CHAPTER THREE ~ Story as Medicine

No book is an island, cut away from the body of work that inspired it. This chapter discusses the books that surround and support Pomegranate Flesh. Having looked in Chapter One at the historic sources of the mythological data and in Chapter Two at the Jungian perspective on mythology, this chapter now looks at Pomegranate Flesh’s contemporary relatives and the passionate belief of their authors in the importance and relevance of myth telling. It also discusses the universal nature of mythology and describes interpretations of the value of the Demeter/Persephone myth that have been offered by Frazer (1987) and Berry (1982).

There is a nest of books published in the late 20th century that forms a sub-genre of popular, loosely Jungian writings. Not quite qualifying as psychology texts because of their lack of research data, these gems include James Hillman’s Healing Fiction (1983), Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With Wolves (1992), Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990) and Robert Johnson’s He (1977) and She (1977).

These offerings are characterised by the telling of myths and/or folk tales accompanied by explanations of their relevance to the human psyche. Pomegranate Flesh is an offspring of this cluster of books in that it is a retelling of a myth. What is missing from it, however, is the explanation of its psychological relevance. The author’s rationale for not including a step-by-step explanation of the psychological relevance of each stage of the story follows the thinking of Milton Erickson and the cluster of writers including Jay Haley (1973) and Sidney Rosen (1991) who have documented his work.

Erickson is famed for his style of counselling which is characterised by the telling of bizzare stories to clients in tranced, or more frequently lightly semi-tranced, states that had the effect of creating extreme therapeutic changes.

A trademark of Erickson’s style was the subtle way in which he launched into his stories. They were not administered with an introduction saying: “This story is my prescription for your ailment”, instead he floated into them as if they were anecdotes. Explaining this process Rosen (1991, p. 33) cites family therapist Jeffrey Zeig’s list of the values of anecdotes which reads as follows:

anecdotes are unthreatening
anecdotes are engaging
anecdotes foster independence: the individual needs to make sense out of the message and then come to a self initiated conclusion or a self initiated action
anecdotes can be used to bypass natural resistance to change
anecdotes can be used to control the relationship
anecdotes model flexibility
anecdotes can create confusion and promote hypnotic responsiveness and
anecdotes tag the memory ~ “they make the presented idea more memorable”.

Trusting in Zeig’s words Pomegranate Flesh aims to be less of a didactic pop-psychology text and more of a potent anecdote about the lives of some mythic figures, that may influence its readers in the manner of a Milton Erickson therapeutic tale.

As stated earlier, Pomegranate Flesh is an offspring of the Jungian sub-genre of popular, or mass market, psychology books. The writers in this group are passionate about the telling of myths. They hold firm to the idea that myths speak about the psychological patterns that shape our lives. Jungian author James Hillman said: “These patterns are so powerful and our lives are so influenced by them, why not call them Gods.” He argues that the point of connecting with the myths you are living is that: “it intensifies your experience and allows you to live more passionately by activating the archetypes within you and letting them move through you” (Cited in Neville, 2000, p. 56.).

Neville, the author of Educating Psyche (1989), goes on to explain his own perspective on the usefulness of myths saying:

For me a myth is useful if I read it and say ‘Yes, that’s what’s its like for me’, and if it helps me to understand what’s going on. A myth can help you to understand that you’re in the grip of a particular obsession, such as technology or victory or love. I think that it isn’t so much about surrendering to something. Instead it’s about the brief flash of insight that you have into the fact that your behaviour is not unique, but that it is part of pattern. This insight allows you to make choices about continuing to follow that pattern along its course, or about changing to a different one.
(Neville, 2000, p.58).

Explaining the value of simple story telling, free of analysis, Pinkola Estes says:

Stories set the inner life in motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives.
(1992, p.20)

Psychologist Rollo May (cited in Campbell & Moyers, 1988, p. 8) goes as far as to suggest that there is a screaming need for more myth to be told saying: “there is so much violence in American society today because there are no more great myths to help young men and women relate to or to understand that world beyond what is seen.”

If we adopt this position and believe that myths are important and that they help people relate to psychological realities, we are then faced with the daunting breadth of the world of mythology and a baffling choice of stories to navigate between. Campbell (1990) in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, cuts through this state however by positing that there are not thousands of different hero myths, but rather that there is a single pattern of heroic journey that all cultures tell in ways varied to suit their local conditions. He also outlined the basic conditions, stages, and results of the archetypal hero's journey.

From this perspective the Persephone/Demeter and Narcissus myths can be seen as not something specifically Greek, relevant only to the civilisation of the Mediterranean two to three thousand years ago, but rather as particularly nicely preserved remnants of a mythic tradition that is relevant to the whole of humanity. Just as Maui the Polynesian hero, acts in the same archetypal way as the heroes of the Norse legends (Campbell, 1990), Demeter is a universal mother, Persephone and Narcissus are universal teenagers, and the issues they face are universal human problems.

This view is echoed by Frazer (1987) in The Golden Bough where, arguing that the primary theme of the Demeter/Persephone myth is loss of a loved one to the underworld, he says: “Substantially their myth is identical with the Syrian one of Aphrodite (Astarte) and Adonis, the Phygrian one of Cybele and Attis, and the Egyptian one of Isis and Osiris.” While the stories all share the abduction and underworld themes there are however elements of the Demeter/Persephone story that distinguish it from the other listed by Frazer. In particular the mother-daughter relationship.

This can be interpreted in a number of ways. Analysing the myth, Frazer concludes that Demeter and Persephone are both symbolic of corn. Demeter in withering and mourning is the old seed corn and Persephone, staying underground then returning is the new corn. He conceeds however that there is another level to the myth saying;

The thought of the seed buried in the earth in order to spring up to new and higher life readily suggested a comparison with human destiny and strengthened the hope that for man the grave may be but a beginning of a better and happier existence in some brighter unknown world.
(1987, p. 398)

He goes on to explain that he believes the story to be about human immortality and that it was told to give comfort in the same way the story of St Paul has brought comfort to untold thousands of sorrowing Christians.

Another interpretation of the myth is offered by Patricia Berry (1982), who following on from Jung’s process of drawing parallels between processes in mythology and schizophrenia, looks at links between myths and neuroses. She described Demeter/Persephone as a pair or a joined archetype and claims that the overcautious, depressive personality attracts disaster (rape) by refusing to be adaptive. She presents the story as a teaching tale about the dangers of using psychological strategies such as depression as a defensive mechanism and says:

A working archetypal model for these overpowering, backward, downward movements is provided by the Demeter/Persephone myth... Because we have lost these rites… we have a great deal of difficulty experiencing Demeter/Persephone consciousness in any but the most superficial, defensive and neurotic ways. In order to deepen this archetypal consciousness, a more trenchant and effective analysis of our Demeter defenses is needed.
(1982, Ch. 2)

Another view that takes Demeter and Persephone more literally as separate entities, a mother and her adolescent daughter, was offered Virginia Beane Rutter in her book Embracing Persephone: Positive Parenting for the Teenage Years (2000).

Having introduced in this chapter the cluster of Jungian writers who believe in the power of myths to act in a therapeutic manner on both personal and cultural levels, and presented a couple of the many interpretations of the Demeter/Persephone myth that have been published, the next chapter will focus in on the work of Beane Rutter, which, to the best of my knowledge, stands alone in its dedication of an entire text to discussion of the relevance of the story to contemporary mothers and daughters.

[Chapter Four ~ Persephone Lives On]