In this blog we will examine the meaning and potential usage of three of our oldest stories.
We are enthralled with progress. Scientific progress and regarding this blog: Progress within the field of psychology and psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience, gene therapy, the pathway of neurons from the gut to the brain and all the ever blossoming new versions of talk therapies competing to deliver the latest “bomb” of insight into the mind and the best treatment of mental issues. So far though the best talk therapy treatment has failed to materialize – they all deliver about the same level of therapeutic efficacy and the experts in cognitive neuroscience themselves seek psychotherapy for their own psychological and existential issues.
Sometimes the “truths” about the mind and best understanding of existential issues and what to do about them, are enshrined and mirrored in the old. Not in the new. In our fairy tales in religious narratives, sayings and all the myths and legends from all over the world told and retold through the beginning of time. This dusty mirror has in my praxis as a clinical psychologist again and again shown itself to be a great reflection of the trials and tribulations of human existence.
There is also something strangely appeasing about realizing that your dilemmas are deeply human – portrayed as they are in our ancient stories. It kind of makes you not “suffer it alone”.
Three Ways of Understanding
Nietzsche meant at some point (he had many theories) that you may understand things in three ways: the conceptual way, the narrative and the historical way.
Aforementioned cognitive neuroscience and talk therapies function on a level of analysis you may call conceptual. In these perfectly worthwhile and exciting endeavors one makes elaborate systems out of aspects of our neurons, hormones, bacteria, thoughts, feelings, emotions, experience, behavior, trauma, strengths, awareness and other key components of being. Constructing conceptual images of the human being to mirror, explain functionalities and mechanics of our body and the psyche and guide us through life.
The myths function on the two other main modes of understanding: The narrative and the historical dimension. They appear in narrative form and there is a historical element to them as they have seeped through generations.
In the following I will outline some of the myths that I often share with my clients.
Hermes, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ulysses
Hermes – if you make a game out of love – you may lose the ability to love.
By the way: The following represents my own interpretation of the myth. A myth that stretches at least 3500 years back in time.
Hermes is the God who as an infant in his first day of life, kills a turtle, hollows it and makes a lyre out of it (a stringed instrument) and steals 50 cows from Apollo by having them walk backwards (them not seeing what they get themselves into). Apollo is enraged. Zeus intervenes. Apollo gives Hermes a golden staff. Hermes gives the lyre to Apollo. Later on Hermes is given wings on his sandals and a little leather purse, signifying that he never stays in one place long and as we shall see: the staff symbolizes his cock and the purse symbolizes his balls?
Deeper meaning: Killing the turtle, Hermes sacrifices love. In ancient Greece the turtle symbolized love and was an attribute of Aphrodite. Symbolically speaking he hollows out love and literally plays on it. He then tricks Apollo’s 50 cows into following him. The cows of Apollo signify women. (Apollo is the God of beauty and the cows represent fertility.) So: Metaphorically speaking Hermes lures 50 women to himself by tricking them, and plays on love. As a consequence he has to hand over the lyre and is given a golden staff. The moral of the story seems to be that if you make a game out of love and trick 50 women to follow you home, you are reduced to associating yourself with a golden staff – your fallos.
The basic artifacts of Hermes is his staff (his fallos) his leather purse (his balls) and wings on his sandals (an inability to stay in the same place).
This reduction of Hermes to his lust, is underlined by the story of him having children with a human being, a nymph and a goddess without being in a relationship with any of them. Illustrated also by the many Herma statues from ancient Greece in which he is depicted with only his face and his cock and balls on an oblong rectangular often tapering stone.
The lesson? If you make a game out of love and you trick fifty women into your cave you reduce yourself to being your cock and balls with wings on your sandals – always on the go. In other words: if you make a game out of love and date 50 partners you may lose the ability to settle down and experience complete love.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – a story of knowing your own limits?
This is one our oldest myths. Nobody knows whether it originated in India, Greece or another place. It can also be found in Africa. Apparently this myth has had a universal appeal throughout the ages and cultures. In the following I will lay out the basics of the narrative and suggest what it symbolizes. What it tries to teach us:
An apprentice works in a sorcerer’s workshop. The sorcerer leaves and the apprentice, tired of toiling away, puts a magic spell on his broom to fetch water and do the cleaning for him. However, he can’t figure out how to stop the broom from fetching water and cleaning. He cleaves to broom in two and suddenly he has to contend with two brooms fetching water and every time he splits the broom it doubles again and again. The sorcerer comes back and puts things straight. Depending on the version, the sorcerer either laughs or berates him. Whatever the case the apprentice is reduced to cleaning up – using his broom – without magic.
You may read many things into this myth. Perhaps the central theme is that we should realize the limits of our abilities and not think ourselves smarter than we are. We should know our place in the order of things, in the cosmos, as it were. We should realize that if we meddle with things we don’t understand, we will most likely make everything worse.
This particular myth makes a lot of sense in psychotherapy. People suffering from anxiety, worry, OCD, jealousy, depression and a myriad of related afflictions have this one thing in common: They try to rid their mind of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and feelings and as they try they multiply them and suffer even more. As such a panic attack is in essence the person misinterpreting stress as something dangerous. Haplessly fighting against their own stress, they push their stress to a point of excessive anxiety. New perspectives on depression from the so-called third wave of cognitive therapy tells the same story about OCD and depression: It is the fight against depressed and unpleasant thoughts that exacerbate and maintain them. The same goes for excessive worrying, the person worrying a lot (as seen in generalized anxiety disorder) does so to attain control over dangers in the world and in their mind, and as they ruminate on problems and their solutions, they create more and more anxiety.
You may say that many people suffering from mental issues are guilty of naively trying to clean up their mind from feelings and thoughts of dangers, and as they do, they multiply them. When they start combatting these many thoughts of calamities they grow ever stronger. Like a modern version of the sorcerer’s apprentice who dabbles in magic to clean up making a mess out of it all.
The lesson: Leave it to the sorcerer, leave it to God, leave it to life if you will, to sort those things out. It is not within your purview to be able to rid yourself of thoughts and feelings. You are – oddly as it may sound, not the conductor of your own mind. You have to accept your place in the universe which includes allowing all kinds of unsettling feelings, thoughts and sensations. Surrender yourself to life: A higher order power will make sure that your mind has an appropriate harmony if you will just stop meddling with it. Ancient buddhist traditions and Christianity had this figured out: In meditation you are led to experience and accept whatever your mind produces of thoughts, emotions and sensations and Christians are led to feel that with “faith” things will sort themselves out with the help of God.
You are not the magician that you think you are.
Ulysses and the six headed dragon – A story about growing up
Again: This is my own interpretation
This story stems from Homer’s epic story of the man Odysseus or “Ulysses” trying to get back to his native Island and his wife and son after having fought in the war at Troy. One of the several challenges he has to go through on his journey is to sail with his few surviving soldier buddies through a strait that harbors two formidable foes. On the one side of the straight there is a deadly whirlpool on the other a six headed dragon that is invincible. The dragon “Scylla” cannot be killed, if you chop one of its heads off it just grows a new one. It has been foretold by the sorceress Circe that Ulysses has to sail underneath the dragon where he will lose some of his men to the dragon. Obviously he doesn’t want to see his soldier buddies die, so he tries to sail straight through the dangers, getting dangerously close to being swallowed by the whirlpool and ending up underneath the dragon and losing six of his men.
This is an existential crisis of sorts marked as it is between a choice of two evils. The thing is that there is rarely a choice in life that doesn’t hurt somehow. If your company decides to expand to Scandinavia you miss out on expanding to Germany (to begin with anyway) and vice versa. If you break up with your partner it will most likely hurt you as well even though it may be the right thing to do. Most hard choices can be said to be the choice of the lesser evil: As the saying goes: Caught between Scylla (the dragon) and Charybdis (the whirlpool).
So Ulysses has the choice of either swirling aimlessly around and around himself lost at sea with his buddies (the whirlpool) or to sacrifice his soldier buddies and the adventures associated with them, in order for him to return home to his wife and child (the entire purpose of his voyage).
The drama denotes this one important lesson: Growing up is – also – about letting go of the multitude of opportunities of life to do the one thing that is important, or as more or less explicitly told in Ulysses: To choose his own family over the many women that he meets on his voyages.
The image of the whirlpool is akin to the treadmill that the womanizer Samson is caught in, in the Bible. According to renowned depth psychologist Erich Neumann, the “going round and around” is a symbolic representation of being haplessly caught in the habit of going from one woman to next. Choose one home – not many. Choose one career – not many. Choose one direction – not many. And be prepared to suffer the consequences of foregoing the multitude of opportunities that life has to offer as you zoom in on your purpose.