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 Innocence, applied 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.” In 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.
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.
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.”
The 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.
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. Many 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.
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.
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.
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”. Its 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.