Zeus and Hera: Images of a Divine Syzygy

Zeus

“He was a sky god, associated with wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, and was the master of spiritual phenomena, since it was the spirit realm that was signified by the sky and the manifestations of the weather. He was a carrier of justice and judgment, an embodiment of law and the punisher of transgression of the law, accomplished by the hurling of the thunderbolt. He was the personification of creative energy, which constantly spilled out and had an unceasing urge to impregnate, hence his perpetual love affairs.” Edward Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology

Zeus 512px-Rubens_medici_cycle_meeting_at_Lyon

In Edinger’s description of Zeus, we see the image of a powerful masculine ruler of the heavens. Although Zeus is still one of many gods, he is both leader and creator of the pantheon. And just as importantly, we see Zeus’ engagements with his wife, Hera, not as his compliment, but as a shadowy cohort. And although Zeus and Hera are said to be married, the relationship seems less relational and more pro-generative. Zeus is much less interested in a relationship with Hera, but rather a preoccupation with the power to endlessly create through the continual love affairs outside of his marriage. In the realm of the gods, we may see these creative urges as saying less about the familial, and more about the archetypal urge towards expansion through creative reproduction, or differentiating and articulating the One through the diversity of the Many.

Edinger’s own words, in which he declares Zeus as he who “…comes closest of all the members of the Pantheon to embodying the whole Self,” we see an obvious bias, still with us today, towards a preference for a more masculine style of consciousness. Hera, on the other hand, as the feminine divine, is somehow a necessary accomplice and more of a saturnine threat of imprisonment that spurs on Zeus’ impulse for freedom. If the stories of the gods are expressions of particular styles of consciousness, we are glimpsing the ways in which Western civilization values the initiatory force of masculine power, while reducing the value of the feminine, as that which induces fear in the masculine, of time-bound constraint, and the threat of limitation. Is then, the masculine impulse a prerequisite for creative action that requires an abandoned shadowy feminine? If so, is this dynamic the springboard from which Western Civilization arose?

We might pause here to remind ourselves when considering ideas about mythology to see them not so much as literal figures representing male and female, or even as ways to understand male and femaleness, but as powers of the psyche whose dynamics take hold of the cultural imagination and live through us, sanctified, although sometimes shadowy collective influences. As dynamics, these traits persist, even where individuals themselves may more or less incorporate them within a particular lifetime.

“There are long lists of the lovers of Zeus, and by and large they had an unhappy time of it. Hera, personifying the feminine embodiment of the Self, was fiercely opposed to these dalliances, and would often punish Zeus’ lovers. For example, Zeus fell in love with the beautiful Io and then turned her into a white cow so that she could escape Hera’s detection. This ruse failed and Hera set gadflies after her which, stinging, pursued her around the world.”

Edinger, Edward F.. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology

Zeus,_Semele_und_Hera._Flämisch,_3._Viertel_17._Jahrhundert_(Erasmus_Quellinus_II_oder_Jan_Erasmus_Quellinus)

Rather than the separate dynamics of masculine and feminine, aren’t we though, seeing a syzygy  within the relationship between Zeus and Hera? And, in what ways do these dynamics reassemble within our own modes of modern day consciousness? Although there’s no denying that the archetypes play out between actual men and women, and that men and women are afforded different degrees of power by virtue of their physical nature and social-political norms, can we also see the ways in which all of us have inherited a portion of Zeus’ quest for power, and Hera’s jealous ploys to address or balance the excess? For if as Jung states, the gods have become diseases, surely this syzygy is one of them! The more a Zeus-like excess threatens to destroy the world as we know it, the more outrageous the response of Hera’s house-holding economics becomes.

Where Edinger sees Zeus as the bold exhort of creativity, bringing the endless gifts of light and expanding consciousness, perhaps through the shadowy side of that light we see an insatiable desire for power accompanied by a complete disregard for consequences, desperately in need of Hera’s restraint. Does he then, not attempt to appease her with the riches of the household and all the distraction and substitution for feminine creativity it might contain?

Hera

“There are long lists of the lovers of Zeus, and by and large they had an unhappy time of it. Hera, personifying the feminine embodiment of the Self, was fiercely opposed to these dalliances, and would often punish Zeus’ lovers.” Edward Edinger

Within the syzygy, isn’t this just a little too lopsided a view of Hera’s role? While she remains that which shadows Zeus, the syzygy is deprived of the feminine aspect of creative urges. Perhaps we see in Hera the opportunity to imagine the qualities of a divine feminine as that embodiment of containment and restriction necessary for the creative powers of Zeus to be of actual service. But as the keeper of the household, amassing possessions to appease her, we see only opportunity missed.

Jupiter and Io, espied by Juno by Italian SchoolIt bears noting that if we are in the midst of an era of a lopsided patriarchal power, and that power has become the exploitative grandiosity of “too much of a good thing” that underlies so much of what is going wrong, the story of Zeus and Hera might help us to see in what ways Hera’s feminine resistance is not only missing, but could be a necessary correction. And how interesting it might be to see Hera’s plea as the desire for a more relational mode of being. It might help us too, to train the eyes for images of the masculine and feminine in syzygy that do appear in a relational dynamic in which excess and constraint are bound together, reflecting the necessity for each other.

In James Hillman’s, Mythic Figures, he echoes Edinger’s idea of the necessity for Zeus to go off on his heroic quest of never-ending expansion. Although Hillman is looking the phenomenon straight in the eye, he doesn’t apply the myth to our current cultural mess.

If we don’t know the myths, we don’t understand what fantasies we have when we go into a union. When we go into the bedroom we don’t know which myth we are enacting. He goes into the cave with the fantasy of a child of Venus. For him this is a pleasurable, delightful experience. But she is under the guidance of Juno. She goes in with the marriage fantasy of deep coupling. Soon after he gets a message from Hermes that he must get on with his job which is to go found Rome, and so he sets sail. She’s absolutely destroyed. Desertion, betrayal. For him it’s not a betrayal because he came with a different fantasy. For her, it is a radical violation of the laws of the universe, the very Queen of Heaven. And she never forgives him, because she appears in the Underworld still enraged, embittered forever.

Hillman, James. Mythic Figures. Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

He does goes on to imply that Hera might find consolation through domestication in the care and maintenance of the household which has become her domain; a place where she can invest her powers as an “upholder of civilization,” but where her creative impulse remains outwardly directed inside the house.

Society is intimately connected in Hera to the psyche and to biological laws. In that way she is the upholder of civilization, of providing the homestead, the economy, the household, the domestication, the husbandry of civilization, so that marriage becomes something dedicated to service to principles higher than personal happiness. The house stands for both civil society and my personal property.

Hillman, James. Mythic Figures. Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Where Zeus and Hera provide an archetypal background for both marriage and economy as the primary structures that uphold Western Civilization, we can perhaps begin to recognize the correlative loss of the riches once known through pagan and tribal cultures, where, although the creative impulse may never have given us the bounty that the West provided, but provided a more direct experience of the divine in its rituals and recognition of the value of the collective. Through Zeus, Hera and much of the mythology of the Greek pantheon, we get a glimpse of what truly distinguishes us, but also of what ultimately keeps us heroically driven, outwardly expanding, inwardly impoverished, all in response to the creative impulse gone wildly independent and outside of relationship. Perhaps there is a middle way that could flourish if we survive the current tests of our time.

Life Against Death

Front CoverMy first exposure to the ideas of Norman O. Brown’s was his book Love’s Body which I read back in late 90’s. This classic book remains on my top shelf of insightful and provocative reads. It’s trippy – condensing the entire history of humankind into a Freudian-based mythology in which he sees that the “only contrary to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy, but Fraternity, or an alliance between Mother Earth and the band of brothers led by Cronus to castrate Father Sky.

Through many of the great writings of Western culture Brown cruises through our collective history re-telling the tragedy of war and aggression that carries through to this day. Rooted in the conflict between what Freud called instinctual bodily desires or “undifferentiated primal unity with oneself and nature” vs. the constraints of the super ego in which we become differentiated and alienated from that self and nature, Brown, in sparingly poetic phrasing, shows us the generations of humanity caught in a cycle of youthful rebellion repetitively seeking to replace the corrupt authority of Kings and Popes, our senix-driven fathers. But Brown makes clear that the tragedy of war and aggression between brothers, tribes, states and nations, also reflects an inner conflict within each of us.

Currently, I am enjoying his earlier book, Life Against Death, the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. In a much more traditional writing style, Brown walks us through Freud’s early ideas and later revisions with an emphasis on his idea of the death-instinct, it’s relationship to the pleasure principle, and its splitting from consciousness. Where there has been a technological drive towards increasing comfort and pleasure, there is also a tendency towards “inactivity, rest or sleep, death’s brother.” In other words, increasing unconsciousness and a “hostility towards life.”

From the preface:

“To experience Freud is to partake a second time of the forbidden fruit; and this book cannot without sinning communicate that experience to the reader. But to what end? When our eyes are opened, and the fig leaf no longer conceals our nakedness, our present situation is experienced in its full concrete actuality as a tragic crisis. To anticipate the direction of this book, it begins to be apparent that mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right: our real desires are unconscious.

It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself. Freud was right in positing a death instinct, and the development of weapons of destruction makes our present dilemma plain: we either come to terms with our unconscious instincts and drives—with life and with death— or else we surely die.”

In reading Life Against Death, I am struck by Brown’s discussion of Freud’s idea of the infant, the “polymorphous perverse infancy,” its experience of no-time, or eternal time through which an adaptation to the family and culture results in a repression of our experience of eternality in favor of an agreed upon cultural sense of linear, historical time. The idea of trading off awareness of eternal time for historical time seems an insightful way of understanding our modern dilemma. Especially with a compounded insistency that the linear perspective is the only one, an objective literal truth to which we are bound and against which all else is measured.

Perhaps as technology and access to knowledge increases, many of us are becoming aware of how much the historical perspective tugs at our hearts, leaving us apocalyptic, despairing, guilty, or passionately political towards endings, whether it be all the wars and bloodshed, hunger, disease, religion or government. There is upon us the unhappy realization that the wheel of human history is indestructible, still out of reach, frustrating further our desire for restful sleep. Our response, once we have exhausted ourselves in a playpen of technology is perhaps madness, euphoria, apathy or naiveté.

Brown complains about the postmortem loss of Freud’s ideas which interestingly happen because of the very problems of the nature of consciousness that Freud described; the fraternity of Freudian’s have killed him, moving away from the discomfort of his ideas.

Life Against Death (Wesleyan University Press edition).jpg“It is easy to take one’s stand on the traditional notions of morality and rationality and then amputate Freud till he is reconciled with common sense— except that there is nothing of Freud left. Freud is paradox, or nothing. The hard thing is to follow Freud into that dark underworld which he explored, and stay there; and also to have the courage to let go of his hand when it becomes apparent that his pioneering map needs to be redrawn.”

Brown’s observations of the fate of Freud and other visionaries rings true, from Jesus, to Jung, but if Freud is correct that we are cyclically murdering the unbearable paternal authorities only to replace them with new unbearable authorities, then murder itself is a result of incorporating an aversion to authority. Then the question becomes, how do we break this cycle of insanity?

I agree with Brown, and will leave it to the experts to draw both their paychecks and their conclusions from the dayworld perspective because as Gil Scott Heron reminds us, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Any change in consciousness big enough to affect the broad spectrum of culture is an underworld experience which happens in the hearts of individuals. In regaining our natural instincts with an embrace of life that, rather than fighting death with death, might then honor the mystery that we can all live in rather than against.

“We, however, are concerned with reshaping psychoanalysis into a wider general theory of human nature, culture, and history, to be appropriated by the consciousness of mankind as a whole as a new stage in the historical process of man’s coming to know himself.”

All quotes from Brown, Norman O. (2012-04-15). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History . Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.