Hercules & Omphale: why men become enslaved to their anima

Hercules and OmphaleAnyone with a penchant for Greek mythology has undoubtedly encountered the bit about Hercules donning women’s clothing for a three-year period while in servitude to Omphale, daughter of the queen of Lydia.

The legend recounts how Hercules—yes Hercules, slayer of giants, decapitator of the Hydra, destroyer of the hounds of hell—became “voluptuous and effeminate” sporting a dress, gold necklaces, bracelets set with jewels, long-flowing hair, “spinning fine thread with his lean and muscular fingers, fearing the reproof of his mistress when he failed to finish the work set for the day.”

Huh?

When I first read this I tried to imagine a highly masculine culture like the ancient Greeks enduring the portrayal of their uber masculine hero in such a feminine light. For comparison, imagine the authors of the next Batman movie working in a scene where Batman takes a three-year hiatus from fighting crime to take up cross-dressing. Even our culture, growing in acceptance of gender fluidity and such, would roundly reject this version of the Caped Crusader.

For me the Hercules story is a great illustration of how the unconscious and conscious parts of the psyche interact. Carl Jung, in his “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” describes the relation of the “persona” and the “anima” in the male psyche. He explains how an over-indulgence in one’s persona (or social mask) will reap a strong reaction from one’s anima (or feminine self).

For those not familiar with Jung’s theory these designations can be confusing. Suffice it to say that Jung took liberty in assigning names to differing parts of the personality in order to make the exceedingly complicated workings of the psyche (conscious and unconscious) easier to follow. I have found these categories immensely helpful in my clinical practice in dispelling many would-be mysteries related to why we carry the sort of irrational thoughts and behaviors that we do. When one understands the inner conflict common to all people, one can begin to shed certain feelings of ‘going crazy’ or of living in self-contradiction.

Man is the only being capable of self-contradiction—this is his glory, not his shame.

Back to Hercules, this story illustrates what happens when a man over-indulges his masculine self. One must always keep in mind that a man is never all masculine, that a woman is never all feminine, but share in both qualities to greater or lesser degrees. Because of this when a man over-emphasizes his masculine self, his anima, like a jealous lover, will demand her day in the sun.

Jung describes this as the psyche’s natural propensity to establish equilibrium, that is, whenever we give one part of our psyche excessive attention, the neglected parts will strike back in dramatic fashion in an attempt to reestablish equilibrium.

If, say, due to social pressures, a man identifies exclusively with his persona he will inevitably fall victim to an unconscious wrestling match between this persona and his anima. This is precisely what seems to happen in the Hercules story.

Hercules, the quintessential standard of hyper-masculinity, falls victim to a complete psychic shift and spends three years in exclusive servitude to his feminine side. Hercules then “awoke from his infatuation… full of disgust,” tore off his “women’s gear” and returned immediately to his old self, “the strong son of Zeus, filled with heroic resolve.”

With complete lack of subtlety, the myth describes in exaggerated fashion how this unconscious inner conflict plays out in real life. A man unwilling to indulge his feminine side (for the sake of brevity, feminine here refers to his emotional side) will be made to indulge in it by unconscious forces with or without his consent. Hercules’ life-long commitment to retain his “strong son of Zeus” persona resulted in a period of psychic enslavement to its extreme opposite—he becomes the handmaid of a princess.

Hercules warded off his emotions by identifying with his masculine persona, a role which could not tolerate any show of weakness. Warded off emotions wind up as repressed emotions, and repressed emotions do not go away. They merely get deferred to the unconscious where they dwell unresolved and undeveloped.

The whole process of warding off emotions ultimately amounts to a man’s attempt to avoid contact with his whole self, and the human psyche will simply not tolerate this avoidance for long. If a man refuses to feel his true emotions then the unconscious will force the emotions to the surface in ways typically undesirable–such as, through depression or extreme irritability.

The trick to a healthy mental life is to willfully experience the totality of one’s self—the good and bad, the pleasurable and the painful, the sad and the joyful—in the present, while it happens. This requires one to remain mindful of oneself and to catch oneself in the very act of warding off. If a person is successful in this, he or she will keep vital emotions from becoming trapped in the unconscious where their only way of escape is through an emotional blitz.

We’ve all experienced this “emotional blitz” from time to time: we get triggered by something in the environment or by some aberrant thought which sets off an internal chain of reactions culminating in depression, panic attacks, overwhelming anxiety, a sense of loss-of-home, extreme vigilance, or any number of irrational responses to a given circumstance. But, again, when one is faithful to remain mindful of one’s true self, not escaping reality through distraction or some form of fictitious self-identity, then the unconscious has no need to compensate by creating neurotic coping mechanisms.

I know, easier said than done.

Thanks for reading.

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