The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Chapter 11:Psychology and the Mind

Most ancient myths have a clear psychological content, which is probably one of the reasons why they have been found so interesting by Western readers over such a long time. But some stories are more than incidentally "psychological", they display insight into some of the deeper problems with which we are concerned, and some which we have only lightly grazed. A summary description of myths which have to do with the human mind does not do justice to the latent potential of the stories, which must be seen housed in their story cycles and beyond that in their total culture to be fully understood. Yet even a brief survey can be useful.

Ajax has been previously discussed in Chapter 1 as a hero who cannot adjust to the constraints and group decisions of his society, and it was suggested there that his confusion of mind and subsequent dislocation of action was connected with the way society treated him. This may have been in part true, but not all heroes who are denied rewards fly into insane rage, murder animals and commit suicide. There is something special in Ajax' case which we probably should consider as a case of schizophrenia, remembering of course that this is our term for use on people living in our society, and the terms when used of another culture merely denotes something which seems generally similar. If in the future we have a clear diagnostic technique which unquestionable identifies schizoid behavior, since we will not be able to use it on persons long dead, we will have to qualify our similarities and likelihood-nesses even more cautiously. For the present it seems fair to draw rough parallels, remembering that they are parallels, not diagnoses.

Ajax is denied something (the arms of Achilles) which has assumed a disproportionate value in his mind. These are no longer arms, but things of incredible value, in fact of a value which approaches the value of life itself to him. Denied these, he is denied the appreciation of what he has been appreciating for years, his holy symbol of maniliness, his pagan Grail, the very reason for existing. All of life has been rolled up in this one symbol, and when it is removed, he collapses into emptiness. In this state other thoughts press forward, hatred not only for Odysseus who got the arms, but hatred of all the Greeks who he hold responsible as a group for the one thing which he could not have. If his love of the arms is single and highly focused, his hatred of those who took it away is diffused and general, so it doesn't matter who really did the evil deed, they must ALL suffer for it. For the Greek "all of them" his mind now can even substitute a herd of sheep, "they" is seen only as a plural and one plural is as good as another. Kill them all!

One of the marks of a troubled mind is the way it misassociates common words and ideas. The Greek word for sheep is ''ois', which has the same first and last sound as the most hated name of Odysseus. This is not more fanciful than the covert association of a disturbed boy of the word "snail" with S. Nail. the headmaster of his school, Summerhill (). The unconscious mind is a great phonetician and words day and night in subtle innuendoes. Now what sound do sheep make? The Greek verb 'mekazo' is fashioned after the bleating sound of sheep and also goats, the root sound would have been 'me-' or 'me-k-' (with a long -e-) equivalent to an English "ma-a-a-". But there is another word in Greek which has the same sound, 'me' meaning "no, not, don't... ", which is what Ajax hears when the herd of sheep bleat around him: "No! No.. !" on and on. When he asked for the arms of Achilles, the leader had said to him "No!", now the sheep were all saying "No!", just like the damned Greeks. The Greeks are all saying 'No!", try to stop it, shut them up, but they won't so... .kill them, those Greeks. But when Ajax finds it was not Greeks but sheep he had killed, he realizes something inside his mind had snapped, a thing which no hero trained within an inch of his life in military valor can face. Suicide is not only a way of stopping all this, for a man of honor it is necessary.

The word "no" has powerful associations. In a somewhat different direction, it sparked confusion, introspection and later enlightenment when the Far Eastern Buddhist roared out 'mu', which means both "No" and "nothing". This famous catchword of Buddhist training has a long history and a philosophical history, but the core notion is the absoluteness of "no" which cuts the thread of old thought clean. For Ajax, bordering on the edge of a mental precipice, it works in a stronger mode, it cuts the reason for living.

In the ancient tradition Heracles became insane, as the play of Euripedes shows.. The fit of insanity is sent upon him by Hera, he kills his own children under the illusion that they are the children of Eurystheus,, and then his wife. The parallels with the madness of Ajax are obvious: Ajax killed sheep thinking that they were Greeks, Heracles killed his children thinking they were the "children" of Eurystheus, who controlled the wild horses of Diomedes which Heracles had previously tamed. The confusion of a present person with a past agent who is totally unrelated defines this kind of illusion as a true schizophrenia. There was an ancient tradition that Heracles suffered from intermittent fits of insanity, from which he recovered completely enough to go on with his Labors.

The intermittent character of Heracles mental illness may be connected with.. .... There is also the possibility that we are dealing here with social dislocation: If a group of Greeks did, according to Rhys Carpenter's theory about desiccation of Greece after l200 B.C. and retreat of the Greeks to the north, migrate northwards to Hungary or southern Germany, and their descendant Heracles, clad in a skin and sporting a club as weapon, did return several hundred years later, he would find Greece much changed and surely inhospitable. Eastern immigrants, whether Tyrians, Philistines or Lydians, would have infiltrated the Greek islands, and been none to friendly to a rough, Neolithic type, even if he spoke archaic Greek. We would certainly register dislocated social and national background as important information the file of a modern psychiatric patient; we should not ignore it in the possible case of an ancient man.

Endymion, a beautiful young man, and beloved of the moon-goddess Selene, was thrown into a permanent deep sleep, in which at night Selene came to make love with him. This would seem to be an early case in the history of catatonic schizophrenia, with incorporation of the specific illusion which either he maintained, or others felt he believed. The connection of mental illness with the moon is reflected in the word "lunacy", but this probably comes from cases such as this rather than from any notion of diagnosis.. The moon and moon lore is not liable to be a key to schizophrenia, but the light it sheds on how other peoples have interpreted insanity may give some perspective to oddities in our own methods of interpretation. But doctors in emergency rooms in large city hospitals know that at full moon time it will be necessary to have extra staff on hand, although they can't professionally make a great point of this knowledge. Still we should be open to the possibility that gravitational changes under the moon's influence may have an effect on living organisms, either as a time clock or in other ways which we are not aware of. The experience of astronauts in space, where the earth stronger gravitational effect will not be present to mask lesser gravitational pulls, may eventually offer us positive new information, or prove that gravitational effects not affect us at all.

The fact that it is under the guise of love and sexual contact that Endymion's immobilization occurs is especially interesting, since severe sexual shock does disorient and immobilize, although more generally in the area of sight and speech. Was Endymion made sick by consideration of his physical beauty, which he felt was undeserved? Selene is often associated and confused in her roles with Artemis, the severe virgin huntress, which would drastically change the nature of this "divine loving". The famous case of catatonia in the New Testament, the man lying immobile on his bed whom Christ "cured" (instantly) by telling him in his ear that his sins were forgiven, points to connections of body immobilization with guilt.

The story of Narcissus may point to a similar kind of problem. The beautiful youth Narcissus, so vain and proud that he continually rejected the advances of the nymphette Echo, was finally punished by Aphrodite, who made him fall in love with his own image, which he discovered one day reflected in a pool of clear water. Trapped by his own reflection, he gave himself over to the useless pursuit of himself, with which he finally died, at which point he was converted into the flower "Narcissus". The symbolism is obvious. Starting from a story about a doomed young man of great physical handsomeness, a type which we have noted before as scheduled for an early death, the tale veers into something like modern psychology under the title of Narcissism, without violence either to the story line or to our theories. Many psychological interpretations of ancient stories are forced and end up as weak explanations, but this one is true to life from beginning to end. Turning the person into a symbolically related nature-form, fits in well with the spirit of ancient animism, which sees person-like forces in all growing life forms., but here we study in reverse the etiology of such a situation.

This story shows such sensitivity to matters of the personality and mind, that we might suspect that we should find other tales fashioned on a similar last. There are very few others that ring right in the same way. The ancients had very different view of the mind from ours, even the redoubtable Aristotle maintained that the heart and not the brain was the seat of the mind and emotions, and only Socrates with his mention of the demon that said "no" (like the superego), points in our direction. This may not be an indications that the Greeks were primitive or psychologically inept, it may suggest that our commonly accepted psychological lore is only a function of our society's way of thinking about itself, and that it may have no more universal applicability than a national diet or a way of dressing. The fast changes in the theory of psychological science in the last hundred years points to something like this, perhaps when more durable theories begin to appear, we will have a clue that we are looking in the right direction.

The story of Protesilaos, the first man to leap ashore at Troy at the "beachhead" to be immediately killed, has an interesting development. His youthful wife Laodamia who stayed at home was so distressed at the news of his death that, by special deic permission, her husband was allowed to come back and spend three hours with her, after which he left and she killed herself. We are apparently dealing in this story with a crossing of the lines of reality and psychic sensation, by which the appearance of a dead person is taken as a real visit arranged by some sort of special dispensation. Nobody in the ancient world questions the apparitions that appear in trances and dream, they are taken as absolute reality, as evidence of the lines of communication that exist between us and the denizens of the other world.. Our explanation, that there remain in the memory-bank imprinted patterns of familiar persons which automatically rerun themselves in the mind, creating the "illusion" of persons, is much more complicated than the ancient assumption of absolute reality, and even in our sophisticated and highly educated world, they constitute something of a strain on credibility to persons unread in modern psychology. Our views seem to us better than those of the ancient peoples, yet the fact that we would not easily accept their premises should be balanced by the fact that they would be amazed by our unbelievable assumptions.

The story of Laodamia parallels the rescue of Orpheus' wife Eurydice. Assuming what one "sees" to be reality may be a perfectly natural reaction, but most of us would feel that believing it to be absolutely true is surely being credulous. And yet that kind of credulousness is at the core of our esthetic predisposition to the worlds of art, poetry and religion, where the men and women of today seem to have more trouble with the price of admission than the ancients did. Insight into the ways other peoples have reacted to suggested images may help us to understand more about ourselves, since we too continue to have these imaged apparitions, even if we interpret them as dreams in a world of fact.

A previous section (Chapter) has dealt with Orpheus as patron saint of poetry and song, we can limit ourselves here to the parts of the Orphic experience which have a psychological content. The poet is the one person in a primitive society who has direct access to the mesmerizing pulses of rhythmic wording, song and dance, with which aids he can seem to accomplish almost anything. Such a man can record feats long past and the deeds of famous men many years dead, this is his basic bardic function. When he calls up persons long dead, transfers the hearer to a far distant place, even perhaps to a place which has never been seen, he raises people to a level of intensity and vivification which they later will refer to as "stepping out of one's body", which is the meaning of the Greek word "ecstasy". Since the Orphic poet collapses time and space, he can symbolically overcome Death. Transferring the symbolic to the real, Orpheus can (almost) bring back the dead from Hades, but in his quest for Euridice, the fatal flaw emerges. As long as he thinks of her, he can bring her back in his own mind, but when he actually turns around and looks, she disappears. As a striking parallel the Pythagorean Symbola state that looking back (as the core of neurotic distraction) must be strictly avoided.

The stories about Protosilaus and Orpheus share what apparently was a common Greek belief in the reality of what we call a memory-recalled illusion. If Laodamia sees her dead husband, God sent him there for a last good-bye, but the terminus of the visit is preordained and it will be no surprise when he leaves. (She kills herself, but that is out of desperation, not disappointment.) But in the story of Eurydice, the termination of the vision was not anticipated by Orpheus, who thought he was really bringing back his wife from the dead by the power of his gift of song. The catch was hidden in the order not to look back. Orpheus ruins his own achievement by not performing the ritual just as he was instructed, he does look back, and so terminates the operation. There are some things which we all do even though we shouldn't, we feel an uncontrollable desire to scratch our nose while the dentist is drilling, our eye drifts uncontrollably and looks at the one person we didn't want to be caught staring at, and Orpheus could be counted on to have just such a flaw. Eurydice disappeared in fact, because she was only in her husband's eye; but the Greek says she was really there in the flesh, and when Orpheus did the forbidden thing and looked at her, he terminated her retrieval by his own error. This is quite different from saying that she was not really there, or that he only thought she was there. This approach to the story preserves the illusion as reality.

Another way of looking at this myth, thinking not of role and orders and responsibility, is to remember that Eurydice's existence as they returned from Hades was only in Orpheus' mind, and he could have kept her that way, in his mind, forever. The mind is one organ of vision, but he turned his other organ of vision, his actual eye, on the space where he thought she was,...... of course there was nothing there. Had he not looked she would have stayed forever with him, safe in his mind.

Of course this is all dependent on one's sense of what is the final reality. If the eye is the ultimate test of reality, the heaven which many religions speak of is a pitiful illusion, but on the other hand if heaven is reality, as classical Lutheran theology taught, this life is something like a photographic negative, a very partial view and quite illusory. Science would have seemed earlier in this century to have opted for a factual and observable world-view, but the developments in physics in the last generation have pointed to a mythic world where abstract values which are hardly graspable by most of us constitute the final truth behind everything. Perhaps it is the mind and not the eye which decides the final assessment of what is true and real.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College