Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

The film is the 2005 collaboration, MirrorMask, between fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. The story follows Helena, a teenager and daughter of circus performers, who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into the world she has unintentionally created in her drawings to find that the Queen of the Light has fallen into a deep sleep and cannot be awoken without the charm. Helena volunteers to find the charm, and her quest leads her into the Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess has just run away. The charm, the MirrorMask, helped the princess to leave the world entirely and switch places with Helena. Knowing that Helena may eventually find the mask, she slowly destroys the drawings hoping to prevent Helena’s return. Helena outsmarts her, and returns home to a happy ending with her parents.

The archetype present in this film is the mother/daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I propose an alternative reading of this myth that implies that Persephone’s abduction was not entirely a plot by Zeus and Hades, but, rather, an opportunity for Persephone to gain independence away from her mother. Under this reading, Persephone’s grief at being separated from her mother was exaggerated to appease her mother, and that she knew with certainty what it would mean for her to eat the pomegranate seeds on her way out of Hades. This reading hinges entirely on a Jungian interpretation as a myth of individuation. The only other evidence that suggests that Persephone’s story was not a simple abduction and rape is that there is no concrete evidence of a child between Hades and Persephone. Myths involving sexual intercourse between a god or goddess often include the birth of a child.

One other central theme to the film is the concept of the shadow. Helena’s adventure is plagued by the chaos left by the princess, identified in the script as Anti-Helena. Similarly, the queens of the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Shadows are both sides of Helena’s perspective of her mother. Helena’s journey involves exploring both sides of her dream world and reaching an understanding that the two sides of her mother (kindly versus possessive) are out of love for her. In order for Helena to succeed on her mission, she has to confront her own shadow self, Anti-Helena, with the MirrorMask and reflect her back into the realm of her psyche in which she belongs.

The shadow is an important theme in Neil Gaiman’s stories, especially to the extent that one must both confront and integrate with one shadow, otherwise one’s personally balance is disrupted in a bad way. In this film, the balance is disrupted with a complete teeter-totter and the shadow lives in the conscious realm, and the ego is forced to live in the unconscious. The unconscious is slowly destroyed in the film by Anti-Helena as she destroys Helena’s drawings. The possibility exists of Anti-Helena’s balance as long as she learns how to better relate to her mother, which is the exact thing Helena has to learn in her own life.

Intro, 0.44-4.54 minutes

This scene establishes the relationship between Helena (Persephone) and her mother (Demeter), and how her mother’s love and worry for her daughter will induce to her do whatever is necessary to find her. Helena, on the other hand, reveals her feelings and desire to get out of the circus. The circus represents the garden of the gods. It is removed from “reality” in a contained fashion. As Helena cries out that she wants to leave this “garden,” her mother remarks that she could not handle “real life.” This scene also establishes the theme of the shadow, as depicted in Helena’s sock puppets playing against each other.

After the end of this scene, Helena’s mother falls ill and is rushed to the hospital to have surgery. This is parallel to Demeter’s distraction when Persephone goes off to pick flowers.

Descent into the Underworld, 20.09-24.34 minutes

In this scene, Helena is lured by some late night violin playing, and is pushed through the door by Valentine, a juggler, trying to escape some deadly black stuff. Valentine represents both Hades and Hermes throughout the movie, but mostly Hades in this scene. He is the one who forces Helena into the dream world and becomes her consort throughout her adventure.

Once through the door, Helena encounters a sphinx, which, much like the Sphinx that guarded the gateway into Thebes in Oedipus the King, represents a threshold guardian between the conscious/unconscious, living/dream, or rational thought/primordial thought. Rather than answer a riddle, however, Helena has to feed him a book. Then she can proceed fully into the underworld.

After the end of this scene, Helena realized that there is a Kingdom of Light, whose queen is sleeping and can only wake with the help of the charm, and a Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess ran away using said charm, the MirrorMask, and who bears strong resemblance to Helena.

Light versus Shadow, 37.17-38.53 Minutes

I wanted to include this scene because it sets up the idea of the shadow, but otherwise has nothing to do with the Demeter/Persephone story.

Following this scene, Helena continues on her journey and winds up in the clutches of the Queen of Shadows, who is really angry that her daughter ran away and really just wants her home.

The Dark Palace, 1:10.27-1:11.39 & 1:19.51-1:20.59 Minutes

This scene shows the extent of the Queen of Shadows’ longing for her daughter, to the point that she will accept Helena as a substitute, giving her full power and benefit of the princess. Helena is transformed into a copy of Anti-Helena, much like how Demeter placed the baby into the fire to make it immortal. Although we see her at the dinner table and talking about food, we never see Helena actually eat, suggesting that she will be able to return home. Helena reminds the Queen that the chaos in the world is caused by Anti-Helena, just like the personal chaos Demeter experienced after Persephone left her.

Meanwhile, Valentine, who all this time has lead Helena around her dream world, returns to take Helena home to the upper world, fulfilling his Hermes role.

The Return and Homecoming, 1:32.10-1:34.45 & 1:36-28-1:38.02 Minutes

Valentine and Helena find the MirrorMask in the Princess’s bedroom and run away from the Queen. When they get to the threshold, Valentine almost keeps her in the underworld (feeding her pomegranate seeds) by keeping the mask for himself. Helena returns to her correct world by integrating Anti-Helena back into her psyche and the world is right again. Her mother wakes up, the two are reunited, and they live happily ever after. Helena now has a better appreciation for her mother.


Re-Visioning the Mother and Father with the Help of Harry Potter

James and Lily Potter represent for their orphaned son, Harry, the ideal Father and Mother. They died in a surprise attack protecting Harry from Lord Voldemort when he was only one year old. Throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry learns about his parents, facts that threaten to abolish his ideal, while having to learn to identify the Mother and Father as archetypes in his life. In her book, The Wisdom of the Psyche, Ginette Paris recounts a need to reconnect with the Mother and Father archetypes. Separation from these archetypes manifest on a social level as problems that threaten order, such as a generation of eternal youth tormented by housing, fuel, and food crises that threaten a way of life and basic survival needs. Like Harry, a reconnection with the traditional images that embody these archetypes is in order, due in part to a mythic paradigm shift that has challenged and upturned traditional beliefs and behaviors. Instead, what is needed is a re-visioning or re-imagining of the Mother and Father archetypes. The model provided in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series suggests not only that the new images can be found in unlikely people or places, but also that the archetype can have many faces.

To best understand how this can be accomplished, an understanding of an archetypal approach is necessary to lay the foundations of an archetypal reading of Harry Potter. In his treatise on soul making through archetypal psychology, James Hillman in Re-Visioning Psychology offers methods of seeing and applying archetypes to one’s life. He suggests that archetypes are "the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world" (xix, emphasis original). By this model, archetypes are held to be any universal pattern, regardless of the degree of sacred quality it possesses. They are symbolic metaphors that point beyond the normal framework of the ego-consciousness, and they affect the individual on a deeply personal, emotional level. Hillman goes so far as to compare an archetype with a god in a generic, sacred sense (xix). While Harry Potter does not resemble a god of any tradition, the series is nevertheless full of archetypal characters who influence the reader to behave in comparable fashions, from the hero, Harry, to the Wise Old Man, Albus Dumbledore, and can lead the reader on his or her own fruitful, rewarding journey. Hillman presents four categories of archetypal re-visioning: personifying, pathologizing, de-humanizing, and psychologizing. Some of these categories are more relevant to the reader than to the series’ characters, but an understanding of them makes the reading experience richer.

Personifying “implies a human being who creates Gods in human likeness much as an author creates characters out of his own personality” and is the process of naming the archetype (Hillman 12). Hillman relates this to the naming of experiences and feelings, to giving them a capitalized name. In the world of Harry Potter, archetypal evil is characterized by Voldemort, a power-hungry, dark wizard who utilizes all avenues needed to accomplish his goals. Harry is one of the few in the Wizarding World who is not afraid to speak Voldemort’s name, but he is surrounded by people who cringe at its utterance. Albus Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, teaches Harry and the reader that the fear of using the name incites fear of the thing. In fearing to use the name, to personify the archetype, the individual is essentially avoiding the archetype itself creating a barrier of fear around it. This is applicable to all archetypes, both positive and negative. Giving the archetype a name and an image brings it to a level with which the individual can identify with by making it represent the observable universe.

Pathologizing is the psyche’s reaction to an experience or behavior that manifests as an “illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering” (Hillman 57). It follows a religions and/or medical model of cause and effect: because of "a," then "b”: “We suffer, it has been customary to say, because we are either sick or sinful, and the cure of our suffering calls for either science or faith” to explain what is ailing the individual, to give it a simple, straightforward explanation with a simple, straightforward cure (Hillman 57). Both of these models “imply that pathologizing is wrong” (ibid.). The discovery of this correlation between archetypal unrest and physical malady is the socio-psychological bridge between the onset of the problem and the path to a new enlightenment and archetypal connection.

The physicality of pathologizing is less relevant to Harry Potter than the tradition that shuns it. Hillman argues that pathologizing is the model for why monotheism is dangerous to the psyche, because, like science, it does not attend to the complex needs of the psyche through its simple, straightforward explanation. Monotheism places a very thick, limited frame around archetypes and their ability to influence the psyche. In his world, Harry, as the archetypal hero, challenges the assumptions held by the Ministry of Magic regarding Voldemort and the nature of evil. The Ministry, tied to the steadfast monotheistic point of view that Voldemort was defeated the night Harry’s parents died, ignore all of the signs of his return. This piece of plot demonstrates the potential damage that can come from a closed mind, or a limited point of view. Like Hillman, Harry challenges the monotheistic mentality embedded in the Western tradition. The Harry Potter Alliance, a social activism organization inspired by the themes of Harry Potter, calls this the “muggle mindset,” using Rowling’s term for non-magical people. To combat the “muggle mindset” means to see the people of the world as equal with equal rights, regardless of religious creed, race, gender or culture. In other words, to break out of the monotheism that limits perspectives towards global and psychological affairs.

Furthermore, Hillman calls for a return to a polytheistic mindset, idealized by the Greeks and their pantheon of gods that describe various behaviors, emotions, experiences, and anything else that could not be explained by immediate observation. The monotheistic mindset has birthed the modern approaches to science that strive to identify the explanation behind everything, reducing the need to accomplish the same explanation through imaginal practices. Science overshadows the imagination, evidenced in the works of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and their students declaring myth, mythic thinking and mythic imagination to be either missing or dead. In reading Hillman’s work, it seems to me more like a call to return to the Greek pantheon altogether. I am critical of that approach because the Greek pantheon fulfilled the needs of a specific group of people at a specific time. Studying the myths assists in identifying their psychic power, but the modern mind needs an entirely new approach, one not reliant upon an alterable history. The archetypes Hillman is identifying are idealized within Greek mythology, but also manifest in various places throughout popular culture. In Harry Potter the parallels to the Greek pantheon are non-existent; however, the archetypes manifest in other ways relevant to the modern mind. Time will tell what future generations think about the books and whether they still hold the archetypal significance they hold now.

Because Harry holds his parents in such high regard, especially since they died protecting him, de-humanizing their ideal is crucial for him to accomplish his task. As he gets older, he learns more about them, especially about his father, who was not the pristine hero Harry thought he was. Eventually, he realizes he loves his parents despite all their faults. The lesson for the reader is that the idea of the parents is the archetype projected onto the actual people, and it is important to learn to separate the parents from the projection. As soon as Harry learns this, he is able to use his own voice and act beyond the expectations his parents’ memory forces on him, and, thus, he is able to individuate and say goodbye.

Psychologizing is particularly helpful for the readers of Harry Potter who get caught in the throes of mythopoetic arrest, the "a-ha" feeling in the books. Some readers need to create in response to this feeling, and this has given birth to the "fandom." Fans are linked not only by their love for the books, but also by fan fiction, podcasts, Wizard Rock (or "Wrock"), arts and crafts, group meetings, and many other things. What is missing, in my opinion, is the use of creative energy to create new myths, to live out one’s personal myth as inspired by the archetypes in Harry Potter rather than through those archetypes. Hillman describes psychologizng as mythologizing or as "seeing through," “a process of deliteralizng and a search for the imaginal in the heart of things by means of ideas” (Hillman 136). There is plenty of discussion in the fandom of the "whats" of Harry Potter, but the dialogue falters at the "hows" and "whys". By "hows" and "whys", I am referring to the reasons behind the significance of the series and its popularity. Whether it is through the methods of archetypal psychology, comparative mythology, or any other approach, the "seeing through" of the myth is the most crucial to is continuation, which is essential for a story to be labeled as a myth and not just a really popular story. It is very simple for a myth to be discarded before it passes into subsequent generations. The modern Western mentality of a disposable culture constantly bounces from myth to myth, object to object, person to person. There is little room for mythic blooming in an age of too much information. A recent example is the fever and failure of the Star Wars phenomenon. The original trilogy touched an archetypal need that was otherwise lacking in the culture at the time. Twenty years later, George Lucas re-released the original trilogy, edited and updated, not in response to cultural needs, but because of technological advances. He then proceeded to release a "prequel" trilogy that, to some extent, alienated the original fans that found the new movies void of the mythic qualities they loved in the first trilogy. Because George Lucas has continued to revisit the myth for his own reasons, they have lost their mythic qualities.

Because Harry is constantly forced to revisit the archetypes versus the actual people, Harry Potter acts as a model for the process of reconnecting to and re-identifying the Mother and Father archetypes. The lack of these particular archetypes, or, rather, their weak presence in this country, has created several problems unique to the modern era, ranging from a breakdown of community and communication, an overload of information and net-based globalization, to various "crises" that upset the flow of society, such as the rapid increase in fuel costs to the mortgage fall-out and the resulting banking crisis. The severity of these crises depends wholly on one’s vantage point. Younger people, such as myself, with their lives still ahead have different perspectives of these events than those in the end of their lives, seeing them more as a threat to their overall well-being. Each generation gets progressively "younger," holding onto the myth of eternal youth and dependency, “caught betwixt and between the Child and the Adult, and the consequences of their failure is tragic for them as for the rest of society” (Paris 114). All they are craving is for the love and care of Mother and Father, whom are missing.

Without a stable parental structure, onto whom does one have to project these archetypes? Part of this comes from the need to redefine the general appearance of what Mother and Father. No longer do they resemble "Ozzy and Harriet," the Cleavers, or other iconic couples from early television. Father is not necessarily the male of the house who goes out to earn money to take care of the family. Mother is not necessarily a female who is home all day, baking cookies and waiting for her children to return from school. In some cases, no one is at home at all, dinner is take out, and the only quality time the family spends together is watching TV or driving to school. This is shifting, but not quickly enough to make a smooth, clear transition. It is up to the individual to find someone onto which they can project. Harry has two Father figures: his headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, and his godfather, Sirius Black, both representing an authoritative, loving role model. His friends’ mother, Molly Wesley, most closely resembles a mother for Harry, but he does not identify her with Mother. Instead, Mother is represented by Hogwarts, the magic school he attends. This Mother nurtures and loves him. His ongoing battle with Lord Voldemort is driven mostly to protect the school and the people he loves whom she houses.

Because Harry is forced to separate his parents with their corresponding archetype, he helps readers see archetypal possibilities beyond traditional stereotypes. Perhaps Harry Potter is not meant to survive as a myth beyond the present era. But his story functions at this time as a transition from a traditional mythology to a new, developing mythos.

Works cited

  • Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
  • Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology after Neuroscience. London: Routledge, 2007.

Is Civility Dead?

I caught a piece of that show, Today, which is on a station I don’t normally watch, and they were running a segment about civility versus rudeness. Today’s installment focuses on the use of technology and how it helps disassociate people from each other, and suggests that this issue compounded with social tensions – especially concerning the economy – is to blame for the endemic rudeness and aggressiveness running throughout American culture. In my own little microcosm, I see many of the same symptoms: drivers who feel they are entitled to the entire road at the expense of safety, students who text during class, students who yell at me for not giving them exceptions to the rule, conservatives who want to boycott necessary taxes for community building… That’s only the Short List.

My gut impulse is to suggest that the best way to combat rudeness is through the Humanities, since obviously parental role models aren’t working (in fact, they simply fuel the fire). Through the Humanities, we can be reminded what it means to be HUMAN, in direct contrast to the science and technological emphasis in modern education. The real sad part is that many schools are killing the Humanities and those that still have a Humanities program stop with Intro, which is painfully just one step away from art history, and really don’t get the point across. (As a side note, I’m now contemplating semester themes to highlight various human issues, but since that will require a major curriculum change, that might be awhile in the works.)

But then I think about it a little further. Aggressiveness is the realm of Ares, technology the realm of Hermes, drunken excess or other substance use to combat the daily tensions of everyday life the ream of Dionysus, and the power games belong to Zeus. I think I now get the whole Goddess movement. I don’t support the Goddess movement as a rebellion against the patriarchal norm, but I do see a lack of female influence in the cultural psyche. Where is Demeter and her connection to our food source? Where is Aphrodite – where is beautiful Aphrodite, I should say. We live under the shadow of Dark Aphrodite, the direct result of the unhealthy relationships Americans have to sex. Hera seems to be on permanent vacation, and Athena isn’t trying hard enough.

I’m not the biggest fan of archetypal psychology, especially when it holds onto the Greco-Roman paradigm, but I’m now curious what archetypes we can introduce back into our society that will finally get the point across on a universal level. Harry Potter and some of my other favorites only hit a portion of the population. The meaning of Disney characters gets lost in the commercialism and analysis falls on deaf ears. We need balanced archetypes. Not just a Jesus, but a Mary Magdalene– maybe this is why she has gained new popularity in recent years – the psyche needs her to balance.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored Buddhism briefly in my classes. To many of my students, the concepts of the Middle Way and Compassion make perfect sense, even though they have no inclination to become practicing Buddhists (which I wholly support, since I think it involves a major lifestyle change that has to be right for the Western individual because it involves a sort of reprogramming of our priorities).

It all goes back to Balance. I think of the Sacred Cow of the Kali Yuga standing on one foot, trying very hard to not topple over. The paradigm shift is coming around the mountain, here she comes…