Once upon a time there lived a king who seemed terribly wise. Nothing happened that he did not know about. It was as though he heard all the news of the land in the wind.
This king had a strange custom. Every evening a secret dish would be bought to him at dinner that no-one could see him eat. Even his trusted servant didn’t know what it was though one night he could not contain his curiosity. He took the covered remains of the dish to his room and had a peek. The dish was a white snake which the king had only nibbled at.
The now not-so-faithful servant took a nibble himself and suddenly he heard a great chattering outside his window. Two sparrows were in great discussion of all the things they had seen in the woods and fields. He could understand every word. The morsel of white snake had given him the power to understand the language of animals.
On that very same day the queen lost her ring. The poor servant was the first to come under suspicion and was compelled either to produce the thief or be executed. He went down into the courtyard in despair and while he wondered what on earth to do he everheard two ducks having some conversation..
‘Oh my stomach feels rough,’ said the one, ‘I guzzled up the queen’s ring by mistake after she dropped it into the moat from her window.’
Immediatly the servant grabbed the duck and took it to Cook who served it to the queen and the ring was discovered. The servant was offered a great reward but settled for a horse and some provisions to go a-wandering.
One day he saw three fishes stuck in reeds at the bank of a river. Feeling their plight and hearing their distress he freed them. ‘We will remember and repay you,’ they said.
Further on he heard a tiny voice complaining at the horse’s heavy feet and looked down to see the Ant King lamenting his people being crushed. So the servant moved his horse to the side of the road. ‘We will remember and repay you,’ said the Ant King.
Further still he came across three raven chicks that had been rejected from the nest. Their hungry crying was so piteous that he killed his horse and fed it to them.
‘We will remember and repay you,’ they said.
Now he had to use his own legs and eventually arrived at the walls of a great city where he heard it announced that the Princess there would marry whoever could perform a task of great difficulty devised by her father, the king. The servant immediatley volunteered though his heart sank when he saw that the task was, to fetch up a gold coin thrown into the sea. He sat on the shore lamenting when suddenly the three fishes he’d saved showed their heads.
‘We said we’d help you,’ they said and spat the coin onto the shingle.
But the princess wasn’t happy. She spread eight bushels of millet over a field and demanded he collect them all up by dawn. The servant despaired over the impossibility of it all and just waited for dawn and death, but when the dawn came the job was done.
‘We said we’d help you,’ said Ant King.
The Princess was impressed but not enough to stop wanting to kill him. She gave him one final and ridiculously impossible task, to fetch an apple from the Tree of Life at the End-of-the-World.
Our languishing servant sets off and wanders through three kingdoms looking for the Tree as best he could but to no avail. Eventually he collapses, exhausted, by a stream and settles down to sleep. He hears a rustling in the branches and a golden apple falls into his hands. Three ravens fluttered down..
‘We said we’d help you,’ they said.
He takes the apple to the princess and they both take a bite….
It’s said that curiosity killed the cat because curiosity initiates us across a threshold that means the end of an old way of life. The servant’s mouthful of White Snake is more than the betrayal of his lord. It is the betrayal of his own set role in life and the disruption necessary to growing up.
Moreover the White Snake has powers. The capacity to understand the language of animals is symbolic of the hero being able to ‘hear’ the impulses, the intuitions and the wisdom of his own deep Psyche. It is the moment when you realise you are not master/mistress of your own house.
My analytic grandmother, M L von Franz tells the story of a dream which constituted her first encounter with the objective Psyche, the Other, so impactful that she curled her knees under her chin and stayed in bed all day.
Such an encounter with the Unconscious is life changing. Outwardly it is often by virtue of dubious others who are bound to enviously attack the person who has found something seemingly unique to himself. The servant is accused of taking the queen’s ring, a motif rooted in Adam and Eve’s theft of the awakening apple.
In a sense the accusation that one must have found such good fortune by illicit means is justified, since advances in consciousness are to the cost of herd membership and its filial obligations, not to mention the gauntlet thrown at their feet. Individuation and folk going their own way depletes the collective storehouse and challenges collective hegemony.
not a popular choice.
”Every step towards greater consciousness creates a kind of Promethean guilt. Through self knowledge the Gods are robbed of their fire. The one who has ‘stolen’ the knowledge becomes alienated from others…” D Sharp.
Despite proving his innocence the servant still has to leave and, like Parsifal, goes wandering the world.
He is bound to feel be-wildered and disoriented as he sets out on his journey. Not only has he undergone a Copernican revolution of consciousness but his values have also changed. The Principle of Relatedness which has been awoken in him cannot endure the cries of the poor Fish trapped in the reeds. He has to do something. Increases in consciousness do more than constitute the capacity to ‘hear’, they also demand that we take action in line with what we know.
The vignettes about the Fish, the Ants and the Ravens all have this quality of relatedness to them, of carefully paying attention to the contents of the unconscious. The episode with the ravens adds something further. He sacrifices his horse to feed them. He gives up his own resources in a seemingly counter-intuitive way, he relinquishes an attitude that brings him down from his ”high horse”.
The scene of the Ant King and his thousands of subjects collecting up the millet seed is reminiscent of and has its roots in the story of Eros and Psyche who is tasked by Hera to separate out thousands of seeds by morning.
”there is still something which can rescue one. The unconscious is not only chaos but also order…’ ML von Franz.
Speaking of the role played by the ants as agents of the Self in the story of Psyche and Eros, von Franz says..
”The ants have mysterious unexplored qualities, they just collaborate.” ibid
but only in the wake of a brush with death.
Though he wanders and searches the three kingdoms the Apple cannot be found. The philosopher’s Stone only appears Deo concedente, by the will of the Gods, once we have well and truly exhausted the project of being author of our own meaning.
The gift of the Ravens is a kind of Mana, the experience of a redeeming intervention. Something Unknown is doing I don’t know what. Victor Frankl tells the story of a dying girl in Auschwitz who, in the moments before her death, gave thanks for the tree she could see out of the window.
The Prince and Princess eat the Apple. The gifts of the Unconscious have to be embodied. They have to be both experienced and then expressed in some way in the world.
‘When you have a big dream you have to tell it to the People. Black Elk.
A big dream of my own was that I was backpacking in a forest with friends. Bit by bit we lost our way. Then we began to lose each other. The group shrank. Then i started to lose my stuff. My boots were gone. I lost my pack somewhere, then my bearings. I was alone and naked and stumbling about in the dark.
Then there was sound ahead, beating drums, a glow in the forest, drums and dancing, wild frenzied dancing and in the middle a great pillar covered with vines and grapes the size of plums which all shook down. A great voice said, ‘Eat, so you may enter the kingdom of Heaven and live forever.’ Then I realised that the pillar was a finger and the voice came from the mouth of that to whom the finger belonged.
So getting lost is not just inevitable. It is required. The servant has to wander the three kingdoms. We do way too much to combat stress. We constue it negatively rather than seeing it as grist to the mill, part and parcel of the three kingdom’s rich tapestry. When did you ever grow when life was easy?
Once in a while I remind myself that dreams do not simply ‘mean’ something. They are help.
”We said we’d help you”, they said.
Like the Ants they work at night, ordering, gathering, suffusing us with meaning.
The belief that the Psyche is whatever we know of it is the deathknell of aliveness. Knowing you don’t have the answers…
and perhaps not even the right questions,
and that much of life is supposed to be a mystery, is precisely what evokes wonder and appreciation. You’ve gotten sufficiently out of your own way to make space for that which is looking for you, while you have been so busy looking for it.