Love - stronger than death
and harder than hell -
In the fairy tale Rapunzel, the prince climbs Rapunzelís locks to gain access to her in the tower and, eventually, to marry her. When the sorceress discovered this, she cut off Rapunzelís locks and took her to a desolate land. The prince climbs the shorn locks, to encounter the sorceress. He jumps off the tower and the sorceressí curse comes to pass. He is blindedby thorns, never to see his wife again. He wanders into the desolate land and finds Rapunzel and twins, a boy and a girl, to whom she had given birth. Her tears of grief restore his vision. Editor.
In fairytales, behavior and events are timeless. It is impossible to know how long Rapunzel remained alone in the desert, nor is it possible to know how long the prince wandered blindly. What we do know is that by the time Rapunzel and the prince found each other, the prince had lost all hope.
We can only imagine how it was for Rapunzel after being cast out of the tower, carrying the prince's child. The desert in mythology, sometimes referred to as "the wilderness," is not a place of fertility, nor is it conducive to giving birth. Few climates could pose more challenges for a pregnant woman. The desert is a hostile environment where survival is an incessantly grueling dilemma. Biblical prophets and ascetics often went to the desert in fasting and prayer--a situation lending itself much more to blazing revelatory visions than the dreamy, cozy comfort of pre-natal existence. The desert is, symbolically speaking, a much more masculine than feminine environment.
Hence the story reminds us again that the feminine gives birth not only as a result of penentration by the masculine, but in close proximity to it. Separated from the shady forest, Rapunzel dwells in the domain of masculine, solar energy and not only survives, but gives birth. Apparently her throat does not become so dry that she cannot sing-- indicating that she still has her own voice, and it still has the power in it to draw the prince to her. As a child, Rapunzel grew strong and graceful, and now as a pregnant woman in the desert, she continues to develop. The feminine principle endures.
In the barren, arid, steaming wilderness, we imagine the primal, instinctual, animal aspect of Rapunzel guiding her to water, shade and the hidden treasures of lush nutrients that deserts hold if one knows where to look for them. Unlike the state of incarceration in the tower, the desert forces Rapunzel to explore, for her life and the life of her child depend on it. In other words, she had to learn the masculine mode of functioning in the world. She had to learn about doing as well as being.
The story implies that Rapunzel is not a long distance from the forest because the prince "coming out of the forest into a barren land," began to hear her song. Perhaps there was even the opportunity to return to the shelter of the forest, yet she remained in the desert. Could Rapunzel have actually chosen to stay in the wilderness? Could she have come to believe that her inner world was even more important than her external world? Could it be that because Rapunzel was transformed by the desert, she cherished the very place that had pushed her to the limits of her strength and endurance?
The feminine principle needs the desert places in order to develop balanced integration with the masculine. Total immersion in feminine energy may feel safe and comforting, but without the balancing influence of the masculine, the shadow feminine, within an individual woman and in the external world, will manifest as the helpless Princess/Victim or the beseiging hag. The "wilderness" for a woman might take the form of a serious illness, a divorce, the loss of a child, flailing about in the throes of an addictive process, menopause, aging, even physical death.
The desert places offer an opportunity for initiation which in all cases involves at the very least, a symbolic death.
In her poignant and personal book, The Alchemy Of Illness Kat Duff describes illness as an initiation rite in which "one is chopped or torn to pieces by monstrous spirits who then strip the flesh from the bones." She emphasizes that illness serves to compensate for one-sidedness and offers the possibility of re-establishing equilibrium. Thus if there is an imbalance of feminine or masculine energy in any situation, the psyche quite naturally moves toward homeostatic realignment. For Rapunzel in the desert, and for the prince wandering blindly, initiation was taking place. And says Duff, "In the long dark night that is the fulcrum of any true experience of initiation, one cannot be assured of return; one must be still, and wait without hope."
Rapunzel and the prince both had to die. In mythology killing or death is a signal that some kind of integration is occurring. For Rapunzel, compliance and naivete had to be killed. Obedience to and dependence on the negative mother needed to die. Illusions about her ability to survive the blistering desert and keep her unborn child alive were destroyed. Gone were the days of placid dissociations fed by the boredom of sitting comfortably at the window of the the hag's tower. Eventually in the desert Rapunzel must surely have realized how little she had settled for. Like the prince, Rapunzel's vision was in need of transformation. She had seen such a small part of the world, and in the tower, remained essentially disembodied. Initiations always bring us "down to earth" which in mythology symbolizes becoming more present in the physical body. Frequently modern women, like the mythological Persephone, are grabbed by the ankle, symbolically speaking, and abducted to the underworld through illness, eating disorders, chemical dependency, hot flashes, insomnia or whatever piercing screams the body must discharge in order to compel a woman to finally take up residence in her physical being.
In a culture which ostensibly values political correctness, men and women frequently engage in competition for the "worst" victim status. A polarizing patriarchy seduces us into comparing our wounds. Therefore, in making sense of the Rapunzel story, it may be tempting to wonder whether it is worse to be a pregnant woman alone in the desert with absolutely no survival skills, or to be a blind prince, wandering alone in the dark for a period of years. The answer is: Both predicaments are equally horrible.
The prince in the Rapunzel story is reminiscent of Parsifal in the Grail Legend. In his youth, Parsifal blunders into the Grail Castle, ill-prepared to ask the question which would have healed the fisher king. As Robert Johnson reminds us, Parsifal could do this because he had not yet shed the homespun garment of his mother complex. Like the prince in the Rapunzel fairytale, Parsifal wandered about for twenty years before he asked the right question. The moment that Parsifal asked the right question, the fisher king was healed.
Like the prince wandering blindly and like Parsifal, twentieth-century men are confronted with the fisher king wound in midlife. Robert Johnson refers to this wound as "the mislocation of the meaning of life." He also describes the fisher king wound as a man's disconnection from his feeling function. In order to ask the right question, Johnson says, a man must differentiate between his personal mother, his mother complex, the mother archetype, his anima, his female companion (spouse or lover) and the feminine aspect of the divine which Jung called The Wise Old Woman.
Making these distinctions is an enormous task, even if one has 20/20 vision. But when a man is blind, as was the prince, when a man has been catapaulted out of his favorite heroic tower by the terrifying rage of some treacherous hag, when he has fallen to earth and lost his vision, how can he sort out these six aspects of the feminine? Like Parsifal, says Johnson, he must necessarily wander. We should not take this word for granted. It is enormously significant. Wandering is the antithesis of what patriarchy teaches men, or women for that matter, about being a competent, responsible adult. Wandering is essentially a feminine activity, diametrically opposed to the shadow masculine values of power and control. Only by losing patriarchal vision, only by wandering in the dark without it, can anyone, male or female, reclaim the feminine within and without. What is more, a necessary aspect of wandering is a willingness to follow, rather than try to fix, one's wounds.
Whether it be Persephone casually and unconsciously picking flowers in a garden from which she is snatched into the underworld by Pluto, whether it be the prince in the Rapunzel story or the tragedy of O.J. Simpson, initiation happens whether we are open to it or not. As a Latin proverb goes, "He who goes willingly the fates will lead; he who does not go willingly, the fates will drag." The door to the initiatory process is opened only through defeat.
Since twentieth-century women, aspiring toward gender equity, have been forced to adopt patriarchal methods to win their freedom, the defeat of an animus-possessed woman and the defeat of a man can look very similar, especially in midlife. This "coming down to earth" and following the wounds, this ability to endure the merciless heat of a sizzling desert when one is "with child," is the path of initiation which enables one to reclaim the inner masculine and feminine selves. The prince in a woman, as well as a man, must lose its former vision and wander in the void of not knowing so that it can truly cherish the feminine principle. The Rapunzel in a man, as well as a woman, must endure the scorching heat of the alchemical fires of initiation where something is trying to be born--where gold is trying to emerge from baser metals.
In the external world, it is also the initiatory process which allows women and men to unpretentiously join with each other to co-create new inner and outer worlds. The feminine is always found in the dark, and the feminine principle is the principle of relatedness. Without encountering the hag, without going into the dark, without the transformation of a maiden into a wise woman, without conscious suffering, men and women cannot join as allies in the struggle for survival in which the species and the planet is engaged at this eleventh hour of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, not only are the majority of men in our culture unwilling to come to terms with the feminine shadow in themselves and in the world, but so are many women. In the evolution of any movement for human dignity and against oppression, there comes a time for introspection and taking an honest look at how the oppressed have internalized the values and methods of the oppressor. Some feminists, including Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem and Catherine MacKinnon claim to support women owning the ways in which they have internalized patriarchy, yet they remain entrenched in what another feminist, Naomi Wolf, calls "victim feminism." Victim feminism holds that patriarchy is the same as "male hegemony" or a "sex/gender system" in which men work to keep women cowering in submission. Some feminists claim that men ultimately seek to turn all women into "Stepford Wives" or as Margaret Atwood suggests in The Handmaid's Tale, the hidden agenda of the male hegemony is to transform women into female servants or personal attendants for the entire male gender.
As is often the case with liberation movements, revolutions in attitudes and behavior burst forth in spite of centuries of suppression, crying out to be embraced and understood by an archaic, stultifying hierarchy of power and control. In the early days of the women's movement in America, it was essential to target male domination and sexism in all of the institutions of the culture, as well as in the attitudes and beliefs of both genders. However, if the principles of equality and women's empowerment are not grounded in soul, in the feminine principle, and if the feminine shadow is not owned in the culture and in an individual woman, inevitably and invariably, the quest for expression of positive feminine values becomes yet another arena for the unholy marriage of the shadow feminine and the destructive animus.
Shadow feminism, as I prefer to name it, now exudes a plethora of qualities which bear a frightening resemblance to the negative masculine principle. One hears a righteous arrogance regarding the female gender. Female values and methods are perceived as "superior," while the male mode of feeling and expression are derided as "inferior." Understandably, when one has been deeply wounded by aggressive, invasive masculine energy or the absence of a positive masculine presence in one's childhood, and when one grows up in a culture where the positive masculine is disowned as much as the feminine principle, it is difficult to open oneself to the possibility that constructive, worthwhile masculinity even exists. However, outside of the fertile garden of symbolic imagination, apart from soul, the quest for equity subtly and seductively deteriorates into an arid, austere polarization that harms women as well as men.
One of the most popular themes in current gender-polarizing feminism is that of transformationism. This is essentially a belief in the superiority of women's ways of knowing. Christina Hoff Sommers, philosophy professor at Clark University, Boston, writes in her book, Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women, that this belief allows women to segregate themselves in their own culture and increases divisiveness along gender lines. What is more, Sommers points out, this doctrine ironically allows insecure men to patronize women once more, denouncing them as the irrational sex that thinks with its heart and not its head.
When the shadow of anything is at work, we can be certain that soul will be betrayed by skewed definitions and profaned themes. The very word transformation is a case in point. The process of transformation has to do with the changing of the essential nature of someone or something--the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis that necessarily involves death, decomposition and rebirth and that reverberates throughout body, mind and spirit. The negative masculine's forte is its ability to usurp some aspect of the feminine, such as transformation , gut its internal organs and strip bare its complex accouterments, setting it down coldly, firmly and rigidly in cerebral academic parlance in the name of "women's ways of knowing." Furthermore, the negative masculine cannot allow that both women and men have different and unique ways of knowing. It cannot tolerate the possibility that both kinds of knowing can exist side by side, complement each other and offer balance when a surplus of one or the other develops. No, the negative masculine must be superior, and usually with a great deal of righteous arrogance.
Yet another aspect of shadow feminism is its lack of soul. The absence of humor, wit and beauty is palpable in its heady denouncements of the "sex/gender system." In fact, gender-polarizing feminism attacks many forms of art and advocates in the words of Catherine MacKinnon, an ability to "see through art and create the uncompromised women's visual vocabulary." Unable to distinguish any differences between misogyny and lightheartedness, the new feminism leaves one cold with its barren lack of humor and its incessant suspicion that every joke, every nude painting or sculpture of the female body is a subtle form of sexism worming its way into our patriarchally-programmed consciousness. In the name of honoring the feminine, the negative masculine has turned many of these women into what Christina Sommers calls "gender wardens," policing, patrolling and surveilling the culture for any and all manifestations of misogyny.
In the middle of writing this, I happened to tune in to a local television news broadcast in which the lead story featured a ghastly report of a young mother who two weeks prior had intentionally dropped her fourteen month-old male infant into a pan of scalding water. The child suffered severe burns for which he received no treatment and then died. Several months before this incident occurred, a woman in the San Francisco Bay area grabbed her toddler foster son in a fit of rage, shoved a garden hose down his throat to punish him for crying, and when his crying did not cease, she then tore off his pants, forced the garden hose into his anus and severely lacerated his colon. The toddler died within two days.
When I hear stories of women abusing children, I am not only horrified on behalf of innocent, helpless children who are victims of such atrocities, but I am also deeply shaken by the capacity among all human beings for committing evil, heinous acts of violence. In the early days of my involvement with feminist politics, I usually filtered stories of child abuse by females through my feminist analysis. Of course, I deduced, women are burdened with almost total responsibility for childcare, and when the burden becomes too heavy, they snap. After all, women are an oppressed class--a victimized minority. Were it not for the oppression women have received from men, according to my worldview at that time, they would never commit violent acts.
Today as I approach the age of fifty, reflecting back on my own childhood in which I was abused on many levels by females and witnessing the culture around me which is now the most violent society in the history of the human race, as I am doing my own "shadow work" and recognizing my own capacity for violence and aggression, I have come to the painful and humbling awareness that women do not behave violently merely because they have been oppressed by men. The hag lurks in the shadows of every woman's inner world, and if a woman does not pay sufficient attention to her, and if a woman lacks sufficient ego strength and psychic defense structures, the hag will inevitably erupt. A woman will almost never grab an ouzi and walk into a public place spraying people she doesn't even know with bullets. Typically, the hag overwhelms a woman in the secluded drudgery of her home where children scream and fuss, always wanting something, triggering an avalanche of terror and rage in defense against being devoured by their needs. Or perhaps the hag is being projected onto a woman by her emotionally and physically violent husband or boyfriend. Unaware of her own hag, groomed from an abusive childhood to unconsciously gravitate toward and remain in abusive relationships, and caught in the web of her partner's devouring anima, she sees no other options than to kill or be killed.
Even more frightening is the reality that women, as well as men, are becoming more violent. In the California county in which I reside, between l992 and 1993, a fifty-percent increase occurred in arrests of female spouses for battering male partners. Arrests for males battering females increased by only eighteen percent. An increase in female violence seems to be occurring in a number of areas of the nation. The CBS television news program Sixty Minutes recently featured a story about Paxton Quigley, author of Armed And Female, a woman who a decade ago crusaded ardently for gun control. Today, Ms. Quigley is teaching women how to arm themselves and develop impeccable marksmanship skills. Sarah Brady, co-author of the Brady Bill challenges Quigley's position that having a gun makes a woman safer. A woman may feel safer with a gun, says Brady, but she isn't.
I cannot help but imagine that standing on the edge of a firing range full of women clad with noise protectors and plastic goggles blasting bullets into the center of a target is the hag, holding her sides with laughter. Women, as well as men, are now doing her dirtywork, and once again, no one sees the hag, who wants to be seen, yet does not want to be seen, at the core of the volcano of violence spewing across the nation.
While victim feminism remains unwilling to look at the feminine shadow, one would hope that the feminine spirituality or goddess-based aspects of female culture would open itself to the full range of energies imbedded in the archetypal feminine. For the most part, this has not been the case. Female mythopoetic writers such as Jean Shinoda Bolen, Vicki Noble and Demetra George explore the mysteries of the dark feminine, yet there seems to be a consensus among them that, in Demetra George's words, "...the malefic nature of the Dark Goddess, as she is embodied in our psyches as personal demons contained within the feminine shadow, is not by nature inherently evil...The negativity and evil associated with the dark feminine is not her true essence; it has only become distorted in this way through our personal cultural repression."
In a world where aggression, violence, betrayal and exploitation are epidemic among both genders, we need to stop kidding ourselves: In both the feminine shadow and the masculine shadow resides the potential to do unfathomable harm to ourselves, other human beings and the earth. There are evil aspects to the dark goddess. Ginette Paris, university professor and author of Pagan Meditations and The Sacrament Of Abortion writes of the goddess, Artemis, who had a reputation for making bloody sacrifices.
Regarding the dark nature goddesses, Paris explains:
Nature Goddesses are sometimes linked to a bucolic sentimentality, the belief in innate goodness championed by nineteenth-century romanticism and seen today in the resurgence of interest in forgotten Goddesses. But there is more than one type of nature Goddess....
The image of an ancient pre-patriarchal matriarchy, snug as grandmother's house, does not jibe with the dark side of Artemis, symbolized by a crescent moon. Nor does it jibe with another lunar Goddess, Hecate the terrible, who is the dark side of the moon, symbol of sorcery and magic. Both Artemis and Hecate, who is always clothed in black, have a harsh edge to them that rules out pastoral romanticism and balances out the generous side of the nourishing Goddesses. There is no such thing as a good Goddess and a less good one. Each is an aspect of reality, and in every religion that recognizes a maternal deity fostering life there's a complementary figure standing for death, ending, rupture. Mother nature is both the giver of life and the taker of life, for there is no life without death. It is therefore appropriate to correct the too sweet and tender view of predominantly matriarchal religions by remembering the fearsome aspect to women's fully developed powers.
Ultimately, shadow feminism serves the very patriarchy it purports to "transform." Books about "shadow work" and gender reconciliation do not become bestsellers, as I discovered in my attempts to promote Goodwill Toward Men. Patriarchy thrives on perpetuating the gender war from the nuclear family to the White House. A system that relies on gender wars for its existence does not take kindly to a "partnership Presidency" such as the one Bill and Hillary Clinton have created. The bumper sticker, "Impeach Clinton--And Her Husband Too," is not some anomaly theme unique to a reactionary, blue-collar subculture. It lies, in my opinion, at the heart of the well-orchestrated, vicious attacks on the Clinton administration issuing from individuals and groups profoundly threatened by equal partnership between women and men.
Ironically, the new feminism which fails to distinguish between a patriarchal system, the masculine principle and individual males, not only perpetuates gender wars, but in the final analysis, does not serve to empower women. While it is true that many women truly are victims of male violence, sexism and an economic system that still discriminates against them, it is also true that just as a developing human being does not truly become an adult until that person can be accountable for his/her flaws, individual women and the female gender cannot empower themselves unless they are willing to confront the shadow feminine, as well as all of the lovely, glorious, awesome, mysterious wonders of the positive feminine.
To disown the feminine shadow and project one's suffering onto the male gender invariably demeans women. Expounding on this irony, Christina Sommers writes:
That is the corrosive paradox of gender feminism's misandrist (male-bashing) stance: no group of women can wage war on men without at the same time denigrating the women who respect those men. It is just not possible to incriminate men without implying that large numbers of women are fools or worse....Misandry moves on to misogyny.
Just as men need to make the distinctions Robert Johnson speaks of regarding the masculine principle, women need to distinguish between their personal fathers, their father complex, the father archetype, the animus, the individual males in their lives and the masculine aspects of spirit or the divine. In order to make these distinctions, a woman must develop a relationship with the hags, witches and ogres in the feminine psyche. If she can do so, she may also be able to bridge the gap between the feminine and masculine within herself, as well as the gender gap in the external world.
Slowly, yet increasingly, some women and men are following their hearts in search of gender reconciliation in an attempt to form equal partnerships where both genders can build a universal human culture. An essential aspect of this endeavor is the willingness of women and men to be accountable for their part in the gender wars--an openness to owning how both women and men have harmed each other, their own gender and themselves. In so doing, men and women necessarily listen to each other's pain. Only in the telling and hearing of each other's pain do we recognize how remarkably similar we really are.
Perseverance through horrendous suffering enabled Rapunzel and the prince to be re- united. Only through pain can a woman and man, or the masculine and feminine aspects within an individual, be joined. This heart connection between the feminine and masculine or with a beloved must be watered with tears. Of this Aeschylus wrote: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is the author of Reclaiming the Dark Feminine (Order on-line)
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