Most of us are probably familiar with traditional images of terrifying goddesses or women of myth. Kali in India, the fierce goddess with bulging eyes, multiple weapons and long, red, protruding tongue is one, and the more fanciful, perhaps less terrifying Sheila-na-gig from Ireland and England is another. Through a Freudian lens Kali’s tongue could be a phallic image, while Sheila’s vagina is clearly feminine.
In 1922 Freud wrote a brief sketch that takes up only two pages in his Collected Papers for a longer essay on Medusa, the Greek version of the frightening female. For years I have found Freud’s reflections fascinating and fertile, even if at points they seem weak anthropologically and excessively ideological.
The story of Medusa is subtle and complicated. Let me just point out a few themes. She has snakes for hair, her gaze turns to stone anyone she sees or who sees her, and ultimately the hero Perseus decapitates her, and then from her head springs the horse Pegasus, source of the spring of the Muses. This is clearly a tale rich in implications, a gold mine for a myth-oriented psychologist.
Freud begins his notes with the equation, to decapitate = to castrate, and the castration is linked to the sight of something. Something? In his male-dominated viewpoint, naturally the pubic hair of a woman. A boy sees that a woman doesn’t have a penis and becomes anxious about not having one himself.
Now Freud makes a turn. The many hairs = the many snakes that mitigate the fear because they multiply the penises. At this point Freud makes a statement that got me meditating hard for many years: “This is confirmation of the technical rule according to which a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration.” (I’d love to have a book full of these “technical rules.”)
I think of other multiplications of phallic symbols, such as soldiers lined up in massive numbers holding their long weapons out straight or tanks and missiles parading down city avenues. According to the technical rule, a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration. Do these military marches and lofted guns signify castration rather than power? Does any display of a gun betray the weakness of the person holding it?
Any gun? Any display.? A father showing a gun to his impressionable son. The latest scope-fitted, night-seeing, rapid-firing weapon. Is a gun psychologically always a penis that is missing? (This whole subject begs book-length treatment. Here I can’t go into the problems of penis=power.) A gun does not signify power, but the lack of power. Always.
So, a gun is a symptom. But what is the cure for a gun? What would replace the gun and be real, have power? Why not a penis? Not the symbol of neurotic power but the means for being erotic, expressing love, incarnating desire, creating children, and offering pleasure. Maybe these qualities could be therapeutic for the gun. If everyone got serious about them, maybe they’d forget their guns.
In these times when women are rightfully correcting an excess of the power-penis, it isn’t always easy to appreciate this aspect of the male body. Our imagination of its mythic properties has become too narrow, partly because of Freud himself. He was too narrow in his vision of myth and of Medusa, and he limited far too much the imaginal implications of the penis.
It’s time to shift from the hero myth to something else. The hero, like Perseus, castrates. An alternative among the Greeks was Hermes, a humorous, witty figure, full of shadow, who was shown with a big, erect penis. He signifies love of life, lack of moralism and intense imagination. He was called “the guide of souls.” It might be better to march down our streets, as the Greeks apparently did, with penis-replicas on our shoulders rather than guns. The real thing.
Following up on Freud and looking at myth more closely, we have an opportunity to heal ourselves of the essentially neurotic gun and to recover a fuller enjoyment of either possessing or being with one who really possesses a penis.