Anatomy of a mythological hero

What makes a true mythological hero? 

That depends not only on how one defines ‘truth’ but also on what one considers to be the primary function of myth. In this essay, I follow the lead of philosophical pragmatist, William James, who considers something as ‘true’ if, at any given time, it functions well as a working hypothesis (Blackburn, 49). I also define myth as a story (true or false) wherein some personality (divine, human, and/or animal) is involved in making something significant happen in a way that not only exerts a powerful hold over adherents but also supports theories meant to help make meaning of our lives (Segal, 3-9).

There is little doubt that Greek mythology continues to intrigue adherents several millennia after creation. I believe this has much to do with the role played by the mythical hero, which, as the OED (n, 1) suggests, is a man of ‘superhuman strength, courage, or ability, especially such a man who is ‘regarded as semi-divine’. In this essay, I will argue that it is the special role of a true mythological hero to inform man as to the nature of his relationship with the divine as well as to provide guidance as to how he might connect with it. I will illustrate my ideas using the psychological theories of CG Jung and three well-known heroic personalities of Greek myth.

Kerenyi (Heroes, 3) suggests that it is the function of the mythological hero to teach men something essential about the ‘glory of the divine’ in their humanity. Whilst gods exist in primordial time, the mythological hero is necessarily ‘of his own time’ and so in him, we find divinity ‘strangely combined with the shadow of mortality.’ Without this strange mix, mythological heroes would no longer be heroes but simply great men. So what does it take for a man to rise to the level of a mythological hero? To answer that question, Kerenyi (Heroes, 2) suggests we look to the psychological archetype of hero. 

Although most associate the concept of archetype with CG Jung, Freud likewise acknowledged the existence of  archetypes, although he knew them as phylogenetic prototypes (Adams, 107). Likewise, both Jung and Freud acknowledged something akin to a hero archetype that itself was intimately connected with myth (Segal, 83). But whilst for Freud heroism revolves around human parental relationships, for Jung it revolves around the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious (Segal, 83). In this respect, Jung echoes Kerenyi by suggesting that the archetype of the hero finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’ and distinguishing itself through ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’. Jung (Archetypes, 167) suggests that it is through the accomplishment of such deeds that the hero connects with his divinity – ‘And God said: ‘Let there be light!’

For Jungians, the gods symbolise the father and mother archetypes, representing a man’s relationship between the masculine and feminine sides of his personality respectively (Segal, 94). The problem is, however, that all archetypes remain outside our conscious control until sufficient psychological work has been undertaken to integrate them (Segal, 95). For Jung (Archetypes, 164), this work of integration belongs to the child, the motif of which is pure potentiality. Specifically, Jung notes that sometimes the ‘child’ looks like a child god and sometimes more like a young hero; but whilst the god remains wholly supernatural, the hero archetype represents the ‘human raised to the limit of the supernatural’. In other words, for Jung (Archetypes, 166) the hero archetype represents man’s potential for synthesis of (1) his unconscious divine into (2) his consciousness. Until one has become ‘psychologically house-trained’ such that the contents of the unconscious have become conscious, men are ‘possessed’ by ‘complexes’ which express themselves as ‘hysterical’ women’, ‘true disturbers of the peace’ (Jung, Essentials, 122-123).  In this regard, hysterical suggests ‘a state of mind marked by an ‘exaggerated rapport’ with persons in the immediate environment’ (Purrington, 2020).

How might this work in practice? Consider that Homer’s Iliad starts with an angry dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon over the ownership of a woman. Indeed, the whole plot centres on a war, during which 240 gory battlefield deaths occur in a 52-day period, which was launched in anger to recover a stolen woman. When Achilles, the star ‘hero’ of the Iliad, fails to get what he wants he does not sort it for himself but instead runs for help from his divine mother, Thetis. When finally Achilles overcomes his sulky tantrum and re-joins the fighting, he frenziedly mutilates the body of Hector, the Trojan who killed his best friend, Patroclus. The gods are offended. It strikes me that if a hero is serious about connecting with his divinity, he ought to fight his own battles rather than turning for divine assistance from mummy. Likewise, he ought not to go out of his way to offend the gods. Nonetheless, Achilles is lucky. Because he is a warrior or therapõn, a ritual substitute for the god Ares, in the moment of his death, he  achieves his divinity (Nagy, 842).

Homer’s Odyssey ups the ante for bad behaviour when the ‘hero’, Odysseus, slaughters 108 young men and 12 slave girls more or less, just because he wants to do. This suggests that Homer’s Greek ‘hero’ is little more than a hyper-emotional war lord for whom others are objects to be manipulated at will. Likewise, these heroes are allowed not only to self-righteously demand whatever they want whether or not morally justifiable, but also to behave like petulant children as do their gods (Browne). ‘Hysterical’ women and ‘true disturbers of the peace’, indeed. I would argue that overall, Homer’s heroes have made little headway toward psychologically integrating their divinity into consciousness. Nonetheless they remain heroes, although Odysseus, for reasons too complex to address in this essay, may well not be representative of an ordinary mythic hero (Russo, 254). Jung (Archetypes, 167) confirms their hero status by noting that the hero archetype carries with it an unusual paradox in that although the hero triumphs great perils with ease, ‘something quite insignificant is his undoing’. Witness Achilles; killed by a poison arrow in his heel, his only vulnerability. In some versions of that  story, it was the god, Apollo, the most offended by Achilles’ outrageous behaviour regarding Hector, who guided that arrow. Likewise Odysseus, who once rejected Circe’s offer of immortality, ‘accidently’ dies at the hands of the son he fathered on her.

Arguably, Heracles does better than Homer’s crew. As noted earlier, Jung believed that hero archetype finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’.  Certainly in his labours, Heracles triumphed over many monsters and, according to Kerenyi (Heroes, 141), he did so in pursuit of the darkness of death itself. Might it be that in accomplishing these tasks, Heracles was well on his way to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’ despite that hysterical incident in which in a fit of divinely inspired madness, he massacred his first wife and their children? Jung (Archetypes, 171) seems to suggest that he was. This is because Heracles represents the ‘bondsman’ or ‘thrall’, a position that ‘generally leads up to the real epiphany of the semi-divine hero’. Perhaps this is why, as Jung (Archetypes, 123) points out, Heracles is presented with the opportunity to end his human suffering and ‘step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality’? Equally, however, this opportunity may only have been the result of having been ‘unwittingly adopted by Hera’ (Jung, Archetypes, 45). Regardless, Heracles is confirmed by Jung (Archetypes, 167), as a true mythological hero because despite having triumphed great perils, like Odysseus and Achilles, he meets his mortal end through something insignificant, in this case a gift from his wife.

In conclusion, my working hypothesis of what makes a true mythological hero or heroine is based on my understanding that a primary function of myth is to help adherents make meaning of their lives. For Jungians, this boils down to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’, or successfully integrating one’s unconscious divinity into consciousness. For guidance as to how this works, we turn to the exploits of the mythological hero, who in ancient Greek mythology was forced to directly deal with the actual divine. According to Jung, the true mythological hero will have achieved the required psychological house training when he no longer behaves like a hysterical woman. Homer’s heroes, who carry on like hyper-emotional war lords throughout both the Iliad and Odyssey, demonstrate how extremely hard this is to accomplish. Other heroes, like Heracles, may do better but still do not quite get it right.  Nonetheless, they all still remain true mythological heroes because they have distinguished themselves with regards to great ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’ (Jung, Archetypes, 167). In doing so, they have imparted to adherents of the myths something essential about connecting with ‘the glory of the divine’ in their humanity: to wit, for the most part, this is nigh impossible to achieve during lifetime, may not be worth the effort, and all too often, it is left to the luck of the draw.

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Bibliography

Adams, MV (2008). The archetypal school. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 107- 124). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackburn, S (2006). Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. Penguin. 

Browne, S (2021). Ancient myths and ancient men: Homer, Virgil, and being a hero [Online lecture – ICE, University of Cambridge Virtual Summer Festival] https://www.ice.cam.ac.uk/ancient-myths-and-ancient-men-homer-virgil-and-being-hero (available through 6 September 2021).

Jung, CG (1990). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (RFC Hull, Trans). Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1959).

Jung, CG (1998). The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (A Storr, Ed.). Fontana Press. (Original work published in 1983). 

Jung, CG and Kerenyi, C (1985). The Science of Mythology (RFC Hull, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published 1941).

Kerenyi, C (1997). The Heroes of the Greeks (HL Rose, Trans.). Thames and Hudson. (Original work published 1959). 

Nagy, G (2011). Lyric and Greek Myth. In RD Woodard (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Kindle version] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Purrington, Mr. (2020, May 6). Carl Jung on ‘Hysteria’ Lexicon. Carl Jung Depth Psychology. https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/05/06/carl-jung-on-hysteria-lexicon/#.YQfkvi1Q2ek

Russo, J. (2008). A Jungian analysis of Homer’s Odysseus. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 253-268). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, R. (2015). Myth: A Very short Introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

The Poison Garden

The beginnings of a fantasy tale:


The gravel path winding up the steep slope narrowed. Our progress was further hindered by rivulets of rain. As the downdraft pitched toward its icy crescendo, I zipped up my parka and shook my head. The late autumn sky, a slab of blue grey shot through with pure white, promised worse to come. As we’d planned this essential research project more than two years in advance, I could only imagine how much Boreas, that cruel north wind, was enjoying his show. 

“Atropa Belladonna, she is deadly nightshade,” droned our guide, a pimply-faced lad whose Latin was far better than would ever be his English. He pointed to a purple flower flapping like a flag atop a stalky green pole.  “Here on left is Aconitum, he is wolf’s-bane, and if you drink his juice, you forever fall asleep, amen.”

As my colleagues inched forward,  I held back. I was desperate to add a sketch  of Aconitum to my collection. With a single sweep of my charcoal pencil, I captured the essence of the two upper petals peeking out from beneath their hood. From experience, I knew that at their crown was a hollow spur filled with ambrosia, their honeyed nectar. I leaned closer. Might I not just once break the rules and push back that damson-coloured cap to gain a better view?  Reluctant to fall further behind in such bad weather, I elected, instead, for artistic improvisation.

By the time I’d caught up with the rest of the group, our guide was relating how the most dangerous of the ninety-six poisonous plants currently in residence at Hermaia Gardens were housed in giant cages made of a secret alloy of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Nothing could get in; nothing could get out. Voila, more or less instant immortalisation. There is, however, one drawback.  From the myths of old, we all know  that immortality equates to invisibility. The placard said the Cherry Laurel, prunus laurocerasus, in this cage was from Thebes in Boeotia. If we could see it, we’d fully appreciate that this specimen was more than two-thousand years old.

“It’s a lie.” Nychois, one of my least clever colleagues, pushed forward. “There’s nothing in there. It’s an empty cage.”

“It…it transparent”, stuttered our guide.

“There’s only one way to find out,” declared Exapatas. “Go ahead, touch it, Nychois.”

“No,  not, touch,” shouted our guide. “It kill you!”

“I tell you there’s nothing in there but even if there were, we’re all botanists,” replied Nychois. “Not only are my  gloves bullet-proof but we each carry every possible antidote right here in our bags.”

“This one old,” insisted the guide. “No cure.”

“Nonsense,” prompted Exapatas. “Go ahead, Nychois. I dare you.”

As Boreas kicked into gale force,  my colleague knelt and rattled the cage. He turned to stone. Exapatas fainted. The remainder of our group turned and ran. Squeezing shut his eyes, guide stood tall, his hand clasped in prayer. Madly, I rummaged through my antidote bag for something, anything, that might counteract what I reasoned must have been a practical joke, gone wrong. Little could I have known that coming to terms with what had just happened would consume the next twenty-three and one-half years of my earthly existence. 

(to be continued, maybe…)

A Feminist Reading of Jason & his Heroic Argonauts

For a course, I’ve been revisiting the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which most of us will remember as a heroic tale of adventure and courage in which the charmingly handsome Jason undertakes a dangerous quest with his fellows to recover the Golden Fleece. 

Most of us may also remember that however heroic and courageous Jason might be, he could never have succeeded without the help of the princess, Medea, who lucky for him is a powerful witch. In gratitude, Jason takes Medea home and marries her but then, tiring of this part of his adventure, seeks a new one in marrying a different princess. In a fit of anger and revenge, Medea turns against him and for all involved, things go terribly wrong.

There are many ways to look at this story and what it might mean for us today. Just for fun, I’ve chosen to take a feminist approach – let’s see how that might go, shall we?

One of the primary concerns of feminist literary critique is how socially constructed gender roles contribute to ‘self-making (i.e., what makes someone who he or she is). In this respect, it is important to remember every text brings to itself some form of sexual politics – i.e., an assumed relationship between male and female because however portrayed, ‘otherness’ is always implicit. 

The goal of feminist literary critique is not to destroy thousands of years of western literary tradition but instead, to reinterpret and rethink it especially in regarding stereotyping and the collusion between audiences in maintaining covert stereo-typed assumptions about gender roles. 

As Natalie Haynes points out in her recent book, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, if Clytemnestra is the worst wife in Greek myth, Medea lays claim to being the worst mother. From the start, Haynes reminds us, Medea, who is a barbarian, is dangerous; she’s clever, foreign, female, and magical. Haynes also reminds us that there were few things that alarmed Greek men more than a clever woman and arguably, Medea is cleverest of all. 

This lays the groundwork for Medea to be portrayed as a scheming menace to society. Arguably, she is more much more dangerous than the warrior race of women, the Amazons. At least put all their cards on the table along with their (male-inspired) weapons. As the result, doubtless hundreds of generations of readers have taken on board that women are dangerous – especially witches. For confirmation of this, you don’t need to look much further than the witch trials (and laws against witchcraft) both in Britain and New England to understand exactly how that has played out.

Imagine the negative self-image foisted upon women as the result – especially when, as did Medea, she might be considering using her ‘special gifts’ to help herself out. Talk about stereotyping; Jason says it all when he proclaims  that ‘women are so unreasonable: they cannot tell what is good for them’. The ‘otherness’ implied here is that, as a man, Jason is reasonable and knows what’s good for him but, as it turns out, he doesn’t. Nonetheless, in most versions of the story, Medea absorbs a larger share of the blame than Jason, right?

But today, we are able to ‘rethink’ the message inherent in Medea’s story. For example, as self-proclaimed witch, Laurie Cabot, made clear in her bestseller – The Witch in Every Woman – all women possess the primal courage and strength of the Witch and so can use these special talents (she provides pages of spells and recipes and rituals) not only to improve their own self-image but also get what they want – the  name of the game as Cabot puts it is the Reawakening the Magical Nature of the Feminine to Heal, Protect, Create, and Empower. But did Haynes mention that? No, she didn’t, and I challenge you to name more than a handful of authors who choose to put (Medea’s) witchcraft in equally as positive a framework as has Ms Cabot. 

Yet the reality of that story is that in the end, Jason lost, and Medea won. In all the gender politics in play, we tend to lose sight of that. One way or another, he ended up dead or clinically depressed or on skid-row as she rode off in her grandfather’s solar chariot toward a new future. Was this because she was of divine birth, and he was not? It is my view that is not made entirely clear. Most portrayals of her are as a barbarian princess, not a goddess. Let us not forget the damage that language like that does without us even realising it. Although the word ‘barbarian’ today is defined as a ‘rude’ and ‘uncivilised’ person, to the Greeks it meant only that she was not Greek.

The covert message here is clearly that whilst men can use everything in their power to get what they want, women cannot. If you think that has changed much over the centuries, consider the antics of former American president Donald Trump regarding his treatment of ‘threatening’ women. Like Jason, in Trump’s eyes Trump should be revered as a hero and Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi dismissed as ‘nasty’ (rude and uncivilised) women. He even goes so far as to suggest the American legal system is engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ when they make rulings intended to shed light on some otherwise very potentially dark shadows regarding him. If we think that people are not colluding in stereo-typed gender messages centre stage in that ancient story of Jason and Medea, consider how close Trump came to being re-elected as president.

Two Versions: which do you prefer?

For my Fantasy Writing course, I was asked to write about the circumstance during which my narrator first met up with a particular archetypal character. Two different voices were required – which do you prefer and why?

Version 1

I have never enjoyed traveling in public conveyances. It is most uncivilised to share such a cramped space with a complete stranger for hours and hours and hours on end. If one is truly unfortunate, as I was on that particular evening, one might, by necessity, even be forced to share one’s meal with another who heralds from a foreign land. The only good thing to be taken away from that entire experience was that whilst nibbling away on an egg and cress sandwich, I no longer could be expected to make polite conversation. 

Imagine my joy when at long last, my stopping train chugged into Boston’s fashionable red-brick and plate glass Back Bay Station. I breathed a welcome sigh of relief when after raising her gloved hand, that badly-dressed French woman with whom I been trading lies for six hours waved adieu. After directing my ladies maid to attend to my baggage, I alighted on the smoky station quay and was at long last, delighted to stretch my legs.

Although I had hoped to enjoy my first view of Copley Square, home to Trinity Church, America’s quaintly colonial nod to the superiority of European architecture, I was disappointed. A dreadful snowstorm originating from the very heart of Canada had in earnest, descended. It was impossible to see the nose on one’s face, much less anything beyond. Drawing my woollen cloak closer I followed the porter bearing my luggage. Poor luck, I told myself. Perhaps, with the grace of God, after I will have arrived safely at my cousin’s gracious home across the River Charles in Harvard Square, tomorrow will be brighter. 

Now, imagine my sorrow when after only a few yards, my carriage became stuck fast in the same icy white drift as the one before it.

“I am terribly sorry, Ma’am,” announced the driver, sticking his big head through the tiny window. “No further progress can be made. May I suggest that you and your travelling companion spend the night across the way at the Fairmont?”

Although I was not best pleased with the idea, there was little else that could be done. After the driver had arranged for my luggage to be conveyed across the street, I eased my cold fingers into my warm fur muff and prepared to make my exit. To this day, I cannot be certain how what happened next actually did happen.  Suffice it to say that when I turned around, I encountered not my maid but a clean-shaven, dark-skinned man, who was strangely attired in a black woollen tunic, black silk tights, and tight-fitting black leather gloves with cloth covered buttons. A black bolero hat, of the same type that I had seen the week before in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art sat squarely atop his well-shaped head. In his left hand, he clutched a pink papyrus scroll and in his right hand, a shiny silver caduceus, the kind that any well-educated gentleman or gentlewoman will instantly know is associated with Hermes, ancient messenger of the gods and psychopomp of the dead.

“Good evening, Madame,” he hissed. “Diaktoros at your service.”


Version 2

When first I laid eyes on Diaktoros, it was mid-winter; snow fell fast and thick and the frozen air was laden with the acrid smoke of designer fireplaces burning designer wood. I’d long been anticipating my visit to Boston’s Copley Square, home to Trinity Church. Because of its risqué Romanesque arches, pious Byzantine angels, and flying Gothic buttresses, the building has been one of America’s top ten architectural masterpieces for the last one hundred and sixty-three years. After an awe-inspiring article had appeared in a late 20th century Architectural Digest, that House of God has drawn a record one million visitors each and every day. 

That night, however, Copley Place was desolate, deserted. Little surprise. It was half-past midnight in the midst of a howling storm. Equally of little surprise was that moments after the bullet train upon which I’d just arrived had dashed onwards to Canada, I realised there were no taxis. Having never before visited this ancient city, named by the Puritans after the town in Lincolnshire from whence they’d emigrated, I was unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Under such circumstances, might I not be forgiven for failing to realise that The Westin Copley Place, the four-star hotel in which I was to take my sanctuary, was no more than a few yards off to my right?

Ruing my own foolishness for having mislaid my dagger during my journey, I turned left, and walked quickly toward the soft, pink glow of a distant streetlamp. But instead of encountering a busy hive of respectable commerce as anticipated, I found myself in what, in those days, was known as a marginal neighbourhood: one side of the street was gentrified whilst the other, was a ghetto. Since the beginning of time, marginality has been dangerous. Likewise, street crime was as rampant then as now. I needed to get out of there as soon as was possible. Leaning against that streetlamp, I consulted my old-fashioned plastic-coated map. A split second after tucking it back into my great coat pocket, I felt a gentle tug on my sleeve. With my heart leaping into my throat, I pinched my wrist, and gathered my courage. Slowly I turned to face whatever fate had chosen to deliver.

Imagine my relief when instead of finding bandits wearing Carnival masks and wielding sharp sabres, I was confronted with a clean-shaven, dark-skinned man, about my own height. He was modestly attired in a black woollen tunic, black silk tights, and black leather boots with cloth covered buttons. A black bolero hat, of the same type that had become wildly popular after last month’s Versace Autumn/Winter fashion show, sat squarely atop his well-shaped head. In his left hand, he clutched a pink papyrus scroll and in his right hand, a shiny silver caduceus, the kind that every schoolchild knows had been associated with Hermes, messenger of the gods and psychopomp of the dead. I tilted my head to one side, as was the custom upon meeting a stranger. After politely tipping his bolero in the direction from whence I’d just come, Diaktoros smiled and then vaporised, leaving a bevy of cooing white doves in his wake.

The Hermeneutics of Allegory – Homer’s Odyssey in Context

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey carry hidden meaning beyond that which is simply symbolic. Naturally, it’s important to understand what a piece of literature or poetry or art might mean (symbolically) – but then comes the next question – what am I meant to do with that? 

Over the centuries, there have been many approaches to answer this question but one that I really like is a four level of hermeneutic approach (traced back to the 3rd century as a method for Christian thinkers like Origen and Thomas Aquinas to grasp spiritual meaning from the scriptures).

Let’s assume that the Odyssey is an allegory (extended metaphor) about ‘finding one’s way back home’ – not unlike the theme of many popular stories/ films like The Wizard of Oz which, themselves may be underpinned with Biblical messages about returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden. 

Application of the four levels of hermeneutical interpretation to the allegory this allegory might go along something like this:

  1. Literal – the letter teaches you the facts – this level presents that which is an objective truth to be observed and verified. On the way home from ‘work’ (the Trojan war), Odysseus got lost and although he really wanted to get home (and ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’) this didn’t prove to be easy because the gods blocked him at every turn.
  2. Allegory – what you should believe – this level expands the literal sense by pairing observed objective truths (see above) to subjective life events. ‘Home’ is a factor in all our lives although not all cultures think of ‘home’ in the same way. But usually we consider ‘home’ as a safe place where we ‘feel’ that we are ‘wanted’ and where we ‘belong’. In this sense, the concept of ‘home’ usually carries lots of emotional baggage and so with that comes the concept of nostalgia – bittersweet memories and longing for that safe space. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek words (1) nostos or ‘return journey’ and (2) algos or ‘pain’. Lots of people get lost – it happens every day – and although more often than not they aren’t too happy about it, they do tend to remember the experience for the rest of their lives So what might we gather from that? A quote by Henry David Thoreau might shed light – “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Put Thoreau together with notions of ‘home’ as a place where we feel we belong and the idea arises that being homeless carries painful (nostalgic) feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ and that we might not have appreciated what ‘belonging’ really meant to us (‘the infinite extent of our relations’) until we experience this.
  3. Trope –  how you should act – this level reveals the context of the interpretation and allows you to interact with it. The term ‘trope’ comes from the Greek tropos, to turn, as in the tropic of the Sun’s turning at the Solstices.  Moved by the literal and allegorical ‘truths’ you’ve observed and interpreted, you now turn toward that ‘truth’ and take the necessary actions to implement it. Odysseus was in a difficult situation – ‘a fish out of water’ – he wanted to return to feelings of ‘belonging’ – but some force more powerful than him (i.e. the gods) denied this to him. What actions did he need to take to overcome the gods? I suggest that he had to become ever more cunning and crafty than ever before – and in this regard, the cunning and crafty goddess Athene helped him. In other words, he needed to learn new skills and develop certain aspects of himself that he might have otherwise ignored and/or disregarded. The idea might be that when we feel lost and alone – presented with obstacles we could never have expected – we need to turn within and with divine help take stock of our personal strengths and weaknesses, polishing up the former and shoring up the latter. 
  4. Anagoge – what to hope for – this level, signifying the symbol as something through which the turn of the trope turns, is reflected in our desire to predict.  Here we enter the world of the daemon which manifests as a power from outside rather like providence or fate. Because the Greek word anagoge suggests a “climb” or “ascent” upwards, there’s a higher spiritual meaning in play here relating directly to mankind’s destiny in the greater scheme of thing. What then, might we expect (or predict) for ourselves from the homecoming that Odysseus? Most certainly it did not manifest as he’d planned. Although he was finally ‘home’ in the sense that he could now ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’, he is still a fish out of water. At least he’d been warned by the ghost of Agamemnon (murdered by his wife and her lover when he returned home from ‘work’ – the Trojan war). But still it isn’t easy. As one commentator notes, the homecoming half of The Odyssey is the least read because it is so gruellingly painful. Whilst people love reading a tale of adventure (the first half of the The Odyssey), they don’t like reading about about mass murder and civil unrest. Yet this is exactly what happened. We might be tempted to say that Odysseus brought this on himself and, at some level, that may well be true. But remember that here we’re looking for some spiritual meaning in regards to what mankind might expect as the result of undertaking an odyssey such as did Odysseus. Returning to parallels of this story to that of returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden, we must remember that in Greek, the world ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’. Escapist illusions leading to embracing utopian ideals – i.e. there is a place called ‘home’ to which if only we might return, our lives will be shiny and bright again – usually lead to serious disillusionment. Whilst it is true that ‘there’s no place like home’, the Moody Blues made an important point in their hit song from the 1970’s – ‘You Can Never go Home’. Check out the lyrics and let me know what you think what this might mean.

Man’s Relationship with his Gods

Reading Homer’s Iliad, it is clear that not only did the gods – or immortals – meddle in every aspect of the lives of important men and women – but that those men and women were quick to blame their misfortunes on the gods, often failing to take any personal responsibility for their lives, as we might be expected today.

So what might have might have been going on?

I suggest it’s all to do with man’s perceived relationship with his gods. Further, I suggest that this is nicely explained in Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In that work, Jayne’s proposed that until about 3000 years ago, human consciousness consisted only of voices that, because the two hemispheres of the brain didn’t communicate, were perceived as coming from the gods.

In essence, these ancient men lacked self-consciousness as we know it today. They could not perceive themselves as separate from – and thus ‘in relationship with’ – the gods. Instead, they had a type of cosmic consciousness which gave them imaginal – almost telepathic – access to the greater cosmos. Everything they saw and heard was to them, objectively real.

Jaynes suggests that in effect these ancients were what we might call ‘signal-bound’, responding constantly in a stimulus -response manner, completely controlled by cues. To get a sense of what this means, we need only to look at artwork from this period. I am most struck by the early Cycladic art, which I suggests demonstrates these people had a symbiotic relationship with their divinity, the Great Goddess and Earth Mother. This was the Age of Taurus, one in which men and women moved with and through the flow of nature, at one with the natural world.

Jaynes suggests this bicameralism began to break down during 2nd millennium BCE  – about the time of that the Trojan War is thought to have occurred. This was the Age of Aries and so during this time, the focus shifts to individualised achievement and conquest. The world was no longer slow moving and rural, but hierarchically organised and maintained by brute force. This required a cold, hard, calculated response. The gods no longer spoke to every individual, so the truths of cosmic consciousness were expressed in the form of the great narrative epics and divine commandments, of which the Old Testament of the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are excellent examples.

After mankind’s ‘fall’ from the garden of Eden, which you might view as a loss of cosmic consciousness, men had to become increasingly devious in order to survive. Again, when we look at the early artwork of the ancient Middle East at the beginning of the period, we see kings standing side by side with their councillor gods effortlessly gaining divine wisdom. But by the end of that age – ‘after the fall’ – the kings were on their knees begging for guidance.

Thus consciousness of ‘I’ – as separate and ‘in relation with’ the gods developed and the rational problem-solving man, with which we are familiar, is born. It’s interesting that our familiarity with our humanity increased as our familiarity with the gods decreased.

Next, the distant imperial divinities were replaced the local gods and great mythic narratives. The old cosmic consciousness had nearly faded from memory, although it was revived from time to time by mystery religions.

Here we find the right brain intuition just starting to interact with the left brain thinking, although even today we can’t be sure of the degree of the quality of such interaction. It’s not surprising that this period produced such a diametrical divinity like Jesus Christ – a mortal man who died – but didn’t really die- and because of that, was worshipped like an immortal God. This was the Age of Pisces.

What might we expect next, in the coming Age of Aquarius? I suggest that man will reposition himself vis a vis God through scientific endeavours.  In essence, man reaches for the stars –  not so much by playing God – but through creating reality. It’s ideas that drive us. We’ve always known this. But until now, we’ve been held back by our mortality.

In the post-human era, characterised by artificial intelligence and uploaded consciousness (or the transfer of the human mind to an artificial substrate), we will eliminate these distinctions, which interestingly were all man made in the first place.[1] .

Hence in the post-human era, we will transcend our bodies and become immortal like the gods. Aquarius is all about communication and through it the three aspects of the mind, cautiousness, unconsciousness, and super-consciousness will seek simultaneous expression. If we look carefully at the glyph for Aquarius – two parallel WAVY lines – I suggest that represents our new status with God.[2]

Nor surprisingly, this idea has already been presented by Nietzsche in writings about the Ubermensch or overman, in which he suggested that ‘man is something that must be overcome’ and that the highest truth is being born within man through the self-creating power of the will. To accomplish this, man’s present limited ‘self’ must be destroyed. The truth isn’t to be proved or disproved but instead, to be created. Nietzsche believed that man’s striving toward the future will result in the birth of a new being who would incarnate the meaning of the universe and thus impose redemptive order on the chaos of a meaningless universe without the gods.


[1] At the beginning of the Piscean age, Plato first formatted the distinction between the sensory (the earth plane) and the eternal world (of ideas).

Early Christian theologians renamed this external world Heaven with its guiding principle as God. The Christians further borrowed from Aristotle the notion of God as the Prime Mover of the cosmos and the First Cause of everything that exists. Amazingly, those notions had never been seriously challenged until relatively recent by the modern philosophers. 

Take Descartes. When new scientific discoveries made him wonder ‘what can I know for certain’, he came to the famous conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’. But his matrix still kept God as the first cause of – and the only link between – a bicameral universe where subjectivity – ‘I think’ –  was isolated from objectivity – ‘the world which I perceive’.

Next comes Hume who claims that the only thing that we can be certain of is the fact that there is an unbroken stream a subjective images and ideas. Under his ‘radical scepticism’, we can’t even be certain that there is something called the mind to contain these ideas because the mind is itself just another idea.

For Kant, one could only know the sensory world and only believe in any realm beyond that. Finally, Nietzsche came along and pronounced the ‘death of God’. This was a turning point where we could no longer legitimately argue that anything lies beyond the earth plane in which we live. This was the ‘dawning of the Age of Aquarius’.

[2] In Descartes’s matrix, which still underlies most modern thinking, the problem is due to the difference in kind between the mind and the body. While the non-spatial mind and the mechanistic body shouldn’t interact, they do so in the human body. In post-humanism, this problem is reworked and the distinction between subject and object is collapsed, with the mind considered to be no more than a material function of the body. Thus we will become both creator and the created.

Karmic Astrology (9)

In prior posts, I’ve investigated several different ways of astrologically identifying your past and future karma using invaluable information gained by attending workshops/retreats lead by Judy Hall many years ago. We’ve looked at the Sun, Moon, nodal axis, and karmic relationships (through synastry). Now, it’s time to look at the placement of Saturn in your charts, as being ruler of the boundaries  (the ‘ring-pass-not’) between the personal planets and the collective planets, he is truly the Lord of Karma.

Saturn / Lord of Karma

Astrologically, Saturn is equated with ‘virtues’ such as responsibility, duty, and obligation. Heavy going! Given this is karmic astrology, it was never going to be easy. Saturn may not be the brightest light on the block (we leave that to Jupiter), but he lies at the base of all our accomplishments. Hence, Saturn is often considered somewhat tedious (bywords include self-control, tact, thrift, and caution). But he is very necessary. In effect, Saturn equates to your backbone.

On the other hand, never forget that Saturn is two-faced – both a friend and a foe. With one hand, he gives you that structure & strength necessary to succeed in life but with the other, he makes you feel as like a foolish failure. This is why Saturn is oft associated with fault, failure, fear, guilt, and blame and, for this, he gets deserved bad press. When things go wrong, as inevitably they will do with Saturn, it’s easy to blame others. But in reality, when Saturn is in play, you cannot afford to blame anyone but yourself. 

I suppose that at the end of the day, Saturn is doing us a favour by highlighting where it is exactly that we’re most vulnerable. How else we could we shore up those weaknesses to be strong? Given that as Judy Hall reminds us, karmic astrology is based on the premise that we are eternal, spiritual beings reincarnating into a physical body in order to perfect ourselves through multiple incarnations, it only makes sense to pay close attention to the lessons that Saturn would have us learn.

Sign /HouseKarmic IssueLesson to Learn
Aries / 1st HouseBlockage in self-assertionKarmic duty - when you're young, this feels like a burden or curse but as you grow older and more willingly take up obligations presented, it will get easier.
Taurus / 2nd HouseDeep seated fears of poverty and/overcompensation for previous materialistic lives or consciously taken poverty vows.Develop more traditional and healthier notions of what security and personal safety might mean.
Gemini / 3rd HouseBlockages with communication - hearing or speech impediments and/or learning disabilities. Need to find workable balance between when to speak and when to hold your tongue as well as taking full advantage of any/all learning opportunities, even it not of a traditional kind.
Cancer / 4th HouseFeeling always cut-off from others and/or growing up in a strict household.Drop expectations that you will be treated coldly and without affection and replace them with a warm and welcoming heart.
Leo / 5th HouseFeeling inadequate/insignificant and/or ability to procreate or otherwise create.Stop looking from validation from outside and learn to value yourself for who you are and what you create.
Virgo /6th HouseMay manifest in chronic health problems and/or living in servitude to others.Instead of being evil, your body is a temple and when you are called upon to serve others, choose to do so with an open heart.
LIbra / 7th HouseBlockage relating to partnership, old promises kept that are no longer valid or necessary.Need to develop a healthy and happy relationship with yourself.
Scorpio / 8th HouseDifficulties in sexual expression and/or intimacy - likely manifesting from prior celibacy vows - your own or inherited. Take personal responsibility for your role in sexual relationships which in turn allows you to risk true intimacy.
Sagittarius / 9th HouseDark night of the soul - crisis in religious or spiritual or philosophical beliefs - likely to have arise from many prior lives bowing to the dogma of others.Strike out and find your own path.
Capricorn / 10th HouseOften manifests as debilitating fear of failure in worldly pursuits, especially in younger years.Once you access your innate inner authority, this placement can help you achieve success especially in older years.
Aquarius / 11th HouseOften manifests as feeling out of step with society, as well as deeply critical of your fellow men.Realign yourself to 'higher' vibrations and in doing so, become a wise guide to lead your fellow men.
Pisces / 12th HouseOften manifests with generalised feelings of guilty and powerless and/or fear of being out of control Know thyself - and release the past and embrace not your inadequacies, but instead your personal strength. With age this becomes easier as you gain discipline and confidence.

Example

My Saturn is in Libra in my 4th house and I can definitely relate to feeling cut-off from others. Although not authoritarian in any sense of the word, the home in which I grew up was most certainly not warm and cuddly. My mother took centre stage and as I’ve noted in prior posts, tried to ‘steal’ my personal identity so that she could live her own unfilled life through mine. I was given every opportunity to do whatever it was that she’d not been able to do, which included piano lessons, which I did not want and never had wanted – but nevertheless got along with a whole load of guilt. 

When assessing the karmic effects of my Saturn during this lifetime, it’s important to note that it doesn’t stand  alone in my 4th house but is closely tied with Mercury and Neptune. This put me smack, dab into the mystical/pragmatist dilemma which combined with my communication karma, leaves me pretty much in fantasy land. I have what I have named the ‘Henry James’ syndrome’. Most of his novels (including my absolute favourite, The Portrait of a Lady, explore themes where naïve Americans go back to their European ‘roots’ to obtain the education and polish they didn’t get in their native land.[1] 

But eventually (like Henry James himself) they must come to terms with their roots, or otherwise wander aimlessly like Peter Pan. Those of you familiar with that brilliant 19th and early 20th  century American author will know that he died here in England, never having returned home to America for other than a brief visit. Some might say that he was the archetypal Peter Pan, the lost boy, the eternal youth.

It’s not lost on me that in some strange way, I might even be a reincarnation of Mr Henry James – although clearly lacking his immense writerly talent. I myself have lived abroad in Europe for nearly thirty years and have not returned to my native land – even for a visit – for 18 of those years. I’m not actually certain where that leaves me. But as I started this series of karmic astrology post to help deal with some very complicated karmic issues that and most unpleasantly surfaced over the past month, I hope to make some progress on this.

(to be continued)



[1] In this regard, the history of Bildungsroman might be interesting – coined as it was in 1819 and ‘born’ around 1795-96 with Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Goethe. It’s a ‘coming of age’ story – but isn’t just passive – it really features a ‘sensitive’ person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions – and not so much about making money or getting a job. 

And (perhaps not so surprisingly) the Bildungsroman ‘model’ is essentially German. Indeed, perhaps all ‘portrait’ motifs have some basis here. Certainly, there’s suggestion that this basically is what The Portrait of a Lady is all about – the title suggests it as does the plot – both indicating that this is a story about ‘process of development’. It’s more than a biography but shares some elements especially covering a lengthy period of time and includes accounts of (painful) experiences that ‘teach’ the heroine about herself and the world.

The end result is an ‘ethically charged change in consciousness’ – or what fiction writers know as the character arc, through which a series of what might otherwise be perceived as isolated events, characters develop toward what might be considered to be Aristotelian ideas of ‘virtue’.

But back to Isabel Archer herself, our heroine in The Portrait of a Lady. Apparently, James broke with the conventional resolution of the Bildungsroman  because Isabel’s story doesn’t come to an end with the end of the book. It’s left open-ended and I wonder how this better suits her than if we closed her down however carefully and comfortably. I have a feeling that she and her story hold an important key not just for me but for everybody who wants to learn from his/her mistakes.

When the ‘sun is spent’…

One of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time.

In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation.

Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne, the metaphysical English Renaissance poet, shrewdly manipulates his representations of time in order to explore ideas about constancy and mutability in new and thought-provoking ways.

One of the most interesting, at least for this time of the year, comes with his poem A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, in which Donne uses the winter solstice to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation.

Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died.

It is indeed a dark time.

Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers).

The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day.


With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective and with similar reflection, you can do the same.


With Saturn and Pluto coming ever closer form their historic conjunction in Capricorn in mid January 2020, we can expect this solstice to be both a time of crisis and contraction. On so many levels, it spells the end of innocence, the end of an era that as with the speaker in Donne’s poem, we have little choice but to face with honesty and humility. Just as St Augustine reminds us, all in our temporal, material wold is subject to change as the result of time.

Yet as with Donne’s poem, this solstice offers the opportunity of true transcendence and healing if, and only if, we choose it to be.

Intention matters.


‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
         Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day – John Donne

Abuse of Power/ Pluto & Mars/ Virginia Woolf

Every astrological aspect tells a story about the relationship between the two (or more) planets involved. Each planet strives to fulfil its specific need and does this through its interaction with that other planet(s).

Background:


  • By far the tightest aspect in the natal chart of Virginia Woolf is Mars (27 Gemini 23’58’’) semi-sextile Pluto (27 Taurus 23’ 28’’).
  • It is 30 seconds of arc.
  • Although the semi-sextile is often considered a ‘minor’ aspect, when it is as tight as this, I would consider it important, very important indeed.

Mars signifies aggression and the survival instinct. We need to set boundaries and protect ourselves from predators. Pluto is about pure power; it is the active agent for cleansing and purification and because it is transpersonal in nature, it is extremely hard for any individual person to control this power. 


Synthesis:

Put Mars and Pluto together, and the result is the compulsion to use force to achieve objectives through whatever means; ruthlessness, brutality, and cruelty. Put Mars and Pluto together in a semi-sextile and the two energies work in harmony and so we might expect to find themes of the use of power in Woolf’s writing.

Even more, as I suspect, because of social constraints against power being actively used by women during Woolf’s lifetime (i.e. her ability to set boundaries and protect herself against predators was thwarted), we might expect her writing to contain hints of abuse of power, especially abuse of power by men against women.


Analysis:


Whilst answering a letter received from a (unidentified) gentleman asking for her opinion on how war might be prevented, in her essay, Three Guineas, Woolf launches into a historically rich vindictive questioning not only the sense of asking her such a question, for unlike the gentleman she had been denied access the education that would have allowed her to answer him, but also how such inequality had come about.

Whilst in full flow in answering the latter point, she quotes from Gray’s Ode : ‘what is grandeur, what is power? – what the bright reward we gain?’


Gain indeed; power is what people want and the writing of Woolf not only demonstrates this but she also deals with some of the ways and reasons it occurs.


For example, in her memoirs, Moments of Being, Woolf recalls how when just eighteen years of age and after a long evening of being dragged about London to a series of gala parties and strategically important social events, her step-brother had crept into her bedroom and ‘flung’ himself on her bed, taking her ‘in his arms’ as a ‘lover’. If by power we mean that one person possesses a sense of dominion over another, then certainly with such behaviour her step-brother (older and presumably wiser) had abused his power although what he had wished to gain through it, Woolf does not conjecture. That she thought it an abuse of power is clear enough however for the next few sentences note that his behaviour would not have been acceptable to the ‘old ladies’ of ‘Kensington and Belgravia’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf investigates the power struggle between a married couple, Mr and Mrs Ramsay – which through those memoirs Moments of Being, we learn are created in the likeness of her own parents. Whilst Mr Ramsay wanders about pondering great things like the philosopher David Hume ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his wife sat charitably knitting stockings for needy children. In conjunction with reading Woolf’s memoirs, we can conclude that she believed that in essence Mrs Ramsay had died young feeding her husband’s constantly flagging vanity. Is this an abuse of power in the sense of exercising dominion over another? Perhaps not – but we do know that at least Mrs Ramsay took pleasure in her ‘bright reward’ when exercising her power by refusing to tell Mr Ramsay that he had been right that it would rain tomorrow, she knew she had ‘triumphed again’.

In that same novel, Woolf also touches on wider social issues of use/abuse of power when Mr Ramsay ponders on whether the progress of civilisation depends on ‘great men’. He concludes it does not because the ‘greater good’ does depend on the existence of a ‘slave class’ (like the liftman in the Tube). Whilst he himself finds this idea distasteful, he decides the best way to avoid dealing with it an upcoming lecture he is to present, is to ‘snub’ the ‘predominance’ of the arts – which only decorates human life and does not represent it. The reader cannot help but think such contemplation rather rich given the privilege Mr Ramsay himself enjoys with his summer house in the isles of Scotland complete with a bevy of servants and maids.

Unlike with her essays, in her fiction Woolf oddly refrains from abuse/abuse of narratorial/authorial power by pushing one view at the expense of another (as do many writers). Instead she maintains a gentle neutrality – presenting a story and letting it speak for itself – and at least in To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway the narratorial/authorial voice never intrudes has it does in, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End.

Even where we do hear the narratorial/authorial voice as for example in her novel, Orlando, both sides of the power struggles are evenly presented – not only does Orlando’s lover ‘Sasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ jilt him when he is a man (instead of the other way around), but as a woman Orlando sees both plusses and minuses of her new gender-based situation – although her new skirts are ‘plaguey’ around her heels, the stuff of which they are made is the ‘loveliest in the world’ as it shows off her skin to such ‘advantage’.


Conclusion:

In both her essays and fiction Woolf demonstrates that she is more than aware that power is what people want – Three Guineas deals extensively with this point in regards to how for so many generations men and the church have used the power of their money to deny women equal access to education. She deals with the sexual abuse perpetrated by step-brother in her memoirs and also the inevitable power battles inherent in a marriage. Interestingly unlike in her essays, in her fiction Woolf does not use her authorial voice to push an agenda, instead simply letting the story speak for itself.

Narrative Coaching

When it comes to coaching models, it is certainly not the case that one size fits all.

So far, the one that I like most is called Narrative Coaching. It’s described as a ‘mindful, experiential and holistic approach’ to shift my client’s stories thereby generating new options for desired change.

The idea is that stories are not only central to life but they are essential to our sense of ‘self’. Indeed, if you’re inclined to the post-modern viewpoint, we are literally narrated into existence. For example, when little Johnnie hears his parents and teachers tell him he’s a good boy when he studies hard, he might well form a narrative or story about himself that he’s good only when he studies hard.

4VPC7ZCiPxtMoVb8uyrhKMqm.pngNot only that, but little Johnnie must also make sense of recurring cultural themes or motifs like the hero’s journey (this is classic Star Wars stuff). Johnnie becomes the ‘hero’ of his story when he accepts his own ‘call to adventure’ and leaves his known world behind to face the challenges of the unknown. Perhaps little Johnnie considers his adventure of going off to University in this way? If so, then all is on track until he somehow gets derailed. Maybe his mother dies or girlfriend dumps him? Maybe his student funding falls through? Maybe he parties too much? Doesn’t really matter. The point is that because of some challenge or temptation he fails to conquer, Johnnie is not able to study hard anymore. This in turn leads to him dropping out of university and taking a job he doesn’t like. It isn’t long before both he and others interpret this as arising because  in his hero’s journey, Johnnie failed to complete the socially acceptable story arc. When Johnnie leaves (or is pushed from) that job he doesn’t like, he’s not sure what to do next. Worse, he’s not entirely clear why he ended up in this situation. Yet somewhere in the back of his head, however, is that story of a ‘good’ boy turned ‘bad’ because he didn’t study hard enough.

When I invite Johnnie, now my coaching client, to tell me his story, I need to listen carefully. Which character does he choose as his narrator (i.e. does he tell the story through his own eyes or through the eyes of the mother or girlfriend or the administrator who cut his funding)?  Does he sound enthusiastic about his partying? Which tense does he use? Is he the subject of the story (‘I did XYZ to him, her, them’) or is he the object (‘he, she, they did XYZ to me’)? What themes or motifs recur (or are missing) – illness, relationships, failure, temptation, bad luck? What labels recur (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’)? To whom or what do they attach? If listening to all these variables  isn’t hard enough, I need to a remain aware that I’m always interpreting them through my own point of view.  Am I making judgements on his story? Do I understand how telling it is making him feel? If it’s a sad story, does it make me sad? If so, am I sad because my client’s story touches some sadness (mother dying) already in me?

5355330_orig.pngThrough careful questioning, can I get Johnnie to rejig his story, throw it in a more positive (or less negative) light? Maybe he tries another point of view character (first person or third person) or verb tense (past, present, future) or even imagine a completely different crucial scene? How about rewriting a whole new story any way that he’d like? What or who might be different?

Interestingly, there’s lots of leeway here because although storyline (plot) must move forward (cause and effect) in time, narrative does not. My client can start at the end of his story (or how he’d like it to end) and work backwards. Happens all the time in murder mysteries. We start out knowing who got killed and maybe even who did it – but we don’t know that all essential ‘why’ and ‘how’ until we refollow the crucial events from beginning to end! My goal here is for my client to open up space for a different or new story to develop – an opportunity to fill in gaps and ambiguities or flesh out and develop certain characters and/or motives. We may all know that little Johnnie did drop out of university (the facts are on the table) but we really don’t know why until we explore it. We also don’t know where the story progresses from here – maybe Johnnie finds another unrewarding job (for whatever reason) or may he returns to university and wins a Noble Peace Prize.

Sound fun but not for everyone?

OK, I’ll accept that.

I also have to accept that purely by the nature and focus of my questions, I’ve influenced my client’s newly crafted story. Is it really still his story or has it now become mine?