Therapy and the face in the mirror

In the comments thread to yesterday’s post, N. (the blogger formerly known as Savoradin) wonders how psychotherapy might be different if Sigmund Freud had drawn upon the story of Quetzalcoatl and the mirror rather than the Greek myth of Narcissus.

I gather that the image of Narcissus interests N. quite a bit. He uses a painting of Narcissus as the heading for his new blog A Glinting Web, which features his own writing and photography, and one of the first essays he linked to in his quotation blog,, compares Narcissus with Orpheus. Both, says the essayist, journey into an underworld of sorts. This observation is highly compatible with Mesoamerican thought, in which a large portion of the underworld is in fact aquatic – the most paradisiacal of its four quadrants, which are symbolically represented by the petals of a cross-shaped flower.

With its roots deep in the fertile pond–the depths of inner being–Narcissus, flower and consciousness, rises toward the sun realm of upper selfhood but the flower-head bows in reverence to the depths below that nurtured the up-shooting flower. The flower Narcissus continues to reflect itself on the waters, but the visual reflection can now be extended to a contemplative ritual, the mind’s act of reflection.

I don’t know much about Freudian psychotherapy, unfortunately. But I offer the following generalization, based on my reading of myths and legends from both the Old World and the New: the idea that mirrors or other reflective surfaces are passive or neutral is distinctly modern. Mirrors – like crystals – are widely considered to have divinatory and normative and/or transformative qualities. With the help of mirrors, bowls of water, and so forth, the diviner can extend the power of his or her vision, perceiving events at temporal and geographic distances. Since in many cultures the whole purpose of divination is to help the client decide on a course of action, it’s important to realize that the “reflections” viewed in the mirror are never inevitable. Diviners are, first and foremost, therapists – when they aren’t practicing negative magic (sorcery), such as Tezcatlipoca performed on Quetzalcoatl.

The mirror in that story was two-sided – literally ambiguous. Its subtly convex surface showed the aging king a very unflattering portrait, which through the power of suggestion (“this is your body”) he accepted as an accurate depiction of his tonal, the aspect of the soul “equated with the spark of life, fate, or luck of an individual”(glossary in Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztecs, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) – our self-image, the part of the consciousness that travels in dreams. By accepting this distorted tonal as his own, the aged king condemned his life force (yollo), equated with heart and blood, to inexorable decline.

In the cyclic worldview of the pre-Columbian Mexica, individuals, like the world itself, were considered always to be either ascendant or descendant. At noon, the sun itself was captured in a celestial mirror – the sun’s dark doppelganger – and it is this mirror we see in the afternoon, while the real sun retraces its path of the morning, unseen. The dark mirror had both lunar and telluric aspects; its descent into the underworld reflected both mythic and personal dimensions. In a foundational myth, the Lord of the Smoking Mirror united with the goddess of the volcano Popocatepetl, symbolic of the entire earth (including land and water, aboveground and below). In so doing, Tezcatlipoca lost his foot and gained his sorcerer’s mirror, becoming with its aid the master of fates, an Eshu or Loki possessing the classic trickster personality that has led most Christian commentators to equate him with Satan. At one time, Nahua peoples viewed the surface of the earth itself as a form of the sorcerer’s mirror.

The sun’s mirror double also suggests the nahual (nagual in modern Nahuat): the alter ego acquired by each individual at birth. This is similar to the Northern European concept of the fetch, except that it is visualized as an animal inhabiting the underworld (which is where our tonal travels in dreams). When it dies, its human counterpart also dies.

One of Knab’s informants, an elderly healer named Rubia, outlines the modern Nahua conception of the self:

The yollo is the heart that is returned to the earth when life is finished. The heart is the seed, the core of life. From it, life sprouts forth. In the heat and light of the sun, the tonal sprouts and grows. The tonal gives us our life when we are born, our luck and our fate. The tonal is the part of us that goes everywhere. It lives in Talocan [the underworld]; it lives in the earth, in Taltipac. It lives in the sky in Ilhuiac, but it is only well on earth or in the sky with the sun. The tonal is the spark of life that is in us. It is what makes you you and me me. The nagual is the other self. It is the other me, or the other you, and you share your life, and your tonal, with it. It is the nagual that you must know, and the tonal that you need to find, because it is your tonal that moves about in dreams. You must know what the heart, the tonal, sees to find the nagual, the animal.

And only with this power can one successfully ward off attacks from a nagualli, “a witch or transforming shaman with multiple naguals capable of both good and evil,” according to Knab, who learns from his informants how to interpret his own dreams according to the unique topography of Talocan until he, too, becomes a terrifyingly lucid dreamer and nagualli.

As always, the distinction between witch or sorcerer and shaman remains largely subjective, depending on one’s judgement about the intent and effect of the practitioner’s acts. Another interesting example of the use of trickery and a distorting mirror to change another person comes from the traditional oral history of the Iroquois, as contained in the Deganawidah Epic. Deganawidah was a prophet – that is, a shaman and diviner of immense social significance – who apparently flourished sometime between the mid-15th and early 16th centuries. At that time, the tribes that were to become the Iroquois Confederacy had been embroiled in internecine conflict for centuries. Deganawidah, like Gandhi after him, decided to use his own religious charisma to try and create social harmony and a new sense of national identity. Key to this effort was a change in funerary customs, so that feelings of compassion and fraternity could be ritually substituted for the debilitating and devisive emotions of grief and rage. That’s a subject for another post, however. Today, I want to close with the story of Deganawidah’s first convert, Hiawatha (not to be confused with the protagonist of the poem by Longfellow, who for some reason used Iroquois names in an otherwise Algonquian story cycle).

As Matthew Dennis, in Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Cornell U.P., 1993), notes,

Nothing more symbolizes the self-destructive violence and disorder of the world Deganawidah found than the practice of cannibalism. When the prophet and reformer first encountered Hiawatha, Deganawidah observed him as “one who eats human flesh.” Through trickery and supernatural power, Deganawidah transformed Hiawatha into a civil man of peace. While the cannibal was away on a hunt, Deganawidah concealed himself on the roof of Hiawatha’s lodge. From that vantage point, the prophet watched the cannibal return with a human body, which he butchered and set boiling in a noxious stew. As Hiawatha looked into the clay pot, preparing to ladle its contents into a bowl, Deganawidah himself peered down from above. The cannibal was amazed to see the beautiful reflection; he saw a man of wisdom, righteousness, and strength. It was not “the face of a man who eats humans.”

Someone I read recently – an anthropologist, but I can’t remember who – observed that the main difference between a modern psychotherapist and a shaman lies in how much work each is willing to do on the patient’s behalf. Whereas in modern therapy, as I understand it, the patient is guided through a hopefully healing process in which he or she must play the leading role, in most traditional therapeutic systems the shaman, diviner or priest takes the lead, and the patient remains largely passive. Rather than work to construct a narrative centered on the patient, the shaman creates an extemporaneous drama in which he or she is the sole or chief performer, acting in the patient’s stead to defeat whatever demons or diseases are found to be responsible for the malaise.*

This pattern may be seen even in Kung healing, where religious specialization is kept to a minimum and the healing energy is perceived to be an unlimited resource equally available to all. Only the most powerful healers are thought capable of practicing on themselves. What I think generally happens in any kind of healing is that some kind of synergy is created. If the patient can see himself in the healer – and vice versa – a new, more harmonious whole, bigger than the sum of its parts, can be forged from the formerly atomized elements at war with each other. Such healing is, of course, fraught with difficulty and danger – so everyone from the Nahua to the Iroquois to the Kung aver. Deganawidah risks his own murder and dissolution in the stew when he substitutes his face for Hiawatha’s.

From a rationalist/reductionist perspective, there is always a sleight-of-hand at work in religion and traditional healing. The diviner says, “This is how things will be,” when what she really means is, “This is how they could be, if you accept the divination.” And a Deganawidah, a Jesus or a Buddha says: I take your place, you can take mine – for we are both perfect from the beginning, created in the image of divinity. Things are more than what they seem. Samsara is already nirvana. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

*Obviously, this is the crudest of generalizations. Many diviners in fact occupy a semi-active position part-way between these two extremes. And possession ceremonies, meditation and similar techniques are predicated upon an even more radical rewriting of the three-way relationship between patient, healer and divinity.

I’ve written a number of other posts dealing with mirrors and doppelgangers. Probably the most relevant is the brief essay/poem Consulting the mirror. I wrote about the the Old Norse conception of fate and the self (as best as it can be determined from surviving documents) here. And for the ultimate mind-bending example of the mirrored or doubled soul, see The truth about conjoined twins.

Deforming mirror

The embassy [to Cortés at San Juan de Ulua], consisting of two Aztec nobles, was accompanied by the governor, Teuhtlile, and by a hundred slaves, bearing the princely gifts of Montezuma. One of the envoys had been selected on account of the great resemblance which, as appearing from the painting representing the camp, he bore to the Spanish commander. And it is a proof of the fidelity of the [Aztec] painting, that the soldiers recognised the resemblance, and always distinguished the chief by the name of the “Mexican Cortés.”

William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico


[W]hen Motecuhzoma II was elected, the king of Tezcoco, Nezahaulpilli, [declared]: “He placed us in front of a mirror where we must free ourselves.”

Guilhem Olivier, Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror” (trans. by Michel Besson, University Press of Colorado, 2003)


Tezcatlipoca arrived in the guise of a young man at the palace where Quetzalcoatl was secluded. He brought with him a wrapped up two-faced mirror and announced to the guards that he had come to “present his body” to the king of Tollan. The latter was somewhat taken aback by the project: “What’s my ‘body’?” Tezcatlipoca refused to show the mirror to the guards, but Quetzalcoatl agreed to receive him. The “young man” then unveiled his instrument and said: “Know yourself, see yourself, my child, for you will appear in the mirror.” Upon seeing his puffed face and sunken eyes, Quetzalcoatl became frightened and feared his subjects would surely flee if they saw him. He decided to stay in his palace. Tezcatlipoca went out and laughed at his victim. . . .

Quetzalcoatl-Nanahuatl, transformed into the sun in Teotihuacan, reaches the zenith where he becomes the prisoner of the black mirror. Starting with the descent of the star (“the afternoon sun”), he comes even closer to the earth, night, and matter. Quetzalcoatl has then become a lunar personage, similar to Tlaloc and also to the old god of fire, and he possesses a body that Tezcatlipoca himself reveals to him in a mirror. . . . As a young man, Tezcatlipoca mocks the old Quetzalcoatl. The Lord of the Smoking Mirror would then be the nascent night and the deforming mirror that soils whoever looks into it.



According to [Michel] Graulich, the Mexica king thus hoped to reproduce the episode of the mirror and Quetzalcoatl in Tollan that I have just mentioned. Once confronted with his own image or reflection, Cortés, like the old Tollan king, would have been assimilated with a waning star. The Belgian scholar also supposes that this “human mirror” could have functioned in the same way as the obsidian knife placed in a container of water, which was used to repell the attacks of the most powerful sorcerers. When confronted with their own images, they took flight.

If the Spanish were indeed amazed at the resemblance between Quintalbor and their own leader, obviously Cortés was not worried to have to face his own image.



. . . [T]hey remained so frightened that they never learned who told me about it [the plot against the Spaniards] and I do not believe they will ever rise again, because they believe that I have learned about it through a special craft and thus they think that nothing can remain hidden from me. And indeed, since they saw that, in order to find this path [to Honduras], I used a marine map and a compass . . . they told many Spaniards, and from them in turn I heard it, and even some of them told me directly . . . that in order for me to know their good intentions, they begged me to look into the mirror and the map and that I would see there that they were well disposed to me since I saw all things; I myself had them understand that that was the truth and that, with the compass and marine map, I could see and know and that all things became clear to my eyes.

Fernando Cortés, Third Letter (translated in ibid.)

The bell tower in the blonde

You’ve heard of the blonde in the tower – think Rapunzel. This is a story about the bell tower in the blonde.

[A]n oversized portrait of German model Claudia Schiffer, promoting lipstick and shampoo from the French cosmetics company L’Oréal, wrapped the scaffolding around the 167-ft. bell tower of Germany’s best-known church.

Left intentionally in ruins after World War II, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands as a testimony against war and destruction. But in 1999, cracks appeared in the bell tower of a modern church built next to the ruins. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy – so when an advertising firm offered to rent the scaffolding around the tower for the L’Oréal poster, pastor Sylvia von Kekulé agreed. Six months of the Schiffer poster financed the $298,000 bell tower restoration.

Curiously, this commercial expropriation of sacred space was necessary despite the federal government’s support of religion. And it’s becoming a trend.

Throughout Germany, churches are renting their facades for commercial messages. Supporters hail the development as an ingenious fundraising tactic. But critics argue the move dilutes the sacredness of churches.

I’m not sure “dilute” would be the word I’d use. Rather, some more fundamental paradigm shift seems to be at work here. For a parallel, I think we need look no farther than France where, five years ago, another supermodel was chosen as the new, semi-divine symbol of her country.

Laetitia Casta, of Victoria’s Secret and Guess Jeans (1994) fame, was named the symbolic representation of France’s Republic in the 21st century in a vote of the country’s more than 35,000 mayors in October 1999.

The French model became the first official Marianne, an embodiment of liberty, equality, and fraternity and other values of the Republic. The image of Marianne is everywhere in France, in patriotic artwork, and on all official documents.

The representation of Marianne most famous in other countries is that of the bare-breasted woman brandishing a flag and a bayonet in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.”

Originally, the emphasis was on this mythical figure’s virgin peasant girl status – a Joan of Arc leading her people to victory. But attention gradually shifted to her breasts, and the people hungered after a goddess of more earthly powers.

“The Republic prefers an opulent, more maternal breast, with its promise of generosity and abundance,” explains writer/historian Maurice Agulhon, who adds that a pair of identically sized and shaped breasts are “an additional symbol of the egalitarian spirit.”

But can a living person really function as a symbol? From an anthropological perspective, I think it would be more accurate to view Casta in part as a sacred power object: an icon, fetish, or idol. At one level, her image does have deep symbolic value, satisfying Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol, in which “norms and values . . . become saturated with emotion, while the gross and basic emotions become ennobled through contact with social values” (The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell U.P., 1967). But at another level, Casta conveys an undeniable power to her devotees: the power of limited self-transcendence through masturbation.

This may seem like a trivialization of religion, and I suppose it is. But the worship of the human body is nothing new, unfamiliar as it may seem to those with mainstream Christian or Jewish backgrounds. Body and icon can become almost interchangeable in many traditions – including in Christianity, where, at least since St. Francis, mystics male and female have attempted to realize the imitatio Christi within their own bodies, through the reception of the stigmata and other miraculous transformations.

Body can become icon, but icon can also become a supramundane body, an axis mundi, a habitation for the divine. I think that’s what’s happening, in a very rudimentary way, with the bell tower in the blonde. Imagine the parishioners being called to service through the tolling of bells appearing to emanate from the throat or chest of an idealized female image, provocatively cloaking a structure with at least subconscious phallic associations. At this moment, the icon transcends its role as symbol and focus of desire – transcends desire itself, perhaps. As the psycholinguist Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy, Routledge, 1982) reminds us, sound possesses temporality and conveys power beyond what any image can achieve.

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. . . . By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense.

Since the practice of religion is largely a communal affair, the production of organized sound is invaluable for its harmonizing and unifying effects. Gods do not write letters; they speak. And what Ong calls the interiority of sound suggests another characteristic of divinity: the ability to animate the inanimate and to inhabit the already living. In the sacred dramas that are at the center of so many religious services and festivals, human beings may lend their bodies to the gods to communicate power or messages to their worshippers. The human beings so inhabited may also then receive a form of homage bordering on worship, no less than more permanent images made from stone or wood.

Music without words can be an especially potent catalyst of polysemic meanings. The divinely animated female icon beside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church mediated material/commercial and social/national messages. War and sex, peace and commerce were merged into a greater, synergistic whole.

The run-away popularity of the novel The Da Vinci Code, baseless as its claims to historical authenticity may be, suggests that contemporary, post-Christian Europeans and Euro-Americans may be ready for an even more radical return to pagan roots. The public celebration of a hieros gamos or sacred wedding was once a widespread annual event, considered essential to the earth’s continuing fertility and hospitality. Today, with anxieties about global change phenomena reaching an all-time high, especially in Europe, a reinvention of this ritual could go a long way toward calming public anxieties. Modern mass media could turn a sacred wedding into a cathartic and transformative event for millions.

One could well argue that the very public wedding ceremony of Prince Charles and Lady Diana did serve this function. However, traditional, nationalistic themes still shaped the ideological framework. A new, more unified Europe could benefit from a sacred wedding celebration with international, even cosmic connotations within a framework of planetary healing and reconciliation. For example, Laetitia Casta as the avatar of France could unite with a male – or possibly even female – hypostasis of Germany. The very thought fills me with a strange tingly sensation akin to awe.

In the forest of the meantime

half-sister to the poem In the Ice Forest, from last February

Deer flies bumble into my hair and can’t get out. I’m walking in the day-long dusk of midsummer woods, under a low cloud ceiling. I’ve learned how to pause, wait for just the right moment to give myself a swift blow to the head.

It’s the season for dramatic understatements: enchanter’s nightshade, rattlesnake plantain, jumpseed. The spring ephemerals have all taken new aliases. Violets’ heart-shaped leaves swell and darken, cloaking the semi-mythical cleistogamous seeds.

When the woods were filled with April light, they bloomed according to the script: a parade of shining faces, perfect forms. But now the leaf rot parts for the lurid sex organs of fungi, July’s freak show of boletes, russulas, earth stars, stinkhorns, dead man’s fingers and the fatal fly agarics.

Indian pipes rise in clumps, pale as vampires. They sink their hypodermic roots into the veins of trees and suck.

In every break in the laurel, some spider has staked a claim. The trails grow treacherous with webs. I move slowly, waving my stick from side to side like a blind conductor. Small white moths flutter up from beneath my feet.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way, roots loosened by rain. There’s a muffled crash; no echo. In the aftermath, the wood peewee keeps bending the same two notes. His fondest wish is for the clouds never to part.

But where in this labyrinth could sunlight ever find an opening? I pause for a three-inch slug, dapper streak of brown-on-gray, stretched across the moss like an exclamation without a point.

I crouch down to watch its infinitesimal progress. The eyestalks look as if they might move sometime soon.

Biblical truth

Real Live Preacher has an excellent post on the various ways the Bible can be used and misused.

Those people around the table? The ones you spoke so harshly to that night when you came upon them sharing a meal and pleasant conversation at church? You told them it was a shame when Christians gathered only to eat and talk. You dropped your big black bible on the table with a thud for emphasis. They are some of God’s oldest and wisest servants. They have prayed down the walls of prejudice and broken the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of their hands and feet. Their meal was a prayer, though you couldn’t hear it.

They know something that you do not know.

These people know that the bible is not a self-help book full of easy answers, but a book of stories and wisdom that is meant to lead us into relationship and worship. There are hard and fast truths in it, yes, but they are surrounded by soft truths, and slippery truths, and sometimes truths, and truths that once were true but are no longer true, and truths that are only true if you are in the right state of mind, and truths that are only true if you are not hurting someone, and truths that are true in the moment but not if you are talking about the moment, and truths that can only be lived and should never be spoken, and truths that we cannot hear, and truths that are more than we can bear.

Incidentally, the Preacher has travelled at least part-way down the via negativa and come out whole, to hear him tell it.

I learned some things. I found my way.

Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.


Thunder bear

The other night, toward dusk, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the walk toward my front door, and looked up from my computer just in time to see a black bear peering in.

I say “peering in,” but that’s not really accurate. What it did was, it kind of sidled up to the door and pressed its large and expressive nose against the screen for a few seconds, without looking directly in. No doubt if it had looked in, it would’ve had a hard time making sense of the jumble of right angled, brightly colored objects.

It wasn’t a large bear, just a yearling, and it didn’t stick around to visit. It was probably the same animal whose blueberry-filled scat I had discovered on the driveway that morning.

There isn’t much to say about such an encounter, really. But I was reminded of it this morning when I was awoken by a single, loud clap of thunder around 2:00. As I drifted back to sleep, I remember thinking something along the lines of, One side sings continual hosannas, the other side recites cautionary tales in a deadening drone.

What I think I meant was, every act is unique and unrepeatable – or so it seems to the angels. Against the angels I picture not devils but pedants, functionaries and technicians reminding us that the sun also riseth and vanity of vanities. But I may also have had some more private idea in mind.

I like the way black bears always seem to be grinning.