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.

AZ Quotes. (2019). Sigmund Freud Quote. A-Z Quotes.

Burgo, J. (2011, June 21). Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation. After Psychotherapy.

Freud, Sigmund. 1923. The Ego and the Id.

Leary, M. (2019). What Is the Ego, and Why Is It So Involved in My Life? Psychology Today.

Plato. (370 B.C.E.). Plato, Phaedrus, page 246.

sadzol. (2008). Skyhooks – Ego Is Not A Dirty Word.

The Sydney Morning Herald. (2015, September 30). Skyhooks to reform for one-off performance but singer unconfirmed. The Sydney Morning Herald.

Thurschwell, Pamela. 2009. Sigmund Freud. Routledge.

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, (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.


Anwar MS, Munawar F, Anwar Q. Circumcision: a religious obligation or ‘the cruellest of cuts’? Br J Gen Pract 2010; 60: 59–61.

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Francis AG. On a Romano-British Castration Clamp used in the Rites of Cybele. Proc R Soc Med 1926; 19: 95–110.

McLeod SA. Psychosexual stages. Simply Psychology, https://www simplypsychology org/psychosexual html (accessed June 19, 2017), (2008).

Mordeniz C, Verit A. Is circumcision a modified ritual of castration? Urol Int 2009; 82: 399–403.

Niehoff MR. Circumcision as a Marker of Identity: Philo, Origen and the Rabbis on Gen 17: 1—14. Jewish Studies Quarterly 2003; 10: 89–123.

Owen HL. When did the Catholic Church decide priests should be celibate. History News Network, (2001).

Teitelbaum S. Castration. In: Leeming DA, Madden K, Marlan S (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Boston, MA: Springer US, pp. 126–128.

Wade J. The Castrated Gods and their Castration Cults: Revenge, Punishment, and Spiritual Supremacy, (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

Whitaker RJ. From virgin births to purity movements: Christians and their problem with sex. The Conversation, 2019, (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

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 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.

Science Direct – Visual Literacy. (n.d.). Visual Literacy – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from

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. (n.d.). Bow (248 Occurrences). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

BOW. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from

Kiss Clipart. (n.d.). Download Rainbow Line. KissClipart. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Messie2vie. (n.d.). echo – Strong’s number G2192 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Parsing and Strongs Definition. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Smart History. (2015). Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Smarthistory.

toxon – Strong’s number G5115 – Greek Lexicon | Bible Tools – Messie2vie. (n.d.). Messie2vie. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

What does קשת mean in Hebrew? (n.d.). WordHippo. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from

Wikipedia Contributors. (2018, November 28). King James Version. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

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. 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.

Furze, A., & University of Melbourne. (2019, January 11). Why do some people believe the Earth is flat? Pursuit. Editors. (2019, February 25). Columbus lands in South America. HISTORY.

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.

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Heavens by Aristotle. Classics.Mit.Edu.

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Internet Classics Archive | On the Soul by Aristotle. Mit.Edu.

Empedocles, & Leonard, W. E. (1908). The fragments of Empedocles; In Internet Archive. Chicago : The Open Court Publishing Company.

Habashi, F. (2000). Zorocaster and the theory of the four Elements. Bull. Hist. Chem, 25(2).

Kenney, E. J. (2019). Ovid | Roman poet. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Merriam G. & C. (1913) “awful” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary,, Accessed 10 November 2020.

Mirsky, Y. (2004). Feminine images of God. Www.Academia.Edu.

Murata, S. (1989). Masculine Feminine Complementarity in the Spiritual Psychology of Islam. Www.Academia.Edu.

Ovid & Moore, B. c.15CE/1922/ 2017. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1 – Theoi Classical Texts Library.
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.

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.

Waxman, O. B. (2018, June 21). Where Do Zodiac Signs Come From? Here’s the True History Behind Your Horoscope. Time; Time.

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.

Carolina Sparavigna, A. (2013). Robert Grosseteste and the Four Elements. International Journal of Sciences1(12), 42–45.

Roberts, C. H. (1949). The Christian Book and The Greek Papyri. The Journal of Theological Studies50(199/200), 155–168.

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.

Werner, M. (1969). The Four Evangelist Symbols Page in the Book of Durrow. Gesta8(1), 3–17.

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.

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:

If you would like to know how fluid paintings are made, watch this YouTube:

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.

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.

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.

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 and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas

** 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

^^ 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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