Written by Deedy Young, July 2015
The layer of utter unconsciousness contains the key
to individual completeness and wholeness, in other words, healing.
– C.G. Jung, CW 18, par. 270
Late in the evening I stroll out on the elevated walkway that gives access to our cabin at Palmetto Island State Park. Towering trees surround the walkway and cabin situated on a low-lying bank beside Louisiana’s Vermilion River ten miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. I gaze up at the night sky and find stars twinkling in the trees’ high branches. Early next morning, a hawk circles, and then glides on a wind draft across the small space of blue sky unobscured by treetops. I feel an inner shift, the disparate pieces of my life aligning in these experiences that are at once exquisitely tender and utterly solid.
Having heard others relate similar anecdotes, I wonder, “Why are we moved on returning to nature?” In natural settings, we may feel we have come home. Yet, in these same settings we can encounter dangers like the relatively small menace of Palmetto Island’s buzzing, territorial carpenter bees and the far greater threat of poisonous snakebites the park’s resident copperheads and water moccasins pose. Faced with such dangers, we respond to nature in a way antithetical to “coming home.” We recoil or attack.
These opposing responses offer insight into how we relate to our own instinctual nature: We may be repelled by the dangers inherent in our instinctual reactions, yet attracted to our instinctual nature by an innate desire for wholeness. In “The Eumenides,” the playwright Aeschylus illustrates these responses in his portrayals of the Olympian deities Apollo and Athena (1977). Drawing on Greek mythology once more, he casts the ancient race of goddesses, the Furies, as symbols of the instinctual psyche, the undifferentiated wholeness in which we begin life as infants under the sway of the instincts. Made up of DNA-encoded patterns dedicated to the preservation of the individual and the species, the instinctual psyche is as much a part of nature as Palmetto Island’s bees, hawks, trees, and snakes.
Parents soon begin to socialize the young child to curb instinctual reactions like anger. As the child identifies with approved behaviors and emotions and represses those disapproved, the ego is born and shadow forms in the unconscious. Apollo well represents this initial development of ego consciousness. The animosity he expresses toward the Furies, “never rub your filth on the Prophet’s shrine,” reflects the ego’s common reaction to instinctual urges. This antagonism originates in the budding ego’s struggle to develop out of the instinctual psyche’s original wholeness, a daunting task given instinctual urges more powerful than the young ego threaten to engulf it. Animosity helps to level a playing field tilted decidedly in favor of these urges by bracing the nascent ego to set itself hard against the magnetic pull of the instincts.
Apollo’s numerous attempts to quell the Furies before he finally yields the stage to Athena suggest such a hard-won conscious development does not surrender its one-sided perspective readily. Like Apollo, the ego tends to loosen its grip only after repeatedly failing to shut down instinctual urges. Frustration of the one-sided ego by the instincts is often necessary if a more evolved consciousness is to be unearthed. In Athena, Aeschylus offers such an image.
Although initially taken aback by the Furies’ fierce appearance, Athena does not abide by Apollo’s reaction to repress. Instead, she initiates a dialogue with the Furies that will transform them both. The goddess portrays a form of consciousness beyond the simple repression of instinctual urges. By engaging in discourse without being overcome by the Furies’ vengeful rage, a consciousness like Athena’s allows ego and instinct to each have their say, to hear, to be heard and to influence the other. Through their collaboration, the ego “comes home” to a greater wholeness in relating to aspects of the psyche repressed in the service of conscious development, while instincts exiled by repression “come home” to their rightful place of honor in the psyche.
When instinct and consciousness join, a step is taken in the evolution of consciousness. Through dialogue and mutual effect, what was dark is more enlightened, and what was light carries more shadow. In the final scene of “The Eumenides,” Athena calls for a torch-lit procession into the night. Clad in red robes, the Furies are escorted by the play’s actors and the audience from the theater through the streets of Athens to their home. In this union of instincts and consciousness, the play becomes a ritual in which participants know through direct experience that “it is only in the voice of the flesh that the song of the spirit is finally sung” (Haas, 2003).