Barry’s Blog # 391: The Family Curse, Part Four of Nine

Perhaps the greatest stories are those which disturb us, which shake us from our complacency, which threaten our well-being. It is better to enter into the danger of such a story than to keep safely away in a space where the imagination lies dormant. – N. Scott Momaday

The Fourth Generation

Zeus and his brothers divided the universe into their respective domains of Earth, Ocean and Underworld. Then Zeus married his sister Hera and began to populate the world with their children and, soon enough, with children from liaisons with other goddesses and eventually with human women. The first thing we need to know about the relationship between Zeus and Hera is that there are few examples of good marriages in the deeply patriarchal world of Greek myth, which is filled with stories of his affairs and her wrathful responses.

Zeus and Hera

How does the energy move through the system? How are unresolved, painful issues dealt with, or ignored, and how does this marriage serve as a model for modern relationships? Why was Zeus so unfaithful, why was Hera so jealous, and how did their children turn out? Christine Downing writes:

For Hera, the relation to husband takes precedence over all other relationships …whatever she may have been earlier, Hera was not the Great Mother but rather the spouse…she is not mother as mother but mother as wife. The pervasive influence of this aspect of the mother on our entire lives is a central theme in Sigmund Freud’s psychological vision. This is the mother whom we discover as already somebody’s wife, the mother of the Oedipus triangle whose exclusive love we covet but will never receive.

Are these mere abstractions? Let’s take a brief detour into our American condition, as I write in Chapter Nine of my book:

After World War Two, when young couples left the inner cities for the suburbs, they also left their networks of extended families. With husbands away at the office, countless isolated, suburban mothers had only their children to share their emotional lives. Baby Boomers matured in possibly the most extreme Oedipal conditions in history, expecting all emotional needs to be met from the scarce resources of one person. Such unrealistic demands led to massive disillusionment, and soon the Boomers experienced the highest divorce rates in history.

In a few years, men were continuing to earn appropriate incomes, while millions of women and their children were falling into poverty. By 1978, sociologists were speaking about the “feminization of poverty.” Three years later, only 25% of American women who’d been awarded child support were receiving anything from the fathers of their children.

Men who avoided marriage had been considered “deviant” in the fifties; now, it was normal to enact Ouranos’ flight from commitment. By 1990 a third of all children (60% of black children) lived apart from their fathers, and 50% of children of divorced families saw their fathers once or twice per year, or not at all. Half of all American children spend part of their childhood with one parent. Two generations later, we have hardly begun to assess the consequences.

For centuries Zeus and Hera have embodied the tensions that undermine the stability of the family. Since she expected a more total commitment than he could give, she experienced him as betraying her. But much of what happened was contaminated by their prior histories. Both entered the marriage as persons already involved in a complex interpersonal system. Clearly, both hated their father.

Perhaps Zeus was constantly searching beyond the primary relationship because he couldn’t handle the strong feelings at home, while Hera so deeply undervalued herself that her self-image was wrapped up in her connection to him. Downing continues:

Since Zeus began as his mother’s pawn in her struggle against her husband, he not surprisingly inherits his father’s anxiety that he, too, might someday be overthrown…Zeus may have been contaminated by a childhood spent too exclusively in the female realm, with his mother and grandmother and their nymphs, and thus have grown up with the typical mother’s son’s anxieties about his ability to ever fulfill her expectations or to be more than her phallus, the instrument of her power. Similarly, Hera may have spent too much of her early life swallowed up by her father. Losing her mother too soon may have provoked…what Jung calls a negative mother complex, an overidentification with her own masculine, aggressive side…Hera grows up expecting from men the nurturing and confirmation for which many women turn to other females.

We will meet this negative mother complex again. The psychological literature on Zeus’ children is vast, and we can’t spend the time here we’d like to. Still, we should understand a few things about the relationships between the Olympians. In what direction does the energy move?

Zeus’ cousin Metis (wisdom) had helped him by providing the emetic which forced Kronos to vomit forth his children, and she had been his first lover. Soon, however, he heard that she would bear a son who would eventually overthrow his father. To prevent this, Zeus tricked her into turning herself into a fly and then swallowed her, as his father before him had done to him. Eventually, Athena was born from Zeus’ forehead, implying (said the poets) that she’d inherited her wisdom from him instead of from her mother.

Apollo, Artemis, Hermes and Dionysus (as well as Herakles, Theseus and many other heroes) issued from Zeus’ affairs, and some of their mothers suffered Hera’s wrath.  Zeus and Hera, or some say, Hera alone, produced Ares and Hephaestus. Some say Aphrodite emerged from Kronos’ severed testicles, while others say she was Zeus’ daughter by yet another liaison.

Zeus was the first patriarch to have any positive relationship with his children, but he was very selective in his affection. He favored Athena and Apollo, and to a lesser extent, Hermes,  because they shared his values and did his bidding. He loved Aphrodite, Artemis and Dionysus, but their realms were somewhat tangential to the work of running the universe. Both Zeus and Hera tended to ignore Hephaestus because he was ugly, and Zeus utterly despised Ares, the War God.

In the Family System, Ares would be the “I. P.”, the “identified patient” who acts out the family’s unspoken rage so that no one else will need to acknowledge it. He may be the violent one, or the alcoholic. In 12-step language, he points to the “elephant in the living room”. To Jungians, he carries the family’s shadow, as opposed to Athena, who brought wisdom and persuasion to situations of conflict. Apollo and Dionysus were half-brothers whose realms complemented each other. But Ares and Hephaestus, who sometimes attempted to be a peacemaker, were wounded children of wounded parents, says Downing:

…when Hera discovers that Zeus will not or cannot complete her, cannot be her animus, she looks to her male children to fulfill that role. Hera’s and Zeus’ relation to their children reflects the power struggle continually going on between them…Children born to such a marriage grow up resentful at not receiving the unstinted love from either parent for which they long; they are pulled into fighting for one side or another or into believing it is up to them to establish a reconciliation.

Much later, perhaps mirroring this condition, the gods would favor opposing sides during the Trojan War and even fight each other.

Which way does the energy move? What unresolved conflicts lie below the surface? Zeus condemned his father and uncles to Tartarus, but they remained a threat to emerge someday and challenge him once again. And although his affair with Metis produced only a daughter (Athena), the prophesy remained that he would one day have to fight a son for control of Olympus. Roberto Calasso suggested that this son was Apollo:

Over the never-ending Olympian banquet, a father and son are watching each other, while between them, invisible to all but themselves, sparkles the serrated sickle Kronos used to slice off the testicles of his father, Uranus.

Or perhaps the threat was from an unborn son. What is “unborn”? Isn’t it the truth which we have not allowed into consciousness? The real danger, according to Alice Miller, isn’t a physical threat to the father, but the possibility that one of the children might express or evoke authentic emotion. Shaming the child into repressing his feelings allows the parents to keep from examining their own pain.

(What) all these expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings…So long as one despises the other person and undervalues one’s own achievements…one does not have to mourn the fact that love is not forthcoming without achievement. Nevertheless, avoiding this mourning means that one remains at bottom the one who is despised…

The Gods (unlike the Hebrew Jehovah) did experience grief. Apollo lamented the loss of his son Phaethon. Various love affairs went badly for both him and Hephaestus. Aphrodite lost Adonis. It seems that they experienced normal feelings of loss. But only Dionysus and Demeter went down into grief. Edith Hamilton remarks that it was no accident that they are both associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries:

Demeter mourning

The other immortals were untouched by lasting grief. Though Demeter and Dionysus were the happy gods of the harvest, during the winter it was clear that they were altogether different. They sorrowed and the earth was sad…Demeter, goddess of the harvest wealth, was still more the divine sorrowing mother who saw her daughter die each year… Persephone was never again the gay young creature who had played in the flowery meadow…She did indeed rise from the dead each spring, but she brought with her the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright beauty there was something strange and awesome about her. She was often said to be “the maiden whose name may not be spoken”…Like Persephone, Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in others by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again…He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god.

By carrying the roles of those who must descend, Dionysus and Persephone offer the potential for those who have spent their lives in the overly-clear light of Apollo and Athena to achieve balance. And Hermes will be present as conductor between the realms. But in this human family, almost no one took the opportunity.

Read Part Five here.

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