Thursday, May 27, 2010
Killing the demon parrot
As demons go, one of the scariest (because most likely to turn up any day, recognized or not) is one of the most unlikely: the parrot. Why? Well, if you think about what you most associate with parrots, other than bright colors and finger-nipping, you may have the answer. But let's hear a story first, because a story is the shortest way to get to a truth.
The story comes from Persia, and it is about a hero on a quest. The hero's name, some say, is Hatim, and he is a prince. The prince is summoned by his king and given an interesting assignment. He is to search for a mysterious castle known as the Bath Badgerd - the Castle of Nonexistence - and find out what is there. He sets out on a long journey, where he must battle with monsters and face every kind of hardship. Everyone he meets gives him a reason to abandon his mission. People are unanimous on one point: no traveler who reached the castle has ever returned.
The hero is not dismayed. At last he comes to a round, domed building that must be part of the Bath Badgerd. He is greeted by a hairdresser who is carrying a mirror, and invited to wash off the dust of the journey in a beautiful pool. As soon as he enters the water, there is the roar of thunder, and the water level starts to rise. He thrashes about in the pool but can't escape. The water is rushing him up towards the ceiling. He's going to drown. But with his last breath, he cries out for divine help, and grabs for the keystone above him.
This changes everything. There is more rolling thunder, and the hero is transported, quick as thought, to the middle of a hot desert. His ordeals begin again, and it requires much wandering, on dragging, bloody feet, before he comes to a beautiful garden. He is now at the very heart of the Bath Badgerd, and about to face the greatest of his challenges.
In the midst of the garden is a circle of stone statues. They are very lifelike; each figure looks like a person frozen in the midst of a cry or a violent motion of the upper body. At the center of this circle is a parrot in a cage. Under the unfriendly eye of the parrot there is a golden bow, and a golden arrow chained to the cage.
A voice from above explains the scene. "What you are seeking is here, but you won't live to see it. The stone men are those who tried before you, and became petrified. The treasure of this place is a diamond beyond price that was hidden here by Gayomart, the First Man. In order to claim it, you must kill the parrot. The bow and arow are your weapons. You have three chances to shoot the parrot. If you fail, you will be petrified."
How hard can it be to shoot a parrot at close range? The state of the stone men is not encouraging, but the hero takes up the bow and lets fly. The arrow flies wide, the parrot cackles - and the prince is turned into stone, from his feet to his crotch. He takes extra care with his aim, before shooting the second arrow. He misses again and is turned to stone, up to the base of his heart. Now he remembers how he escaped being drowned in the flood, by invoking a higher power. He shuts his eyes, calls on his God, and fires without calculation. The arrow finds its mark. With a boom of thunder, the parrot vanishes. In its place appears the great jewel of the First Man, the diamond of the greater Self, and the petrified men are released from the spell.
Marie-Louise von Franz found in this old Persian fairy story a parable of "individuation" - the Jungian term for the process by which an individual advances towards the embodiment of his or her true Self . All of the symbols are rich in meaning: the round building, the barber (or hairdresser), the mirror, the fast-rising waters. But let's stay with the demon. Of all the adversaries and obstacles the hero must overcome on his journey to find the jewel beyond price, the most formidable is a parrot in a cage. We can now answer the question, "Why"? Because we can never get to the greater Self by copying other people or by repeating ourselves. The parrot is famous for doing both: for imitating others and for endless repetition. When we fail to kill the demon of imitation and repetition in our lives, we consign ourselves to the petrified human forest.
 Marie-Louise von Franz, “The Process of Individuation” in Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (New York: Doubleday, 1964) and Individuation in Fairy Tales (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).