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The Way of the Dream by Marie-Louise von Franz

Slaying the Dragon

Dr. von Franz, one of the most famous dragon slayers was the king of ancient Thebes, Oedipus Rex. The Oedipal myth has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. How did Oedipus overcome his mother complex?

The Oedipal myth is a very complicated thing, in spite of what the Freudians say, and cannot really be looked at separately from the Greek culture. In Greek traditions, a man had to overcome the mother demon. This encounter occurs in the Oedipal myth when Oedipus has to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, the Sphinx being a maternal mother demon, a devouring mother figure. He did it by giving a witty, intellectual answer.

That is one way certain men escape the devouring mother. They do not slay the dragon; they outwit the dragon. They build up a kind of mental, masculine realm of their own where their mothers cannot follow them. Nowadays, they might be the men who study theoretical physics and become very intelligent. In Greece, such an escape into the intellectual or scientific realm was accomplished by the society around Socrates and Plato. It was an escape into the pure men’s society of philosophers and scientists where they would live among themselves. And we know that they were mostly homosexual, and that Socrates, for one, ‘didn’t get on with his wife, Xanthippe, at all. He had a very unhappy marriage.

In other words, in the Oedipal myth, the problem of the feminine and getting away from the mother are only seemingly achieved. There must be another round in the battle with the Great Mother. And that is what the Oedipus myth mirrors. Oedipus thinks he has answered the riddle of the Sphinx and happily goes off, believing he has outwitted her. But it is an illusion. She, by her evil witchlike behavior, has tricked him by pretending to commit suicide. “Now,” he thinks, “I have overcome the mother with the powers of the mind. ” But he is deceived. He simply runs into marrying his own mother, and consequently suffers the divine punishment bestowed on those who partake of incest. So this myth shows that a masculine, intellectual overcoming of the devouring powers of the unconscious is not enough. It has to be done by the way one lives, not by the way one thinks.

For example, I once listened to the dream of a young man who was living still with his mama. He was twenty-nine years old and had never had a girl in his room. We seriously discussed the possibility of his getting a room outside his mother’s home. He was terrified. He was a very sensitive, delicate boy, and his mother had a very brutal, strong personality, and he was just terrified of the moment he would have to tell mother, “Look here, I’m going to take a room outside, and I’m not going to live with you anymore. ” When he was trying to make up his mind to move out, he dreamt that he had to slay the dragon. Though telling his mother that he had to move out seems like such a little thing to us, for him that was slaying the dragon. It was overcoming a monstrous neurotic difficulty within himself. His whole mother complex was involved, not only facing the scene with his actual mother, but overcoming also the inertia and the anxiousness of his own mother complex. His mother had sown in him an anxiousness, a fear of life. He had to overcome that terrific fear to make that step.

And that is an archetypal motif all over the world. The young man has to do the heroic deed of killing his mother, or the mother dragon, or the mother demon, which is his lethargy, or anxiety, or fear of living a masculine life. And it won’t help the young man only to understand that he has a mother complex and that his neurotic symptoms come from his mother tie. He has to actually take the other room and stand the battle.

If he takes the other room, does he have to understand why he is doing it?

Yes, certainly. Otherwise at the next occasion, when he runs out of money, he moves back to mama again. Perhaps he might find a disagreeable landlady in his first room, so he moves back home again. It is vitally essential for him to understand why he separates from his mother, that it is not just a technical change in his life.

Many societies had rituals to help boys separate from the mother and enter into the world of men. Would you describe some of these passage rites? What was their function?

If we observe our own lives, we can see that aging is not a process of slowly getting older. We do not gradually evolve. It goes in jumps. Think, for instance, of the tremendous leap from childhood to adulthood which occurs at puberty. The awakening of sexuality going together with the awakening of religious longings and feelings of philosophical needs. Suddenly the child asks, “What is the meaning of life? Is there a God?” and so on. No one asks more profound philosophical questions than youngsters in puberty. At that age these are burning spiritual questions. As well, on the other side, they discover their own sexuality and experience all the fantasies involved with it.

Another big step occurs for women at menopause when the tremendous physiological change necessitates a readaptation to life. Not so visible, but now generally recognized, is the midlife crisis which men suffer. This very often becomes a marriage crisis. So you see, we do not gradually grow up and get old, but rather life moves in swift, crucial transitions.

Now, if there is a neurotic disposition or some other mental disease, it generally breaks out at these moments of transition. Then the personality is blasted apart or becomes psychologically sick. This was observed even by original man and therefore, in those societies, all the big transitions in life were accompanied by so-called rites de passage, rites of transition, rituals to help people make the step over the threshold.

Funeral rites are one of these great rituals. The symbolic performances are to help the dead person get away from this earth into the beyond and also to aid the survivors in reestablishing their psychic balance. The ritual has really a therapeutic function; it protects man from the dangerous invasions of the unconscious. We have spoken before of how the unconscious world of fantasy can be very dangerous because it can pull us away from our adaptation to reality. The rituals provide a protection. By enacting, so to speak, a collective dream, we stop the unconscious fantasies from invading our personal lives. For example, a woman might lose her husband and mourn too much and sink into a deep depression. The funeral ritual comforts her and helps her to reestablish her role in life. That’s why funeral rites in primitive societies often end with a great positive drunken feast and a lot of sexuality. By going through the ritual, they make an assertion of life, as if to say, “Now that is over and now we want to live again. ”

And so all rituals on earth are healing gestures. They are symbolic performances which heal the psychic wounds and help us to make the great transitions in life. But through the activities of our missions and the giving up of our Christian rites we have destroyed the rituals, and more and more modern man is lost when he comes to such crucial situations as the death of a relative or making the step toward becoming adult or getting married. These are now the moments when modern people very often become neurotic or fall into a crisis. They can’t make the step. Dreams at these times can be most helpful. Very often you can see that the healing dreams, the positive dreams, are helping to take the place of a ritual. They tell us what we need to know. For instance, somebody who has not been comforted by a meaningful funeral of a dead friend might dream of a wonderful feast together with that friend in the night. By attending to the dreams one is returning to· the original psychic source from which the ritual stemmed.

Now, so-called primitive societies have many of these rituals. The most famous, the one which has been studied most by ethnologists, is the ritual of initiation where the young men are initiated into the secrets of the tribal law and even the secrets of sexuality. They have to leave mother and their home; they are secluded in the bush; they are symbolically devoured by a maternal monster; they are reborn; they have to generally stand a lot of torture. They are sometimes also homosexually assaulted by the older men with the idea of injecting them with their masculinity. At the same time, they are instructed in the secret law of the tribe and its religious traditions. When a young man has undergone all this ritual of transition, he is a full member of the tribe. He is a man. Many tribes call the ones who are afraid, or for some other reason not initiated, an animal. They say, “He’s not initiated, he’s an animal,” meaning he is still with the motlier. He has remained in an unconscious animal condition. He. has not taken the step necessary to become a human being.

Are there any societies that don’t have these rites of initiation, where men do not break the dependent relationship with the mother?

Well, we have not many sociological matriarchies. But I once read a book about a South American Indian tribe where there was actually a sociological (not religious but sociological) matriarchy. There the women were happy, fat whores ordering the men about, and the men were lean, submissive, nervous creatures who planted the fields and did the work for the women. On the positive side, there was earthly wealth and gratification of sexual drives. But on the negative side, there was no spirit whatsoever. It was a world of total stupidity, of only living; living very agreeably, but no thinking, no idea of spiritual realization at all. And the men, accordingly, were unhappy, submissive, rather poor creatures.

You’ve just reminded me of an article I read recently in which an American journalist satirically described North American society in a very similar way. He said it is producing women who are jackhammers and men who are wimps.

There is a certain danger that we may develop in that direction and just end up like that Indian tribe. But generally, these things balance back and forth. There will be another generation of men who will, in male protest, put things into a middle position-or try to put things into a middle position. The ideal seems to be that neither men dominate nor women dominate, but that there is a kind of equal relationship. A balance of opposites.

That same balance of power is exactly what the unconscious is striving for in the psyche of the individual. This next dream illustrates the tremendous power of the mother complex and the struggle involved in a man freeing his anima from the black moods of the devouring mother.

The transformation of this beautiful black woman on a hot summer day reminds one of a very old tradition. The Songs of Solomon begin: “I am black, but comely, 0 ye daughters of Jerusalem. ” There we have the black Shulamite who is later transformed, according to medieval tradition, into a white woman. She is redeemed by Christ, her bridegroom, into becoming a white woman. This motif has also played a tremendous role in the legend of the Queen of Sheba, who was the ancestress of the Ethiopian kings. She is a black woman who came to meet Solomon and was identified with the Shulamite of the Songs of Solomon. She was a black woman who was the beloved of a white man. A white man meeting with a black woman and transform­ ing her over time into a white woman has always fascinated Western mythology.

The same motif exists also in the grail legend, where Gamuret marries Belacane. Their son is Feirefis, best friend and half brother of Perceval. He is speckled black and white, a mixing of black and white, the mixing of the opposites of the light and the dark .

In the alchemical tradition, the transformation of the Shulamite or the Queen of Sheba also plays a tremendous role. One of the recurring fantasies of the alchemists was that the matter which they wanted to transform into gold was initially black. They compared it to a black woman who then takes off her skin or black garment and is transformed into pure gold. Notice that in this dream the woman’s skin is golden white under the black.

The black garment represents a typical feature of the undeveloped inner anima figure. Just as we shall see that the animus in women is sometimes destructive and negative, the black anima is relatively negative in a man. The black anima indicates that his whole capacity to love is mostly autoerotic. When a man has not developed his anima, his feminine side, he is generally very narcissistic. That’s what a women painfully feels when a man is meowing under her window like a tomcat. He really loves his own fantasy. He loves his own being in love, but that’s a long way from learning to love her and not merely enjoying his own being in love. And often in literature, a young man, when he first discovers the experience of love, is completely autoerotic. It is a fantasy out of which, through a painful development, he has to learn to love the woman, not as the object of his romantic fantasies, but as a human partner.

The peeling of the skin of the black female and the transformation into a white golden anima is the transformation of the loving capacities of a man, the transformation of his Eros from a primitive autoerotic fantasy into a true human capacity for love.

As soon as this transformation takes place, he then is attacked by primitives who want the woman to remain black and stay with the blacks in a black village in the jungle, which would mean the dreamer would lose his relationship with her. This shows the regressive power of the mother complex. He has a strong primitive tendency to relapse again into the old attitude. But the dreamer can successfully fight it off.

It has been said that in our society the woman most in need of liberation is the woman within every man. I’ve dreamt of all types of women: old and young, thin and fat, virgins and prostitutes, ugly and beautiful .     . . my sister, my mother. I’ve even had dreams about you. How can a man make sense out of the profusion of forms his femininity takes in his dreams?

The anima has many stages and embraces a great range of p8ychological facts. Jung said there were four major images of the anima: Eve, Helen� Mary; and Sophia, the wisdom of God.

Eve would he the biological woman, and when she appears as a man’s anima she would be biological sex, physical attraction, mother­ hood, the image of the ordinary attractive female. Helen is on a higher stage. She would represent the hetaira of the Greeks, their form of the geisha. She represents cultivated women with whom one can have not only a sexual adventure, but also exchange poetry and have philosophi­ cal conversations. She would be the spiritual companion­ companionship together with romantic sex. The next stage is the anima figure in Christianity. She is the Virgin Mary, who is the highest form of spirituality, hut a bit too one-sidedly high up. The Virgin Mary is lacking the dark Eve side of woman, the earthy shadow side, the more biological, wider, more natural side of the anima. So she is a bit too lofty an ideal. Therefore, the fourth stage, the wisdom of God, is, as Jung smilingly noted, a comedown, because wisdom is not such a virtuous spirituality. Wisdom is closer to life. It is present when a man knows how to love women and knows how to relate to women and has wisdom at the same time, a wisdom which protects him from their devouring side. The highest form of love is also something with a grain of salt in it.

What do you mean by that?

I won’t say.

Psychologically, how do you explain love?

I flatly refuse to explain that! It’s above me. ~The Way of the Dream, Page 98 -108