Commentary on “The Tale of Little Owl”

Commentary on “The Tale of Little Owl” by its author Shirley McNeil, Ph.D.


I intended to write a paper about a series of dreams I have been working on with my therapist, a Jungian analyst.  She is the “local wise woman” in the fairy tale.  I had drawn pastel pictures of the dream images, had been reading Jung’s Aion for clues to the symbols, and felt prepared to discuss them.  On my fiftieth birthday, I lit candles in my room, poured a glass of white wine, and sat down at the computer to write my dream interpretation for the presentation.

As I faced the screen, this fairy tale about someone named Little Owl came into my consciousness and wanted me to write it.  This really surprised me but there was a kind of urgency about it so I wrote for the next few hours.  It seemed to spring from my head without much thought, fully formed like Athene from Zeus’ head.  I wrote to clear my head for my serious paper but when I read it as a whole, it rang true.  I decided there must have been a reason for this story to emerge.

I think I have always mythologized my life.  Certainly, when I tell people about my life, it comes out in stories.  When I listen to other people’s stories, I am as interested in how they tell it as in the story itself.  When introduced to Jungian concepts in therapy, I found a language that could express the way I experience life.  Articulating my experience of life has always been a frustration for me because so few people have understood me, hence the “spirit stories”.  To my delight, I realized that my lifelong interest in mythology, particularly as presented by Joseph Campbell, tied in directly to Jungian thought.

People understand the timeless themes in movies and novels when they are explained as mythology.  They can identify their own lives within a larger frame.  I’m reframing my own life and hope to help many others to do so.  The “Tale of Little Owl” represents a life in the classic myth of Paradise Lost, Searching and Suffering, and Paradise Regained in a new form.  For the process of forming personal myth, I have been influenced by the work of Sam Keen, Jean Houston and David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner (Works cited on p. 13), and by materials from Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal in Seattle.

I am a mid-life woman whose journey over the past several years has been toward a more balanced lifestyle and a more integrated personality.  As a young woman in the feminist 60’s, I was very clear that I did not want to be identified with the mother/housewife archetype I saw all around me.  Clearly, the power did not reside there. In striving for a successful career, I identified with the Athene archetype and denigrated everything my mother and others like her represented.  In midlife, I began to realize I could not go on pushing myself so relentlessly.  My partner’s aging parents needed increasing assistance and my department was expanding at a tremendous rate.  I felt like there was no “Me” underlying all the roles I was playing.  And there was no time for me to discover who I was and what I really wanted.

Through the next few years, I became increasingly solitary during my “off-duty” hours. Numb, exhausted and resentful of anyone or anything that needed my attention, I was in what Jean Bolen calls a Stone Mother depression (Bolen, Crossing 186).  I had always been an enthusiastic gardener, as time allowed.  We had purchased a permanent home and I began to reshape the landscape.  I read garden design books, watched garden videos, haunted nurseries for new plants, colors, ideas.  On weekends, from early morning, I would be in the garden, digging, shifting rocks, planting, in total silence, until it was too dark to see or until I could no longer straighten up.

Now, I know that the silent time in nature, with nature, creating something beautiful started the revitalization of my soul, and the recognition of my disowned feminine side.  In the garden I was reconnecting with the forest where I had grown up, recreating my paradise of innocence.  Digging in the soil, I was literally regrounding myself in the Earth, “putting down roots”.

Jung speaks of the building of his home at Bollingen in terms of a process of becoming.  “From the beginning I felt the Tower as in some way a place of maturation – a maternal womb or a maternal figure in which I could become what I was, what I am and will be.  It gave me a feeling as if I were being reborn in stone.  It is thus a concretization of the individuation process…” (Jung, Memories 225).  Like Jung, I was being reborn in the material form of my garden, and what better place for this process to happen than in a garden, a place of death/rebirth?  Like Psyche, I was literally sorting seeds, planting in fertile soil, watering with the Water of Life and waiting with pregnant expectations to see the results of my labors (Neumann) (Johnson).  In fact, a garden designer whose last name is Love aided me in the initial structural layout.

During the period of intense garden making, I renewed ties with a women’s networking group, hoping to change careers. A spring series of classes titled “Finding Your Voice” introduced me to the experience the conscious creation of a sacred space, sitting in circle, and heartfelt connection with a large group of women.  The Motherless Daughter archetype came through at those workshops and opened up a huge amount of sorrow and grief.

Although it had been my father who died, my mother descended into a grieving depression and never fully recovered from it.  Hope Edelman’s study of motherless daughters suggests that emotional abandonment can be even more devastating than an actual death.  As an adult, the woman might search for a recognition and validation in situations or with people who mirror the mother’s detachment (Edelman 86-89).  The premature loss of emotional connection with the mother and the resulting search for the motherly qualities elsewhere has been well documented (Murdock 136-137).

The next summer I had the dream of the Grandmother/Wise Old Woman in the garden, telling me exactly when I would die – in April.  I completely accepted this prophecy.  It was so real and seemed so logical because I was in my mid forties and my mother had died in her early fifties.  A close friend had become ill with cancer that spring.  I had become so numb that my unconscious needed to beat me over the head with a Big Dream to awaken me.

I told no one.  After grieving all summer, I finally confided in a friend, who referred me to her therapist.  After much work on the dream, it became clear that my “good girl/achiever” persona, which was taking too much energy to maintain, was the part that needed transformation.  My nickname at work was “Sam”, so I had a professional identification separate from my private life as Shirley.

A Catherine wheel had appeared in one of the dreams I had been working on for the presentation.  Why it was a Catherine wheel I don’t know.  The dream told me it was.  I knew it was associated with a martyred saint.  Katherine was my mother’s middle name and also her best friend was named Kathryn.  Catherine represents the saintly good girl I believed my mother expected and needed me to be (just as Sam was this figure in my work life).  Alice Miller writes about children who develop highly intuitive skills and can sense even the unconscious needs of the parent.  These children often take on the role of confidant and co-parent of the other children (Miller 33).  I had taken on this role at the age of 10 years old.

While doing research on the symbolism of the wheel motif, I recalled that my brother had given me a book about the Native American medicine wheel.  During a difficult period, he had found his path to self-discovery in our Native American roots.  I had read the book briefly but did not recall anything except that the bear was one of my animal totems.  When I turned to the section for my birth date, the “Long Nights Time”, I found my birth and animal totem to be the Owl.  (Meadows 198)  Though my conscious mind had forgotten the owl symbolism, my unconscious brought it forth in my personal myth.

The Owl had attracted me as a symbol of wisdom for some time.  I picked up cards with owls, and was drawn to a tiny turquoise owl in a bead shop, which I now wear as a pendant.  I have a photograph taken on a trip to England of a bas-relief of three owls, which I placed in a central spot on my bulletin board of images and quotes.  All this was done unconsciously at the time.  When I began to read Greek mythology again as part of my preparation for Pacifica, I became reacquainted with the owl association with Athene (Downing 123).

During a session of guided imagery, Athene appeared as my protector figure at puberty. When my father died, she lent me her armor.  Deena Metzger tells of the unexpected appearance of Athene as her guide.  When asked why she has shown up as Metzger’s guide, Athene answers, ‘I have never been mothered.’ (Metzger 122)  This is so obvious and yet, not how we think of Athene.  She is the wise, strong strategist, the protector.  Yet she was also never a child loved and protected by a mother.  Athene goes on to say that intelligent women are not expected to be beautiful (Metzger 123).  Like the warrior queen, Orual, in Till We Have Faces, whose value is intelligence and strength, Athene cannot win the contest of feminine beauty.  The relief of a mourning Athene at Athens, shows us an introverted Athene, “leaning on her spear, her head drooping, pervaded with sorrow…the warrior goddess herself touched by defeat and loss” (Downing 120).  We can, as Downing does, feel tenderness for this side of the goddess, not just admiration.

The strong Athene whom I had identified with for so long is also the goddess whose “Medusa effect” can turn you to stone, as indeed I did (Bolen, Goddesses 101-102).  Embracing the motherless child aspect of Athene as Little Owl has given me a more complete image of the woman I have become.

The “oneness”, the integration of the psyche or the Self did not come in a flash of recognition.  Gradually my unconscious and conscious have built a bridge and I am learning to use this “transcendent function” to mediate between them and to integrate both functions (Jung, Portable 279).  Now I resonate with Bolen’s description of Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, as an archetype of the Self, inner centeredness, or focus.  “The Self is what we experience inwardly when we feel a relationship to oneness that connects us to the essence of everything outside of us” (Bolen, Goddesses 114).

Works Cited

Bolen, Jean Shinoda.  Goddesses in Everywoman:  A New Psychology of Women.  New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

—. Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Downing, Christine.  Goddess:  Mythological Images of the Feminine.  New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1987.

Edelman, Ruth.  Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss.  Reading Mass.:  Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994.

Johnson, Robert A.  She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, Rev.ed.  New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Jung, Carl G.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  New York:  Random House, Inc. 1989.

—.  The Portable Jung.  ed. Joseph Campbell.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1981.

Lewis, C.S.  Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1984.

Meadows, Kenneth.  Earth Medicine: A Shamanic Way to Self Discovery.  Rockport, Mass.:  Element, Inc., 1991.

Metzger, Deena.  Writing for Your Life.  New York:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Miller, Alice.  The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self.  Trans. Ruth Ward.  Rev.ed. HarperCollins, 1994.

Murdock, Maureen.  The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness.  Boston, Mass.: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1990.

Neumann, Erich.  Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine.  New York:  Princeton University Press, 1973.

Works Which Influenced the Formation of the Personal Myth

Feinstein, David and Krippner, Stanley.  The Mythic Path.  New York: Jeremy Tarcher, Inc.,Putnam. 1997.

Keen, Sam and Anne Valley-Fox.  Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling.   Los Angeles:  Jeremy Tarcher, Inc., 1989.

Houston, Jean.  A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story.  New York:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

—.  The Search for the Beloved: Journeys in Mythology & Sacred Psychology, 2nd ed.  New York:  Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997.

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