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Reply To: Why Not Dance?” with mythologist Catherine Svehla, Ph.D.”

Robert Juliano

    Thank you for this wonderful essay, Catherine! I can certainly appreciate the fact that the hero’s adventure does not speak to everyone. James Hillman certainly wrote much about how this type of imagining does not always apprehend the world in a nuanced way. Recently, there was a wonderful movie which, in my opinion, explored this to be certain degree – The Green Knight. I wrote some reflections on this movie, one of them being the following:

    The darkness in the movie and the deep flaws in Gawain reveal that such can be an immense reservoir of strength – a source of will which enables one to carry on – to persist in the “game” instead of abandoning it. It is not strength and virtue, but weakness and deep shame which fuel Gawain’s movement forward to a fate, as he sees it, of certain death, all in the name of “honor.” One wonders, though, if the movie reflects, not the end of the magic and possibilities of Camelot, but the eyes which view the movie, for the hero’s journey and the medieval period’s values may no longer speak to us. Perhaps, Arthur and Guinevere are seen as old and long past their prime because the myth is old and no longer resonates with us. Joseph Campbell felt the individual quest was the best and most authentic image of Western spirituality, but perhaps this is not as widely applicable as he thought (e.g., issues of gender – the heroine’s journey; James Hillman and Archetypal Psychology’s view that the hero may no longer be the appropriate imagining for our time, etc.).

    As you well know, there is a fairytale entitled Der Geist im Glas (The Spirit in the Bottle), one of Grimm’s fairytales, where the spirit in the bottle names himself as Mercurius. Mercurius is a figure of medieval and modern Latin alchemy and exhibits many of the characteristics of the trickster even in this fairytale. What is fascinating is that he has been imprisoned in a particularly human creation – a bottle. And as powerful as he is, he cannot free himself, but must be freed by someone else. Crucially, such a freeing is seen as being exceedingly dangerous. This image of hermetic enclosure is very much worth reflecting on. On the one hand, Mercurius is seen to pose great danger and, consistent with the trickster, is held to be largely unconscious. On the other hand, when freed, he gives a reward that both physically heals and creates riches.

    When seen through the lens of certain depth psychology traditions, the imprisoning of Mercurius is seen as correct. The bottle as transparent might be thought of as a sort of psychological enclosure comprising the tradition’s discipline, the employment of careful observation, and the isolation, both from inside and from outside influences, of that dangerous spirit. Here, the freeing of Mercurius is seen as an incorrect solution, both alchemically and psychologically. On the other hand, there are other traditions of depth psychology which see the enclosure as being necessary, but crucially inclusive of both the psychological tradition and Mercurius. The freeing of Mercurius, then, is the freeing of this spirit in the hermetic enclosure in which the depth psychology is also held. Thus, the discipline and focus (i.e., the enclosure) are maintained, but both Mercurius and depth psychology intermingle such that the psychological tradition is also affected and also undergoes change. This approach permits a far more intimate relationship with the trickster with its inherent dangers and life-giving boon, but again, all requiring the discipline (conscious attention and focus) the image of the bottle expresses.