As the story goes, Hephaestus (Romans called him Vulcan) was one of the Olympian gods, the son of Hera (Zeus’ wife) alone. Yes, in some people’s account of events, Zeus’ help wasn’t necessary – when Hera decided she wanted to bear a child, she did it all by herself (this process is called parthenogenesis). Fuming with anger, Zeus, who though Hephaestus to be the conceived child of an affair, grabbed the poor child by his foot and threw him out of Olympus onto the earth below. As a result, Hephaestus became lame and forever walked with a limp.
Another story tells us of Oedipus. Mostly everybody has heard of “Oedipal complex”, a boy’s desire to compete with his father and sleep with his mother, a concept put forward by Freud (1856 – 1939). What mostly everybody doesn’t know is that Oedipus was left to die by his own father who had been warned his son would be responsible for his death, and would then marry his own mother. Needless to say, Oedipus survives to, blithely unaware of facts, kill his father and later marry his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus means “swollen-footed” because his father had the nerve to pin the poor child’s ankles together so as to prevent him from crawling when he was abandoned.And you have probably made use of the expression Achilles’ heels, meaning a deadly weakness. Legend has it that when Achilles was born, his mother bathed him in the river Styx to give him invincibility and strength. But because she held him by one of his ankles, this part of his body was not bathed by the magic powers of the river waters, therefore making it the only spot in his body where defeat could be inflicted against him. Destiny had an arrow pierce his very unprotected heel during the Trojan war and tragically, he died as a result of the wound.
By now, you may have guessed the reason I gave this post such an unconventional title. The common thread in these 3 stories is the ubiquitous presence of people’s feet. Hephaestus, Oedipus and Achilles had their destinies shaped by events involving this part of our body, not coincidentally. Is there any symbolism in it? Definitely! In dreams, being barefoot means feeling vulnerable, unprotected. Our feet are also responsible for our footprints, which symbolize a journey. In myths, journeys are not mere distances covered but a self-realisation process to develop the self – i.e. all your potentialities in life.
Besides, when reading these stories, we must understand that, unconsciously, we no longer assume a spectators’ passive view, but rather become the main characters ourselves. Jacques Lacan (1901 – 81) explains it in a very complex way. To put it simple, the knowledge we have of ourselves is constantly made and remade in confrontations with the other. In this process, the other is the projection and reflection of our ego – the other becomes us. Therefore, by analysing the poignant stories of Hephaestus, Oedipus and Achilles we better understand who they were and who we are. And we also learn to avert tragedy.
We all feel vulnerable from time to time. Maybe because, like Hephaestus, we also possess a disability, be it a physical or a psychological one. In both cases, something we’d rather hide from other people. Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) used the term shadow for the part of our unconscious mind where we keep some personality traits we’d rather hide from everyone, including ourselves.
Like Hephaestus, who used to work for hours on end as a blacksmith, forging and shaping iron (an interesting allegory for his attempts to reshape himself) we lose time and energy trying to reshape our shadow. It’s of paramount importance to understand and accept our shadow as an integral part of our personality (psyche), in order to live a better, healthier life, without too many confrontations with ourselves and other people (refer to the post entitled ME AND MY PET MINOTAUR for more on the Jungian concept of shadow).
Like Oedipus, we cannot escape from some of the twists and turns of life, no matter how much we try, no matter how unthinkable they seem. We all have to face grave events in our life, such as illnesses, losses or unrequited love. And the sad truth is that no one else can endure the hard path in our place. Going back to Lacan, we sympathise with Oedipus. The sheer thought of becoming him for a split second and going through his hardship soothes our hearts because, despite the problems we are fraught with, our fate cannot be as cruel.
As for Achilles’ tale, what can we learn from it? We all have a vulnerable spot, so throwing stones isn’t at all wise whilst living in glasshouses. We may look strong and invincible in our daily battles, but one single arrow (a single word, a single action) can put us down. If we don’t protect our most vulnerable spots, things we hold dear, such as a belief, a principle or any social engagement like our marriage, our family, our friends, our job, etc we may have it attacked beyond repair.
Shall we learn with these myths and put our best foot forward?