Sunday, October 07, 2012


Today is the first day that is cold enough to turn on the heat. I prefer to do this on a day that I am home, because I have an unnatural fear of turning the heat on for the first time. Of course, if you think about it, it may not be so unreasonable to have some numinous awe of an appliance that operates with flames and combustible materials like natural gas or oil. Especially one in the basement of your house. But, everything went well, except that the thermostat STILL doesn't work properly with this furnace, which tells me it's a crappy thermostat. On the bright side, that's much easier to fix than a furnace problem.

Today is also my day of catching up on writing lectures and grading, because work never really ceases for me during the semester. This isn't really a problem, I'm just easily distracted on the weekends. For instance, I'm taking time to write this blog post. Which is not a lecture, but is related to a lecture I gave last week.

In a discussion on Athena and Artemis, we looked at the motif of "turning to stone". It seems to me that one can "turn to stone" in a couple of ways. Consciousness is a balancing act, and being too much in the ego can turn one "to stone", as well as being too much in unconsciousness. To stagnate on either side is like being "made of stone". There has to be a dynamic flow between the two.

The most obvious association with turning to stone is Medusa, the Gorgon, who turns men to stone when they look into her face. In some versions of the myth, Medusa is a priestess of Athena, a virgin goddess, and Athena finds her making love to Poseidon in her temple. She punishes her by turning her into a monstrous being, represented in Greek art as having snakes for hair, boars' tusks, lolling tongues, and wings coming from their forehead. I have also heard versions where she is a priestess of Aphrodite, but the Athena version probably makes more sense, in light of the fact that she gives birth to Pegasus (a winged horse, and Poseidon is associated with horses) when she is killed. Still other versions suggest that Medusa was always a monster. In any case, the hero Perseus cuts her head off, and is able to do so by looking at her reflection in a shield, never looking at her directly.

Heinrich Karl Fierz is a Jungian psychiatrist who has written about the "Medusa" in his clinical practice. His patients have drawn pictures that look like a starfish or octopus, and these have been dubbed the "Medusa":

"Seen as an image, the medusa also provides clues about the biological and spiritual danger that it signifies. Seen biologically, it kills its prey with the poison in its tentacles. In a spiritual-mythological context, it is the snake-infested head of the Medusa that turns people to stone...Jung was of the opinion that the enormous affect associated with such images derives from toxic damage caused by metabolic disorders, which blocks psychic development...The 'poison of the medusa' needs an antidote, that is the biological aspect. With regard to the spiritual-mythological aspect, you will recall that Perseus overcomes the Medusa not by looking at her directly, but by catching her reflection in his shield. Thus, the dangerous, panic-stricken fascination can be overcome through reflection...The image in Perseus' shield is an image of reflective understanding." (Jungian Psychiatry, p. 138-139).

Thus, one can be "turned to stone" by an encounter in what Jung called the "psychoid" regions of psyche. They can become stuck. Similar in this regard is the myth of Pirithous and Theseus (also used as an example by Jung), who go into the underworld (i.e., the collective unconscious) to abduct Persephone. They become stuck to the rocks, the "Chairs of Forgetfulness", and are now trapped as a consequence of their rash assault. It is a representation of schizophrenia, of a disconnect with the conscious ego. All of normal life is forgotten, and the person is unable to move forward-they are "stuck", or "turned to stone".

Another myth with a "turning to stone" motif is that of Leto and Niobe. Leto is the mother of Artemis and Apollo. Niobe is a Queen of Thebes, where Leto and her divine offspring are honored. She does not believe Leto deserves such honors, as she only had the two children, and Niobe had 7 boys and 7 girls, which made her more worthy of praise, in her opinion. This insult to Leto was answered by Artemis and Apollo killing all of her children--Artemis killed the girls, Apollo killed the boys. Apollo and Artemis have the curious attribute of being protectors of children and young adults that matched their sex, and also of suddenly and savagely killing them. When Niobe begged Artemis to spare her youngest daughter, Artemis killed her anyway, and turned Niobe to stone. Niobe, now a statue, was whisked away to the top of Mount Phrygia, where the statue supposedly wept for its loss.

From my perspective, this is a mirror image of the Medusa problem--it is someone too stuck in their own ego consciousness. There is a tendency to believe that what is external to us is all there is, and an interior life is somewhat downgraded, at least from an uber-rational perspective. I visited some friends a couple of weeks ago, and one of them was reading Richard Davidson's "The Emotional Life of the Brain". Davidson had noted that few studies had been conducted regarding emotions and the brain, because emotions were viewed as some sort of irrational embarrassment by the scientific community. It is in this way that modern science is influenced by patriarchal religion--there is a belief that humans are greater than animals, and that what sets us apart from animals is our ability to reason. Therefore, the exalted Man is a reasonable and rational Man. This was before we understood that animals also have the ability to reason. Certainly crows are smart enough to make tools, and octopi are know for playing pranks. Still, it is an unconscious myth that persists. Rationality is "light" ; all other human attributes are "darkness", and ones we should be ashamed of in this view.

From the psychoanalytic perspective, the problem with this is that we are arrested in the maturation process. Our resistance to the unconscious only gives the unconscious more control over our lives. We walk around as though in a hall of mirrors; we never see ourselves, except as reflected in those around us (and quite literally in mirrors). Again, one must be introspective, reflect on experiences and their inner meaning, to achieve balance. When they don't, they are wonderful and everyone else is the problem. This is another kind of "turning to stone"--a "stuckness" in one's own ego identity. Such "stuckness" is often shattered by an appearance of the Trickster archetype, if the person is fortunate. In less jargon-filled terms, it is what my mother would call having "life happen to them." The person who puffs themselves up with their illusions is often brought down quickly, like the Hindu story of Indra and the ants (see the Moyers/Campbell "Power of Myth" episode on the "Message of the Myth" for a retelling of that story).

It is in these ways that mythical stories can provide guidance for us in the context of our life experiences. There is a tendency to read myth (including scripture) in a very rationalistic, literalistic kind of sense. Even the ancient philosophers did this, when they viewed the stories of the gods as bad role models for human behavior. One has to look beyond the surface to understand the meaning. But this often doesn't happen until an experience occurs that calls for introspection. It is important that we don't deny that aspect of ourselves, lest we end up "turned to stone". In popular culture, a similar fear is expressed in the fascination with zombies--mindless cannibalistic feeders. While I would not directly compare those images, they both warn of the dangers of thoughtlessly clinging to an identity or role.