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.

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