About Renée

Renée Spencer is a community mental health practitioner with experience and training in teaching, counseling, art therapy, and psychology. She has a passion for Art, history, mythology, and philosophy. Renee's particular interests lie in investigating symbolism and how metaphors, similes, and allegories can be interpreted in different cultures, timeframes, and contexts.

Is Ego a Dirty Word?

My introduction to the word ego was as a child hearing the Australian rock band, Skyhooks, smashing out the lyrics to Ego is Not a Dirty Word. I had no idea what they were singing about but the rebellious tone of “don’t you believe what you’ve seen or you’ve heard” was very catchy. It was a popular song; it raced to the top of the charts soon after being released in April 1975 and stayed there for many months. It has come as somewhat of a surprise to realise, four decades later, that this band of flamboyantly dressed entertainers were making a profound intellectual comment on social attitudes and psychological constructs that were common at the time. 

Skyhooks, 1976, Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

As inferred by the song, the term ego generally has some negative connotations, as is exemplified by related words like egotistical and egocentric. Skyhooks, however, exclusively link the term ego to self esteem by making the point that if a person has a strong ego they are more likely to have a satisfying life while, conversely, a person with a weak ego may need to self-medicate with alcohol to make up for lack of confidence.

In psychological and/or spiritual contexts, discussions of the ego can differ to the construct Skyhook’s present. The ego is often accompanied by directives to purify or train it. Sometimes, people are even told to let go of their ego, in which case they are literally being told to let go of their sense of self. I’m not sure if this is really what is meant or if ego and egotistical confused as being one and the same?

When reviewing ego theories, it’s easy to get the impression that it is some nuanced part of the psyche that one doesn’t have control over but ought to. Alternatively, it is a part of oneself that is best dissociated from if one wants to achieve some form of higher existence.

An article on Psychology Today attempts to explain why the concept of the ego is so confusing. It begins by identifying that “ego” is Latin for “I”. So if someone was to say “I love you” in Latin, they’d say “ego amo te”. Or to give another example, if I were to say “I am a storm” in Latin, I would say “Ego sum temperto”. (Not sure why I’d want to say that I am a storm, but anyway, you get the idea.)

The term ego largely came into vogue through the work of Sigmund Freud. However, things get interesting when it is realised that Freud never actually used the word ego. He used the word I, or ich to be precise because he spoke German, and ich is I in German. But this use of the word I is not necessarily a simple one. 

Why did “I” get replaced with “ego” in English translations of Freud? The only explanation I’ve found (so far) is by Joseph Burgo who suggests that it was because ego sounds more scientific than I, therefore, Freud’s theories were more likely to be accepted by a broader audience. Burgo also points out that ego was already used within the English language; however, ego in English never simply meant I.

If I were to say “I am going to the bathroom” then the term “I” is being used as a noun to represent a person in a somewhat benign manner. Likewise, if I were to say “I love my life”, at the simplest level, the “I” is still only informative. Depending upon the tone, context, and listeners interpretation, “I love my life” may be heard as a declaration of a positive emotional state or it could be considered boastful. Basically, it is the intention behind the term “I” that psychologists refer to as the ego. The “I” that represents ego is a reference to how one sees oneself and, in turn, is wrapped up with notions of self worth and importance. 

To explore the psychological construct of ego/I a little further, let’s have look at some examples from Freud: 

  • “The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it’s not merely a bodily entity, but is itself a projection of a surface.”
  • “In this way the ego detaches itself from the external word. It is more correct to say: Originally the ego includes everything, later it detaches itself from the external world. The ego-feeling we now aware of is thus only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling – a feeling that embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world.”
  • “Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”

Personally, I find reading Freud’s work makes more sense if “ego” is replaced with “I”. 

In the case of the first example (the I is first and foremost a bodily I …) Freud is simply saying that the “I” is attached to a physical body and extends out from here. 

In the second and third example (the I detaches itself from the external world… ) Freud is describing how children see their sense of self as being part of everything around them (egotistically), but as we mature, our sense of self becomes detaches from our external surroundings, that is to say we become more conscious individuals. 

On this basic level, it is difficult to pick fault with the concept of an ego that Freud presents. The negative connotations come about when the ego is combined with Freud’s other infamous terminology, the superego and the id. Not surprisingly, the superego simply means the over-I, or as Freud said in German, the Uber ich. What is the superego? It is a concept of a better self, an “I” that is rational, calm, and has noble qualities. This can be likened to spiritualised concepts of a higher-self that is more dignified than the lower I. The id, on the other hand, represents irrational impulses and passions. Literally translated from Freud’s German, id is Latin for es, and es means it. Yes, that’s right, Freud used the word “it” as a technical term to describe the workings of the mind. 

According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the ego needs to balance the passions of the id with the noble principles of the superego. Moreover, it is the strength of the id that makes this balancing act a difficult. Here are a few more quotes from Freud: 

  • “It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”
  • “A transference neurosis corresponds to a conflict between ego and id, a narcissistic neurosis corresponds to that between between ego and super-ego, and a psychosis to that between ego and outer world.”
  • “Where id was, there ego shall be.”

Essentially, what Freud is saying in the above quotes is that if a person has a mental health issue, it is because the ego is out of balance, either due to too much influence from the id or the superego, but mostly the id. 

It is prudent to keep in mind that there is no scientific evidence to support the constructs of the id, ego, or superego. They are categories that define ways of thinking that can loosely be defined as emotional (id) and cognitive (superego), hence, an individual’s ego is the product of thoughts and feelings. Despite lack of evidence, I don’t mind viewing humans in this manner. I do, however, have issue with finite definitions of the id and superego being asserted as facts due to researcher biases, for example, the Freudian belief that the id’s passions are solely sexual.

In Freudianism, the id is concerned with sexual drives, otherwise known as the libido, and is driven by pleasure principles (Freud 1923). The superego is characterised as a self-critical part that governs one’s conscience and sense of morality. And the ego is one’s image of their conscious self; a combination of conscious and unconscious drives afflicted with the superego and id (Thurschwell 2009). 

In order to really understand Freudian theories, it’s useful to reflect on where he got his ideas from: the Ancient Greeks. Plato referred to individuals as having both a noble and ignoble soul (Phaedrus, section 246). Likewise, Aristotle referred to a rational and irrational soul (Politics, Book 7, part 14). And what word did Plato and Aristotle use to describe the ego? Answer: they used the word ego. Ego is the Greek word for I, just like it is in Latin. The difference between the Greek and Latin definition of ego is the subtle, suffice to say, in Ancient Greek philosophies, the concept of the ego has a close connection to Freudian psychology.

German: Das Uber ich
Latin: Superego
English: The Over-I
Rational soul
Noble soul
German: Das es
Latin: Id
English: The It
Irrational soul
Ignoble soul
German: Das ich
Latin: Ego
English: The I
The individual
Metaphorically presented
as a charioteer
Claimed men have more 
refined superegos
than women
Claimed men have more 
rational soul
than women
Supported the concept of
spiritual equality 
across genders

Above: Summary and comparison of Freud’s, Aristotle’s, and Plato’s division of the psyche (soul)

Can anyone else see plagiarism? Or is it fairer to say that Freud *only* appropriated the Greeks? Either way, why doesn’t contemporary psychology openly acknowledge where Freud got his ideas from? This enigma of Freudian popularity and giving him acclaim for so-called original thoughts confuses me more than the concept of the ego itself. 

‘Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. … the human charioteer drives his [soul] in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble’ 

~ Plato, C.370BCE, Phaedrus, section 246)
‘Now the soul of man is divided into two parts, one of which has a rational principle in itself, and the other, not having a rational principle in itself, is able to obey such a [rational] principle’ 

~ Aristotle, c.350BCE, Politics, Book 7, part 14

Freud’s appropriations of Ancient philosophies puts a negative spin on the word ego that is not necessarily consistent with ideologies that were presented in antiquity. The precise nature of the ego, and the soul in general, differs depending upon whomever’s writings you favour, for example Plato, Aristotle, or other. As a general rule, Freud appears to have plagiarised more from Aristotle, as is notable by both claiming that men have more superego or rational soul than women (more about this misogyny another time). 

Freudian ideas dominated psychological and cultural realms for the better half of the twentieth century. (Ironically this came about no sooner than Aristotles’ philosophies had finally fallen out of favour amongst academics, see Is Aristotle Overrated?) Given this background, there is something quite significant about Skyhooks challenging the psychological conventions of the twentieth century that promoted the idea that the ego was something negative and dirty.

Clearly and concisely, Skyhooks declared that the ego is not a bad thing. With flair and provado they sang “if you had no ego you might not care the way you dressed” or “if you did not have an ego you’d just be like the rest”. In the contexts of these lyrics, the suggested is clear: egotism, that is confidence in one’s sense of self and the expression of individuality can be a positive trait. Further, the song is deliberately controversial with references to the egos of Jesus and Nixon.

Nuances surrounding the concept of ego reminds me of what Plato said about the nature of the soul; that being that the nature of the soul was the most debated topic amongst philosophers (i.e., the soul’s true form is a theme of discourse; Freud didn’t appropriate this remark). Hence, given that the ego is an aspect of the soul (or in psychology terminology, the psyche, which of course is Greek for soul) it stands to reason that there are multiple views about the nature of the ego. Today’s psychological research is a lot more informed than in Freud’s, nonetheless, there is still much to learn.

In conclusion, it amuses me how an art form like music can transport ideas and provoke deeper thinking.


Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). Politics. http://Www.perseus.tufts.edu. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg

AZ Quotes. (2019). Sigmund Freud Quote. A-Z Quotes. https://www.azquotes.com/quote/102818

Burgo, J. (2011, June 21). Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation. After Psychotherapy. http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/id-ego-superego/

Freud, Sigmund. 1923. The Ego and the Id. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id.pdf

Leary, M. (2019). What Is the Ego, and Why Is It So Involved in My Life? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toward-less-egoic-world/201905/what-is-the-ego-and-why-is-it-so-involved-in-my-life

Plato. (370 B.C.E.). Plato, Phaedrus, page 246. http://Www.perseus.tufts.edu. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DPhaedrus%3Apage%3D246

sadzol. (2008). Skyhooks – Ego Is Not A Dirty Word. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6B9YXhZPrM

The Sydney Morning Herald. (2015, September 30). Skyhooks to reform for one-off performance but singer unconfirmed. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/skyhooks-to-reform-for-oneoff-performance-but-singer-unconfirmed-20150930-gjy4h7.html

Thurschwell, Pamela. 2009. Sigmund Freud. Routledge. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=4mx8AgAAQBAJ

Spiritual bypassing and religious abuse: The Reason Why Everyone Needs to Be Trauma-Informed

“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”

~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43

Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma. 

About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.

Source: 7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily. 

There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues. 

At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected. 

Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged. 

Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.

Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these. 

In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval. 

To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?! 

Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining. 

Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.

"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."

~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)

Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies. 

"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."

~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look

Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture. 

Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others? 

In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.


7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

Aletheia Luna. (2021, February 2). What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types) ⋆ LonerWolf. LonerWolf. https://lonerwolf.com/what-is-spiritual-bypassing/

Brown, J. (2019). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press.

Cox, C. (2019, February 25). Types of Delusions. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/delusions-types

Dan Brown Quote: “Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not underst…” (n.d.). Quotefancy.com. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from https://quotefancy.com/quote/1018478/Dan-Brown-Since-the-beginning-of-time-spirituality-and-religion-have-been-called-to-fill

Gabor Maté. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts close encounters with addiction. London Vermilion.

Gettis, A. (1987). The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 26(2), 131–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505915

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger – healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster — Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.


Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest gender of them all? If one were to go back in time and ask Aristotle this question, it’s a fair bet he would say: “Men are the fairest of them all!” In a previous blog I go through an overview of why I believe Aristotle’s high status in academia is overrated. In this blog I want to specifically discuss what Aristotle had to say about women and mirrors. 

Aristotle wrote:

‘If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

He explains the reasoning for this phenomenon as follows: 

‘… Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

From a contemporary point of view the idea that women can tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it is absurd. Nonetheless, we are talking about ancient Greeks here and they also believed that hysteria was caused by a woman’s uterus wandering around her body. Further, it was believed that to cure hysteria, a woman needed sexual intercourse. The logic being that the sad uterus was made happy by a penis so, therefore, would return to its rightful place at the end of the virginia, as opposed to her elbow, or upper thigh, or wherever it was the physicians thought a uterus wandered to. Men, of course, could not have hysteria because they didn’t have uteruses, moreover, the superiority of a male’s rational soul worked far too logically to ever allow emotions to get the better of them. Clearly, believing a uterus can wander about the body is a fine example of rational male thinking, and putting it back in its place through sex has nothing to do with men’s irrational, passionate soul.

Anyway, getting back to Aristotle’s mirror. The association between a dirty mirror and a woman’s gaze is an obvious indicator of misogynistic values. So too is the idea that a man can become blind to the effect of a woman’s ability to make things dirty with her gaze. 

To the best of my knowledge, no scientific study has been conducted to confirm or dismiss the dirty mirror and menstruating woman phenomenon. If any readers are aware of one, please forward the article to me. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s authoritative tone, and skills in the art of rhetorics, have led many men to believe that a woman can indeed tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it. For example, the Doctor of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas.

In the late Medieval period, Aquinas was praised and given the honour of sainthood. His legacy extends from his writing of Summa Theologica which is an extensive document summarising Christian beliefs. Admittedly, I haven’t read all 4000+ pages, but from what I have, it’s a fascinating insight into Medieval Church beliefs that covers topics such as “Is virginity lawful?” and “Did Jesus have a soul?” While reading through these sorts of topics, I was struck by how often Aquinas quotes Aristotle. For instance, in a section devoted to “Whether man by the power of his soul can change corporeal matter?” Aquinas directly refers to Aristotle’s theory of menstruating women and mirrors:

‘ … the eyes infect the air which is in contact with them to a certain distance: in the same way as a new and clear mirror contracts a tarnish from the look of a “menstruata,” as Aristotle says (De Somn. et Vigil.; [*De Insomniis ii]).’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

And Aquinas then takes it further: 

‘Hence then when a soul is vehemently moved to wickedness, as occurs mostly in little old women, according to the above explanation [of menstruating women tarnishing mirrors], the countenance becomes venomous and hurtful, especially to children, who have a tender and most impressionable body. It is also possible that by God’s permission, or from some hidden deed, the spiteful demons co-operate in this, as the witches may have some compact with them.’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

If you’re beginning to see a connection between  Aquinas’ summary of theology and witch hunts, then you’d be on a very sustainable train of thought …

Aquinas was a Dominican Monk. The Dominican order was developed upon the influence of Aristotle’s philosophies. Aquinas’ public lectures and writings extended Aristotle’s influence within the Church. Heinrich Kramer (c.1430 –1505) was also a clergyman of the Dominican order and he wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum (1487) which became the authority on recognising witches and was used to justify burning countless women at the stake.

It is obvious yet subtle that Aristotle’s philosophising on metaphysical differences between genders directly, and via Aquinas’ interpretations, underpinned the justification that women have inferior souls to men which, in turn, was a contributing factor to witch hunts, i.e. the perception of females having weaker, ignoble souls made women more susceptible to the devil’s influence than men who supposedly had stronger, more noble souls. For instance, in cases where babies died in stillbirths and midwives were accused of being witches could be perceived as “logical” because a woman supposedly had the ability to impact physical objects or people with her eyes. If the midwife was a little old women, the odds of her being perceived as a conjugate for evil increased. Although men could be accused of witchcraft, this did not happen nearly as much as it did to women.

Putting it simply, women were the main focus of witch hunts because paranoid, and dare I say it, hysterical men, believed a woman could cause harm by simply looking at an object or other being. Aristotle did not invent sexism but his works fuelled the imagination of men who had a distrust towards women; he gave misogyny a “scientific” flavour. Moreover, I would argue that as a culture we are still yet to completely recovery from the collective trauma that thousands of years of sexism and false scientific claims have caused.

Assuming a mirror experiment could disprove menstruating women have the ability to tarnish a copper mirror by simply looking at it, perhaps sharing the results on mass media could help undo centuries of false assumptions and prevent future witch hunts?

Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman, Ancient Greece, mid-5th century B.C. Source: The Met Museum

Closing Thoughts

While finalising this blog, I came across an article titled “Aristotle, Witchcraft and Witch Hunts” that is published on a United Kingdom History website. The author, Claudia Elphick, shares a similar view of the connections between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kramer to what I have expressed, however, Elphick goes a little deeper into the demonology aspect. The article can be found here and is well worth a read.


Ancient Greece. (2021). Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman. In Metmuseum.org. The Met Museum. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/256949mid-5th century B.C.E

Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.; Benziger Bros. Edition). https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). On Dreams. Classics.mit.edu; The Internet Classics Archive | On Dreams by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/dreams.htmlTranslated by J. I. Beare

Hans Peter Broedel. (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft : theology and popular belief. Manchester University Press ; New York. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/35002/341393.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110

Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy

Looking at the title of this blog some people may wonder what an Ancient Greek philosopher has to do with mental health? As it turns out, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) has a lot to do with how westernised cultures have developed psychological theories, especially in relation to spiritually and gender. Long story short, in arguably Aristotle’s most contentious writing, Politics, he describes men’s souls as being more developed than that of women’s. He claims a man’s soul is closer to being god-like, therefore they are the more rational gender, whereas a woman’s soul is less evolved, more like the soul of an animal, therefore they are irrational beings. Hence, men dominating women has justification because this is supposedly the “natural” order of the universe. In Aristotles’ own words: 

‘Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind’

(Politics, Book 1, Part 5)

This above opinion of genders aptly sums up patriarchy. The belief of male supremacy is by no means universal across time and cultures, but it did have a stronghold in Classical Greece so it is fair to say a lot of men in antiquity assumed men were by nature superior. Conversely, many have used Aristotle’s sentiments as proof of man’s “rightful” status above women.

The name “Aristotle” has long provoked the notion that whatever was said by him is worthy of credence, especially in academic traditions. This has continued to be the case in spite of the fact it is now known Aristotle was wrong at least as often as he was right. Additionally, his obvious sexist biases, like claiming that females have less teeth than men, raise the question as to whether he has been chronically overrated? And if so, why? Cynically, I wonder if, historically, patriarchal systems have overrated Aristotle simply because doing so serves their cause?

I’m going to skim over the finer details of systemic sexism and how it impacts the mental health of millions of people, every day. Suffice to say, Aristotle’s philosophies have been used to justify slavery and the oppression of women for a disgustingly long time. In order for the trauma culture to end, I believe the roots of societal conditioning need to be exposed.

The Ancient Philosopher

Aristotle’s influence can not be overstated. He is praised for being an all round genius who wrote treatises on numerous subjects that cover areas of biology, physics, natural history, drama, poetry, ethics, rhetorics, politics, and metaphysics. Aristotle was one of the first “psychologists” to put his theories down in concise written format, as opposed to more traditional forms like poetry. That is if “psychology” is understood in its literal and traditional meaning of being the “study of the soul”, i.e. in Greek “psyche” is “soul” and “ology” means “study of”. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the definition of “psychology” evolved into a “study of the mind” that inferred thinking, feeling, and behaviour.

Aristotle’s psychological ideas are scattered throughout his writings, but most notably in topics dedicated to the soul, memories, the senses, and dreams (Freud was intimately familiar with Aristotle’s work, henceforth it’s no coincidence that parallels can be drawn between Freudian psychology and Aristotle, but that’s a topic best left for another time). In regards to explaining the differences between genders, Aristotle did not use empirical arguments like we know them today. In Ancient Greece, reference to soul qualities to explain phenomena was not only accepted, it was expected.

From Christian theologians through to Renaissance scholars and beyond, Aristotle’s writings have been a source of inspiration for many. In order to appreciate why this influence may be overrated it is useful to know how Aristotle’s work has been handed down through the ages. 

Background to the handing down of Aristotle’s work over the ages

Aristotle never intended for anyone to read his philosophies in the form of the manuscripts we currently have. In his lifetime, he wrote dialogues in a similar fashion to that of his teacher, Plato. There are records of these dialogues being in circulation up until the first few centuries, however, none of these have survived. 

Aristotle spent about twenty years studying under Plato at the Academy (which is credited as being the first university; that is a school which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taught “mathematics, dialectics, natural science, and preparation for statesmanship”). Upon Plato’s death, Aristotle left the Academy and went on to be the private tutor to Prince Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great), and from there he moved on to found his own school in Athens that was called the Lyceum. It is at the Lyceum that Aristotle left behind the copious amounts of writings that are credited to his name. These writings are presumed to be lecture notes and/or teaching resources.

Schools back in Aristotle’s day weren’t like that of today. For instance, there were no classrooms and Aristotle is known to have tirelessly walked around the outdoor campus while lecturing. There are reports of his students dutifully following his every step as well as his words of wisdom. Therefore, exactly how Aristotle used his lecture notes is not clear. 

In many respects, Aristotle’s work follows on from Plato’s and other Ancient Greek philosophers, however, the legacy of Alexander the Great is also very much intertwined with Aristotle. It is often portrayed that Alexander spread Greek thought throughout the ancient worlds, and seeing as Aristotle was his primary tutor, it’s reasonable to assume that it was Aristotle’s version of Greek thought that was circulated. However, it was not a one-way streak. Alexander also absorbed influence from the lands he conquered (Egypt through to India). In fact, Alexander’s best friend criticised him for being influenced too much by the Persians, as was notable by him wearing Persian attire instead of Greek clothing. (Alexander’s response to this offence was to kill him, which apparently he had more remorse about than killing his own father, but anyway that’s not the focus of this blog.) The influence of other lands flowed through to Aristotle too, who, in particular, had access to biology specimens of plants and animals that other lovers of wisdom in Greece did not. In light of these circumstances, I can see why Aristotle was considered highly knowledgable.

To add a layer of complexity, technically, neither Aristotle or Alexander were Greeks, they were Macedonians. Calling Macedonian’s Greek is a bit like calling Austrian’s German; in both instances there is a shared language but each have different dialects, customs, politics, culture, and so forth. Referring to Aristotle or Alexander as Greek is a bit like calling Hitler German when, as any German will tell you, Hitler was Austrian.

Basically, the way history panned out, despite the Macedonian monarchy being the ones to take control over Greece, Macedonia inevitably became part of Greece, not vice versa. 

Macedonian’s takeover of Greece during Aristotle’s lifetime was a period of great tension. Ill feelings towards Macedonians resulted in Aristotle being exiled from Athens a few years prior to his death. Aristotle’s colleague, Theophrastus, succeeded him as headmaster of the Lyceum. Theophrastus kept Aristotle’s writings as part of his personal library and is credited for extending Aristotelian logic into an even more refined systematic order. Upon Theophrastus’ death Aristotle’s manuscripts were passed onto another philosopher, and so on. Aristotle’s works were preserved – sometimes in dingy, damp locations where they were exposed to moisture and mould – by a small group of philosophers for a few hundred years. During those years, Plato’s writings had a lot more public attention. By the way, Plato appears to have supported the opinion that all genders had equal soul qualities (albeit, Plato also suggested that “male” soul qualities are superior to “female” soul qualities).

In about 30 BCE, a Greek philosopher by the name of Andronicus of Rhodes published an edited version of Aristotle’s manuscripts that are the basis of what we have today. Sections that were too weather damaged were guessed to ensure no gaps in the pose. Thus, the story of Aristotle’s writings from being lecture notes through to editions that were made available to an audience beyond his school, illustrates that Aristotle never intended anyone who was not a student at Lyceum to read his work. There is not even any evidence to conclude that Aristotle intended for his students or colleagues to see his writings; it may simply have been lack of foresight that he left them behind when he fled Athens.

Over the next few hundred years, versions of Aristotle’s work began being circulated in Latin and Arabic, however, Aristotle’s rise to fame was not instant. In the fourth century, Emperor Julian wrote a Hymn to the Mother of the Gods in which he records an interesting comment by the philosopher Xenarchus who said that Aristotle was absurd when he spoke about metaphysical principles, in particular, the nature of the human soul. Emperor Julian’s personal critique of Aristotle was not as harsh. He believed that if Aristotle’s work was brought into alignment with Plato’s then it had value. It is unclear from this brief reference whether Emperor Julian was referring to Aristotle’s dialogues that may have still been available or if he is referring to the published lecture notes.

Moving on into the next few hundred centuries, while most of Europe was plunged into an era commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages” and/or the Medieval period, Aristotle’s writings were mostly preserved by Islamic (and some Jewish) scholars. Early Christian scholars typically had more exposure to Plato, although individuals such as Saint Augustine (354 – 430), are noted for having Aristotelian influence. Augustine spent time in Persia and he studied Neoplatonism before converting to Christianity so to note Aristotle’s influence in this instance is not surprising.

Exactly how and when more Aristotelian ideas were incorporated into Christianity is a bit fuzzy, suffice to say, that as the Medieval period evolved, Aristotle’s influence on the Church was crystallised through the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Aquinas was originally from Italy, studied in France, and was ordained in Germany. He wrote a summary of Christian theology (if you can call a 4000+ page document – modern typeface, PDF format – a summary!) Aquinas’ Summa Theologica quotes Aristotle directly around 400 times. In comparison, Plato only gets mentioned about 150.

Aquinas’ life marks a point in time when education was becoming more formalised through the establishment of universities like those that we know of today, for example the University of Paris that Aquinas attended was established 1160-1250. More crucially, another point to note is that Aquinas and the emerging universities began to have access to Aristotle’s work that had been passed down through Greco-Roman lines and works that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. Thus, rather than a broad range of subjects being covered by numerous philosophers, Aristotelian texts offered the bulk of what was considered a complete education, especially in regards to the liberal arts.

In a nutshell, education of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods was a Latinised version of Aristotelian theories treated as gospel. From Aquinas’ integrating of Aristotle’s metaphysics into Christian doctrine through to biological treaties on plants, animals, and humans, Aristotle was considered to be a genius of all time. Moreover, Aristotle’s focus on logical, rational thinking, and empirical observations were the rhetorics of justifying why his views should be accepted. From the royal palace in Spain to the clergy in Rome, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, Aristotle’s works were a stable curriculum. Having said that, only about 5% of the European population were educated (the statistics are slightly higher in Italian regions where closer to 10% of the population were educated; these places maintained more of the Roman education system than elsewhere. It was also more likely for Italian women to receive a formal education in Italy than elsewhere around Europe, that is until the witch hunts began). 

The educated were predominantly men of privilege. They were priests and anyone of noble birth who were in an elitist position. There are a few references to nuns and women in royal households studying Aristotle but they are few and far between.

As previously mentioned, in Politics Aristotle claims that men are naturally superior to women, and men who can engage with philosophical topics are naturally superior to men who have labouring occupations. Therefore, given that these concepts were standard teachings given to educated men, the system itself was maintained by insisting that women of all classes and men who worked in labouring jobs (i.e., farming, blacksmithing, and other crafts) were unsuited to education. Aristotle taught these discriminating theories based on “empirical” observations. He observed that slaves had more muscle mass than philosophers, who supposedly had more intelligence, therefore he concluded it was only natural that the former should work on tools while the latter tell them how to do the work.

The level of influence Aristotle had on European culture was quaintly captured by writer and poet, Dante, who echoed the sentiment that practical skills were inferior to thinking, moreover, men who used their intellect were considered to be closer to God (God = the Primal Goodness who brought mankind into existence):

‘I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity of which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”‘

(Monarchy, Book 1, part 3)

It may be deduced that, for multiple centuries, the average person had no idea who Aristotle was but nonetheless they lived within religious, political, and cultural environments that were formed around his ideas. In other words, Aristotle’s philosophies set the tone for social values, laws, and other areas of life. One can only wonder how different things may have been if another philosopher or a broader range of theories were circulated. I’ve said it once, but its worth saying again, Aristotle’s influence cannot be understated and Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things. His cosmology and physics were not only accepted without question, in some cases, disagreeing with Aristotelian thought could result in retributions from the Church (e.g., Galileo and Copernicus).

In some circumstances, it must have taken a lot of effort to believe Aristotle’s “wisdom” when there was concrete evidence available to easily be demonstrated as false, like both men and women have the same cranial sutures, was as easy as examining the a few skulls. However, there was also a period in time when the Church forbid autopsies, hence, reliance upon Aristotle’s descriptions of anatomy was all people (in particular, physicians) had to go on.

With cultish belief in Aristotle being the norm, it’s not that surprising even more outlandish claims were also believed. My personal favourite in the category Aristotle’s outlandish claims is the one about how menstruating woman could tarnish a mirror by looking simply looking at it. When I mention this one to people in conversation they usually burst out laughing. However, this was no laughing matter to devout scholars like Aquinas. Not only did he believe Aristotle was completely correct about the menstruating women and mirror theory, he followed it up by saying it proved that old ladies could damage the souls of young children simply by looking at them. Hmm, kind of reminds me of the concept of the evil eye that fuelled witch hunts … I’d like to say more about this but it’s better left for a blog of its own (see here).

Interestingly, it was not until Aristotle’s theories were rejected that significant developments took place in science, religion, and, in turn, culture. Some people believe Aristotle held up scientific development for 2000 years, and while this may be an exaggeration, there may also be some truth in it. 

A major game changer was Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) who, in 1517 pinned his thesis to the door of a small church in Germany, thus sparking the reformation. Luther’s criticism of the Church were inevitably rejections of Aristotle’s philosophies pertaining to the nature of a human soul. Further, Luther was deeply concerned about Aristotle being taught at universities. Specifically, as reported by Robert Stan in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Luther spoke against the decision made by the faculty of liberal arts at the University of Paris, to include all of Aristotle’s known writings in their curriculum. Whilst the Catholic Church appalled Aquinas for Christianising Aristotle, the Islamic world praised Averroes for Islamicising Aristotle. To Luther, Aristotle was, quite simply, a pagan. Luther fell short of calling out Aristotle’s sexist attitudes, but nonetheless he was a key player in getting the ball rolling.

Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) is one of the first recorded academics to directly oppose Aristotle’s gender assumptions, which he eloquently did in a book titled Defence of Good Women. 

Rene Decartes (1596 – 1650) is another important character who successfully questioned Aristotle’s authority. Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern science. An examination of his work quickly reveals why. He successfully defined the difference between philosophy and science, and in doing so turned cultural acceptance of Aristotle’s works on its head. From Descartes’ foundational work many other scholars followed, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and François Poulain (1648–1723). 

However, despite the work of many dedicated scholars in search of truth, in the nineteen century, Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861) was still questioning why Aristotle’s biology lessons were still being taught even though it was well and truly known he was often wrong. Likewise, from a psychology and mental health perspective I wonder why Aristotle’s philosophies about the human mind, sensations, and emotions are still given credence? 

In many instances it is not a case of Aristotle’s psychology theories being taught “we believe human beings behave/think/feel in such-a-such manner because Aristotle said so” (although I have come across one university lecturer who presented a lesson in that way). Rather, once one is aware of Aristotle’s work it is clear to see the chain of influence. For instance, Freud’s psychology lecturer at the University of Vienna was a Catholic Priest called Franz Brentano; Brentano was a devout fan of Aristotle and introduced Freud to his philosophies. Is it just a coincidence that Freud divided the human mind up into two categories (the id and superego) and Aristotle also referred to the soul as being divided up into two categories (the passionate soul and the rational soul)? Likewise, is it just a coincidence that Freud claimed men had more “superego” compared to women and Aristotle claimed men had more “rational soul” compared to women? I think not. And so the Aristotelian influence on psychological sciences continues in subtle ways through the credence given to individuals like Freud who come from an Aristotelian background. (I’ve written a peer-reviewed paper that can be found here that goes into more detail about negative consequences of following flawed interpretations of Ancient Greek philosophy.)

It is my humble view that the situation is nuanced by Aristotelian influence being so deeply embedded into cultures (namely those with Christian, Islamic, and Jewish heritages) that it is not recognised where certain attitudes and assumptions first came from. In order to rectify the situation, critically revisiting Aristotle’s theories and comparing them to contemporary research is a prudent step to take. Aristotle’s philosophies are a belief system and the fundamental ideology that underpins his writing needs to be recognised in order to see its potential value and harm. 

Big Picture Questions

To conclude, I firmly believe Aristotle was a great man and I find much of his work is utterly fascinating. His works provide a precious insight into a particular type of thinking that existed over 2000 years ago, however, there were many other philosophies from antiquity that are also worthy of admiration and attention. For starters, the Pythagoraean and Epicurean philosophers had some great things to say about mathematics, ethics, and equality of the genders … hmm, I wonder why the 5% of the educated people in the Medieval period neglected their ideas when formalising religious doctrines and education curriculums?

I can’t help but wonder if there is a link between systemic sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice embedded in contemporary culture that can be traced back to historical support for Aristotle’s psychology? There is probably no simple answer to such a question, but I believe there is sufficient historic evidence to support the need to consider the possibility that Aristotle has been overrated.

Closing Thoughts

While it is tempting to shame Aristotle and berate him for being an arrogant, sexist man who who used illogical premises to justify misogyny and racial discrimination, I don’t believe it is fair to do so. Ultimately, Aristotle never intended his work to be published and we have no copy of the works that he did intentionally publish. As a teacher, I feel a certain sympathy for this man who is a founders of my craft. I shudder at the thought that my teaching notes may be published after I’m dead and that I will be judged according to what is written on them. Never in my life have I written down word for word everything I intend to say in a class. There are always additional points, information I know so well I don’t need to make notes about in my lesson plans, and above all, I always intend to have discussions with my students to flesh out the topics further. I suspect Aristotle may have been similar, moreover, it is my understanding that he, and many other ancient philosophers, were also members of mysteria, that is mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian Mystery School). Membership into such groups was dependent upon keeping secrets and to reveal knowledge that was considered sacred was punishable under Ancient Greek laws. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to speculate that Aristotle held beliefs that were not recorded in his lecture notes, or if they were then they were, they were written in code. Hence, if Aristotle’s works are lecture notes, they do not give us a full picture about Aristotelian thought. In turn, subsequent ideologies and curriculums based on Aristotle’s works can be considered as products of biased interpretations, as opposed to proof that Aristotle was a genius who deserves to be given a higher rating than other ancient philosophers.

Is Aristotle’s work overrated? I’d say a firm, yes! Ancient Greek philosophy was about debating ideas, not placing one man’s (misogynistic) opinions above all others.


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Psychoanalysis and Castration

Castration of male genital has long a history in mythology, religious rites, and as a means of controlling slaves. In contrast, Freud believed castration anxiety was an experience all boys went through. Like most psychoanalytic babel, the so-called universal experiences of infantile sexuality have no scientific basis and when the “evidence” to support them, i.e., mythology and ancient rites, is examined, Freud’s interpretations are illogical. In sum, mythological and religious depictions of castration demonstrate that penis’ are a vulnerability that some men are better off without.

Freud’s castration anxiety theories centres around a mental process he called the Oedipus Complex. In the case of men, Freud asserted that all boys experience sexual desire for their mother but this is repressed and displays itself in adulthood as ‘a sense of guilt for which he can discern no foundation’*. Supposedly the sexual desire in boys is so strong that they want to possess their mothers and irrationally fear that if their father were to find out he would take away what they love most, their penis; hence, all young boys develop castration anxiety.

In girls, the Oedipus complex is considered to be a reversal of a boy’s experience. While a boy wants to do away with their father and have their mother to themselves, a girl wants to be rid of their mother so they can have all of their father’s attention. The situation becomes more complex when a girl realises that she does not have a penis like her father, so she therefore becomes envious and resents her mother for her castrated state. Her only hope for reducing the tension brought about by penis envy is to substitute her desire for a penis with a desire for a baby.


Two prominent castration myths stand out and are commonly referred to in psychoanalysis: The Egyptian story of Osiris and the Greek myth of Uranus and Aphrodite’s birth.

The basic outline of the Egyptian story is that a god named Seth was jealous of his brother Osiris being King so he kills him and takes the throne. When the Queen, Isis, finds out her husband is dead she is grieved and sets about finding Osiris’ body. Once located, she begins the process of bringing him back to life, however, she is interrupted. Seth steals Osiris’ body, cuts it up into fourteen pieces, then hurls the pieces throughout Egypt so Isis cannot bring him back to life. Isis transforms into a hawk kite and flies over Egypt collecting all the pieces but she could not find his penis because it was eaten by a fish. Therefore, Isis makes a substitute penis out of gold and uses her magic to become pregnant. Because Osiris is incomplete, he cannot stay alive and he descends to the underworld where he rules over the dead.

In the Greek myth, Uranus (the personification of heaven) is told of an oracle that predicts one of his children will overthrow him. Consequently, whenever his wife, Gaia (the personification of earth) has children he imprisons them. Gaia is not happy. A plan is set and put into action: Gaia’s youngest child, Cronus, castrates Uranus in an opportunistic moment and casts his genitals into the sea. Blood from the severed members become giants and Aphrodite rises out of the water from Uranus’ disembodied parts. Read on a symbolic level, Uranus’ castration gave birth to stupidity (giants are generally depicted as stupid) and the embodiment of beauty and sexual desire (Aphrodite’s characteristics). Alternately, the moral of the story could be interpreted as: “Don’t piss off your wife or she’ll chop your balls off”.

Cultic castration

Some devotees of Osiris cults castrated themselves in reverence for their deity, however, the Cybele cult is probably better known for this practice. The cult of Cybele focused around the Great Mother (Rhea in Greek). Priests of the order were eunuchs and some male followers also castrated themselves. The practice is speculated to be symbolic of a ‘Sacred Marriage’. There are differing accounts of how the festival-based ritual of removing male genitalia was performed. Sometimes the act was performed by the individual and other times it was done with assistance. While being a Roman cult, it has links to Greek mythology in which Cronus was instructed to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), by his mother, Gaia (Earth). In some instances Cybele cult clergy only removed their testicles and in others they completely removed all male genitalia.

Early Christianity

The practice of castration as a suitable means of avoiding unlawful sexual intercourse was expressed by many, including Philo of Alexandria (first century Jewish scholar) who said “it is better to make oneself a eunuch than to rage madly for unlawful sexual intercourse”#. Thus, cultural acceptance of castration combined with the following motivational verse from Saint Matthew’s gospel encouraged some early christians to perform the act:

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 

Matthew 19:12 (KJV)

In Christianity castration is mostly associated with religious asceticism. For instance, Origen (c.184 – 253CE) who was born into Christian family in Alexandria was zealously devoted to Christianity and is reported to have self castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. Presumably, he wasn’t the only one because when Christian leaders meet in the third century Catholic to discuss and establish standardised codes of conduct (the Council of Nicaea), self castration was one of the hot issues on the agenda. It was decided, moreover, it became cannon law, that self castration was to be prohibited. Prominent figures like Saint Augustine objected to the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, albeit, Augustine still popularised the notion that sexual intercourse was connected to sin.

A depiction of Origen’s self-castration
Source: Wikipedia commons

Intermingled with the long history of castration practices is the concept of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from the penis, which is hypothesised to be a tradition that evolved from expressing religious devotion via castration. Circumcision has been part of Judaism ever since the time of Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise all male babies on their eight day as a sign of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people (Genesis 17:10–14). The tradition then extended into Christianity and Islam. The connection between circumcision and castration is complicated by Abrahamic religions supporting circumcision but having no tolerance for castration: ‘No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the LORD’s people’ (GNV; Deuteronomy 23:1).

In 530 Emperor Justinian declared orders of celibacy for Christian clergy, however, these were not consistently followed. Priests were not officially forbidden to marry till 1139. Catholic priests today still take vows of celibacy on the grounds of it symbolising a commitment to God, while other Christian denominations (e.g. Lutheran, Protestant, and Anglican) allow priests to marry.

The prohibition of self castration did not eliminate its practice. In Russia, in the eighteenth century, a sect known as “Skoptsy” revived the tradition. The initiation process involved the testis being removed first, or in the case of women, the nipples, then the next stage was complete removal of the phallus or breasts.


In Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety is concerned with so-called instinctual impulses (the id) of an incestual nature, in which a boy must give up his sexual desire for his mother out of fear that an internalised Godly father figure (the superego) will castration him. The wanting to repress sexual desire out of Godly wrath may be viewed as having an alignment with the conscious decision making behind some religious attitudes and practices, (e.g., some Cybele, Osiris and early Christian devotees), however, this is not sufficient evidence to claim all young boys unconsciously experience castration anxiety. If myths, ancient texts, and religious practices are to be used as evidence (as psychoanalysis does) then it could be conjectured that all young boys experience unconscious castration desires because they want to demonstrate devotion to their internalised God figure and be more like their mothers.

In the case of girls, who Freud thought of as castrated beings with a weaker superego, rather than viewing myths as projecting connotations of inferiority, female deities could be viewed as powerful beings who are capable of restoring order when men act foolishly, as can be interpreted in the behaviour of Rhea (Cronus’ wife) and Isis. Subsequently, having a penis can be viewed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. 

Overall, Freudian theories blur several factors such as mythological representation of castration and historical practices of castration, with young children’s curiosity about their own and other people’s bodies. The combining of these two factors is not conducive to understanding psychology. On one hand an appreciation can be given to the history of castration in mythology and ancient texts that express a broad range of attitudes, beliefs, and associated behaviours that are founded in cultural norms and customs. On the other hand, children, when learning about their bodily functions, require guidance to learn autonomy and social norms. 

After thoughts

From a contemporary perspective, the historical acts of castration as a religious practice may be viewed as having overlaps with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) proponents. However, this consideration can’t be taken too liberally. Actual acts of sexual promiscuity, rape, and other sexual violence that may have occurred within ancient cultures may have been an incentive for castration (religious or other), however, this is challenging to comment on due to the lack of reliable records.

*Quote taken from page 2: Freud, Sigmund, Lecture Twenty-One: development of the libido and sexual organization, https://azkurs.org/from-lecture-twenty-one-development-of-the-libido-and-sexual-o.html (accessed 27 November 2020).

# Quote taken from page 402: Caner DF. The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity. Vigiliae Christianae 1997; 51: 396–415.


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Be gone Mr Pearson’s correlations coefficient! – Statistics and the Dead Poet’s Society

“Rip, Rip, Rip … this is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your heart and soul!” exclaims Mr. Keating (Robin Williams).

The book ripping scene in the Dead Poet’s Society is a classic. A class of young men, quietly await to have their minds filled with instructions on how to interpret the rhyme and meter of poems using precise methodology but instead get told: “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard, PhD!”

If it’s been a while or you haven’t seen the scene you can watch it here.

There are times when I’m going over statistics for psychology when I feel like embracing Mr Keating’s ethos. My brain says: “Be gone Mr Pearson’s correlations coefficient!” And it doesn’t stop there, it continues with “rip out those pages on p-values, sum of squares, and sample standard deviation!”

It’s a war between seeing the humanity in people and reducing them to data points. I do not like judging people by finite constructs and numbers.

As the storyline in Dead Poet’s Society develops, the students learn to appreciate emotions and see things from new perspectives. This is what I want from psychology, to understand the variation and uniqueness of people.

In the movie, the young men learn to “suck the marrow out of life”. Then it all comes crashing down when constraints of reality gain too much ground on the battlefield. So too, the reality that statistics is an unavoidable part of psychology confronts me.

In the final scene of Dead Poet’s Society the class is faced with learning J. Evans Pritchard’s rhyme and meter, but, as the credit roll, the audience is left with the inference that those formulas will not stoically imprint upon their minds. Thanks to the Captain’s embodied teaching strategies, interpretation based purely on intellectual analysis is offset by a knowing that our inner world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviour have an intangible quality. So too, I face psychology statistics with an appreciation of their usefulness that is offset by a knowing that they cannot define the heart and soul of a person.

The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology

According to the NASA website, the Big Bang Theory of how the universe started stipulates that in the beginning there was a very small single point that grew. Below is cut and paste of the process as theorised by Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble in 1927 & 1929 respectively.

When the universe began, it was just hot, tiny particles mixed with light and energy. It was nothing like what we see now. As everything expanded and took up more space, it cooled down.

The tiny particles grouped together. They formed atoms. Then those atoms grouped together. Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

The first stars created bigger atoms and groups of atoms called molecules. That led to more stars being born. At the same time, galaxies were crashing and grouping together. As new stars were being born and dying, then things like asteroids, comets, planets, and black holes formed!

Now what would you say if I told you that Lemaître’s and Hubble’s ideas were far from original? What would you say if I told you that the Ancient Egyptians said the same thing at least 5000 year ago? Well guess what, they did. Except the Egyptians used different wording.

According to the Egyptians, the void of nothingness at the start of time had four pairs of qualities. The names of these qualities were Naunet and Nu who represented the primeval water; Hauhet and Huh who represented infinity; Kauket and Kek who represented darkness, and; Amaunet and Amun who represented the hidden unknowable nature of the void. In case you didn’t guess it, each of these qualities was personified as a Goddess or God. Moreover, each pair had a female and male component – to use a modern analogy, it was kind of like pairs of female and male electrical circuitry; nothing was literally feminine or masculine, we humans just sometimes use a boorish of way describing things that interlock with each. (Imagine the joy your mobile charger gets when its studly male part makes love to the sexy female socket every night while its charging, and you’ll get the idea that thinking of the Egyptian deities as literally having it on, is humorous.)

The Egyptians expressed their version of the time before the ‘big bang’ wonderfully in their pictorial writing style of hieroglyphics.

Erroneously, some people, e.g., Jordan Peterson, refer to this description of the beginning of time as chaos, moreover, a feminine chaos. There are many reasons why this assumption is wrong, one of which is that it neglects etymology. The original meaning of the word ‘chaos’ was void.


Etymology is the study of the history of words. Language is constantly evolving which means the meanings of words is not static – like all of the universe, meanings are constantly expanding. Sometimes the meanings of a word get so big that they break into pieces and new words and new meanings are formed.

Common examples of words that have changed include ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ which used to be synonyms that referred to fearful respect, i.e. ‘awe’ for God. Each word has slowly developed over the past few hundred years to point in which awesome means something wonderful and awful means something terrible.

Colloquially, ‘totally sick’ means something is great, but historically, a person would only use the term if someone was extremely ill.

Not so long ago, ‘gay’ meant happy or joyful, now it means homosexual. Imagine reading an Enid Blyton book and thinking the children were homosexual because you didn’t know the old meaning of the word. That is exactly the same situation we have with ‘chaos’.

Up until the 1600’s chaos had nothing to do with confusion or disarray. Hence, associating that meaning with the primeval waters of life is equally ridiculous. To use modern language, the primeval waters were a void.

Now, as the tiny particles, i.e. Naunet, Nu, Hauhet, Huh, Kauket, Kek, Amaunet, and Amun, got the jiggy on, excitement began to build. Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble phrase that this part of the process as leading to the creation of a big BANG. Personally, I think the Egyptian’s had a bit more class, they called it RA!

BANG or RA, or whatever you want to call it, it was BIG! And a great light appeared!

The Egyptians poetically describe this beautiful new light as blooming on a lotus flower. He sat there, ever so quietly, with His finger posed lightly upon His lips, in silence. Alas, the energy of this light was so powerful that it began to expand, and as it did Ra got excited; so excited in fact that He masterbated! Holy moly, the great God miraculously produced two offspring called Shu and Tefnut. Ra was new to this parenting thing; moreover, He was a single dad and wasn’t sure what He should be doing (I’m tempted to say Ra was a little bit Chaotic and struggled to find Order but I don’t want to get ahead of myself). So anyway, we’ll forgive Ra for not watching what the children were doing (some versions of the story say He lost an eye, so we’ll give the the poor man some empathy). While Ra was trying to get a hang on this parenting thing (if only He had some sex education before He masterbated!), there must have been a few moments where He wasn’t watching what the kids were doing because, lo and behold, the next thing you know, Shu and Tefnut are having kids with each other! Their offspring were called Nut and Geb. Please don’t judge Shu and Tefnut too harshly, they may have been siblings but their children were made with love, nonetheless. Besides, its not their fault Ra was an absent father figure who did not give any moral guidance (actually, I don’t think morals had been created yet – they came latter when the Goddess Maat arrived on the scene – bloody typical, the universe was immoral till a woman took on that leadership role). Family trauma set in quick. Nut and Geb had to be separated to stop the shenanigans. Nut was placed in the sky and Geb on the earth. The story goes on a bit with siblings having kids with each other (awkward, I know), and this keeps on going until Isis abstracts some of Ra’s power and begins the process of sorting out this family mayhem. Fortunately, after Isis has a child with her brother Osiris the incest theme dies down a bit. (The story of Isis is really cool, so I’m going to save the details for another time.)

Now I realise this Egyptian narrative is a bit raunchy and may not be appropriate for young children, so we’ll say the same thing in Lemaître’s and Hubble’s stiff upper-lipped scientific tone: Everything expanded and took up more space and then it cooled down. The tiny particles grouped together (that’s the incest part of the Egyptian story). They formed atoms (grand-kiddies were born!) Then those atoms grouped together (family tree was growing!) Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

I’m sorry, is it just me, or is the Egyptian version way more exciting? I know which drama enactment I’d buy tickets to see … I love learning but if the lesson is too boring then my attention is gone … just saying.

So there you have it. The Egyptian Big Bang theory. Presented to you in Renaissance Wellbeing’s style.

On a serious note, I have used some gender-stereotypes in my storytelling which are not necessarily part of the ancient Egyptian versions. Further, my stereotypes are not fair to real women or men. I mean no offence by my satirically expression. The point I’m making is that mythologies are an amalgamation of sociocultural influences and key concepts that have been personified. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different versions of the same myths. (FYI there are many variations of the Egyptian creation myth – what I’ve written here is a harmonisation of themes from serval versions.) Storytellers of different times and places imprinted upon narratives social codes and conventions that correlate to the cultures in which they are presented. Same thing happens in contemporary mediums of storytelling like novel writing and Hollywood movie scripts.

Overall, interpreting any ancient mythology needs to be approached with care and consideration of its themes and context. Creativity also needs to be duly acknowledged. For these reasons, myths cannot be completely generalised to have universal meanings, however, there is the caveat that common themes, like world beginning with a void, and theological beliefs, like the four elements, that can appear across a number of cultures. The reason for this is that there was a lot of sharing of stories, especially at ancient libraries. For example, Philo (20BCE – c. 50CE) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who harmonised Greek and Jewish themes into his writing. Likewise, Ovid (43BC – c.18CE) was Roman scholar who harmonised Greek and Roman mythology. And Iamblichus (245 – c.325CE) brought together Egyptian, Chaldean, and Assyrian beliefs. The extent that storytelling was shared between groups of people prior to written records is unclear. Although, there is evidence cross-cultural influences did occur, for example Egyptian artefacts have been found in Crete that date back to at least 1500BCE.

When mythology is viewed in appropriate sociocultural contexts, psychoanalytical theory that proposes myths have universal symbols looses validity. Psychoanalysis interpretations of mythology do not present genuine understandings of ancient stories nor do they reveal any unconscious truths about so-called archetypes. Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis is nothing more than surface level interpretations of mythological themes that reflect Victorian era values. They are not applicable to antiquity and they are not applicable to today’s societies. Moreover, the psychological effect of believing myths are literal truths about gender and behaviour can harmful to mental wellbeing. As individuals we are not doing ourselves justice if we compare ourselves to personifications of concepts. There are no ultimate masculine or feminine traits that anyone needs to affiliate with based purely on whether they are women or men. We are all human. We are all in a state of expansion, development, and creation, just like the universe.

To end, I’d like to thank Kathy for inspiring me to write this blog based on a social media comment that she made:

I wouldn't want to get lost in the idea that chaos is feminine when it is both. Much in nurturing is calming and bringing order. Nurturing has been stereotyped as a feminine role. So, that in itself is a contradiction to chaos as feminine.


chaos | Origin and meaning of chaos by Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). http://Www.Etymonline.com. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/chaos

NASA. (n.d.). What Is the Big Bang? | NASA Space Place – NASA Science for Kids. Spaceplace.Nasa.Gov. https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/big-bang/en/#:~:text=The%20Short%20Answer%3A

The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics

Human beings are visual creatures. Generally, we rely upon our eyesight more than any other sense. On a daily basis we look around our environments detecting colour, motion, shapes, contours, and gauge distance. We interpret body language, admire beauty, and we respond to the things we look at in a myriad of ways. When doing so, our mind is also constantly interpreting symbols. Even right now, while you are reading this blog, the letters that make up words are symbols that need interpreting. And the words themselves represent sounds and pictures which symbolise concepts that your mind can translate into meaning.

The definition of symbols is quite broad. To summarise, I’ve chosen the most concise and inclusive description from Cambridge online dictionary, along with a few examples:

  • something that is used to represent a quality or idea, for example:
    • Heart shape for the symbol of love
    • Water, a symbol of life, recurs as an image throughout her poems
    • The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of the Cold War
    • She’s a symbol of hope for people living with this condition
    • The private jet is a symbol of wealth
    • The symbol © shows that something is protected by copyright
    • Symbols for mathematics ➕➖➗✖️, science μx, music 𝄢 🎶 etc.

Symbols aren’t always easy to decipher. To help, I find Charles Peirce’s (1839–1914) three levels of reference useful:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is;
    • For example, a bird means a bird
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things;
    • For example, a bird brings to mind flying, tweeting sounds, nests, other animals, etc.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels;
    • For example, a bird brings to mind abstract concepts like nature, beauty, freedom, peace, and so forth.

If you want to develop a deeper sense of how the three levels of reference build up in the mind to form of semantic networks, then I highly recommend you check out Small World of Words. It is an online research platform in which you can type in a word and ‘visualize’ via a graphic presentation the common associations people have with that particular word. If you’re bilingual, an extra cool feature is that you can alter the language settings and compare word associations from one language with another. For example, in English, the word ‘dog’ is commonly associated with walking, barking, cats, friends, love, and more. In contrast, in German, the word ‘Hund’ (dog in German) has associations with mouse and wolf, which are not found in English associations of dog.

In art education, the skills associated with interpreting symbols is called visual literacy, and in a world saturated with visuals from advertising, social media, and other digital entertainment, comprehending what we see is more important than ever.

In a nutshell, thinking and communication are based on symbols. That’s pretty much the basics of why symbolism is important to mental wellbeing – the brain is constantly using and interpreting symbols. There is a lot of great science out there about symbolism, but unfortunately, thanks to Freud, there is also a lot of psychological myths about so-called universal symbols. I won’t harp on about him right now, but if you want the full deal on why I think he was wrong just about everything, you can read my peer reviewed paper Freud’s Oedipus Complex in the #MeToo Era: A Discussion of the Validity of Psychoanalysis in Light of Contemporary Research.


Cambridge Dictionary. (2019, November 20). SYMBOL | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge.org. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/symbol

Science Direct – Visual Literacy. (n.d.). Visual Literacy – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. http://Www.Sciencedirect.com. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/visual-literacy

Terrence William Deacon, & International Society For Science And Religion. (2007). The symbolic species : the co-evolution of language and the brain. International Society For Science And Religion.

Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, or bow?

Symbols in the Bible are not always easy to decipher. Over the past two thousand years there have been numerous writings and re-writings of the Holy Scriptures. In order to keep the Word alive and comprehensible, scholars have continually strived to perfect the Bible’s language to align with their respective cultures and language.

There have been many debates, clashes, and arguments amongst Christians as to how the Word of God should be interpreted. Given how many developments there have been over the past two thousand years I like to keep an open mind. Therefore, to come across an evangelist, or to be precise, a Christian cult leader (FYI, the term cult leader is not used lightly), who believes that they have the capacity to interpret the Bible in a superior manner to all others intrigues me.

I do not want to unduly direct people to this man’s cult so I won’t mention them by name, however, I will give a little description of one their YouTube propaganda videos in which they discuss the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. They suggest the White Horse represents Jesus – which I dispute on the grounds that it is more probable that the ‘lamb’ in Revelations 6:1 who opens the seals and witnesses the horses is Christ. Therefore, how can Jesus be both the opener and the contents of the first seal? My greater curiosity, however, is in their point regarding how the word ‘bow’ should be interpreted.

In the video produced by the cult leader, they reference the White Horseman as depicted in Revelations 6:2:

And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

King James Version – BibleHub, 2020

Initially, the commentator, known as “the Voice”, considers ‘bow’ may be a reference to a weapon, which is a common inference.

Archer holding a ‘bow’ and arrow. Picture: ClipartMax

However, he isn’t too sure about associating Jesus with a weapon, so it’s suggested ‘bow’ is better interpreted as a ribbon. The video clip then flashes to a piece of fabric and the Voice says that Jesus’ has the miraculous capacity to save the world with a flimsy piece of cloth.

Floating piece of ribbon as a ‘bow’. Picture: PNGWING

A point overlooked with the bow as fabric interpretation is that it could be a ‘bow’ that represents status, like soldiers who receive ribbons of honour.

Ribbon of honour. Picture: Wikipedia Commons

The Greek word for ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is τόξον [toxon] and there is some legitimacy to the interpretation of it being a ribbon of some sort. There are a number of Christian’s who share the opinion that the White Horseman’s bow is a simple piece of fabric. Justification for this view includes there being no mention of arrows in the Bible verse which is a point I appreciate, but I’m still not convinced about ribbon hypothesis. To investigate further I looked at a few other versions:

And I saw: and behold, a white horse, and he that sat upon it having a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went forth conquering and that he might conquer.

Darby Bible Translation – BibleHub, 2020

And I looked and a white horse appeared, and its rider carried a bow; and a victor’s wreath was given to him; and he went out conquering and in order to conquer.

Weymouth New Testament – BibleHub, 2020

I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

New International Version – BibleHub, 2020

Quick recap:

  • King James Version (1611) – Rider of white horse had a bow
  • Darby Bible Translation (1890) – Rider of white horse having a bow
  • Weymouth New Testament (1903) – Rider of white horse carried a bow
  • New International Version (1973) – Rider of white horse held a bow

It is interesting to note that between 1611 to 1973 the proposition of ‘had’ evolves into ‘held’. It’s only a little detail, but the semantics of the phrasing drastically alters the potential meaning of the overall symbolism.

In each of the interpretations I can see how the propositions ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘carried’ and ‘held’ can lead to the interpretation of ‘bow’ being a noun that refers to a physical object like a bow and arrow or piece of ribbon. But what if ‘bow’ was actually a verb? Could it be that the rider of the White Horse bowed their head to receive the crown?

‘Bow’ as a verb describing the act of bowing down to someone. Picture: PNGWING

In accordance with the King James Version, it makes sense: “He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him … “. I do not believe the King James Version of the Bible is perfect (future blog about the terms Hell and Hades will highlight why), however, it is a very concise Old English version. Crudely, it can be perceived as being written closer to the primary source by roughly four hundred years, and the reference material of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew versions of the Bible were also in an earlier form. Hence, I give credence the proposition of ‘had’ over ‘having’, ‘carried’ or ‘held’.

Admittedly, I am partial to the interpretation that the bow in Revelations 6:2 is a reference to someone taking a bow, as in bending over to show honour. However, I’m also aware that someone participating in a bow does not linguistically flow in the phrase “had a bow”. Rather, it’s more likely that they ‘gave’ a bow than ‘had’ one.

Perhaps the term “had a bow” would suit better if whomever was giving the White Horseman the crown (i.e. the Christ-like figure) was the one who bowed? In order to read this interpretation, it needs to be understood that the Old Greek script did not have punctuation. Likewise, Old Hebrew was also written in a continuous script. All full stops, commas, paragraphs, and other punctuations have been added over the years. Hence, if the King James Version is read without the semi-colon: “He who sat on it had a bow and a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and to conquer“, the interpretation that a bowing gesture was given to the White Horseman before he received is crown becomes plausible.

Complicating the matter is that the word ‘bow’ appears in English versions of the bible about 248 times, however, Revelations 6:2 is the only time τόξον [toxon] is used (other Greek words used in reference to ‘bow’ include υποκλίνομαι [ypoklinomai], υπόκλιση [ypoklisi], τόξο [toxo], δοξάρι [doxari]). Like the English word bow, τόξον [toxon] can be a reference to a weapon, a ribbon, a bending gesture, and more.

Interestingly, the word τόξον [toxon] in ancient Greek also refers to a rainbow. It’s plausible this is an another option for how the Bible verse should be read. The symbolic image of a rainbow doesn’t fit the overall vibe of terror presented in Revelations, although it does have connotations of peace that nicely juxtaposes with the idea of the White Horseman representing goodness. Personally, I quite like the idea of a rainbow conquering the world … that is so long as I don’t think too deeply about the other reference in the Bible where a rainbow was used as symbol of God’s harsh judgment of the earth’s inhabitants … then again, perhaps there is a symbolic link between the of rainbow in the Old Testament and Revelations?

Rainbow. Picture: Kiss Clipart

If τόξον [toxon] has been used to portray a rainbow, then the next question is whether the rainbow is an object or an allegory? While pondering those possibilities, there are additional options of what ‘bow’ might mean.

In Hebrew word for bow is קשת. In the context of Revelations 6:2 it means much the same as is English and Greek in that is it has multiple meanings of reference which include a weapon, ribbon, bending gesture, and rainbow. Further, קשת has the additional meaning of oxbow which refers to curved wood that goes around the neck of an ox. Perhaps the White Horseman was wearing an oxbow?

Oxbow. Picture: Wikipedia

To seek clarity around what ‘bow’ in Revelations 6:2 is all about, I decided to look for clues in the propositions of ‘had’, ‘having’, ‘held’, and ‘carry’. The Greek word of interest in this instance is ἔχον [echon]. I compared its usage throughout other Bible verses (see below) but again this didn’t help because it appears the interpretation of ἔχον [echon] can have different connotations depending on the context, therefore, ‘had’ and ‘having’ are both technically correct.

ἔχον [echon] can refer to the verb of possessing or getting possession of something; therefore, the term ‘held’ in the New International Version and ‘carrying’ in Weymouth New Testament are interpretations that can’t be definitely perceived as correct. Subsequently, they create subtle alterations to the mental imagery of the scene that may not be appropriate if bow is a verb or adjective, opposed to a noun.

Verses from KJV Bible that illustrate different usages of the Greek term ἔχον [echon] in contextual situations:

Matthew 12:10 And, behold, there was a man which had [ἔχων – echōn] hand withered. 

Mark 1:22 And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had [ἔχων – echōn] authority, and not as the scribes.

Luke: 33 And in the synagogue there was a man, which had [ἔχων – echōn] a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice,

Luke 7:2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was [ἔχων – echōn] sick, and ready to die.

Luke 7:8 For I also am a man set under authority, having [ἔχων – echōn] under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth;

John 5:5 And a certain man was there, which had [ἔχων – echōn] an infirmity thirty and eight years.

John 18:10 Then Simon Peter having [ἔχων – echōn] a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear.

Revelations 14:18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had [ἔχων – echōn] power over fire;

Revelations 17:7 And here the mind which hath [ἔχων – echōn] wisdom. 

To add a final layer of complexity to what ‘bow’ might mean, it’s possible that the colloquialisms of the Greek τόξον [toxon] have been lost to time. For example the word “sick” literally refers to something that is unwell, however, it can also be used colloquially (particularly among younger people) to mean something which is great. Language constantly evolves and the meanings of words can also change, especially if they are tied to cultural influences. Therefore, does the term ‘bow’, or rather the Greek τόξον [toxon], have a colloquial meaning that is no longer known?

Overall, the most popular interpretation of ‘bow’ for centuries has been the idea that it is a reference to a weapon, as notable in Dürer’s woodcut from the fifteenth century. I have great admiration for Dürer. Still, with my recent experience of the flat earth myth, I wonder how valid it is to rely upon popular opinions. 

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut. (White Horseman is depicted in the background, right side of composition) Picture: Smart History

It is worthy to note, that Dürer’s woodcut is not a literal representation of the book of Revelations. He applied creative licensing in an imaginative manner that combines various elements of the narrative into a single scene, plus he has added details like the Fourth Horseman holding a pitchfork which is not mentioned in the Bible. A lot can be learned from appreciating Dürer’s work, however, ultimately, it is an expression of his personal opinions. Pictures can be very persuasive but they are not always truthful.

So what does this all matter? Symbolically, it matters a lot. The mental representation of a rider on a White Horse armed for war, compared to one fashioning a ribbon, bending in reverence to receive a crown, or having the glow of a rainbow, all carry very different meanings.

Holistically, examining how the interpretation of a single word can drastically alter the meaning of text is a prudent reminder that making inferences from the Bible are not easy. 

Whether or not the Bible is the true word of God remains a matter of faith. As for translations and interpretations, they appear to be a matter of human choice. Further, cult leaders who assert they are authorities on interpreting words and symbols need to brush up on their history of linguistics.

For an in extended analysis see Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

P.S. ‘Bow’ is an extremely interesting word, in addition to all the meanings explored in this blog, it also can be used to refer to a curved piece of wood with horse hair used to play a musical instrument, the fore-end of ship, or anything with a curved shape.


BibleHub. (2020a). Revelation 6:2 So I looked and saw a white horse, and its rider had a bow. And he was given a crown, and he rode out to overcome and conquer. Biblehub.com. https://biblehub.com/revelation/6-2.htm

BibleHub. (n.d.). Bow (248 Occurrences). Bibleapps.com. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://bibleapps.com/b/bow.htm

BOW. (n.d.). Definitions.net. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.definitions.net/definition/BOW.

Kiss Clipart. (n.d.). Download Rainbow Line. KissClipart. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.kissclipart.com/rainbow-png-clipart-clip-art-qzfxip/

Messie2vie. (n.d.). echo – Strong’s number G2192 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G2192-echo-page-4.html#concordance

Parsing and Strongs Definition. (n.d.). http://Www.Misselbrook.org.Uk. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://www.misselbrook.org.uk/Parsing.aspx?PNum=1078

Smart History. (2015). Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Smarthistory. Smarthistory.org. https://smarthistory.org/albrecht-durer-four-horsemen/

toxon – Strong’s number G5115 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. (n.d.). Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.messie2vie.fr/bible/strongs/strong-greek-G5115-toxon.html

What does קשת mean in Hebrew? (n.d.). WordHippo. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.wordhippo.com/what-is/the-meaning-of/hebrew-word-88b07c9532c6189b876c72b39e2f635c8f2ad642.html

Wikipedia Contributors. (2018, November 28). King James Version. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_James_Version

Flat Earth Myth

The other day I was doing some causal reading of Thomas Aquinas (not everyone’s choice, I know, but I’m like that) and I found myself surprised to see him speak candidly about the earth being round. He wrote:

… the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.

(Aquinas, c.1265-1273)

The reason why I was surprised was because I had been taught that our ancestors were a bit daft. So much so, that they thought Christopher Columbus was going to fall off the edge of the world when he embark upon his epic journey that ended in the Americas. Hence, if it were not for those brave souls who ventured off into the unknown, the human race would have been none the wiser for a lot longer.

Realising that something was a miss, my mind went into conspiracy theory mode – perhaps the Catholic church with all their bishops and priests had deliberately kept the truth from the plebs but Aquinas was one of the privileged men of his age who knew the secret? I had to check this out.

Turns out that the Columbus and flat earth myth, is a myth. A relatively new one at that, give or take a hundred years. Moreover, it is us modern beings who are the daft ones. In the 1490s when Columbus and his crew set out for China (which he missed and finished up in present-day Venezuela) nobody believed the earth was flat. The myth was invented in 1828, by an author named Washington Irving who did a bit of ’embellishing’ when writing The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Maybe he didn’t expect his book to sell so it wouldn’t matter if he dropped in that little comment about people believing the earth was flat before Columbus? Well, the joke was on him … or us … or was it really funny? Anyway, Irving’s book finished up being a smashing success and with the help from others, e.g., a French author called Antoine-Jean Letronne who perpetuated the myth, Columbus’ name became associated with a whole new legacy.

In my impromptu researching I was also staggered to learn that a good proportion of people (in particular, young adults in American; maybe elsewhere as well but that’s the only place I read statistics on) still believe the world is round … and that the United Nations logo is representational what our planet looks like …

United Nations logo. Picture: Freebie supply

I never realised I was lucky to have grown up with a home that owned a small model globe, likewise, that the schools I attended also did. Then again, it was also from my schooling, in Australia – which is a considerable distance from America and France – that I heard about Columbus proving the world was round. Maybe I need to refrain how much praise I give my education.

My conspiracy mind had to yield defeat. There was no evil plot to keep anyone in the dark about the earth’s spherical nature. On a jovial note, it was simply a bit of sensationalism that caught people’s imagination. More seriously, a great lesson can be learnt from Irving’s example, that being how easy it is to create a myth.

The unsensational truth is that Greeks had worked out the earth was round by at least 600BCE. Aquinas, like his contemporaries and most of the scholars in the prior two thousand years, were well versed in literature of antiquity, so it is no wonder he spoke about the subject so matter of factly.

Now that’s sorted, I can go back to my leisurely reading of Aquinas and see what he has to say about whether or not Jesus’ had a soul.


Aquinas, T. (c.1265-1273). Summa Theologica. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947)

Blakemore, E. (2018, August 31). Christopher Columbus Never Set Out to Prove the Earth was Round. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/christopher-columbus-never-set-out-to-prove-the-earth-was-round

Furze, A., & University of Melbourne. (2019, January 11). Why do some people believe the Earth is flat? Pursuit. https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/why-do-some-people-believe-the-earth-is-flat

History.com Editors. (2019, February 25). Columbus lands in South America. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/columbus-lands-in-south-america

The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts

Ancient philosophers often referred to a hierarchy of the cosmos as fire, air, water, and earth. References to this framework can be found throughout many ancient texts such as those written by Plato (c.425 – c.347BCE) and Aristotle (c.384–322BCE). 

Empedocles (c.494 – c.434BCE) is sometimes credited as being the inventor of the four elements, however, it’s more probable he is just the oldest, clear Greek record of the theology. Pythagoras (c.570 – c.495BCE) predates Empedocles and there are subtle references to the elements in his work. Likewise, we know from Aristotle that Anaxagoras (c.500 – c.428BCE) knew of the four elements. (Aristotle insists that there are five elements but I’ll leave that story for another blog). 

Zoracasterian’s claim they have references to the four elements that pre-date the Greeks, hence, it is from the Persians that the Greeks became aware of the “sacred” elements. Given that the Babylonians had devised the Zodiac by 1500BCE, and the twelve constellations are subdivided into the four elemental groups this is more than likely to be the case. 

Nevertheless, it is in Empedocles’ poem On Nature that we have an eloquent expression of earth, water, air, and fire as the roots of life. Below are a couple of quotes: 

And first the fourfold root of all things hear! — White gleaming Zeus, life-bringing Here, Dis, And Nestis whose tears bedew mortality.

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 6

I will report a twofold truth. Now grows The One from Many into being, now Even from the One disparting come the Many, — Fire, Water, Earth and awful* heights of Air

Empedocles & Leonard, c.450BCE/1908CE, Verse 22

* In this context the term awful is best interpreted in the antiquated definition of: “Inspiring awe; filling with profound reverence, or with fear and admiration; fitted to inspire reverential fear; profoundly impressive” (Merriam, 1913)

To conceptualize Empedocles’ hierarchy, here is a visual: 

Empedocles further indicates that the root elements of earth, water, air, and fire relate to everything in the world, which can be described in the harmonised terms of form, life-force, soul, and spirit, and in turn, these relate to minerals, plants, animals, and humans:

From the bottom-up, minerals represent form that can exist in non-living material, examples being sand, dirt, and rocks, i.e. minerals of the physical earth. In living forms, minerals move up to the next root level in which minerals are blended with a life-force, e.g. plants and trees. Animals are forms that have a mineral and life-force component, plus a soul. Human beings are at the top of the hierarchy because their composition includes minerals, a life-force, soul, and spirit – spirit also represents mind, therefore, human cognition is the distinguishing feature between humans and animals. 

According to creation mythology – as reflected in Empedocles (Verse 22) where he describes the One as creating the Many –  the hierarchy began top-down with spirit creating soul, then the dyad of spirit and soul created life-force, and the triad of spirit, soul, and life-force created form. 

Empedocles specifies that Zeus, Hera, Nestis (aka Persephone), and Aidoneus (Hades first name) are representatives of the root elements fire, air, water, and earth respectively. I.e., Zeus is fire/spirit/intellect – the all powerful creator god, Hera is air/soul/emotion, Nestis/Persephone is water/life-force/energy – the essence of form, and Aidoneus/Hades is earth/form/physical matter – form. By following this code, mythologies can be read on a symbolic level. 

The Greek language, and many others, is gendered, hence, it is logical that categorisations of symbolic codes developed around dualities of the spoken word.

The tradition of personifying spiritual concepts is evident across mythologies, as notable in the Greek influences of first century poet, Ovid. (43 BC – 17/18CE). Ovid was a Roman scholar who blended Greek and Roman influences by writing poems that included the names of Gods and Goddesses from both traditions). His description of the elements echo Empedocles sentiments that were written nearly five hundred years earlier:

It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 5

The fiery element of convex heaven leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight, and chose the summit arch to which the air as next in quality was next in place

Ovid & Moore, c.15CE/1922/ 2017, Verse 21

From the above quotes, it is evident that Ovid identifies a similar train of thought to Empedocles in which all the elements are reported as coming from the One, as expressed in ‘all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap’. Followed by the ‘fiery element’ emerging first, then the ‘air as the next quality’. However, rather than referring to Zeus as a ruling force of fire, Ovid refers to Jove as having this power. Likewise, other Roman deities replace some of the Greek characters.

In both Empedocles’ and Ovid’s (and other Greeks like Plato and Aristotle) descriptions, fire/spirit are represented as masculine and air/soul as feminine, thus it can be asserted that these were standard methods of defining spiritual theology in narrative contexts. Gendered descriptions of water/life-force and earth/form are a little more nuanced and ambiguous. 

The concept of the four elements can be identified beyond Greek and Roman spheres in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Aquinas, 1947; Habashi, 2000; Mirsky, 2004; Murata, 1989). Interestingly, an element of secrecy surrounding the four elements has been maintained for thousands of years. Subsequently, lack of understanding of the beliefs and structure behind ancient texts has led to many misinterpretations of the elements, from being interpreted as literally representing fire, air, water, and earth, through to their personifications as Gods and Goddesses being viewed as evidence to support patriarchal values.

Neglecting creative figurative speech in ancient verses has lead to the forming of institutionalised beliefs in of so-called archetypes which misrepresents the original philosophies. Psychoanalytical principles are a bit like saying all dogs are male (like in German, der Hund) and all cats female (die Katzte; German). Just as there are male and female dogs and cats, so too the masculinity and femininity in Spirit and Soul does not relate to biological men and women. On the whole the genderizations of spiritual concepts are arbitrary; Fire, Air, Water, and Earth don’t have real genders.

In sum, the secret to interpreting ancient myths does not lie in trying to decipher outer features of symbolism, rather, meaning is best inferred by recognising the underpinning theology. The four elements (or five as Aristotle and others assert) is an underlying belief system within Ancient Greek mythology. This concept can be extended to other theological systems, however, generalization needs to be conducted with care so as to avoid overlooking subtle differences between religions, cultures, and timeframes. 


Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Heavens by Aristotle. Classics.Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/heavens.html

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Soul by Aristotle. Mit.Edu. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.2.ii.html

Empedocles, & Leonard, W. E. (1908). The fragments of Empedocles; In Internet Archive. Chicago : The Open Court Publishing Company. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028975923/cu31924028975923_djvu.txt

Habashi, F. (2000). Zorocaster and the theory of the four Elements. Bull. Hist. Chem, 25(2). http://acshist.scs.illinois.edu/bulletin_open_access/v25-2/v25-2%20p109-115.pdf

Kenney, E. J. (2019). Ovid | Roman poet. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ovid-Roman-poet

Merriam G. & C. (1913) “awful” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, http://www.websters1913.com/words/Awful, Accessed 10 November 2020.

Mirsky, Y. (2004). Feminine images of God. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/9090667/Feminine_Images_of_God

Murata, S. (1989). Masculine Feminine Complementarity in the Spiritual Psychology of Islam. Www.Academia.Edu. https://www.academia.edu/27941952/Masculine_Feminine_Complementarity_in_the_Spiritual_Psychology_of_Islam

Ovid & Moore, B. c.15CE/1922/ 2017. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1 – Theoi Classical Texts Library. Theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html
Translated by Brookes More, 1922.

Plato. (360 B.C.E.). Plato, Republic, Book 1. http://Www.Perseus.Tufts.Edu; The Annenberg CPB/Project provided support for entering this text. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D1

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.

‌Schweizer, E. (1988). Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 18, 20. Journal of Biblical Literature, 107(3), 455–468. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267580

Waxman, O. B. (2018, June 21). Where Do Zodiac Signs Come From? Here’s the True History Behind Your Horoscope. Time; Time. https://time.com/5315377/are-zodiac-signs-real-astrology-history/

St Mark’s Lion: What does it mean?

Christianity did not evolve in a vacuum. It emerged from a conglomerate of Jewish, Greek, and other influences that impacted its formation. In this blog I’m going to touch upon theological issues that outside influences had on Christianity’s development, but mostly I’m going to keep focus on some of it’s symbolism, namely, St Mark’s winged lion.

Legend has it that Mark, an apostle of Jesus, travelled around the Roman Empire evangelising. Of note, he went to Venice in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt. These two destinations are of interest because Mark apparently travelled to Venice, converted some people to Christianity, then went on to Alexandria where he lived for a few years before being killed by a mob of pagans (at the time they were simply average people who believed in the common religious practices of the day). In 828 Mark’s remains are believed to have been stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice. It is speculated that Mark’s head is still in Alexandria (the thieves apparently only did a partial job of stilling the 800 year old corpse).

In 2011 I had the privilege of travelling to Venice (happy snaps below) and while I was there, one of the things that struck me was all the depictions of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book.

My knowledge of history and mythology wasn’t as strong back then as it is now, so the best I could do was stare in awe and wonder at the marvellous artworks like the ones below.

As I admired these images, I tried to decode their deeper meaning. There was clearly some symbolic and mystical meaning behind the decision to represent St Mark in this manner but I could not work out what it was. Lion = courage = heart. Wings = angelic = saint. Book = words = word of God. That was pretty much all I could decipher.

Venice left a lasting impression on me, even though we (my kids and I) only stayed there three days. St Mark’s Basilica was so amazing that I shed a tear when admiring the interior with all its paintings, arches, marble, stained glass, gold, and other trimmings. We were there during winter, it was cold, but it was fabulous. Even my son, then nine, felt the urge to be poetic and he coined the phrase ‘the luscious, humble waters of Venice!’

It was extraordinary to be travelling via boat to and from our accommodation. I observed the locals going about their everyday life such as pushing prams, attending to everyday business like grocery shopping, and riding bikes along the side walks – cars are forbidden in Venice but we saw one or two little exceptions, and I mean little exceptions as in little cars – and I was curious as to what it was like be to be born and raised in such a spectacular place. Everything was so different to my sense of normal suburbia but to the Venetian locals my extraordinary experience was their normal. It made me wonder how living in an environment like Venice would impact a person’s mind and behaviour.

But anyway, I’m getting distracted. This isn’t supposed to be a travel blog or reminiscent prose. From the Cathedral to the Doge’s palace, the Medieval and Renaissance artworks depicting St Mark’s signature symbol had me curious. The motif was clearly significant but its deeper meaning alluded me.

Not too long ago, my curiosity was sparked anew when I noticed how similar the symbol for St Mark’s was to Ancient Greek sphinxes.

Image from Ancient Greek vase c.510BCE

The main differences between St Mark’s winged lion and a Greek sphinx is that the latter is usually depicted with a book (but not always) and the former has a feminine head. Still, the similarity between the two symbols is remarkable.

Winged animals can be found in other traditions too, like the in Ancient Babylonian cultures which had female Lamma and male Lamassu.

Lamassu c.21–705 BCE

It’s difficult to speak of sphinxes without considering Ancient Egyptian too. These majestic icons don’t have wings but they do have the body of a lion and the head of a human (usually male).

Great sphinx bearing the names of Amenemhat II (12th Dynasty), Merneptah (19th Dynasty) and Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty). c.2600BCE

Given the tradition of lion representations throughout the ancient worlds, I am curious as to why the Christians chose to adapt the symbol to their purposes. To explore this further, some insight can be obtained by the identification of each of the four Gospels within the tetramorph that aligns four winged entities with the four evangelists.

In the course of Christianity’s development, the harmonisation of the tetramorph with the four apostles has been disputed. The most common pattern being that proposed by Jerome (c.342-347 – 420CE) who aligned Mark with the lion, Luke with an ox, John with an eagle, and Matthew with a man.

From the Book of Kells, an Illuminated manuscript of the Gospels written in Latin, c. 800CE (Image from Wikipedia)

Justification of the representation of the apostles with animals comes from a few biblical sources, such as Ezekiel 1:10 (Old Testament/Torah) which reads:

As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020

References to symbolisms of the animals can also be found in the Book of Revolutions:

Revelation 4:7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.”

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020


Revelation 5:5 “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”

King James Version, BibleHub, 2020

As suggested above, the symbol of a lion in Christianity can be traced back to the Jewish tradition of the Lion of Judah which represents the Israelite tribe of Judah. The reference for this comes from Genesis 49:9:

Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

King James Version*, BibleHub, 2020

The bible references are useful, however, the tetramorph also represents the four classical elements of fire, air, water, and fire. Further, the four elements have a connection to numerous other connotations such as the Sumerian zodiac, seasons of the year, equinoxes and solstice, cardinal directions, and Ancient Greek mythology. I struggle to imagine the Christians not knowing about other applications of the tetramorph and the use of winged animals in other traditions. Or as Origen (c.184 – c.253) pointed out, the Christians are best viewed in the context of their intellect being in accordance with the spiritual theories of their age (Roberts, 1949). However, simply applying the meanings of older symbols to Christian context does not seem appropriate because the nature of Christianity was to form a new religion and move away from older religions, i.e., what we now call paganism. Then again, the classic four elements were also considered serious scientific principles all the way up to at least the fifteenth century, so perhaps the conjecture that Christianity borrowed ‘pagan’ symbols is not the correct paradigm to use.

I should add, that I am uncertain as to when and where exactly the symbol of St Mark as a winged lion holding a book first emerged. Establishing this could help decode why the symbolism was applied.

Russell (1997) presents an interesting assessment of the four elements and their interconnectedness in an article titled The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. He makes the point that different cultures in differing times and locations re-interpreted the four elements in accordance with their prior customs, knowledge and experiences. After reading his paper I began to formulate the analogy that perhaps St Mark’s winged lion symbol needs to be viewed as being like football. Weird I know, just stick with me for a minute I’ll make this work. What I mean is, there are many different types of football, for example soccer, rugby, and Aussie rules. Essentially, there is one main aim in all these variations, that is to kick a ball to score goals. Rules like how many players on each team, scoring protocols, and markings on the field can differ from one variation of football to the next. Further, there can be different leagues within the same genre of sport. Comparatively, the four elements are like ‘football’ in that there are different ways of approaching a central aim which, arguably, is to explain spiritual principles of Life. Different leagues of religion can have different emphasises, rules, and customs. Hence, generalising all ancient symbols as having the same meaning is a bit like generalising and saying that all the rules across football variants are the same. To continue this metaphor a little further, just as each football genre uses a different type of ball, the application of lions and/or winged animals has differing significance in accordance to the belief system which it belongs to. Alternatively, the symbols could be viewed as simply being mascots.

In sum, identifying visual similarities between St Mark’s symbolism as a winged lion with older traditions is relatively easy, so too is tracing sources of lion symbols in Judea-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Zoroastrian traditions. However, all the scattered references don’t fully explain exactly what they all mean. Do the Ancient Greek sphinx have the same significance as lion forms in Ancient Babylon, and in turn, can their meaning be transferred to St Mark? Or does St Mark’s representation align purely with the Jewish symbolism of a lion? Are the Jewish representations of lions completely different to that of Ancient Greek, Babylonia, and Egypt? I’m always cautious about over generalising the meanings of symbols (as indicated in this blog) but at the same time the morphing of symbols from one culture into another is fascinating to contemplate. I will continue to ponder …

* A side interest of mine is to compare Bible entries to see how much they differ from each other, in the case of Genesis 49:9 there are many differences with can completely alter how the passage is interpreted. Below are three examples; the first includes a reference to a lioness and well as a lion and proposes the simile as a question, the second emphasises killing, and the third has no reference to Judah.

New International Version – “You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness–who dares to rouse him?”

Good News Translation – “Judah is like a lion, Killing his victim and returning to his den, Stretching out and lying down. No one dares disturb him.”

Contemporary English Version – “My son, you are a lion ready to eat your victim! You are terribly fierce; no one will bother you.”


Barnard, L. W. (1964). St. Mark and Alexandria. The Harvard Theological Review57(2), 145–150. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1508784

Carolina Sparavigna, A. (2013). Robert Grosseteste and the Four Elements. International Journal of Sciences1(12), 42–45. https://doi.org/10.18483/ijsci.362

Roberts, C. H. (1949). The Christian Book and The Greek Papyri. The Journal of Theological Studies50(199/200), 155–168. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23954151

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Werner, M. (1969). The Four Evangelist Symbols Page in the Book of Durrow. Gesta8(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.2307/766670

No Peterson, Chaos is not a universal feminine trait found across mythology.

I am not a fan of Jordan Peterson (I’ve written about him before here). In brief, he states half-truths as scientific facts. I find it frustrating to listen to him talk because one moment I’ll be agreeing with what he says and then the next I’ll be cringing at his inaccuracies. Essentially, the problem lies in his support of psychoanalytical theories which translate to personal opinions based on poor research practices.

Psychoanalysis is a belief system akin to religious doctrines. Its fundamental creed is that symbols in ancient mythologies have unconscious universal meanings. Freud was the inventor of the “holy scriptures” and his cult endures through personalities like Peterson.

Today I am inspired to say a few words in response to the YouTube: Jordan Peterson – Why is Chaos symbolised as feminine?

I’m going to keep my rebuttal short and sweet: the Greek personification of Chaos is MASCULINE or NEUTRAL. (In Latin, Chaos is neutral.) In creation mythology Chaos creates Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night).

My knowledge of Greek linguistics isn’t fantastic but from my research it appears that χάος (chaos) is a masculine and χάους (chaos) and is the feminine. In early texts (Homer and Hesiod) Chaos is represented as a male deity and it is only in later texts (Orpheus and Aristophanes) that it is suggested that Chaos might be feminine.

Coincidentally, in the older Greek eras when stories were told by word of mouth, prior to 700BCE, there is evidence of matriarchal and/or egalitarian Greek societies. Whereas Orpheus and Aristophanes’ writings are dated later (c.600-400BCE) when Greece had become a patriarchal society. In other words, sociocultural structures influenced the presentation of themes presented in creation myths from one era to another.

This is not unusual. The identification of cultural codes and conventions in media productions is a well recognised aspect of contemporary analyses of narratives. All Peterson needs to do is google “Media Codes and Conventions” and he’ll find an abundance of academic literature about the subject.

Psychoanalytical theory loves to suggest metaphors are based on universal truths but this simply is not the case. The representation of concepts as personifications is complex, and nuanced by various factors of sociocultural considerations that should be addressed in case to case circumstances.

Peterson tries to support his arguments by promoting masculine mythological characters as representations of order, as he does in Jordan Peterson – Men as order and Women as chaos. Again, he is picking and choosing “facts” to suit his arguments.

In Greek mythology, Veritas is a goddess of truth, Eunomia is a goddess of law and legislation (her name literally means ‘good order’), Aletheia is a goddess of truth and sincerity, one of Athena’s virtues is practical reason, and Themis is a goddess of order, justice, wisdom, and good counsel. In contrast, Perses is a god of destruction, Ares is a god of war and violence, Apollo is responsible for plagues, and Dionysus is associated with drunken chaos.

Moving onto Egyptian mythology, Seth is a god of chaos, likewise Apep is a god of chaos and an opponent of Ma’at who is the goddess of truth and order. Thmei is also a goddess of truth and Merit establishes cosmic order with her music.

In Hindu mythology, Durga Devi is a goddess of moral order and Vritra is male demon (represented by a snake or dragon) who causes adversary. And let’s not forget that Christianity has Satan as it’s masculine representative of chaos.

Granted, there are some feminine deities who represent chaos, e.g. Eris (Greek), Kali (Hindu), and Kek (Egyptian; to be precise, Ancient Egyptian mythology refers to eight deities, four male, four female, that represent the primordial waters of chaos). Masculine deities who represent order include Weneg (Egyptian), and Vishnu (Indian), and Zeus (Greek; Zeus is also known to cause some chaotic situations, e.g. the story of Demeter and Persephone, but I’m putting him down because I’m having troubles finding a Greek god specifically dedicated to order – creating order and harmony appears to be a role dominated by Greek goddesses).

As for Taoism, which Peterson bases his arguments upon, an alignment of masculine as order and feminine as chaos can be read into the philosophies of yin and yang. However, generalisations of symbolic codes and conventions for concepts is not universal across all ancient belief systems.

Moreover, the spiritual psychology of yin and yang is not as simple as Peterson proposes. Personally, I find Sachiko Murata’s discussions much more thorough and detailed but I’ll avoid going off on a tangent and discuss Murata’s work in a future blog.

In sum, interpreting mythology is not always a simple, straightforward task. Generalising is thwarted with challenges and the results are prone to error if sociocultural considerations of when, where, why, and how stories are told are not taken into account. Further, the polarisation of concepts distracts from what myths are often trying to convey, that being the variability and shades of grey between black and white, male and female, good and bad, chaos and order.

Confronting misinterpretations of ancient myths is an important step forward in developing sound psychological theories. Likewise, psychoanalytical mythology and misogynistic stereotypes disguised as “science” need to be recognised as being nothing more than Freudian fables.

More about Chaos and Order in ancient myths: The Big Bang theory and Egyptian mythology

UPDATE 11/1/22: I’ve written an article about Eris. She is mostly associated as being the manifestation of strife and discord which, in a way, could be interpreted as causing chaos: Exploring Ancient Myths: Defining Beauty, According to Homer’s Helen of Troy.

Reflections on learning how to hold a pencil inspired by Quilty’s work with Syrian refugee children

In 2016, Australian artist, Ben Quilty, travelled to Syria to work in refugee camps. The project involved supplying children with quality paper and pencils and encouraging them to tell their stories through pictures. The drawings were complied into a book, titled Home. The images and stories are moving to say the least. If you’d like to know more, I’ve included a link to a short video about the project at the bottom of this blog.

I was fortunate to hear Quilty talk directly about the project in a live interview at Brisbane’s Powerhouse in 2018. In that interview, he mentioned that some of the children who came into the camps had never seen pencils before because pencils had been banned by the Taliban. Therefore, the first thing Quilty and his assistants needed to do was show the children how pencils could be used for mark making. As an art teacher and art therapist, I was fascinated to hear about the learning process the children went through in order to be able to creatively express themselves.

According to Quilty, the children who had never seen pencils had no idea how they should be used; they would literally pick one up and not know what to do with it. Therefore, the first step was giving instructions on how to hold a pencil – I’m not too sure how this was done but I’ll get back to some thoughts about this a bit later. In process, some of the assistants taught the children how to draw a love heart with an arrow through it. Consequently, the children repeated the symbol over and over again because that was all they knew. Gradually, as they learned more mark making skills (either by direct instructions or watching other children draw), their drawings became more unique and complicated; moreover, they learnt how symbolic marks can be used as a language of self expression.

I imagine most of us went through the process of learning how to hold a pencil and make marks when we were so young that we have forgotten the steps we had to go through to get there. Even rudimentary drawing skills, such as stick figures are, nonetheless, drawing skills and it is from this base knowledge that visual self expression can become possible. Further, it is from simple symbolic gestures that our creative minds can connect ideas in individualised ways.

Now, getting back to learning how to hold a pencil. In my first few years of primary schooling, I remember being taught the “correct” way, which was to use the middle finger, index/pointer finger, and thumb to grip around the pencil. It is a rigid clasp that locks the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, thus providing a means to make controlled movements that are necessary for forming the shapes of letters. I also remember my teacher walking around the classroom shaming anyone who was not holding their pencil in accordance to precise instructions. I always wanted to be a “good girl” so I made sure I always held my pencil correctly and never received harsh reprimand. Subsequently, the muscle memory in my hand became second nature. For nearly two decades, I believed that I was doing the “right thing” and it took dedicated practice to teach myself how to hold a pencil differently so as I could draw more freely. Drawing requires a loose hold, one that allows easy movement of the the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, and it has a different visceral feel to holding a pencil for writing. Children often do this instinctively, i.e. they explore different ways of holding a pencil and move their whole body when making marks. To see how holding a pencil for drawing can differ to writing, watch the following video:

Over the years, I’ve meet many people who have told me they cannot draw, to which I advise they explore different hand grips when mark making. Contrary to popular belief, learning how to draw is not an innate skill which some people possess and others don’t, it is set of skills and techniques that can be improved through practice. Playing with lines, shapes, colour, texture, tone, and space, is all that is needed to spark the creativity impulse which, in turn, leads to more skill development and a greater means of self expression. Quilty’s experience with refugee children provides anecdotal evidence of just how powerful this process can be for the artist and those who view their work.

Interview with Ben Quilty and the making of the book Home

Can you see the turtles?

About three years ago, my son, then 15, and I went to an exhibition opening at a small community center in a suburb on the outskirts of Brisbane. It was a chilly winter night and many of the locals were there in their finest felt hats and colourful scarfs. I had submitted a couple of pieces and was eager to see them hanging alongside other artists from the area. 

The gallery atmosphere was lively with cheerful chatter. With red wine in hand, my son and I strolled around the exhibition space appreciating the talent of our locals. At one point we stood behind a couple of older ladies admiring a particularly large-scaled canvas that depicted abstract water ripples through an array of ocean blues hues. It was made using a technique known as acrylic fluid painting (see below for example). As we waited our turn to get a better look at the grand canvas, we overheard one of the ladies in front of us remark with great excitement “You can see the turtles!” Her friend wholeheartedly agreed “Oh, absolutely! You can see so many turtles swimming around in that ocean!” The first woman then went on to talk about how it reminded her of the ocean up near Cairns where she’d spent most of her youth. Her friend empathically listened added in her memories of turtles. So it was, with much anticipation that my son and I waited to see the turtles they were talking about. Eventually, the two ladies moved on and as they did so one of them state “Such a divine work, I absolutely love those turtles.”

My son and I then stepped forward and stood directly in front of the big, beautiful, blue canvas. We gazed silently in stern contemplation trying to see a glimpse of tortoiseshell. A moment later my son turned to me and said something that would become one of the most memorable things I’ve ever heard: “Mum, can you see the turtles?” 

I wanted to let out a bellow of laughter but successfully retrained; although, the sip of wine I just had did threaten to come out my nose. To put it simply, there were no turtles. No matter how thoroughly my son and I scanned the painting, no turtles could be found. 

Back at home, “Can you see the turtles?” became a metaphor used on many occasions. If my son left the milk out on the bench for two hours then gave a ridiculous excuse for doing so, I’d simply reply “I can’t see the turtles”. Or if I biasedly complained about an issue, my son will pipe up with “Mum, I think you’re seeing the turtles.” It’s become our code for calling BS in any situation where there is a lack of evidence to support claims. As we’ve playfully argued over who is seeing turtles and who is not, we’ve also had deeper philosophical conversations about being aware of what we perceive to be “real” in life and how things we see can trigger associations with our prior experiences.  

For the ladies in the gallery, seeing the turtles in the artwork was a wonderful experience, and watching the two of them bond over their shared imaginary vision was a delight to witness. It made me wonder what others may have seen when they looked at the canvas, perhaps for some, it was starfish, crocodile, or stingray. Or perhaps it triggered memories of fishing expeditions, surfing, snorkeling, boating trips, chattered flights over water, or lazy afternoons on the beach. The engagement with imagination is part of the joy and magic of viewing Art.

I think there are times when we all need to see turtles; moreover, our creative minds urn for such experiences. Likewise, at other times, it is useful to be consciously aware of the fact that we are looking at paint that has been skilfully poured over a canvas and there are no turtles. 

The above image is an acrylic fluid painting created using the same technique as the canvas my son and I saw at the gallery. To view more details of the above example, go to Hands of Hope Studio: https://handsofhopestudios.com/shop/acrylic-fluid-art-000387/

If you would like to know how fluid paintings are made, watch this YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMWxh8G3cSs

Renée Spencer (2017), Watercolour painting inspired by “Can you see the turtles?”

The Art of Perception: sight and mental health

The process of seeing involves light entering our eyes and influencing the physiological mechanisms for sight in our brains. At the back of our eyes is our “retina” which is largely composed of “cones” and “rods” that interpret visual information. The cones and rods send communication signals via nerve impulses to our visual cortex and other parts of the brain. Interpretations of what is seen is a combination of direct information provided by our sensory organs (the eyes) and internal processes that apply meaning to what we see. In other words, what we see is based upon what is in front of us and our memories, prior knowledge, associated feelings, cognitive interpretations, and so forth. 

Our cones are predominantly responsible enabling us to see colour and deciphering spatial qualities. We have three types of cones and each one has different sensitivity levels to light wavelengths. If someone is colour blind then that basically means they have more cones that allow them to see certain colours (red/green colour blindness is most common) and fewer cones that allow them to see other colours. Ultimately, we are all different and therefore, sight can vary from person to person – if you’ve ever had an argument over the colour of a dress, now you know why! Rods, on the other hand, are photoreceptors that enable us to see things in low light and do not distinguish colours. 

Cones do most of their work during the day then “switch off” at night time when rods become more active. Observing this sensory change can be done with a simple experiment of observing the sun set. Provided there is no interference from artificial light sources, the switching of vision functioning is quite amazing and profound. 

Now some people might be wondering how are the mechanisms of sight related to mental health? Basically, what we see can affect how we think and feel and what we are thinking and feeling can influence what we see and/or how we interpret what we’re seeing. Exploring this connection in a non-threatening activity is a great way to develop self awareness. 

A few weeks ago I performed the sun set experiment myself. The following is a write up of my experience. If any readers decide to the experiment, please write a comment on this blog. I would love to hear others’ experiences! 

Were the eye not of the sun, 

How could we behold the light? 

If God’s might and ours were not as one, 

How could His work enchant our sight?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1810

The notion that human beings have two organs for vision – outer physical eyes that behold light and inner “spiritual eyes” that enchant sight – can be traced back to antiquity. In the above verse, Goethe poetically references this phenomenon with curious questioning of how the functions of these two organs interrelate. A few evenings ago, I conducted a heuristic investigation of my inner and outer vision faculties as “the world” – my world – changed as the light changed at sunset. 

My session commenced at 7:30 pm, under a murky, overcast sky. Seated on a suburban back verandah with paper, pen, and chalk pastels I recorded my experience in visual and written form. In the quietness of the night, I began by looking inward. I was full of angst due to having received some unsettling news in the afternoon. As my restless mind struggled to focus on the task, I wondered how my inner world was influencing my outer vision and vice versa? Focusing my awareness outwards towards an enclosed yard, I noted how unorderly the overground grass appeared and I acknowledge a sensation of entrapment created by the fences and buildings; did my yard always look and feel like this? 

I started sketching to assist the process of focusing on what I could see before me (Fig. 1). Initially, I consciously ignored the brilliance of the colours that were illuminated by the sunlight. What a marvellous instrument the brain is to be able to direct nerves impulses received from the eye to different functions within cortex simply with thoughts! I worked quickly and haphazardly to capture the lines and shapes of the trees, fences, and other objects. Under different circumstances I was quite certain that I would have been more careful and precise with my rendering. As I made marks, I observed being aware of the “reality” of what was before me and the “imaginative” elements from my mind’s eye that I felt an urge to indicate on my paper. For example, I could see elegant tree limbs gently bowing back and forth in a subtle breeze; however, the inner turmoil of my thoughts and emotions encouraged exaggerates gestures and abrupt lines. 

As easily as I had willed my focus to dim colour, I was able to will it back. There were so many shades of green! I felt disappointed by my mediocre collection of pastels; there was no way I could give justice to the spectrum of analogous emerald-toned photons entering my retina. With my attention absorbed by the colours of my outer world, my inner world focus shifted from my woeful thoughts to awe of my visual sensations. 

I looked around hoping to spot a natural prism but this was not my fortune. Then, as I turned my attention to the shadows, I reflected upon Goethe’s adamance that Newton’s colour theory was wrong. I withheld personal judgment and simply appreciated that contemplating the theories of philosophers enriched my current subjective experience. 

I reached for my purple pastel to darken some areas, then paused – was it really purple that I saw in the shadows? Or was I seeing what my mind’s eye expected to see? For a moment I thought it was purple but then I was sure it was black. Black resonated with my emotional tone far better than purple; however, it was also possible that the light had reduced and my cone-mediated vision was switching to rods. I looked more intently in the shadows and for a fleeting moment I saw both purple and black, then another moment later it was definitely black. To solve the puzzle of what was real or imaginary in my vision, I looked to the grass and noticed that I could no longer identify an array of greens: twilight was settling in. I put down my picture, unfinished. 

It wasn’t complete darkness, I could identify shades of grey in between high contrasting dark and light highlights. Much to my surprise, I noticed a bright red flower in my neighbours yard projecting out of the dimness. I could not identify a light source to explain the phenomena. I looked around to see if any greens, blues, or yellows were as strikingly visible as the red. Alas, there was none. Hence, I wandered about the nature of my photon receptors. Perhaps there is something special about red receptors? Or was it just the wiring of my vision? 

Staring into my bleak, monochromatic yard, I noticed the lines of my verandah fence, the branches on the tree, and other lines within my vision were more prominent. The shapes of the leaves on the tree seemed sharper too. If I were able to do a drawing in the dark then it would have been one of lines and shapes. While my inner world knew the colours were still there and I could imagine them with my inner sight, my outer sight organs were defiantly reliant upon an external source of illumination. 

As my vision faded, so did my energy. The rhythm of the day, as dictated by the light, instigated a desire for sleep. In the final moments of my experiment, I reflected once more on the interrelationship between my inner and outer sight. When my awareness of perception was focussed outwards, this influenced my thoughts and feelings in a distracting manner, and when my awareness of my inner thoughts and feelings was focussed inwards, this influenced interpretative perceptions of my sight sensations. 

Satisfied that the experiment was complete, I went inside at 9:30 pm, turned on a light and looked at what I had drawn. It was a terrible drawing, yet oddly “realistic” of the blended experience of what I perceived outwardly and inwardly felt during that particular sunset: it had been a terrible day. I will repeat the experiment another day when I am in a better mood and compare how my sight and perception of my yard differs. 

Figure 1. Drawing conducted during sunset experience 


Tantillo, A. O. (2002). The will to create : Goethe’s philosophy of nature. University Of Pittsburgh Press.

Crone, R. A. (2000). A history of color : the evolution of theories of lights and color. Kluwer Academic.

Keller E.F., Grontkowski C.R. (1983) The Mind’S Eye. In: Harding S., Hintikka M.B. (eds) Discovering Reality. Synthese Library, vol 161. Springer, Dordrecht

Margo, C. E., & Harman, L. E. (2019). Helmholtz’s critique of Goethe’s Theory of Color: more than meets the eye. Survey of Ophthalmology, 64(2), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.survophthal.2018.10.004

Meyertholen, A. (2019). “Zum ersten Mal sah ich ein Bild”: Goethe’s Cognitive Viewing Subject as Scientist and Artist. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, 55(3), 203–228. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/732087/pdf

Moore, E. K., & Simpson, P. A. (2007). The enlightened eye : Goethe and visual culture. Rodopi.

Serov, N. V. (2019). Conceptualizing the Predicates of the Goethe–Newton Controversy about Color. Automatic Documentation and Mathematical Linguistics, 53(4), 203–215. https://doi.org/10.3103/s0005105519040083

Hysteria to PTSD: Freud’s hypnotism still has some people in a trance

“… [the victim] needs to stop thinking about themselves as nice and harmless because it is the nice and harmless person that is exploitable by the malevolent psychopath and that’s not moral virtue, that’s just weakness, that’s all it is. It’s naivety, it’s the maintenance of a child-like viewpoint of the world that’s past its expiry date … “


Jordan Peterson* is a controversial fellow and it’s not too difficult to work out why. In a nutshell, I appreciate some aspects of his intellect but he misses the mark completely when it comes to understanding emotional aspects of being human and trauma. This is can be seen in comments like those above when he is discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found it quite shocking to hear him speak of someone struggling with trauma as being weak, naive, and childish. My encounters with people with PTSD indicate that they are strong, resourceful, intelligent people who live in a state of hyperviligance. They are constantly in fear that they will meet malevolence around every corner. Further, they don’t think of themselves as nice and harmless. Many are riddled with self-blame and low self-esteem. Peterson’s attitude that trauma victims should toughen up and move on is old fashioned and scientifically unsound. It is highly alarming to see a professional, high-profile psychologist perpetuating myths about PTSD.

Peterson also promotes the view that malevolence can be placed on a scale from relatively insignificant through to extreme. Accordingly, lesser traumatic experiences should be dismissed (Peterson uses the example of child being sexually assaulted by their sibling) and only “extreme” traumatic experiences are of any real significance. Such opinions ignore fundamental aspects of the traumatic experience and promote dissociation.

In the past thirty to forty years, a lot of breakthroughs in research have lead to amazing insights about PTSD. Peterson is in the psychology industry, how could he not be aware of the latest studies? Why is he dispensing out dated psychoanalysis ideas? I can understand why the general public aren’t aware of new research but Peterson has no excuse.

Suggesting PTSD is a sign of weakness, an inability to let go, an indulgence of emotions, or any other belittling connotation can be dangerous because doing so diverts people from getting the support that they really need. Moreover, it constitutes victim-blaming. It appears that Peterson is basing his approach on out-dated information; his views may be seen as aligning with erroneous Freudian psychology.

“Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma.”

Many history books bestow Freud with the glorified title of “father of modern psychoanalysis”. Some even go so far as to praise Freud as the “father of modern psychology”. Both titles suggests that he was intelligent man who should be looked up too. This perception is very misleading. Putting it bluntly, Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma. Nevertheless, his influence was great and many people don’t realise the potential negative consequences of his contributions. The aim of this blog is to explore Freud’s theories so as the errors can be identified and relinquished by community (and Peterson) consciousness.

Firstly, it needs to be explained that Freud never spoke of PTSD. He spoke of hysteria. The term PTSD first became an official diagnosis in 1980 when it was published in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)**. Prior to 1980, individuals who presented with symptoms associated with what we now call PTSD were referred as having hysteria, neurasthenia, shell shock or battle fatigue***. Hysteria is the oldest term and it has an extensive history.

Clarifying what is PTSD

Before getting into the heart of the discussion, it’s useful to give a brief overview of PTSD. Traumatic occurrences that can lead to the condition include events, such as rape, assault, war, domestic violence, abuse, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, or smaller, repeated stressful events, such as being bullied, called names, ostracised, neglected, and witnessing others experience trauma (vicious trauma). Other forms of traumas includes physical illness, birth trauma (i.e. significant medical intervention), intergenerational trauma (i.e. negative experiences passed from parent to child via DNA), and collective trauma (i.e. racism, sexism, climate crisis issues, etc.). More information about trauma can be found here.

PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person, however, the following is a general outline of common traits: confusion, irrationality, anxiety, fear; withdrawal from others; mood swings; heightened startle response to stimuli; low self esteem; feeling hopeless, helpless, guilt, shame, numb, and overall sadness. The impact of PTSD can be crippling and it lowers quality of life tremendously.

Regardless of whether a person has several smaller traumatic events or if they have experienced large ones, the effects of PTSD on the body and mind can be equally difficult. Judgments about what the trauma was from are irrelevant; the impact that trauma has on an individual is what matters.

Brief History of Hysteria to PTSD

The word hysteria stems from the Greek word ‘hysterikos’ which refers to a woman’s uterus. The Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates, believed that a woman’s uterus could wander around her body, thus was the cause of heightened and excessive emotional behaviour. Whenever I read this explanation of hysteria I want to laugh. I’m certain that it must be an ancient joke and us modern people are too daft to see the proverbial tongue in cheek. Surely, it’s the same as contemporary satire about men having two brains: one their head and the other in their sexual organs? The Greek philosophers were phenomenal thinkers of mathematics, science, politics, the arts, and yet they believed that a woman’s womb could wander around her body and that sex was required to keep it in the right place! Hmm, maybe this proof that some men think more with their lower brain than the higher one in their head 🙂

Hysteria’s stigma of being a women’s disease has prevailed for millennium. Notions of “crazy” women who are too “weak” to control their emotions often come to mind. (Peterson’s views echo this notion.) The Middle Ages added to the negative connotations by suggesting hysteria was a sign of demonic possession. Links between witchcraft and hysteria have been identified by some historians.

The Renaissance period was an era in which westernised cultures reflected back upon Ancient Greek philosophers. Therefore, a renewal of the connection between hysteria and the sexual behaviour of women had a resurgence. The moral codes of the renaissance differed from that of Ancient Greek, therefore, the apparent need for women to excrete their sexual juices in order to prevent hysteria caused some dilemmas. Nevertheless, hysteria was predominantly viewed as a woman’s issue that was associated with too much or too little sexual activity.

During the seventh century, some significant developments concerning the understandings of hysteria took place. In particular, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), suggested that there was a connection between the mind and the body which caused symptoms. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) suggested the nervous system played a role, and Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) suggested that the male equivalent of hysteria was hypochondria. Perhaps if psychology had continued to follow these lines of investigation we may have arrived at our contemporary understandings of PTSD sooner? Alas, this did not occur.

“Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can be summarised in his Oedipus theory.”

In the late nineteenth century, the unconscious mind and hypnosis dominated psychology and steered understandings of hysteria back to antiquated premises. It is during this era that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became a prominent figure.

Freud, identified hysteria as being caused by traumatic experiences in one’s childhood which resulted in emotional distress in adulthood. Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can correlates with his Oedipus theory. This theory suggest that all children between the ages of 3-6 unconsciously desire their opposite-sex parent (girls supposedly have the additional problem of penis envy) which causes jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. The tension of these lustful impulses is, according to Freud, traumatic and can lead to adult hysteria. Closely associated with the Oedipus theory is the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which Freud suggests that erectile dysfunction is caused by a man’s desire for a nurturing figure but when they encounter this in a real women they are reminded of their mothers, so therefore need to degrade her to a whore level. To support his views, Freud referred to mythological stories as evidence. Freudian theory goes on to presume absolute authority on how symbols in mythology are to be interpreted and how themes of myths are mirrored in an individual’s life which, of course, is mostly of a sexual nature. Anyone else see any problems with these theories? I’ll unpack some of my interpretations shortly.

Freud’s work then continues with his development of the “talking cure” known as psychoanalysis. The process of psychoanalysis involves allowing a client to talk freeing, in particular, about their dreams and childhood memories whilst the therapist looks for reoccurring themes and/or evidence of a sexual-based dilemmas. The process is founded on the premise that making unconscious desires and lusts conscious through “free association” is cathartic. Interestingly, Freud developed psychoanalysis techniques so as he could help clients who he was not able to hypnotise.

Freudian ideas about psychoanalysis were challenged by his peers but many people still supported them. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Freud, few can argue that his work was highly influential. The spreading of Freudian ideas throughout society occurred through artistic movements such as surrealism, movie references, and the notion of a “Freudian slip of the tongue”. Subsequently, while science rejected most of Freud’s work, pop-culture enabled him to become an icon of how the unconscious mind supposedly works.

“The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology”

As the twentieth century progressed, many other individuals made significant contributions to various aspects of psychology, including Carl Rogers, Burrhus Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov, John Dewey, Donald Winnicott, Aaron Beck, and more. Theories concerned with behaviour, attachment, social issues, developmental factors, education, and cognitive functioning spread the field of psychology into new domains. Intertwined with psychology research were significant changes in politics, culture, and social values. The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology; when returned service men displayed emotional dysregulation like that traditionally only seen in hysterical women, theories of mental health issues were investigated from new perspectives.

Other factors that contributed to developments in psychological research included the consolidation of scientific procedures, the creation of mood and thinking based measurement scales, the invention of brain scanning technology, the discovery of pharmaceuticals that can alter mental and emotional states, and the application of higher ethical standards in research protocols.

A particularly significant development in psychology occurred within the field of neuroscience. This formally began in the 1960’s when the use of the term “neuro + science” was first used. In brief, neuroscience is a specialised area of psychology that focuses on the nervous system and its related influence on the body, brain, and human behaviour. Its findings have shed much light on mental health conditions which previously mystified professionals. Insights into PTSD have been obtained from sources such as brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrocephalogram (EEG) technology.

The human nervous system is a pathway of nerves which runs throughout every part of the body; energy impulses travel along the nervous system and convey messages back and forth between our senses and our brain. The major conduit of this process occurs via what is called our ‘vagus nerve’. The vagus nerve runs down our spine and spreads out like tree branches throughout our abdominal; finer branches spread throughout our limbs. The vagus nerve connects to all major organs, i.e. in our abdominal it connects to our heart, lungs, and stomach, and in our head it connects to our brainstem. Nerve impulses travel throughout our brain which is divided into three main parts; the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The signals between sensory organs and the brain operate via two-way messaging. In other words, sensory organs send messages to the brain and parts of the brain can send messages to parts of the body. PTSD disturbs the functioning of the nervous system.

Contemporary Psychology

While studies of hysteria were prominent around the turn of the nineteenth century, the main focus of contemporary psychology could be said to be trauma. These may be viewed as one and the same thing with the caveat that hysteria was traditionally a woman’s diagnosis whereas PTSD diagnoses are gender neutral. PTSD may slightly differ in how it presents in men and women; however, the cause, discomfort, and curative approaches are the same for all genders.

Many experts such as Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Gabor Matè, Diane Heller, and Brene Brown are actively raising society’s awareness about the implications of unhealed trauma as presented in PTSD symptoms. While each of these aforementioned people approach trauma and healing from slightly different angles, collectively, they are educating society about trauma and the need to address it in a compassionate manner. Further, it is becoming universally accepted that it is not specific aspects of traumatic events that lead to PTSD, rather, it is the imprint that these experiences leave on the physical body.

“Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes”

Contemporary psychology, as supported by neuroscience, views PTSD as a normal response to traumatic experiences. When traumatic or stressful events go beyond an individual’s capacity to cope and/or they don’t have the necessary support to help them recover, then long term PTSD symptoms may develop. Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes – and the energetic charge needs to be released.

Contemporary PTSD treatments are often based on somatic understandings of mind-body connections. In other words, in order to heal trauma symptoms, the physical attributes of a dysregulated nervous system needs to be addressed through embodied approaches so as to improve cognitive functioning. Simultaneously, cognitive processes need to be addressed so as to support the processing of nervous system sensations. Emotions are the key player of the halfway point between bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom trauma therapies.

A person’s ability to overcome adversity without developing PTSD is dependent upon many factors; most prominently, their access to empathetic support. Invalidating a person’s experience and making judgments about them being physically and/or mentally weak, does not help the condition. Moreover, such attitudes are counterproductive and can lead to perpetrating symptoms by promoting shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Freud’s Legacy

On the whole, contemporary psychology research undermines the validity of Freudian theories, from his suggestions of what causes hysteria through to his psychoanalysis practices. It could be argued that contemporary psychoanalysis’ do not follow Freud verbatim, and that attacking Freud when many others have thought along similar lines to him, is a little harsh. In due respect of these considerations, the problem lies in people not taking the time to thoroughly investigate what psychoanalysis is really about (as I didn’t till recently) and the snippets of information that are given constitute a kind of social conditioning that leads to misinformed thinking and behaviour.

It is not possible for Freudian ideas about hysteria and modern theories of trauma to both be correct. They are opposing hypothesises. Ultimately, there is more scientific evidence to support mind-body theories of PTSD.

In the broad scheme of things, I can see how Freud’s theories came about and that they may have even been a necessary step in the process of understanding a PTSD. I can happily give him credit for identifying for that hysteria is based on traumatic childhood experiences that impact adult behaviour. I also appreciate that he saw a link between some physical ailments and the mind and emotions. My homage to Freud ends there. He was only a quarter right in his research and after those points he made several to mistakes and oversights. I therefore question why he is still considered to be such a great man? And do others realise how much he got wrong? Or is Freud’s circle of influence so vast that many great thinkers have accidentally been lead astray? There are many people (including some professionals, like Peterson) who don’t seem to understand how, when, and why Freudian theories are invalid.

Freud’s theories are predominantly based on clinical records of female clients as detailed in a book titled Studies of Hysteria. Despite the fact that there was talk amongst Freud’s academic peers that hysteria could be identified in men, and that Freud himself is reported to have expressed an understanding that hysteria was not exclusively a female condition, his studies were, nevertheless, solely based on women. Putting it simply, Freud’s research is contaminated by a bias population sample. By today’s rigorous scientific standards, his case studies would be rejected and condemned for having weak inductive arguments.

Freud’s premises for the curative elements of his talking cure are highly questionable. In the process of psychoanalysis, the therapist takes on a “superior” role to the “naive” patient so as to explain to them the “reality” of their world in which they are too “sick” to see. The process is based on hypnotic principles of suggestion and submission. (The notion of therapists having “superiority” over “naive” clients is reflected in many of Peterson’s remarks.)

Freud’s adamance of the accuracy of psychoanalysis was primarily based on his personal beliefs, not empirical findings. Such can be seen in Freud’s expressed frustration at his client’s who were, to his mind, not always forthright with admitting their “passions”. Rather than accepting that his clients might be telling their truth and that his theories may be wrong, thus looking for other variables and explanations, Freud maintained the belief that sexual urges were the cause of hysteria regardless of client’s responses. Further, when his client’s reported sexual abuse and incest, he routinely dismissed their claims as being fantasy.

The notion that dreams and projective drawings hold universal insights into the subconscious mind via objective meanings has been critically evaluated in studies and found to hold little merit. (As an art therapist, I’ve gone to extreme lengths to research whether or not such theories hold merit and have come to the conclusion they do not.) While symbols, signs, and motifs may have significance, it is the individual’s interpretation of such that is deemed most important^^. Personal experiences, cultural considerations, social conditioning, religious standing, and several other factors mean that subjective interpretations of unconscious material is predominately more accurate than so-called “objective” projections given by the therapist. (These findings also reflect doubt on Carl Jung’s theories of there being a universal collective consciousness in which there are absolute meanings behind archetypes^^^.)

In my research, I was further surprised to discover that Freud had a serious cocaine habit and he regularly promoted the substance to his clients, which lead to the death of one – they overdosed by following Freud’s prescribed intake because Freud incorrectly believed that humans had a high tolerance level to the substance. In a compassionate mind-frame, I wonder if perhaps Freud’s drug habits are reflective of him self-medicating to address undiagnosed personal trauma? Be that as it may, as I shift between being highly critical of the man and trying to retain an open minded, the bottom line is that I don’t believe Freud is a very good role model. There are too many points to question the accuracy of Freud’s work for him to be entitled to the celebrity status that is bestowed upon his legacy.

“Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies”

Okay, so Freud was a man of his time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing any better. But why are the Jordan Peterson’s of the world still quoting Freudian ideas as facts when there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise? Ironically, it almost appears as though Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies.

Peterson’s approach to psychology echoes Freudian theories and is therefore prone to errors. Specifically, Peterson’s solution to PTSD being that people should simply be less naive and accept that there is malevolence in the world is unjustifiable. His suggestion of preventing PTSD by having individuals toughen up is blatantly disregarding ethical and evidence-based practice. Interestingly, at no point does Peterson recommend that people who are inclined to be malevolent should change, rather, he glorifies malevolent behaviour as being intelligent and suggest the ultimate solution is for “naive” and “child-like” people to change their perspectives. Somatic considerations of PTSD and the challenges of processing of difficult emotions are not mentioned either. I concur with Gabor Mate^ in agreeing that Peterson’s lacks a comprehensive understanding of trauma and his advocation of repressing emotions is unproductive. Sorry to say this Peterson, but I think you are a victim of Freud’s hypnotism.


Prior to investigating the history of PTSD, I had limited understanding of Freud and the potential negative impact that his work has had on shaping contemporary society. Like many, I knew of him as the father of psychoanalysis/psychology and, therefore, assumed the praise he is often given must be substituted. Further, as a lover of surrealistic art styles, I have appreciated his influence in enabling the development of great works like those done by Salvador Dali, James Gleeson, Jeffery Smart, and others. Now, however, my critical evaluation of his work leads me to wonder if he would be better known as the greatest hypnotist of the twentieth century?

Personally, I would like to see some other psychologists get a bit more public attention. In regards to historical characters, I’d vote for Carl Rogers (1902-1987).

“… [Rogers] believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy.”

Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is known as humanistic or client-centred. He believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy. His promotion of building a positive relationship between consumer and therapist has been clinically proven, time and time again, to be the single most important factor underpinning all successful therapy. Further, it aligns perfectly with what is known about the nervous system and human social engagement. Rogers’ theories sit at the heart of trauma-informed practices.

Rogers’ is most renowned for promoting the importance of giving unconditional positive regard to all individuals. Now that is the type of father figure I’d like to look up to!

In reflecting back over the past hundred years of western society I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if psychology, education systems, medical models, politics, media messages, and so forth, echoed more of Rogers’ theories and less of Freud’s? Unconditional positive regard to individuals has the twofold potential of helping people with PTSD recover and preventing some cases of trauma from occurring in the first place.

* Jordan Peterson: How to Heal from PTSD/Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snke9v4S2rU and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaJ5tMoilvM

** The DSM is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association that categories mental health conditions; the current version is referred to as the DSM-5. PTSD is also recognised in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) which is published by the world health organisation. The ICD distinguishes between PTSD and C-PSTD. The latter, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, is a term coined by Judith Herman in her book: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. C-PSTD is distinguishable from PTSD in that it acknowledges continued, ongoing sources of trauma opposed to single traumatic events. Presently, the DSM does not have these two categories. Nevertheless, in simple terms, both PTSD and C-PTSD may be viewed as encompassing the same or similar symptoms and requiring similar healing approaches. More information about the types of trauma can be found here. For the ease of reading, the term PTSD is used exclusively throughout this text; however, it can be inferred that comments about PTSD are equally relevant to C-PTSD.

*** Researching historical terms and definitions for mental illness is an interesting activity in itself, for example, schizophrenia used to be called dementia praecox because it was viewed as early onset of dementia.

^ Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-ppQitxU8

^^ A core consideration in art therapy practice is to never to project personal interpretations onto someone’s artwork. An individual’s interpretation of their work is the authority.

^^^ Fun fact: standard history lessons credit Jung as developing the concept of archetypes; however, the word and concept of archetypes can be traced back to Ancient Greek. Essentially, Jung took the existing word “archetype” and redefined its old meaning to his liking. This is a topic worthy of exploring in more detail in the future.


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Heynen, E., Roest, J., Willemars, G., & van Hooren, S. (2017). Therapeutic alliance is a factor of change in arts therapies and psychomotor therapy with adults who have mental health problems. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 55, 111-115. doi: 10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.006

Jewkes, Y., Jordan, M., Wright, S., & Bendelow, G. (2019). Designing ‘Healthy’ Prisons for Women: Incorporating Trauma-Informed Care and Practice (TICP) into Prison Planning and Design. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(20), 3818. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16203818

Jones, E., & Wessely, S. (2006). History, EpidEmiology, trEatmEnt Psychological trauma: a historical perspective Paradigm change. Retrieved from https://www.kcl.ac.uk/kcmhr/publications/assetfiles/historical/Jones2006-psychologicaltrauma.pdf

Judith Lewis Herman. (1992). Trauma and recovery : aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basicbooks.

Levenson, E. A. (1992). Mistakes, Errors, and Oversights. Contemporary Psychoanalysis28(4), 555–571. https://doi.org/10.1080/00107530.1992.10746777‌

Lerman, H. (1986). From Freud to Feminist Personality Theory: Getting Here from There. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 10(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1986.tb00733.x

Martin Evan Jay. (2018). Sigmund Freud | Austrian psychoanalyst. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sigmund-Freud

Merridale, C. (2000). The Collective Mind: Trauma and Shell-shock in Twentieth-century Russia. Journal of Contemporary History, 35(1), 39–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/002200940003500105

Micale, M. S. (1990). Charcot and the idea of hysteria in the male: Gender, mental science, and medical diagnosis in late nineteenth-century France. Medical History, 34(4), 363–411. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0025727300052777

Milojević, I. (2008). Timing feminism, feminising time. Futures, 40(4), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2007.08.008

Muran, J. C., & Barber, J. (2010). The therapeutic alliance: An evidence-based guide to practice. New York: Guilford Press.

Online etymology dictionary. (2019). neuroscience | Origin and meaning of neuroscience by Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from Etymonline.com website: https://www.etymonline.com/word/neuroscience

Panlilio, C. C. (2019). Trauma-informed schools : integrating child maltreatment prevention, detection, and intervention. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Pearce, J. M. S. (2016). Sydenham on Hysteria. European Neurology, 76(3–4), 175–181. https://doi.org/10.1159/000450605

Perryman, K., Blisard, P., & Moss, R. (2019). Using Creative Arts in Trauma Therapy: The Neuroscience of Healing. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 41(1), 80–94. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.41.1.07

Rose, S. (2015). 5O years of neuroscience. The Lancet, 385(9968), 598–599. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(15)60224-0

Sigmund Freud, & G  Stanley Hall. (2018). A general introduction to psychoanalysis : a history of psychoanalytic theory, treatment and therapy. Adansonia Press.

Simmonds, J. G. (2004). Heart and spirit. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85(4), 951–971. https://doi.org/10.1516/fw41-8025-5btj-a7tg

Spence, D. (1994). The rhetorical voice of psychoanalysis: displacement of evidence by theory. Choice Reviews Online, 32(02), 32-1232-32–1232. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.32-1232

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Thurschwell, P. (2009). Sigmund Freud. London ; New York: Routledge.

Twemlow, S. W., & Parens, H. (2006). Might Freud’s legacy lie beyond the couch? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 430–451. https://doi.org/10.1037/0736-9735.23.2.430

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Penguin Books.



Have you ever wondered how your family’s history effects you? Have you ever noticed there are patterns of behaviour across generations? Common occupations? Reoccurring themes of tragedy? Have you ever suspected your family’s ancestry was affecting you but couldn’t quite figure out how or why? Our family of origin determines more than just our genetic material. Patterns of behaviour, ways of thinking, and belief systems also get carried down. Interestingly, science is discovering that emotional issues, such as post traumatic stress, can also be passed along family lines – this occurs partly by our DNA’s influence and by environmental factors. The result of this is that many of us carry the burden of inherited family trauma, stress and pain. Given that these issues didn’t start with us, they can be difficult to deal with.

Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and and How To End the Cycle describes this as: “The worst part is that the very thing that holds us back is often invisible to us, keeping us frustrated and confused.” 

For example, a grandchild of a world war 2 veterinarian may exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as fear and panic when they hear helicopters, even if they have never experienced any chronic adversity directly to explain such a response.

Recognising that one’s family of origin plays a pivotal role influencing one’s mental health is not a new concept, however, the approach that Wolynn adds with his detailed scientific research gives provides deeper understandings and solid methods to address problems. Wolynn says: “By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them.”

Nikki Mackay, author of Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation, is another who has done significant work on understanding how the influence of family structures affects individuals. Mackay suggests that in events such as a child is stillborn but is never spoken of or the emotional impact of a parent’s past lover, can play hidden roles in the development of a family system. Moreover, they can cause silent torment to those who come after them but never knew them directly.

How can such mysteries be revealed? And the pain resolved? A great place to start is through the creating of a genogram.

Genograms are a formal method of mapping family systems. They slightly resemble a family tree in appearance, however, they differ in that their focus is on exploring the relationships between members and examining patterns from one generation to the next. Another difference is that genograms encourage looking at and including persons that are not blood-related, however, have a significant place or influence in the family dynamics. For example, in addition to the above examples, a close friend who has frequent contact with the family would be included due to their their enduring bond with members.

The process of drawing up a genogram involves identifying all the known people to be part of the family system for this generation and a few generations back. In some cases, little is known, in others, there is an abundance of information. Either way, the mapping out of how these relationships using a specific set of codes and symbols can bring clarity where there was once confusion. When done in an applied manner and guided by a professional with the specific training to understand the dynamics, the shifts and improvements in the life can be very profound.

When connections and patterns of behaviour in individuals are better understood, negative ones can be broken and positive ones can be reinforced. Rewarding aspects of doing this work can come in “aha” moments whereby people recognise that the shame/guilt/pain/whatever that they may be feeling does not belong to them, rather, they have been loyally carrying it for someone else. When this happens, they are able to honour this, put it back in its rightful place, and obtain a sense of peace. Recognising issues from this broader perspective has a ripple effect – when one person in a family system heals an old wound, anyone else connected benefits too.

If you are interested in mapping out your own genogram and discovering the hidden dynamics that may be influencing your current circumstances, fill out a query form here or email renaissancewellbeings@gmail.com

Example of a genogram.
Deliberately blurred to prevent identification of individuals


Wolynn, M. (2017). It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle. Penguin Books.

Mackay, N. (2012). Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation. Lanham: John Hunt Publishing.

Depression, Adolescence, and Education

As part of my masters of mental health studies, I was required to write a newsletter-style report about a mental health issue directed at a specific group of professionals. I chose to write about depression, adolescence, and education for teachers:


It is estimated that, on average, there are at least two students in every class who are suffering from depression at any given point. This often goes unrecognised due to sufferers concealment attempts and carers are not being aware of symptoms. The repercussions of this can be great, as left unattended it impacts learning and leads to lower school attendance. Further, it has been associated with self-harm, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. By being aware of the signs of depression teachers can, potentially, interweave preventative and curative interventions into the classroom to help reduce the amount of suffering. This following aims to provide some basic information, generate awareness, and promote further discussion of a school’s role in students’ mental health.


Depression is a complex condition that can occur on its own or with other conditions. It can be sub-categorised in the following ways: physical (e.g. anaemia, thyroid dysfunction, candida), situational (e.g. bullying, family disharmony, relationship conflict), or as part of a broader mental health condition (e.g. post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, grief, adjustment disorder, loss). Irrespective of the underlying cause, all forms of depression share some common symptoms.


Normal challenges in adolescent years, coupled with hormone changes and social pressures, can lead to a mild depression which teenagers drift in and out of as they develop their sense of identity and place in the world. Depression, however, as a serious mental health condition, goes beyond this. Official diagnosis dictates that at least five symptoms are present for at least two weeks, and that these interfere with student’s normal functioning.

According to an Australian Government report:

“Symptoms of major depressive disorder may include significant weight loss or weight gain, loss of appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, restlessness, fatigue and loss of energy, feeling of worthlessness and inability to concentrate.”1

Practical examples of how this may present in the classroom include: students isolating themselves, disengagement, slow bodily movements, not submitting work, aggressive outbursts, teariness, and other challenging behaviour.

Obstacles in getting help

Ideally, once a student has been identified with depression, they would be to referred to a counsellor or psychologist for professional guidance and diagnosis. Unfortunately this is not always possible as students often do not feel that talking to anyone will help. To meet this, simple strategies from teachers and school administration can be useful.

Myth busting

There are many myths surrounding depression which can impede teenagers getting the support that they need. This includes some well meaning philosophies such as positive motivational strategies. Whilst reframing things in a positive light  may be useful in some circumstances, it is not an exclusive approach that cures all. In the case of someone who is depressed it can be counterproductive because they are not making a conscious choice to be depressed, hence, motivating them to be more positive can lead to worsening feelings, such as guilt and shame when they cannot achieve this. Emerging research suggests that students who are susceptible to mood and behavioural problems lack skills, not motivation, to cope with life challenges.

What teachers can do

It is unethical to expect teachers to diagnose students, however, as depression can have such a negative impact on learning and other areas, it is appropriate for them to have an awareness for what to look for and how best to approach it.

Individually, teachers can make a difference to a student’s mental state. Depression contains the element of low self-esteem, therefore, by giving encouragement for efforts, rather than final product, self-improvement is more effectively inspired. Self-esteem building in this way comes across as genuine care and builds confidence in abilities due to the praise being given for the process, not end product.

Primarily, students who are suffering depression need empathy and understanding. This can be a difficult ask when teachers are pressured to achieve target goals and a student presents as not putting in sufficient effort. It can create a difficult situation in which the teacher does not know if the student is being lazy, doesn’t not understand what was expected of them, (i.e. possible learning disorder), or is suffering depression. In one-off incidents this is made even more challenging. A possible solution is for teachers to develop culture where it is normal to check in on students when returning work, opposed to handing it back without saying anything. Conversations could look like this:

Teacher: “Jesse, you seemed to have struggled with this assignment. Is there a reason?”

Jesse’s reply could then be an indicator of either supporting or dismissing the probability of depression. For example Jesse replies: “I rushed it at the last minute,” then suspicions can be reduced. Whereas if there is no reply at all (depressed students often avoid answering questions) or gives a simple response such as: “I don’t care what mark I get,” then further investigation may be deemed necessary.

What schools can do

Preventive measures are best; supportive school communities which promote growth mindsets, mindfulness, and anti-bullying programs, are sound approaches.

Cultivating a professional culture in which staff confer and collaborate with each other if they suspect a student is at risk of depression is one such way in which this could occur. This could be viewed much the same as mandatory reporting of child abuse conversations are expected take place. This practice could be done informally or extended to a formal systematic checking on students demeanours through digital surveys. A Melbourne based school approaches this by requiring all staff to fill in an online questionnaire once a month for every student. Three identifiable markers; mood, social interactions, and workload accountability, are checked across the board. The simple tick-a-box processes ensures that all students are looked out for and no individual teacher is responsible for reporting a student who is struggling. A central coordinator compares the information and follows up as required. This approach, which only requires a few minutes per class, could easily be adapted to most schools without adding too much extra work onto teachers.

Taken to another level, schools can adopt global approaches to intervention by being  trauma-informed, and cultivating connection, and a community atmosphere. These provide excellent prospects for recovery and prevention. Included into such models are skilled based lessons on emotional regulation, relationships and conflict resolution skills, and self-identification and labelling of feelings.  In such environments students are better situated to work through personal issues, like depression, or ask for help, if needed.

Social researcher, Brene Brown, encapsulates this beautifully in her quote:

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”2

Happy, healthy school communities, create happy, healthy students.

Further support

Teachers and schools wanting to seek further information can do so here:

Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. (2017). Education.qld.gov.au. http://education.qld.gov.au/studentservices/protection/mentalhealth/index.html

Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

Fallot, Ph.D., R., & Harris, Ph.D., M. (2009). Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC):A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol. https://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/icmh/documents/CCTICSelf-AssessmentandPlanningProtocol0709.pdf


1. Pg.35 Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

2. Brown, B. (2016). The Gifts of Imperfection. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.


Bennett, M. (2017). Episode 1: Our Trauma-Informed Journeys. [podcast] http://connectingparadigms.org/podcast/episode-1/

Brown, B. (2016). The Gifts of Imperfection. [United States]: Joosr Ltd.

Fallot, Ph.D., R., & Harris, Ph.D., M. (2009). Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC):A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol. https://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/icmh/documents/CCTICSelf-AssessmentandPlanningProtocol0709.pdf

Kidsmatter.edu.au. (2017). Cognitive Behavioural Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) | kidsmatter.edu.au. [online] https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/primary/programs/cognitive-behavioural-intervention-trauma-schools-cbits

Lawrence, D., Johnston, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J., & Zubrick, S. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents: Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Published By The Australian Government. https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/9DA8CA21306FE6EDCA257E2700016945/%24File/child2.pdf

Making SPACE for Learning Australian Childhood Foundation Trauma Informed Practice in Schools. (2010). [ebook] Ringwood VIC: Australian Childhood Foundation. https://www.theactgroup.com.au/documents/makingspaceforlearning-traumainschools.pdf

Moss, R. (2013). A Clinical Biopsychological Theory of Loss-Related Depression. [online] The Neuropsychotherapist. http://www.neuropsychotherapist.com/loss-related-depression/.

Schwartz PhD, A. (2016). The complex PTSD workbook. Berkeley, California: Althea Press.

Student Mental Health and Wellbeing. (2017). Education.qld.gov.au. http://education.qld.gov.au/studentservices/protection/mentalhealth/index.html

Art and Trauma

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy, also sometimes referred to as art psychotherapy, is a counselling approach that incorporates the creating of artwork into the therapeutic process. Creating art provides a means of directly tapping into the subconscious mind and in doing so provides insights and directions for conversations that could be otherwise missed. Art therapy also enables traumatic experiences and associated thoughts and feelings to be processed in a safe and efficient manner which talking alone cannot achieve.

What does trauma-informed mean?

A lot of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, stem from traumatic experiences in one’s personal past or their family system. By acknowledging this, core issues can be address as well as the symptoms that they create. In a trauma-informed space, safety, collaboration, and awareness of triggers are of the utmost importance; hence, these are respected and incorporated into the therapy process.

Benefits of trauma-informed art therapy

Art therapy and healing trauma go hand in hand. This relates back to neuroscience principles; for a general overview of this read the article Art Psychotherapy and Neuroscience. More specifically, when someone experiences trauma, the brain that controls cognitive functions (ie. reasoning, memory, attention, and language) doesn’t work as efficiently as it could. The brain can switch to automatic and fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses dominate. Basically, the nervous system’s takes over and either pumps adrenal so as quick movements to escape real or perceived dangers can be made, or the body becomes rigid and cannot move as an alternative means of protection. Simply “moving on” or “letting go” of traumatic experiences solemn works. Such approaches are often glorified repression tactics which result in trauma symptoms still being present days, weeks, months, or years later. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in trauma describes phenomena in detail in his book The Body Keeps the Score. Further, he stipulates that reminders of traumatic events have a way of interfering with one’s life until that are suitably addressed. Van der Kolk (and other researchers) suggests that simply talking about traumas is often ineffective. On a physiological level, this is due to a break in the connection between the thinking and feeling parts of the brain. Art therapy bypasses this problem by not relying on cognitive functions. By mark making, hand modelling (clay, wax, or plasticine), and being creative in other ways, trauma can be expressed and released in an effective manner, thus improving mental health and wellbeing. While participating in any artistic activity can be beneficial, doing so with the support and guidance of a professional therapist, means a greater level of healing can be achieved.

When discussing trauma it is useful to keep in mind that there are two main types. There are big “T” trauma events which are life-threatening occurrences and there are small “t” events that impact one’s confidence and self-agency. Below is a table that provides examples of each. While most people automatically think of big T trauma events as being of significance, little t traumas that remain unaddressed can have drastic long term effects on mental health. Once trauma has been processed via the emotional part of the brain – which it does so when someone is being creative in art therapy – then cognitive functions begin to improve.

Examples of big “T” trauma

  • Physical, sexual, verbal assault
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Difficult divorce or death situations
  • War-related experiences
  • Child abuse; neglect and other intrusions on safety

Examples of little “t” trauma

  • Being bullied
  • Passive-aggressive treatment from family, friends, work, etc
  • Rejection
  • Ridicule
  • Invalidation

Both forms of trauma can have serious impacts on a person’s mental health and lead to PTSD symptoms such as: nightmares, insomnia, intrusive memories, flashbacks, lack of concentration, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, irritability, rage, anger, dissociation, self-destructive tendencies, avoidance, mistrust, poor memory, negative self-image, guilt, shame, and hyper-vigilance.


Kolk, B. van der. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin.

How to Zentangle: Art therapy style

When people first try art therapy there is often some level of self-consciousness. Thoughts and comments along the lines of  “will my drawing be ‘good’ enough?” or “I haven’t been creative since I was a kid!” or “I can’t even draw a straight line!” often come up. Such things often arise as a result of what Julia Cameron terms “art wounds”. That is situations from our past in which our attempts at being artistic were laughed at or somehow made to feel they did not measure up to what our society deems to be “good” or “real” art. Zentangling is a great way to overcome these “art wounds”. It is my firm belief – based on personal observations and research – that EVERYONE has the capacity to be creative and artistic. Giving oneself the permission to do so, without judging oneself against others, is the first step towards this.

Zentangling is basically a form of doodling that has a wonderful structure to it and the story of how it begun is also quiet special.


Zentangling is a relatively new art form created by a couple called Maria and Rick; she was a graphic designer and he was an experienced mediator. One day when Maria was working on a detailed drawing Rick came into her studio and tried to get her attention. “Maria” he called gently at first, however, she was so absorbed with what she was doing that she did not respond. “Maria!” Rick called out a little more louder and assertively. He repeated this again and again until he had Maria’s attention. When Maria’s concentration was broken and she looked up and realised that Rick had been calling to her for several minutes it promoted some self reflection. Together, Rick and Maria established an understanding that what had happened was identifiable as Maria being in a “flow” state while she was drawing. In positive psychology, this is a state in which a person is fully living in the moment, concentrating, absorbed, yet relaxed and at peace. It also resembles the state in which many meditators try to achieve with their practice. So it was that Maria and Rick then went on to formulate a way in which they could share this practice with others.

Personally, I have always struggled with meditation and mindfulness activities; Zentangling, on the other hand, comes easily. Like Maria, I often find that when I am absorbed in the creative process I feel at peace, other worries in my life subside, and I’m able to feel a sense of perspective that I don’t ordinarily have. Through research, I have discovered that such an experience is linked to nervous system regulation. In short, by engaging in activities that encourage relaxation, like Zentangling, our minds and bodies have the opportunity to reset, so to speak. Simply deciding to be creative and make art work in order to achieve this stage when one is stress is not, however, always easy. It is for this reason I feel extremely grateful and indebted to Maria and Rick for putting together such a wonderful system like Zentangling which enables this to occur with ease.

I have used this approach as a therapeutic intervention with beginners who are nervous of their art abilities, right through experienced artists – every time it produces amazing results – both on paper and in client’s minds. I’ve seen clients who have an extensive art back grounds loosen up and gain new insights and bursts of creativity. I’ve also witnessed clients who swore they could not draw a thing be delighted in what they produced – so much so that their future attitudes and involvements with art therapy changed dramatically for the better.

While the aim of art therapy is not to make something beautiful, it is part of human nature to appreciate such, and in this regard, Zentangles have the added advantage of achieving this every time!

Maria and Rick claim the main benefits of Zentangling as being:

  • Relaxing
  • Incressing focus abilities
  • Expand your imagination
  • Learning to trust your creativity
  • Increasing awareness
  • Learning to respond confidently to the unexpected
  • Discover the fun and healing in creative expression
  • Feel gratitude and appreciation for this beautiful world and all that you can do.
  • And perhaps most importantly . . . Have fun!

Personally, I would add to this list an appreciation of the beauty of imperfection. Zentangling does not require rulers or definite rules. Rather, marks made with free hand guestures add uniqueness and beauty to the work.

So now that we know how great Zentangling is, let’s get started!


  • A small piece of paper – 10x10cm is fine. Or a sketchbook – I’m using my trusty A5 travel pad for this example.
  • A pencil, fineliner or pen. The traditional zentangle is done in black, however, as with most rules in art, these can be broken! Using a white pen on black paper creates some pretty groovy results!
  • Optional – reference pictures of patterns to get you started. Many can be found on Pinterest, such as these.
STEP 1: You need paper (sketch book as I have) and a pencil or pen. Traditionally, Zentangling is done in black and white, however, as with all art rules, these can be broken!

STEP 2: Make 4 marks on your page that roughly indicate a square, like above (this is rule that you can break later once you are more familiar with the process)

STEP 3a: Draw lines connecting these dots – these can be straight, curved, or whatever!
If you prefer, these step can be done with lead pencil so as there are no sharp edges when you finish

STEP 3b: Completed enclosed shape.

STEP 4a: Draw a few lines to divide the space. No limit or definite rules for this; just do it.
As above, this step can be done in lead pencil as well.

STEP 4b: Divided sections completed.

STEP 5: Fill in each section with a different pattern. This is where you may wish to use the reference pictures you found on the internet. I find that I often start with these as prompts then go off on my own creativity. It’s amazing what you can do with basic lines and shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles!

STEP 6a: Once you’ve completed one section with pattern, go on and fill in the other sections! It is that simple!

STEP 6b: It can be tempting to finish your Zentangle with line patterns, however, I’d encourage you to colour in some sections so as there is a definite contrast between light, dark, and other sections. To complete this one, I added a pole to make it look like the Zentangle is a flag – turning your Zentangle into a recognisable object is completely optional!

How did you go? I’d love to hear people’s experience and if possible it would be great if you could post a photo of your work down below so as we could build up a little Zentangle gallery. If you’re interested in doing so, fill out this form and up load a photo of your Zentangle/s. I can’t wait to see them!

If you’d like more guidance on zentangling you can book an individual session or you can sign up for a Mediation A group that incorporates some zentangling into the session.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed zentangling. For more tips on how art can support mental health click on the follow link at the bottom of the page.


CAMERON, J. (2002). The artist’s way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Maria, & Rick. Zentangle. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from https://zentangle.com/

Art Therapy and Neuroscience

Renée Spencer, 2018, Tree of Hearts, pencil on paper – digitally enhanced

Art therapy and neuroscience have an intimate connection. There are many facets to this which can be explored, however, as an introduction to the topic this article will be focusing on the creative process. Other connections between art, therapy, the brain, and mental health will be explored in future articles.

At its simplest, creativity is the process of ‘creating’ – be that a meal, a science experiment, or an artwork. While precise definitions can vary, most reflect the notion that creativity is a process, not a singular event. Components of this process can be broken down to (1) considering a task or problem; (2) mentally planning and perceiving possibilities; (3) executing this plan using conscious control over the materials, media, techniques, and skills at one’s disposal. The end goal of creativity is that something new is made.

Neurologically, creativity has been identified as a whole brain activity, regardless of how it is expressed. Research from functional magnetic resonance imaging scans indicates that when a person is thinking creatively, networks within the brain that do not usually work together start to do so. Most significantly, these are the default mode and the executive control network. The default mode’s primary function is episodic memory retrieval, while the executive control network helps to direct attention and focus. When faced with a goal or a problem, these parts of the brain are forced to co-operate to come up with a solution, while ordinarily, they function singularly; creative thinking is one of the only currently known ways in which these parts are activated and work together (Beaty, Benedek, Silvia, & Schacter, 2016).

The importance of creativity in art therapy is expressed by many practitioners and researchers. Most significantly, Vija Lusebrink has worked extensively over the past four to five decades to develop a deeper understanding of this. Lusebrink is a founder of a framework called the Expressive Arts Continuum (ETC) which identifies creativity as a key factor in promoting good mental health. One of the ways in this occurs is by means of neuroplasticity. Basically, when a person engages in the creative process in therapy, doing so promotes changes in the brain’s pathways or creates new pathways. In summary, the act of being creative and/or unblocking creativity within art psychotherapy is associated with promoting higher brain functioning which is transferable to other areas of life (Lusebrink, 2010; Malchiodi, 2013; Rubin, 2003).

Stay tuned and follow this blog for further discussions on the benefits of art making and mental health.



Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Silvia, P. J., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,20(2), 87-95. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.004

Lusebrink, V. B. (2004). Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy. Art Therapy, 21(3), 125-135. doi:10.1080/07421656.2004.10129496

Lusebrink, V. (2010). Assessment and Therapeutic Application of the Expressive Therapies Continuum: Implications for Brain Structures and Functions. Art Therapy, 27(4), 168-177. doi: 10.1080/07421656.2010.10129380

Malchiodi, C.  (2013) Creative Process/Therapeutic Process: Parallels and Interfaces, Art Therapy, 5:2,52-58, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.1988.10758841

Rubin, J. (2003). The Role of Creativity in Art Therapy and Art Education. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 16(1), 10-16. doi: 10.1080/08322473.2003.11432252