| MYTH AND DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY
Little Red Riding Hood
“We are always in myth…”
Every time we hear the words “once upon a time” we allow our imagination to lead us away from the
present into a time and place where fantasy is expected to set the stage for a story to unfold, where we can
sit back to enjoy the ride of imagination, what James Hillman would call “the persuasive power of
imagining in words.” What makes us enjoy the ride or identify with one character more than another?
What makes the story resonate with us and why?
Television, cinema, performing arts, literature; we have at our disposal today thousands of ways to escape
the boring routine of our daily lives. We lose ourselves in the fantasies of Hollywood, identify with a
hero, actor, singer, daredevil, with anything or anybody outside of ourselves; we allow our imagination
to make us part of their glamorous private and professional lives; only to realize one day that these
heroes we fantasize about are mere mortals like us, with weight problems, troubled children, messy
divorces, moral or financial bankruptcies, cancer, heart disease, etc. Then we think that our lives are not
so bad after all, compared to theirs. We distance ourselves a bit from their “fairy tale” lives and continue
living ours; at least until tomorrow or next week. The fact is we cannot live without fiction, without
Like depth psychologists looking at symptoms through mythic stories, we can enter and exit through
myth and fantasy new levels of awareness that help us tap into the multi-dimensional imprints of our
soul. By doing this, we can arrive at new levels of understanding that show the commonality of our daily
challenges, where even our most excruciating lessons turn out to be archetypal after all. We need to start
by inviting active imagination to serve as a bridge between the unconscious and our conscious mind.
We need to look at our lives as a story and realize that we all can be storytellers. What are the emotions
that help define our character? What is our stretch? What is our breaking point? Do we ever get to know
ourselves fully? Mythic tales can become our frame of reference; they resonate with us because they place
our struggles and everyday challenges within contexts that are not only universal but commonplace.
Fairy tales and mythic stories show us how we can move from imagination or the transpersonal to the
personal. What starts as a children’s story or a folk tale (or a movie, or tabloid account about our
favorite movie star), transforms in front of our eyes as we allow our personal mythology to unravel
through creative imagination. The presence of the unconscious is then felt. And, it is this presence that
makes each one of us react differently to the story, because its ambiguity allows us to create our own
subplots. Robert A. Johnson notes, “There is material contained in our minds that we are not aware of
most of the time.” What lies outside the boundaries of our conscious mind is also part of our personal
“Sometimes the most direct way to tell the truth is to tell a totally implausible story, like a myth” (Ursula
Le Guin). When I work with Transformational Tarot, I ask my clients to draw a few cards and to make
up a story while imagining themselves inside each character they create. As their stories unfold, personal
challenges and problems begin to take a new dimension; the fictional characters transform into basic
archetypes that not only reflect their own personal assessment of themselves, but that also show they
ways they cope with life in general.
When story becomes a narrative of the inner workings of the soul we know we are safe to bare it all.
How we acknowledge and experience the unconscious often determines the way we live. Sometimes we
need to step into fantasy, myths, imagination, to claim back consciously a lost part of our soul.
Let’s imagine, for example, a young mother today, dulled by her daily routine, finding refuge in fantasy
as solace from her frustrations about her unappreciative husband, tedious chores, and the unavoidable
responsibilities of motherhood. She has so much to do, no time to really be herself anymore. She used to
be wild and witty and she remembers (once upon a time) great sex. What happened to her? She asks
herself one day. When did it all change and why? Little Red Riding Hood could be a story about this
mother and about how sometimes we must hold on to our wild nature to go on with life. Stephen Larsen
notes that animals are “manifestations of the hidden archetypal powers that lie behind the
transformations of the human soul.” For me the mother, the grandmother, the hunter as well as Riding
Hood and the wolf are all symbols or fields of energy of one person’s journey into individuation.
The unlived life of an adult, if not acknowledged, could indeed turn up in the psyche of her children.
The mother in this fairy tale sends the girl with the basket of cake and wine for grandmother (cake and
wine for a sick, old, weak woman?) and warns the child not to stray from the path. Yet, she doesn’t
warn the child about the wolf; perhaps hoping that her child archetype might encounter without fear her
shadow, that part of her natural instinctive psyche represented by the wolf and that Clarissa Pinkola
Estés would call the “Wild Woman.” I imagine the mother in search of her wolf totem or wild archetype,
releasing her child energy to stray from the path, to feel the enchantment of nature like only a child
could, picking flowers until “she had as many as she could carry.” Distractions are sometimes a good
thing, especially if we are sidetracked by beauty. We know we are in an enchanted forest when hazel
bushes are our mark to find grandmother’s house. (In Cinderella the hazel bush symbology is also used
to intimate magic and transformation.) The part of the mother that is sick and weak in the middle of the
forest, in the deep dark unconscious, needs to be rescued, and she knows that the only way to save
herself is by taking the plunge into the belly of the beast and accepting wildness and basic instincts back
into her life.
Allan B. Chinen associates the Trickster with a profoundly transformative energy that can offer guidance
and even hope when life as an adult boxes us in with too many responsibilities. We can easily identify
the wolf with the Trickster who, like the Fool in Tarot, forces us to “take the plunge” into self discovery
or to just look at life with wonder.
I see the grandmother’s sickness symbolic of the young mother’s inability to tap into her personal history
or tribe wisdom. The grandmother energy is that part of her psyche too far into the forest or too weak to
be of help as purveyor of instinctual knowledge (the traditional old crone’s role). When the hunter says,
“So, I’ve found you at last, you old sinner” (sinner…a wolf?), it could suggest the mother’s ambivalence
about waking up her wild instinct; but when both grandmother and child jump up from the belly like a
jack in the box, the unconscious unleashes a sudden new energy; a sudden jolt of the unconscious
awakens the dormant soul. Now it’s time to open the wine and celebrate.
The sudden end of the story signals the way that sometimes we must experience radical transformation,
like being slammed against a wall and quickly transforming from frog to prince, or falling from a tower
like Rapunzel to suddenly face adulthood, or crossing a body of water (Hansel & Gretel) to claim your
right to go home. The ritual of opening the belly of the beast and rescuing old and young parts of the
soul is what makes us whole. The symbology of the hunter skinning the wolf’s fur is enough to seal the
ritual. The mother has earned the skin of her totem animal. What is essential is the ritual of skinning the
wolf in order for the mother/shaman to receive the archetypal energies of the wolf and for the healing to
be complete. “Loss energy is retrievable. If we choose to serve the soul, the energy comes back and then
serves us,” reminds us James Hollis. Myth psychologist Jonathan Young transforms the hunter into a
shaman with the same intention, to give him a mythical role in the tale, thus emphasizing the underlying
theme of rebirth. James Hollis notes that, “Just as the shamans would enter the spirit world to recover
that part of the soul which had been split off, and bring it back to reintegrate it, so we are therapeutically
obliged to find what has been left behind and bring it back to the surface.” How we each perform this
therapy or ritual becomes part of our personal journey.
How do we integrate all our lost and hidden energies? Hillman proposes Jung’s method of active
imagination and moves us out of the audience onto the stage of the psyche, to become characters in the
fiction of our lives. Mythic stories allow us to arrive at some kind of magical, detached introspection
and like a shaman become the storytellers who weave a new fiction in the timelessness of the now. How
deep we dare go into the forest or the swampland is left up to each one of us.
But, it is good to have tools along that make our journey less tedious and more meaningful. We can
learn to use Tarot or I Ching as such a magical tool, like the alchemical vessel of yesteryear.
Alchemical transformation often means discovering the inner gold within through radical self
acceptance. In fact, I strongly believe that the only way we can really heal is to first love ourselves, warts
and all. “We don’t have to be reborn; we can rebear." (Ursula Le Guin)
What does the soul want? Sometimes we unconsciously ask darkness to visit us in order to learn to
cherish what we have or to learn the necessary lessons for our soul’s progression. If we start looking at
our lives as stories with innumerable opportunities to spin off our own tales, then we can also imagine
new endings and new beginnings. We all live in old and new stories at the same time. We all have the
opportunity to weave our own tales. And yet, so few of us even dare.
Next time you get caught up in your story, take a minute to reflect and to imagine a new one. Allow
your soul to breathe freely. Dare to dream. Dare to imagine. Allow myth to spring forward from the
subconscious energy of the psyche and rescue you.
Grimms Fairy Tales, 1819 edition, compiled by The National Geographic. 2000.
James Hillman. Healing Fiction. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 1983.
James Hollis. Swamplands of the Soul. Toronto: Inner City Books. 1996.
Robert Johnson. Inner Work. New York: Harper & Row. 1989.
Stephen Larsen. The Mythic Imagination. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. 1996.
Thomas Moore. Care of theSoul. New York: Harper Collins. 1992.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York: Random House. 1995
Yonathan Young, editor. SAGA I. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press. 2003. (Ursula Le Guin's quotes
taken from this book also)
Copyright © 2005 Yolanda M. Robinson, PhD