Betrayal and Transformation Through Myth

Betrayal and Transformation Through Myth
Benjamin Dennis PhD

Given the events of these last months (and years), it seems appropriate to consider the nature of betrayal and its various implications. Politics, wars, our many hopes for change in our country’s public discourse, and the many social difficulties bring forward a distinctive need for self reflection and an honest assessment of our identity—collectively and as individuals.

Stories of betrayal are all too common. Surprisingly, they are populated with characters that we love with all of our being—characters that, in spite of our trust, thrust us into utter confusion and loss. Measured in the innermost regions of the heart, these moments of betrayal are revealed as “a rupture in the veil of ordinary life,” remaining alive and dynamic in the imagination (Deardorff 2).

When we look to stories, myths, and the experiences of our own life to see if there is some greater force at work, we discover that life’s betrayals are intimate with its triumphs. Success, and the subsequent confirmation of place and identity, is often contradicted by those events we may term as ‘betrayals.’ Those events that are “a violation in which we are in-formed by assault: dis-possession, dis-appointment, dis-ease; every indignity, every wound, every curse, every tragic fall brings us to [a] crossroads” (Deardorff 2). Yet, faced with the need to continue living, we must also confront the chance to understand that betrayal is an agent of transformation, its presence implicit in life. And, while a contradiction in the heart, it is at these crossroads, out of the ashes of betrayal, that the opportunity arises for the soul’s creativity to emerge.

Betrayal’s immanence and inherency becomes an ontological disruption, a “catastrophe of the previously unforeseen,” that seems to challenge our very right to live as vital and creative beings (Zimmer 259). Connected in conflict, dismembering and disrupting the status quo, and driving consciousness into chaos and ambivalence, there is more than a risk of annihilation. However, because betrayal exists on a metaphysical plane, contradictory, substantial, and dynamic, it is rich with dangerous potential, and full of the possibility of resurrection and renewal. This is what the catastrophe of betrayal brings—the potential of enantiodromia, the sudden turning in the progression of one’s life, and with it all manner of creativity that may never have been possible otherwise.

The tensions that reside between betrayal and trust are alive and dynamic in all relationships. James Hillman says it this way: “Trust and the possibility of betrayal come into the world at the same moment…and betrayal, as a continual possibility to be lived with, belongs to trust just as doubt belongs to a living faith” (“Betrayal” 66). Trust and betrayal demonstrate the paradox of connection that embodies the willingness to suffer for a vision of something greater than the self. Conceived together, intimate and alive, in service to life beyond the momentary event or circumstance, trust and betrayal are a contradiction that requires conscious entry into their combined territory.

When we experience betrayal, just as when we experience liminality, we die a little. Through this dying we become the beneficiary of the sacred marriage, a hierophany that “breaks the heart open,” as Daniel Deardorff says, “to disclose a deeper invulnerable shape” (48). “Neither here nor there,” Victor Turner notes, “betwixt and between…likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon” (95). Out of liminality comes a sense of bewilderment that erupts as a howl (if not a directive) for the acceptance of the conditions brought about by betrayal. What follows is poesis, soulful creativity, the exhibition of the transformation and renewal that occurs when the fear of death no longer has its hold, and the liminal realm that bring rich and generative resources—the possibilities immense. However, the ego works astonishing counter-intention in its efforts to resist the fear of death found in liminality and suddenly, no longer is it possible to speak of betrayal as opposed to trust. Rather, it must be seen as outside of structure, within the instinctual body, on the verge of a great chasm, between, and ambiguous to everything that is supposed or known.

In its peculiar way betrayal is a tragedy that “breaks the world progression forward, and the moment the catastrophe has come to pass it appears to be what was intended all the while” (Zimmer 259). Therefore, betrayal’s image can no longer be seen as singular, but as strangely purposeful as it reveals one’s orphan-hood by situating the individual as more than isolated and alone in the world. It rends the literal mind and dislodges expectations by forcing the individual to simultaneously occupy the multivalent regions of the sacred, the mundane, and the profane. Betrayal is the mythopoetic anti-structure that is personified by the soul’s movement into liminality and transformation. In this way, betrayal leads inexorably toward what is archetypal, primal, and chthonic.

Myth characterizes conditions such as betrayal, passion, love, and hate as transformational, changing, and acting with agency. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C. G. Jung regards the deities found in the old stories as embodiments of the archetypes themselves. He understands that there are inherent dangers found in searching the “fund of unconscious images,” recognizing that inquiry into the “matrix of a mythopoeic imagination [. . .] appears to be a risky experiment or a questionable adventure” (188). He goes on to warn that the contemplation of mythic images open one’s self to their transformative power, and externally “is considered the path of error, of equivocation and misunderstanding” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 188). Since betrayal is dynamically poetic and timeless in nature, its momentous ubiquity leads to a lived condition where remembrance is no longer a singular instant in one’s life; rather it is the salt and leaven of memory. David Miller describes it as “here and now, not in the ego” (Three Faces of God 8). Within the experience of betrayal time ceases to have discreet meaning. It deforms the senses, alters the perception of the world, occupies an immutable moment, and implicates the immediate.

The notion of living and re-living an instant is one way of recognizing betrayal as a lived condition—before, now, soon-to-come—and iterating existence as it arrives like the sun from behind a cloud. Betrayal is always there, comfortably obscured by a façade, an occlusion existing within untested innocence. Betrayal is fully revealed in the instant that one ignores its brutal lesson, even when that lesson is no longer needed or remembered. The burden of the intellect, as David Miller offers, “would be to continue to imagine that such senses of self—moods, dreams, illnesses—are under the will’s control or are susceptible to an analysis or explanation by the ego’s intellect and reason” (Three Faces of God 8). To the ego, the experience of betrayal is a transformative subversion of its primacy.

If we maintain that betrayal is an archetypal manifestation, it is appropriate to follow David Miller’s reasoning and aver, “it is precisely at these moments that the ego is unconscious,” and our inner activity is an “amplification rather than reduction, mythos rather than logos, story and poetry rather than logic” (Three Faces of God 8). If we reject betrayal, we become a victim unable or unwilling to risk and rise from the ashes of our experience. If we bring imaginative creativity to the chaos, however, we will become transformed and enter the imaginative field of creativity where the artist is found wandering down the dark and painful lanes of memory remembering what was dismembered and investigating how betrayal reveals what is now hidden or secret. Following Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious and conscious is crucial in grasping how betrayal, as an archetypal entity, inhabits the liminal regions of the psyche; the territory that the archetypal artist navigates, that which was otherwise not known or in the shadows.

In Suicide and the Soul, Hillman writes, “An objective inquiry in this field somehow betrays the impulse of life itself. The question raised in this inquiry necessarily leads beyond the touch of life” (17). The understanding I am after is this: one must explore the territory of betrayal and go beyond life itself to truly grasp what it means to be alive and to experience authentic transformation. It is crucial to understand that betrayal, its moment and its impetus, directs one toward transformation. Whether one heeds the guidance is another question. In the face of betrayal, one may choose to live in the condition dictated by betrayal, and therefore not live fully. Or, one may choose the extraordinary uncertainty of creative effort, reach beyond the limitations imposed, and fully inhabit life.

The word betrayal implies a great variety of meaning, much of which may often be overlooked. Referring primarily to relationships with others, the word betrayal is concerned with what we think, believe, and hope. But on another level it is also a word that is used when hidden things are brought into view. The verb, betray, refers to an action or behavior such as one person’s act of treachery toward another. The noun betrayal indicates the nature of such action. For the purposes of this dissertation, there is a dual meaning to betrayal. First, “to be disloyal [. . .] by acting in the interests of an enemy,” or more personally, to “disappoint the hopes or expectations.” Second, and perhaps more important, to betray is to “reveal the presence” or “evidence of” something hidden or secret (New Oxford American Dictionary). In both cases, betrayal is about the relationship between one’s self and the perceived world.

Betrayal’s etymological root trādere, meaning “to surrender,” or “to hand down (to posterity),” brings attention to deep psychological nuances. In the condition of betrayal there is an exchange of something known for something unknown, deforming the existing sense of reality, and abruptly forcing the mind to contend with the unknown. Betrayal pushes the structure of perception to its limits. By forcing a redefinition and reevaluation of relationships, identity and reality are reorganized into new psychological structures. When one discovers that a preconceived notion is not true, the subsequent emotional attachment and loss are experienced as a betrayal.


In any discussion of betrayal, it is important to look at trust. The origin of the word trust in Middle English comes from the Old Norse word “traust, from traustr ‘strong’; the verb from Old Norse treysta,” which is then assimilated to the noun (New Oxford American Dictionary). Trust is the belief that the world is as perceived, reliable and genuine. Someone or something is known, clear, understood to be true, honest, and recognizable. It is the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” To trust is to be able to “believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength” of something or someone. It is also the “acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Trust has many implications, but it takes on an ominous character when it is violated or there is disparity from what is known and understood to be real.

The Medea

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
           (William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”)

Euripides’ The Medea is the archetypal divorce story. Blindness, betrayal, revenge, uncompromising retribution, and destruction are all present. Here the children and the mistress are brutally killed, just as they are so often brutally destroyed emotionally and psychologically in our world today. Euripides elaborates these elements with tragic efficiency, suggesting that this is a timeless and archetypal condition. It seems that Euripides is saying that lives are actually destroyed when we lose sight of our instinctual nature. His elaboration of the older myth of the Argonauts plays on these themes with ferocity and inexorable recognition of what devastation is possible. Where, then, do we go from here? How do we move from the apparently inevitable outcomes of betrayal?

The Medea is a tragedy that challenges the meaning of self as it relates to the sense of place and home. The two main characters are at cross-purposes. Each has a notion of how the world should be, and each is at odds with the normative identity that is imposed by external forces and circumstances. In terms of place and home, it is this inner geography and territorial agenda that is at odds with, as Gabriel Marcel declares, “Being as the place of fidelity” (46). As the intimate terrain and inner landscape are ravaged from all sides by betrayal and disappointment, it is one’s most essential and faithful nature that invites the possibility of betrayal—where the confluence of the external forces of domesticity are at odds with the implicate order of one’s primordial self.

In tragedy, betrayal disrupts the connection with the numinous, that sense of deep spiritual attachment to one’s place, and the grasp with the ordered and apparent world. Betrayal provides the “cracks in the mirror,” and allows the “fundamental mystery and ambiguity its terror and grace, its autonomous nature” to enter the soul where it can either live in mutual sustainability, or descend into tragic loss and annihilation (Miller, The Three Faces of God 5). Jason’s naiveté and Medea’s actions expose the dichotomy between the domesticated and apparent life, and the sacred and numinous life. The choices, as Jung offers, “may be indirectly occasioned by consciousness, but never by conscious choice” (Essays on a Science of Mythology 73). Therefore, the intuitive movements and choices inherent in the intimacy and inhabitance of the numinous are supplanted by a departure into the insensate world they now occupy.

When Medea sends her children to Creon’s house with Pyrrhic gifts, they are sent to deliver a mutual curse, and we know that they are doomed. One need not wonder too much what these two boys see when their mother sends them out as unwitting operatives in her plot. In their short journey we remember our betrayals. It may be the core of this story that the children are sent to suffer the pain of the world. Medea’s betrayal becomes her treachery as she makes her children the unsuspecting victims of her own suffering. “But for my children’s reprieve I would give my very life, and not gold only” (Euripides 967-68). Is she lying? Regardless of the answer, she sends her children to the palace with the infernal dress, making unwitting accomplices of them. “Now there is no hope left for the children’s lives,” the Chorus cries in anticipation of the treacherous deed (Euripides 976). This is the very betrayal we most fear, that which comes unbidden and unwelcome, from those we trust most, and bringing with it certain death.

Jason and Medea’s wedding precedes the opening of Euripides’ play. It is the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage between heaven and earth. However, it is also a union that has grown a very large shadow. There is a juxtaposition of the anima, animus, and archetypal shadow images that influence the narrative that unfolds in The Medea. The shadow, exerting a powerful archetypal influence, manifests itself through the characters as they take on alternating characteristics that exemplify contrary positions. Medea operates with agency and ferocity contrasting Jason’s ignorance and powerlessness. Jung observes in his 1948 lectures to the Swiss Society for Practical Psychology:

“The archetypes most clearly characterized from the empirical point of view are those which have the most frequent and the most disturbing influence on the ego. These are the shadow, the anima, and the animus. The most accessible of these, and the easiest to experience, is the shadow, for its nature can in large measure be inferred from the contents of the personal unconscious” (The Portable Jung 145)

The shadow bride and the shadow groom find expression within the marriage by taking on the expected emotional and behavioral features of the other.

Marriage is a bond of trust, sacred, divinely connecting the numinous world with the secular. The archetypal nature of marriage is a union that “inaugurates the universe,” and is clearly a bargain of survival and creativity, and a divinely inspired alliance between the untamed and the domestic (Deardorff 43). “This is indeed the greatest salvation of all—for the wife not to stand apart from the husband” (Euripides 14-15). However, marriage that is intended to establish the sacred occupation of home and place turns into a shadow marriage when only portions of the agreements are honored, bringing in the unimaginable and the darkest nightmares. This is where tragedy is born. “But now there’s hatred everywhere. Love is diseased. For, deserting his own children and my mistress, Jason has taken a royal wife to his bed, the daughter of the ruler of this land, Creon” (Euripides 16-19). The disease disrupts the hieros gamos, and the sacred marriage is lost in tragedy.

Assuming that the sacred is not concerned with our individual happiness or benefit, the tragic has its proper and appropriate place in the cosmos. To reiterate Hillman, “Trust and the possibility of betrayal come into the world at the same moment [. . .] and betrayal, as a continual possibility to be lived with, belongs to trust just as doubt belongs to a living faith” (“Betrayal” 66). Therefore, the assertion can be made that betrayal’s emergence as a sacred event also creates sacred space, inviting sacrality in its varied forms. The implication is that the most severe conditions, as Robert Moore suggests in his book, The Archetypes of Initiation, are inherent to sacred space, that extremes are some of the most powerful sacred spaces (151). The reaction to betrayal is the felt sense of liminality, the numb feeling of simply being neither here nor there. Betrayal, therefore, resides in the liminal realms of sacred space.

As an anima figure associated with the chthonic goddess, Medea is ambivalent. Her gifts turn to curses helping her into poison and betrayal, justified by the perception of victim-hood. Remembering her past, Medea’s evokes Hékaté, naming her as a partner “who dwells in the recesses of my hearth” (Euripides 396). She is the goddess whom Medea calls on to represent the shadow of her rage. Hékaté is goddess of dark places, “an ancient and mysterious chthonian deity of uncertain origin” (Apollonius Rhodius 233). She is also associated with Aphrodite, the terrible goddess of love who provides a framework within which to view Medea’s actions. Recalling her marriage to Jason, “Medea is slighted, and cries aloud on the Vows they made to each other, the right hands clasped in eternal promise” (Euripides 20-22). Aphrodite is known for her uncompromising nature regarding her relationships. Like Aphrodite, Medea operates with complexity and surety of purpose. Betrayed, she has a reason, the promises made to her are broken, and this, like Aphrodite, incurs her wrath.

Although Medea may have been abandoned and betrayed by Jason’s desire for political gain, she remains “unconquered,” cunningly shielding her distasteful cloak of imposed weakness, all the while maintaining the “power of the inferior” (Turner 99). Just as she abandoned her father and homeland for love, she retains the ability to take care of herself in the face of both social restrictions and the masculine oriented world of physicality and brute strength. She retains the capacity to destroy her enemies in both spirit and body through cunning and her knowledge of both human nature and the natural world around her.

Medea despairs beneath the overwhelming weight of events. She voices the consequence of Jason’s actions, lamenting, “Ah, wretch! Ah, lost in my sufferings, I wish, I wish I might die” (Euripides 96-97). Medea’s voice drives the tension right into the ground with her declaration of utter hopelessness and despair as she collapses into her self. She embodies the descensus ad inferos, “a descent into hell,” that is often associated with love, betrayal, injury, near-death, and trauma (Miller, Hells and Holy Ghosts 14, 16). The essence of these experiences clarifies into sacred manifestations by delivering the immensity of the cosmos, situating her as other than the center. These events initiate her into nonlinear realms where the literal and linear cannot survive. It is in the presence of these expressions that betrayal delivers its terrible gift.

Jason’s Betrayal

That Jason betrays Medea, there is no argument; yet, he also betrays himself. His acquiescence into domesticity and departure from his primal and intuitive nature reveal subtle aspects of his personality. Jason is an opportunist who consistently makes Medea complicit, but unrecognized, in his exploits by letting her do the work while he reaps the benefit. Jason equates material gain and geographical position when he tells her, “You have certainly got from me more than you gave . . . instead of living among barbarians . . . you inhabit a Greek land . . . [and] live by law instead of the sweet will of force” (Euripides 535-38). Medea’s residence with Jason, in his eyes, should be prize enough for her. Jason compounds his neglect of their marriage by taking another wife with the justification that “it was a clever move . . . a wise one, and, finally, that I made it in your best interests and the children’s” (Euripides 548-50). Each has an image of life that is incongruent with the other. Jason is concerned with the images of wealth and political position. Robert Avens says, “Images mirror the psyche just as it is,” disclosing a glaring discrepancy between Jason and Medea’s view of the world. Avens continues, “The ‘place’ of the psyche is identical with the ‘place’ of its imagining” (39). Jason’s place reflects the condition of his psyche, his inner terrain, which has lost the intuitive sensitivity he was initiated with. The result is an irreparable schism that is reflected in his conflict with Medea and ultimately within his own soul

Jason’s relationship to Medea reveals he is capable of discarding his marriage in favor of material gain, abandoning his wife who plied her skills to support and maintain him during the depths of his trials. He is revealed as someone other than the trustworthy hero of many famed accounts. Jason’s betrayal runs much deeper than mere infidelity in marriage; it is a betrayal of character. The Tutor observes, “The old ties give way to new ones. As for Jason, he no longer has a feeling for this house of ours” (Euripides 74-75). Jason’s ability to intuitively navigate his terrain is shifting, and as it does, it leaves Medea behind, disconnected and at risk, psychologically as well as corporeally. His ties to the land, the home, and the family have lost out in favor of political expediency and his lack of intuition reveals that his ties to the intuitive and instinctual are weak. Medea’s Nurse declares the ambiguity of Jason’s place in his home and his connection to his family, “I wish he were dead—but no, he is still my master. Yet certainly he has proved unkind to his dear ones” (Euripides 83-84). Jason’s wandering eye reveals his ignorance and weakness in the face of his home’s shifting terrain.

Desertion, be it friend, family, or wife, has a powerful connotation and makes a salient statement about the individual. It is also a timeless accusation against men, and arguably a common behavior. One man will be accused of abandonment when he leaves a bad marriage, regardless of his actual behavior. Another man, much like Jason, who is not balanced within and in touch with his more authentic self, will abandon his family in search of some gain. And yet another, in search of something important, will leave, as Rilke’s poem, “Sometimes a Man Stands Up During Supper,” so poignantly begins:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East. (Rilke)

This does not seem so with Jason. While he is certainly on a quest, the overwhelming emphasis is on material wealth and social status. His actions, although consistent within the context of youthful adventure and a culture of seeking fame, are particularly vainglorious (Apollonius Rhodius 1: 206, 300-305). Other than the desire for revenge over his father’s fate at the hands of Pelias, for which Medea exacted revenge in his stead, Jason is satisfied with his personal aspirations. It represents a familiar behavior that occurs when one decides to act from a monocular perspective. Unfortunately, counter-intention arises, blocking Jason’s progression and eventually derailing one endeavor after the other. His counter-intention is a self-betrayal and is recognized as a departure from his instinctual self. In “The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales” Jung writes:
“The grand plan on which the unconscious life of the psyche is constructed is so inaccessible to our understanding that we can never know what evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia, and what good may very possibly lead to evil.” (CW 9.1: 397)

Jason is no longer able to navigate with his bare foot. His choice to marry King Creon’s daughter is his one-sided choice, and through it he inherits betrayal and tragedy.

Betrayal and The Devil’s Sooty Brother

The Soldier at the beginning of the Brother’s Grimm tale, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, is without territory, habitation, or history as he wanders the land. Devastated by his experiences, the Soldier’s aimless wandering and lack of direction indicate that his soul has been severely disturbed, quite literally leaving him with no place to go. His condition is the archetypal experience of soldiers returning from wars of every generation and akin to the circumstance of anyone who has been thoroughly betrayed by events and circumstances.

Betrayal shatters one’s orientation to life, de-structuring the sense of personal place, direction, and destiny, and demands a re-creation of one’s ontological connections. In this state, deep resources are called upon, and the soul relies on the imagination to recover and recreate itself. The journey that betrayal initiates is the challenge for one to change in fundamental ways, to transform the soul, and to inhabit life with ever increasing flexibility and awareness. Dennis Slattery suggests that within epic there are movements to be observed in relation to one’s location and trajectory toward home. He says, “the actual founding or refounding of place creates a bounded area promising building, habitation, a history, and a destiny” (The Narrative Play of Memory in Epic 332). Those who have known profound betrayal will say that that those experiences never truly go away. They are not forgotten, nor are they any less devastating in the memory. However, the journey one makes toward history and destiny is also the path that is taken to rediscover the essence of what was lost and, more importantly, to discover something new.

Lost in the wilderness, the young Soldier is approached by a Dark Man (the Devil in some translations) and offered employment if he will agree to certain conditions. For the Soldier, this defining moment signals significant change. Drawing him in, the Devil confronts the young Soldier on his aimless path and asks him, “What ails you, you seem so very sorrowful?” The young Soldier laments his forlorn state and in a moment of absolute clarity declares, “I am hungry” (Grimm 600). Regardless of the specific reasons for the Soldier’s betrayed condition, a choice must be made to either continue on as before or to open up to a new possibility. The disparity between what was and what will come coalesces into a juxtaposition of divine forces that work to change the status quo into the possibility of profound transformation for the Soldier.

When the Soldier is certain that he is no longer fed by the life he is leading, the dark man confronts him with an opportunity:
If you will hire yourself to me, and be my serving-man, you shall have enough for all your life. You shall serve me for seven years, and after that you shall again be free. But one thing I must tell you, and that is, you must not wash, comb, or trim yourself, or cut your hair or nails, or wipe the water from your eyes.” (Grimm 600)

If the Soldier does not agree to follow the dark man, then life will continue much as it has—not much will change. If, however, the young Soldier agrees to serve the Devil without knowing what his tasks will be, he will descend from the world of unrecognizable despair and step into a generative darkness rich with both risk and potential.

By accepting the dark man’s proposal to spend seven years in hell in his service, the soldier will undergo an unknowable transformation. Because of the horrendous experiences that have shattered his identity, the Soldier’s need to descend into the underworld is greater than his need to maintain his life as it has been. The moment of this agreement is the culmination of the ambiguity between experience and the paradigms by which he has previously lived. The decision to descend is now the only choice—it is time to go down into the unknown darkness. The young Soldier is to descend deep into the earth, tend the hell-fires of three cauldrons, and “if he once [peeps] into the kettles, it [will] go ill with him” (Grimm 600). The Soldier goes to work without complaint, stoking the fires high, shedding tears, and driving the “sweepings behind the doors” (Grimm 600).

The tailings and ashes are important images to the psyche. They are the garbage and worthless detritus that fill the dark corners. Difficult to see as anything other than useless, there is more to these sweepings than mere garbage. Charcoal, in the ancient agricultural traditions, is used to treat the fields, returning much needed nutrients and minerals to the soil. This process, as old as agriculture, mimics nature’s way of clearing out the dead and unnecessary duff on the land. It also creates the conditions for many seeds and seedpods to open and release the new kernel so it can sprout in the freshly burned and re-fertilized ground.

What was choking the psyche with unneeded weight is burned away in the cave of depression and hopelessness where desperate tears are shed, matted hair lays heavy on the face, and untrimmed nails tend the inner fires of hell. In this descended heat the soul deepens into the work of sweeping, cleaning, and gathering strength. Along with the heat, the darkness in its still ferocity is like winter in the mountains. When the snow gathers and the land becomes frozen the plants do not stop growing. Rather, in this apparent time of cold, roots grow deep into the heat of the earth, drawing ancient minerals, and finding strong purchase in the dark and unknown depths.. With his eyes obscured with tears, and attending to the daily drudgery of feeding the flames, sweeping the shavings, and gathering the raw materials of unrealized strength and purpose, the Soldier does seven years of cave work.

Driven by deep emotions and one’s unconscious nature, comprised of all that is unknown, psychologically unseen, and understood to be primarily instinct, intuition, or weakness, archetypal betrayal arrives with its own agenda. Operating on a “lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions,” as Jung writes, “one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgment” (The Portable Jung 145-46). These limitations require something, some goal or task, which reaches beyond those shadowy inclinations and focuses the psyche toward a purpose that has enough simplicity and depth in it to hold the attention of the unconscious while the psyche regains consciousness through the imagination.

The Soldier must confront his instructions and break the rules otherwise he risks remaining in the primitive emotional condition, unable to ever leave the dark cave of despair. The appropriate disregard of an order or command is crucial to many stories in myth and folk tale. The conventions of the world from which the young Soldier comes demand that he follow the imposed rules as a condition of his life in the military. There is a moment where the transitory, yet archetypal and primordial nature is revealed by betrayal as it speaks to the authenticity of the circumstance by bringing the imagination into relationship with the manifest world. Roberts Avens notes that typically “images express only those unconscious contents which are momentarily constellated,” suggesting that image is intimately tied to the imagination’s capacity to abstract (Imagination is Reality 35).

The Soldier’s curiosity gets the better of him and he tips the lid off of the first cauldron. In the first he discovers his corporal from the war boiling away in the hellish brew. “Aha, old bird,” says he, “do I meet you here? You once had me in your power, now I have you” (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). He closes the lid and stokes the fires higher. The Soldier repeats this with the next two, discovering in each a superior that at one time had progressively greater power over his life. His response is to stoke each fire higher and higher, and increase the heat. Through the fire, he tends his own changing story. The limitations he was at one time subject to as a young man awaken his soul’s intuition as he becomes engaged in this risky and inspired activity. The Soldier is no longer a victim of his circumstances. Rather, his imagination has now taken hold and he is fast becoming an agent of his own destiny.

When the Devil returns to see how he has fared, he confronts the Soldier with the disregard of his instructions. “Well Hans, what have you done?” The devil clearly knows. “But you have peeped into the kettles as well, it is lucky for you that you added fresh logs to them, or else you life would have been forfeited” (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). Without the Soldier’s disregard for those particular instructions and his imaginally vital response to heat the fires even more, his term underground would have been for naught. What he needed was the proper mistake, to correctly disregard the devil’s instructions, and ultimately to operate with cunning to break the bonds that held him in the liminal condition when the dark man first approached him. For the first time the Soldier has a name—Hans. Up to this point in the story, identity has been general, associated with his past, and dependent upon his outward vocation.

With a newly established identity, the devil tells him to fill his pockets with the sweepings from behind the door, to remain unwashed, untrimmed, and not wash the tears from his eyes. He is then told that when anyone asks who he is to respond in this way, I am “the devil’s sooty brother, and I am my king as well” (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). Along with his name, the devil gives Hans the roots of his identity, a new appellation, and now lives connected to both his descended and ascending nature. He is to go into the world apparently unchanged and with no outward indication that he has accomplished anything of importance. The only thing he has are what fills his pockets—the sweepings of his efforts—and his name. When Hans returns to the surface and begins his travels anew, he reaches into his pockets to rid himself of the ash only to discover the ash has become gold.

Hans wanders until he comes to an inn. The innkeeper asks him who he is and Hans answers, “The devil’s sooty brother, and my king as well” (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). Hans is no longer the lost soldier he once was. The incalculable time tending the fires has changed him. However, those changes are untested, hence his instructions to remain disheveled in appearance.

In an effort to obtain a meal and a place to sleep, Hans shows the innkeeper the gold in his pockets. He is fed and given a comfortable place to sleep. In the morning he discovers that his gold is gone, stolen by the innkeeper, and he no longer has the means to continue his journey. Hans faces his reality and immediately returns to hell to lament his situation. The devil himself washes his face, trims his nails, and tells Hans to refill his pockets with sweepings. Finally, a miraculous transformation has occurred. Now that his work in hell has been tested in the world, Hans is ready to be seen for who he truly is.

The devil instructs Hans, “Tell the landlord that he must return you your money, if you do not return it, you shall go down to hell in my place, and will look as horrible as I” (The Devil’s Sooty Brother). Hans does so and his money is returned, leaving him wealthier than when he first appeared. He continues his journey wearing modest clothing and making music. These choices lead Hans to the door of a king who so loves his music, he offers him his youngest daughter in marriage. In time the king dies and leaves Hans and his wife the kingdom for their own.

The capacity of myth and story to elaborate upon a myriad of multifaceted relations, events, and trends provides a context for the imagination to begin to reformulate and reorient one’s self after betrayal has wreaked its devastation. Betrayal operates in conjunction with other psychological phenomenon and manifestations to find some bit of solid ground upon which the psyche can stand. When the soldier leaves the underworld and discovers the sweepings-turned-to-gold, he is aware enough to follow the Devil’s instructions and outwardly leave himself in his beggarly condition. He is no longer a foolish or lost young man, but someone who has abandoned unrealistic and grand expectations and made a movement inward and downward toward the subtle miracle that is not hoped for, expected, or even noticed.

When the Innkeeper steels his money, he does not return for revenge. Rather, Hans confronts the situation with a very different understanding of life. He forgives his past and he alters those events to transforms them into the prima materia of genuine creativity and beauty. By offering the innkeeper the promise of his own fate, Hans accepts the reality of his past and the profound and important transformation within.

Betrayal can come from any quarter. When Ginette Paris writes in Pagan Grace, “Apollo teaches us distance, while Dionysus teaches us proximity, contact, intimacy with ourselves, nature, and others,” we can deduce that trust and betrayal come from each, in its own way (23). The gods are personifications of the archetypal and inhuman forces of the cosmos, and they remind us of the immensity of our lives. Betrayal “teaches us distance,” revealing the weave of the web behind the mystery and complexity of life. However, betrayal also teaches us that intimacy and proximity are not free of the risk either. A question remains at the forefront of all human experience. What does it mean to be intimate with the soul and live in the world in the face of a tragic life? For the answer one must contemplate the depths of suffering, as well as the gifts of life.

When we forgive, truly, there remains no uncollected debt. An uncollected, or uncollectible, debt is the raw material for resentment; it  is the first step toward a new series of offenses, mistakes, and betrayals. The only way to truly forgive requires a supreme effort by the imagination to see through to a different picture, image, or vision of the world. This is what Jung calls “moral achievement” (CW 9.2: 16). A red ledger balance is an either/or question posed—paid/not paid. If one answers the question directly, the debt is left on the books as an offense, regardless of the outcome. However, if one imagines something else, and that page in the book is removed and replaced with something else of beauty—whatever that might look like—then there is poesis (creativity). Authentic forgiveness is a transformation that requires the imagination to transact an agreement with the psyche to re-make the offense into gold. It is a long and arduous journey, and one that will be, if attended to with diligence, fruitful. The music that Hans learns to make while in the darkness is the process of genuine creativity that becomes the manifestation of authentic forgiveness at work.

Avens, Robert. Imagination is Reality. Putnam, CT: Spring, 1980.

“Betrayal.” New Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Deardorff, Daniel. The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, &
Psyche. Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2004.
Euripides. “The Medea.” Trans. Rex Warner. The Complete Greek Tragedies:
Euripides I. Eds. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1955. 55-108.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “The Devil’s Sooty Brother.” Jacob & Wilhelm
Grimm Fairy Tales. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Media Group, 2006. 600-02.

Hillman, James. “Betrayal.” Loose Ends. Dallas, Tx: Spring, 1975. 63-81.

—. Suicide and the Soul. Putnam, CT: Spring, 1997.

Jung. C. G. “The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.” The Collected Works of
C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 9.1. Bollingen Series 20. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1959. 3-41.

—. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House, 1965.

—. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Trans, R. F. C. Hull, New York: Penguin,

—. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype.” Essays on a Science of Mythology:
The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Eds. C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series 22. Princeton: Princeton UP,
1969. 70-100.

Marcel, Gabriel. Being and Having: An Existentialist Diary. New York: Harper & Row,

Miller, David. Hells and Holy Ghosts: A Theopoetics of Christian Belief.
New Orleans, LA: Spring, 2005.

—. Three Faces of God: Traces of the Trinity in Literature and Life. New Orleans, LA:
Spring, 2004.

Moore, Robert L. The Archetypes of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and
Personal Transformation. Ed. Max J. Havlick Jr. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris,

Paris, Ginette. Pagan Grace: Dionysos, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life.
Trans. Joanna Mott. Putnam, CT: Spring, 1990.

Rhodius, Apollonius. The Argonautika. Trans. Peter Green. Los Angeles, CA:
U of California P, 1997.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Sometimes a Man Stands Up During Supper.” The Rag and
Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology. Eds. Robert Bly, James Hillman,
and Michael Meade. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 60

Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “The Narrative Play of Memory in Epic.” The Epic Cosmos.
Dallas TX: The Dallas Institute P, 1992. 331-52.

Stafford, William. “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The Rag and Bone Shop of the
Heart: A Poetry Anthology. Eds. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 233.

Timpanelli, Gioia. What Makes a Child Lucky. New York: Norton, 2008.

“Trust.” New Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP,

Zimmer, Heinrich, The King and the Corpse. Ed. Joseph Campbell, Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1975.
Benjamin Dennis PhD
PO Box 617
Indianola, WA 98342 USA

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Despair and isolation


   Going Deeper into the Suicidal Experience with the Suicidal Person

For some time now I have been looking into issues surrounding suicide. The news is full of statistics and heartfelt stories of families caught in the devastating aftermath of the tragedy and loss of suicide. Soldiers and Veterans are killing themselves at unprecedented rates—22 per day we are told, though rates are likely much higher. At the same time we are losing teens to suicide at a stunning pace, and the overall rates of suicide are reaching epidemic proportion (Sabrina Tavernise, NYT April 22, 2016). And, as the investigations progress, we find that despair is among the more common reasons cited among those who have attempted or thought about killing themselves; and with despair comes isolation.

This is a chilling combination – despair and isolation. When one sinks into despair, a wall is erected in the psyche, and circumstances and misunderstanding quickly become insurmountable. As the wall becomes higher, deeper, and  more complete finding one’s way out becomes increasingly difficult, choices are diminished, and soon there are no alternatives but to sacrifice the self–all too often literally.

This is where Fredric Matteson’s work with CCT (Contextual Conceptual Therapy) has become so profound. Fredric shows that there are always more options than the mind believes. When there appears to be no way through the problem. This is where Fredric invites us to look at the problem ‘differently.’ Once that is done CCT takes a dramatic departure from common therapeutic approach–suicide might still need to happen: a metaphoric death, not a literal one. Matteson gives an example that is in alignment with one very suicidal woman’s own sudden realization about her multiple suicide attempts. She realized, “I want to die” is a metaphor for “I want to live.”

Fredric says:

“An indirect form of communication is needed to bypass the fierce intelligence and resistance which sustains this psychological and emotional trap. By utilizing metaphor and experiential methods, I have found ways to offer suicidal persons a stereoscopic perspective using metaphoric resonance to bypass the entrenched internal illogic that binds them.”

In essence, what is “killed” (dissolved) is not one’s Self. Rather, some part of the self might need to “die,” so that another part can transform, grow, and mature. Instead of moving away from the suicide, the suggestion is that “the only way out” is ‘through’ that place in the psyche and into the deep imagination where the roots of creativity and one’s Great Identity reside. From here, attending to inner anguish is very different than taking one’s own life when faced with utter despair. The despair becomes a harbinger for deep and profound transformation.

Benjamin Dennis Ph.D




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Tumult and Order

Tumult and order

We humans love tumult just as much as order. We love cacophony—the wildness of ocean, mountain, romance, and youth. Yet, we also love order, concert, fine craftsmanship and straight or fine curves. Look at the “lines” of a beautiful boat or car, or even the majesty of a straight and true building!

Yet, too much of one, or the other, and we tire quickly. The wild tumult becomes exhausting and dangerous. And, when we live in a world too orderly, too straight, too “true,” then sterility and ennui set in, and we become bored, anxious, and all too often we “go crazy.”

We strive to find order in the maelstrom! We revel in the outrageous uproar of unfettered action, and even the idea of being free will send us leaping with a great shout. And yet, when the waves grow too tall, their tops blown off by driving winds, we pine for the bliss of calm seas, still waters, and quiet beauty. Then, in our maddening human way, when the stillness grows and lions lay with lambs, disquiet grows in us and we fidget. Back and forth we go, peace and conflict, in a dance that belies any firm stand we might make. When boredom sets in, we begin to act out and strive to mar the finish. “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” says Francis Bacon. We are by nature, predisposed toward change and risk.

This is not to say we don’t become addicted to one or the other. We do. And, we often see the result: In order we may find safety, but also rigidity, fear, hatred, and that special kind of madness that separates and isolates us from the dance. And, in Tumult there is exhilaration and adventure, yet we cannot stand what has gone before, distrusting what is established, driven by excitement, newness, and risk.

Indeed, it must seem these two, tumult and order, are at war, and necessarily so! One leads to innovation, creativity, growth, and destruction; the other to stability, safety (or the illusion of), certainty, apathy, stagnation, and forgetfulness. We love one and hate the other… then it changes.

So, before we attach ourselves to one or the other, we must remember that both are necessary, and both can kill you!

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Shop Class

I was just reading in one of my motorcycle magazines about a shop teacher who is able to keep his shop program alive by putting out a quarterly newsletter, “Quarter Inch Drive” (I love the title). He does this  by gaining support from his community to promote an integrated industrial arts program that combines computer skills with the more traditional “shop class.” Based on this, his students learn both the soft sciences of computers and the hard experience of the material world. My hat is off to him for his tireless efforts!

I can only suspect the difficult chore of gaining support from his community who already pay taxes, particularly in these difficult economic times. Tom Hull has overcome the idea of value in our society that has been so overwhelmingly focused on money and brought to light the truly fundamental measures of what is important and worthy. So many of these kind of efforts have been shuttered, stilted, and severely limited to the singular and myopic gauge–the almighty ‘green.’ In this instance, the notion of value and the desperate need for young people to have some sense of self not tied directly to money, is dramatically offset by a man willing to bring his creative juices to bear promoting programs and opportunities for young people that our whole society will benefit from for generations to come.

The notion that a man can be dedicated to a purpose other than making money is suspect in our society. Particularly if that purpose needs our support. When we are asked to give a dollar, lend a hand, or speak out in support of something intrinsically important there is a hesitation, a question that arises as to the “value” of such an endeavor (of course measured in resource–namely money). In the case of the shop teacher, his efforts cannot be judged in the fiscal cycle so fondly touted by the media and the economist. Rather, his efforts can only be measured in the hearts and minds of his students, their parents, friends of family, future spouses, employers, sons and daughters to come, the communities they will live in, and the lives these young students will touch in the years ahead. In other words, the measure is paltry when considering the small amount of money it takes to keep this shop program open (tongue-in-cheek bit of irony).

On another level, a man or woman supporting something that does not immediately benefit them personally is suspected of having ulterior motives. There must be something wrong with this person to choose to do something that does not include making lots of money. The surprising thing about this perspective is that it is one typically held by an aloof population–the newspaper readers and the shock-radio listeners (of which we are all guilty to some degree or another). Those who actually know Mr. Shop Teacher, understand the profound importance he has in the lives of the young students studying with him. These people support him (and themselves and their community) by giving money and time when needed. Meanwhile, in the next town over, the next street over, this very same person is held in doubt. Decisions are made and lives impacted because there are uncomfortable questions about this man’s motives.  And, this is a problem.

The relationship our society has with money contains a clear disconnect between the facts of life and the perceived capital that is available. There is an abstraction that exists between money and reality that causes separation and isolation, allowing the segregating forces at work in our society to insidiously find their way into our collective psyche. We often make choices radically opposed to our best interest. The ability to choose when and how we expend our efforts and resources based on a well founded understanding of self and place in the cosmos is successfully assaulted every day by separating forces that we are often not fully aware of. This is not to say that economic interests are of little importance, rather I am suggesting that an uninformed population (again, all of us) makes for an easy victim of these isolating influences. For example, a young man of 22 is often encouraged to purchase a brand new car or truck to the tune of $40+ thousand dollars while that same young man is harried over the expense of an education, and is railed against at this terrible burden. On the one hand, the resources spent on the vehicle depreciate dramatically each and every day, while those same resources spent on an education do nothing but increase in value for the life of the individual AND the community he lives in. In the end, the educated young man will likely purchase a vehicle, however, he is likely to purchase one that he actually can use, at a reasonable price, and when he can properly afford it. The economy continues, but its detrimental aspects are mitigated (hopefully) to some degree. This is only one aspect of a responsible education.

I know that there are many who discount the idea that an education is of any real benefit. I would argue that those people with the desire to learn, and the encouragement to do so, are better able to be creative and adaptable members of our community. And certainly there are may ways to obtain an education: school, apprenticeship, self-motivated inquiry, experience, and more. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, “Outliers” suggests that there is a clear association with families of modest income, education, and subsequent success when those younger members are encouraged to learn. Naturally, education comes in many forms, University is not the only place to learn. Travel, work, sports, apprenticeship, and more are just some of the ways in which young people are encouraged to learn about the world.

There is an old axiom oft found on bumper stickers, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” There are a myriad of opportunities to help young people learn, grow, gain experience, and know themselves. And, by virtue of an informed and creative population, those opportunities help each of us in many and subtle ways. To see a “thumbs-up” to the shop teacher in a motorcycle magazine is just one reminder of the importance of recognizing those opportunities. The creative part is to find our own way.

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Interview with Hephaestus…

Interview with Hephaestus…

This is a piece of fiction inspired by the story of Hephaestus. By taking the elements of this character from a variety of sources, “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” Hesiod, Apollodorus, and others, I wrote as though I were Hephaestus being interviewed about my life.

“My name is Hephaestus and I am most uncomfortable with words. I use images, clay, wood, leather and precious metals to tell my stories. I am not eloquent like Hermes, I hammer and bend and stoke the fires to express myself; to tell my story with words seems flat and difficult. However, I will try.

Let me start with my father, Zeus. As a young man, he never acknowledged me, but always, he accused me of siding with my mother who only wanted me around for her own devices. It is said that I was born to her without intercourse, born to her and her alone. I don’t know what to think about that; what I do know is that I am thrust between them, not as a child, but as a weapon—a cudgel!

My memory goes in circles so I can’t tell my story in a line, only in images like those on Achilles’ shield; images that are forces in themselves. It is in images and crafty things that I marshal the rage that is inside of me—images that bleed off the heat that fire the cauldron of my heart. So, I will tell my story as I see it, those images that are burned in my mind.

Zeus, father, king of my world, rages against my mother. He has hung her by her wrists out the side of our home in his terrible fury over her meddling with Hercules. With his back to me (as usual) I am emboldened to use my craftiness and wile to free her from his chains. I reach forward with my devious fingers and discover the trick that holds her hanging from his wrath and spleen.

As the last clasp opens, releasing her from his bonds, I feel a fist wrap my ankle and jerk me through the ripe air (there is something uniquely sensuous and electrifying in the sensation of ones own bones breaking…). My leg, pulverized, becomes the center of my universe as I arch over my fathers shoulder and out of my home. The cold, clear sight of HIS back fills my mind as I fall.

The burning in my leg spreads as I plummet for what seems like days—years—lifetimes. I flop and tumble with the fire in my leg stabbing up into my heart, burning my chest, blinding and deafening me until I am utterly consumed.

The shock of landing in water and the coolness that suddenly envelops me quenches the heat in my legs and on my skin, but not in my heart. Cool, gentle hands find me and take hold, probing my skin, soothing my blindness and deafness until sight and sound return. Thetis, my aunt, takes me in and nurses me in my heart and injury.

Fearing the wrath of Zeus, Thetis leads me into the darkness of the grotto beneath her home. She hides me while I heal in what ways I can, and gives me leave to thrash about in my pain and anguish. Her sisters tend me until I can move about on my own. I am as deep in my despair as the very abyss I am confined to.

Years I am in this shadowy place, and years the rage cooks inside of me until one day I lamely stumble across a hammer and anvil. Picking it up, feeling its weight, I wildly swing the hammer into the great anvil with a thundering crash. The reverberations awake in me a crazed wildness that causes me to swing the hammer madly in reckless abandon until my arms are worn and the hammer and anvil are destroyed. The feeling is so satisfying that I find another and destroy it. Then another and another, destroying each in succession with no end, no regret.

“BANG…BANG…BANG,” my destruction rings out.

One day I noticed a rhythm, a simple pattern that sounds briefly from my incessant hammering. At first it fuels my rage and I try to break the pattern, change it to keep my madness alive. But, each time I try, a new pattern emerges and it becomes intoxicating. I seek it out, hammering rhythmically and soon the patterns evoke images in my mind. The intoxication grows with pattern and images dance around my anvil, awakened by the beating of my hammer in greater and greater complexity.

Soon I find myself adding materials, gold, bronze, and silver, the pattern of my hammering and the images in my mind crying out for form. The sounds change, “BANG…BANG…TAP—BANG…BANG…TAP,” as I feed the materials onto the anvil, manipulating and forming the various metals into the images that haunt me.

The images in my mind begin to take shape under my hammer and the rage I feel cools—just a little. Each time I make something new, I can feel a piece of myself come back to life, painfully, horribly back to life. Something beautiful is born between the anvil and my hammer—something terrible….

In the days and years that follow more and more shapes appear. I make a forge and the fire inside of me is renewed with purpose—madness. Every waking moment is spent creating the images that dance behind my eyes. The music of my hammer, the fire in my heart, the forge, and the growing strength of my arms become a concert of gold, silver and bronze until my fame takes me out of that deep, dark place.

It is nine years before I return from the grotto. I make beautiful things; brooches and necklaces, and many other works of art. Creating these gifts sooths the burning that will not be quenched. My recovery is difficult and I remain lame. Now, I stand on my own two feet (laugh), such as they are. I am laughed at for my looks and my walk, yet I serve my own purpose. When I am called upon for my skills, something clever to be made, I do as I am asked. However, make no mistake, it is my work that is done, my fire in the forge.”

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Underlining Passages

I was recently musing on something Joseph Campbell said (anecdotal as of this writing): “My spiritual practice is underlining passages in books…”

It occurs to me that a complaint may be leveled at Campbell for looking at human endeavors as sacred (writers are, after all, human). Yet, in the grand scope of writing and art in the world, might it be that God, or the Divine, or the Sacred does truly find voice in the symphony of many voices?

Art, of which writing can certainly be included, touches something sacred within both the artist and the audience.

I think it is beautiful what Campbell is suggesting. It is a kind of pilgrimage to wander through the world of ideas, poetry, and image to find glimpses of the divine, and then to quietly mark them when they appear. As for me, I am with Joe. My pencil is always with me.

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Thoughts on Associative Mythology

“The Territory”

Benjamin Dennis, PhD
(also seen at: )

This is the first in a short series on Associative Mythology. Coming out of a combination of many years of study of myth, poetry, performance, and ritual, as well as the experience he has gained teaching his Living Myth, Living World series, Daniel Deardorff’s Associative Mythology brings the very best of Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly, James Hillman, and a host of scholars, story tellers, and poets into a genuinely mythic way of being. I hope you will enjoy this journey…

Contemporary times seem to demand we anesthetize our souls in the face of the soulless cacophony of modern day life. The noise of the I-Generation threatens to overwhelm the song of the robin with such force its absence goes unnoticed leaving a deafening silence where once there was music. With heads furiously bent over myopic devices, the souls eyes and ears are diverted from the living world and stark attention is brought to the warning implied in what David Abrams notes in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous; that all cultures realize when they obtain an alphabet (in this case maybe an iPod), theirs is the unique gift of language (100). A fallacy, then, wends its way into the collective soul: If mankind is the only creature with language, then the rest of the world must go silent and the dying voices of the Amazon are only so much background noise as the world “slouches toward Bethlehem” (The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats 216).

Myth, story, oral tradition, and more poke a grubby thumb into that “I” and causes a sometimes painful ripple (hopefully) in the LED-driven gorgon-deviced narrow-mindedness of our world. Associative Mythology interrupts the “Slouch,” the inexorable march of the singular, giving pause to the mono-life so often lived in reaction to the soulless cacophony. We clutch for meaning, sift evening television for tiny bits of nourishment, throw meaning-weights in the gym for a moment’s memory of a lived life, and yet, deep inside, we know there is something terribly wrong. In myth, for it still lives, we open our ears and our hearts, and let the twinkling of the stars be heard again, to speak to us, inform us, and to enliven our wooden minds once more with the mystery of the whole world! Association? This is it! To let living myth inside our bones and bring sustenance to our marrow once more.

“Associative Mythology” is an approach, a process, a way of seeing the world that imagines the ‘livingness’ of myth and story as a vital aspect of not just mythic inquiry, but of living life mythically. The livingness of myth is revealed in the genuineness of life as we know it, as we find it mysteriously flourishing, and as it brings vitality to lived life.”There is a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change” Associative Mythology is not an allegorical construct; rather, it confronts the so-called “I-world” with the recognition that the “thread” does truly exist and we can see it in the living myth of the living world. And as Stafford completes the poem, “You don’t ever let go of the thread” (Stafford, The Way It Is 42).

My task as a mythologist is to enter into a conversation (logos) with the images before me. Often these images and symbols are very well hidden, and often near unrecognizable. Yet, they are always there—this is what thinkers and poets like Jung, Freud, Blake, Bly and others point to. When Telemachus’ hears the story of Menelaus’s return from the Trojan War, there is a ritual of logos occurring. It is a story that mirrors Odysseus’s journey that gives the son an opportunity to embody his father’s journey—and therefore a ritual return for all of us. The ritual of return is important for Telemachus to be able to welcome his father home just as it is important for each of us to be welcomed home, and to welcome home our own fathers. It is clear in Homer the notion that immortality is found in the image and in the oral tradition. In this way, Associative Mythology is the embodiment of Homeric Immortality. Feeding the stories with our own stories as Daniel Deardorff suggests, we keep the myths alive, and as well the myths keep the stories of our daily life vital; immortality is gained. There is an ongoing relationship between the Siren’s and the Furies, and the Muses are alive in us every day.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vantage, 1997.

Stafford, William. “The Way It Is,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems by WilliamStafford. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Grey Wolf P, 1998. 42.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:A Poetry Anthology. Eds. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 216.

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Zombies in Our Midst

The image of the zombie suggests that a fusion of African and indigenous Caribbean religious traditions have migrated into the psyche of modern Western society. Reflecting upon the “indifference” of Western colonialism, fast-changing variations on the theme of the un-dead lurking in the shadows has found diverse expression within film, literature, and contemporary conversation. Playing upon dark and sinister aspects of human nature, the image of the zombie has evolved, along with modern culture, into a parody of a soul-hunger that mirrors both the consumptive and the impersonal characteristics of Western society. The zombie, then, has become a personification of the soul left to languish in the lonely darkness, hungering for genuine nourishment, and “coming to embody ‘a fate worse than death'” (Paravisini-Gebert 43).

The influence of the America’s African slave trade on Western culture is far-reaching and often subtle. As the marginalized slave populations extended into the new world a powerful and subtle bond between the dominant West and the enslaved African people was established, intimately linking together the fates of both. Kidnapped into the living death of slavery, servitude, and compelled to do the work of colonialism, the Africans assimilated the indigenous Caribbean cultures and together established a socio-religious tradition that blended traditional spiritual practices, amalgamated the diverse populations in response to their oppressive conditions. The result became an incredibly resilient and influential subculture rich to the imagination and symbolic of the Modern West.

The resulting development of Haitian culture may be viewed as a reflection of Western civilization as a parody of expansion and development. The pride that the West has in being the melting pot of the world is overshadowed by the tragic example of the slavery and conquest found in Haiti, and the surrounding region. The fusion of various one-time indigenous spiritual traditions has helped shape religions such as Vodou as it appears today. The subsequent Haitian spiritual landscape is made up of widely disparate peoples and traditions brought together by adversity, the one true constant of Western society.

Victor Turner’s understanding that “the ‘liminal’ and the ‘inferior’…are often associated with ritual powers” and the “subdued autochthonous people…are…ritually potent” leads one to consider the argument that Western society is fundamentally influenced by the people that it has conquered, enslaved, and oppressed (Turner 99-100). This implies psychological and mythological bonds that embody an intimate relationship between slave and slaver. It is a synthesis that finds expression beneath conscious awareness and emerges in the zombie image.

The premise also suggests that along with a psychological and mythological connection, the West is ritually linked to its once enslaved populations. This is further illuminated by Clyde Ford’s comparison of African and Western spiritual thought:

“[I]n the West we regard deities as facts of life from which attributes proceed, rather than personifications of attributes found in nature and within ourselves … while in the mythic wisdom of Africa, one speaks of a god of compassion, a personification of a force (in this case, compassion) that motivates all life, including our own … [t]hese two different ways of regarding divinity give rise to two different ways of interpreting mythology, for where deities are considered to be facts, tales of those deities are understood historically, and where deities are viewed as personifications of source energies in nature and within ourselves, tales of those deities are understood symbolically” (Ford 144).

The African understanding is inclusive–it is subtly aware that the material and spiritual worlds are in-fused and in-formed with the divine. The contemporary West, however, is less apt to see the mysterious as divine and more likely to cling to objectivity and attempt to maintain an adherence to facts. Yet, there is an undercurrent of supernatural fascination that is expressed regularly in a wide variety of ways in entertainment, religion, politics, music, and even science.

Considering these perspectives, Maya Deren’s reference to the compelling nature of the Haitian relationship with the dead reveals some of the West’s preoccupation with zombies. “Care is taken, as well, that no parts rightfully belonging to the dead matter should remain in circulation in the living world. Such precautions against a false life, which might also be put to magic and malevolent use, are numerous” (43). By understanding zombies as mythic and symbolical entities, and remembering the limitation that the West has in its approach to the divine, the zombie’s presence in the Western psyche exploits the ambivalent nature of the living dead as a reiteration of its unrealized soul hunger and the unresolved legacy of slavery and oppression.

The consumptive aspects of Western society suggests a commodification of all “matter,” including people, as resource available to be used in any manner consistent with the external rules of economics. With this justification in mind, the African peoples were processed body, mind, and soul to become goods to be traded and resources to be used. Adding voice to this conversation, Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, elaborates her character, Paul D, and his personal tragedy of slavery,

“He has always known, or believed he did, his value-as a hand, a laborer who could make profit on a farm–but now he discovers his worth, which is to say he learns his price. The dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future” (Morrison 226).

Out of this legacy a mythology has arisen that personifies, embodies, and mirrors this characteristic of the slave experience. “Given a glimpse of Caribbean people’s resolution to assert their autonomy, they are quick to invoke the titillating figure of the zombie as representative of the AfroCaribbean folk as bogeyman” (Paravisini-Gebert 37). As a reflection of the hopelessness lurking in many a contemporary heart, the zombie might even be an anti-hero. Ripe with certain heroic qualities, zombies challenge imposed conditions, they make change by devouring everything in their path, and they do not give up. “The ‘zombification’ of the Haitian people and the subordination of their valiant spirit,” then, becomes a legacy lurking beneath the consciousness of Western society as it confronts the ubiquitous oppression of an indifferent world (Paravisini-Gebert 56).

In film there are many examples of zombie-like behavior, some predatory, some lethargic, yet all inexorable in some way. “A [zombie] is nothing more than a body deprived of its conscious powers of cerebration,” says Maya Deren. “For the Haitian, there is no fate more terrible” (43). This image is amplified in modern films and stories where it is common to hear a phrase such as, “don’t let me become one of those things … kill me first!” More recent films are characterized by conditions of ‘no escape’ and tantalizing final scenes of the prevailing zombies overtaking the world. It is here that the fascination with zombies in the modern Western world begins to become clear.

During the progress of Western cinema, the zombie has undergone the transformation from an individual experiencing a curse to a collective affliction that threatens all life. The zombie’s “pathologizing image [makes] possible a new reflection … coupled with affliction, touching the soul at the point of death” (Hillman 86). Although the flavor of the individual and personal plight remain, the emergence of the zombie affliction as an overwhelming malicious force emerges as a key element in more recent films where appetite and group depersonalization overtake the themes of individual enslavement. The new emphasis shifts from an individual power struggle between Western colonialism and religion (and the so-called primitive spiritual forces personified by the Bokor) to the depersonalized zombies themselves. They are the ravenous and relentless personification of unfettered appetite. Contemporary film is no longer satisfied with the subjugation of an individual. Instead, zombies now consume everything and continue to grow in numbers, making contagion the operative image.

If one makes the assumption that film is a form of ritual (or at least pseudo-ritual in the sense of large social participation), then the zombie genre becomes a ritual incursion into the culture that pervasively links the psyche of the dominant Western population into the marginalized condition of the past (and present) slave generations. Tracking the pervasiveness of the zombie image, along with its transmorgification into something wholly unstoppable, reiterates a steadily growing  rift in society. James Hillman suggests, “[w]hen the dominant vision that holds a period of culture together cracks, consciousness regresses into earlier containers, seeking sources for survival which also offer sources of revival (Hillman 27). The zombie image is active and reactive to growing segments of the society as a ritual that has become a personification of our collective subconscious. Without conscious recognition of the psychological conditions of consumption, affliction, and soul-hunger, the zombie example emerges as the ritual container for our social condition.

It is in this way that zombies offer a commentary on life, death, morality, and ritual potency in Western culture. Much the same as the trickster does in traditional tribal life, the tricksterish and ritually potent zombie ultimately functions as a liminal entity and a powerful force that drives the necessity of descent into the darkness of death and mortification. The zombie provides lucidity to the horrific condition of slavery, and therefore our own condition of self-imposed slavery. The implication is that, culturally and individually, descent and mortification are vital to the condition of freedom (Sacred Possessions 49). The need to contend with the numerous unstoppable forces becomes a primary condition of freedom, darkly hopeless yet irresistibly vital.

The zombie is, at least tangentially, related to the trickster, which begins to make sense when one considers its effect. The appearance of the zombie radically brings attention to Otherness in a profound way. All aspects of life and death pass through the mind and deep soulful questions spring forth, unbidden and without respite, causing a subtle personal reflection upon one’s own zombification. One may view the zombie as a shadow-trickster, a deification of marginality with immense stature and far-flung implications. Jung, however, reminds us that the trickster emerges as an annoyance, as well as a supernatural agent.

“One can see this best of all from the fact that the trickster motif does not crop up only in its mythical form but appears just as naively and authentically in the unsuspecting modern man-whenever, in fact, he feels himself at the mercy of annoying “accidents” which thwart his will and his actions with apparently malicious intent. He then speaks of “hoodoos” and “jinxes” or of the “mischievousness of the object.” Here the trickster is represented by counter-tendencies in the unconscious, and in certain cases by a sort of second personality, of puerile and inferior character, not unlike the personalities who announce themselves at spiritualistic séances and cause all those ineffably childish phenomena so typical of poltergeists” (CW 9.1: 469).

Symbolically, zombies are supernatural, sacralized by their otherworldliness, and un-stoppable in character. Zombies are a shadow deity, a devil if you will, not at all associated with the “compassionate god” of concretized and popular Western theology, which Clyde Ford indicts by noting, “When divinity is understood in factual terms, even the symbols referring to divinity are arrested” (144). The rise of zombie-ism in popular mythology may be attributed to the pervasiveness of the corporate soul, a shadow-culture that tends to appropriate virtually all aspects of independent innovation and creativity.

Recalling the forceful and violent suppression of the imaginally rich and fecund nature of the enslaved indigenous populations reflected in the amalgamated Haitian people, it is not difficult to recognize that, according to Victor Turner, “[t]he attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (‘threshold people’)” exert a tremendous, if subtle, influence on the dominant culture; forcing open cracks in the facade of order and contentment (95). This influence is not the sort of force that is commonly recognized. Rather, it is a subversive, subtle pressure that up-wells through the gaps in the dominant society in a mythologically compelling manner. Maya Deren argues:

Modern technological and primitive ritual are not competitive in terms of man’s relationship to the cosmos … the machine creates a society in which men are no longer dependent upon men, but, instead, upon machines and upon the anonymous, unknown, distant creatures behind the machines, who, like the machines, are impersonally regarded as productive forces. (Deren 190)

Without a conscious connection to the sacred, the shadow entities, tricksters, and zombies arrive to provide sustenance for the ache and longing of our souls. The impersonality of the culture reveals the hunger we have for intimacy and connection. The energies of life found in the “symbols representing the source” are the deities and symbols of the mysterious that reflect our own impoverishment (Ford 144). As Maya Deren observes, “All mythology contains legends in which divinity instructs man in some practical technique for survival” (189). Yet, as the mythic lessons are driven more and more underground, a widening fissure appears out of which the mythology of the inferior arises. Though separated and adapted, the ritual potency of those mythic images and symbols become distilled to their most primal essences. They are chthonically powerful and no longer contained by the cultural framework from which they were born. The modern zombie may be such a figure: “an agent of transformation who mediates” from the margins and is portrayed “as [a] divine linguist” of the soul’s shadow (Pelton 72).

The zombie trickster becomes a repository of fear. Holding our rapt attention to the titillating spectacle of the horror of our lives, diverting us away from our own self-inquiry. When Joseph Campbell suggests that “Mythology is a system of images that endows the mind and the sentiments with a sense of participation in a field of meaning,” he implies that in the absence of functional mythology liminal figures will appear(Thou Art That, 8). They are the zombies, nameless and faceless monsters waiting to devour life and freedom as we know it.

So, what is missing? If, as Deren notes, “religion presumes that the major forces of the universe … are essentially benevolent in nature,” then the psyche that personifies the horror of the modern zombie imagines the opposite (76). When the imagination reckons possibility, a dichotomy occurs and the concretized metaphorical sensibility is unable to accommodate the peculiar truths of life. The result is the formation of imaginal entities, liminal in nature, that embody the archetypal elements that have been suppressed. The essence of the zombie is such an imaginal entity. It is the embodiment of a symbolic fear that the world we call home is not benevolent.

The African story, “How an unborn child avenges his mother,” offers an early reference for the zombie (Feldman 225-29). In this story, an unborn child survives the murder of his mother by his father. By leaving the womb after she is dead, the child, “The Little Wombless,” pursues his father, haunting his path until the father reaches the compound of his in-laws where he is exposed as a murderer and suffers a similar fate.

The image of the “little wombless” evokes the image of the modern zombie, “a little red thing…it still has the umbilical cord hanging on…’how swollen are those eyes’ … coming on feet and buttocks with its mouth wide open…” inexorably pursuing its father (Feldman, 229). Yet, the importance of this story is not merely the injustice toward the child and the murder of its mother, but the relationship the father has with his world. The fascination we have with the horrifying image of the pursuing child wonderfully distracts the audience, allowing a deeper message greater access to our souls. The father’s approach to life, his treatment of his wife, child, and community all are examples of the lessons that are reinforced by the horror of the story.

Functioning as a guide through the labyrinth of human experience, the tale evokes strong emotions. The image of mindless horror, frightening and commanding, place the zombie in the same realm as the “little wombless,” both are provocateurs of deep moral issues (Feldman 225-9). According to Jung, the trickster has an ambivalent role in society. “This collective figure gradually breaks up under the impact of civilization, leaving traces in folklore that are difficult to recognize. But the main part of him gets personalized and is made an object of personal responsibility” (9.1: 469). The prevalence of zombies has a hidden life within our psyches, resonant and uncertain. They are intimately tied to both our cultural history and our collective unconscious, offering insight, reflection, and the subtle soul-food we unknowingly crave.

Finally, what is evoked by the presence of the modern zombie are the “gastric fires of human fantasy,” craving a new and authentic experience of the shadow (Campbell, Wild Gander 23). For most of us death is primarily known as an absolute. In the absence of those powerfully rich elements of ritual initiation and transformation, true experiences of life, death, and rebirth no longer expose us to the vibrant tenuousness of life. Framed by the chaotic potentials of birth and death, and in the face of such profound hunger of the soul for authenticity, we manufacture playful symbolisms that find us at the edge of our seats, safely clutching barrels of popcorn, as we are frightened to our bones when the zombies try to get us.

(Note: following this article is the complete story, “How an Unborn Child Avenged its Mother’s Death”)

Works Cited:
Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander. Novato, California: New World Library,
—. Thou Art That, Novato, California: New World Library, 2002.

Deardorff, Daniel. The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, And Psyche. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud P. 2004.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, New York:
McPherson, 1970.

Feldman, Susan. Ed., “How an Unborn Child Avenged its Mother’s Death.”
African Myths and Tales. New York: Dell, 1963. 225-29.

Ford, Clyde W., the Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

Jung, C. G., The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 9.1.
Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin. 1987.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “The Representation of Woman as Zombie.” Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Ed. Margarite Fernandes Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2000.

Pelton, Robert. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkley, California: University of California P. 1980.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1977.


A man had taken a wife, and now she had the joy of being with child, but famine was acute in the land.
One day, when hunger was particularly severe, the man, accompanied by his wife, was dragging himself along in the direction of her mother’s home in the hope of getting a little food there. He happened to find on the road a tree with abundant wild fruit on the top. “Wife,” he said, “get up there that we may eat fruit.”
The woman refused, saying, “I, who am with child, to climb up a tree!”
He said, “In that case, do not climb at all.”
The husband then climbed up himself and shook and shook the branches, the woman meanwhile picking up what fell down. He said, “Do not pick up my fruit. What! Just now you refused to go up!”
And she: “Bana! I am only picking them up.”
Thinking about his fruit, he hurried down from the top of the tree and said, “You have eaten some.”
And she: “Why! Of course, I have not.”
Then, assegai in hand, he stabbed his wife. And there she died on the spot.
He then gathered up his fruit with both hands. There he sat eating it, remaining where the woman was stretched out quite flat.
All of a sudden he started running. Run! Run! Run! With-out stopping once, he ran until he reached the rise of a hill.
There he slept, out of sight of the place where he had left the woman.
Meanwhile the child that was in the womb rushed out of it, dragging its umbilical cord. First, it looked round for the direction which its father had taken, then it started this song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

That gave the man a shake. . . . “There,” he said, “there comes the thing which is speaking.” He listened, he stared in that direction. . . . ‘This is the child coming to follow me after all that, when I have already killed its mother. It had been left in the womb.”
Then rage took his wits away, and he killed the little child! . . . There he was, making a fresh start, and going on. Here, where the little bone had been left: “Little bone, gather yourself up! . . . Little bone, gather yourself up.”
Soon it was up again, and then came the song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

The father stopped. . . . “Again the child that I have killed! It has risen and is coming. Now I shall wait for him.”
So he hid and waited for the child, with an assegai in his hand. The child came and made itself visible at a distance as from here to there. As soon as it came, quick with the assegai! He stabbed it! Then he looked for a hole, shoveled the little body into it, and heaped branches up at the entrance.
Then with all speed he ran! With all speed! . . .
At last he reached the kraal where the mother of his dead wife lived, the grandmother of the child.
When he came he sat down. Then his brothers and sisters-in-Iaw come with smiling faces. . . . “Well! Well! You have put in an appearance!”
And a hut was prepared for him and his wife, who was expected.
Then the mother-in-law was heard asking from afar, “Well! And my daughter, where has she been detained?”
Said he, “I have left her at home. I have come alone to beg for a little food. Hunger is roaring.”
Food was procured for him. So he began to eat And, when he had finished, he even went to sleep.
Meanwhile, the child, on its part, had squeezed itself out of the hole wherein it had been put and, again, with its umbilical cord hanging on:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

The people listened in the direction of the path. . . . “That thing which comes speaking indistinctly, what is it? “ . . It seems to be a person. . . . What is it? . . . It looks, man, like a child killed by you on the road. . . . And now, when we look at your way of sitting, you seem to be only half-seated.”
“It cannot be the child, Mother; it remained at home.” The man had just got up to shake himself a little. And his little child, too, was coming with all speed! It was already near, with its mouth wide open:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

Everyone was staring. They said, “There comes a little red thing. It still has the umbilical cord hanging on.”
Inside of the hut there, where the man stood, there was complete silence.
Meanwhile the child was coming on feet and buttocks with its mouth wide open, but still at a distance from its grandmother’s hut. “Straight over there!” noted everyone. The grandmother looked toward the road and noticed that the little thing was perspiring, and what speed! Then the song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

Bakoo! It scarcely reached its grandmother’s hut when it jumped into it . . . and up on the bed:

Father, wait for me,
Father, have you come?
Yes, you have eaten my mother.
How swollen those eyes!
Wait till the little wombless comes.

Then the grandmother put this question to the man: “Now what sort of song is this child singing? Have you not killed our daughter?”
She had scarcely added, “Surround him!” when he was already in their hands. His very brothers-in-law lied him. And then . . . all the assegais were poised together in one direction, everyone saying, “Now today you are the man who killed our sister. . . .”
Then they just threw the body away there to the west. And the grandmother picked up her little grandchild.

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As biological beings we are intimately tied to the terrain our feet touch. Where we walk is always where we are. Regardless of airplane and automobile travel, we are connected to the landscape, the air, the planet, and all of those whom we are in relationship with. However, we also have the capacity to abstract, allowing us to imagine/fantasize that we are connected to the world in different ways, other places, or not connected at all. It is this capacity which provides us with our greatest gift and our greatest liability. We can abstract, imagine deeply into the nature of the world, and become intimate with its physical and metaphysical workings—even become creators with volition and immanency. Yet, abstraction also separates and isolates us, allowing our most destructive tendencies to be disconnected and ignored, leading to excesses that we see manifested locally and globally. The ability to abstract is one of the most powerful ways we create; on the other hand, it can become a catastrophe of staggering proportions.

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The Lack of Imagination

It seems that education is directly under attack. Whether it is economic circumstance or a concerted “conspiracy” to dumb down the general population, there is a growing and significant need for people with diverse and comprehensive educational experience (and this is not limited to university!). Certainly there are specific specialty needs; however, beyond the particulars of those fields, the overwhelming lack of a diverse and “liberal” education has resulted in the imaginative wasteland that we are now experiencing.

We are in desperate need of an environment of comprehensive and “wildly” inventive imagination. We face a multiplicity of challenges: over population, peak oil—water—food, predatory globalization, loss of culture, religious and political extremism, and poverty to name a few; and likely the most stunning challenge, an atmosphere and attitude of “no-opportunity.”

It has been said that many of the tragic events that have plagued us over this last generation are the result of a “lack of imagination.” Wars, attacks, economic turmoil, etc. are the oft-cited examples of this condition. Rarely, however, is there an effort to understand or address the underlying problem. If 911 occurred because of a “lack of imagination” (according to the 911 Congressional Commission), then why have we not collectively addressed “imagination” in an effort at ameliorating our perceived threats? Further, we might assume that the myriad other issues of fuel, water, food, finance, etc. will require a dynamic and functioning imagination—but, sadly, this is rarely contemplated. To honestly engage with these issues, we must take this observation as an invitation to make effective change. We must also consider that the assault on education is utterly counter intuitive for where we are headed.

These issues and more are lurking on the edges of every significant conversation about our place in the world. What is the answer? Most of us “cannot imagine,” and THAT is the real root of the problem. So what do we do? The answer is likely the most obvious, and the most overlooked or ignored—invest in the tools of imagination. Collectively and individually, encouraging imagination and creativity might be the single most important thing we as individuals, a society, a country, and a species do for ourselves. We have come to the place where, in a fast changing world, it falls to us individually and micro-collectively to provoke and cultivate the imagination, to encourage new and thoughtful creation, and to support those efforts that are actively pursuing innovative answers to the issues of the day. This is a responsibility that clearly belongs each of us.

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