Depth Psychology Hidden Within Greek Myth and Tragedy


“There he is,” Frank said. Frank, Daniel had learned, was the group leader. He was a retired philosophy professor. 

              “There he is!” the woman said holding her wine glass high followed by taking a large sip.

              “Excuse my better half, Daniel, she’s ahead of the game here,” Percy said while pointing to his drink. “Nima, this is Daniel.”

              “At last, the gentleman everyone has been talking about. It’s a deep pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Mr. Daniel.” 

              She held out her hand as if Daniel was suppose to kiss it. Daniel took her small hand and held it with the slightest of grips and said, “The pleasure is all mine, Nima.” And she snapped her hand back to take another drink of wine, looking at Daniel as if she were a lion looking at a lamb. 

              “Right, now that that is settled, how about we begin to talk about depth psychology,” Frank said. 

              John then began, “In history, people have expressed ideas and emotions in dance, in song, and, in the Greek tragedies, we find thought evolving itself in the dialogue. The chorus is there, always listen to that, but the dialogue gives us a natural dialectic between characters that is able to flesh out a story like nothing else. We can largely thank the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (525-455 BC) with that, one of the three great playwrights of ancient Greek tragedy. He gave us the rules of tragedy. All plays were to be performed in trilogies with a satyr play at the very end, the final had a comedic element to it. The other two great playwrights were Sophocles and Euripides, of which we will get to later, thanks to Percy and his other half Nima.”

              Everyone then smashed their cups together and took a drink, including Nima. She then generously refilled her glass and slammed the bottle back down. To Daniel, she seemed like a force to be reckoned with. 

              Percy then began, “Greek tragedies took place to honor the Greek god Dionysus near the end of March. There, tragedies were judged and given praise. The state would choose three nobles to pay the expenses. Who was Dionysus? He was the god of madness, wine, and of intoxicated ecstasy”   

              “I love it when you talk to me like this, Percy,” Nima said blushing. 

              “Please, you’ll get your turn, dear.”

              Nima then folder her arms and sat back in her chair impatiently.

              Percy continued, “The theater of Dionysus, in Athens, a sacred place, was the center for Greek tragedy. This theater, in Athen’s great Acropolis, could seat 17,000 people. Imagine the theater as the inner workings of man’s mind. The plays often portrayed the political, social, and, ultimately, human problems as they never were before. Going to the theater wasn’t about watching a spectacle while eating popcorn, it was meant to answer the command “know theyself” in a deep sense. It was meant to answer questions such as: who are we, what most drives us, how should we conduct ourselves, and are our politicians trustworthy. Tragedy was a synaesthetic experience that had musical, poetical, and spectacle aspects accompanied with dance and dialogue. Furthermore, Greek tragedy was meant to produce fear and pity so that its audience would have a cathartic experience. Feeling catharsis would then purge the theater goers of what the very flaws the characters represented.  Witnessing these tragic flaws, and they fated conclusion would purge the audience from these very flaws so that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes. It’s a sort of cleansing.  

              The Myths presented by tragedy no longer reflect the traditional values of a remote idealized age. Instead they become the battleground of the contemporary conflicts within the city: older conceptions of blood-revenge against the new civic legalism (Oresteia); the obligations of family against those of the city (Antigone); the conflicts between the sexes and between generations (Euripides’ Alcestis, Medea, and Bacchae); the differences between authoratarian and democratic rule (Europides’ Suppliants, Sophocles’ Ajax and Oedipus of Coloneus). (The Greeks, Charles Segal pg. 211)”

              “Can we just get to the play you chose already,” Nima said sharply. 

With patience like a statue, Percy replied, “Almost there, dear. Aeschylus won 14 competitions, Sophocles (497-406 BC) entered into 30 competitions and won 18, never taking below second place. Euripides (480-406 BC) only won 5. Aristotle writes that Sophocles “portrays  people the way they ought to be and Euripides the way they are.”[1] Now, our topic is Greek tragedy but more specifically we are here to discuss depth psychology so an introduction from the first modern depth psychologist, and his words on Greek tragedy is in order. 

It is the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) whom we must call the first modern depth psychologist, who was a Greek philologist. In his work The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche makes the distinction between the two Greek art deities, Apollo and Dionysus. He writes:

It is in connection with Apollo and Dionysus, the two art-deities of the Greeks, that we learn that there existed in the Grecian world a wide antithesis, in origin and aims, between the art of the shaper, the Apollonian, and the non-plastic [nonvisual] art of music, that of Dionysus: both these so heterogeneous tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance, and continually inciting each other to new and more powerful births, to perpetuate in them the strife of this antithesis, which is but seemingly bridged over by their mutual term “Art”; till at last, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic will, they appear paired with each other, and through this pairing eventually generate the equally Dionysian and Apollonian art-work of Attic tragedy. (Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche, translated by WM. A. HAUSSMANN)

The apollonian represents a kind of rational, cheerful nature we find in Greek art. It directs the story and plot, where the Dionysian is pent up, raw emotion and intoxicated ecstasy.”

              Nima cut in, “I don’t think your representing the deep power of the Dionysian, dear. This intoxicating ecstasy is when one exits their very being by letting go of their identity, which allows the god to enter in. It’s bliss! Without this ecstatic madness, tragedy, life even, would be joyless!”

              Percy rebutted, “Without story and plot, tragedy, life even, would be without an aim and incomprehensible. Nietzsche believes that these two art deities harmonically fused together during the golden age of Greece–with the tragedians Aeschylus and later Sophocles. However, it was Euripides that began to use the tools of the sophists, as Jason did against Medea, which led to ultra-rationalism. The apollonian rift from the Dionysian further divided when Socrates entered the stage, where too much was given to rational, Apollonian element of the Greek ethos. Now, I have chosen to tell the story of Sophocles’ Antigone.”

              “And I Euripides’ Medea,” She said with dark eyes dancing in the bar’s lights, and a smile hidden behind her wine glass.

              “Sophocles’ Antigone is the last part of the Oedipus Cycle. We know Oedipus as the tragic man who killed his father and married his mother. His daughter, Antigone, has a story that begins after the war waged between her two brothers Polyneices and Eteocles. You see, they were supposed to rule together peacefully but Eteocles exiled his brother. Polyneices, returning from exile, attacked his brother’s walls, Thebes, and the two brothers engaged in hand to hand combat. They were both stricken down to the ground by a deathblow given to each other. Creon, next in line for the throne takes his position and gives Eteocles a soldier’s burial, but tells that if anyone so buries the traitor they will be dealt death. He is to lie there for the birds and dogs to pick at. In Greek tradition, if you are not given a proper funeral you could not enter into the underworld, which means one’s soul disappears into the ether of things. It’s a horrible thought. Antigone, hearing the news from her sister, tells her that they must bury their beloved brother, she tells this to her sister unflinchingly. The courage of this woman. Ismene, the other sister, repeats the law given by King Creon in fear of punishment, but Antigone makes a firm stand. There is something about the duty she feels towards her brother…  she is driven by the purity of her love. It’s what good sister’s do, it’s engrained in her very being. She then does what she means to do with the full knowledge of what may become of her. The king hears word of his burial and demands justice. His own counsel questions him but he won’t bend, and they find Antigone and bring her before the King.  There stands Little Antigone, who is to wed the King’s son might I add, before King Creon. The King asks if she is the one who dared defy his law. Can you imagine a woman, little Antigone, standing up to a king? she replies:

I dared.

I was no god’s proclamation. That final Justice

That rules the world below makes no such laws. 

Your edict, King, strong,

But all your strength is weakness itself against

The immortal unrecorded laws of God.

They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,

Operative for ever, beyond man utterly. 

She is making a case for natural law theory which is more fundamental than any man-made law ever conceived. She means to convey that what governs her actions is older than kings, and for there to be kings, there needs to be this allegiance towards familial ties at the very base of society, do you see? She stood there in defiance to the king, accepting her fate ruled out to her—death.  

Then she says, “It is my nature to join in love, not hate.” to which he replies, “Go join them; if you must have your love, find it in hell!” He claims her actions are anarchistic but he is the one defying natural law. Antigone is the one refusing to transgress the laws of heaven. The king’s son, who is engaged to Antigone, begs his father to listen to reason. But he is deaf to him, and sends Antigone to a stone vault, as dark as any grave, to die. Tiresias, the blind prophet, who sees with moral perception, warns King Creon of his actions against the gods. Tiresias asks, “What glory is it to kill a man who is dead?” and that Greek should bury Greek. The blind prophet then warns him that if he does not set things aright then the king will have to pay back “Corpse for corpse, flesh of your own flesh.” The king laments and recognizes his immoral act. He then rushes to give Polyneices a proper burial again, what’s left of his body anyways, and then goes to the stone vault only to find his own son there, holding little Antigone. She hung herself and he was there weeping over her. He then takes his sword and strikes at the king, misses, and then lunges it into himself. The son held Antigone’s body close until his very last breath. The king, in despair carries his son to the palace, whereupon he finds that his wife heard the news of her son’s death and took her own life at the alter, cursing Creon for what he had done. The king then turns into the walking dead. The last line of the poem is:

There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;

No wisdom but in submission to the gods.

Big words are always punished,

And proud men in old age learn to be wise. 

“It goes to show that even the most powerful of men can suffer the fate of their own hubris,” John said. 

“Yes, quite right,” Percy replied with a pensive look. 

“What a woman!” Nima exclaimed. 

Percy continued, “Antigone here answers the ancient command “know thyself”. She understood who she was and what she must do. She is driven by a higher nature, love, to perform an action of what loving sisters do. She conquers fear and answers to a higher order.”

              “You’re so good at telling stories, my dear. Your choice was so proper, but let me now give you all time to pine.” Nima tips her head back and finishes her glass of wine, slamming it on the table. She then puts her hands, palm down on the table and leans in, “The background of Euripides’ play, Medea, centers around her handsome husband Jason. He is known for his quest to get the golden fleece. His father was murdered by Pellas, and then Pellas took the throne, sending Jason into exile. During this time he trained to become a hero with Chiron and came back to retake the throne. Pellas agreed he could have the throne if he was able to bring him back the golden fleece. The king believed this to be a dangerous and impossible mission. However, Jason didn’t flinch. Men, always out to prove their foul worth. The chase after the golden fleece is a cliché, a male fantasy. Conquer the beasts and get the girl!” Nima flexed her tiny arms mocking us. “Barbarity if you ask me.” She then put her long hair behind her ears and leaned in, “Jason assembled the greatest heroes and went in search of the golden fleece. He traveled the Black Sea and came to the shores of Colchis where the fleece was kept. It was a foreign, exotic land. He went to the king’s court there where he confronted the ruler. The king, Aeetes, not taking this foolish man seriously tells him he can have it if he accomplishes three deeds. First, he must plow a field with fire breathing bulls. However, unbeknownst to the king, his daughter, Medea, fell in love with Jason at first sight. So full of passion was she that she would do anything for him. It must have been intoxicating! So she aides Jason by giving him a lotion for his body that protects him from fire, and he heroically yokes the bulls and plows the field. Foolish boy, all this to get the golden fleece. Second, he is then sent to plant dragon’s teeth in the earth, whereupon, soldiers spring from the ground. Jason throws a stone, confusing the soldiers, and the soldiers begin to fight each other over who threw it. Medea gave him the knowledge of what would happen here and how to defeat them. Finally, Jason had to get passed a dragon where the golden fleece lay protected. Medea gave Jason a magic potion to use on the dragon to make it fall asleep. Jason used the potion and stole the golden fleece. Nevertheless, the king was furious and wanted the fleece back, but Jason, with Medea, who was madly in love, fled! The king chased them by sea. However, Medea killed her own brother and chopped him up, throwing parts of the prince’s body overboard to slow down the king. 

              Euripides’ Medea takes place at a later date, when Jason and Medea are older. Jason has sired two sons with her. She is now a stranger in a strange land. A foreigner who is looked upon as a symbol of the pre-Olympian religion, an earthy, chthonic world of magic and dark forces, more Persian than Greek. Medea has given Jason the good life as a good wife. She has done everything Jason has wished of her, however, Jason has become a traitor to his own bed, for he married a young princess. Medea’s Nurse describes the atmosphere:

But now, there’s only hatred. What should be 

most loved has been contaminated, stricken

since Jason has betrayed them—his children,

and my lady, for a royal bed. 

He’s married into power: Creon’s daughter.

Poor Medea, mournful and dishonored,

Shrieks at his broken oaths, the promise sealed

With his right hand (the greatest pledge there is) (D. Svarlien 20-27) 

Jason broke an oath, a grave act, a thing which Zeus presides over, but Jason has no reverence for divine law nor Medea. Medea, maddened, shows no moderation in her sufferings and cries out how much she despises Jason and her own children too for this offense. Remember all that she did for Jason, all she gave up for him. She can never go back to Colchis, where her father’s broken heart remains. Medea cries out, “Oh father, oh city,/ I left you in horror—I killed my own brother” (168-9). She then damns the pathetic plight of women in contrast to men, how women are reliant on a single soul where, on the other hand, men may plant their foot where they please. She shouts out, “I’d rather take my stand behind/ a shield three times than go through childbirth once.” (253-4) She’s working up the nerve to become a warrior in her own right. Medea then finishes by saying that there is no mind more murderous than a woman who is confronted by an injustice in her bed. 

              To make matters worse, King Creon of Corinth exiles Medea and her children! But where will she go? She supplicates to the king and the king grants her one day in order to get her and her children’s affairs aright, and from that moment on Medea knows what she must go. Unable to find resignation, she vows for revenge. Something is rotten in this Corinth. The chorus sings:

The streams of the holy rivers are flowing backwards.

Everything runs in reverse—justice is upside down.

Men’s minds are deceitful, and nothing is settled,

Not even oaths that are sworn by gods. (420-3)

Medea is driven by something akin to the desire for justice, however, it’s something wilder than justice that has taken over her. Men created unpassioned laws, but before law there was this earthy, chthonic will that ruled men’s breasts. She wants Jason to feel just how she feels this moment. This is very Hamletian, isn’t it dear? 

              “Indeed,” Percy said, “Hamlet sought after a wild justice that wrecked and ruined his royal family.”

                “Percy is so cute when he must agree with me,” Nima said, while pouring another glass of wine and taking a generous sip. “Her and Jason finally face each other. Medea stings him with words as Jason gives her his opportunistic rationale. He tells her how he just wanted to give Medea and his children the best life possible, and that she could have been his concubine, and then blames Medea for her own exile.

              Medea has her turn and reminds him of the sacred oath he broke, and how she was there for him every step along the way for his quest after the silly golden fleece. She then says:

I have you, the perfect spouse, a marvel,

So trustworthy—though I must leave the country

Friendless and deserted, taking with me

My friendless children! What a charming scandal

For a newlywed: your children roam

As beggars, with the one who saved your life. (521-6)

And then tells Jason how base he is, disguised as a man of gold, however, its brass that lies within his hidden folds.

              The king of Athens then comes by and promises Medea sanctuary. Now that she has somewhere to go, she plots to kill the princess with the circlet of Hades and a deathly robe. She begins to talk like a warrior, with the rage of Achilles. She will even murder her own children—revealing a dark nature of our soul that can corrupt—all this to make Jason feel proportionally what she is feeling. It’s madness, but there is a wild balance to it as she envisions it. 

              She sends her own children to give the golden circlet and the deathly robe to the princess and it is done. She then wonders how she could have ever thought to kill her own children. She asks herself, “What was I thinking?” She doesn’t even know what is driving her. She can’t pluck the mystery from her own heart. 

              She is now working up the nerve to kill her own children:

I cannot look at them. Grief overwhelms me.

I know that I am working up the nerve

For overwhelming evil, yet my spirit

Is stronger than my mind’s deliberations:

This is the source of mortals’ deeper grief. (1100-1104)

              Percy interjected, “The peril when passion trumps reason and the prices we pay when we let our virtue be beaten by dark impulses.” 

              “Passion trumps reason when men behave like fools!” Nima exclaimed.

              All the men’s eyes became circles as they looked upon Nima taking another drink out of her wine glass. Her face was becoming redder. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the wine or because of what Percy had said. 

“A messenger then runs to Medea telling her to leave quickly. He tells her how the gifts her children gave the princess have horridly killed the princess. Also, how and the king ran to save his but was killed by the deathly robe that clung to him as he clung to her. Medea marveled at her own success.

These are Medea’s last words before she was driven to kill her children:

Unhappy hand, act now. Take up the sword,

Just take it; approach the starting post of pain

To last a lifetime; do not weaken, don’t

Remember that you love your children dearly,

That you gave them life. For one short day

forget your children. Afterwards, you’ll grieve.

For even if you kill them, they were yours;

You loved them. I’m a woman cursed by fortune. (1268-75)

It’s done. Medea murders them, a most unnatural act. Jason then comes and sees Medea above the roof of the house with the slain children flying in a chariot of the gods. Jason curses her, bewildered that she even had the nerve to do the deed. He then revealed his true thoughts by shouting:

No Greek woman would have had the nerve 

to do this, but I married you instead:

a hateful bond, you ruined me. You’re not

a woman you’re a lion… (1387-1390)

He asks her how could she do this and she responds, “To make you feel pain” (1450).

              Medea left Jason while he cursed the world, begging for justice. But justice was already dealt, for it was him who broke a sacred oath.” Nima then turned to Percy and said, “The perils of when passions trump reason, as you said, my dear”

              “Where did this “nerve”, that she so worked up to kill her own children, come from?” Daniel asked.

              Spencer then broke in. “It comes from something deeper than our own reason, something that precedes the patriarch of the Olympian gods. It’s dark, earthy, and chthonic, even brooding. It’s beneath the surface of our mirrored reflection.

              Daniel then quizzically asked, “And what then is beneath the mirrored reflection of ourselves?”

              “This is the root of depth psychology,” Spencer said. “Depth psychology is found in these Greek tragedies. We find it in Medea being driven to kill her two children. We find it in little Antigone standing up to a king in order to give her beloved brother a burial. Depth psychology is the examination of the soul. It’s often best understood through the productions of art and literature, but in the interpretation of our dreams too. Our consciousness consists of an active, organizing, and creative element that knits our experience together. It’s part affective, cognitive, perceptive, and intuitive. If we do have a sixth sense, then it must be that thing shrouded in mystery which is our intuition. How it shifts and sifts itself is largely left unknown. It’s central to how we color the world and our place in it, yet it can only be half-seen and half-grasped at. I’m making the claim that depth psychology attempts to peel our eye to see more clearly what cannot be seen with the scientific eye. Our affective and cognitive nature are intimately intertwined with our intuition so much so that Medea must have wondered what was the driving force behind her own motives, of what was behind her “nerve”. We all have a backside just like we all have a frontside; so too we all have a shadow. Mortal beings have this side of their nature that can be utterly base; it may feed upon the sins of the flesh which they are heir to, do you see? And when their guard is down ignoble growths may foster and begin to fester. Medea’s nerve is older than reason. It’s the opposite of reason; it’s irrational. However, even though it is irrational, it still attempts to achieve proportional harm for what Jason made her feel. You see, it’s part conscious part unconscious. 

But all isn’t lost, because the shadow isn’t all that we are. There are other, nobler drives. We are driven to love, driven to knowledge, and to what is beautiful. It can be so beautiful to behold that, if trained and rehearsed, then this side, with the aid of the love of wisdom and wonder, one can finally begin to consciously harness and wield power in their world. We see the drive towards love in little Antigone standing up the to a might king. We see the drive for knowledge in Plato’s Socrates. We see the drive towards beauty brutally in the Iliad where war is waged in the name of a single woman. These drives can be corrupted but they are they are prewired into man, and if we give power to these uplifting and elevating drives, and not the demeaning and depreciatory, then he can become something almost divine.”

John then interjects, “The Romantic Rebellion–against the formalisms of science–begins to break the mirrored reflection of the self to get at something beneath the surface, but, as we said, it was Nietzsche who was the first modern depth psychologist. 

Henry, wearing his Christian, clerical collar, abrubtly interjected, “Nietzsche had many things to say. Maybe it’s best if we had a discussion exclusively on him, so Daniel here isn’t misguided on his suggestively darker ideas.”

“An exclusive discussion on Nietzsche would be called for,” John said, “That’s a great idea, Henry.”

              Albert interjected, “Is there any scientific proof of depth psychology’s power?”

Spencer then cleared his throat and said, “Albert, you have a special, scientific eye. However, depth psychology can only be realized when one peels the eye, when one sees beyond objective truths to something deeper within our nature. The mind’s mysteries and motives lie sometimes beneath the surface of our reason. Through the Rorschach interpretation of dreams, art, and literature we can better understand ourselves. Reason will only explain so much, but it cannot pluck the mystery of our hearts. 

 “Any concluding remarks?” Frank asked.

              John then knocked on the table twice and said, “One final comment on philosophy and tragedy:

However different their medium, the tragic poets are the spiritual brothers of the philosophers who, like Heraclitus, Democritus, and Plato, know that the surface of the world contains more deception than truth and search to understand why life is as it is, why suffering exists, how justice and more actions can be realized in society, and what larger order, if any, makes our existence intelligible. Tragedies continues to be written and performed after the fifth century, but the creative energy, ethical concern, and theological probing that produced the great works now move into philosophy and history. The spectator of Aeschylus and Sophocles are now also the readers of Plato and Aristotle. (The Greeks, Charles Segal pg.215)”

Everyone then nodded except for Nima.  She locked her eyesight on me with her powerful eyes as she finished her wine. She then stood up and said, “Daniel, Good luck, sir.” As Percy put her jacket on for her. The rest of the men looked at each other in bewilderment. 

John then patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good night, Daniel,” in a friendly manner.


[1] Poetics 140b35



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