In memory of Robert Bly
A little rest for the wounds – who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.) – Yehuda Amichai
Why do some stories stay with us over long periods of time? All the classic stories (Dante, Shakespeare, Melville and, of course, the Greek and Bible myths) deal with universal, archetypal themes that live to some extent in every human heart, every society and every family. Mythic figures, as well as those persons who populate our culture of celebrity, stand out from the norm so that we can see our own stories more clearly. In other words, myths are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
In 2005 Dr. Joy Degruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (revised, 2017) hit a raw yet familiar nerve. She argued that millions of African Americans suffer from unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder arising from the experience of slavery, transmitted across generations down to the present. This manifests as physical problems such as hypertension, as well as emotional and behavioral issues such as lack of self-esteem, persistent anger and internalized racist beliefs, all of which contribute to a vicious circle of underachieving and further marginalization by the larger society.
My book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, applied this thinking to the entire culture. Although people of color clearly suffer this condition most acutely, I argue that all modern people, especially Americans, live a deeply diminished life conditioned by – and passed on from – the crimes and mistakes of the past. Ultimately, all these patterns stem from the myth of the killing of the children, the foundational myth of Western Culture.
With Degruy’s book what was once considered an old poetic idea has entered the scientific realm. Both psychologists and geneticists have begun to contemplate the idea of epigenetic trauma, that emotional pain and stress can really be passed on through the generations.
But we transmit ideas through stories. How old is this poetic idea? At least three thousand years old.
The Killing of the Children in Myth
We idealize the family as the ultimate “safe container.” Yet we experience the breakdown of culture most directly in the crimes and betrayals that adults inflict upon children. Myth suggests that it has always been this way – or at least since the triumph of patriarchy.
Greek myth is replete with stories of family violence and the suffering of innocent children. Medea killed her sons just to spite their father. Procne killed her son, cooked him, and served him to her husband, who’d raped her sister. Zeus had an affair with Lamia, who bore him children. When Hera found out, she killed the children. Driven insane with grief, Lamia began devouring other children. Hera also caused Heracles to murder six of his children by mistake. The infant Oedipus was abandoned because of a prophecy that a son would be the father’s undoing. Dionysus caused many people to go mad enough to kill their own children. And on it goes…the innocent suffered for their parents’ sins.
The Bible is inconsistent. Sons bear the sins of their fathers in certain passages (Exodus 20:5 and 34:6-7 and Deuteronomy 5:9), “to the third and the fourth generations”, while in other places (Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20), they do not.
When Ham accidentally discovered his father Noah naked, Noah cursed all of Ham’s descendants. (Genesis 9:20-27, 10:6-20). Noah’s other sons escaped the curse by covering their eyes, and by assenting to Ham’s curse, they gained Noah’s approval. Indeed, biblical brothers often fight each other (Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Amnon/Absolom) instead of their fathers. Unlike the Greeks, the Hebrew patriarchs seemed to deliberately promote sibling rivalry, knowing that if brothers were to love each other, they might unite and overthrow them.
Child sacrifice is another Old Testament theme. Jehovah accused the Israelites: “… you slaughtered my children and presented them as offerings!” (Ezek. 16:19-21). Like the pagans, they “shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters,” wrote the Psalmist, “whom they sacrificed unto the altars of Canaan…” (Ps. 106:38). When Phineas murdered a Hebrew for sleeping with a pagan woman (he murdered her as well), God was pleased: “Phineas turned my wrath away…he was zealous for my sake, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy” (Num. 25:11). Lot offered Sodom his two virgin daughters to “do ye to them as is good in your eyes.”
Most significantly, Abraham – father of Judeo-Christian-Moslem monotheism – was willing to sacrifice Isaac to prove his loyalty to God. Bruce Chilton writes, “Different versions of Genesis 22 circulated in an immensely varied tradition called the Aqedah or “Binding” of Isaac in Rabbinic sources and…in both Christian and Islamic texts.” In many of these later versions, Isaac was indeed sacrificed, and he came to embody the only sacrifice acceptable to God. Generally, however, the patriarchs couldn’t openly admit such barbaric capability, so their mythmakers projected child sacrifice onto the gods – such as Moloch – of other people.
In the New Testament, God confirmed this fundamental theme when he abandoned his only son. Herod, hearing of Jesus’ birth, had murdered all boys of two years or less in Bethlehem. (Mathew 2:16) Later, when Jesus asked, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting the ancient Psalm 22, which acknowledged centuries of abuse, betrayal, and the depression – or thirst for vengeance – that follows.
Whether Hebrew or Greek (as we’ll see), the patriarchs feared rivals among their subjects or their children, pursued the most terrible of initiations and slaughtered the innocent. Those who survived modeled themselves on their fathers, often becoming killers themselves, to pass on the curses.
These patriarchs display different styles of fathering and authority, but they have two things in common. First, they narcissistically refuse to acknowledge the independent, subjective souls of their children. Second, by refusing to bless them equally, they encourage either sibling rivalry or rebellion and confirm that all good things – from food to love to natural resources – are scarce and must be earned through sacrifice.
Freud argued that civilization requires control of instinctual forces. This generates guilt and aggressive efforts to displace and deny the power of conscience. To him, the devouring of the children represents refusal to let new generations replace older ones. Jungians suggest that the father is less a sexual rival to his sons than an obstructive personification of the old order necessary for a mature ego to emerge out of the unconscious.
Killing the Children Throughout History
These stories are absolutely central to Western consciousness. They indicate how long it has been since indigenous initiation rituals broke down. For at least three millennia, the patriarchs have conducted pseudo-initiations, feeding their sons into the infinite maw of literalized violence. Indeed, it was their great genius – and primordial crime – to extend child- sacrifice from the family to the state. Boys eventually were forced to participate in the sacrifice. No longer being subjected to ritualized, symbolic death, they learned to overcome death by inflicting it on others, killing for a cause.
Ultimately, sacrifice – dying for the cause – became as important as physical survival. Martyrdom became an ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate. Chilton writes,
Uniquely among the religions of the world, the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah – a central virtue for the faithful…
When the state replaces both God and the fathers, boys must become patriots (Latin: pater, father) to become men. Those who most excel in this madness become sociopathic killers, leaders and mentors to future generations. Such fathers feel pride, but as the myths tell us, they also fear the possibility of being overthrown. For hundreds of years, what has passed for initiation ritual in modern culture has always contained both a threat and a deal: You will sacrifice your emotions and relational capacity and submit to our authority in all matters. In exchange, you may dominate your women, your children and the Earth just as we abuse you.
Yet don’t we idealize our children? Don’t parents commonly deny their own needs so that “the children” might have a better future, and don’t governments rush to punish those even suspected of harming them? We have to think mythologically.
The universal archetype of the child symbolizes mind undivided from body. This is the lost unity all adults long for – something, however, which they cannot recover without being psychologically torn apart. So the image of an actual child evokes both the grief over what we have lost as well as the suffering we must endure on the road back to wholeness. Consequently, adults are often compelled to deny that grief, remove that image from consciousness and replace it with something much simpler – idealization, while some adults cannot resist the temptation to literally destroy that image.
Why else would we emphasize family values while destroying social programs that keep families together, or punish 25 percent of American children simply because their parents are poor? This can only happen in a society that is deeply ambivalent about its own children. “Some things,” writes psychologist David Bakan, “are simply too terrible to think about if one believes them. Thus one does not believe them in order to make it possible to think about them.” Idealization is the way we keep the secret that our culture is built upon sacrifice of our actual children.
Lloyd Demause surveyed the literature on European child-raising and concluded: “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awake.” Christians long believed that children were inherently perverse, as one 17th-century theologian claimed: “The new-born babe is full of the stains and pollution of sin, which it inherits from our first parents through our loins.” They required extreme discipline and early baptism, which used to include actual exorcism of the Devil. Initiation rites became literalized in child abuse, with customs ranging from tight swaddling and steel collars to foot binding, genital circumcision and rape.
He offers considerable evidence of the literal killing of both illegitimate children (until the 19th century) and legitimate ones, especially girls, in Europe. He argues that physical and sexual abuse were so common that most children born prior to the 18th century were what would today be termed “battered children.” However, the medical syndrome itself didn’t arise among doctors until the 1960s, when regular use of x-rays revealed widespread multiple fractures in the limbs of small children who were too young to complain verbally.
De Mause argues that war and genocide do “…not occur in the absence of widespread early abuse and neglect,” that nations with particularly abusive and punitive childrearing practices emphasize military solutions and state violence in resolving social conflicts. Furthermore, “Children brought up with love and respect simply do not scapegoat…”
“Americans,” wrote James Hillman, “love the idea of childhood no matter how brutal or vacuous their actual childhoods may have been.” We idealize childhood because our actual childhoods rarely served their purpose, which was to provide a container of welcome into the world. Without it, we assume that alienation is our true nature. And if humans have no true animating spark, neither does the natural world. So generation after generation of young men are motivated to project their own need to die and be reborn onto the world itself. This is how Patriarchy perpetuates itself. In each generation, millions of abused children identify with their adult oppressors and become perpetrators themselves. In what Joseph Campbell called our “demythologized” world, they have no choice but to act out the myths of the killing of the children on a massive scale.
In this context, what is a “dysfunctional family”? If the survival of the system itself depends on successively new cohorts of unsatisfied, angry, addicted or even murderous children, then family curses serve the system. Greek legend described one such family through eight generations.