Walton Stanley explains moving beyond seeing yourself as the hero of your own story. He says, stories may be read into, as poetic maps and metaphorical directions to an initiatory process. He asks us to look at the inherent qualities of our story’s antagonists and what inner-treasure they guard.
Guardians of the Soul’s Gold
In telling mythological stories for some years now, I have come to realize that it is in the nature and character of the monster, witch, giant, ogre, or other antagonist that much of the energy of the story is carried. Hearing these old tales, folk and fairy tales of various cultures, we naturally tend to place ourselves in the role of the hero and tend to rejoice in the overthrow of the antagonist, but, if we look at these stories as poetic maps and metaphorical directions to an initiatory process carried in the oral tradition, then the figures of these antagonists become more than sources of dramatic tension, but become keepers of a piece of the initiate’s soul that must be reclaimed.
Human beings have perhaps the longest childhoods of any animal on Earth. We gain sexual maturity in about thirteen years and physical maturity at about twenty-four years. We are born completely helpless and into a complex society that, like other primate groups, features both great cooperation and dependency and also fierce competition and struggles for dominance. Fitting into one’s family of origin, being acceptable to one’s parents or other adult guardians is critical to our survival during our long childhood. Also finding one’s role among siblings competing for parental attention, love, and family resources becomes an ongoing struggle. As we venture into the wider human community, finding one’s place among peers, establishing an identity in the community, taking and defending our place in the pecking order becomes a challenge. This only intensifies as we reach adolescence with sexual energies awakening and a whole new level of competition and varying levels of physical development with which to contend.
Through all of this, there is great pressure to conform to the norms of society, to ignore the call of the soul summoning one’s unique genius, to hide one’s innate love and purpose from a jealous and hostile world, and to generally, forget the promises we made before we were born.
In The Soul’s Code, psychologist James Hillman relates the story from the Jewish tradition of an angel putting its finger to our mouths before we are born so that we forget all we know and that the mark of this hushing and forgetting is the philtrum or crease on our upper lip.
For us to survive, we must, in a sense, abandon or forget our soul, our uniqueness, our purpose. We hear stories of people (often of famous people) having a moment in which they encountered their purpose for the first time. Many musicians talk of hearing their instrument for the first time and asking “what is that? I want to play that!” Architects talk of being obsessed with building blocks as a child. Film makers talk of seeing their first movie or having their first camera.
National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, architect Louis Kahn
Aikido Master, and Men’s Conference teacher, Terry Dobson told a story of getting a cinder in his eye during a train ride to Tokyo in the 1950s and, while at a doctor’s office waiting to be treated for the eye injury, seeing a newspaper advertisement, in English, about a demonstration of a new martial art, Aikido. He attended the demonstration and stated that, though it took him many years of difficult practice to become an Akido Master, at some level, he understood Aikido the moment he saw it in essentially the same way he did as a master practitioner of the art 30 years later.
While some are lucky enough to be led to an awakening of their purpose, for some of us, the awakening is less dramatic, and, for some, the awakening may never occur. We are all given a genius, a daemon, a purpose to follow in this life, but to survive in our family, in human society, it is necessary that we forget, that take up various roles, that we don personas such as the persona of the good boy or girl, the persona of the quiet person, the persona of the bully, the persona of the popular one, the persona of the studious one, the persona of the hero, the persona of the martyr.
One of the purposes of initiations is to enable one to remember; to see one’s purpose, to meet one’s daemon and to encounter one’s genius. To accomplish this, however, the personas we have developed to negotiate our place in the world must be destroyed.
Odysseus and the Sirens
Much of an initiatory process involves the cooking away of these personas. Like Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, we cannot return to our true home until all of our fellow crew members are killed. Initiations always involve a death of some kind, but it is the death of these personas that is truly the goal. To accomplish this, initiates are often put through a series of physical, emotional, and psychic challenges. Being cooked is not a comfortable process. As Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi states in his poem, “Chickpea to Cook.”
A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it’s being boiled.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
‘Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.
I’m giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.
Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this.’
Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.
Eventually the chickpea will say to the cook,
‘Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can’t do this by myself.
I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention
to his driver. You’re my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking.’
The cook says,
‘I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.
My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher.’
Rumi, Translation by Coleman Barks
In the stories, the antagonists each protect something precious. Often this comes in the form of gold, wealth, a magical implement, a healing water, a beautiful princess, or an enchantment over a prince transformed to an animal. Of course, the stories would be rather dull and pointless if the hero or heroine rode out, withdrew the gold from the ATM, picked up the water of life at the drug store, and married the princess or prince on the way home without opposition, but it is not merely for the sake of excitement that the antagonists are present in mythological stories. In each case, they are guarding something of value. Something that the hero must have, but that must be protected from others. Another way to look at this valuable object or powerful talisman, is as that piece of our soul that had to be hidden from the world in order to survive. This priceless item had to be protected from the world and also from the personas we took on to survive in the world. The witches, giants, dragons, ogres and other antagonists in myth are there to kill persona by the thousands. That we must go the long road, starve, climb a glass mountain, or walk through a fire, are the ordeals that separate the genuine from the persona. These persona often show up in story as the hero or heroine’s elder brothers or sisters. They are the ones who look good to the world, but must be trapped, contained, turned to stone, beaten, or killed so that the precious, magical power can come to the true self. These antagonists are actually the initiators, the testers, the ones who create the ordeal by which our personas are killed and our purpose and genius are brought forth. As such, they must be merciless; for to allow the valuable object, the soul’s purpose, to fall into the wrong hands would be a great tragedy.
We can see this in the form of the artist who has “sold out,” the pop sensation, the once great actor or performer who has become a mere “entertainer,” the singer who still must have an audience long after his voice is gone, the athlete who cannot retire from the game, the writer who has become a hack. These are examples of a genius that was found, but stolen by an infantile ego, as a kind of living soul death, a zombification or enslavement of the soul. The great witches, and monsters of myth are our defense against this tragedy.
In my personal experience, the death of a “false brother,” or a “wrongful suitor” often feels like humiliation. When one is under the influence of an uninitiated part of one’s psyche, contact with the initiatory force feels like humiliation. This is not to be confused with a feeling of humility. Though the words are related, humility is the feeling of awe and reverence that one feels when in contact with some great force. To look at the immensity of the sea, of the stars, of mountains and forests, we feel humility. Humiliation, arises from a thwarted desire to dominate; to be in control of something which we have no right and no ability to control. Humiliation produces a desperate feeling that one needs to regain control. It is a feeling of grave threat, because, indeed, some part of us is on the verge of death. The tempered or initiated soul is in a near-constant state of humility, but it is beyond humiliation. The initiated soul is beyond humiliation precisely because it does not engage in attempts at domination. In short, the initiated soul is not an imperialist.
This is not to say that when a particular person has undergone an initiatory ritual, that person will never experience humiliation. The greedy and desirous parts of our being are constantly being reincarnated. To put it in the language of the stories, we have a never-ending supply of false brothers, and greedy innkeepers. Initiation rituals and processes simply enable us to recognize the process more readily and to move through the necessary slaughter of false selves more easily. It does not mean that greed is permanently erased from one’s being.
As for myself, I continue to have moments of humiliation, but, over the years have come to recognize that the feeling is a cue to the presence of an initiatory moment. Something immature and untempered in me needs to die when I have this feeling.
This is not to say that we must passively avoid contact with initiatory forces. On the contrary, we must seek them out. In gaining our birthright, the gifts our soul was granted, we must be ruthless.
Medea poisons the drakon, Ladon, as Jason takes the Golden Fleece
We should, however, acknowledge the debt we owe to these mythical figures in slaughtering our false selves, in protecting our treasure until we are ready to carry it. The next time you hear or read one of the great stories, be one of the tales from Europe, a Native American story, a tale from one of the African peoples, or another story with mythic gravitas, remember to look, not only at the threat posed by the monster in the story, but also at what is being protected by this presence and for whom the treasure is being saved.
Hillman, James (1996) The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
Barks, Coleman “Chickpea to Cook.” The Essential Rumi. Ed. Coleman Barks.
New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995. p132
Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi
Robert Moore, Phd Facing The Dragon