The Ego, the Animus, and the Twelve-Headed Hydra

From a multitude of thought, the hydra sprang. It sprang from a sea of words—a black beast, twelve heads writhing in every direction, eyes that followed my progress and watched carefully for intruders. By adulthood, I’d learned to ignore its vast presence across my landscape, even if it virtually occluded true vision of the world around me.

I had books to write. Distractions of expository dragons meant nothing at all. But in a sense, work was my only method of defeating the hydra and all twelve of its heads. At least, that’s what I came to understand—to believe on. Work followed this model: Researching–>Knowing–>Understanding–>Writing. No other model existed in this worldview, in this landscape. And that’s what speculative authors are concerned with, aren’t they? They’re concerned only with the landscapes they create in their minds.

Work wasn’t, to put it bluntly, working. The hydra’s heads grew larger, its necks longer and thicker, the supporting torso less like a serpent and more like a dinosaur from the deep of the sea. In fact, I had to admit, that even understanding the hydra’s place in mythology meant little to its defeat. I could write the Herculean story any day, and the words would make no difference. I could place it firmly in its proper Jungian archetype and, actually, I did. The dragon symbolized the ego that I must conquer; its blackness the shadow of the unconscious psyche.

No, work wasn’t working. I had to construct a new model. By a quirk of fate, I took a vacation at the coast—North Bend, Oregon, a place fraught with rearing sea dragons. It rained the entire two weeks I was there, but that’s a usual detail.

Throughout the drizzle, I sat on driftwood and devised calculations in the sand. If I used brute force, I calculated, I would have to chop off each of my hydra’s heads in .33 seconds, or more heads would sprout by the time I had reached the twelfth. I could practice, of course, on cords or ropey structures. I could time my axe-wielding techniques. But, no, I could never succeed.

Maybe I could smudge the heads out with new or different words. Maybe, I thought—and this was an entirely new idea that seemed to drift or, more violently, explode from the mind of God. I could write myself a new landscape, where the twelve-headed hydra didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, as I camped on the driftwood, my knees drawn to my chest, the night blackened as a shadow behind me. The air seemed groggy, somehow, and I furiously drew my calculations in the sand. I would build a fire once the work was complete. My work. Once my work was complete, I would build a fire, and I would think about food or drink or other substantive things.

If I could reconstruct my first words, the hydra might disappear. I wrote a new sentence in the sand with the twig I’d taken up as my pencil. I crossed out the words. Why couldn’t I determine the beginning? That was the issue. Beginnings were impossible to calculate.

I pressed my forehead against my knees. I was incapable. What did the word incapable mean? It had something to do with the Latin root of taking in, which could conversely be given out. And I thought about that, and I wrote cap in the sand, using capital letters, and it occurred to me that cap might be related to capt or capit, meaning head. If that was the case, I could only reach capacity if I defeated the hydra and all its twelve heads. On the other hand, I might need twelve heads in order to produce anything of merit.

I heard a strike, a thwack, and I relaxed on my driftwood. These were usual sounds to me. They were camp sounds. Soon, I heard the crackle of fire, and I smelled wood smoke. Either I could make my own fire, or perhaps the fire-starter would allow me to share his. Meanwhile, I could continue my false starts.

Oh, God, the fire felt warm against my skin. I dreamed a new landscape, a new worldview of warmth and life, an impossible place. And then I heard a series of whacks. Whack-whack-whack-whack-whack. The noise distracted me, and I leaned in closer to the sand, which hit me with its damp fishy odors, and the darkness created confusion. How could I finish, or yet begin?

I looked to my right and watched the flames of a bonfire spark up into the smoky, cloud-stricken air. Thunk-thunk-thunk. Charred heads dropped and rolled against each other in the fire, not two feet from me. My breath caught, smoke in the lungs, and I coughed convulsively. I leaned back, taking in gulps of the clearer air.

A man stood in silhouette behind the fire, my axe in his hand. He raised it—thwack-whack, roll, sizzle. The smell of salted, singed flesh tickled my nostrils. Why had this man invaded my campsite?

“What are you doing?” I yelled at him.

“Only what needs to be done,” he said, and he slammed the axe head into the nearest fallen log.

The hydra had collapsed, its heads cut asunder—all twelve, plus the small ones that sprouted in the intervals between whacks. He’d destroyed my hydra.

“But how did you manage?”

The man, dressed as a woodsman with flannel shirt and coarse work pants, barely moved a muscle. The cutting down of ancient archetypes hadn’t winded him.  “I chopped them off as fast as I could until they were gone.”

Oh. Without another word, he departed, his boot heels scuffing over the sandy earth. He disappeared in the trees.

“Wait!” I called to him, but he didn’t stop.

Eventually, I rose from the driftwood and followed him, though I didn’t really because I had no idea which direction he’d disappeared. Desperation filled my soul. In the distance, though, I caught the bobbing light of his torch, which moved forward without hesitation.

I would never catch him, I knew, because my hero—my woodsman knew the way back home, and I could only navigate by unfamiliar stars that rarely revealed their faces from behind dense clouds. He’d destroyed my hydra, but my world was still occluded. How would I begin? And how would I begin again?

In the grip of my fist, I still clenched my twig—my pencil—and I threw it down like a gauntlet. We would see who knew the way. We would see. And I crossed the threshold of darkness in pursuit of a knowable world.

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