The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth as a Guide for Lifeby Liz Greene, Juliet Sharman-Burke (With)
Greek gods, Norse heroes, Polynesian tricksters, and Native American warriors -- they all have lessons to teach us.
Since the beginning of time, human beings have relied on myths, fairy tales, and fables to explain life's mysteries and to elucidate human nature. Bringing a fresh perspective to these age-old tales, Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke reveal how
Greek gods, Norse heroes, Polynesian tricksters, and Native American warriors -- they all have lessons to teach us.
Since the beginning of time, human beings have relied on myths, fairy tales, and fables to explain life's mysteries and to elucidate human nature. Bringing a fresh perspective to these age-old tales, Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke reveal how modern audiences on their own life journeys can find comfort and support in the legends and lore of the past.
The Mythic Journey explores the psychological themes of many mythical traditions, recounting stories from Greco-Roman, Hebraic, Egyptian, Celtic, Norse, and various Eastern civilizations. More than fifty myths are beautifully retold, and each is followed by a psychological overview explaining the application the story can have in our own lives. The tales are further brought to life with striking artwork by Peter Paul Rubens, Gustav Klimt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, William Blake, and many more artists who found inspiration in these stories.
The Mythic Journey is a handbook to human life, guiding readers from the conflicts of family and childhood, through problems of love, intimacy, and ambition, and ultimately to the point when we must face our own mortality. We discover that true self-knowledge comes through facing life's challenges with courage and strength; that beauty, talent, power, and wealth bring their own forms of suffering; and that in the darkness of loneliness, failure, and loss, we have always discovered new light and new hope.
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PARENTS AND CHILDREN
Myth offers us a vast array of stories about parent -- child relationships. From the hilarious squabblings of the Olympian gods to the tragic destinies of kingly dynasties, the human imagination has always found both solace and enlightenment in creating tales about mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and the mystery of what binds us together through unbreakable emotional cords. There is no parent -- child dilemma that does not have a mythic counterpart, and no resolution of conflict that is not reflected in mythic tales.
Thetis and Achilles
THE FIRST OF OUR FAMILY MYTHS TELLS US ABOUT HOW PARENTS EXPECT NOTHING LESS THAN EVERYTHING FROM THEIR CHILDREN. PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT THEME IN THIS GREEK STORY IS THE AMBITION THETIS HAS FOR HER CHILD -- SHE WANTS HIM TO BE A GOD. THIS STORY HAS A SAD ENDING, BUT IT CONVEYS PROFOUND INSIGHT INTO THE SECRET HOPES, DREAMS AND LONGINGS WE MAY UNKNOWINGLY ASK OUR CHILDREN TO CARRY -- SOMETIMES TO THEIR COST.
Thetis was the great goddess of the sea and ruled over all that moved in its depths. But it was time she married, and Zeus, king of the gods, had received a prophecy that, if Thetis married a god, she would bear a son who would be greater than Zeus himself. Worried about losing his position, Zeus espoused the sea-goddess to a mortal man called Peleus. This mixed marriage was not unsuccessful, and the two settled down relatively comfortably -- although Peleus sometimes resented his wife's supernatural powers, and Thetis sometimes felt she had married beneath her station.
In time, Thetis bore a son, whom she called Achilles. Becausehe was fathered by a mortal, he was a mortal child, allotted his time on earth by the Fates, as are all mortal beings. But Thetis was not content with this prospect. Being immortal herself, she did not wish to remain eternally young while watching her son grow old and die. So she secretly carried the newborn child to the River Styx, in whose waters lay the gift of immortality. She held the child by one heel and dipped him in the waters, believing thereby that she had made him immortal. But the heel by which she held him remained untouched by the waters of Styx, and therefore Achilles was vulnerable through this one place.
When he reached adulthood and fought in the Trojan War, Achilles received his death wound through an arrow in the heel. Although Achilles achieved great glory and was remembered forever, Thetis could not cheat the Fates, nor turn that which was human into the stuff of the gods.
COMMENTARY: Many parents unconsciously wish their children to be divine, although usually not as literally as Thetis. We do not hope that our children will live forever, but we may want them to be better than other children, more beautiful, more gifted, more brilliant, unique and special, and exempt from the ordinary limitations of life. No child can live up to such unconscious expectations, and any child may suffer because his or her ordinary humanity is overlooked in the parents' strenuous efforts to produce something superhuman. We may also hope that our children will somehow redeem us -- make good what we ourselves have spoiled, or live out what we have been denied in life. We may make sacrifices in the hope that our children will provide meaning for our own lives, rather than allowing them to live theirs. And when they stumble and fall, as all humans do, or show insufficient gratitude for our efforts, we may feel outraged and disappointed. All this can be read into the story of Thetis and Achilles.
Thetis, the goddess mother who wants her child to be divine like her rather than mortal like his father, is also an image of a certain attitude towards mothering. If a mother wishes to wholly possess her child, and is unwilling or unable to share the child's love, then many problems may ensue. The marriage of Thetis and Peleus, with Achilles as its progeny, portrays a marriage in which there is an imbalance between the parents. Thetis feels superior to Peleus and hopes that her child will take after her. This is a common enough dilemma; we may secretly fantasize a child's identity, rather than recognizing that two parents have contributed to the child's existence. This can happen when a marriage is unhappy or unfulfilled. Fathers may also idealize their daughters as Thetis does her son, and may unconsciously strive to separate mother and daughter so that no outsider can mar the unity of the father-daughter bond. (See Orion and Oenopion, pages 19-22.)
All these are dilemmas of parenting which, rather than being pathological, are merely human. But myths are about human beings, even when their main characters are gods. How do we deal with these issues of over-expectation and possessiveness? If we bring children into the world, we owe them fairness and justice in our emotional dealings with them. First and foremost, we need to be conscious of our hidden feelings. If we know we are expecting too much from our children, we can show them love even when they are not achieving what we hope, and we can also encourage them to follow the path of their own hearts and souls rather than the one we ourselves wish we could have followed. Feelings which are conscious and contained do not destroy. Unconscious feelings, which result in unconscious behavior, can cause great injury to a child. No parent's life is perfect and we all harbor unrealistic hopes for our children. This is human and natural. But our children are not divine, nor are they on this earth for our greater glory or the redemption of our own lives. In the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, created through the wisdom of Zeus, lies a profound image of the mixture of human and divine which stands behind every human being's origin. Every child partakes of both. If we can remember this and allow our offspring to be the humans that they are, then this ancient myth can help us to be wiser and more generous parents.
Hera and Hephaistos
The ugly duckling
THE STORY OF HERA AND HEPHAISTOS IS ANOTHER TALB ABOUT PARENTAL EXPECTATIONS. HERE IT IS NOT IMMORTALITY THAT IS EXPECTED OF THE CHILD, BUT RATHER PHYSICAL BEAUTY BEFITTING AN OLYMPIAN. UNLIKE MANY STORIES OF THE GODS. THIS ONE HAS A HAPPY ENDING -- HEPHAISTOS IS ULTIMATELY RECOGNIZED FOR HIS GREAT TALENT AND IS GIVEN AN HONORED PLACE IN THE FAMILY. BUT HE MUST SUFFER TO EARN THIS PLACE, AND HIS SUFFERING IS UNJUST.
Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods, conceived their son Hephaistos in an excess of passion before they were married. Sadly, this child was born ill-made. His feet were twisted, and his stumbling gait and dislocated hips aroused the unquenchable laughter of all the immortals when he walked among them. Hera, ashamed that with all her beauty and grandeur she should produce such an imperfect progeny, tried to rid herself of him. She threw him from the heights of Olympus into the sea, where he was taken in by Thetis, ruler of the sea.
For nine years, the boy remained hidden away beneath the waters. But Hephaistos was as gifted as he was ugly, and he spent the time forging a thousand ingenious objects for his friends the sea-nymphs. He was also, understandably, furious at the treatment he had received and, as he grew stronger in body and mind, he planned a cunning revenge. One day Hera received a gift from her absent son -- an exquisite golden throne, beautifully wrought and decorated. She sat on it with delight, but, when she tried to rise again, she was suddenly gripped by invisible bands. In vain the other gods tried to extricate her from the throne. Only Hephaistos was capable of releasing her, but he refused to leave the depths of the ocean. The war-god Ares, his irascible brother, tried to drag him up by force, but Hephaistos threw burning brands at him. Dionysus, Hephaistos' half-brother and god of wine, was more successful: he made Hephaistos drunk, slung him across the back of a mule, and brought him to Olympus.
But Hephaistos still refused to cooperate unless his demands were met. He asked for the loveliest of the goddesses, Aphrodite, for a bride. From then on, there was peace between Hera and her son. Forgetting his former rancor, Hephaistos, at peril of his life, attempted to defend his mother when she was being beaten by Zeus. Irritated, Zeus seized his son by one foot and flung him from the courts of heaven. But Hephaistos was taken up to Olympus again and made peace with his father, and forever afterwards Hephaistos played the role of peacemaker among the immortals.
COMMENTARY: This tale speaks of how we may want our children to be a reflection of ourselves, not what they actually are. How many parents, themselves physically attractive, want a son or daughter who is beautiful and will reflect their greater glory? Or perhaps we hope our children will carry on an undeveloped talent of our own, or take over the family business. Whatever we are or would like to be, we hope that our children will be extensions of ourselves, and we may hurt them before we discover their true worth.
This tale is complex and has many subtle motifs. Hephaistos, unloved and unwelcome, finds friendship and support with the sea-gods, who accept him in their underwater domain. Often a child who is not appreciated within the immediate family will be fortunate enough to find an understanding grand-parent, uncle or teacher who can recognize and encourage his or her abilities. And we should not be surprised if we discover that the child upon whom we place unfair expectations bears resentment and anger towards us. Hephaistos' revenge is ingenious. He does not wish to destroy his mother; he wishes to be welcomed by her. To accomplish this, he tricks her into bondage.
What is this bondage from which no god can release her? Hera, although she has been harsh and rejecting, is nevertheless not immune to feelings of obligation to her offspring. She is not evil; she is simply vain and self-centered, as human beings so often are. Hephaistos reminds her of the indestructible debt of parenting, which, in human terms, is experienced as what we call guilt. When we experience guilt towards our children, we may know deep down that we have been culpable of failing to recognize the real identity and value of the child. We can only be released when we become conscious of how we have treated those we profess to love, and can offer acceptance rather than imposing expectations.
Hephaistos' forgiving nature also tells us something about the power of love to surmount family conflicts and hurts. Children can forgive their parents a great many acts of omission as well as commission, if they know these acts were committed unwittingly, and if there is some remorse and understanding shown. A genuine apology goes a long way towards healing wounds. This story teaches us that hurts in childhood are not irrevocable. And it encourages us to seek the real value of those we love, even if they do not fulfill the image of what we wish and hope they will be.
Orion and Oenopion
A father's possession of his daughter
THIS UNHAPPY GREEK MYTH CONCERNS A FATHER'S ATTEMPT TO POSSESS HIS DAUGHTER, AND THE DESTRUCTION HE UNLEASHES WHEN A SUITOR APPEARS TO TAKE HIS BELOVED CHILD AWAY. IT REVEALS THE DARKER UNDERCURRENTS THAT CAN EXIST IN THE PARENT-CHILD BOND. BUT, ALTHOUGH THE TALE PORTRAYS SAVAGE EMOTIONS AND EXTREME CIRCUMSTANCES NOT LIKELY TO BE MET IN EVERYDAY LIFE, NEVERTHELESS, IT OFFERS INSIGHT INTO THE EMOTIONAL CONFUSION AND BLINDNESS WHICH AFFLICT US WHEN WE SEEK, CONSCIOUSLY OR UNCONSCIOUSLY, TO POSSESS OUR CHILDREN.
Orion the hunter was reputed to be the most handsome man alive. One day he fell in love with Merope, the daughter of Oenopion. But Oenopion was no mere mortal; he was of immortal descent, being a son of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy; and the intense passions of his father were at work deep within him.
Oenopion promised Orion that the hunter could have Merope's hand in marriage, but only if he were able to rid the countryside of the fearsome wild beasts which threatened the lives of the inhabitants. This was no problem for an experienced hunter, and Orion gladly accepted the challenge. Having completed his task, he reported back to Oenopion, eager to receive his prize. But Oenopion found reasons to delay the marriage -- there were still more bears, wolves and lions which lurked in the hills. Oenopion really had no intention of giving his daughter away in marriage, because secretly he was in love with her himself.
Orion became increasingly frustrated with the situation. Once more he scoured the hills for wild beasts, and once more Oenopion found reasons to delay the marriage. One night, Orion got very drunk on Oenopion's finest wine (and the wine of a son of Dionysus was fine indeed, and stronger than most) and, in a thoroughly intoxicated state, he burst into Merope's room and raped her. As a result of this violent act, Oenopion felt himself justified in revenging himself on Orion. He forced more wine into Orion until the hunter fell into a drunken stupor. Then Oenopion gouged out Orion's eyes and flung him blind and unconscious upon the seashore. Eventually, through the aid of the gods, Orion got his sight back and lived to pursue many more adventures. What happened to poor Merope we do not know -- raped, abandoned and imprisoned by a father who never had any intention of letting her become a woman in her own right.
COMMENTARY: The story of Orion is relevant not only to pathological emotional patterns within the family. A healthy bond of love and affection between a father and his daughter may, if exacerbated by unconsciousness, lead to trouble. The father is usually his daughter's first love, and in his little girl many a father sees a magical image of beauty and youth which encapsulates all his most cherished romantic dreams. This is natural and joyful, and does not in any way imply abuse or sickness. But if the father's marriage is unhappy or he cannot accept the rewards of an ordinary human marriage and persists in wanting a magical 'soul bond', he may seek this fantasy of perfect love in his daughter. Then he may find it hard to allow her an independent existence. It takes a generous heart to let a beloved daughter go, especially to a young man as handsome as Orion. Orion's good looks and youthful virility serve as a painful reminder that Oenopion is no longer as young as he used to be, and that his beloved little girl is now a woman who wants a potent young man of her own. There is no mention of Merope's mother in the myth. This father and daughter live in a world of their own, which is the psychological reality of many fathers who relate better to their daughters than to their wives.
The father who tries to turn his daughter into a soulmate may inadvertently inflict lasting damage on her. This may be revealed through the time-honored tactic of insisting that the daughter's chosen partner 'isn't good enough'. If a father sets impossible ideals for his daughter, how can she ever leave him and live happily with a partner of her own? The greater the love, the greater the potential damage arising from unconsciousness; for a daughter who loves and admires her father will listen to his apparent 'wisdom' and will then see every prospective suitor as impossibly flawed.
Oenopion apparently wishes Merope to have a husband. This husband must meet certain standards. And how can any father be blamed for wanting the best for his child? In this way, the father's unconscious possessiveness is concealed by a mask of good intentions. And he may ensure that no one will ever be good enough for his daughter. He then justifies destroying all potential relationships she might make -- subtly or obviously -- because he believes that he has her best interests at heart. Orion becomes infuriated because Oenopion keeps moving the goal posts, and ultimately he rapes Merope. This gives Oenopion the perfect excuse for ridding himself of the criminal. But, all along, Oenopion has no intention of letting his precious daughter go, because he wants her for himself.
The great poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) once wrote that our children are born through us but are not of us. Yet a lonely father may feel justified in treating his daughter as a precious object to be possessed by him alone. The young can only move forward in life if their elders permit them free passage. If a daughter is driven by a father's jealousy to choose between father and lover, then her happiness is ruined and the rewards of her love are soured. Children should not be forced to make such a choice; everyone's heart is torn by the coercions of jealousy. Every father holds in his hand the key to his daughter's fulfillment by allowing her to enjoy the love of both father and husband. It is a hard challenge for any father, yet the rewards are great. But we may need to recognize and contain our secret envy and jealousy. As the myth tells us, such feelings are ancient, universal and quintessentially human. But possession is really all about power; and love and power cannot coexist.
Theseus and Hippolytus
THIS GREEK MYTH DESCRIBES THE CORROSIVE JEALOUSY A FATHER FEELS TOWARDS THE SON HE FEARS WILL SUPPLANT HIM IN BEAUTY, STRENGTH AND SEXUAL PROWESS. THE ARCHETYPAL THEME OF THE OLDER MAN WHO FEARS HIS NEW YOUNG WIFE'S SUSCEPTIBILITY TO THE ATTRACTIONS OF A SON BY A FORMER MARRIAGE MAY BE FOUND IN MANY TALES. BUT WHAT IS UNIQUE TO THIS GRIM DEMISE OF A GREAT MYTHIC HERO IS THE WAY IN WHICH JEALOUSY BLINDS THESEUS TO THE TRUTH. WITHOUT THIS BLINDNESS, A NEW MARRIAGE WOULD HAVE NO POWER TO DESTROY THE FATHER-SON BOND.
The great hero Theseus, son of the god Poseidon, became king of Attica after conquering the terrible Minotaur. He ruled his country justly and wisely. But he was unlucky in love, and, in the end, jealousy of his own offspring proved to be his undoing. His tempestuous affair with the Cretan princess Ariadne, who helped him destroy the Minotaur, ended in tears, and he abandoned her. His passionate liaison with Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, ended tragically with her death, although she bore him a son, Hippolytus. Finally, he married Phaedra, Ariadne's sister. By this time, Theseus' son Hippolytus was a strong and beautiful youth, fair-haired and grey-eyed, taller and more kingly than his father. This noble young man was devoted to horsemanship and to the chaste cult of the goddess Artemis.
Soon Phaedra, Theseus' new wife, was seized with a consuming passion for her stepson and enlisted her old nurse to plead her cause with the handsome young prince. Upon his shocked refusal she hanged herself, leaving a letter accusing him of her rape. Theseus, convinced by the fact of her death and blinded by a deep, albeit secret, jealousy of the son who now threatened to outshine him in beauty and prowess, drove his son out of the kingdom and invoked the death-curse entrusted to him by his father Poseidon. As Hippolytus drove his chariot along the rocky coastal road from Athens, the god sent a huge wave, bearing on its crest a gigantic sea-bull, which stampeded the horses. The young man's battered corpse was brought back to Theseus, who had learned the truth too late.
After this, Theseus' luck forsook him. Bereft of the beloved son who would have inherited his kingdom, he took to piracy and, while attempting to abduct the queen of the underworld, was confined in torment in the realm of the dead for four years. On his return, he found Athens sunk in lawlessness and sedition. Turning his back on his kingdom, he travelled to the island of Skyros where, through his host's treachery, he fell from a high rock into the sea.
COMMENTARY: This tale may be enacted on a psychological level in everyday family life. Many a man, accustomed to power and recognition in the world, identifies his masculinity with external achievement. He may experience ageing as a kind of humiliation and fear that lack of potency -- worldly, sexual or both -- will diminish his value in his own and others' eyes. A son who is just beginning to set out on his life's journey -- virile, full of promise and with the potential to achieve more than his father -- may invoke the corrosive acid of jealousy, even in the midst of great love. If this happens without the father's awareness, then the father may, without meaning to, invoke a 'curse' on his son. He may become withdrawn or overly critical, resenting the bond between his wife and his son. He may crush the child's dreams and aspirations, and seek, unconsciously but with destructive intent, to undermine the young man's confidence so that the older man can retain his feeling of power and control.
The effects of such unconscious jealousy on a child can be catastrophic for him. A young man struggling against secret enmity from his father may persistently find himself failing -- at school, at work, in his personal life -- because somewhere inside he feels that he must do as his father wishes and does not dare to unseat his father from the throne of authority. He may be impelled to become the failure his father unconsciously wishes him to be, even if, on the conscious level, the father expects and encourages success in his son. Such a son may also find himself consistently embroiled in quarrels with authority and may end up acting out all the weakness and confusion which his father projects onto him -- be it unconsciously -- as a means of avoiding the inevitable weakness and confusion of his own ageing process.
Such a pattern is by no means uncommon; and it is not evil, but merely human. It is a great challenge to any father to find the generosity of heart to allow his son to surpass him -- and to accept gracefully the passage of time and the manner in which the world, however unfairly, favors the young. It is also a great challenge to accept the bond between one's wife and one's son as legitimate and worthy of support, rather than as a threat to one's own emotional security. This requires a profound letting go and a trust in life which, if it can be achieved, can provide the support and encouragement which every son needs from his father. It can also generate a deep serenity and inner strength in the father who, recognizing that he has fulfilled his own youthful potentials to the best of his ability, can make peace with what has not been achieved, and move creatively and hopefully into the next phase of life.
Osiris, Isis and Horus
The divine child brings eternal hope
THIS TALE FROM ANCIENT EGYPT TEACHES US ABOUT THE CHILD AS AN IMAGE OF HOPE AND RENEWAL, GIVING US THE COURAGE TO SURMOUNT OBSTACLES AND WIN THROUGH TO PEACE AND CONTENTMENT. OSIRIS, ISIS AND HORUS HAVE BEEN LIKENED BY SOME SCHOLARS TO THE CHRISTIAN TRINITY, BECAUSE OF THE DIVINE CHILD WHO REDEEMS SUFFERING AND VANQUISHES EVIL. PSYCHOLOGICALLY, THIS DIVINE FAMILY CAN TELL US MUCH ABOUT THE SENSE OF HOPE AND MEANING WHICH WE EXPERIENCE THROUGH OUR CHILDREN.
Osiris was the first child of Father Earth and Mother Sky. The young god was handsome of countenance and vastly taller than human beings. He took Isis -- his sister, the goddess of the Moon -- as his wife. Together they taught the people of Egypt how to fashion agricultural implements and produce bread, wine and beer. Isis taught women to grind corn, spin flax and weave cloth. Osiris built the first temples and sculptured the first divine images, thus teaching human beings about the gods. He was called 'The Good One' because he was the enemy of violence, and it was by gentleness alone that he made his will known. But it was not long before Osiris became the victim of a plot by his evil younger brother Set, who was jealous of his power. Set was rough and wild; he had torn himself prematurely from his mother's womb and was determined to rule the world in Osiris' place. He invited Osiris to a banquet and then murdered him, locking the corpse in a coffer which he flung into the Nile.
When Isis heard the news that Osiris had been murdered, she was overwhelmed with grief. She cut off her hair, tore her robes and, at once, set forth in search of the coffer. It had been carried out to sea and borne across the waves to Byblos, where it came to rest at the base of a tamarisk tree . The tree grew with such astonishing speed that the chest was entirely enclosed within its trunk. Meanwhile, the king of Byblos had ordered that the tree be cut down to serve as a prop for the roof of his palace. When this was done, the marvellous tree gave off so exquisite a scent that its reputation reached the ears of Isis, who immediately understood its significance. Without delay, she set off for Byblos, drew the coffer from the trunk of the tree and bore it back to Egypt. But Set, knowing what was afoot, found the coffer where Isis had hidden it in a swamp, opened it and hacked the body of his brother into fourteen pieces which he scattered far and wide.
Isis could not be discouraged. She searched for the precious fragments of her husband and found them all -- except for the phallus, which had been swallowed by a Nile crab. A potent sorceress, the goddess then reconstituted the body of Osiris, joining all the fragments together and making a new phallus out of clay. She then performed the rites of embalmment which would restore the murdered god to eternal life. While he slept awaiting his rebirth, Isis lay with him and conceived the divine child Horus, who at birth was likened to a falcon whose eyes shone with the light of the Sun and the Moon.
Resurrected and thenceforward secure from the threat of death, Osiris could have regained his rulership of the world. But he was saddened by the power of evil which he had experienced on earth and he retired to the underworld, where he warmly welcomed the souls of the just and reigned over the dead.
It was left to Osiris' son Horus to avenge the savage act which had resulted in his father's death and dismemberment. Horus was brought up in seclusion, for his mother feared the machinations of Set. He was extremely weak at birth and escaped the dangers which threatened him only with the help of his mother's magic powers. He was bitten by savage beasts, stung by scorpions, burnt, and attacked by pains in the entrails, all through the agency of Set. Yet, despite these sufferings, he grew strong, and Osiris appeared to him frequently and instructed him in the use of arms so that he should soon be able to make war on Set, reclaim his inheritance and avenge his father.
When Horus reached manhood, he began a long war to conquer his enemies and succeeded in destroying many of them. But Set could not be vanquished by force of arms alone, for he was too cunning. In order to terminate the endless bloodshed, the other gods called a tribunal and summoned the two adversaries before it. Set pleaded that Horus was illegitimate, conceived after Osiris had been murdered; but Horus victoriously established the legitimacy of his birth. The gods condemned the usurper, restored Horus' heritage and declared him ruler of Egypt.
Horus reigned peacefully over heaven and earth, and, with his father and mother, was worshipped throughout the land. In between the tasks of ruling, he frequently visited his father in the underworld, ushering the deceased into the presence of 'The Good One' and presiding over the weighing of the soul.
COMMENTARY: No child can redeem the lives of his or her parents. But there is a quality of hope in the future and faith in the innate goodness and innocence of childhood, which can make a dreary or meaningless life worthwhile, and which gives meaning to past suffering. The myth of Osiris, Isis and Horus shows us the deepest core of what makes us seek to create families. It is not only for the continuity of biological life; it is also because the birth of a child augurs a new beginning and the possibility that past pain can be healed. It is the continuity of the spirit as much as the body which we seek in our offspring.
The family of Osiris is archetypal and therefore reflects patterns which exist in every family. The dedication of Isis is an important theme. Despite the obstacles which Set places in her path, she is determined to find and heal her husband's desecrated body. This quality of absolute loyalty is one of the redemptive features of the tale and, in everyday life, it may be expressed by any individual who is willing to give support to his or her partner even in the face of failure and apparent worldly defeat. The wife or husband who is loyal and encouraging when the partner is out of work, or passes through a time of depression or ill-health, may be glimpsed in Isis' dedication. It is in such human ways that we can experience the deeper archetypal theme of redemption presented by this myth.
Another important element in the story is the conception of Horus, which takes place when things are at their worst. Isis conceives her divine child when Osiris is sleeping and awaiting resurrection. What might this mean in terms of ordinary family life? Perhaps it tells us something about the times when we most long to have children; for children often provide a source of hope when circumstances are most difficult. It is not always worldly success and contentment that inspire us to start a family. Sometimes the hard struggle of life makes us seek to establish a foothold in the future and a purpose to our existence.
The childhood of Horus is a precarious one, and he suffers many vicissitudes before he reaches his full strength. This too may tell us something about the pattern of life, for it is out of frail, vulnerable beginnings that our strongest and most creative efforts are often made. Isis manages to protect her son from Set. Just as we need to protect our vulnerable children, so too do we need to protect that which is most vulnerable and unformed in ourselves, so that it can grow to fruition. Horus understands that he must redeem his father's suffering; Osiris himself no longer wishes to remain on earth to carry on the struggle. At a certain point, we may need to trust our children to deal with the future, for, as we grow older, we may no longer have the energy or courage to do battle with life. Here we can see echoes of other mythic stories: the jealousy which Theseus feels toward Hippolytus (see pages 22-5), for example, reflects his inability to trust his son to take the reins and have his turn at life. Osiris, on the other hand, meets this challenge successfully.
The resolution of the conflict comes not because of any individual conquest, but because the gods as a group decide that Horus deserves the restoration of his inheritance. In the end we, too, may have to allow life to complete what we have left unfinished, and trust whatever we understand as God or the spirit within to fulfill what we are trying to achieve. If what we seek is fair and just, as is the case with Horus, then evil may not be vanquished forever, but it can be rendered powerless to destroy that which is good. Within the family, trusting that time and inner rightness will lead to eventual balance and serenity can help us to accept situations which we cannot change, to forgive those whom we feel have injured us, and to retain our faith in the future.
The Story of Poia
Grandfather and grandson redeem the past
THE FINAL TALE IN THIS CHAPTER COMES TO US FROM THE BLACKFOOT TRIBE OF THE NORTH AMERICAN PLAINS. IT TEACHES US THAT THE POWER OF LOVE TO HEAL FAMILIES CAN LEAP A GENERATION FROM GRANDPARENT TO GRANDCHILD, REDEEMING THE SUFFERING WHICH PARENTS AND CHILDREN MAY EXPERIENCE WITH EACH OTHER, AND MAKING THE WISDOM OF THE PAST AVAILABLE TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
Once upon a time Morning Star looked down from the heavens and noticed on earth Soatsaki, a Blackfoot girl of great beauty. He fell in love with her, married her and took her up to heaven, to the dwelling of his father and mother, the Sun and Moon. There Soatsaki bore him a son, whom they named Little Star.
The Moon, Soatsaki's mother-in-law, made the young woman feel loved and welcome, but warned her not to dig up a magic turnip which grew near their dwelling. But curiosity got the better of Soatsaki. She tore up the forbidden turnip and found that she could see the earth through the hole she had made. Seeing the dwellings of her tribe, she felt violently homesick, and her heart grew deathly sad. To punish her disobedience, her father-in-law turned her out of heaven with her son Little Star and lowered them to earth wrapped in an elk skin. But when the poor girl found herself separated from her beloved husband, she soon died, leaving her son alone and poor.
The child had a scar on his face, so he was nicknamed Poia, or Scarface. When he grew up, Poia fell in love with the chief's daughter, but she rebuffed him because of the scar. In despair, he made up his mind to seek his grandfather the Sun, who could take away the disfigurement. So Poia started out towards the West. When he reached the Pacific Ocean, he halted and passed three days in fasting and prayer. On the morning of the fourth day a luminous trail unrolled before him across the ocean. Poia stepped boldly onto the miraculous path. When he reached the Sun's dwelling place in the sky, he saw his father Morning Star battling with seven monstrous birds. Rushing to the rescue, he slew the monsters. In reward for this deed, his grandfather the Sun took away the scar and, after teaching Poia the ritual of the Sun-dance, made him a gift of ravens' feathers as proof of his kinship with the Sun and a magic flute which would win him the heart of his beloved. Poia returned to earth by another path, called the Milky Way. He taught the Blackfoot tribe the mystery of the Sun-dance and, having married the chief's daughter, took her up to heaven to live with his father Morning Star and his grandparents the Sun and Moon.
COMMENTARY: The hero of this charming story is called Scarface -- and indeed, many a child suffers the psychological wounding of marital difficulties which result in separation and alienation between the parents. Here the conflict arises because Poia's mother, Soatsaki, cannot abide by the rules of the divine family into which she marries. Through this rebellion against the family, she suffers and is separated from her husband, and Poia is separated from his father.
We may see such a scenario enacted on a regular basis, where an individual marrying into a strongly enmeshed family cannot adapt and is driven out, emotionally and sometimes literally. It often occurs in so-called 'mixed marriages', where a particular economic, religious or racial background forms a powerful edifice into which an 'outsider' cannot fit. And it is the children who bear the scars.
But Poia, the grandchild of the Sun and Moon, refuses to accept this fate. He demands entry into the kingdom of his grandfather, whom he knows can heal his disfigurement. On a psychological level, this tells us that a loving relationship with a grandparent can often heal the damage caused by an unhappy parental marriage. Poia must prove himself -- he defends the life of his father, Morning Star, by slaying the vicious birds -- and we may sometimes have to take the initiative and approach alienated relatives with courage and compassion, even if we feel they have been responsible for the rift. Because Poia is willing to attempt this, risking his pride in the process, his rewards are great. He is not only healed of his scar, but is able to take the wisdom of the Sun to his wife's people and spread it amongst ordinary humanity, passing the gifts of his ancestors to successive generations.
One profound message embedded in this myth concerns a willingness to swallow pride and make the effort to renew bonds which have been severed by others' mistakes. It is often the case in families that children are alienated from their grandparents because of the parents' disharmony, or because of conflicts between parents and grandparents. Whether because of time, distance or some deeper spark of love which is sustained despite the conflict, the willingness of any child to bridge the past -- the magical bridge over which Poia walks to reach his grandfather's kingdom -- may bring about a reuniting of the family and a channel through which the wisdom of the past can be transmitted to the generations of the future.
Copyright © Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke 2000
Meet the Author
Liz Greene is the author of nineteen books, including the highly successful The Mythic Tarot. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and she gives seminars, workshops, and lectures throughout Europe and the United States. She currently lives in Zurich.
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