Goats, Jars, and Pandemics

By Brad Olsen

March, in Flagstaff, has it all: snow, rain, cold, warm, skiing, hiking, spring break and vacations, work, an equinox and daylight savings, basketball madness, the death of dictators, and even the celebration of umbrellas. This list merely scratches the surface of life’s promenade through March and to it, I’m afraid, I must now also add pandemic.

The possibility of having it all; that’s the American Dream, yes? Many of us that choose to live in Flagstaff do so because we’ve decided that living in this mountain community offers the best chance of approximating whatever each of us may think having it all entails. And when we tell ourselves that we desire it all, we forget that all means, all too often, the horrors as well as the pleasure of life. The “pan” in pandemic means “all,” and the “demic” part of the word is related to demos, “of the people.” So, a pandemic is something that affects everybody, and today there can be no doubt that we are all affected.

And this ability to affect everyone is one of the characteristics of the ancient Greek god, Pan. Bearing the horns and the lower body of a goat, he wasn’t a particularly cruel or punishing god. In fact, he was rather more inclined toward music and sex. Lots of sex. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also liked to sleep a lot and whenever he was disturbed in his midday slumber, he would issue forth an angry, ear-splitting shout that created panic (panikon deima, fear inspired by the god Pan) in those who heard it. Panic, then, is inspired by something one has heard, it’s a kind of aural contagion. If one hears, for instance, that people are buying up all the toilet paper or chicken or milk available, it inspires a kind of panic to do the same; a primal, instinctual variation of the Fear Of Missing Out. Panic is always about the inability to know something, always about the possibility of having missed hearing of a circumstance or protocol that impacts one’s chances for survival.

But there is another Pan that is relevant to life in our mountain town today, and her name is Pandora. In Greek myth, according to Hesiod she was the first woman, a “beautiful evil” created by the gods on Olympos, whose destiny it was to become a central figure in the inescapable suffering of humankind. After Prometheus gave the gift of fire to men—humans were literally all men at the time, there were no human women at all and human men seeking the company of the feminine often consorted with or married nymphs or dryads or some similar creature, Zeus was angry and gave this first woman a jar (mistranslated as a box) filled with “burdensome toil and sickness that brings death to men, […] diseases and a myriad other pains.” Prometheus (his name means foreknowledge or forethought) warned his brother Epimetheus (his name means afterthought) not to accept any gifts from Zeus but because foresight wasn’t Epimetheus’ strong suit, he accepted anyway the gorgeous, the literally heavenly, Pandora who arrived at his door carrying her jar, the contents of which she immediately released. As a result, Hesiod remarks, the world is full of evils. Only elpis, hope, a winged creature itself and nestled under the lip of the jar, did not fly away and the lid was replaced on the jar, retaining hope within it.

Opinions differ about what it means that hope is left in the jar. Does that mean that humans have no hope, or that hope is the most evil of all the contents because it prolongs man’s suffering, or does it mean that hope, optimism, and inspiration remain accessible to humans since it didn’t wheel away on, to gloss Emily Dickenson, feathered wings. Pandora’s name means “all giving,” and another yet older name for her is Anesidora, “sender forth of gifts,” another name for the earth goddess herself, which connects her to the source of life.

Pandora cannot fail to be all giving; that’s not merely her name, it’s her essence. She cannot be the source of evil Hesiod claims she is, since all the ills of humanity were brought about by masculine deities and she herself was created by those same figures as a kind of Olympian Trojan Horse to bring suffering to mankind. So, what gifts other than hope are to be found in her jar? To begin with, human beings cannot be complete or whole without a corresponding dark aspect, and an understanding of life that makes allowance for such a reality is richer, more surprising, and more beautiful. In fact, the richness and the beauty of life is only made recognizable by comparison to “burdensome toil and a myriad other pains.”

Most importantly, the panics and the pandemics of life reflect us to ourselves more deeply and disturbingly than almost anything else is able to. We see that the lives we live and the philosophies that support us in the living of it are often irrational and unnatural. Social structures and institutions that appear to be monolithic are suddenly revealed to be as insubstantial as air, and so insignificant to the exigencies of life as to be nonexistent. But most importantly, we see reflected in them our own psychic illnesses, our own tattered, malfunctioning perceptions of ourselves and our reality. C.G. Jung wrote,  We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world (The Secret of the Golden Flower).

It’s no less true today than it was in 1932 when Jung wrote those words. What Pandora offers us today is the opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at the world we’ve created and decide if we want to reevaluate and revise our neurotic symptoms as well as our neurotic culture and its institutions, do away with our infantile perceptions of reality, and create a way of living, create life—individual and societal—that is in harmony with the energies of life, with the aims of life, and with the planet itself.

Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Depth Psychologist in private practice. Dr. Olson is also a mythologist and works for the Joseph Campbell Foundation as the editor of the MythBlast series. 

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