I was blessed to join the Shift Network Men’s Initiation Redesign team in January. The Shift Network Men’s Initiation offers an extraordinary experience for men to step up to their next level of authenticity, integrity and power so they can make a positive difference in the world.
Our task was to take the feedback of the December 2011 five day men’s initiation, of which I was a participant, and to bring an even better experience of personal transformation to the February 2012 event.
I was the Applied Mythologist of the redesign group and also the Storyteller for the 5 day February initiation. My job was to leverage the power of story to frame, contain, and bridge the many individual processes of the 5 day experience. We faced a formidable task, as our participants would come from all over the world and be a mixed group ranging from very experienced leaders of men’s trainings to men who were brand new to such work. It was decided that the focus of the February Initiation would be to quicken the Lover archetype in men, so the tale needed to contain the following elements:
- Connection and disconnection
- Loss and grief
- Coping mechanisms used to avoid feeling grief, such as surface anger and addictions
- Emotional vulnerability and ego armoring
Core components of the Shift Initiation include processes for anger and grief work, gender reconciliation, and opportunities for creating vision statements and missions of service in the world.
The previous Shift Initiation had no story or mythic arc present. My first step was to identify possible tales that might be a good frame for the existing processes. After some conversations with my co-conspirators, Bill Kauth and David Kaar, plus a fair amount of research, I narrowed it down to these five stories:
1. The One-Handed Girl, a Swahili variant of the Armless Maiden tale of Russian, German, Italian, and French origin, in which a brother chops off the hand of his sister and repeatedly harms her - a brutal but poignant metaphor of the effect of the patriarchy on women and on the inner feminine aspect of men. A man who emotionally armors himself is capable of much cruelty, and this story promises to show what is needed for him to regain the kind and gentle aspects of the sister within. The Jungian analyst Robert Johnson examines a variant of this tale in his book The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden.
2. One Thousand and One Nights, an Arabian collection of tales revolving around a frame tale featuring a broken-hearted tyrant who kills one bride after another to avoid falling in love again. His new wife Scheherazade woos him with story after story to stay alive long enough for him to soften his heart and fall in love with her, making him safe for the world once again. This is exactly the kind of transformation we need.
3. The Maiden Tsar, a Russian folktale explored by men’s work pioneer Robert Bly along with Marion Woodman in their book The Maiden King. In the tale, a boy encounters a strong, integrated feminine presence while out fishing and is betrothed to her. She retreats from him when he falls asleep in the face of her love and he must go on a quest to find her again, encountering the fierce crone Baba Yaga and the mythical Firebird along the way. This tale features a betrayal by both the boy’s mentor and his stepmother. Rather than a traditional heroic conquest, it requires the more yin virtue of surrender and in the end, the hero is actually rescued by the feminine. Very new paradigm. Intriguing…
4. A genre of tales including East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon / Valemon, the White Bear King aka The Polar Bear King (Norwegian tales) / Psyche and Eros (of Roman origin with Greek Gods as characters).
Similar motifs all include a girl who falls for either a bear or a spirit and then, against orders, tries to see him when he visits her in man-form at night. Consequently, he leaves her just before the spell is broken and he is freed. She must go on a quest to find her beloved again and encounters trials. The Norwegian tales involve a Baba Yaga character who bestows gifts, while the Roman version features Venus/Aphrodite as the antagonist and a series of tasks for the heroine to perform. These tales would work better if we were to adapt them with a male protagonist in search of his lost beloved…a very significant adaption. Bly has done some work with the Valemon tale as well.
5. Sleeping Beauty, although commonly known, is intriguing if we approach it from the King and Prince’s viewpoint. The King seeks to protect his daughter and the Prince either stumbles upon her sleeping form or else seeks her out. There are many lesser known variants with opportunities for process work. If we are seeking our sleeping yin Lover to help us love more fully in the world, then this tale holds some promise. In most of the older versions, the Prince rapes the sleeping girl and she gives birth and is awakened by one of her twins, who suckles her finger and pulls out the cursed flax, breaking the spell. Grim stuff. In our hunger for the feminine, men often resort to actions of violation…from destroying the earth to hurting our loved ones. Despite these shortcomings, the promise is that we can still reconcile with our Beloved and marry her, as in the tale.
So which tale did we choose for our February Shift Men’s Initiation?