Perhaps the earliest such example of the myth is that of Andromeda tied to a rock guarded by a sea monster, and rescued by Perseus. Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) records this myth for us.
The most common modern-day interpretation of this myth is that men have to save women, and to do so, must display their strength (in order to overcome the monster.)
Although this interpretation has been challenged, it still persists and indeed, is glorified, within the film industry. Modern day examples include; Ann Darrow in King Kong, Elizabeth Swan in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Princess Leia in Star Wars.
This interpretation feeds the (undeveloped) male ego and continues the dominance of the patriarchal system in western-styled societies.
However, what if there is another way to think of this myth?
The Damsel Within
Before proceeding further, I should lay out three premises (that do have some justification):
1. Prior to about week 7 of pregnancy, all human babies are destined to become female. Around week 7 the Y chromosome begins signalling the start of testosterone production and hence the development of a male child.
2. Myths and dreams are related. Myths are how we culturally dream. Joseph Campbell1 noted that,
“the myth is the public dream, and the dream is the private myth.”3. Carl Jung pointed out that the characters (elements) of dreams arise from within the dreamer’s own psyche. They are not usually associated with something or someone outside of the dreamer’s own psyche.
It was Jung, also, who introduced the concept of the anima and animus. The Jungian psychologist, Dr Marie-Louise von Franz,2 described the anima as,
“a personification of all feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche, such as vague feelings and moods, prophetic hunches, receptiveness to the irrational, capacity for personal love, feeling for nature, and…his relation to the unconscious.”3Using this concept and the three premises above, we can take another look at the damsel in distress myth.
The damsel is no longer a woman separate to, or distinct from, the male – the damsel is the feminine within the male.
And, that feminine aspect is trapped, bound, and unable to be released.
Part of the male must save his own damsel within.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of the male population are unaware of the anima – the damsel within. Most men, if aware of this myth at all, continue to see it as big, powerful, macho men rescuing weak, powerless, women.
Yet, as Premise 1 notes, it is only from week 7 of pregnancy that the male begins to be formed. Hence, a large part of a male remains female.
By not accepting the damsel within, a man is not accepting his full self.
Something Must Die
So, how do men rescue their damsel within? How do men gain access to their anima?
Let’s go back to the myth. The myth tells us that the damsel is guarded by something – usually a monster, a dragon (remember St George and the Dragon), or (as in the case of King Kong) a large beast.
How does the hero of the myth get past this guardian? Usually by killing it.
In dreams, and myths, killing often signifies something other than a literal death. Often it signifies that something must be discarded, put down, left behind. Some part of the dreamer must die in order for the new, more fully-fledged, mature male to emerge.
What does the monster, beast, or dragon, in this myth signify? What aspect of a male must die so that the feminine can emerge?
I'm not going to answer that question here. I will attempt to do so in a later post. At this stage, it may be worth the reader pondering the question themselves, as the monster may represent something different in each man.
Who is the Hero?
What of the hero in the myth? What aspect of the male psyche does the hero represent?
Another Jungian analyst, Dr Joseph Henderson, noted that,
“…the need for hero symbols arises when the ego needs strengthening – when…the conscious mind needs assistance in some task that it cannot accomplish unaided or without drawing on the resources of strength that lie in the unconscious mind.”4This tells us that the task of killing the monster is not an easy one, nor is it readily apparent, at least not to the conscious mind.
The heroes in these myths do give us some clues as to what heroic traits are necessary: resilience (they don’t give up); the acceptance of mentors, tutors, or elders; an awareness of strengths and weaknesses (often after facing earlier trials); a willingness to learn on the journey towards the encounter with the monster.
A Rescued Myth
What if this interpretation of the damsel in distress myth is more accurate?
Maybe more men would discover their anima, their inner feminine, and in doing so discover the tendencies alluded to by Dr Marie-Louise von Franz above.
Maybe too, Mother Earth would gain from men becoming less inclined to approach her from a macho point-of-view and treat her as another aspect of themselves; the capacity for personal love, and feeling for nature.
1. Joseph Campbell has possibly done more to bring our modern attention to the role of myths in society. He is the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth, and other works.
2. Dr Marie-Louise von Franz (1915-1998) met Carl Jung when she was 18 and it was a “decisive encounter in her life” (as she described it.) She went on to become a Jungian psychologist known for her psychological interpretations of fairy tales.
3. Dr Marie-Louise van Franz in Carl Jung (ed.) Man and His Symbols, p 186. Note: The animus is the masculine psychological tendencies in a woman’s psyche.
4. Dr Joseph L Henderson, ibid. p114.