed to vast unconscious energies and went mad. In spiritual terms, the mystic (or psychedelic) vision opens up new worlds of perception, but often by destroying one’s ego boundaries or sense of self. Or in mythic terms, the birth of Dionysus results in the collapse of those walls, as they do in the story of the Bacchae by Euripides.

Culture (as true education, storytelling, poetry, all forms of art, elegant language,  communal ceremony and intentional ritual) used to make up the mesocosm. It wrapped individuals and societies in protective containers of story, and its rituals produced continually creative relationships between macro- and microcosm, between this world and the other world, between society and nature, between men and women, between personal and transpersonal and between self and Other. This is what we mean by a reciprocal relationship. It involved a recognition of human capacity and the willingness to think in metaphoric, poetic terms, rather than in rigid belief systems.

The Binding of Isaac remains the foundational mythic narrative underlying Western Culture. In the context of our contemporary crises of masculinity and the environment, it speaks to a time when the wisest among us (the poets) knew that the advent of patriarchal society had – perhaps permanently – rendered these old connections.

To understand how all this broke down is to recite the history of Western culture. The Hebrews and the Greeks knew it was happening; for some of them, the transition from mythos to logos, from symbolic thinking to belief; from participation mystique to monotheism and eventually to the scientific world view may have been worth the trouble. This is not the forum to argue such an immensely complicated issue. But from then on, “the divine” would mean only one of two things: either a rationale for a rigidly ordered, clock-like hierarchy and deep suppression of feminine values, or an opiate of the masses.

Catholicism did attempt to create a working mesocosm by converting many of the old Pagan (“hill people”) deities into its vast array of saints, who could intercede between humans and God. But the Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought new emphasis on individualism and rational science over revealed truth. These changes accelerated the breakdown of the mythic containers that had provided us with meaning and identity. The mesocosm collapsed further, the veils were lifted and Western man found himself alone and alienated, desperate for authoritarian leaders, fundamentalist assurances and the distractions scapegoats and wars. Men would begin by sending their sons to die for Christ and end by sending them to kill for Christ. Eventually, they would be content to be entertained by simply watching such abominations on electronic screens.

As the religious mesocosm collapsed, secular movements (fascism and communism) motivated millions to similar extremes of sacrifice. Although religious symbols have largely lost their power, the heritage of “chosen people” and “holy war” persists in the modern psyche, which still equates the salvation of one people with the destruction of another. Although religious revivals periodically occur, they are generally characterized by grim, literal interpretations of their own myths, hatred of the body and of women, and brutal contempt for anyone who questions their basic assumptions.

Sociologist Max Weber called this condition the “disenchantment of the world.” For a deeper analysis of how our original, creative imagination devolved over time into these conditions, see my essay A Vacation in Chaos. 

In the extreme, such a world evokes either of two ideological gestures. The first is that we must rush to save it – and that any level of violence we utilize is justified. For a thousand years, Christians have slaughtered their way across the globe, very often with the sincere intention of bringing God’s truth to the unenlightened. As Campbell wrote, “Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world.” C.S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

The second gesture is to hope fervently for the total demise of this world. Now, tens of millions are obsessed with the Biblical idea of apocalypse. We can hardly minimize the actual dangers we confront. Yet to examine the fear, or, if we were honest, the anticipation that fundamentalists display, is to approach the psychic energy that drives us: the archetypal cry for initiation. At the root, apocalypse is a metaphor for the death and rebirth of the ego in the process of transformation. But it is precisely our modern literalization and inability to think metaphorically that prevents us from seeing this.

People once knew that “apocalypse” means “to lift the veil”. At the end of an age, we can see truths that have been veiled behind outdated myths. However, when an entire civilization ignores the invitation, then, in Yeats’ words, it is a “rough beast,” instead of a divine child, that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Can we really imagine the price we have paid to live in a demythologized world? Can we even conceive of times when culture and nature together held and protected our ancestors? Few of us have any sense of just how much we have lost, how deeply diminished our lives have been. We literally cannot imagine it. Who can remember how much they have forgotten? Assuming that disconnection, alienation and constant violence are natural, we “normal neurotics” rely upon ego defenses that substitute for the old mesocosmic structures. Ernest Becker wrote that only psychological repression “…makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world.”

It is also a deeply frightening world. Social institutions rarely offer meaning, except in times of great crisis. Then, with our paranoid imaginations racing out of control, we project evil upon convenient scapegoats. And, as Benjamin Franklin noted, we exchange liberty for safety. We offer our allegiance to political leaders, upon whom we project the archetypal image of the King.  The demythologized world has resulted in an unprecedented diminishment of the creative imagination. In many places, it has replaced mythical Kings who served the entire cosmos with rulers beholden to increasingly smaller circles of “us” bounded by increasingly larger circles of “them.” The logical conclusion of this process is rule by narcissists who, like George W. Bush, announced that he heard directly from God, or French King Louis XIV, who claimed to be the state.

But if we slow down, turn off the devices, breathe deeply and allow ourselves to feel, we feel exposed. The sacred, with both its awesome and terrible faces, burns us like direct, cancerous solar rays. This is a dispirited world, since we long ago rejected the mesocosmic “spirits” who connected us to this immense and incomprehensible universe. We stand exposed to old, patriarchal conditions: raw opposition between irreconcilable polarities. We speak of alienation, but tribal people would say that we are a culture of uninitiated people, who simply don’t know who we are.

So we fear – perhaps we wish – that we are at the edge of catastrophe (“to turn downward”). We veil our anxieties but know we must ultimately face a vast, ancestral grief that edges closer with each headline.

This is the condition Calasso was describing, in which modern humankind is so “indifferent” to the gods – to the vast, unseen, ancestral worlds of spirit both around us and within us that we are blind to “all the light we cannot see”. But because we cannot live without some kind of mesocosm to mediate between us and ultimate reality, we have spent the last 3,000 years fabricating poor-quality substitutes (again: fundamentalism, consumerism, nationalism, colonialism, addiction, the culture of celebrity) for the mythic and cultural forms that once protected us. Perhaps the greatest irony of this utterly un-religious situation is that tens of millions of Americans praise a God of love but practice a religion of hate.

The past two years of isolation, social distancing, fear of contagion and polarized argument have brought this condition into deep focus (a condition, by the way, that People of Color and poor people have always known). On a personal note, I realized that I had been part of a community that came together nearly every month, often in large public gatherings, for twenty-five years, to recite poetry. This was my mesocosm of community and deep ritual that had kept me sane in a mad world, and suddenly it was taken away. I’m sure you have your own tales to tell.


Part Three

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will ACT like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now. – Daniel Quinn, “Ishmael”

Earlier, I mentioned two events that seemed very significant to me. The first was the news of Roberto Calasso’s death, which provoked this essay. The second occurred only four days later, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Chapter Twelve of my book considers how we can rebuild the mesocosm through a return to authentic ritual, and I’ll try not to be too redundant.

Imagine that we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. The challenge is to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual. Their most profound myths arose in the inconceivably distant past, as the communal dreams of their cultures, directly out of the lands they inhabited. Except for the indigenous people, Americans don’t have that luxury. But we have to start, even if it means risking cultural appropriation.

Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world. We can do this invocation in two ways. The first is to restore memory and imagination. We can replicate the original process of mythmaking and dreaming – by telling as many alternative stories, as often as possible, for as long as necessary, until they coalesce into the world’s story.

The second thing is to engage in the rituals and do the arts that bypass the predatory and paranoid imaginations and stimulate the creativity that makes new myths. Can we imagine a society like Bali – where from childhood bali-kids-8.jpg?w=256&h=169&profile=RESIZE_400xeveryone practices dance, music, painting or sculpture so universally that they have no word for “art?” We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. The imagination, engaged by the restoration of memory, moves toward inspiration, where new life comes not from us but through us.

In the tribal world, art (as ritual) serves as a mesocosm, enacted by true “gatekeepers”  who work to balance the worlds of the human community and the unseen. The same thing can happen among modern people. Healing comes through memory, both in purging grief and guilt and in creatively re-framing one’s story – what Hillman called “healing fictions.” 

Mythology tells of art’s ancient connection to memory: it was Memory herself, Mnemosyne, who mated with Zeus and birthed the Muses.

greek-muses.jpg?w=441&h=137&profile=RESIZE_584xPerhaps all art, as Plato said, is remembering something that already exists. Artful reconnection to memory reverses the work of Kronos, the god who ate his children,  countering Time’s linear progress with the cyclic imagination of Memory, who knows both past and future. Myth, which provides the basic pattern, connects to story or memoir, which provides the details. Jung said that myth offers us two gifts: a story to live by, and the opportunity to disengage from outmoded patterns and thus re-engage in a different way with the archetypal energies from which our stories arise.

Ultimately, both individuals and cultures heal by re-membering what we came here to do. What has been dismembered gets put back together. The Stranger becomes the Guest, and his darkness becomes our blessing. It is said that Memory’s daughters, the Muses, collected the scattered limbs of dismembered bodies; it was they – art – who reassemble what the madness of the world rips apart.

Americans have always participated in all kinds of rituals – generally quite unconsciously. These include: rituals that confirm our status as gendered adults; rituals that exclude the Other from the polis; and rituals that reaffirm our competitive values, our consumer appetites and the means by which we appear to select our leaders. Most importantly, we participate in rituals that seal our complicity in the great secret – that we periodically need to sacrifice large numbers of our own children so that a system that satisfies fewer and fewer of us may survive. But now we can no longer afford the luxury of unconsciously colluding in our own innocence. We must choose to deliberately involve ourselves in the sacred technologies that indigenous people still offer us.

Participation in the evolving forms of ritual will facilitate emergence of the new myths. The purpose of authentic ritual is to re-establish balance, clarify intention and recover the memory in our bones. The old knowledge has never completely left us, but the spirits need to know that we are “interested” once again. Engaging in radical ritual with the intention of aligning one’s purpose with spirit is to conjure (“with the law”), or to invoke aid from the other world. This invites us into unpredictable, chaotic, creative space, into communitas. Here is where new images, insights and metaphors are born, just as adults are born in initiation.

To some extent, this happened in the 1960s, when millions of people used psychedelics precisely because they found conventional religion irrelevant. The drug/music scene was (generally) non-violent, non-hierarchical, inclusive, communal, mystical and playful. But the experience dissipated, partially because the youth movement was age-specific and not a true community. Although the times themselves remained chaotic, most participants moved on to more stable, conventional identities, even though (or perhaps because) their initiations were incomplete. “The sixties,” writes Camille Paglia, “never completed its search for new structures of social affiliation…‘do your own thing’ encouraged individualism but produced fragmentation.”

But the forms – the group ecstasy of rock music, the environmental, gay and feminist movements, the image of the Whole Earth, and the revival of Goddess-oriented paganism – remain. In addition to the thousands of practicing Buddhists in America, there are now considerable populations of neo-pagans in all urban areas, especially New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where large influxes of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia have brought their own polytheistic forms. By one estimate, the wider population of “cultural creatives” in Europe and America has grown to a quarter of the population.

But we need something more than small-group spiritual exercises or ecstatic festivals, necessary as they are. Ultimately, the collapse of our modern sense of meaning will require large-scale rituals of atonement and reconciliation.


Part Four

God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! ― D.T. Suzuki

Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities. – Caroline Casey

To the extent that it demonizes much of the psyche, religion prioritizes spirit and banishes soul. Mainstream faith simply serves the state, retaining the form without the content: convenient piety, Sunday church attendance and ceremonies of the status quo. And fundamentalism is content without form: emotional catharsis and anti-intellectualism that twists the longing for communitas into misogyny and racism. At their best, they comfort the lonely and provide a sense of community. At their worst, they legitimize existing power relations, re-affirm white privilege and demonize the Other.

By contrast, what we call radical ritual exhibits the three-part, unpredictable logic of the Hero’s initiatory journey: separation, liminality and re-incorporation. The community creates a relatively safe container through music, rhythm and invocation. However, once the spirits enter (as in Haitian Voudoun), they are in control, not humans. These rituals proceed on the assumption that problems in this world reflect imbalances in the other, and their intention is to restore that lost harmony.

Malidoma Somé writes that such reciprocity “cancels out the whole sense of hierarchy.”   Successful ritual both requires and leads to a sense of community where diversity is respected and participants see exploitative or violent acts for what they are: the behavior of uninitiated people who never felt welcomed into the world.

Chapter Twelve of my book  describes indigenous rituals of grief, closure, atonement, reconciliation and welcoming. What happened in New Zealand seems to have included all of these. True reconciliation (“to make friendly again”) requires two parties: the veteran or the perpetrator and his community. It acknowledges that at some level everyone involved has suffered. It assumes a sense of interconnectedness.

In southern Africa, this quality is known as ubuntu: “My humanity is bound up in yours. I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Knowing they are part of a greater whole, people who have ubuntu are not threatened by others’ good luck; indeed, they feel diminished when others suffer. Their values survive despite the dehumanizing effects of oppression. In short, they behave like initiated individuals. It was in this spirit of ubuntu that South Africa began its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the intention of achieving restorative justice, and it served as a model in other countries.

Tribal communities prefer healing to punishment. The Acholi people of Uganda resolve conflicts through the Mataput ritual (“drinking of the bitter root from a common cup.”) There are reconciliation and restorative justice traditions throughout Native America and Polynesia. In the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono tradition, the intention is simple and clear, yet profound:

Step 1: I Love You
Step 2: I’m Sorry
Step 3: Please Forgive Me
Step 4: Thank You

In American retributive or punitive justice, since the victim has suffered, so must the criminal. Offenders are accountable to the state, not to the victim. In restorative justice, however, crime is rooted in the human error of forgetting one’s purpose, rather than in sin or innate evil. So offenders are accountable to those they have harmed, rather than to an abstract concept such as the state. The first priority of the rebalancing process is healing the victim physically, emotionally and spiritually. But when everyone is interconnected, a relationship – or several – must be repaired. So the perpetrator apologizes, asks for forgiveness and demonstrates his intention to make restitution with the victim, the community and the spirits. To ritually cleanse his soul, he must face his victim, his ancestors and himself.

Creativity springs not from the center, but from the margins. Long efforts by Native Americans and Hawaiians culminated in a law that encouraged the repatriation of ancestral bones from museum shelves for final burial.

Some modern people understand. South-Central Los Angeles has suffered from generations of gang wars, with over fifteen thousand fatalities. One day in 1989, several members of one gang, heartsick at the meaningless carnage, donned the neutral color of black and marched unarmed into their rival’s territory, singing peace songs. The risk resulted in a truce that lasted several years and spread to forty cities. The gangs created their own rituals of reconciliation and agreed to cooperate for the greater goal of social justice.

Perhaps the ultimate form of reconciliation is with the ancestors and the spirits of the land. For many – such as descendants of both slaves and slave owners – this includes imaginatively healing relationships that go back through generations of epistemic trauma.

But the literal always points to the symbolic. Traditional Africans see the violence and trauma of modernity as a consequence of a broken relationship between the worlds. Spirits who haven’t been fed with grief and beauty feed on the bodies of the living. How else do we explain our fascination with the “undead” in horror movies? In this imagination, many ancestors who had helped perpetuate colonialism long ago desire forgiveness. They want their living descendants to take responsibility (not blame) for their crimes and atone for them. In America, this is complicated by the fact that most ancestors are buried very far away, and that countless people live far from their birthplaces. But, it is said, those spirits who witnessed our birth continue to watch, and attending to them can unleash vast forces of healing. Somé writes,

They know…what needs to be done. It’s up to us to tell them we’re open to receiving that knowledge so we can take the proper action, because we’re still caught in a human body…So, one way to heal the ancestors is to grieve them.

Let’s consider the story of Semele again. We remember that she was destroyed by Zeus’ thunderbolt. The descendants of Cadmus and Harmony (including Oedipus) experienced many adventures and tragedies, and those are stories for some other time. Dionysus, one of those descendants, is the most complicated of the gods, and I write in great detail about him in Chapters Two and Five.

But Semele’s narrative doesn’t end with her death. Her sisters had never believed her claim that she’d been Zeus’ lover. At the beginning of The Bacchae, Dionysus, now an adult, stands before the ruins of her tomb, still smoldering from Zeus’s lightning. Having transformed it into a shrine by causing vines to grow “copious and green” around it, he states, “I must defend my mother Semele and make people see that I am a god, born by her to Zeus”. Later, in another story, he descended to the underworld and convinced Hades to allow him to bring her to Olympus, where she took her place among the gods and where she still resides. (Yes, we alternate between past and present tenses, because this is myth, and as the Roman Sallustius wrote, “This never happened, but it always is”.)

How did Dionysus become an adult? Perhaps it was by making that initiatory descent, which would have been terrifying even to the gods, and in doing so served as a model for humans. Perhaps he stood before all the dead to grieve for never having known his mother. Perhaps he atoned for his father’s acts. It’s up to us to imagine because these stories, ultimately, are about us. I concluded my book in 2010 with this wish:

Imagine mass public rituals in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and black, gay and straight, and mad and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together. Imagine a president standing in this container, begging forgiveness from a descendent of a slave and a Native American. Imagine everyone grieving for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, for the extinct species and even for the forests that once covered the continent. Imagine the relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples, and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire nation would dance the “second line” on its way back home.

Since then, politicians in several countries have made half-hearted gestures of apology to persecuted minorities, including Joe Biden’s designation of October 12th as “Indigenous People’s Day” (while keeping Columbus Day as a national holiday).

Until this August, however, no national leader had participated in a serious indigenous ritual or shown any genuine remorse, and that’s what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did. The Pacific Islander community had lobbied the government to apologize for the racist, anti-immigrant “Dawn Raids” it had conducted against them in the 1970s. These, like colonial policies everywhere, were actions that had resulted in multi-generational trauma.

On August 1st Ardern traveled to the Maori-dominated North Island and, before 1,000 onlookers and national TV cameras, participated in a Samoan atonement ceremony, the Ifoga, in which the subject seeks forgiveness by exposing herself to a kind of public humiliation. Islanders who had been personally victimized by those raids covered her with a traditional woven mat as she sat in a posture of supplication. ipanews_370cade3-f501-4082-ac19-6ea3b28a1a89_embedded5765944.jpg?w=329&h=219&profile=RESIZE_400xThen they raised the mat and forgave her – and symbolically perhaps, all white descendants of settler colonialism. In her following speech (“The government expresses its sorrow, remorse and regret that the dawn raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate”), she backed up the ipanews_370cade3-f501-4082-ac19-6ea3b28a1a89_1.jpg?w=300&h=169&profile=RESIZE_400xapology by announcing financial grants and educational reforms and promising immigration reforms as well. Videos of the event show how emotional and meaningful it was for many of the attendees, as well as Ardern herself. Here are two videos of the event:

How can we distinguish between “half-hearted” and “symbolic”? After all, in 2012 Barack Obama famously wept on camera after the Sandy Hook massacre – while doing nothing to impact gun control, right-wing terrorism, police violence, the defense budget or drone assassinations.

But by the summer of 2021, indigenous and persecuted groups everywhere had been clamoring for an end to the mistreatment and the false narratives, for long-overdue respect: from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements; to the movement for reparations over slavery; to the movement to identify the victims of Spanish Fascism; to immigration advocates; to the movement to remove Confederate monuments; to inclusion of People of Color in Hollywood; to the Water Protectors; to LGBT people; to the movement to abolish the Columbus Day holiday; and other racist cultural forms;  to the descendants of Native American children who’d died in Canadian boarding schools.

Was that really a ritual, a mystery that Ardern participated in? Wasn’t her gesture merely the decent thing anyone ought to make? Perhaps it’s really that simple. As poet Howard Nelson writes (My Father Went to Funerals),

It is a mystery. Maybe

the decency itself is the mystery,

or maybe we cross from the one to the other

only on a bridge of grief.

Let’s imagine that one authentic gesture can have results that reverberate outwards. Less than two weeks after the ceremony in New Zealand, on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, President Lopez Obrador asked the country’s indigenous Mexica peoples for forgiveness:

Today we remember the fall of the great Tenochtitlan and we apologize to the victims of the catastrophe caused by the Spanish military occupation of Mesoamerica and the territory of the current Mexican Republic…The conquest and colonization are signs of backwardness, not of civilization, less of justice.

Calasso explained our situation: indifference, and trouble:

To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could imagine that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories.

Since we have forgotten the old ritual relationships with the gods, with the ancestors, with Nature herself, we have also forgotten ourselves. But not all of us. I prefer to think in that subjunctive mode: What if?

California’s Yana Indians were brought to extinction by starvation and settler violence in the 1850s.



The last speaker of their language – a Yahi man known as Ishi – died in 1916. But some of their old stories were recorded. This one is a bit more hopeful:

The gods have retreated to the volcanic recesses of Mt. Lassen, passing the time playing gambling games with magic sticks. They’re simply waiting for such a time when human beings will reform themselves and become ‘real people’ that spirits might want to associate with once again.



Read more…

Part One 

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

Divide us those in darkness from those who walk in light. – Kurt Weill

Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine, drunkenness, masks, frenzy, ecstatic joy, paradox, suffering, tragedy – and madness. Wherever he appeared, he subverted the classical Greek consensus of reason, exalted discourse, and refined culture. He posed annoying questions upon king and philosopher alike, tore down the walls of the isolated ego and insisted that everyone was fundamentally animal, social, instinctual, sexual and irrational.

In terms of Depth Psychology, he represents the paradoxical archetype of the Other. He is an aspect of nature – and human nature – that is both outside the boundaries of the known, familiar and acceptable, but also deep within, at its very core. Since he confronts us with the mystery behind the reconciliation of opposites – male/female, active/passive, light/dark, mortal/immortal, sacred/profane – we can only define him by what he isn’t. Simply by showing up at the gates of the city (or the mind), he threatens our carefully built sense of who we are. He reminds us that identity is constantly shifting.

Consequently, patriarchs and authoritarians have attempted to repress the Dionysian impulse for well over two millennia. However, his modern incarnations persist in our imagination as the Other. He is everything that America has cast into the shadows: women, gays, non-bindery or transgender people, people of color and poor people. But this happens at a great cost. By denying this innate archetype, we deny much of who we are, because, as Walt Whitman taught us, we all contain multitudes.

If Dionysus were to speak to Psychology and the medical establishment in the Age of Covid, economic instability, Black Lives Matter, climate change and a collapsing American empire, he might ask certain annoying questions, such as:

Is a child molester a criminal, a sinner or a sick person? Why do we think of a terrorist or a tyrant as evil rather than sick? Why are convicted murderers not considered insane? Why do we punish criminals instead of rehabilitating them? Why does America demonize its children simply because their parents are poor? Why are we so violent? Why are the mentally ill disproportionately female and poor? In a dysfunctional culture, what is a dysfunctional family? What is functional? Why do we take so many drugs, legal or otherwise? Why, in these maddening times, isn’t everyone running through the streets raving and grieving? Isn’t willful innocence a form of madness?

Perhaps all these questions can be rolled into this one: Why are Americans so Freaking Crazy?

Invoking this god as my guide, I want to circle around these themes in a Hermetic, Dionysian, soulful, non-linear manner, showing more interest in surprising connections and brief liftings of the veil than in logical proof. In his realm, the questions are more interesting than the answers.


The god of madness lives in our asylums and halfway houses and among the homeless. And at home: In any given year one in four adult Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. Six percent are seriously debilitated; and half will develop a mental disorder at some time in our lives. Depression has doubled since World War II, with each generation showing increasing rates. It now impacts twenty million American adults. One in ten women and six percent of children take antidepressants.

Nearly half of young people have been diagnosed with some sort of psychiatric condition (counting substance abuse), and almost twenty percent have a personality disorder that interferes with everyday life. Eighteen percent of college students take prescription psychological medications, and fifteen percent are clinically depressed. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. 

Although the percentage of Americans confined to mental hospitals has declined since the 1960s, the numbers of those seeking professional help has increased. Still, nearly three-quarters of those with serious psychiatric problems never get professional help, turning instead to alcohol and other forms of self-medication.

The statistics indicate that many of us are going crazy. But, asks Dionysus, who defines sanity? For decades, Benjamin Rush’s nineteenth-century definition prevailed: “…an aptitude to judge of things like other men, and regular habits, etc.”

But for those considered abnormal, Rush, the father of American psychiatry, advised, “…TERROR…should be employed in the cure of madness…FEAR, accompanied with PAIN, and a sense of SHAME, has sometimes cured this disease.” His name evokes the history of the brutal treatment of the mentally ill, in which all manner of torture was used well into the 20th century, including mustard baths, application of hot irons, “punishment chairs,” bleeding with leaches, electroshock and “refrigeration therapy.”

Freud saw sanity as the abilities to love and work. This meant fitting in with one’s cultural norms. One of his disciples stated that the goal of psychoanalysis is “the eradication of mystery.”

The libertarian psychotherapist Thomas Szasz, however, insisted that most mental illness is composed only of behaviors that psychiatrists – white, middle-class men – disapprove of.

Dionysus also asks, who should die because they commit crimes even though they know right from wrong? America no longer executes the mentally retarded, and Psychiatry has drawn the I.Q. line at 70. Paula Caplan, however, argues that I.Q. testing is notoriously inaccurate:

Like ‘intelligence,’ ‘retardation’ is a construct. Why should anyone decide that a prisoner who scores 69 on an IQ test should live but one who scores 71 should die?

We know what is acceptable by identifying those who, as John Jervis writes, “contradict the official self-image, disturb its clarity, question its necessity.” “Female” behavior has long been the baseline. Doctors committed nineteenth century women to asylums for such “symptoms” as flirting too much, refusing to marry men chosen by their fathers and excessive religious fervor. Asylums, writes Phyliss Chesler, functioned as “… penalties for being “female,” as well as desiring…not to be.” The gender imbalance still exists, even if such behaviors are no longer valid excuses for institutionalization. It remains safer for women to turn their dissatisfaction inward through depression rather than outward through violence (more typically male behavior). One in eight women will be diagnosed with depression during their lifetime, and they are twice as likely as men to receive electroshock treatment.

Middle-class women utilize private therapy, but often consider hospitalization in midlife (if they can afford it), when they are both overworked and beginning to feel sexually and maternally expendable. Chesler claims that, prior to 1970’s feminism, most women simply gave in to mixed expectations of their social condition, which provided them few options. Now, single, divorced, and widowed women all have lower rates of mental illness than married women, and the reverse is true for men. Poor women, however, have few options but the penal system and state mental hospitals.

If “female” behavior – collective, emotional, “hysterical” – defines the shadow of our value system – and of the prejudices of psychology – then the perspective within the pale is American radical individualism, which emphasizes the individual differentiating out of the family – the heroic ego, as James Hillman described, in a hostile world.

Part Two

Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. – C.S. Lewis

Especially in times of great change, society manipulates definitions of sanity when unstable social conditions require scapegoats. “Drapetomania” explained the “irrational tendency” of black slaves to flee captivity. Benjamin Rush diagnosed rebels against federal authority with “anarchia…excess of the passion for liberty…a form of insanity.” The dominant medical perspective still reflects Puritan prejudices when it defines some children as born “neurologically defective” (a more acceptable term than “original sin”).


But in America these conditions occur (or are identified) within the all-encompassing situation of late-stage capitalism, in which the most corrupt industries – most especially Big Pharma – have been quick to take advantage of human misery, financially endowing university departments of Psychiatry and selectively funding pro-drug research programs. In 2006, it accounted for thirty percent of the American Psychiatric Association’s $62.5 million in financing. About half of that money went to drug advertisements in psychiatric journals.  

(Americans may be ill-educated on these issues, but they are not stupid. Mass resistance to the Covid vaccines is not simply a function of religious intolerance, anti-science ignorance or right-wing propaganda, but very often of fear of corrupted science. In 2015, the editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet, cited “studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest,” concluding that “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.”)

Big Pharma provides the answer to nature gone wrong (previously cured by baptism at birth). In the U.S., 2.5 million children and 1.5 million adults manage hyperactive and attention deficit behaviors with Ritalin, with 17 million prescriptions per year. Peter Breggin, MD, however, writes that the Attention Deficit (ADD) diagnosis was developed specifically to justify “the use of drugs to subdue the behaviors of children in the classroom.” The U.S. produces and consumes ninety percent of the world’s Ritalin, most of which is given to our children, including ten percent of all ten-year-old boys.


However, when we hear of epidemics of depression and anxiety, we need to ask whose interest that impression serves. Cui bono? Follow the numbers: between 1995 and 2002 the number of children and teens diagnosed with depression doubled. American doctors are five times more likely than British doctors to prescribe antidepressants to minors.

Follow the politics: while minimizing poverty, irrelevant schooling and epidemic violence, the psychiatric priesthood maintains a symbiotic relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, which annually spends $25 billion on marketing worldwide and employs more Washington lobbyists than there are legislators. Prior to the Covid pandemic, the top class of drug by revenue ($14.5 billion in 2009) was antipsychotics. In 2008 the New York Times reported on Psychiatrist Joseph Biederman:

A world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful anti-psychotic medicines in children earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials.

Due in part to Biederman’s influence, the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003.


Simply put, madness is big business: labeling others (Others) as sick, scaring parents and pushing (prescribing) drugs as the only cure. Each edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) has included more mental disorders than the previous one.

One of those “disorders”, “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMDD), has defined premenstrual emotional swings as mental illness. A 1992 study took the symptoms listed for PMDD – then called Late Luteal Phase Dysphoric Disorder (LLPDD) – and asked three groups of people to document every day for two months the symptoms they experienced. The groups were women who reported severe premenstrual problems, women who reported no such problems, and men. The answers did not differ among the three groups.


Why did the DSM demonize a natural condition? Follow the money: shortly before, with the patent on Prozac about to expire, its manufacturer, Eli Lilly, rebranded it as “Sarafem” and marketed it as the cure for this new condition. The DSM complied, and recommended antidepressants as the only psychiatric therapy for PMDD. Lilly’s patent on Prozac – and its profits – were extended for seven years.

Deinstitutionalization reduced the asylum population from 500,000 in 1955 (half of all hospital beds) to around 60,000 in 2010. But Reagan-era budget cuts decimated the community mental health systems that had supported the released patients, instantly creating a population of tens of thousands of homeless people. Now, our largest warehouses of the mentally ill are the Los Angeles and Chicago jails.

Drastic overbuilding of hospitals in the 1970s left many institutions in serious financial trouble. Psychiatry provided the answer to this problem in 1980 with new diagnoses like “oppositional defiant disorder.” Marketing campaigns convinced thirty thousand families that only private hospitalization would keep their children from suicide. Ten years later, six times more adolescents – primarily white and middle-class – were confined to locked psychiatric wards. Skeptics, however, called the new disease “KID” (Kid-with-Insurance Disorder), pointing out the amazing rate of “recovery” once the insurance ran out and parents had to start paying out-of-pocket.

But in public facilities, the numbers of teens have actually decreased, because minority kids go to jails and, unsurprisingly, receive no treatment at all.

Enforced hospitalization exemplifies the shadow of a society that claims personal liberty as its highest value. The “therapeutic state,” says Szasz, uses psychiatric justifications to strip individuals of their rights. It creates two classes: those who are stigmatized as crazy and subject to coercive intervention, and “us,” whose conventional behavior and well-concealed abnormalities indicate our innocence. No one else – neither priest nor judge – has the psychiatrist’s power to have someone committed, even if he came into his office of his own free will:

Only in psychiatry are there ‘patients’ who don’t want to be patients…If you’re in a building that you can’t get out of, that’s not a hospital; it’s a prison.

Certainly, many of the involuntarily committed are dangerous to themselves or others. Yet too often, psychiatrists function as the Church once did, as agents of the state, as gatekeepers who determine who is or isn’t the Other.

Part Three

The ideal of growth makes us feel stunted; the ideal family makes us feel crazy…So long as the statistics of normalizing developmental psychology determine the standards against which the extraordinary complexities of a life are judged, deviations become deviants. – James Hillman

It is possible that poet Theodore Roethke romanticized suffering when he asked, “What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” Yet we can’t consider mental illness outside of its social, cultural, economic and political contexts. Psychologist Mary Watkins writes, “The symptom as it appears in the individual points us also toward the pathology of the world, of the culture.” Depression is not rare among non-Western people, but it increases when they move to America. Some claim that schizophrenia is more prevalent in cultures like ours that combine high rates of poverty with low senses of social belonging.

But America adds two other factors. The first is that our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life-experiences makes sadness more pathological here than elsewhere. Sociologist Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”


She argues that twentieth century America took on cheerfulness as an identifying characteristic. The new consumer economy of the 1920s called for cheerful salespeople who’d be careful to avoid provoking vital customers. A powerful emotional deintensification process also began at that time. The American etiquette obliged “niceness,” which excluded strong emotionality. Railroads introduced “Smile School” in the thirties. Among the dozens of self-help cheerfulness manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold over thirty million copies.

In the 1950s the media industry invented special devices such as the TV “laugh track” to induce cheerfulness. Eventually, politicians discovered cheerfulness. All Presidents since Ronald Reagan smile in their official portraits. The “smiley face” button sold over 50 million buttons at its peak in 1971.


The laugh-track has a specific purpose: keep people engaged, pleasantly entertained and therefore receptive to the commercials selling them things that they don’t need. The products in the commercials are meant to create emotional associations with the artificial cheerfulness stimulated by the laugh track. In other words, since the 1950s, television (and increasingly, films and later the internet) have mediated our emotions; they’ve been telling us what to think and feel.

Ronald Laing argued that the modern family functions “to repress Eros, to induce a false consciousness of security…to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” To be respectable is to produce, and, in America, to look cheerful while doing it. Our obsession with feeling good (“pursuing happiness”) is enshrined as a fundamental principle of the consumer society.  Kotchemidova writes,

Our personal feelings are constantly encouraged or discouraged by the culture of emotions we have internalized, and any significant deviance from the societal emotional norms is perceived as emotional disorder that necessitates treatment.

She argues that Americans feel significant pressure to look cheerful in order to get a job. Once they are employed, putting on a ready-made smile is simply not enough. “Corporations expect their staff to actually feel good about the work they do in order to appear convincing to clients.”

Most advertising is in some sense selling happiness or relief from unhappiness. Despite all our “stuff,” however, our characteristic American individualism subverts social networks, making it difficult for those in emotional or spiritual crises to find containment except through drugs, religious literalism, political cults or madhouses. In a culture that remains Puritan at the core, Americans have commonly internalized the mad notion that our suffering is our own fault, and that others who appear to be happy are normal (in religious terms, “among the elect”). The cultural pressure to appear upbeat invalidates sadness, pathologizing it into depression. Thus, a person who feels sad may also feel guilty.

Or angry. Very angry. The second factor that American culture adds to the brew of madness is our radical individualism with its characteristic expectations of constant growth and social mobility. (For lengthy speculations about the myths of progress and growth in Chapter Nine of my book.) When our assumptions of social mobility are revealed as fiction, the hero encounters his opposite – the victim, or the loser – within himself, and we become what we really are (except for Nazi Germany), the most violent people in history. American crime and violence are natural by-products of our values, alternative means of social mobility in a society where “anything goes” in the pursuit of success. In “A Mythology of Bullets”, mythologist Glen Slater writes that “America has little imagination for loss and failure. It only knows how to move forward.”

We go ballistic when we can only imagine moving forward and that movement is blocked. Then guns become the purest expression of controlling one’s fate. As such, they are “the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.” We as a people may well dream bigger dreams than other peoples. With great possibilities, however, come great risks. Gaps between aspiration and reality – the lost dream – are also far higher here than anywhere else. When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option, the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. In this sense, the Mafia is more American then Sicilian, and the lone, mass killer (almost all of whom have been white, middle class men with no criminal background) is an expression of social mobility gone bad.

Gun violence throws us back onto some of the basic questions posed by Dionysus: Why are convicted murderers not considered insane? Why do we punish criminals instead of rehabilitating them? We could also add: Is a depressed young man who massacres schoolchildren or Black churchgoers, or who drives his car into a crowd of BLM protesters evil or sick? Should he be punished or given compassionate treatment?

Depression has been defined as “disturbance of affect.” But “affect” is culturally determined. Positive expectations and assumptions of the right to the “pursuit of happiness” make feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in America than anywhere else. Feeling good has become no longer simply a right, but a duty. If we cannot accept normal depression, we may become ashamed and alienated from ourselves, we may well experience the rage that often lies below the depression, and in true American fashion, we may search for scapegoats to punish.

Depression, violence, a culture that cannot grieve and poor medical standards, meet Big Pharma. The gatekeepers who update the DSM comply with these prejudices, having reduced acceptable, “normal bereavement” from one year to two months. Psychiatrists administer drugs instead of psychotherapy in over seventy percent of patient visits. Frederick Crews writes,

Those stigmata, furthermore, are presented in a user-friendly checklist form that awards equal value to each symptom within a disorder’s entry. In Bingo style, for example, a patient who fits five out of the nine listed criteria for depression is tagged with the disorder. It is little wonder, then, that drug makers’ advertisements now urge consumers to spot their own defectiveness through reprinted DSM checklists and then to demand correction via the designated pills.

The percentage of patient visits to a psychiatrist involving any psychotherapy fell from 44% in 1996 to 29% in 2004. Bruce Levine argues that Psychiatry has increasingly replaced psychotherapy with “medication management,” which largely consists of symptom assessment and prescription updates. It typically takes 10 or 15 minutes and is scheduled every two to three months, rather than weekly, as is psychotherapy. Insurance companies favor medication management because it is so cheap, and drug companies favor it for obvious reasons. Psychiatrists themselves favor it because they can make far more money with it. Those who offer only medication management routinely make nearly triple the income as do those who provide mostly psychotherapy. And when drugs don’t work, some still prescribe electroshock for children. Madness is big business.

Part Four

If therapy imagines its task to be that of helping people cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel), to normalize their oddity, and to accept themselves “and work within your situation; make it work for you” (rather than refuse the unacceptable), then therapy is collaborating with what the state wants: docile plebes. Coping simply equals compliance. – James Hillman

Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. – Blaise Pascal

In the 1950’s Time Magazine’s gatekeepers described left-wing comedians Mort Sahl and Lennie Bruce as “sicknicks.” But simultaneously, hipsters used “crazy” in positive terms. The powerless attain some control by inverting language, as 1960’s Black people used “bad” to replace “good” and, more recently, teenagers recently indicated approval with “sick.”

Clearly, however, madness predates capitalism, and economics doesn’t explain it all. Enter Dionysus. The term bakkheuein (“maddened by Dionysus”) occurs in over half of the extant works of Greek Tragedy. “Divine madness” came as a gift from the gods. The Muses inspired poetic madness, Apollo was the god of prophetic madness and Aphrodite gave erotic madness.

From the Greek perspective, the gods reveal ourselves to ourselves, and madness is a fundamental, archetypal aspect of the psyche. Dionysus, the mad god himself, was the patron of ritual madness. Classicist Walter Otto understood both the Greek world and ours:

A god who is mad! …There can be a god who is mad only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.

Plato distinguished two basic kinds of madness: “one arising from human disease, the other when heaven sets us free from established convention.” This insight, however, hardly exempts us from the necessarily painful experience of transformation. Another classicist, E.R. Dodds, described the conflicting emotions involved: “…a mixture of supreme exaltation and supreme repulsion… at once holy and horrible, fulfillment and uncleanness, a sacrament and a pollution.”

This ambivalence describes Dionysus himself, known both as the cause of madness (Bakkheios) and its cure, Lusios, “the Loosener.” And it recalls one of his stories: the Titans (progenitors of the gods) captured the baby Dionysus, tore him to pieces and devoured him. Athena saved the heart and gave it to Zeus, who ate it. Out of this Dionysus the God was reborn. Zeus struck the Titans with thunder and burned them to ashes, from which humans were formed. Therefore, humans have inherited something of the divine from Dionysus, and something evil from the Titans. The titanic aspect – excessive, manipulative, patriarchal, inflated, violent – is expressed in the madness of mass society, which nearly always attempts to repress the irrational, androgynous and potentially joyous, Dionysian aspect.

Which madness do we follow? Hillman summarized the old thinking: “…insanity is following the wrong god.” In any case, repressed diversity ultimately re-appears as psychopathology. Raphael Lopez-Pedraza wrote, “Illness is essentially repression.”  But the myths of Dionysus take this idea even further. In story after story, those who deny the divinity of this Other call upon themselves a terrible fate. He drives them raving mad – mad enough to slaughter their own children by mistake.

Many of these stories reflect historical opposition to his cult. But what are the archetypal implications? Why does the gentle god of ecstasy arrive with such ferocity? King Lykourgos persecuted young Dionysus, who hid under the sea, protected by goddesses. He re-emerged, no longer ecstatic but furious, driving Lykourgos mad enough to kill his own son. Boutes, who chased the maenads into the sea, went mad and drowned himself. Perseus killed some of Dionysus’ followers. The god responded by entrancing the Argive women, who devoured their own infants. The three daughters of Minyas scolded Dionysus’ devotees. Disguised as a maiden, he warned them of their folly, but they ignored her. So he changed himself into a lion, then a bull and then a panther. Ivy and vines grew over their looms. In their madness they dismembered and devoured one of their children, then roamed the mountains until Dionysus finally changed them into birds.

When Dionysus approached Eleuther’s three daughters wearing a black goatskin, they rejected him and he drove them mad. They were cured only when their town instituted the worship of Dionysus Melanaigis (“of the black goatskin – in league with the dead.”) Similarly, King Proetus’ three daughters went mad, infecting other women, and all left their families. Some ate their own children and wandered as cows in heat, fitting partners for the bull-god. Zeus asked Ino and her husband Athamas to hide the baby Dionysus from Hera. But she discovered the ruse and struck them with madness. Athamas killed one of his sons, thinking he was a stag, and Ino threw the other into boiling water.

His most famous story is Euripides’ Bacchae, in which King Pentheus persecutes him and his followers. It ends when Dionysus drives the women of Thebes (led by Pentheus’ own mother, Agave) insane, and they mistakenly kill and dismember Pentheus. But casual readers of the play and even many classicists often miss a crucial distinction between the women who choose to follow Dionysus – the Bacchants – and those – the Maenads (from mania, “possession”) – whom he drives insane because they have resisted him.

tmp745561608226340865.jpg?w=300                                                                    The Maenads attacking Pentheus

The essential message I take from these stories is that a soul – or a culture – that refuses to welcome and honor its irrational aspects will inevitably turn its rage onto its own children (or inner children). How else can we possibly explain a society such as ours, that condemns at least 25% of its children to poverty simply because their parents can’t find decent work?

It might have been different, writes Nor Hall: “Had they joined the Dionysian company willingly, they would have enacted this state of wild abandon within a protective circle.”

Robert A. Johnson wrote,

We hear a screech of brakes and a crash…Cold chills go up and down our spine; we say “How awful!” – and run outside to see the accident. This is poor-quality Dionysus…what happens to a basic human drive that has not been lived out for nearly four thousand years.

When society agrees on a definition of Apollonian “normality” peopled by contented, comfortable, positive-thinking citizens working or recreating in the mild sunlight of a suburban world, we naturally, perhaps desperately, long for a visitation from the darkness.

I suggest that America, with its history of unrepentant slavery, aggressive genocide, imperial aggression and puritanical sexuality, has and continues to identify – and demonize – the Dionysian impulse with racial and sexual minorities. And our unique mythology of innocence functions to keep the white middle-class safely within the pale of acceptable belief.

“Poor-quality Dionysus” indicates the return of the repressed, a subject I address in Chapter Four of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. “Mad,” after all, has other meanings: angry, rabid. If we think of some mental illness as a socially powerless, alienated person’s attempt to unite body and feeling – to resurrect Dionysus and the other gods from the underworld – or if we substitute “uninitiated” for “mentally ill” – madness can be part of a natural if painful process of restoring balance. Curiously, this is precisely how African Shaman Malidoma Somé describes the purpose of ritual.

As Jung taught, the old gods can only return as symptoms. This impacts many women who feel compelled to repress feminine values. In taking on the compulsively driven, cutthroat standards of the corporate world, they are like the Bacchants who cry out to Dionysus for release. Marion Woodman wrote that when women elevate thinness at any price to the highest value, the repressed gods take vengeance through somatic distortions like obesity or anorexia:

The Dionysian “madness” inherent in compulsive eating may be a modern expression of what was earlier known as “possession” and in more recent years as “hysteria”…The symptom may be the cross on which thousands are forced to writhe because they are unaware of the androgynous god striving towards consciousness.

No one is exempt from the modern condition. We all suffer from the collective emotional effects of the long-term shift from the indigenous, rural, pagan world to monotheism, urbanization and industrialism. We are all, to some extent, alienated from the Earth and from our bodies. We are all, in indigenous terms, unwelcomed, unacknowledged and uninitiated. We are the net products of a process that has taken some 200 generations to unfold, reaching its peak with many of our recent political and corporate leaders, whom Erich Fromm described as “necrophiliacs”:

…the necrophilous person loves all that does not grow, that is mechanical. …driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things…The necrophilous person can relate to an object – a flower or a person – only if he possesses it…if he loses possession, he loses contact with the world…He loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life.

But long before the advent of Trumpus and his mystifyingly huge popularity, Psychiatrist Russel Lee studied the political leaders of World War I and concluded that every one of them was bonkers: “The very qualities of egocentricity and megalomania characteristic of many psychoses are precisely those that lead men to aspire to high office.” He describes psychopaths as “superficially charming, intelligent people who don’t feel deep emotions and lie about almost everything because they neither understand nor care about others,” and argues that “in today’s rapidly changing business world, increased corporate rewards for risk taking and nonconformity can offer the psychopath faster career movement than before.”

Large-scale denial of the sorrows of our history and long-term identification with such men and other celebrities contributes to this condition. Nearly every American suffers from suppressed grief, which returns as anxiety, addiction, narcissism, depression or merely a vague sense of guilt.

The mad culture, led by madmen, continually requires new scapegoats to sacrifice and restore our innocence. Three million Viet Nam veterans (and now, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans) carry the burden of delayed stress for us all. Movies that portray them as ticking time bombs allow us to consider memory’s immense power without confronting its universal application. And, warns Dionysus, we are all ticking.

But who best displays our national shadow for us but our children, all of whom come into this world with the archetypal expectation of being welcomed and celebrated, but who encounter this madness? Consider their clothing: baggy pants drooping below the waste, butt cracks showing; untied shoes; oversized, black, hooded sweatshirts. This depressed style of presentation common among adolescents everywhere, regardless of ethnicity or social class, cries out: Look at us, look at what we carry for you!

Part Five

Harmless violence where no one gets hurt breeds innocence…the innocent American is the violent American. – James Hillman

In a mad world, only the mad are sane. – Akira Kurosawa

So many of our children, and all depressed people, carry the shadow of our manic celebration of progress, growth, heroism, extraversion, cheerfulness, grandiosity and radical individualism, below which is a bedrock layer of Calvinist hatred of the body. They are the canaries in the mineshaft, showing us that the more popular culture emphasizes these characteristics, the more depression spreads. We who channel the madness into fundamentalism, consumerism or war fever may feel temporarily welcome among the elect, while the Others who cannot do so are proof to us of our righteous standing and innocence. 


At least since the beginning of the nuclear age (I write this post on Hiroshima Day, 2021), popular culture has hesitantly acknowledged this condition. Novels like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five and One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest hinted that modernity, with its stressful pace of change and nearly constant fear and anxiety, is mad, or maddening. But even four hundred years ago, the first modern novel, Don Quixote (published two years before the English invaded Virginia), took madness as its basic theme. More recently, Paul Shepard described an “epidemic of the psychopathic mutilation of ontogeny” – in simple terms, we don’t grow up the way nature intended anymore. We are, by indigenous standards, uninitiated, children.

Medications and alcohol level our highs and lows, effectively casting out both angels and demons. Still, perhaps forty million Americans experience anxiety.

Clearly, any caregiver hopes to reduce suffering. “Successful treatment,” writes E.F. Torrey, “means the control of symptoms.” But when psychotherapy merely attempts to recover a sense of “productive normalcy,” that condition which is itself a cause of our unhappiness, it becomes yet another effort to recover lost innocence – and a condemnation of an archetype ruled by the mythic image of Dionysus.

John Zerzan argues, “To assert that we can be whole/enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.” This is partially a question of awareness, much of which is conditioned by the media, whose primary purpose, lest we forget, is to sell us to advertisers.

On the one hand, we collude, veiling both our complicity and our suffering. On the other, media obsession with crime and terrorism produces an on-going sense of anxiety. This decades-long, roiling, alternating sense of both paranoia and denial describes our peculiarly American form of collective madness. 


This has occurred – since long before 9/11 – in three major ways. On the positive side, pundits present a unified front of reassurance and denial: Global warming is a fiction, racism is a thing of the past, Iraqis welcome us as liberators, etc. Television idealizes the nuclear family and small-town values in cloying commercials that convey a ubiquitous, Disney-style innocence. Sit-com protagonists are usually young, attractive, middle-class whites whose problems – caused individually, not systemically – consistently resolve themselves. Reality shows are Social Darwinist fables in which the ablest triumph, but everyone gets a hug. It’s all good. Michael Ventura, however, measures how deeply “…people know that ‘it’ is not all right…by how much money they are willing to pay to be ceaselessly told it is.”

The negative side involves both sanitized violence as well as a constant atmosphere of low-level dread: illegal immigrants, teen pregnancy, drugs, urban violence, satanic cults, child molesters, “security” rituals at airports (do we laugh or cry when we give up our water bottles?) and TV news, where “if it bleeds it leads.” By the time the average student graduates from high school, he/she has viewed 18,000 TV murders. Fifty-five percent of local newscast coverage of children concerns violence. As a result, three out of four parents worry – unnecessarily – that strangers will kidnap their children. (Crimes in which a stranger snatches a child are actually quite rare). Between 1990 and 1998, as murder rates declined dramatically, murder stories on network newscasts increased by 600 percent, not counting O.J. Simpson stories. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than those who watch less. Ten percent of women in their forties expect to die of breast cancer, while the real odds are one in 250.

Ignoring race and the political-economic sources of terrorism, we fret about issues that the media choose for us. After several generations of TV, we rarely differentiate between ignorance and apathy: I don’t know and I don’t care. Meanwhile, the Dionysian scapegoat – defined as lacking the essential Protestant virtue of self-control – presents a tempting return to innocence. Everyone can avoid discussing gun control when newspapers editorialize, “It’s Not Guns, It’s Killer Kids.” We dread the disturbed individual, the bad seed, rather than systemic inequities. So our emphasis on individualism links happy denial to this constant, low-level background of fear. Periodically, when actual – or contrived – episodes of terror evoke the old frontier paranoia, we jettison our moral and democratic priorities like recycled computers.


The third factor is our electronically enhanced mania. In most public, urban spaces – stores, shopping malls and sports arenas – we endure unrelenting onslaughts of loud music, blinking lights and high-definition visual images. Often the atmosphere approaches that of gambling casinos, which are deliberately designed to create altered states of consciousness so as to heighten anxiety and encourage shopping. However, this anxiety never fully dissipates, and we acclimate to greater levels of it.

This awkward combination of fear, denial and over-stimulation has ruled our consciousness during the seventy years of television, which was born amid both consumerism and McCarthyism. From the start, Lucille Ball diverted us while Richard Nixon admitted, “People react to fear, not love.”

The roots of American paranoia go back to the original confrontation of settler colonists and natives. Ever since, we’ve held the contradictory notions of chosen people and eternal vigilance. If we are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy drives us to engage in, condone – or happily watch – extreme violence. Our lost innocence – we have done so much good – justifies our Biblical fury. Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial, and we awake exhausted.

The only other comparable emotional mix is the universal war experience of long periods of boredom interrupted by periods of absolute terror. Psychologist Edward Tick writes, “This twin dimensionality…makes it surreal, almost hallucinatory. Horror is married to boredom, fascination to putrescence.”

For forty-five years we’ve flocked by the millions to disaster films. This genre works both sides of the fear/denial dichotomy by heightening fear of apocalyptic retribution and then cleanly resolving the threat through the intercession of selfless heroes.

The pathology of this condition is that it subjects us to overwhelmingly persistent messages that completely discount our emotional, intuitive and moral intelligence. It is the same wounding that children receive if adults tell them that they (the children) don’t really feel something – and this happens all day long, every day of our lives. We all learn this: My ways of evaluating reality are failures. And, since failure in America is always moral failure, I am a failure. As Jerry Mander writes, “Television isolates people from the environment, from each other, and from their own senses.” The result is epidemics of depression, self-medication through substance abuse, consumerism and fundamentalism – and a peculiar aspect of “poor-quality Dionysus,” the distanced, vicarious enjoyment of violence.

After 9/11 the mad fusion of fear and denial reached cliché proportions with color-coded terrorist alerts. Americans awakened daily to a degree of apprehension that shifted according to un-confirmable “findings.” However, most (employed, pre-recession, white) people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong. William Rivers Pitt documented at least five occasions when damaging reports of administration malfeasance emerged in the media, only to be forgotten when the government quickly raised the terror alert.  By 2006, 79% expected another terrorist attack soon, but only 20% were personally concerned. In psychology experiments, such intermittent reinforcement drives lab animals insane. And it drives humans to release the tension by sacrificing a scapegoat.

Our characteristic American denial of death also ensures that we carry great loads of unexpressed grief. Malidoma Somé observes: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how… (Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.”

This succinct, tribal definition of alienation brings us back to the loss of the Dionysian experience. If we can neither grieve nor tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we can’t experience joy either. We tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (often with characters who refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (“lite”) and exclude the dark.

It follows that we’re fascinated with media (mediated) violence. Death’s repressed experience re-emerges in images. As suppression of sex creates pornography, American attitudes toward death result in what sociologist Ellen Zinner calls “necrography:” highly sensationalistic, electronic mayhem. This substitute gratification allows us to meet death and remain unharmed; thrill and pseudo-terror replace grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, however, insisted that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our… aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid…facing of our own death.”

How does this happen? Subject to vast, impersonal, forces impacting us from remote, Apollonic distances – government, corporations, junk phone calls, invisible viruses – most of us refrain from exploding in personal violence. By tolerating long-distance violence against the Third World, however, we safely displace our rage upon the Other.

America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness onto the Other in the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution, white Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for two centuries. Mass media certainly amplified alienation. But the seed of depression and long-distance violence fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.

The final factor is TV and social media, which help us remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.” On the other hand, even as programming perpetuates fear, it desensitizes us to the actual effects of violence. We innocently observe and quickly forget.

Never having confronted our own suffering, we must find a way to see it. We are, however, so abstracted that we don’t care whether death occurs on a three-inch game-boy, on an IPhone or in a Palestinian street. And our shell of innocence insulates us from our complicity: the nation that has more handguns than citizens is shocked – shocked! – each time a (white) teenager massacres his schoolmates.

Somé describes the consequences of refusing to grieve: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” To paraphrase Mexican poet Octavio Paz: a culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.

Part Six

If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic. – Thomas Szasz

I talk always to the man who walks along with me; men who talk to themselves hope to talk to God someday. – Antonio Machado

We have no tradition of shamanism. We have no tradition of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. – Terrence McKenna

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. – Ronald Laing

A major function of the myth of American innocence is to channel our grief toward either “Titanic” distractions or depression. From the perspective of shaman Martin Prechtel, depression is, quite simply, “the refusal to grieve…petrified sorrow.” Curiously, in the Tutzujil Mayan language of his Guatemalan people, the word for alcohol translates as “the Tear Loosener.”

Many men are well aware of this condition. One of the most common statements at men’s retreats is: “I haven’t cried in thirty years – and I won’t start. If I did, it would never stop.” It leads to a view of madness as the fine line between delusion and revelation, or between the return of the repressed and spontaneous initiation – the territory of The Bacchae.  

The return of Dionysus can appear as psychological dismemberment. But in modern life, such experiences typically occur outside of any ritual containers. Schizophrenics enter liminal space alone, without guides. Freud felt that psychoanalysis couldn’t help them, and psychiatry now diagnoses them as caused by bio-chemical imbalances or genetic defects that require lifelong drug treatment to repress the symptoms.

Jung, however, saw psychosis as a natural renewal process, a spontaneous, unconscious attempt at radical inner transformation, or metanoia. John Weir Perry argued that we should “regard the term ‘sickness’ as pertaining not to the acute turmoil but to the pre-psychotic personality…in need of profound reorganization.”

“Chronic schizophrenia” is created by society’s negative response to what is actually a perfectly healthy and natural process…It’s a well-known fact that people can and do clear up in a benign setting. Actually, they can come down very quickly. But if some of our cases had gone to the mental hospital, they would have been given a very dire message: “You’ve had a mental breakdown. You’re sick. You’re into this for decades, maybe for the rest of your life!” and told “You need this medication to keep it all together.”

Many of his patients described visions consistent with the ancient symbolism of kingship and initiation. Joseph Campbell wrote that such fantasy “perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey.” From this perspective, madness becomes an opportunity, under the dubious guidance of the mad god himself.


Mircea Eliade described shamanic initiations in Siberia: “The profane man is being ‘dissolved’ and a new personality…prepared for birth.” Initiates are torn apart: “They ‘die’ and…are cut up by demons …their bones are cleaned, the flesh scraped off.”

Similar images can appear in the visions of modern people who descend into madness. “If they are not supplied from without,” writes Campbell, “…they will have to be announced again, through dream, from within.”

What is being “dis-membered”? In America, and often at midlife, it is phallic, isolated, heroic masculinity that breaks down for a new identity to emerge. Dismemberment has one advantage, writes Nor Hall: “…we get to see all the parts.”

In historical accounts of persons who went mad but also had religious experiences, most took their revelations literally. They had visions of death, apocalypse, sexual inversion, and rebirth – all images of initiation. Those who did recover developed a poetic way of thinking past the literal to the metaphoric. In 1830 John Perceval wrote, “The spirit speaks poetically, but the lunatic takes the literal sense.” Hillman observes, “Only as Perceval becomes humorous, doubtful and ironic does he become sane…he moves from gravity to levity.”


Author Dick Russell offers a deeply moving account of his son’s long-term dance between a schizophrenia diagnosis, medication and African shamanic initiation in My Mysterious Son.

But Perceval was an exception. Most get stuck in “chronic liminality,” wrote Robert Moore. In the myth of Ariadne, many heroes entered the underground labyrinth, only to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus defeated it because he was grounded; he had kept in contact with the world above by means of Ariadne’s thread. It enabled him to return to the light (normal consciousness) after completing his task. Those who have no thread of connection to community remain below in that “labyrinth of transformative space,” but only partially transformed. Thus, says Moore, many pathological states are merely failed initiations. The danger is that approaching the symbolic brush with death of initiation can evoke literal death. One of his clients was lucid enough to say, “I need to die, before I kill myself.” Seven centuries earlier, when it was more common to think metaphorically, Rumi advised, “Die before you die.”

Until the seventeenth century, Europeans believed that madmen were close to the unseen world and accepted them within the community, rather than banishing them to the margins. Traditional West Africans still perceive distress as a call for help: madness is a sign that the community (who know nothing of “family systems therapy”) is sick. They perceive madmen as undergoing crises resulting from the activity of spirit and protect them, hoping that their healing will benefit the community. To them, a sick world speaks through the most sensitive of us.

Perry and Laing attempted to provide just this kind of ritual space in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The therapeutic community movement (followed later by the Spiritual Emergence Network) aimed to support people while they broke down and went through spontaneous healing, rather than reinforcing the existing ego defenses that maintained the underlying conflict.


But can men transform themselves – by themselves – in a world that lacks real community? Or, to pose the question in ritual terms: Can uninitiated older men initiate younger men? Shortly before killing himself, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?…If I can’t exist on my terms, then existence is impossible.”

Suicide was his failed initiation, the heroic ego’s literal response to the symbolic challenge of transformation. By contrast, James Joyce brought his distressed daughter to Jung, who could see that she was psychotic, but he was more interested in Joyce:

His ‘psychological’ style is definitely schizophrenic, but with the difference…the ordinary patient cannot help talking and thinking in such a way, while Joyce willed it and…developed it with all his creative forces.

Joyce had both the will and the talent to move his madness into art. Some just get lucky. One man, stuck in an unsatisfying life and ignorant of mythology, fell into a midlife psychosis, compelled to draw grapevines on his walls. Fortunately, a therapist introduced him to a relationship with Dionysus, and he gradually achieved healing through alliance with the right god. As Plato wrote, “…the greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent.”

Part Seven, Conclusion 

The whole world is sick…and you can’t put this right by having a good therapeutic dialogue or finding deeper meanings. It’s not about meaning anymore; it’s about survival. – James Hillman

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside. – Rumi

Tourist: “Have a nice day!” San Francisco Bagwoman: “Don’t tell me what to do!”

Dionysus is an image of our dismembered soul. We see ideals in other gods, but we see ourselves in him. He reflects our diminished, modern condition. But paradoxically he also represents our instinctual, embodied, integrated, original face. “I’m looking for the face I had,” wrote Yeats, “before the world was made.”

And his unique condition is one of his gifts to us. The suffering god models the universal connection between personal wound and intrinsic purpose. Finally, he shows us the way back to wholeness – the ecstasy of being, paradoxically, outside ourselves. But with no communally accepted and ritually precise methods of accepting his invitation, we encounter ecstasy’s other face: violence and horror. Those who deny him in themselves must force him upon others, because he must reside somewhere. Then he recruits his followers from imprisoned or marginalized regions of the culture – and the psyche – those with nothing to lose. 

He requires that we endure the tension of irreconcilable opposites and resist the temptation to choose. As soon as we locate him in one half of any of his polarities, we repress the other side, and it begins to plot vengeance. Each truth is a mask that conceals its opposite. He enters our lives when that opposite quality breaks out past the mask. Tragically, by that point, it is often too late to appease him.

The distinction in his stories between the Maenads and the Bacchants is crucial. Approaching the darkness in a ritual manner, within a strong communal container, we may pass through madness into a deeper sanity. The Bacchants sought a holy madness caused by – but also cured by – Dionysus. They provoked extreme emotions, but opposed the other, more destructive madness he imposed upon the Maenads who had refused him. They engaged in the first to avoid the second, losing their minds to become sane.


Fifth-century Athens incorporated toned-down Dionysian rites into its religion. Among its major festivals were the Anthesteria, when he returned from the underworld, and the Greater Dionysia, celebrated with dramatic presentations. The mad, drunken god was the patron of Greece’s most profound cultural creation, Tragic Drama. The entire male population of Athens crowded together in the theater in broad daylight. Confronted with irresolvable conflicts, they suffered like Dionysus himself, weeping openly in a purging (katharsis) of emotion. Aristotle explained that this came through “pity and fear,” but classicist W.B. Stanford translates eleos (“pity”) as “compassionate grief.” They left the theater exhausted but revitalized, not because their differences had been resolved, nor because a victim had been sacrificed for their sins, but because they had suffered together.


The rational Greeks had great respect for the irrational. In the Dionysian festivals, solemnity and mourning combined with dancing, drunkenness, and inversion of sex roles. Wild processions with large phalluses recalled his mythic intrusions into the city – and the mind. In myth, Apollo – most exemplary Greek God of reason, beauty, exalted discourse and refined culture, voluntarily relinquished his shrine at Delphi for three months every year, inviting his raving, trailer-trash, half-brother Dionysus to move in.

What would a culture that invited Dionysus back look like? The easy answer is a replay of the 1960s: sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll, wild abandon, relaxed boundaries, blurring of gender roles, long hair, colorful clothing, anarchy, irresponsibility, spontaneity, and chaos. The Id conquers the Superego. A return to childhood and innocence…

Wait. Stop the fantasy. First, lest we forget, when the archetype emerged in the form of sexually ambivalent Rock stars, its darker side also appeared as disturbed but charismatic figures – Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh – who led modern Maenads on lethal rampages. Fifty years later, their grandchildren thought they were following Trumpus when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.

Second, I have already described the repression of Dionysus as a return to innocence. To recapitulate: the myth of American innocence is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a series of narratives that presents America as a beacon of freedom, equality and opportunity, the land of the new start, where anything is possible if we work hard. An America that only goes to war to defend democracy and spread the pure light of freedom. Pure. Light.

The myth, however, requires Others, from Native Americans and African slaves and their descendants to immigrants to gays to communists and the most recent Others – Muslim terrorists, Chinese, Iranians and (once again) Russians – all of whom the myth has weighed down with Dionysian characteristics. Because they have carried Dionysus, white Americans haven’t had to.

One of the epithets of Dionysus was Lusios (the Loosener), derived from lysis, also the root of analysis, which means setting free. A catalyst is a chemical agent that precipitates a process without itself being changed. Dionysus Lusios relaxed the boundaries of ego, family and society. To truly invite him back into American culture after so long is to relax those boundaries without knowing what will come in, because opening to one extreme means opening to the other as well. This is the essence of Dionysian ritual as it is still practiced in places like Haiti: create the container, invoke the gods, then get out of the way, because the ritual belongs to them. It is to invite the madness back, in hopes that it might save us from our own culturally induced, hyper-rational, violence-at-a-distance, ecology-crushing, disembodied madness.

Dionysus was the only god who died and was reborn, and the only god (except for Demeter) who grieved. Here is the clue. For long-term healing to occur, America will have to pass through, to spend much time, in the territory of grief. Indeed, mass celebration without rituals of grief reduces to mere spectacle. For Dionysus, if we truly welcome him, will open up the boundaries of innocence and memory, and through the gaps (as poet William Stafford wrote) will come

…with shouts, the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.

Consider another story. Hera was disgusted by Hephaestus, her lame, ugly son, and hurled him out of Olympus. He survived and was ultimately accepted, but never forgot his early abuse. Eventually, he took his vengeance by tricking Hera into sitting in a golden chair, where she was instantly bound.

Looking at this myth, Murray Stein argues that behind the rejection of the son is the rejection of the mother under Patriarchy. The result is a cycle of mutual ambivalence and hostility. In Jungian terms, a man’s repressed feminine “marries” his shadow complex of repressed masculinity, giving the feminine an evil tone. Projected onto actual women, this feminine threat justifies his unwillingness to become emotionally intimate.

This emotional distance describes a long series of American heroes, from Daniel Boone to Rambo and beyond, who unleash their violence upon the Other, save the innocent community and then ride off into the sunset – away from women, family and all relational values.

But this story entertains the possibility of an integrated masculine identity. None of the gods, even Aries, could force Hephaestus to relent. So Zeus called upon Dionysus, who brought his wine and got him drunk. When he woke from his stupor, Hephaestus beheld Aphrodite and fell in love. They married, Hera was released, and peace was restored, all because of Dionysus.

Getting Hephaestus drunk symbolizes initiation into a masculinity that has made peace with the mother complex. Dionysus, says Stein, is both the “agent and the product of initiation…the integration of feminine spirit into masculine consciousness.”

Before he bestows these gifts, however, Dionysus will confront us with the madness of our history: the massacres, smallpox-laden blankets, slaughter of the buffalo, Indian schools, sexual repression, witch hunts, thefts of resources, robber barons, invasions, Hiroshima, B-52’s, napalm, deforestation, My Lai, Wounded Knee, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, embargoes, assassinations, coups-d’état, slave-whippings, selling of children, castrations, Eugenics, lobotomies, rubber hoses, lynchings, police murders and stolen elections. The children ignored and the lives wasted working at unsatisfying jobs while chasing the elusive pie in the sky. The sorrows. The madness. The refusal to grieve.

An unveiled look at American history reveals an enormous catalogue of injustice. It also requires, however, that we be willi