Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Depression and the Dragon Quest

Fafnir: Rackham

Neither the terror at the threshold, nor the riddle that must be unravelled, nor the struggle of the one against the multitude, we all know, are the main event in the hero quest. The true and perfect hero must also soon or late confront a dragon. Marduk, St. George, Launcelot, Tristan, Beowulf, Ragnar Lodbrok, Siegfried, Rustam, Susa-no-o and Yorimasa in Japan, all defeat great serpents. In India, Krishna conquers the dragon Kaliya; Indra slays the dragon Vritra. In Greece, Zeus kills Typhon. In Scandinavia, Thor overcomes the Midgard Serpent. All self-respecting heroes sooner or later do the dragon cage match.

An odd thing, surely, since there is no such thing as a dragon in nature. Yet the dragon appears as the hero’s nemesis almost everywhere.

When Hercules, for example, wrestles with the river Achelous, said river turns into a great serpent. Achelous recalls:

I turned to my magic arts, and slipped from his grasp in the shape of a long snake. But when I had wound my body in sinuous coils, and, hissing fiercely, darted my forked tongue at him, Tiryns’s hero laughed, and mocking my magic arts, said: “My task in the cradle was to defeat snakes, and, though you are greater than other reptiles, Acheloüs, how big a slice of the Lernean Hydra would your one serpent be? It was made fecund by its wounds, and not one of its hundred heads was safely cut off without its neck generating two more. I overcame it, and having overcome it, disembowelled that monster, with branching snake-heads, that grew from their own destruction, thriving on evil. What do you think will happen to you, who are only a false snake, using unfamiliar weapons, whom a shifting form hides?”i

Herakles here defines himself as the ultimate serpent-slayer.

Krishna conquers the dragon Kaliya

And he indeed fights many dragons: the snakes sent to kill him in his cradle; then the Lernean Hydra; the sea serpent that threatens Hesione; a giant serpent he kills beside the Lydian river Sagaris for Omphale; and Ladon, the dragon who guards the Apples of the Hesperides at world᾿s end.

The ultimate enemy of Gilgamesh, prototypical hero of the Western world, is also a serpent. His first great foe, Humbaba, is indefinite in form. One recovered tablet describes him as dragon-like: “he had the paws of a lion and a body covered in thorny scales; his feet had the claws of a vulture, and on his head were the horns of a wild bull; his tail and phallus each ended in a snake’s head.”ii But as he returns to Uruk with the plant of immortality, the object of his hero quest, with which he hopes to heal his colleague and co-hero Enkidu, it is a snake that proves his final and greatest enemy:

After 15 miles they set up camp
where Gilgamesh slipped into a pool;
but in the pool, a cruel snake slithered by
and stole the plant from Gilgamesh
who saw the snake grow young again,
as off it raced with the special, special plant.iii
Jason must get past a dragon as well, to gain the Golden Fleece:

The final task was to put the dragon to sleep with the magic drugs. Known for its crest, its triple tongues and curved fangs, it was the dread guardian of the tree’s gold. But when Jason had sprinkled it with the Lethean juice of a certain herb, and three times repeated the words that bring tranquil sleep, that calm the rough seas and turbulent rivers, sleep came to those sleepless eyes, and the heroic son of Aeson gained the Golden Fleece.iv

So what exactly, then, is a dragon?

Welsh dragon. The celebrated breath comes from leeks.

A medieval bestiary says this:

The dragon’s strength is found in its tail, not in its teeth. Its lashing tail does great harm, and the dragon kills anything it catches in its coils. ... The Devil is likened to a dragon because he is the worst of all serpents. ... The crest of the dragon represents the Devil crowned with pride. As the dragon’s strength is not in its teeth but in its tail, the Devil, deprived of his strength, deceives with lies.v

Isidore of Seville, the great Medieval encyclopedist, advises “The dragon is the largest serpent, and in fact the largest animal on earth. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling.”vi

It is plain, then, that the dragon is in the first place a huge serpent; other features are variable. But this is a metaphoric serpent. It apparently conveys as an objective correlative the various vices of pride, deceit—Jason’s opponent is “triple tongued,” and all serpents “speak with forked tongue”—and possessiveness, “entanglement.” Dragons also, although neither Isidore nor the Bestiary mention it, commonly guard some kind of hoard or treasure: the golden apples, the “tree’s gold,” Fafnir’s gold hoard. Chinese dragons circle the golden pill of immortality. They are acquisitive, then.

Chinese dragon chasing pill of immortality.

These sound rather like the traits of the narcissist, and of the narcissistic parent: pride, desire for grandeur, greed, deceit, failure to keep promises, possessiveness.

Joseph Campbell quotes a case study from Jung which seems by chance to confirm the association with an abusive parent:

Dr. Jung has reported a dream that resembles very closely the image of the myth of Daphne [sic]. The dreamer is the same young man who found himself ... in the land of the sheep—the land, that is to say, of unindependence. A voice within him says, “I must first get away from the father”; then a few nights later: “a snake draws a circle about the dreamer, and he stands like a tree, grown fast to the earth.” This is an image of the magic circle drawn about the personality by the dragon power of the fixating parent. Brynhild, in the same way, was protected in her virginity, arrested in her daughter state for years, by the circle of the fire of all-father Wotan She slept in timelessness until the coming of Siegfried.vii

The dragon, then, if Jung and Campbell are right, represents “the fixating parent.” Its power is that of paralysis: it fixes the child to a point, representing “unindependence,” unable, in contrast to the peripatetic hero, to travel.

But it is surely more than this: the dragon is not just representative of some person, because that person could just as well represent themselves as a dream image; the parent or anyone else.

The dragon is, the bestiary advises us, ultimately the Devil himself. We are now in the spirit realm, and dealing with things at the cosmic level. This is the primordial serpent, evil itself, of which the human narcissist is merely a devotee or individual incarnation.

Thor faces off against the Midgard serpent.

One might object here that not all dragons are themselves portrayed as evil. The Oriental dragon, as known in China, Vietnam, or Korea, is a productive, fertile character. So how can the fundamental meaning of the dragon be the Devil?

But note that Oriental religion has no Devil, and no equivalent figure. It simply does not accept the ultimate reality of evil. Ethics are not a part of the cosmic equation. Taoism, like Gnosticism in the West, sees the ideal as a balance of all opposites, and this, ultimately, also includes the opposites of good and evil. The dragon is not a negative image because moral evil is not a negative. The hero and the dragon, then, are of equal moral authority, and properly should reconcile. Fine; but outside our purview for now.

In most cultures, it is understood that mental illness is produced by spirit possession: by “an evil spirit.” This, then, the dragon of the hero quest, is the chief evil spirit, for which a great serpent is the fitting objective correlative; as a serpent represents original evil in the Garden of Eden, and a great dragon in the Book of Revelations: “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” (Revelations 12:3). It is defeated by St. Michael.

Rustam and the dragon

Before you scoff at this as hopeless hocus pocus, note that it is simply the most reasonable way to speak of something within your own consciousness that seems to possess a will of its own: that wants what you do not want. Reject the idea of evil spirits, and you are forced into logical contradictions like positing a second “unconscious self.” A self other than yourself, that is, of which you are “unconscious” yet of which you are conscious.

And so here there be dragons. The hero-depressive must face up to and overcome the reality of evil as an abstract absolute, but also as a living conscious thing within, instilling fears and negative opinions about him or herself, in order to overcome the effects of his or her upbringing. This was the seed laid by abusive parenting.

Medusa having a bad hair day.

Perseus’s first serious adversary is a little different from the usual monster serpent: Madame Medusa, who is anthropomorphic, more or less, but who has snakes for hair. She seems, as a segue from the Graeae, almost a threshold figure; but she cannot be considered only a threshold figure, because her head is the grail and goal of Perseus’s original hero quest.

Ovid describes Medusa as being or having been attractive: “She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair.”viii To emphasize her serpentine nature, according to Ovid, on Perseus’s return flight with her grisly visage, “bloody drops fell from the Gorgon’s head. The earth caught them and gave them life, as species of snakes, and so that country is infested with deadly serpents.”ix So Medusa’s essence is beautiful woman plus snake. All mortal adders are her parthenogenetic children.

Freud offers his own, divergent intepretation of the Medusa image. He writes

To decapitate = to castrate. The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something. Numerous analyses have made us familiar with the occasion for this: it occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother.x

This is a classic Freudian exegesis, in which anything can stand for anything else: the head is the genitals, the male cutting off something from the female is the female cutting off something from the male, and so forth. Don’t Medusa’s many snakey locks—another image of multitude!—suggest a surfeit rather than a deficit of penises? Of course not! “This is a confirmation of the technical rule according to which a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration.”xi The fact that she frightens onlookers to stone obviously refers to an erection, right?—by the penis her head supposedly represents. This penis, then, causes an erection in the onlooker, rather than having an erection itself.

Black is white.

Sir Launcelot does the dragon thing.

It almost sounds superficially plausible, simply because it evokes vivid images in the mind. But surely Freud is being inconsistent. If the rule is really that everything can mean its opposite, Medusa’s head must not refer to the genitals, but to the feet. That is the obvious opposite to the head. In cutting off her head, Perseus must really be putting something on; perhaps he is giving her a new pair of sandals? The many snakes in her hair imply that these sandals are not made of snakeskin; and so forth. Freud’s real rule of interpretation seems to be that things mean what he wishes them to mean, neither more nor less. But if we are simply going to assign meanings arbitrarily, without some definite rule, a raven may as well be a writing desk.

Let us stick, then, with the simple-minded notion that the dragon image means something reasonably suggested by the nature of a serpent; and moreover, that this can also be conveyed, more or less as well, by the image of an attractive woman who is deadly to look at.

Emily Dickinson perhaps best captures the essence of snake for the human imagination, and why snakes often frighten us so, with the simple phrase “His notice sudden is.” Snakes, invisible in the grass and moving in uncanny ways, can come upon us abruptly. They startle. Like Medusa’s hair, they can, as Ovid says, “numb ... with fear.”xii
St. George

We evoke something like this when we call someone a “snake in the grass.” The snake represents an attack we do not expect; especially malice masked as friendship. This is aptly then associated with an attractive woman who is fatal to look at: a virile young swain like Perseus naturally expects at least some initial affection from any woman; and is, moreover, drawn by natural affection to look at one. Yet here, one glance means death. Assumed affection masks malice.

The same serpentine sting is well conveyed by the image of Andromeda or Hesione chained to the rocks, expecting to be swallowed at any instant by their invisible adversary, unseen and unheard beneath the waves. Its notice sudden is.

It all fitly conveys, in turn, the thrill of fear of chronic anxiety, a standard feature of melancholy, a standard feature of PTSD, and a standard feature of childhood abuse, if not, according to the DSM, a standard feature of depression by the official diagnosis. One has experienced in one’s past a deadly, unanticipated attack, and ever again is wary of the risk. That is the trauma.

Despite all we read in the popular press about the dragon’s fiery or poisonous breath, the Bestiary and St. Isidore surprisingly insist that the dragon kills not with venom, but with his tail and coils; not by direct assault, then, not in the direction you expect danger to come, but in a backhanded manner, from behind. Like a snake in the grass. Like a knife in the back.

Russian dragon.

And this actually fits with many legends. The dragon often does not try to fricasee the hero with its baleful breath; that seems more often used to poison the landscape. Its plan of attack with the hero or heroine is to entangle or swallow. Cetus intends to devour Andromeda; the dragon in the legend of St. George intends to ingest the Libyan princess. The sea monster that intends to eat Hesione also swallows Herakles, who must fight him from the inside out. Vritra swallows Indra.

This is perhaps cognate to the image of the devouring parent: the intent is total possession.

Achelous as serpent wrestles with Herakles—entwines him. The battle between Beowulf and Grendel is also a grappling match. The dragon seeks to “fixate,” to use Campbell’s term.

We see the sign of the serpent again in King Lear’s description of his trauma in Shakespeare, the trauma that drives him mad: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is.” “Struck me with her tongue, Most serpent-like, upon the very heart.” The serpent reference is almost automatic. It is the image of emotional betrayal. Hamlet’s ghost uses the same image for Claudius’s act of killing his brother: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown.” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5).

To produce depression or other expressions of “mental illness,” Shakespeare’s play suggests, this betrayal need not actually involve prolonged abuse. That is not quite the issue. The issue is the betrayal of affection. One expects and assumes affection from a family member, especially a parent. To receive instead the opposite is perhaps the ultimate human trauma.

Sigurd and Fafnir: Norse dragon.

We similarly have no definite warrant that Cordelia was abused before her sudden rejection at her marriage. Nor do we know that Dymphna was abused before adolescence. It is fairly apparent that Oedipus was not. But this does not matter. Each may only have been betrayed once, but the betrayal was total: their parents wanted them dead. It is this foundational betrayal that matters, not how often it is felt. It is this that breeds such monsters in the mind.

Aside from the great serpent, there is another striking image that runs through at least Greek mythology, in particular through the tales of heroes, that also seems to convey betrayal: Achilles’s heel.

Achilles's heel.

Proverbially, every hero has an “Achilles’s heel,” some secret weakness. Superman has his kryptonite. Baldur was vulnerable only to innocent mistletoe. Esfandiyār, in Persian legend, can be killed only by a shaft to the eyes. Siegfried is vulnerable only at a small spot on his back.

All these examples suggest, in various ways, an unexpected attack, something coming by surprise, perhaps from behind. But among Greek heroes, it is often quite literally their heel. About where a poisonous snake would strike. And an image, like the coils or the belly of the dragon, of immobility, “fixation.” Immobility may imply the disability of depression; it may imply as well perhaps submitting to total ownership by a narcissistic parent. Note that Medusa’s gaze, too, produces paralysis.

Achilles is not even the only hero of the Trojan War who proves vulnerable in his heel. There is also Philoctetes, who embarks with the Achaean armada, but, in Hygenus’s account, “on the island of Lemnos, a snake struck his foot. ... When the Achaeans could not endure the offensive odour of the wound, by Agamemnon’s order he was left on Lemnos together with the marvellous arrows. ...”

Later an oracle was given to them that Troy could not be taken without the arrows of Hercules. Then Agamemnon sent Ulysses and Diomede as scouts to visit him. They persuaded him to be reconciled and to help in attacking Troy, and took him off with them.xiii

He turns out, in the end, to be the indispensable man, the hero.

Jason and the dragon of the Golden Fleece.

Philoctetes on his desert island seems another landscape, like Dorothy’s Kansas and the like, of depression. Sophocles writes:

This man,—noble, perchance, as any scion of the noblest house,—reft of all life’s gifts, lies lonely, apart from his fellows, with the dappled or shaggy beasts of the field, piteous alike in his torments and his hunger, bearing anguish that finds no cure.xiv

He is also lame, paralysed, trapped within the circuit of his small island world. And this is so until he accepts his hero quest, and casts off for Troy.

Herakles too is attacked in the heel during his epic battle with the Lernean Hydra:

By pelting it with fiery shafts he forced it to come out, and in the act of doing so he seized and held it fast. But the hydra wound itself about one of his feet and clung to him. .... A huge crab also came to the help of the hydra by biting his foot.xv

The two monsters seemed to have something specific in mind.

Telephus’s heel is tripped up by a vine:

Telephus, being deeply upset by the death of his brother and seeking for vengeance, attacked the enemy line. Having put to flight those who opposed him, he was doggedly pursuing Ulysses in a vineyard nearby when a vine tripped him up. Thereupon Achilles who, from some distance, had seen what had happened, hurled his spear and pierced the king’s left thigh.xvi

—laming him.

Also famously lame in Greek mythology: Hephaestos, the inventor God, rejected by his mother and tossed off Olympus at birth. But his lameness comes because his legs were broken in a second fall: thrown off Olympus by his father Zeus for, like Tristan, defending his mother.xvii

Medeia and Talos.

In the Argonautica, Hephaestos’s creation, in turn, the bronze robot giant Talos, betrays a similar vulnerability. He has only one vein, that ends in a critical bolt on his ankle. Otherwise invulnerable, if you remove this bolt, his immortal ichor bleeds away. Talos is not a hero, but may be an image of a melancholic: living a purely mechanical life, confined to his island. He runs around the island three times daily, guarding against all comers; a reasonable image of both the melancholic craving solitude and of what we might call obsessive-compulsive behaviour. And in the Argonautica, he goes explicitly mad—psychotic. In this state, he kills himself by pulling out the fatal bolt.xviii

Oedipus, too, is wounded in the heel; his name, “Swell-foot,” makes this definitive of his nature. And the wounded heel represents, explicitly, as with Hephaestos, rejection by his parents. Just as his mother, if inadvertently, is responsible for Achilles’s vulnerable heel.

Chaining these similar images together, a wounded heel = an unexpected attack from behind, as from a snake = having been betrayed by your parents = being paralysed, immobilized. It is from this complex that the hero emerges, and this is a continuing vulnerability.

Cronus/Saturn spending quality time with the kid.

There is similar imagery found in the traditional figure of Cronus. Why does old Cronus/Saturn carry a sickle or scythe? Is it only because he is a harvest god? Granted, he castrated his father Uranus with a sickle; but why a sickle?


Klibansky et al cite a Medieval source observing that “the attribution to him of a sickle meant that he, like a sickle, could cause harm only by a backward movement.”xix His “quality of harmfulness,” a second source adds, was “especially prominent when he reversed his course, and this discovery again had found mythical expression in the image of his carrying a sickle.”xx His “sharp sickle destroys all that is lovely and bears blossom: he lets no roses or lilies flower, and cannot bear fructification.”xxi

A rather early harvest.

Dine in?

The sickle, in sum, seems one more image of the sneak attack; of malice coming from an unexpected quarter. Cronus attacks backwards, and from below, at the heel. And he attacks his children.

Death of Krishna

In India, Krishna too, in true Hellenic fashion, is slain by a poisoned arrow to the heel. Karna is stabbed from behind, while working on his carriage wheel. Siegfried too is stabbed in the back, while having a drink at a stream. Julius Caesar, by popular convention, was unexpectedly stabbed by his supposed friend Brutus. Yes, Brutus was one of many; and this may not have been a literal stab in the back; but this, we are reminded, was “the most unkindest cut of all”: the betrayal of expected affection. The Judas moment.

Herakles’s death by the shirt of Nessus is also an image of betrayal of expected affection. The shirt is a gift from his wife, supposedly inspired by love, and meant to inspire love.... but soaked in the hydra’s poison, the poison of the serpent, it torments him to death.

In sum, all these images of the dragon and the hero’s vulnerability point to a critical experience of emotional betrayal as the foundation to the hero’s character.

iMetamorphoses, Book 9, ll. 62-89, Kline trans.

iiGeorg Burckhardt, Das Gilgamesch-Epos - Eine Dichtung aus dem alten Orient. Potsdam: Rütten & Loening, 1991.

iii Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11, column 4.

ivOvid, Metamorphoses, Book 7, l. 130 or so.


viEtymologies, Book 12, 4:4-5.

viiCampbell, op. cit., p. 62; Jung, The Integration of the Personality, pp. 104-6.

viiiOvid, Metamorphoses, Book 4, ll. 794-800, A.S. Kline trans.

ixMetamorphoses, Book 4, ll. 620-625, Kline trans.

xFreud, "Medusa's Head," Writings on Art and Literature, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, p.


xiiMetamorphoses, ll. 801f.

xiiiHyginus, Fabulae, 102.

xiv Sophocles, Philoctetes.

xv Apollodorus, Library, 2.5.2.

xvi Dictys Cretensis, Journal of the Trojan War, 2:3.

xvii Graves, Greek Mythology, 1, p. 54.

xviiiApollonius, Argonautica, Book 4, l. 1638.

xixKlibansky, et al. Saturn and Melancholy, Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964, p. 177.

xx Ibid., p. 181.

xxi Ibid., p. 185.

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