Barry’s Blog # 390: The Family Curse, Part Three of Nine

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women…patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. – bell hooks

Those who think they are not wounded in ways that need conscious attention and careful healing are usually the most wounded of all. – Michael Meade

In the Beginning

The Greeks knew many variants of their stories and imagined their deities from differing points of view. They learned those viewpoints from their poets, not from their priests. We will consider the story of a dysfunctional family that stretches at least eight generations as told by their poets, one of which, Sophocles, said of himself, “I show people who they might be,” and said of another, Euripides, “…and he shows people as they are.” It’s a story that offers us two lessons. The first is: It’s always been this way. The second is: Healing is possible.

Can we handle such contradictions? Yes, if we think of them as a elements of a mysterious paradox and are willing to bear the tension of the opposites. Physicist Niels Bohr said that the opposite of a correct statement is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.

The First Generation

Hesiod’s Theogony begins with the appearance of “Broad-bosomed Earth”, Gaia, who was born spontaneously out of Chaos, or Night. Without a husband, she conceived of Ouranos, Father Sky, who became the ruler of the universe.

The Second Generation

When they mated, the first race, the twelve Titans,  came into existence:

Insolent children, each with a hundred arms…

…And these most awful sons of Earth and Heaven

Were hated by their father from the first.

As soon as each was born Ouranos hid

The child in a secret hiding-place in Earth

And would not let it come to see the light,

And he enjoyed this wickedness….

Ouranos had heard a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. So one by one, he rejected them as they were born, pushing them back into the body of his wife Gaia. Here the Greek mythic tradition comes as close as possible to identifying history’s original sin, perpetrated by the original father god. This act begot the intra-familial violence that followed in subsequent generations. And the violence, curiously, often stemmed from (or was rationalized by) a prophecy that a son would overthrow his father.

But Gaia helped one son, Kronos, escape. The next time Ouranos came to mate with her, Kronos emerged from hiding and castrated him with a sickle provided by his mother. His testicles dropped into the sea, and some say that they turned into the goddess Aphrodite. This was the original return of the repressed, and it set a pattern that resulted in more tyranny. Kronos was now the most powerful god, and he ruled the universe with the help of his Titanic siblings:

But the great father Ouranos reproached his sons, and called them Titans, for, he said, they strained in insolence, and did a deed for which they would be punished afterwards.

Now it was Kronos’ turn to hear a prophecy that a son would overthrow him. So as each of his children emerged from their mother, he ate them. Kronos (in his later Roman form as Saturn) eventually came to personify Time, who devours all things.

Then, as each child issued from the holy womb

And lay upon its mother’s knees, each one

Was seized by mighty Kronos and gulped down….

For he had learned from Earth

And starry Heaven, that his destiny

Was to be overcome, great though he was,

By one of his own sons.

Ouranos and Kronos

The Sky Gods of patriarchy are authoritarian, jealous males who live in the Heavens or on mountaintops (or, in skyscrapers) and rule from vast distances.

Robert Bly saw the genesis of two polar-opposite models of dysfunctional fathering in these two figures. Ouranos and Kronos symbolize what I have called the paranoid and predatory imaginations. The paranoid impulse arose from fear of those (significantly, one’s own children) who desired to claim their inheritance. Once they had defined the “Other” as outside the pale, the predatory mind was free to exploit him.

Right at the beginning, here is the pattern men will repeat over and over: the energy in the system is passed on, rather than back towards its source. Elders commit horrific crimes upon the young, and sometimes the young retaliate. But hardly anyone grieves or does the difficult work of acknowledging their losses.

In mythology, the prophecy is the common rationalization for fathers who try to kill sons. In Jungian psychology, the formulation would be projection of the shadow. Fathers are hostile to their sons not necessarily because of the Oedipal conflict, but because they learned from their own fathers. Bly wrote:

The father may act the part of a distant and angry Sky god who views his son as a threat to his position. Since his rage is irrational, the son initially becomes confused and hurt. This situation grows into mutual resentment and estrangement; paradoxically, it also helps shape the son into behaving like his father when he grows up…this arises because the son “identifies with the aggressor” instead of with the victim he really was. He comes to reject the qualities in himself that provoked his father’s anger.

Ouranos and Kronos were both sky fathers, but the nature of their hostility toward their children differed:

Not receiving any blessing from your father is an injury…Not seeing your father when you are small, never being with him, having a remote father, an absent father, a workaholic father, is an injury.

This father (the Ouranos type) can be too spiritual, abstract, absent, and, of course, dead and gone, or hidden behind the newspaper, brushing off needy children with, “Ask your mother.” His distance or absence pushes the son back toward the mother (who, for her own reasons, may “eat” him) or mythologically, back into the Earth. Most American boys grow up with Ouranos as their prime model of masculinity and fathering:

Jung…said that when the son is introduced primarily by the mother to feeling, he will learn the female attitude toward masculinity and take a female view of his own father and of his own masculinity. He will see his father through his mother’s eyes.

This father’s absence may provoke self-destructive attempts to get his (or a substitute’s) attention. All teachers, military officers, coaches and small business owners experience this displacement.

The other model is the Kronos-type who insults, abuses, beats, shames and curses the son. He’s not absent enough. Since he demands that they share his values, what he eats is their individuality. What he provokes is rebellion. Ouranos neglects the children, but Kronos kills them with his unreasonable and unquestionable expectations. Many artists have depicted Kronos, but the most famous image is Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons. Jay Scott Morgan describes this masterpiece:

Cover the right side of the face, and we see a Titan caught in the act, defying anyone to stop him, the bulging left eye staring wildly at some unseen witness to his savagery, his piratical coarseness heightened by the sharp vertical lines of the eyebrow, crossed like the stitches of a scar. Cover his left eye, and we are confronted by a being in pain, the dark pupil gazing down in horror at his own uncontrolled murderousness, the eyebrow curved upwards like an inverted question mark, as if he were asking, “Why am I compelled to do this?”

Kronos is the fabric of our daily lives. Benjamin Franklin equated Time, the ancient god, with money, the new one. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver told the Lilliputians that his watch determined every action of his life. They concluded that it must be his god. Now we carry Time’s temple with us continually, on our wrists.

These two are extreme models, and one of the sources of the son’s deep confusion and ambivalence is that most fathers exhibit aspects of both extremes. In reaction, the sons may overthrow the father. Superficially, the energy in the system seems to move backward, toward the source of the shaming. However, wrote Bly,

…the high intensity of emotionality, or pressure for togetherness, prevents a child from growing to think, feel, and act for himself. The child functions in reaction to others. A good example is a rebellious adolescent. His rebellion reflects the lack of differentiation that exists between him and his parents.

More importantly, it’s clear from the way these rebels commonly treat their own children that the energy is being passed on, not back. And, finally, critically, despite all the anger and rage, no one (with one exception, as we will see) grieves.

I’d like to point out here that these are not abstract figures. They have manifested directly in the lives of every generation from the Greeks and Hebrews right up to the present. This was clear to Bly and Michael Meade when they first brought men together in conferences in the early 1980s and instituted two fundamental rules. The first was that although any extreme emotions were welcome, there would be no physical violence. The second was that no one should leave the room while any session was in progress. By eliminating the two most common ways in which American men responded to conflict, these rules invited us to welcome diversity and resolve differences in a truly democratic manner. And as we became familiar with myth, we realized that violence represented Kronos, while leaving was the pattern of Ouranos.

Back to our story: The relationships between the Gods, as between human family members, are complex, as Robert Segal notes:

Certainly there is matrimonial as well as generational conflict…but the matrimonial strife is the consequence of the generational one: the mother sides with her children against their father.

Family Systems Theory agrees that the mother is involved. In fact, Bowen insisted that interlocking triangles are the essence of the family relationship system:

Once the emotional circuitry of a triangle is in place, it usually outlives the people who participate in it. lf one member of the triangle dies, another person usually replaces him. The actors come and go, but the play lives on through the generations. Children may act out a conflict that was never resolved between their great-grandparents. So a particular triangle was not necessarily created by its present participants…When anxiety in the emotional field of a triangle is low, two people, the insiders, are comfortably close, and the third is a less comfortable outsider. This is not a static system. Both insiders continually make adjustments to preserve their comfortable togetherness, less one become uncomfortable and draw closer to the outsider. The outsider does not stand idly by but continually attempts to draw closer to one of the insiders…an important aspect of understanding triangles…is being able to recognize a communication as reflecting the activity of a triangle rather than being a straightforward comment by one person to another.

But mothers are involved for their own reasons, not just to defend their children from abusive or distant fathers. As Alice Miller pointed out, if the mother has not received her “narcissistic supplies” from her own parents, and especially if her relationship with the father is not emotionally satisfying, she may experience an unconscious yet irresistible need to use the child, especially the male child, to complete her emotional life. If the father is unavailable, says Bly, it may be the mother who “eats” the child, in a kind of “psychic incest”. At men’s conferences over the past forty years, countless men have related their sense that their mothers had needed them to be surrogate husbands, generally because of distant fathers.

The Third Generation

Kronos’ wife Rhea bore one last son in secret and hid him in a cave. Then she gave Kronos a stone covered in a blanket which he ate, thinking it was the child. Zeus grew to adulthood and eventually returned in disguise to serve as Kronos’s cupbearer. He poisoned his father’s wine, forcing him to vomit up the other siblings: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. The siblings then joined Zeus in a ten year revolt. Eventually they prevailed and banished Kronos and most of his allies to Tartarus, the underworld’s deepest region. There were some exceptions, including Oceanus, Themis and Mnemosyne (Memory), with whom Zeus would eventually couple and birth the nine Muses.

The new King of Heaven was Zeus. But violence had begotten violence into the third generation.

Read Part Four here.

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