The Real Life of the Hero

Posted August 14, 2017 7:40 am by Steve Roney

The Real Life of the Hero
Karna

Since Otto Rank has helpfully collected what is for us a random collection of hero legends, what can we learn from them? Other than the broad outlines of child abuse, do they tell us anything else about depression?

Let us see how well they match with Dymphna, Oedipus, and Hamlet: our previous examples of depression in literature.

The father is king, the child a prince or princess; or this is the story of a prominent family

As with Dymphna, Oedipus, and Hamlet, the hero/depressive is here almost always a prince or princess. Rank too notices this: “The hero is the child of most distinguished parents, usually the son of a king” (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, p. 65). As we have noted before, however, there could be various reasons for this that do not directly have to do with depression. People like to hear, for example, about the rich and famous. “King” might be a natural image of a selfish man; making the son a prince by default, without this reflecting on his own nature. It is traditional for a tragedy to be about the high born. Accordingly, we cannot be sure what to make of this.

The victim is beautiful, handsome, athletic, intelligent; he or she is exceptional.

This is burned in to the term “hero,” by dictionary definition. The male protagonists in these stories are legendary for their courage and strength; the heroines, Danae, Andromeda, and Auge, are legendary for their beauty.

Karna’s fate is made more painful because he is the eldest, strongest, and most accomplished of his siblings. Yet he is cast out and unacknowledged, while his three younger brothers are Pandava princes.

“Paris’s noble birth,” writes Robert Graves, “was soon disclosed by his outstanding behaviour, intelligence, and strength” (The Greek Myths, p. 364).

The disturbance rides the strongest horse in the stable.

The victim is selfless and driven by ethical considerations. 

We see, in most of these stories, a special concern on the part of the hero for righteousness, for the moral order: as the opening credits for Superman used to say, he fights for “truth, justice, and the American way.” This is also so for Hamlet, Dymphna, and Oedipus.

In heated battle, given the opportunity to kill his adversary Arjuna when the latter drops his bow, Karna refuses, just as would Hamlet. It would violate the rules of war. He is then killed by Arjuna, breaking the same rules of engagement, when his own weapon is set aside to pull his chariot wheel out of the mud. Rather like Hamlet, he has turned his back on his opponent, refusing to openly suspect him of dishonourable conduct.

Paris had a similar reputation for probity. He is chosen by the gods themselves to settle a dispute among Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena over which is most beautiful, because he has a reputation for being incorruptible.

When her master gives away Telephus’s abused mother Auge in marriage, she tries to kill her new husband rather than allow him to consummate the marriage, because she was still “faithful to the memory of Heracles” (Graves, op. cit., p. 318). Considering her relationship with Heracles was at best a one-night stand, at worst a rape, this is extreme loyalty. It is, in the abused child, more or less the opposite of the motif of illicit sexual pleasure in the parent. 

The Judgement of Paris
The case of Heracles, the best-known hero in all of Greek legend, seems more morally ambiguous. He is, as we have seen, guilty of the rape and abandonment of Auge, the mother of Telephus. That surely makes him a selfish parent who abandons his wife and child. He also kills his tutor Linos. This seems beyond the ordinary duties of a scholar. In a frenzy, he even kills his own wife and children. This fits with Alice Miller’s identification of the abused child with the abusive parent, and not our Dymphna complex. According to the Dymphna model, the abused child should grow up to have both a special concern for morality and a special care for their own children. Are these elements absent here?

Perhaps not. There are extenuating circumstances. As to abandoning Auge and Telephus, one tradition says that Heracles did not rape Auge, but that their union was by consent. There was no marriage because her father’s enmity made this impossible (Graves, p. 317). Did Romeo rape Juliet?

As to the killing of his children, this was in a psychotic fit sent by Hera, not by his own will: not guilty by reason of insanity. In the play Heracles, Euripides has the goddess Iris say to the goddess Madness:

“Hera is minded to brand him [Heracles] with the guilt of shedding kindred blood by slaying his own children, and I am one with her. Come then, maid unwed, child of murky Night, harden thy heart relentlessly, send forth frenzy upon him, confound his mind even to the slaying of his children, drive him, goad him wildly on his mad career, shake out the sails of death, that when he has sent o’er Acheron’s ferry that fair group of children by his own murderous hand, he may learn to know how fiercely against him the wrath of Hera burns and may also experience mine; otherwise, if he escape punishment, the gods will become as naught, while man’s power will grow.”

The goddess Madness responds:

“Through his roof will I burst my way and swoop upon his house, after first slaying his children; nor shall their murderer know that he is killing his own-begotten babes, till he is released from my madness. Behold him! see how even now he is wildly tossing his head at the outset, and rolling his eyes fiercely from side to side without word; nor can he control his panting breath; but like a bull in act to charge, he bellows fearfully, calling on the goddesses of nether hell.”

Clearly, according to tradition, this was something done by Hera to Heracles, not an act of Heracles’s own will. The very fact that he cared so much for his children made it more terrible.

The killing of his tutor could actually show the depths of his concern for justice. As in Hamlet, we must not be misled by the modern delusion that violence itself is unjust. Heroes are not pacifists, and pacifists are not heroes. Heroes will kill as well as die for what is right. Heracles killed Linos “incensed over an unjust chastisement” (Rank, op. cit., p. 50). If we accept this claim, Heracles’s commitment is not to Heracles, but to the distinction between right and wrong.

In the same vein, Heracles is said in the Argonautica to have made war on the Dryopes “because they gave no heed to justice in their lives.” (Richard Hunter, trans., Jason and the Golden Fleece, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, p 31).

It is said that Heracles never aggressed against anyone, but only resisted when provoked. “Heracles claimed never to have picked a quarrel, but always to have given aggressors the same treatment as they intended for him” (Graves, vol. 2, p. 93). The hero, paradigmatically, hoists the villain on his own petard. This is an image of perfect justice. Plutarch writes that Heracles:

“… always returned upon his assailants the same sort of violence that they offered to him; sacrificed Busiris, killed Antaeus in wrestling, and Cycnus in single combat, and Termerus by breaking his skull in pieces …, for it seems Termerus killed passengers that he met by running with his head against them. And so also Theseus proceeded in the punishment of evil men, who underwent the same violence from him which they had inflicted upon others, justly suffering after the manner of their own injustice” (Plutarch, Life of Theseus).

Moses displays the same heroic temperament: when he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, he cannot overlook the injustice. He kills the overseer in his rage, and then must flee for his life. He meets his wife Zipporah when he defends a group of shepherdesses whose flock was being unjustly driven away from a water source. 

The rescue of the exposed Paris
Heroes are like that. They cannot fly blissfully by a fair maid in distress. It is not in them to be the innocent bystander.

Karna too, shows this insistence on righteousness. He insults Queen Draupadi by saying that a woman with more than four husbands, like her, is nothing but a whore. Not a judicious thing to say to a queen. This predictably earns him the enmity of all five of her husbands, the Pandava brothers.

It is easy to see why this commitment to righteousness might awaken in an abused child. With all self-esteem taken from him by the parental rejection, without egotism on which to build a foundation for action, he or she must find something else as a motivating force for existing. The obvious alternative is the three transcendentals: the good, the true, the beautiful, as enumerated by Plato, Aristotle, and, quite independently, the Bhagavad Gita. These are the ultimate cosmic values. For any of these, he is prepared to sacrifice all. Perhaps especially for justice, as he has suffered from being treated unjustly himself.

Note that the beautiful is also one of these values. This may explain Paris’s abduction of Helen, or Heracles’s seduction of Auge, which look like selfish acts: the hero will sacrifice everything for beauty, as he will for truth or justice. Accordingly, he can be overwhelmed by great beauty.

This might explain, in turn, the “artistic temperament”: that is, the common observation that artists are often depressives or melancholic, and depressives often artists of some sort. The beauty of art becomes something to devote his or her life to. For truth, in the same way, he is liable to become a scholar or a philosopher. For good or justice, he is likely to become a saint or a lawgiver.

Burton writes, in his Anatomy of Melancholy:

“Aristotle … said melancholy men [are] of all others are most witty, which causeth many times a divine ravishment, and a kind of enthusiasmus, which stirreth them up to be excellent philosophers, poets, prophets, &c. … all learned men, famous philosophers, and lawgivers, ad unum fere omnes melancholici, have still been melancholy” (Membr. II Subsection III; Membr. III).

Aristotle’s 30th paradox begins: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics?”

The classic hero embraces, primarily, the quest for justice. The religious hero, like Moses or Krishna, embraces the good and true. The artistic hero, an Orpheus or a Michelangelo, embraces the beautiful.

But all are equally likely to be depressive.

The parent is selfish and self-centred. He or she treats others as objects.

This is the essential, primordial fact in a most of our legends. Damon is the ultimate cause of Dymphna’s suffering; Laius is revealed as the ultimate cause of Oedipus’s suffering; Claudius and Gertrude are the aggressors in Hamlet.

The Perseus legend may be the most complete analysis of heroic depression in all of Greek myth. As with Hamlet, it includes multiple examples. Apart from Perseus, his mother Danae is also an abused child; and so is his wife Andromeda.

Perseus, you may recall, encounters the exceptionally lovely Andromeda chained to a rock to be devoured by a sea serpent. She is a child sacrifice; or rather, as is more typical of the heroine, an adolescent sacrifice. We can mark her down as another example of the rejected child being cast on the waters, like Moses et al.

Why is she there? Because, according to legend, her mother Cassiopeia boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids. This demanded vengeance from the gods.

Her mother, then, is vain, narcissistic, and ready to sacrifice her child for her sins rather than take responsibility. Not a flattering portrait.

Perseus and Andromeda
In exchange for rescuing her, Perseus is promised Andromeda’s hand in marriage. He does so—and her mother Cassiopeia then tries to kill him to renege on the deal. Again, not obviously to her credit as a moral agent (Graves, p. 143). Self before service.

By contrast, Andromeda, the abused child, insists on the vow being honoured. This may simply be in accord with her own desires; but it also perhaps shows the typical depressive’s commitment to the good and true: a promise must be kept. Athene, at least, thinks so, and rewards Andromeda for this act of good faith by giving her an exalted position in the heavens (Graves, op. cit., p. 144).

Karna is sacrificed by his mother Kunti so that she could hope one day to become a queen. Perseus, Telephus, Gilgamesh, and Cyrus are all assailed by their grandfather. This can be seen to accentuate the motif of selfishness. It is simply necessary in the course of nature that, one day, a king will be supplanted by someone–if not a son, then a grandson. Yet these kings find the thought intolerable, and will destroy two generations and leave their kingdoms without an heir rather than accept it.

The child has no designs against the parent. Instead, despite all the evils the parent inflicts on the child, the child remains dutiful.

Despite the formulaic prophesy that the son or grandson would overthrow and kill the father or grandfather, the origin of the parent’s enmity in so many of these legends, this almost never actually happens in the stories, and never by the child’s choosing. It is the paranoid fantasy of an egomaniac: it is natural for a narcissist or egotist to be convinced that everyone, even their own son, is out to get them if they can—because that is what they would do if they were in that position.

But instead, when a child is schooled throughout childhood to believe that their parents’ welfare is all-important and they themselves are worth nothing, they are naturally inclined to take this to heart.

As we have seen, ACOA jokes that, when the child of the alcoholic dies, someone else’s entire life flashes before their eyes.

Hamlet, as well, has explained why it is absurd to imagine the child seeking to overthrow the parent. At least, he finds it absurd—it is inconceivable to him.

A parable of Karna seems meant to demonstrate this filial devotion; although it is about his relationship to his guru Parashurama, a surrogate parent. It has to be. His real father or mother are no longer in his life:

One day, Karna offers his lap so Parashurama, his guru, can rest his head and take a nap. While Parashurama is asleep, a bee stings Karna’s thigh. Despite the pain, despite even the bee boring a hole into his flesh, Karna will not move, so as to not disturb his guru.

When he conquers the Medes as king of the neighbouring Persians, Cyrus has his opportunity to get revenge on the grandfather who tried to kill him. However, the legend concludes, “Cyrus did not harm him, and kept him with him until his end” (Rank, p. 35). 

Danae and the shower of gold
The conclusion of the epic of Perseus seems intended to make the same point. After putting Dictys, the good fisherman, on the throne of Seriphos, Perseus sails with his mother for his homeland, Argos. Acrisius, the aged king, aware that he tried to murder both Perseus and Danae, flees in fear to Larissa.

This is his fatal error. Perseus had no intention to kill him. But in Larissa, he runs into his son competing in some athletic games, and an errant discus thrown by Perseus strikes his foot, killing him.

He was just in time for his appointment in Samarra. It was his fear of Perseus, and not Perseus, that killed him.

The child has a low opinion of himself. He unreasonably takes blame on himself (or herself).

This is, of course, the expected result of being abused by one’s parents; and it is perhaps the most classic and familiar aspect of what we call depression.

We indeed see, in Euripides’s depiction, a Heracles who suffers from what psychologists would call “low self-esteem.” Like Oedipus and Hamlet, he takes blame unjustly upon himself.

Although it is not his fault, he assumes responsibility for the death of his wife and children:

“Ah me! why do I spare my own life when I have taken that of my dear children? Shall I not hasten to leap from some sheer rock, or aim the sword against my heart and avenge my children’s blood, or burn my body in the fire and so avert from my life the infamy which now awaits me?”

To Theseus, he describes his life as one of unrelenting misfortune and sorrow. He speaks here as the classic depressive:

“… I will unfold to thee why life now as well as formerly has been unbearable to me. … Now when the foundation is badly laid at birth, needs must the race be cursed with woe; and Zeus, whoever this Zeus may be, begot me as a butt for Hera’s hate; …. Then whilst I was yet being suckled, that bride of Zeus did foist into my cradle fearsome snakes to compass my death…. Last, ah, woe is me have I perpetrated this bloody deed to crown the sorrows of my house with my children’s murder. To this sore strait am I come; no longer may I dwell in Thebes, the city that I love; for suppose I stay, to what temple or gathering of friends shall I repair? … Shall I to Argos? how can I, when I am an exile from my country? Well, is there a single other city I can fly to? … What right have I to live? what profit can I have in the possession of a useless, impious life?”

Theseus, more objective, points out that he is being too hard on himself:

“Have [even the gods] not intermarried in ways that law forbids? … Still they inhabit Olympus and brave the issue of their crimes. And yet what shall you say in your defense, if you, a child of man, take your fate excessively hard, while they, as gods, do not?”

Moses too has “low self-esteem.” When Yahweh God calls him, he responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3: 11). “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

Being stuttering or slow of speech is, Burton advises, a symptom of melancholy. “They stutter or falter in their speech,” he explains; although there is also a minority—we would call them manic—who are unusually fast in their speech (Membr. III).

Danae and Perseus

The child has some special connection with the spirit world. This gives him or her healing power for others.

Rank notices the infant hero is usually “surrendered to the water in a box.” The good doctor believes this attempted murder is a memory of birth: the box is the womb, and the waters are the amniotic fluid. “The exposure in the water signifies no more and no less than the symbolic expression of birth, the children come out of the water. The basket, box, or receptacle simply means the container, the womb; so that the exposure directly signifies the process of birth, although it is represented by its opposite” (Rank, op. cit., p. 73-4).

It seems intrinsically unlikely, however, that many of us have memories of being born. If we did, would it look like this from the infant’s perspective? To see the womb as a floating box seems to suppose some prior knowledge of a larger world outside the womb with which to compare it, and prior experience of some other medium than the amniotic sac. The observing doctor might imagine such an analogy: but the infant?

Moreover, exposing the child by casting him or her off of on water is not much more common than a second motif in the legends, of being left abandoned on a mountainside; and being nursed by wild animals. This second image cannot be easily understood as a birth image, surely; the womb is not much like a mountain.

Let us consider individual cases:

Sargon is cast on the river in a sealed basket. He is fished out and raised by “Akki, the drawer of water” (Rank, op. cit., p. 14).

Moses is famously left among the rushes. He is rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who then, unwittingly, gives him to his real mother to raise. According to Genesis, the Hebrews lived in Egypt as tenders of livestock (Genesis 47).

Karna is thrown into the river by his mother, and found and raised by Adhiratha, a royal charioteer.

Paris is exposed on Mount Ida, and nursed there by a she-bear. He is then rescued by Priam’s “chief herdsman” Agelaus (Graves, op. cit., p. 364).

Telephus is born and left to die on Mount Parthenion, while his mother is being taken to be drowned. He is found and suckled by a deer. There is a second version of the legend in which he and his mother are set adrift in the Aegean in a chest. He is found by “some cattlemen” (Graves, p. 317).

Oedipus is exposed with bound feet on Mount Cithaeron, but found there by a Corinthian shepherd.

Perseus is locked with his mother in a box and cast into the sea. “Dictys, a fisherman, usually called a brother of King Polydectes, saves mother and child by drawing them out of the sea with his nets” (Rank, p. 26).

Heracles is exposed by his mother, Alcmene, in a place known as the Field of Hercules. Then serpents are sent by Hera or his stepfather to kill him in his cradle. Later, he is banished by his foster father to live in the mountains with the herders, “among whom he is said by some to have been raised entirely” (Rank, p, 50).

Gilgamesh is thrown off the Acropolis by his grandfather’s minions, but caught by an eagle and transported to a secret garden (Aelian. Animal Stories).

Cyrus is given to a cattle-herder to be exposed “on the wildest mountains.” The cattle herder and his wife, who according to Rank is named “the bitch,” (Rank, p. 29) choose to raise him as their own instead.

Tristan is raised by a courtier, conventionally enough, but in his youth is kidnapped by Norwegian pirates.

Romulus and Remus are abandoned on the Palatine Hill, although the original plan had been to throw them in the Tiber. They are, of course, suckled by a wolf.

Siegfried is pushed into a river in a glass vessel. He runs aground at a cliff and is raised by a doe.

Danae and the golden shower.

That is six cases of being thrown into water; seven cases of being abandoned on a mountain; one of abduction by pirates; and one of being attacked by serpents.

It would seem that whatever is intended by the motif of being cast on the waves must be something symbolically expressed more or less equally well by being abandoned on the mountainside.

In fact, we have clear warrant from some of the legends to see the two motifs as interchangeable: the story of Telephus, and perhaps the story of Siegfried, offer both variants, and the story of Romulus and Remus has one substitute for the other.

The obvious core of both tropes, remote mountain and sealed chest, is separation from other men, isolation. You get that at sea (note the etymology of “isolation”), and you get that alone on a mountaintop (note the etymology of “wilderness”). Being rejected by your parents in your very being, at infancy, inevitably sets you apart, alienates you from “society,” from human relationships. No one is so hopelessly alone as the abused child. And the resulting sense of alienation is, of course, a common feature of depression.

To separate from the shared, social world is also to separate from the physical world; for the two are interlinked. It is the physical world which we share communally as “objective.” It is therefore the source and the subject of our common discourse.

What remains when you subtract the social-physical is the psychic or spiritual; the world, as we have seen, of emotions, of imagination, and of transcendents, cosmic values. Therefore there is a common association of wild nature, the image of solitude, with the spirit: see, for example, the Romantic writers.

The rejected child, in other words, is automatically by this rejection thrust into the world of the spirit. This explains why, as we have seen with Dymphna, Hamlet, and Oedipus, he or she develops a special connection to it. The spirit world is full of anthropomorphic animals, who might nurse a child; not to mention fairies, dwarves, dragons, sea serpents, and other such imaginary creatures. These are all beings of pure spirit, of pure imagination, without physical form.

Water can naturally represent the spiritual as the non-physical. Physical objects have form and position in space: water is formless and in constant flux. It is transparent and insubstantial to the touch. Among physical things, therefore, it works as a metaphor or objective correlative for the non-physical. So the retreat to the spiritual world is often shown as a water journey.

Air, of course, is the obvious alternative image of the immaterial—obvious enough that the Greek word pneuma means both “breath” and “soul”; as does the Latin spiritus. It is a better image than water, in being less detectable to the senses; but a worse one by the same token: for who has seen the wind? And so, in order to give sensible presence to the wind, as metaphor, it makes sense to speak instead of being on the mountaintop: up in the air, open to the winds.

Another equivalent image may be Danae’s fate, as abused child, of being locked in a bronze tower; more broadly, as with so many other heroines, of being denied marriage and family as a virgin priestess. This is another, more literal image of isolation from the rest of mankind. There, in Danae’s solitude, Zeus, a being of pure spirit, appears to her in a shower of gold, declaring “I can turn this dark prison into a wonderful, sunny and blooming land.” Which he does: again wild nature as a metaphor.

Rank points out that when the abandoned child is rescued from his exposure, it is usually by “lowly parents.” He sees this as an issue of social class, and suggests that the adoptive parents represent the real family, while royal ancestry is a fantasy; a delusion of grandeur.

But this is the opposite of what the myth or legend gives us to understand. In the legends, except in the case of Moses, the shepherds are the imagined parents, the royals the real ones. Rank is arbitrarily inverting values. Moreover, however unlikely it may be to have the king as your father, it can happen. Having animal parents—for the exposed infant hero is often rescued and nursed, for an interim, not by shepherds, but by wild animals–is obviously less likely.

So the shepherd parents, or animal parents, must represent something more than lower social class, and cannot be the real as opposed to the imaginary family.

Class here is after all not terribly consistent. Moses is rescued from an ordinary family by a princess, and the fisherman who finds Perseus is the brother of a king. Adhiratha’s position as royal charioteer is not a humble one, although his adopted son Karna is considered of lower caste because his parentage is not known.

Nor are all poor folk shepherds. There are settled farmers, and cobblers, and woodsmen, and penny ante merchants, and so forth. Yet here pastoralists, shepherds and cowherds, dominate.

The green world

To be more specific, the occupations we find are charioteer, shepherd, herdsman, fisherman, pirate, and smith. And “Akki, the drawer of water.” What do they all have in common? 

Might it not be a nomadic, wandering life? (In the ancient world, smiths, like these others, were itinerant; as were latter day tinkers. Genesis lists them among the descendants of Cain—Genesis 4:22). A life not of social lowliness so much as a life apart from the social world, like gypsies, or cowboys? With all the traditional Romantic associations conveyed by the terms “pastoral” or “bucolic” or “idyll.” The essence is the sense of being “away from it all”: from all attendant on social life.

The point might be a separation from society: not low class, but no class. As many an abused child might wish to run off with the circus.

One can understand the abused child as having been given no solid ground to stand on, no foundation—a loss of any sense of meaning to his life. His very existence is offensive—so his parents have raised him to believe, and every child idolizes his parents. A sense of pointlessness seems an obvious and inevitable consequence of the lack of parental affection. And such an experience of meaninglessness is surely at the core of depression: Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

Hence, an abused or rejected child, even when not literally left to die, is in a sense killed in infancy. He has no sense of self.

This separation from society might also be liberating: like Plato’s slave released from the cave of shadows. Apart from the world of men, he is in contact with the world of the eternal verities.

From this in turn may therefore come the hero’s ability to offer boons from the spiritual world, as we have seen with Dymphna or Oedipus. Moses forms the conduit between Yahweh and his Hebrew people. Karna took an oath that anyone who approached him with a request would not leave empty-handed; so that he is a suitable object of prayer petitions today. Heracles is elevated to godhood after death. Others, like Andromeda, are set in the starry heavens.

Ship of Fools


The adult child flees the parents: exile.

The exposure of the infant hero on a mountainside or in a sealed box is an image of exile. He or she is often raised by a step family or in a natural, wild world, as we have seen. But in the stories of Hamlet, Dymphna, and Oedipus, we have encountered something else: a deliberate exile, by the victim’s own design. Do we find this second form of exile here?

Moses exhibits this theme. He exiles himself to Midian after killing an Egyptian overseer, to escape his step-grandfather, the Pharaoh. “Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, ‘I have become a stranger in a strange land’” (Exodus 2:22).

Perseus, having inadvertently killed his grandfather, is too ashamed, according to legend, despite his grandfather’s attempts to kill both him and his mother, to accept the throne of his native Argos. He rules at Tiryns instead. Karna, although by birth a prince of the Kunti kingdom, becomes king of Anga instead through his friend Duryodhana.

As an adult, Telephus is told by the Delphic oracle to “Sail and seek King Teuthras the Mysian.” He goes to Myxi, and eventually becomes king there, far from his native Tegea (Graves, p. 317). To underline the significance of exile here, as solitude, Telephus also stops speaking at this point. “The silence of Telephus” was an ancient idiom. Thisd alerts us that the image of exile is an image, like the exposure during infancy, of solitude, of separation from the milieu of one’s birth.

Perseus is sent into exile by his adoptive father Polydectes to win Medusa’s head, with the intent to rid the latter of his presence as protector of Danae, his mother. This launches him on a career of knight errantry, as the wandering hero. The initial exile may not have been his own idea, but it is voluntary.

This adult exile and the exile in infancy bear similarities to what Northrop Frye has called “the Green World.” Frye’s thesis is that, in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, there is a typical action: the protagonist, facing some grievous problem, retreats into a natural setting. In this natural setting or “green world,” the problems are resolved, and he returns to his original home.

Collier: The Forest of Arden

He writes, in Anatomy of Criticism,

“Thus the action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world. The forest in this play is the embryonic form of the fairy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, Windsor Forest in The Merry Wives, and the pastoral world of the mythical sea-coasted Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale. In all these comedies there is the same rhythmic movement from normal world to green world and back again. In The Merchant of Venice the second world takes the form of Portia’s mysterious house in Belmont, with its magic caskets …”

But the “green world” is not simply, as the term might suggest, a place of nature. As Frye describes it, it can be reached as well by a sea voyage, as in The Tempest, or The Winter’s Tale. It can even be a house, as in The Merchant of Venice. But what most identifies it is some uncanny element. The magic caskets; or the forest oddly includes palm trees, fairies, and lions; or the anthropomorphized animals who suckle our hero figures.

Frye seems this as a ritual element, referring to Medieval spring fertility rites. But this evokes the same objections as the solar interpretation of myths generally: so what? Why would the turn of the year from winter to spring be so god-blessed important? Rather, surely, the image ofr spring rebirth is in ints own turn an objective correlative for something psychic.

And the “something psychic” is, we have seen, the world of the mind or psyche—apart from the social and physical; and in particular apart from the family circumstances into which the child victim was born.

Andrew Marvell nails it to the wall in his poem “The Garden”:

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.


Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Are we not perhaps seeing here a clear remedy for the sufferings of depression? In solitude and in the life of the mind?

This may also be the hint to be taken from one odd element of the story of Telephus. Telephus is wounded in the thigh by the spear of Achilles. The oracle of Apollo tells him that the wound can only be healed by the thing that caused it.

Robert Graves summarizes the story from here:

“So he [Telephus] visited Agamemnon at Mycenae, clad in rags like a suppliant, and on Clytaemnestra’s advice snatched the infant Orestes from his cradle. ‘I will kill your son,’ he cried, ‘unless you cure me!’ But Agamemnon, having been warned by an oracle that the Greeks could not take Troy without Telephus’s advice, gladly undertook to aid him, if he would guide the fleet to Troy. When Telephus agreed, Achilles, at Agamemnon’s request, scraped some rust off his spear into the wound and thus healed it; with the further help of the herb achilleos, a vulnerary which he had himself discovered.”

Why did Telephus go to Agamemnon? Agamemnon did not wound him.

Telephus wounded

Does this detail not tell us the wound of which the oracle speaks is not really the relatively minor matter of Telephus’s thigh. It is, rather, the deeper wound in Telephus’s soul, caused by child abuse. Accordingly, if it was caused by child abuse, the cure, by Apollo’s words, would be a further act of child abuse. So the threat to Agamemnon’s son.

The eventual solution is more symbolic—an herb that bears the same name as the assailant, Achilles. Or, put by the story in another way, the rust rather than the spear itself.

If child abuse is the spear, what is the rust? What is the old and peripheral part of the abuse?

Could the solution to the anguish of depression, then, originally caused by child abuse, be a retreat to solitude and the world of thought, almost in imitation of the enforced solitude originally caused by the rejection?

And so the solution to the problem symbolized by the exposure of the infant hero at birth, seems to be presented as the voluntary exile in adulthood into the Green World.

In other words, to be blunt, the practical cure for depression is solitude. A time away from it all in which one is free to commune with eternal verities. One ought indeed, as Hamlet indeed urges, to “get thee to a nunnery.” He is not insulting or rejecting Ophelia; he is giving her good and caring advice.

Ironically, tragically, this is the last thing the common psychiatric treatment for depression will allow. God forbid that the depressive should retreat into solitude to think things through! He or she must at all times remain in the social whirl. Being alone is almost considered the disease itself…

As a result, “professional help” may be the worst thing possible for a true depressive. It is a way to prolong the torture indefinitely.

Worse, if this is true, it is a way to hogtie precisely those among us who have the most to offer to their fellow man: the natural artists, the natural philosophers, the natural heroes, the saints and lawgivers.

And most of it is done, of course, at government expense.

We may want to rethink this.

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