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Perhaps, long long ago, once upon a time, in the year of our Lord, when the world was new – tribes of giants really walked this earth. Maybe we slayed them all or maybe they were so dim-witted and so aggressive that they destroyed themselves. Maybe giants were just really very tall people, not really giants at all. Seven or eight-footers, the kind who still roam the earth today – and who are weary of strangers asking if they play basketball.
There is no fossil record of a giant humanoid to measure out in cubits.
In the psychical world, however, giants do still exist.
It is completely beside the point whether they really exist.
~ C. G. Jung, Children’s Dreams
We live in a time of giants. Whether they exist or not.
There are giants on every side: In our personal and professional relationships, in our communities, our economies, our media, our political systems, and in public office.
And also in our hearts and deep inside our instinctive lives – giants live.
We’ve been facing giants together and on our own for thousands of years.
We write about it, and pass the stories on from generation to generation.
And a generation or two ago, all the psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners, living through the aftermath of the Holocaust told their own stories of facing dangerous giants – in the world and in themselves, wrestling with the cowardice and the heroisms they had each shown and seen in the face of a great and insidious horror.
They spoke plainly of the problem of evil:
I can tell you stories which say if you meet evil you must fight it, but there are just as many which say you must run away and not try and fight it. Some say to suffer without hitting back; others say don’t be a fool, hit back!
~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Our era has its own giants to battle and it seems to me to be a time to take a account of wisdoms generated by our ancestral struggles and successes against such destructive creatures.
Giants are half-human creatures, larger than life, who obscure the sun and cast a cold shadow over the land. Giants crush and devour tiny mortals, sniff human meat out of its hiding places, and use their victim’s bones to pick their teeth.
Entities who – at first – appear to loom so large, make us feel so powerless “to ourselves we seem like grasshoppers, and so we seem to them” ~ Numbers 13:33
Yet, for thousands of years, we’ve recorded – in great detail – in scripture, myth and in fairy tale, the various methods we’ve employed to bring them down.
Generations of giant-wrestlers offer us their legacy as an inheritance.
There are tactics to avoid, but if you are wise and listen closely, you will see that there are a hundred ways to subdue a giant. And when we are clever, brave and thoughtful, when we pay careful attention?
Giants always fall.
Hercules learned, when assisting the God’s of Olympus in their battle against the giants – that giants can never be defeated on their own turf, and if they are brought down on their own terrain, they must be dragged from their land in order to be destroyed.
Giants cannot be defeated on their own ground.
And later, when facing down the Twelve Labors, Hercules took note of another important pattern:
A celebrated exploit of Hercules was his victory over Antaeus. Antaeus, the son of Terra, the Earth, was a mighty giant and wrestler, whose strength was invincible so long as he remained in contact with his mother Earth.
He compelled all strangers who came to his country to wrestle with him, on condition that if conquered (as they all were) they should be put to death. Hercules encountered him, and finding that it was of no avail to throw him, for he always rose with renewed strength from every fall. ~ Bullfinch’s Mythology.
A giant’s skills cannot be used against him.
If you use the giant’s methods, he will only be strengthened.
If you try to take him down with brute force, he will rise again.
Hercules found his own solution, he raised Antaeus high up, lifting the giant’s feet from the ground, and strangled him in mid-air.
When David faced Goliath, it seemed he had learned or thing or two from Hercules.
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ⁵ He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. ⁶ He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. ⁷ The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; ~ 1 Samuel 17: 4-7
For forty days the giant stood at the front and cried out his challenge. Until, David, a shepherd boy heard the giant’s call and decided he would answer it. He had battled bears and lions to protect his sheep, and this giant seemed no more of a danger to him than that. King Saul accepted his offer, and prepared the shepherd for battle:
Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. ³⁹ David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. ⁴⁰
David refused to dress himself in armor inauthentic to him.
He faced the giant in his own skin, no matter how exposed.
He would not match weapons with a giant.
He chose to protect himself and those he loved using only in the most natural, the most elemental artillery: five smooth stones, polished by a river – that fit perfectly into a leather sling.
Others trembled for him. The giant was contemptuous, certain of his dominance:
The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ⁴⁴ The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” ⁴⁵
But in the blink of an eye:
David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground…There was no sword in David’s hand.
~ 1 Samuel 17 1-58, The New Oxford Annotated Bible
If our nighttime dreams gather up our unnoticed fears and hopes, intuitions and instincts in response to the challenges of our daily lives – then myth, scripture and fairy tale are our the records of our collective dreaming, the counterpoint of our collective consciousness.
Compensatory tendencies are to be found in fairy tales everywhere, so before I finish an analysis or interpretation I always say to myself: to whom has such a story to be told? Who needs that? ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have my own questions: What function do these stories serve? Why do we tell, and retell and revel in stories of defeating dominating, slow, cruel aggressive giants? What are “giants” when you dig right down into it, and why have we had to devise and record so many different giant-killing methods? What messages might these tales transmit forward from generations past?
In her extensive life long studies of fairy tale – Marie Louise von Franz, as a student, translator, and later a collaborator of Carl Jung’s – sought out the warnings and the wisdom embedded in simple folk tales of daring, magic and adventure.
Giants, she explains, emerge in creation myths all over the world, – and were “abortive, not very successful” attempts to produce human beings. They are lumbering, their thoughts move slowly, and they are irritable and reactive. They are also perniciously unaware, or unconcerned by the destructive impact that have on the earth, and on those of us who inhabit it with them.
Giants are mostly responsible for the weather: they create mist and in many countries even now, if there are thunderstorms, it is said that giants are playing in the heavenly countries and rolling their balls or bowling. There are thunder giants, lightening giants, and giants responsible for landslides and for boulder or rocks falling from the mountains; when the giantesses have their big washday, then the whole country is covered in mist. From these associations we can see that they represent the brute, untamed power of nature. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We are overpowered by giants, as we are by nature and natural disaster – and in our inner lives, we also have storms and tantrums and moods which can sweep through us like tidal waves, settle down on us like a thick mist, or leave us as crushed as if we were pinned under a giant’s boot. The emotional currents of our lives, our internal weather-systems, can overpower us in an instant:
Jung himself, sees our interactions with giant as imagery that depicts what happens when we are possessed by archetypal instinct. We can be swept up in energies which may destroy or devour us – or swell and inflate us, transforming us into monsters ourselves.
The connection of the giant with emotion and affect is practically visible in the fact that whenever one gets emotional, one begins to exaggerate: we make, as we say, elephants out of lice. A little remark by another person, or any detail, becomes an enormous tragedy as soon as we are overwhelmed by our emotion. The emotion itself is what is powerful and magnifies everything in our surroundings. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Perhaps we tell stories of battling and subduing giants as a means of gaining control over our inner storms and tempests: our uncontrollable, illogical, thick-headed, reactive, and irritable emotional lives.
That is why the giants between the gods and man are generally destructive. Their stupidity is easily understandable if we look at them from this angle, because everybody who falls into a state of affect becomes automatically stupefied. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Giants may be big, imposing, and destructive, but you don’t need to be a genius to outwit them:
Take Jack for instance:
He wasn’t the brightest boy, he traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans after all. And we all remember what happened overnight after his mother tossed them out the window.
Jack, of course, climbs the beanstalk that reaches high up to the giant’s kingdom. His knock on the castle door is answered by a tall woman, the giant’s wife, who quickly takes pity on him and hides Jack in the oven (perhaps he set off on this adventure only half-baked, needed some more time to rise to the occasion).
Fe Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!
Be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!
Jack’s giant may be brutal and dim-witted, but he lives close to his raw instincts. He can smell Jack’s humanity, or perhaps he just smells Jack’s fear. Mrs. Giant has a cover story ready: “It’s only some bones that the raven’s have dropped down the chimney” she says.
When the giant falls asleep – Jack is able to get away with a sack of gold. And here we see that the giant is easily confounded by his bride, as the same human odor is easily explained away when Jack returns twice more to steal the hen that lays golden eggs, and the magic golden harp that plays the sweetest music in the world.
Jack seems to have learned from Hercules and David experiences: He does not attempt to battle the giant on his own land, but relies on hiding, observation and stealth in order to lay claim to the giant’s wishes.
And when the enraged giant impulsively follows Jack down the beanstalk, Jack doesn’t engage (or inadvertently empower) the giant directly in any way. He does not attempt to respond to dominance by attempting to dominate in return, nor does he use the giant’s weapons. He doesn’t even attack the giant – Jack simply cuts off the structures that support him. With a stroke of an axe, Jack made sure the giant lost all footing and came crashing down to earth.
Only by avoiding direct confrontation, by becoming small, silent, swift and strategic is Jack able to get to the “core of (the giant’s) being whence he draws all his secret energy.”
You can’t “out-rage” a giant.
You will only strengthen him if you do.
It really is the same thing when one is confronted with somebody who is in an overwhelmingly emotional state. It is of no use to openly fight another person’s emotion. Trying to talk somebody out of a rage will just send him sky high. But if one can get at the secret curse behind it, at the basic motif, which the person generally does not know, then one may get at something to make the whole thing collapse. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
If we follow those tidy ravens – that deposited their trash down the giant’s chimney – eastward as the crow flies, from Britain to Germany, we may find more clues about the moral nature of giants:
It turns out that ravens like to drop their bones down the Devil’s chimney too.
In Grimm’s The Devil With Three Golden Hairs, a duplicitous King send a brave and fortunate boy on an deadly quest: to return from Hell with three golden hairs from the Devil’s head.
On the road to hell, the brave boy passes through two villages who ask him for help with their communal troubles: a magic fountain has run dry, a golden apple tree no longer bears fruit. He also meets a ferryman doomed to never stop rowing who asks to be freed from his dilemma.
“I know everything” the brave boy answers “only wait until I come back”
He may not have the answers at top of mind, but he trusts that if he is courageous and patient, the answers will come.
As he approaches the Devil’s house, the Devil’s Grandmother decides to protect and assist him – transforming the boy into a tiny ant, and hiding him in the hem of her skirt.
The Devil also sniffs out the scent of human vulnerability, is placated, and eventually falls asleep with his head in his Grandmother’s lap. Once he snores she suddenly plucks a golden hair from scalp: “Do not take it ill,” she says each time she jolts him awake for another hair, “I did it in a dream.”
“Who can help bad dreams?” she says.
The Devil asks about her dreams – she tells him she dreamed of a town whose magic fountain has gone dry, a village whose golden apple tree is dying, and of a sad ferryman who must row forever. The Devil tells her he has blocked up the fountain with a toad, he has set a mouse gnawing on the tree’s tap root, and that the ferryman has only to hand his oars to an unwitting passenger to be released from the Devil’s curse.
When the Devil had gone out again the old woman took the ant out of the folds of her dress, and gave the child of good fortune his human shape again. ‘There are the three golden hairs for you,” said she. “What the Devil said to your three questions, I suppose you heard?” “Yes,” answered he, “I heard and will take care to remember.” “You have what you want,” said she, “and now you can go your way.” He thanked the old woman for helping him in his need and left Hell well content that everything had turned out so fortunately ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The brave boy leaves the gates of hell behind him, releases the villages from their dilemmas, and tricks the cruel King into accepting the ferryman’s oars.
Perhaps is he ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oars from him.
Here our hero is trapped between two evils, a lying mortal king and the Devil himself. He doesn’t enter into any combat with these forces at all, but in the end, undoes them both by setting them against each other. He has no tools. No tricks, no arms, no armor, no axe. Not even five smooth stones.
He is confident, that if everyone can be patient, he will eventually find the answers that will liberate others from their suffering and fulfill his own quest.
He relies upon grand Mother Nature to protect and guide him.
He is willing to become small and still.
He takes care to remember.
He will not be distracted from his purpose.
The phenomenon of evil is simply the appearance of something demonic or abnormal, a kind of overpowering nature phenomenon, which does not pose any ethical problem but the purely practical one of how to either overcome or successfully escape it. It becomes a question as to whether one can overpower the phenomenon or whether one simply has to save one’s own life. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Holding back to assess the circumstances rather than going off half-baked, is necessary in order to assess what kind of evil we are encountering, what its motives, strengths, and vulnerabilities might be. We need to first understand what kind of giant we are facing before we can develop a strategy to survive it, or defeat it. It is necessary to spend some time hiding in the oven, under the bed, or in the folds of a skirt in order to determine what kind of evil we are up against.
von Franz speaks of the temperamental differences in myth and folktale between fire giants and ice giants – and the importance of discerning between “hot evil” and “cold evil.”
Hot evil – is passionate, reactive, irritable, explosive, angry, volatile. But it is also more easily confined, restrained. Its fire flares and recedes. The raging giant spends himself and falls asleep at predictable intervals. Our heroes have, so far, encountered irritable giants with hot tempers, and fiery emotions.
But there are cold and calculating giants, giants who feel nothing, whose blood runs with ice and who send chills down the spine of any who encounter them. Cold evil requires entirely different methods to survive, restrain or defeat. von Franz recounts a tale of an encounter with cold and deadly giant which I will tell you briefly:
The Giant Who Didn’t Have a Heart in Him:
A king sends six of his seven sons out to search for brides. On their return journey a giant turns them all, six princes and six princesses, into stone. The youngest, seventh son sets out, upon an old, slow horse, to rescue his brothers and their wives.
Along the way he meets a starving raven and shares his food.
He meets a salmon, trapped in dry mud, gasping for air, and returns him to the water.
He meets an emaciated wolf, who offers to carry the prince on his own back, if only he might eat the prince’s old horse. The prince gives the wolf his horse and the wolf becomes very strong, and the prince is able to harness him and rides him to the giant’s court. The wolf shows the prince a secret door, and there he meets a young princess, who agrees to help him conquer the giant and save his siblings.
The princess informs the youngest prince that no one can kill this giant because “his heart is not with him.”
She tells the prince to hid under her bed, to keep still, to listen carefully.
Like the Devil, and like Jack’s giant, the giant without a heart detects the smell of humanity – each time he returns to the room: And as before, the princess deflects and blames the birds for dropping bones down the chimney.
Just before sleep, for three consecutive nights the princess asks:
“I would like to know where your heart is”
He tells her it is buried under the threshold, hidden in cupboard. She and the prince search in those spots, and leave a wreath of flowers when they cannot find it.
The third night, simultaneously flattered by her apparent devotion and calling her a fool for believing him, he offers up the truth:
His heart is where she can never reach it: Far away, on an island, on a church well, on which a duck sits, “inside which there was an egg, which was his heart”
An infertile heart, unhatched, unborn.
The wolf carries the prince to the island. They summon the raven to help them find the key to door in the church wall. The duck releases its egg, which sinks to the bottom of the well only to be retrieved by the salmon.
From this point, to the end of the story, it is the wolf that directs the action:
“Squeeze the egg!” he directs the prince. The giant buckles in pain and begs for his life. “Tell him,” the wolf says, “to turn your brothers and their wives back into human beings.” The giant does this, and pleads to be spared.
And the wolf says: “Now! Squash the egg!”
and the giant burst.
The princess, the prince, his brothers and their wives return to their father’s kingdom and had a great feast, with the youngest son honored with a seat at the head of the table.
Humans are warm-blooded passionate creatures, and we have some begrudging ability to identify with big, hot-headed fire-giants. We can succumb to our impulses and our tempers too, and hot evils, crimes of passion, are easy enough for us to understand and identify in ourselves.
But cold evil, when we meet it on this earth, can paralyze us with horror. We are shocked, and flabbergasted by its cold-bloodedness. We see that it is devoid of empathy, that it is merciless, unfeeling. And a common response to exposure to icy dehumanizing evil, is to feel frozen and objectified. As though we have been transformed into statutes of stone.
It seems to me that the story of the heartless giant expresses the archetypal pattern which underlies what psychiatry calls psychopathy. In psychopathic patients we often meet a seemingly complete heartlessness, no feeling, and no ethics. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And we see that it is a far more complicated process, when facing a cold evil, to “get to the heart” of the matter, it takes many more allies, and it requires a longer “journey” to get to the core.
And only if we have the giant’s heart in our hands – when we have brought the heartless giant to his knees – we may see a shred of his half-humanity: He pleads for his life. We may identify with his terror momentarily. But if we are in the presence of a sociopathic evil – these are likely crocodile tears – shed only for the self, and not tears or repentance or regret. If we have not assessed the circumstances accurately, we may hesitate, entangled in a misplaced compassion.
(Socipathic evil) … behave(s) as if they had the right to lie, cheat and murder with no self-doubt, and no self-criticism. Underneath somewhere is also an ego-centric baby full of idealistic delusions, which, by its touching innocence hauls others into wanting to help and rescue the poor person; but that inner infant is a parasite – it never develops and therefore sentimental pity is inappropriate. . ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
And our young hero doesn’t make this determination himself, to destroy the giants infertile heart. The animals he has forged an alliance with carry him through to restoration. It is as some parts of our young prince, his complex moral reasoning is stunned and frozen – turned into stone as well – and other instinctive animal energies must see him through.
… one must never hurt the helpful animal in fairy tales… If you do not listen to the helpful animal or bird, or whatever it is, if any animal gives you advice and you don’t follow it then you are finished. In the hundreds and hundreds of stories that is the one rule which seems to have no exception! ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Ravens carry messages from the heavens down to humanity. Salmon carry intuitive knowledge up from the water unconscious to the surface.
And the wolf?
The wolf shows what to do: with grim determination he squashes the egg and kills the giant. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
We cannot take necessary action in the face of evil with out harnessing the wolf and all that it represents. We cannot make such decisions with our simple, young, idealistic humanity. We must know when to allow our response to be directed by a well harnessed, primal, animal instinct.
This would mean that obedience to one’s most basic inner being, one’s instinctual inner being is the one thing which is more essential than anything else. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
So many fairy tales warn us of the danger and destructiveness of unrestrained wolfishness. And we’ve learned to beware wolves when we are carrying goodies through a dark forest. But it is important to recall that according to Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs wolves who are not reigned in, will die by their own greed and destructiveness.
In its negative aspect the wolf is dangerously destructive… There is a saying that if one speaks of the wolf, it appears – just as when you speak of the Devil. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
But once we have forged an alliance and reigned in our own destructive impulse, we can see that it serves a natural, essential purpose, necessary to maintain the collective balance.
The wolf’s dark, dangerous firmness, which, if used at the right moment, is sometimes absolutely necessary in the process of individuation in order to mobilize the right values against evil… In such a moment one needs grim determination, the decision of a surgeon who has to cut off a limb to save the rest of the human being. This is what the wolf represents here. The surgical determination to cut something where there is no possibility of evolution. The combination of egg and giant has to be destroyed as a whole and then a new life begins away from this area. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Sociopathy summons sociopathy. Encounters with giants will activate our inner wolves.
In von Franz’s words:
To look upon evil is to become infected by it.
And we can feel our hunger for justice, our desire to dominate and destroy, a killing rage rise up inside of us.
And there are times when must repress it.
And circumstances where we must bide our time.
And dangers we must sometimes run from
And there are crucial moments, where we must summon our own capacity for destructiveness, harness it, focus, and use to it cut off an overwhelming force of unrepentant evil.
There are tales of mighty saints who were able to harness the powers of the greatest giants, taming and training them to building enormous cathedrals.
These are not simple tales of good versus evil. Wives and grandmothers betray their partners. Giants are undone by thieves and tricksters who would steal their treasures and the very hairs off their head. Wolves remind us that idealistic compassion is not always simple, not always wise.
These are tales which show us that evil is a universal condition, present in each and every heart.
We may either harness it and use it wisely, or we may succumb to it.
Or worse, we could become giant.
The greatest challenge in battling giants, as von Franz would suggest, may be “stepping out of a problem of evil by getting beyond the problem of the opposites, getting close to an inner center beyond the duality of good and evil and its fight.”
The only way to defeat a giant is to use one’s wit, to be wiser, cleverer, more intuitive.
Those who know their own evil well and intimately, who have an alliance with it, who have harnessed their destructive capacities – hold the advantage over those who are merely possessed and driven by the desire for dominance.
Knowledge, if linked with a state of higher consciousness, is perhaps the greatest means of fighting evil; dissociated from consciousness, it is just one magical trick against another… The rival whose knowledge means wider or deeper consciousness will probably win against the rival who simply uses traditional knowledge without knowing its real meaning, not being essentially connected to it. ~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
I have one more story to tell you.
It is the story of The Valiant Tailor, retold from the Brother’s Grimm.
There was once a brave little tailor, who killed seven flies with one swat of his tea towel, and who took this stroke of fortune as a sign that he should venture out into the wider world and encounter the adventures that called to him. Before he left he embroidered his waistband with the words “Seven at Once!”
He quickly encountered a tribe of irritable giants who challenged him to a contest of strength, which the tailor wisely side-stepped with clever sleight of hand. He was able to squeeze “water from a stone” by replacing the stone with a round of cheese, and tossed another “stone” (in actuality a small bird) so high into the air that it never returned to the ground. These wondrous feats coupled with the emphatic message on his waistband, convinced the dull-minded giants that the tailor was a fearsome enemy.
A king would hear of his branded waistband and his giant victory and would conscript the tailor into tending to two more troublesome giants “who caused great mischief with their robbing, murdering, ravaging and burning.”
The little tailor, not idle gathered two pockets full of stones, and with these climbed up the tree. When he was half-way up, he slipped down by a branch until he sat just above the sleeping giants, and then let one stone after another fall on the breast of one of the giants. For a long time the giant felt nothing, but at last he awoke, pushed his comrade and said: “Why are you knocking me?” “You must be dreaming” said the other, “I am not knocking you.” They laid themselves down to sleep again, and then the tailor threw a stone down on the second. “What is the meaning of this?” cried the other. “Why are you pelting me?” “I am not pelting you,” answered the first, growling. They disputed about it for a time but as they were weary they let the matter rest, and their eyes closed once more. The little tailor began his game again, picked out the biggest stone and threw it with all his might on the breast of the first giant. “That is too bad!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and pushed his companion against the tree until it shook. The other paid him back in the same coin, and they got into such a rage that they tore up trees and belabored each other so long that at last they both fell down dead at the same time. ~The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The cleverest ones may avoid engaging in false moral binaries all together, they side-step displays of dominance, and seek out a safe perch above and outside of the action. They may rely on the nature of giants, and Nature Herself to take care of the problem and correct those who have embraced and who exploit psychological imbalance.
Nemesis comes from the word nemo, which means to distribute, to attribute each one his rightful lot. Nemesis is a principle of natural justice by which everyone gets what he or she deserves. We cannot avoid seeing that there is such a principle in the unconscious, which has a curious way of exactly what one feels is somehow deserved. It is not justice in the human sense of the word, but there is an uncanny regulating force in nature which acts like justice and strikes one as being meaningful.~ Marie Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales
Nature abhors a vacuum, but that is not all it abhors, like a pendulum, like the weather itself, Nature compensates and corrects any imbalance, overgrowth or inflation it detects.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
There is not one story.
We all have our own giants to face, and we will each have to face them in our own way.
But our ancestors have offered us valuable clues to support us as this fearsome crossroads in a land of giants:
Don’t fight them on their own ground.
They will be strengthened by your aggression.
Trust your instincts.
Don’t use methods that are not natural to you.
Women know. They live with this every day. They know how to operate safely behind enemy lines.
Don’t let the monster eat you alive.
Wait until your foe falls into unconsciousness. Giants always do.
Knock the supports out from under them.
Get small. Stay still.
Be confident that the answers will come.
Help others along the way.
Trust Mother Nature to do her work.
Don’t forget those who have been turned to stone. They may be released.
Always listen to the helpful animal.
Know your enemy. Evil is infectious.
You cannot out-rage a giant.
Harness your wolf. But trust him and let him loose if you have to.
Celebrate your small victories and let them strengthen you for larger ones.
Simpler is better.
Know yourself. Be brave. Be clever. Be simple.
And remember that no matter what, one way or another:
Giants always fall.
(Note: this essay is set to public as a “sneak peak” at the Seminar subscription series that I offer, behind a paywall. To subscribe or for more information click here.)
In general, approaches to treatment that are supported in clinical psychology tend to focus on individuals in isolation from their communities, and very often do not take into account local cultural differences ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
Here and in the What a Shrink Thinks essays – I write a great deal about myths and archetypal themes, and I primarily (although not exclusively) draw on the myths and scriptures, fairy and folktales that were fed to me as my first cultural language: the Old and New Testament, The Brother’s Grimm, the Greek Gods. But I do not return to these stories over and over again because they are the only stories, or the most useful stories, or because they are inherently “universally applicable” stories (although I do believe there are likely universalizing psychological themes, “primordial images” that inform all humanity – just as we generally have the same essential organs in our bodies) But our relationship to these “organic images” varies dramatically from culture to culture, and the mythologies and values that cultures organize themselves around are often dramatically different.
I don’t tell the mythological stories that I tell because they are the best ones, or the preferred ones. I use the myths that I do because they are my myths, and because I am most equipped to understand their nuances as the culture that I was raised in organized itself around these stories.
Reading myths from other nations, other cultures are often illuminating – and can offer new ways of perceiving and differing values that Euro-American psychotherapeutic culture omits, or minimizes or represses. But, I don’t tell those tales as easily. They are not mine to interpret. I am not sure what cultural realities have risen from their foundations, and I cannot always know if the themes that I take note of, are perceived accurately by me, as I have not been raised in Russian, or Ethiopian, or Japanese culture. It is unlikely that I will understand all of its implications – and although I do make a point of surveying world mythologies, I am concerned about co-opting and distorting the archetypal themes to fit a “Western” point of view.
An example of this kind of co-option is the archetypal tales from China about the Red Thread of Fate.
So there are some universalizing components: Threads and Fate and tangled and woven threads, threads of connection, spiders spinning threads – are all “primordial images” (Jung’s first words for the archetpyes) that are often associated with the notion of “Fate.”
That being said: the Chinese tales about the red threads focus on the fateful connections between husbands and wives in a historical era of arranged marriages. From my limited and translated exposures to these tales, this is not considered a good or a happy outcome, but merely an inevitable one. No matter how you may feel about your potential marital partner, whether they hurt you or adore you, your fate is tied to theirs, neutral, and inevitable. The stories appear to me and others, to help people to face their martial fates, good, bad or indifferent, with some acceptance.
In the US, the community of Chinese adoptive parents saw in the myth, an archetypal image that resonated with them: A red thread that connects family members to each other – that means that no matter what – you were destined to “find” each other and to belong together. The archetypal image was dislodged from its cultural context: and new meaning was reassigned to it: We were “meant to be” your parents, it was certain we would find you, the red thread confirms that our family is the “right” one and that this is the life that you were supposed to live.
The universal archetypal image, of fateful “strings” is stripped away from of the Chinese origins and cultural context of The Red String, and now tells a very different story – one that serves a different cultural function of validating and enfranchising non-biological family as a source of “belonging” equivalent to families made by birth.
So, I want to be clear that I use the stories I do, because I feel they are the ones I have a better chance of understanding because of my acculturation. And I am always cautious about making any “confident” interpretation of a mythology from another culture.
The members of a single cultural group understand each other because they use the same images in their speech. Different cultural groups often misunderstand each other since their images, which to a great extent rely on their respective mythologies, differ significantly. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
This is important to keep in mind as therapists for lots of reasons: Many of us are going to be working cross-culturally, with clients who are first or second or third generation immigrants to our nation, who may draw on cultural reference points, and myths and values and beliefs that are very different from the practitioners. And we need to be careful both about 1) assuming a common underlying mythos that may not be present, and 2) imposing a set of culturally specific values that we may naively imagine are universal.
And “myths” are not only stories, they operate in contemporary culture as (often unexamined) collective beliefs, assumptions and values:
Like the Gods of mythology who can change into animals or trees, myths take many different shapes. They are our ideologies, idols, models or policies, visions, demands, our slogans, psychological theories and economic notions. Individual and collective myths shape the life of the individual and of nations. At the same time they expressive the individual and collective soul. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Guggenbühl-Craig writes in his various books, for example, about the myths of equality, the myths of progress, the myths of marriage, the myths of helping professions, the myths of independence, the myths of creativity, the myths of old age. We might also speak of the myths of adoption, the myth of decline and the good old days, (MAGA), the myth of freedom, the myth of the pursuit of happiness.
If we look at American notions of equality for example, you will find that almost every single American, even the most extreme, assert that equality is a primary value that they hold and pursue in some form. They may experience themselves as the oppressed party who has been denied equality, or they may fight for the equality of others who they see as being treated unequally. But of course there are hundreds of thousands of ways that American culture does not actualize these values – there is profound income inequality, those who fight for their civil rights are sometimes perceived as having gained “special rights” that have some how made them “more equal.” Even to speak of communities that have access to “more equality” or “less equality” than others makes no sense.
And of course there are ways in which we are certainly not equal – some have greater skills and some less, some are smarter, some have more challenges than others, or more deficits in some area. We don’t all run as fast or finish the test at the same time. And even without institutional biases and oppressions which work against whole groups and races of people- fate and fortune still do not distribute themselves equally – some will be granted more or less opportunity, some have more or less luck. Some of us pass through massive clusters of unfathomable and cascading ill fortune while the sun never stops shining on our neighbor’s home.
But no matter our behavior or our fates – there is generally an organizing American myth of equality that all of us speak of and feel strongly about.
An incomplete myth is harmful. A balanced one, however, is a reflection of our inner life and thus enhances self realization. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Different nations, cultures and cultural groups often have differing organizing values. For some cultures, respecting social and generational hierarchy is a far more salient organizing myth and assumed “equality” would be rude or even blasphemous. For some cultures “personal happiness” is not only not a central cultural value, some cultures don’t even have words for such an experience as “happiness” is defined as by the over all quality of well-being for the group or the family unit. So, imagine the capacity for destructiveness and harm when “Western” trained “mental health” practitioners who have been inculcated in the psychotherapeutic myth (for that is a myth too) begin imposing their national mythical beliefs in equality, autonomy, and happiness on to cultures who do not value those mythical constructs or who interpret them very differently.
Cross cultural work can be liberating at powerful for both participants as long as both participants’ cultural mythological schemas (including the myths of dominance and supremacy) are up for explicit examination and both participants mythologies are respected. If we consider that all of our cultural and national myths are only partial truths, then cross-cultural work has the possibility of bringing both participants a fuller picture of the world.
I have found such work to be the most illuminating therapeutic relationships of my lifetime – but only when the dynamic is one where the client is always allowed to be skeptical of how my “American-ness” or my “white-ness” or both skews my perceptions, and I am simultaneously both “aware enough” of our basic cultural differences – and also always willing to return to a state of “beginners mind” where I am receptive to being taught about what I do not know, and also to acknowledge what I can never really understand.
I wrote this essay a long time ago about being a non-adopted person who is often immersed and surrounded by adoptee culture and mythologies that I can and have learned a good deal about, but that I can never entirely understand.
So every “group” and sub group and family and region and ethnic community and nation has myths about themselves and about others – and sometimes we can find ourselves working in a defacto “cross-cultural” relationship with clients born in the exact same local and era as our own.
Psychoanalysis itself is its own mythology, and there are a variety of different mythic beliefs that we now call schools of thought: The Freudian myth, the Object-Relational Myth, the CBT myth. The disease model is its own myth, as is the myth of development. We like to imagine there are clear, universal developmental stages, and sometimes we do see children and adults move through stages of apparent and “expectable” development – but just because sometimes people live out myths and are loyal to them doesn’t mean they are unilaterally true or necessary.
In psychotherapy, there are great dangers in trying to identify “universal themes” among and between peoples and groups – and in cross cultural work– in part because it has too often been the case that this universalization has merely been the imposition of a white European/American psychological myth.
And in large part: the primary white Euro/American psychological myth as it is practiced today– is one of individualism and personal pathology.
In their text Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman, recount how medicalization and the models of personal pathology came to dominate mental health provision in parts of Europe and in the US. It was not always the case that the psychoanalytic community saw the individual as its primary arena of intervention. Many of the first psychoanalyts were Marxists, socialists and social democrats – actively involved themselves in social justice movements and saw that as a rightful extension of their mission and theories. Freud was involved in establishing free clinics. Early pychoanalysts of various schools of thought were active in establishing reproductive health care initiatives, and “education for women, schools for the poor, the kindergarten movement, school based treatment centers for children traumatized by war and poverty, settlement house psychology classes for workers, the first child guidance clinics, and suicide prevention centers.”
They paid attention to building conditions for peace and stability in Austria and Europe, put forward initiatives to help women struggle against varying forms of domination and control, and suggested architectural changes for public housing that would help build urban families’ sense of community. Their advocacy for children issued from the extensive needs of children after World War I, psychoanalytic insight into the importance of early childhood development for later psychological health, and awareness of the traumatizing effects of poverty on childhood development. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
In other words, psychoanalytic theory and intervention took place in communities, among nations, and in social environments and not only in the psyche of an individual with a problem that had been located inside their “person.”
Watkins and Shulman and others, speculate that the horrors of World War II, and the immigration processes of many psychoanalysts caused many of them to “tone down” their more radical social justice resumes in order to negotiate naturalization processes. For those that found themselves living in the US, McCarthyism would drive such ideological affiliations even further underground. As the various psychoanalytic schools and institutes vied for prestige and for legitimacy and began to advocate for the full medicalization of the profession and the elimination of “lay analysts” – now reserved for doctors and those with graduate degrees only. Thus the medical model with its focus on individual symptoms, financial model of reimbursement, and disease model became so entrenched it was as if the psychoanalytic community had never seen social justice as part of its purview – and its theories and technologies became exclusively focused on individual treatment.
But this is what Guggenbühl-Craig would call an “incomplete myth.” In the archetypal psychologies, all archetypes have a “positive” and “negative” aspect – “light and shadow” – and any myth which divorces itself from its shadow aspect has the capacity to become destructive, even dangerous, in its attempts to eradicate the aspects of the complete myth that it most fears. The myth of equality is only a complete myth if it includes a legitimate exploration of the ways that some fates and fortunes and happinesses will always be distributed in ways that are inherently unequal. Some will live long lives. Some will die young. The myth of equality cannot truly eradicate all inequalities, all unfairnesses.
In order to make sense of these inherent unfairnesses of living – we create a new myth, the myth of superiority. Those who have had fortune are elites and deserving of it. Those who have misfortune are ne’re-do-wells who got what they deserved as well.
All myths and stories that express how I or my group is superior to others express something which takes place in my soul. What is pernicious about that? I believe mythologies of chauvinism and racism lack something: they are one-sided myths… For a mythology of group affiliation to be complete, it must include superiority and inferiority.
Each myth is harmful only if it is not counteracted by the opposing myth.
~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth
Of course early depth psychologists and psychoanalysts were particularly cognizant of the destructive myth of superiority, having witnessed many of their colleagues and cohort annihilated by the holocaust.
The larger point here is that as therapists we must remember that our clients are embedded in a sociopolitical matrix, and it may require as much intervention in the social environment to alleviate the stressors that plague them as labors toward helping the client summon their resilience.
And sometimes, when we cannot intervene ourselves in the environment that surrounds the client – we must at least help them locate the source of their problem, whenever it is possible and accurate to do so – outside of themselves.
I have a client who spoke about their “Trump-adjusted mood” (credit to podcaster Ana Marie Cox) – meaning that their baseline has shifted downward as a result of the socio-political anxieties of the time. What would have felt as “very anxious” before is now “okay, considering.” Of course the client wasn’t familiar with Axis 4 diagnostic critera – but there are massive environmental stressors impacting everyone in some way right now. The world has become a precarious and a paranoid one – and even if we are powerless to block the injustices that are crashing down around us like a giant’s footsteps – we can at least take as much pathology as possible off of the individual psyches that are sitting in the room with us.
Liberation psychology should illuminate the links between an individual’s psychological suffering and the social, economic, and political context in which he or she lives. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
Or as Jungian Marie Louise von Franz might put it:
Suppose an analysand behaves outrageously in a group. If we try to make him see that this was all his fault, he is too crushed and, objectively, that would not be correct, for a part was the group shadow. Otherwise there might be too great a feeling of guilt, and there is a kind of secret norm of how much of the shadow a human being can stand. It is unhealthy not to see it, but just as unhealthy to take too much of it. One cannot function psychologically if one takes on too much…
I say all this to make clear that when we speak of the shadow there is a personal individual aspect and also a collective aspect, the group shadow. The latter naturally would in some be the sum of the shadows.. ~ Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales.
I think, that this is in large part why I, trained as a social worker, was more drawn to Jung’s theories over other psychotherapeutic models: Because it is transpersonal, systemic, about how we live, what we have in common, and what we don’t, as a species. And about what our responsibilities are with regard to enabling or individuating from our cultural and national myths.
Nevertheless, a purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its level best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. I consider this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically… Can we not see how a whole nation is reviving an archaic symbol, yes even archaic religious forms, and how this mass emotion is influencing and revolutionizing the life of the individual in a catastrophic manner?
~ C. G. Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious
Jung, of course, wrote that passage referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany. But this too is an era that is revolutionizing the life of the individual in a catastrophic manner.
What does this look like in session with an individual? It means that when a client is claiming too much of the collective shadow, as von Franz said, that we must remind them that their assessment of the severity of their mood must be “adjusted” to factor in the anxieties of this unstable era. It means that we don’t let our clients take more than their share of the collective shadow.
It means that when a client is talking about how their work weighs them down, feeling worried or depressed or anxious all the time, we remind them that yes, they may be stressed because of their divorce, or and their work, and its true that if they could face the bills they have been avoiding they might feel better – but how do they think that the news and the uncertainty in the larger world may be impacting them? We remind them that many people are feeling triggered and anxious as the #Metoo movement changes the ground under their feet, that many are worried about the possibility of looming war. That the cause of their distress is not exclusively personal, it is collective. It is our national shadow casting its chill. We help them to individuate, to separate from the myth that has gripped our country: a myth of xenophobia, a myth of dominance, a myth of paranoia and a myth of superiority and power. We ask how they are feeling about the Muslim ban, if they know anyone who is impacted by the challenges to the DREAM act l, how they feel about the stories that they are hearing, and the ways their own lives may be transformed as norms and expectations and entitlements are threatened and eradicated.
The purpose is to pinpoint all shades and polarities of a particular myth of ideology, individually and collectively. ~ Guggenbühl-Craig, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth.
Liberation psychologies place stress on identifying, supporting, and nurturing the psychological attempts of individuals and groups alike to re-author their own sense of identity. This requires a critical analysis of oppressive power relations, including those within psychology itself. Psychologies of liberation gather together resources to help people understand possibilities for multiple layers of interpretation through which the world that has been imposed on them can be understood and reorganized. ~ M. Watkins & H. Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation
I wrote here about working to include ecopsychological-minded interventions into my practices, and the work introducing of liberation psychology into psychotherapeutic work is not so different: we simply ask about the things that the myth of personalized psychotherapy leaves out: We broaden our focus, we ask about how clients are feeling about the world and the social political natural historical environment they are embedded in.
And we ask:
Who does the myth serve?
Who has it left out?
What is missing?
What might lie beyond this myth?
And we remind ourselves that psychotherapy was, at its inception, a myth that included radical practice, a practice that was inexorably connected to social justice. We find the causes and the realms of social action that we feel called to outside of the office, and we help our clients to see that a portion of their pain, maybe even a very significant portion, is generated by the environment, and we help them find the wherewithal to engage in constructive action to make their myth more complete, and the world more just.
I was ashamed to tell this once, but now . . .
He came like a wrestler, magnificent, took me down and breathed his fire through me and – I yielded, then at the climax I recoiled -I deceived Apollo –
Even then I told my people all the grief to come.
Once I betrayed him I could never be believed.
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Agamemnon
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.
~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
Dusk. I stand in a bay window scanning the scenery. It is bucolic; a lake in the foreground, a village nestled between the far shore and the surrounding woodlands and ascending foothills. A small mountain range cuts a jagged line across the sky. The evening light is purple, and I notice, the peaks are backlit, glowing. I know, instinctively, that the far side of the hill is aflame, and that this raging wildfire will spread, climbing toward the crest, and then descend toward the woods, engulfing the village, and surrounding the house I am standing in.
My housemates insist it will be fine. “The flames are miles away. It would take days before it would reach us, if it were even to head this way. The winds could switch, the rains could come. There was no emergency-broadcasting signal; no firefighters had called for evacuation.” I am too alarmed, they say, and prematurely, over a remote possibility.
And although I wanted to act with every fiber of my being, my warnings had fallen on skeptical ears. “Go to sleep” they tell me. “You are overreacting,” they say.
But I know. I feel it in my bones. I have been burned before and I can see exactly how it will all unfold.
The others in the house head off to bed. I won’t preserve myself alone, nor do I want to. I need us all to move to safety.
And because they will not, I cannot either.
I fall asleep with the others.
The smell of smoke and ash wakes me. The hills, the valley, the forest, the village are all on fire. As I stare out the window in horror, hundreds of wild animals, panicked deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes are tearing through the streets, barreling toward us, fleeing the flames. Their eyes roll with terror. They trample anything, anyone in their path.
I wake my housemates: “Move!” I scream. “Go! Now NOW!” The volume and primacy of my scream mobilizes them. As they scramble protect the valuables. I am rooted in place. Watching. Seeing. Screaming.
My labor has all been channeled into seeing, anticipating, and withstanding the mounting fear and horror alone, until it hits an intensity that others can experience.
A canary in a coalmine. A Cassandra.
And as I scream I see the very ground beneath us is glowing hot and orange. Boiling magma. The world itself is on fire.
So many Cassandras.
In my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I don’t think I have experienced a single workday that did not contend with the aftermath of sexual violence, violation, or harassment in some form. Every day of my professional life has involved sitting with another Cassandra who no one else would believe.
Raped, abused, harassed, molested, groomed, threatened, assaulted, stalked, terrorized, groped, forced.
By their fathers, uncles, brothers,
By their parent’s friends, and their friend’s parents,
By teachers, coaches, doctors, priests, and other therapists,
By dates, friends, husbands,
By customers, bosses, co-workers,
By neighbors. By strangers.
And I’ve sat with boys and men who have been abused as well as those who have perpetrated abuse. And so often, these were the same people.
Those who were shamed and ashamed, and those who were proud and unrepentant.
This fire has been burning for centuries, since the beginning of recorded time.
There is nothing new under Apollo’s sun.
And because I cannot share the private stories that women have shared with me, and because I cannot tell the details my of own experience, I will speak through Cassandra’s archetype, for the vast and hidden army of Cassandras.
But I will say this first for myself: of all the varied experiences of sexual violation that I have experienced in my lifetime, from age 12 on, across the continuum from the merely icky to psychologically traumatic: there were none that I could stop, even when I saw them coming. Even when I saw the smoke and knew the fire would follow.
They were all bigger, or older, or stronger, or wealthier, with greater status.
They all held the power to both corner me and render me unbelievable.
I spoke up, when I could, when it seemed prudent and viable.
It changed nothing except this:
It conscripted me into the secret sisterhood of Cassandaras, who no one would believe.
But we believe each other.
And the innocent boys I knew long before they were perpetrators – they were once Cassandras too, who escaped their curse by assuming Apollo’s throne.
Cassandra in her youth was drawn into the service of Apollo, the God of Truth, of Music, Knowledge, Foresight, and Healing. God of Sun and Light.
Zeus’s son, the Patron of Patriarchy.
And young Cassandra caught his eye.
Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, once fell asleep, they say, in the temple of Apollo after growing weary from play. Apollo wanted to ravish her, but she refused him access to her body. So he made it that no one believed her though she prophesied the truth. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology
And even sun gods have their shadows and Apollo’s father, Zeus, saw sexual dominance as his godly entitlement too.
Apollo is a pervasive cultural archetypal force, the patriarchal principal, which allows any human channeling its energies to momentarily see themselves as a shining god on a golden throne.
CASSANDRA: But the lust for power never dies – men cannot have enough. No one will lift a hand to send it from his door, to give it warning, ‘Power, never come again!’
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
It is wise to remember that the gods hold powers that mere mortals cannot sustain, for Nemesis, the goddess of Divine Retribution will, eventually, topple all mortal hubris. The reckless power-drunk, imagining they are as omnipotent as gods, ignite the fuse of tragedy, which burns towards its explosive end – destroying the innocent in its path, and destroys the pseudo-god as well.
CASSANDRA: God of the long road, Apollo my destroyer – you destroy me once, destroy me twice. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandra is twice destroyed, first by the assault, and then by Apollo’s curse, the curse that she would never be believed.
CASSANDRA: See, Apollo himself, his fiery hands -I feel him again, he’s stripping off my robes, the Seer’s robes! And after he looked down and saw me mocked, even in these, his glories, mortified by friends I loved, and they hated me, they were so blind to their own demise -I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all… ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Apollo’s ability to control the narrative, to enlist and conscript the community to enforce his curse, speaks to the ways that we collectively defend against the existentially intolerable realities of trauma and abuse.
The knowledge of horrible events periodically protrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman describes the cycles of collective cultural examination and denial of the pervasiveness of abusive trauma, and names three distinct historical-political eras that permitted and withstood a legitimizing study of trauma and its aftermath: The decade when Freud and his mentors undertook the study of hysteria and explored its connection to pervasive sexual abuse, before Freud, (and not Freud alone but the entire medical/neurological/psychological community he was embedded in) “glimpsed this truth and retreated in horror” from its implications. The study and legitimization of “shell-shocked” soldiers, previously defined as cowards or malingerers, culminating in the formalization diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. And the focus of second wave feminism on sexual violence and the emergence of rape and domestic violence crisis centers.
The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
We are in such a moment of political potential now as our entire culture contemplates yet again whether or not we will enforce or fight against Apollo’s curse of disbelief.
Trauma is endemic, inherent, natural. Animals are traumatized by wind and weather, by flood and fire – and they experience trauma inflicted upon them by other animals, and by other members of their own species.
Maybe we are designed to survive simple trauma. But abusive trauma is compounded by a culture of stigma and disbelief. We are surely not designed to withstand being scorned, stigmatized, or banished from the troop of human monkeys for stating concrete experiential truths.
And the Curse of Disbelief is damaging in large part because it disrupts the process of meaning making, blocking Cassandra’s ability to use her injury in service of protecting others. It means that Cassandras cannot warn or insulate others who may also be in harms way. Pending disasters, clear and present dangers cannot be averted.
Cassandras are doomed to watch horrors that could have been stopped, unfold. We must watch, speechless, as the harm and the human toll mounts.
Those who do speak up to sound the alarm risk being crushed – depicted as defiled, liars or insane, and may grant their perpetrators even more power and sadistic pleasure. Who can take the risk, of empowering their abuser and harming themselves further while sparing no one else?
I cannot calculate how many hundreds, maybe thousands of women, and girls and boys might have been spared if the curse were lifted in my life alone, if I had the power to stop the cycle and cauterize the damage at each and every instance. If all of the Cassandras could disrupt the tragic cycle from unfolding at the moment of ignition, what new myth might we be living out?
CASSANDRA: Apollo the Prophet introduced me to his gift.
Abusive trauma may leave life-damaging symptoms: dissociation, constriction, intrusive thoughts and memories, hypervigilance, fearful arousal. But traumatic exposure also does something else: It gives us a glimpse of a larger and more terrible truths.
The Sun God you worship may also violate and curse you.
Civilization is a thin veneer.
The wilderness is amoral.
Human beings are also human animals.
Cassandra has been shown the truth about the feral universe – and this truth disrupts the hubris of those who believe in the safety of civilization.
We like to imagine that civilization is a secure proposition.
That safety and fairness are the normal baseline that the walled city cannot fall.
We like to believe that forces larger than us are fair ones, that if we are “good” and our intentions are “good” and we make regular offerings, that the gods will concern themselves with fairness and justice.
Cassandras know that the wilderness exists in our most civilized spaces: the temple, the office, the home, and the public square.
Cassandras have learned: abuse can be as bold as broad daylight.
Stability is temporary, and security is insecure.
Cassandra’s eye was opened and she could never blind herself to that reality again.
CASSANDRA: When all is well a shadow can overturn it. When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge, and the picture’s blotted out. And that, I think that breaks the heart ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon.
To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and joins victims and witnesses in common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
And when the necessary social contexts are not in place, our communities will not heed the visionary warnings of the disempowered, which places the entire collective in harms way. Ultimately the Curse of Disbelief destroys us all: Trojan Horses are accepted as gifts to the gods, despite all the signs and warnings of the danger, the downfall, that lurks hidden and silent inside.
Overjoyed, they dragged the horse in, set it up next to Priam’s palace, and discussed what to do. Cassandra said that there was an armed force inside, so some decided it was best to burn it, and others to hurl it down a cliff. But most decided to leave it alone since it was an offering to a god. They then turned their attention to sacrifice and feasted. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology Trzaskoma, Stephen M.; Smith, R. Scott
And the kingdom falls. The walls of civilization are breached and the world is revealed to be ruled by wild and feral gods, concerned only with power and not with justice.
As moral as a brush fire.
Captured by the invading king, foreseeing his destruction and her own, her community and kinsman in bondage, Cassandra finally revolts against her god:
CASSANDRA: Before I die I’ll tread you (ripping off her regalia, stamping it into the ground) Down, out, die die die! Now you’re down. I’ve paid you back. Look for another victim -I am free at last -make her rich in all your curse and doom. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandras can become a dangerous force in themselves. Volcanoes may sleep, dormant for hundreds of years in between violent fiery eruptions. And silenced screams become more dangerous and destructive over time as the pressure builds.
Her screams become embodied curses, calling down the unceasing anger of the avenging Furies, who destroy their enemies by shredding them to pieces with a studded scourge.
We have enacted Cassandra’s ancient cycle since the dawn of Western civilization. Can it ever stop? Will the curse be lifted?
The myth leaves us with no solution. Only destruction. Troy falls. The ruling members of both parties – the Greeks and the Trojans are destroyed by The Furies, by each other and by women’s range. And Cassandra is killed by her captor’s wife.
Cassandra predicts this herself, foresees it all, unable to stop or derail the horrific events.
And Apollo is unmoved.
The myth is an inherently tragic one.
Our only hope is to live a different myth entirely:
A myth that values women’s voices exactly as men’s voices are valued.
A myth where children of all genders are cherished and protected.
A myth that transcends punishment and revenge.
A myth that does not require forgiveness or submission.
A myth that allows us to guard and keep each other,
To repent from our cruelties,
And to make meaning from our wounds.