Tribute to an Early Mentor

In Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, author Phil Cousineau includes a chapter on “The Mythic Power of Mentorship.” Here he recounts the role of wise counsel played by the figure of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey:

“In this role, the ancient Greek wisdom for guiding young people through the ordeal of adolescence is suggested by [Mentor’s] very name. For the word mentor comes from the Greek root men—to think, remember, counsel—and the Indo-European word mens, for ‘mind.’ Mentor is the ‘mind-maker.’ By his very nature he will help the son of his friend to ‘make up his own mind,’ even ‘re-mind’ the youth of his destiny, which is so easy to forget but so crucial to the Greek concept of character” (119).

Just as Mentor re-minds Odysseus’s son Telemachus of his destiny so, too, do mentors twenty-five hundred years later still impact the lives of many young men and women. This blog post represents a tribute to one such mentor in my life. Dean Dougherty was my first private saxophone teacher for the several years bridging my middle and high school experience. He also taught me how to play clarinet.

Attending My Sax Recital June 29, 1991

Attending My Sax Recital
June 29, 1991

Mr. Dougherty passed along several nuggets of wisdom that stay with me to this day including “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect” and “The first time you play a wrong note, it’s a mistake. The second time it’s a bad habit.” Most resonant of all for me, though, remains what he told me upon hearing that I got nervous when auditioning at band competitions. With a twinkle in his eye he looked at me and said, “There’s nothing wrong with having butterflies in your stomach. The trick is to get them to fly in formation!”

Whatever musical success I experienced in those and later years in large part was made possible by such pearls of wisdom. Equally important was Mr. Dougherty’s patience, his confidence in my abilities, and his many kindnesses. He truly was a Mentor to my young Telemachus–for which I am eternally grateful.

Dean Dougherty passed away October 14, 2014, at age 88.

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Mythfire Goes Dragon-Hunting

Contrary to what was promised in the last post, Mythfire is putting any and all blogs on Harry Potter or other subjects on hold for the time being.  A little thing called a doctoral dissertation beckons to be finished. One might say that Mythfire must descend into the abyss and face his own fire-breathing dragon…or else.

For any readers who hunger for more myth and depth psychology, here are a few suggestions:

  • check out any of the older blogs on Mythfire you may have missed
  • go to the Joseph Campbell Foundation (a great myth resource for blogs, discussion lists, and everything related to Campbell). Begin by reading a post by yours truly which was a recent featured blog. Thanks again to JCF for this honor.
  • see if there is a Jung Institute or Society in your area.  Soul-enriching life-transforming resources in the form of books, lectures, friendships, mentors, therapists, et cetera are found in places like these.
  • check back here every now and again. There is a chance something will be posted as time allows. (And let me know if you miss me.) 😉
Thanks for reading and dreaming the myth onward…
Posted in Myth | 8 Comments

Harry Potter & The Spiritual Dimension of Play (“The Miracle of the Present Moment”)

“These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”

These ominous and dreary words are the first ones uttered in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I. If you have not seen the film or read the book, consider that spoilers follow. Spoilers such as the fact that the Minister of Magic who speaks these words then pays Harry a visit about thirty minutes into the film only to have his death announced in the following scene. He is not the first character to die in the film much less the series, but his opening words set a dark and foreboding tone very much in keeping with author J.K. Rowling’s statement that death is “possibly the most important theme” in the entire Harry Potter series. [1]

As in the series, it often feels like we Muggles living today are also surrounded by our own Death Eaters, our own forces of darkness which would overwhelm and destroy us. Accidents, killings, suicides, war dead, natural disasters, financial upheaval, unemployment, et cetera. Death Eaters for us take the form of news of any one of a number of tragedies both at home and abroad. How can we not feel in danger at times of being consumed by this very real and present darkness?

Last week’s post mentioned that most of us prefer to not think about the generally depressing subject of death. We defend against it with our own magic potions comprised of equal parts denial and repression. We launch into new projects, always looking toward the future, or we escape into a rich fantasy life in our minds or on TV and movie screens.

Over the past month Mythfire’s blogs have put forward multiple ideas of how a person might soulfully embrace the darker aspects of life and death – rather than try to escape from or defend against them. [2] The present post continues this soul-making project with the help of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Located between the aforementioned opening pronouncement by the Minister of Magic in Deathly Hallows, Part I, and his death about thirty minutes later, two scenes from the same film set the stage for what follows.

Jenny and Harry

First, amid the clouds of death and darkness, Harry Potter and his girlfriend Jenny Weasley share a tender moment in the kitchen of her home. A banner along one wall bears the names of her brother Bill and Fleur, his bride-to-be. Everyone has converged on the home to join in the wedding celebrations. “Seems silly, doesn’t it, a wedding given everything that’s going on?” Jenny says. Harry replies, “Maybe that’s the best reason to have it—because of everything that’s going on.” Then they kiss.

The second scene is the wedding celebration itself in a tent that has been erected for this special occasion. People are decked out in fancy clothes and jewelry or, as in the case of Ron Weasley, their ragged best. For a moment at least there is a festive atmosphere.

This sequence brings to mind some lines from mythologist Joseph Campbell:

“The spirit of the festival, the holiday, the holy day of the religious ceremonial requires that the normal attitude toward the cares of the world should have been temporarily set aside in favor of a particular mood of dressing up. The world is hung with banners.”[3]

Phil Cousineau, a friend and colleague of Campbell’s, adds:

“Throughout human history, Campbell emphasizes, the festival’s purpose has been to transfigure the unbearably harsh realities of life into bearable realities, and it has done so by lifting the spirit of the individual and the group through ecstatic rituals and through the trials of competition and contest.”[4]

The wedding festival in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, the other dances and/or balls from earlier films and even the often festive atmosphere in Hogwarts’ main dining hall all correspond to the ecstatic ritualistic transfiguration mentioned in this quote. Likewise, “the trials of competition and contest” are also evident in each film – especially those in which the game of quidditch plays a role.

In fact, the striking similarity between the word quidditch and quiddity, (L. quidditas), may add to our understanding of the profound importance of play. Webster’s dictionary defines quiddity as “whatever makes something to be of the type that it is: Essence.” Looked at in this light, quidditch, like all games, at times seems to be a very serious ordeal fraught with tension, competition, uncertain outcomes and even setbacks. And yet its defining essence, or that which makes it a game, is an experience whereby the present moment transforms into something special.

For both Campbell and Cousineau, this transformative experience is play:

“[P]lay is both instinctual and existential. It allows us to seize the moment and celebrate life while defying the gravity of convention by juggling with the balls of reality. Existentially, play brings us home to what Buddhists call ‘the miracle of the present moment.’ Its ecstatic nature reminds us at every moment that we need not be victims of fate [. . .].”[5]

At some point in the future I hope to take up a scene in Deathly Hallows, Part II, in which Harry puts the golden snitch to his lips and whispers “I am ready to die.” He has learned that by embracing his fate he is not a victim to it. And it is very telling that the snitch, probably the most important part of every quidditch match, is the recipient of Harry’s words. Play enables us to transcend the terrors of the moment by revealing this same moment to also be terribly beautiful and miraculous…ours and no one else’s.

Last but certainly not least, let us along with Harry also remember that love and “the jewel of all games,” i.e. love-play, like other types of spiritual play make bearable and meaningful moments which otherwise appear oppressive, dark, and bleak.  The key, as with Harry and Jenny, is sharing and playing together — “because of everything that’s going on.”


Coda: When determining if play is existential as described above or merely escapist, perhaps we would do well to once again listen to Cousineau: “We play on for reasons that transcend escapism.We play on to bring ourselves back to life, to re-create ourselves, to remind ourselves that we have the capacity to be more than ordinary, that we have the courage to be extraordinary, if only for a few moments on the field, in the arena, around the track. We play on to rekindle the fire that is perennially in danger of going out.”  (173)


[2] The alluded to ideas from recent posts include: seeing ourselves and others as playing a part in a story or myth that began a long time ago and will end long after we are gone; intentionally accepting and exploring our personal psychology including shortcomings, compulsions, neurotic tendencies, etc. as  attempts on the part of soul to deepen our experience of life now;  realizing the degree to which our understanding of both life and death are reflections of ego fears and desires rather than unconscious/archetypal realities; and paying tribute to or acknowledging the psychological as well as physical aspects of death – even seeing them as the source of personal renaissance in this world. Finally, another attitudinal response to death which need not be a defense or escape from it is of course a belief in an afterlife.

[3] Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Rev. Ed. New York: Penguin, 1969: 25. Italics added.

[4] Cousineau, Phil. The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2003: 79.

[5] Ibid., 56.

Posted in Art/Creativity, Cinema, Culture, Depth Psychology, Myth, Play | 1 Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson & Other Renaissance Men (“Every Thing is Significant”)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Robert D. Richardson, Jr. begins his masterful biography of 19th century essayist, lecturer, poet, and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson with these lines:

“On March 29, 1832, the twenty-eight-year-old Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was seventeen when they were engaged, eighteen when married, and barely twenty when she died of advanced tuberculosis.”[1]

Richardson makes clear that Emerson did not open his wife’s coffin in some sort of “grisly gothic gesture” or in a moment of coming “unhinged.” [2] Other contemporaries of Emerson had similarly opened their loved one’s coffins. Emerson in fact would repeat the act later in life when relocating the coffin belonging to his son Waldo who had died at age five. But the question remains: what could such a seemingly morbid action hope to achieve?

A precise answer to this question is not to be found in Emerson’s otherwise copious journals. However, when Richardson returns to this incident later in the biography, he states that the effect the March visit had on Emerson is clear:

“[Emerson] was casting off old ties and embracing new ideas and new possibilities. Coming face to face with the dead forced Emerson to choose between the dead and the living. His sermons for April are insistently this-worldly. He talked on successive Sundays about ‘the virtues near at hand,’ ‘the pleasures near at hand,’ ‘the God of the living.’”[3]

To quote first Richardson and then Emerson, after looking in Ellen’s coffin Emerson somehow left the state of ruins in which he had found himself after her death and became “very much open to the world” – a world in which “Every thing is significant.[4]

Perhaps James Hillman’s “psychology of death” — introduced last week — may yield further insight into both Emerson’s decision to look inside his wife’s coffin and his consequent rebirth out of emotional and psychological ruin.  In the pages referenced last week, Hillman writes that most of us have very active defenses against death (imaged mythologically as Hades, god of the Underworld). We prefer to avoid considerations of death and mortality, whenever possible giving pride of place to intimations of immortality instead.

While Hillman (like Jung before him) argues that this last, i.e., the idea of an afterlife, is indeed natural and important to humankind, the point is that so too is an awareness of our emotional and bodily mortality here and now. In this vein, Hillman writes that “Death in the soul is not lived forward in time and put off into an afterlife. It is concurrent with daily life as Hades is side by side with his brother Zeus.”[5] According to Hillman, the problem lies in our “defense against Hades,” or, put differently, our “defensive identities with life.”[6]  So often we do everything in our power to escape (our fear of) death, preferring instead feelings of excitement and invincibility, hope and possibility. We prefer spirit but forget the equally important and deepening present-minded soul.

To a certain degree, the spirited avoidance of death is behind many of the anxieties and addictive or compulsive behaviors which plague us individually and collectively. We are split off from half of our selves, the half which the ancient Greeks imaged as Hades in the Underworld. Hillman argues that one way to reconnect with this half is to do what many Renaissance writers, thinkers, and artists did, or rather what they did not do:  they “never lost touch with disintegration and death,” a fact which enabled them to “let go of all seemingly irreducible objectifications of human personality, whether it be the organic body, the human personality, or subjective awareness [. . .].”[7]

In this and the prior blog, Mythfire has focused on Hades and the riches of the Underworld. However, an equally important component to the myth is Hades’ abduction of Persephone while she was out enjoying the riches, i.e. flowery meadows, of the daylight upper world. Seen from the perspective of the ego, this loss of naïve innocence is a tragedy; seen from the perspective of the soul Persephone’s consequent marriage to Hades and life in the Underworld represents a deepening into one’s soul life. Just as happened to Emerson after he lost his Persephone, awareness of death facilitates a humbling letting go of our egoistic assumptions concerning ourselves and our world so that we might more authentically experience the soulful as well as spiritual dimensions of life — here and now. [8]


Next Wednesday: Harry Potter and the Spiritual Dimension of Play

[1] Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, CA: University of CA P, 1995: 3.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid, 121.

[4] Ibid., 122. Italics added.

[5] Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1975: 206. Hillman’s Dream and the Underworld is also essential reading for more on the myth of Hades.

[6] Ibid., 208.

[7] Ibid., 209.

[8] It is in this spirit that Hillman writes: “What is human is frail, subject to death. To be human is to be reminded of death and have a perspective informed by death. To be human is to be soul-focused which in turn is death-focused.  Or to put it the other way, to be death-focused is to be soul-focused.” (Re-Visioning, 207). Finally, one cannot help but wonder if Emerson associated Ellen’s death with Persephone’s abduction when he put down these lines in 1833:

“The days pass over me

And I am still the same

The Aroma of my life is gone

Like the flower with which it came.”

Posted in Archetypal Psychology, Myth | Leave a comment

“Tributes to Soul-Making” (“The Hadean Perspective”)

Hades Presents His Cornucopia to Persephone, ca 450 – 400 BC

One of Mythfire’s favorite selections from psychologist James Hillman’s impressive oeuvre is all of five pages in length. Entitled Hades, Persephone, and a Psychology of Death, the passage can be found in “Dehumanizing or Soul-making,” the final chapter in Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology. As with Hillman’s three other modes of soul-making, this final mode of de-humanizing or soul-making is an attempt to force the reader outside of his or her usual ways of thinking and being. In no small part this is what Hillman is doing when he compares and contrasts our everyday (a.k.a. heroic) ego with what he calls the “imaginal ego” of the psyche or soul. The most recent Mythfire posts have in fact been appealing to our imaginal ego as it manifests through our inner dreamer, lover, and artist.

Given its name, it comes as no surprise that the imaginal ego uses images to communicate important ideas, energies, and experiences to us. Last week’s post was concerned with the way the soul’s different styles or types of loving were once imaged in the form and faces of Eros. The post prior to that more generally contrasted the image of our soul in an afterlife somewhere else with the image of the soul as a perspective which colors and deepens our experience of life now. (It is important to note that these two soul images do not necessarily contradict or negate each other.) Finally, the first blog on Clarence Clemonsdiscussed how the soul communicates in the form of images which give our life meaning and direction and when seen from a distance even a cohesive narrative, or personal myth.

Since Clemons’ passing, another well-known musician, Amy Winehouse, has also died, and like Clemons, Winehouse has been paid numerous tributes. One of these tributes arguably takes the form of a posthumous surge in sales of her music, a surge which seems to happen with some frequency after artists pass away. This surge is nothing less than the soul’s response to the loss of one of its soul-makers, i.e. the artist.  If this act were purely driven by our usual (rather than imaginal) ego concerns, this investment would be undertaken most likely in connection with some hope or fear rather than with the spontaneous feelings of loss, gratitude, and recognition which accompany these tributes. In other words, monetary value quite literally pays tribute to soul value — as it always has.

The ancient Greek soul imaged forth the idea of death, value, and riches via the form of Hades, the god of the underworld. Hillman goes to great lengths to show that centuries later Renaissance artists and thinkers also maintained a Hadean perspective on life and death which we sometimes overlook:

“I am suggesting that we misapprehend the Renaissance by seeing it as a turbulent tribute to Gods of love, light, life, and nature. I believe the God of the Renaissance and of all psychological renascences to be Hades, archetypal principle of the deepest aspect of the soul.”[1]

Because of the everyday prevalence and presence of death, people living in the Renaissance were very much aware of what Hillman calls “the question of final consequences [. . .], the underworld meaning in things, their deeper obscurities.” [2] In a longer quote quite apropos of Mythfire’s discussion of Clemons and Winehouse, Hillman continues:

“It is against this background that we must place also such major Renaissance concerns as reputation (fama); nobility, and dignity. They take on further significance when envisioned  within a psychology that bears death in mind. To consider fama merely as fame in our romantic sense puts Renaissance psychology into the inflated ego of the very important person or pop star. But when death gives the basic perspective, then magnificence, reputation, and nobility are tributes to soul, part of what can be done for it during the ego’s short hour on the stage. Then fame refers to the lasting worth of soul and psychology can afford to treat of the grand themes: perfection of grace, dignity of man, nobility of princes.”[3]

Certainly, any eulogy given at a memorial service pays tribute to the reputation, nobility, and dignity of the one who has left us. We recall humorous and touching stories of the recently departed. We put a photo or photos up front and center for all to see. All of these, stories, memories, photos, and more are images of the soul’s manifestation during “the ego’s short hour on the stage.”

No doubt, some services and tributes are smaller and more reserved while others are more colorful. A final observation from Hillman perhaps brings to mind this contrasting approach to paying tribute to soul at the same time that it suggests that there is more than one way to both understand soul and go about our own soul-making right here and now:

“With death in the background – and Hades is equally called Pluto, Riches, or Wealth-Giver – Renaissance magnificence celebrates the richness and marvellousness and exotic otherness of the soul and its far-flung imagination. How difficult for us in our northern tradition to consider soul together with fame and splendor! How maidenly pure, how wood-washed and bare has become our notion of soul!”[4]


Coda: Please take a moment and revisit this last quote while listening to the following “lasting treasure.”


Note: Some readers might understandably be puzzled over the above use of the word “imaginal” and want to link it with another word, namely “imaginary.” This would be incorrect. Imaginal is a creation of the soul; imaginary one of the ego.  Images which the soul uses to convey importance and significance are imaginal; the threatened ego’s need to defend itself against these same soul-generated images labels them “imaginary,” or made-up.  (Similarly, people who discuss such things are often labeled “imaginative” or something worse, whatever it takes for the dismissive ego to maintain its position of superiority.)


Next Tuesday: Ralph Waldo Emerson & Other Renaissance Men

[1] Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1975: 206. The section under discussion runs from pgs. 205-210.

[2] Ibid., 205.

[3] Ibid., 205. In a recent interview on the TV show The View, pop star Lady Gaga paid tribute to Clarence Clemons in terms that are very much in keeping with soul-making as described in this and earlier posts: “[Clemons] really changes your life so quickly and it’s very…you don’t know why. You can’t explain it. But he just has this godly spirit about him. You feel like you’re in the presence of something so . . . significant.” This can be found at the 8:30 mark here: (Though also appearing as a note at the end of a prior Mythfire post, this statement from Lady Gaga was first learned of while preparing the present blog.)

[4] Ibid., 205.

Posted in Archetypal Psychology, Art/Creativity, Culture, Depth Psychology, Myth, Tributes | 5 Comments