Barry’s Blog # 79: Male Initiation and the Mother in Greek Myth (Part One)

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Part One

The problems of our modern condition threaten to overwhelm us: meaningless work; broken communities; environmental degradation; rampant consumerism; religious literalism; the collapse of democracy and constant warfare, both abroad and in our streets. Despite being overloaded by media images and distractions, we have a diminished imagination of the possible, because we live in what Joseph Campbell called a “demythologized world.” The myths and rituals that once held us together have long faded away or proven insufficient for our needs, and new ones have not yet been born. It is a deeply paradoxical situation. While the old stories no longer connect soul, community and cosmos, they still have profound influence on us; we embody and enact them without being aware of them.

Social critics have offered many reasons for our alienation. But if we take the perspective of indigenous people, whose myths and rituals still provide them with meaning, we simply don’t know who we are. So we are led by men who don’t know who they are. This is the essence of patriarchy: not the rule of men, but the rule of wounded, uninitiated men. I suggest that most of our modern problems stem from this fact.

Uninitiated men start wars and send uninitiated boys to kill each other – and women and children. Ninety percent of the victims of modern war are women and children. How odd that most of us accept these conditions as natural. In 1982, environmentalist Paul Shepard soberly assessed the “normal neurotic:”

We may now be the possessors of the world’s flimsiest identity structure… where history, masquerading as myth, authorizes men…to alter the world to match their regressive moods of omnipotence and insecurity.

Another reason we don’t know who we are is because we are still, in effect, ruled by the father-gods of the sky. Ancient mythic images still provide the models for men who abandon their sons and provide no opportunity for real initiation. In the Greek tradition Ouranos pushed his children back into Mother Earth and left them to come of age without a father. His son Chronos – Father Time – survived, only to eat his own children. His son Zeus, uninvolved with most of his children, resembled his grandfather.

The Hebrew Jehovah, on the other hand, demanded that Abraham prove his loyalty by sacrificing his own son. Later, this god sacrificed his own son Jesus, who asked from the cross why his father was forsaking him. Indeed, Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, which at the time was already nearly a thousand years old.

All four father-gods condemned their children to conformism, competition, meaningless sacrifice and alienation from their own bodies. Now spirit dominates matter, men subjugate women, and culture exploits nature.

But the father-gods and their human representatives rule in the temples, the courts, the offices and the war-chambers. They have no time for domestic issues; they leave such things to women. The men of 5th-century B.C.E. Athens, absent from the household like Ouranos, enforced a deeply misogynistic social system that resulted in deprived and embittered mothers. But such women ruled the home, and their resentment often produced narcissistic sons who grew up to be misogynists. Greek poets created stories of the “bad mother” – malevolent, persecuting figures whose ambivalent or intermittent love cast spells over the lives of their sons.

The archetypal bad mother is Hera, whose hostility toward her patriarch husband Zeus is displaced onto the many heroes he sires with other goddesses and mortal women. The name of the hero Heracles translates as “The Glory of Hera.” Philip Slater used the phrase for the title of his 1968 study of Greek myth and the family because it captured “the bitter irony of the (ancient) Greek mother-son relationship, inasmuch as Hera was also the hero’s chief prosecutor.”

Slater pointed out similarities to patterns in the American family. But unlike the Greeks, American children of the 1960s were growing up in the suburbs, in nuclear families, disconnected from extended kinship or community – like no previous generation. “Probably at no time in history,” he wrote, “ have children been so exclusively dependent upon their parents (as opposed to other adults in the community) for the satisfaction of emotional needs.” Such overcharged households produced boys who were “highly oedipal…oriented toward an unobtainable goal…trapped in fantasy, alienated from experience…competitive, dissatisfied, grandiose.”

This was bad enough; but the situation quickly deteriorated further. American fathers were abandoning a generation of sons either to the fires of Vietnam, or – like the Greeks – to households run by women, leaving them without adequate masculine role modeling. Soon, and through no fault of their own, millions of American mothers found themselves in the unnatural position of guiding boys into adulthood practically by themselves. James Hillman writes:

 …we live in an age of Moms, for the culture is secular and the ordinary mortal must carry archetypal loads without help from the gods. The mothers must support our survival without support themselves, having to become like Goddesses, everything too much, and they sacrifice us to their frustration as we in turn, becoming mothers and fathers, sacrifice our children to the same civilization.

If these conditions prevailed in the sixties, then how much truer they are now, after two more generations of absent fathers. But let us look more closely at the historical context.

Fathers – as Greek myth shows us – have been abandoning their children for millennia. But the economic and technological changes connected with the rise of capitalism greatly accelerated both the rate of separation and the human tragedies that resulted. The seeds of such changes fell first on America’s fertile ground, with its legacy of radical individualism. In the late 1980s Robert Bly, in his classic Iron John, argued that the Civil War generation was the first to experience major separation between fathers and sons when men left the farms to work in the factories and later the offices.

Long before women revolted in the 1970s, American men had been escaping from the constrictions and confinements of the nuclear family and its traditional roles, first by economic necessity and then by choice. In the 1950s a new magazine attained spectacular success with a very revealing name – Playboy – and it opened the floodgates of post-war entitlement. Suddenly, it seemed, thousands of men, then hundreds of thousands, for the first time in history, no longer felt bound by unwavering moral law to adequately support women and their children.

Soon women also initiated significant changes in marital patterns, doubling the divorce rate between 1965 and 1975. Men, however, continued to earn appropriate incomes, while millions of women and their children were cast into poverty. In 1978, sociologists recognized the “feminization of poverty.” By 1981, only twenty five percent of women awarded child support by the courts received anything from the fathers of their children.

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