War, Emotional Possession, and the Underworld: Affects in the Mythological Unconscious

The following article by Michael Vannoy Adams is a presentation delivered at the conference of the Association for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, Philadelphia, October 25, 2002.

Perhaps the most popular contemporary psychotherapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy. As the name indicates, it is a mode of psychotherapy that emphasizes cognitions and behaviors. Psychoanalysis is not a cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is what I call an affective-attitudinal therapy. Psychoanalysis, including Jungian psychoanalysis, emphasizes affects and attitudes. From a Jungian perspective, affects emerge from the unconscious — for example, in dreams — in an attempt to compensate the partial, prejudicial, or defective attitudes of the ego. At the extreme, this compensation may be tantamount to what I call an "emotional possession." In such a case, emotions from the unconscious possess the ego.

The Greeks and Romans did not have a psychology as such. Instead, they had a mythology. Rather than analyze the unconscious, they experienced it immediately. One of the ways that they experienced it was through what I call "emotional possession." Affects emerged from the underworld — or from what I call the "mythological unconscious" — to possess the Greeks and Romans emotionally.

In The Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman notes that, topographically, for Freud "the unconscious is a region below consciousness" (1979: 17). "If the 'unconscious,' as an element in the subject's waking thoughts, has to be represented in a dream," Freud says, "it may be replaced very appropriately by subterranean regions" (SE 5: 410). That is, what the Greeks and Romans call the "underworld" psychoanalysts call the "unconscious." Freud defines psychoanalysis as "a depth-psychology or psychology of the unconscious" (SE 22: 158). According to Hillman, "To know the psyche at its basic depths, for a true depth psychology, one must go to the underworld" (1979: 46). In this respect, Jung says: "The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge" (CW 15: 139-40, par. 213).

Freud says that wishes that have been "abandoned, overlaid and repressed" in the unconscious are comparable to the "shades" that Odysseus encounters in the underworld (SE 4: 249). Circe tells Odysseus that before he can return home to Ithaca, he must sail to "the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone" in order to "hear prophecy from the rapt shade of blind Teiresias." Once there, Odysseus must ritualistically pour libations of milk and honey, wine, and water, scatter barley, and sacrifice a heifer, a black lamb, a black ewe, and a black ram. The shades will rush to drink from the pool where the blood from the slit throats of these animals has collected. Odysseus will see "souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts." Circe tells Odysseus that he must "draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off the surging phantoms from the bloody pit until you know the presence of Teiresias" (Homer 1990: 180). When the shade of his mother approaches, Odysseus holds her off with his sword until he has a chance to speak with Teiresias and to hear him "tell of time to come" (Homer 1990: 182). Afterwards, Odysseus speaks with his mother and tries three times to embrace her, "putting my arms around her, but she went sifting through my hands, impalpable as shadows are, and wavering like a dream" (Homer 1990: 191). Then he sees many more shades of individuals whom he has known, including those of Agammemon and Achilles. Finally, Odysseus sees the shades of individuals whom he has not known — among them, Minos, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Heracles.

The account of the underworld in the Aeneid is similar in some respects to the account in the Odyssey but very different in others — and much more elaborate. What Teiresias is to Odysseus, the Sybil of Cumae, the prophetess of Apollo, is to Aeneas. "Now," the Sybil says, "is the time to ask / Your destinies!" (Virgil 1990: 161). She tells Aeneas that he and the other Trojans will ultimately reach Italy but, once there, will suffer "vicious wars" (Virgil 1990: 162).

Aeneas consults the Sybil because he wants to descend into the depths of the underworld to see his father. She tells him that in order to do so he must break off from a tree a golden bough, which, when he pulls at it, "will come willingly, / Easily, if you are called by fate" (Virgil 1990: 164). Two doves, which Aeneas interprets as his mother's birds, guide him to the tree, and he breaks off the golden bough. The Sybil and Aeneas sacrifice four black bullocks, a black lamb, a sterile cow, and bulls, respectively, to Hecate, Night and Earth, Proserpina, and Dis. Then the Sybil guides Aeneas to the cave that leads to the underworld. The Sybil is a psychopomp who conducts Aeneas on the descent into "the deep world sunk in darkness / Under the earth" (Virgil 1990: 169).

At the entrance to the underworld, Aeneas first sees Grief, Cares, Diseases, Age, Dread, Hunger, Want, Death, Toil, Sleep, War, and Discord. Next he sees various monsters: Centaurs, Scyllas, Briareus, the Lernean Hydra, the Chimaera, Gorgons, Harpies, and Geryon. At first Charon refuses to ferry Aeneas across the Styx. He says: "It breaks eternal law / For the Stygian craft to carry living bodies" (Virgil 1990: 171). When, however, the Sybil shows Charon the golden bough, he relents and ferries them both across.

On the other shore, Aeneas sees the shades of infants, the falsely accused, suicides, and those "whom pitiless love consumed" (Virgil 1990: 175), including Dido, whom Aeneas abandoned in order to pursue his destiny. Aeneas and the Sybil come to a fork in the road. To the right is Elysium; to the left, Tartarus, where Rhadamanthus sentences the guilty — among them, those who have committed adultery, treason, and incest.

Aeneas fixes the golden bough to the doors of Dis, and then he and the Sybil proceed to Elysium. There he finally sees his father, who is conducting "a survey / Of souls, till then confined there, who were bound / For daylight in the upper world" (Virgil 1990: 183). Like Odysseus, who tries to embrace his mother, Aeneas tries to embrace his father — but to no avail: "Three times the shade untouched slipped through his hands, / Weightless as wind and fugitive as dream" (Virgil 1990: 184). Then Aeneas sees all the souls that his father has been surveying and asks who they are. His father replies: "Souls for whom / A second body is in store: their drink / Is water of Lethe, and it frees from care / In long forgetfulness" (Virgil 1990: 185). These are souls, he says, who, "When they have turned Time's wheel a thousand years, / the god calls in a crowd to Lethe stream, / That there unmemoried they may see again / The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies" (Virgil 1990: 186). In short, the scene is preparation for reincarnation. (If this is not a return of the repressed, it is at least a return of the deceased.)

Then Aeneas is vouchsafed a vision of the Trojans in Italy — of the future of the Roman empire — from his son Silvius to Romulus, Caesar, and so forth. Finally, Aeneas and the Sibyl ascend from the underworld by the gate of ivory.

What interests me most are not what I might call the "personal" contents that Aeneas encounters in the underworld but I would call the impersonal contents. I mean those contents that Aeneas first sees at the entrance to the underworld: Grief, Cares, Diseases, Age, Dread, Hunger, Want, Death, Toil, Sleep, War, and Discord. All of these words are capitalized — that is, they are "archetypalized." In effect, these contents of the underworld are archetypes of the unconscious.

Not all of these contents are affects, but some of them are — for example, Grief, Cares, Dread, Hunger, Want, and Discord. There are more than shades of persons in the underworld (and, in spite of what Freud says, there are more than wishes in the unconscious). As Virgil describes the underworld, it also contains a variety of affects. That these affects are at the very entrance to the underworld indicates that they are not in the depths of the unconscious but very near the surface. From there they may suddenly emerge to possess an individual emotionally, and this is exactly what happens after Aeneas ascends from the underworld.

Freud says that neuroses "were at the root of what was factual in the history of possession" (SE 1: 41). In this respect, he mentions authors who have "identified the manifestations of hysteria in the portrayals of possession." According to Freud, "The states of possession correspond to our neuroses." He says that "the demons are bad and reprehensible wishes, derivatives of instinctual impulses that have been repudiated and repressed" (SE 19: 72). In contrast, for Fairbairn, the "demons" that possess an individual are not bad wishes but bad objects. "In a word," Fairbairn says, "he is 'possessed' by them, as if by evil spirits" (1990: 67).

For Jung, what possesses the individual are complexes — or archetypes in the form of affects. "Possession," he says, "can be formulated as identity of the ego-personality with a complex" (CW 7: 122, par. 220). The phenomenon of possession remains the same; the only difference is the name. "Possession, though old-fashioned, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed," Jung says. "Formerly they spoke of 'evil spirits,' now we call them 'neuroses' or 'unconscious complexes" (CW 15: 599, par. 1374). When the ego is unconsciously identified with an archetype, he says, it becomes pathologically inflated — or, as it were, possessed:

The characteristic feature of a pathological reaction is, above all, identification with the archetype. This produces a sort of inflation and possession by the emergent content. . . . You do not "make" an identification, you do not "identify yourself," but you experience your identity with the archetype in an unconscious way and so are possessed by it. (CW 7: 351-2, par. 621)

Jung says that possession "is where the emotions and affects come in." He elaborates:

They are clearly not functions any more, they are just events, because in an emotion, as the word denotes, you are moved away, you are cast out, your decent ego is put aside, and something else takes your place. We say . . . "What has gotten into him today?" because he is like a man who is possessed. The primitive does not say he got angry beyond measure; he says a spirit got into him and changed him completely. Something like that happens with emotions; you are simply possessed, you are no longer yourself, and your control is decreased practically to zero. (CW 13: 23-4, pars. 42-3)

In short, when the ego is possessed, it is unconsciously — that is, compulsively — identified with a complex or an archetype in the form of an affect.

In the Aeneid, Virgil describes precisely how emotional possession occurs. Before Aeneas and the other Trojans reach Italy, the king and queen of the Laurentians are Latinus and Amata. They have a daughter, the princess Lavinia. Amata wants Lavinia to marry Turnus, the prince of the Rutulians. Latinus, however, consults "the oracle of his father," who tells him: "Propose no Latin alliance for your daughter / Son of mine; distrust the bridal chamber / Now prepared. Men from abroad will come / And be your sons by \marriage" (Virgil 1990: 198). When Aeneas reaches Italy, Latinus interprets his arrival as the fulfillment of the prophecy: "'This is the man,' / He thought, 'foretold as coming from abroad / To be my son-in-law, by fate appointed'" (Virgil 1990: 204). Against the wishes of Amata, Latinus proposes that Lavinia marry Aeneas.

This proposal literally infuriates both Amata and the goddess Juno, who hates the Trojans. "I am defeated / And by Aeneas," Juno says. "Well, if my powers fall short, / I need not falter over asking help / Wherever help may lie." Where does help lie? In the underworld. "If I can sway / No heavenly hearts," Juno swears, "I'll rouse the world below" (Virgil 1990: 206). This is, of course, the passage that Freud quotes as an epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, which Hillman translates as follows: "If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will move Acheron." Hillman notes that Acheron is "the most dreadful and sinister river of the netherworld" (1979: 16).

Juno summons from the underworld Allecto, one of the Furies. Allecto is "Grief's drear mistress, with her lust for war" (Virgil 1990: 207). (I would emphasize that "Grief" is the very first of the archetypes in the form of affects that Aeneas encounters at the entrance to the underworld. In effect, Juno is so aggrieved that she is infuriated.) Possessed by Grief, Juno plots to provoke war between the Trojans and the Latins with the help of a Fury, the very mistress of Grief. (I would note that "War" is also one of the archetypes that Aeneas encounters at the entrance to the underworld.) It is a notorious fact that grief — in the form of a grievance — often produces war. Juno says to Allecto: "Shake out the folded strategems within you / Break up this peace-pact, scatter acts of war, / All in a flash let men desire, demand / And take up arms" (Virgil 1990: 207-8).

Allecto approaches Amata while she sleeps. "The plans for Turnus's marriage broken off," Virgil says, "Amata tossed and turned with womanly / Anxiety and anger." Like a Gorgon, Allecto has hair of snakes, full of venom. She plucks one of these snakes, tosses it at Amata, and sends it "down / Her bosom to her midriff and her heart," until it breathes "Viper's breath into her" (Virgil 1990: 208). Virgil says that "in her viscera / The serpent's evil madness circulated," until "now enflamed / By prodigies of hell," Amata "went wild indeed / And with insane abandon roamed the city." Then Amata feigns "Bacchic possession" (Virgil 1990: 209). She runs to the woods, where she hides Lavinia in an effort to prevent or at least postpone her marriage to Aeneas. Finally, she calls for all the other mothers of the Laurentians to join in the possession, to "take up the revel / Along with me" (Virgil 1990: 210).

Similarly, Allecto approaches Turnus while he sleeps. This time, she adopts a different strategem — at least at first. Allecto strips "Her savage mask off and her Fury's shape, / To take on an old woman's face" (Virgil 1990: 210). In disguise, she urges Turnus to wage war. Turnus, however, rejects this appeal. He addresses Allecto as follows: "But old age, mother, / Sunk in decay and too far gone for truth, / Is giving you this useless agitation, / Mocking your prophet's mind with dreams of fear / And battles between kings." Her mind should not be on war but "On the gods' images and on their shrines." Old women should not make war. "Men will make war and peace," Turnus says, "as men should do" (Virgil 1990: 211).

When Turnus so casually dismisses Allecto, she drops the disguise. In this instance at least, Hell — or the underworld — has no Fury like an old woman scorned. Turnus's body trembles, his eyes stare rigidly, and his tongue falters. As Virgil describes Allecto, "the Fury hissed with all her serpents, / All her hideous faces." She raises two snakes from her hair and cracks them like whips at Turnus. "I come to you," she says, "from the Black Sisters' home / And bring war and extinction in my hand." When Allecto possesses Turnus, she quite literally inflames him. Virgil says that she "hurled a torch and planted it / Below the man's chest." Turnus wakes in terror, breaks into a cold sweat, and immediately shouts for weapons. As Virgil says, "Lust of steel / Raged in him, brute insanity of war" (Virgil 1990: 212).

It is difficult to imagine a more vividly accurate account of emotional possession than Virgil provides in these two descriptions. Instead of psychological concepts, Virgil employs mythological images (as the unconscious does): snakes and a torch that Allecto insinuates or inserts into the psyches of Amata and Turnus in order to make them just as archetypally furious as she is. It is no accident that Virgil selects just these images and no others. Serpents and fire are especially apt images, traditionally intrinsic to the underworld.

Virgil's account seems to me preferable to Freud's "Why War?" Freud's explanation is that war is the inevitable result of an ineliminable "destructive instinct," or "death instinct" (CW 22: 211). If I might capitalize and thus "archetypalize" this instinct, it is as if Destruction and Death are at the entrance to the Freudian "underworld," or unconscious. Unlike Virgil, however, Freud does not describe how Destruction and Death possess individuals and produce war. "Why War?" — not "How War?" — is Freud's title. In contrast, Virgil describes in detail how Grief, through Grief's mistress, a Fury, possesses individuals, poisons like a snake and burns like a torch, and produces War.

In spite of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council or by the United States Congress (or even declarations of war), war is not so much a conscious decision as it is an unconscious compulsion — or an emotional possession. There may be many "reasons" for war or "causes" of war — social, political, economic, and so forth — but ultimately war is a psychological phenomenon. "It is the psyche of man that makes wars," Jung says. "Not his consciousness." The unconscious says to the individual: "'Now it is time to make war. Now is the time to kill and destroy.' And he does it" (1977: 74).

When Jung analyzes Nazi Germany, he does so in terms of emotional possession. Before World War II, as early as 1936, Jung says that the Germans are possessed by Wotan, "the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle" (CW 10: 182, par. 375). He continues:

Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but also an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler — which has indeed actually happened — he [Wotan] is really the only explanation. (CW 10: 184-5, par. 386)

What possesses Hitler and then, through him, the Nazis - "All the Nazi leaders," Jung says, "were possessed in the truest sense of the word" (1977: 152) - and eventually virtually all Germans is, in a sense, a fury identical with that of Allecto, although Jung prefers the mythological image of Wotan to any such psychological concept:

For the sake of better understanding and to avoid prejudice, we could of course dispense with the name "Wotan" and speak instead of the furor teutonicus. But we should only be saying the same thing and not as well, for the furor in this case is a mere psychologizing of Wotan and tells us no more than that the Germans are in a state of "fury." We thus lose sight of the most peculiar feature of this whole phenomenon, namely, the dramatic aspect of the Ergreifer and the Ergriffener. The impressive thing about the German phenomenon is that one man, who is obviously "possessed," has infected a whole nation to such an extent that everything is set in motion and has started rolling on its course towards perdition. (CW 10: 185, par. 388)

Jung contends that in order adequately to comprehend Wotan "we must go back to the age of myths, which did not explain everything in terms of man and his limited capacities but sought the deeper cause in the psyche and its autonomous powers." According to Jung, "Man's earliest intuitions personified these powers as gods, and described them in the myths with great care and circumstantiality according to their various characters" (CW 10: 187, par. 391). Like Allecto, Wotan is rhetorically just such a personification from what I call the "mythological unconscious."

Possession does not just happen. There has to be, I would argue, both a characterological and a situational susceptibility to it. What, in this respect, was the peculiar vulnerability of the Germans to possession? It was the grief or the grievance that they experienced after World War I. That affect, which they never sufficiently processed, was what exposed them to possession by Wotan, who promised, in effect, to assuage that grief and avenge that grievance.

On the very day that I write this, it is announced that former President Jimmy Carter has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a television interview, Carter says that were he currently a member of Congress, he would have voted against the resolution that the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 296-133 to grant President George W. Bush license to wage a unilateral, preemptive war against Iraq.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America has been aggrieved. In the aftermath, there have been many ritualistic attempts to mourn that melancholy, or to process the collective depression. In the background, of course, is the Gulf war against Iraq. Although the United States — or, more accurately, the United Nations — won that war, there is a sense that it lost an opportunity: a chance for "regime change," the removal of Saddam Hussein and "weapons of mass destruction" (chemical, biological, even nuclear). George W. Bush's father and namesake, George Bush, was the president who won the Gulf war — but then lost an election to Bill Clinton. The dynamic is dynastic: a father-son succession that is both a success and a failure. A son experiences a father as both a winner and a loser, takes the loss of both the opportunity and the election personally, projects that loss collectively, wants to be the winner of a war that would be not only preemptive but also redemptive, and thereby attempts to assuage a grief and avenge a grievance.

George W. Bush is a son who does not want to kill his father but wants to kill a man, Saddam Hussein, who wanted to kill George Bush. The resolution that George W. Bush submitted to Congress specifically included the accusation that in 1993 Iraq had attempted "to assassinate former President Bush" (Bush September 20, 2002: A15). For the son to kill Saddam Hussein would be for him to redeem (the reputation) of the father. Saddam Hussein may be a danger to America, but a greater danger may be the emotional possession of a son by the father, and, through that unconscious identification, the emotional possession of a son by the archetypes of Grief and War - and ultimately by the archetype of the Redeemer, which, of course, is the dominant archetype in what I would call the "mythological unconscious" of those who, like George W. Bush, are Christians. Rather than an unconscious identification with an archetype, Jung advocates humble skepticism: "One should ask oneself for once: Why has this idea taken possession of me? What does that mean in regard to myself? A modest doubt like this can save us from falling head first into the idea and vanishing for ever" (CW 15: 48-9, par. 72).


Bush, G.W. (September 20, 2002) "In Bush's Words: 'Use All Means' on Iraq," New York Times: A15.

Fairbairn, W.R.D. (1990) Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge: 82-132.

Freud, S. All references are to the Standard Edition (SE), by volume and page number.

Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld, New York: Harper & Row.

Homer (1990) The Odyssey, trans. R. Fitzgerald, New York: Vintage Classics.

Jung, C.G. Except as below, all references are to the Collected Works (CW), by volume, page, and paragraph number.

Jung, C.G. (1977) C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. W. McGuire and R.F.C. Hull, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Virgil (1990) The Aeneid, trans. R. Fitzgerald, New York: Vintage Classics.