Impotent Rage & the Myth of Attis

Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

Death of Attis

The Death of Attis - Glanum, St. Rémy, France

An earlier version of this article was published in the Men’s Journal, Summer 1986 and reprinted in Yevrah Ornstein, editor, From the Hearts of Men (Woodacre, CA: Harmonia Press, 1991).

A number of years ago, in an undergraduate class on Hellenistic religion, I encountered the strange story of Attis.  This complex myth, brought from Asia Minor to ancient Rome, exists in several differing, and rather bewildering versions.  To simplify it somewhat, Attis was a young man with whom the Great Mother goddess, Cybele, was in love.  Ignoring Cybele’s passion for him, Attis attempted to marry a mortal woman.  Enraged by the snub, Cybele disrupted the wedding, driving Attis into a mad frenzy in which he castrated himself.  His intended bride was killed by Cybele, and Attis bled to death from his castration.  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attis for more details.)

While most of my classmates regarded this tale as another bizarre example of ancient mythology, I was fascinated, although not quite sure why.  Only later did I realize that the myth of Attis represents a kind of impotent male rage that I knew all too well from first hand experience.  I have also come to realize that this kind of blind, destructive rage is involved in many instances of domestic violence.

From early in my life, I had periodic outbursts of uncontrollable anger that seemed to come from someplace outside myself.  In a sort of possession state, I would feel as if something that was not me had taken control.  Fortunately I never did serious damage during these outbursts, but they would leave me, and anyone who happened to be in the vicinity, shaken and wondering what had happened.

The outbursts continued into adulthood.  After my marriage my wife was often the object of my rage.  While I normally felt a great deal of love for her, when in one of these states I was aware only of hatred.  I several times came close to physically attacking her.  Neither she nor I had any idea where this terrible thing came from or what could be done about it.  I only knew that I seemed to be incapable of controlling it, and was very ashamed of my inability to do so.  If a man was supposed to always be in control of himself, I clearly was failing to live up to expectations.

In my late twenties I began psychotherapy.  While I didn't go into therapy with the conscious intention of dealing with my angry outbursts, they did, of course, come up despite my resistance to talking about them.  With my therapist’s support I began to explore what I experienced as a shameful aspect of myself.  After much careful and painful examination of these seeming possession states, I came to realize that they were triggered by something, often a critical remark by my wife, that I construed to be some sort of attack on my competency as a man.  I would desperately try to defend my image of myself relative to the masculine ideal that I unconsciously believed I should match, denying what I took to be feminine (because it was not part of my idealized masculine image) weakness.  But since my wife’s critical observations were generally pretty accurate, refuting them was difficult.  Despite my struggle to stay in control of the situation, my sense of powerlessness, and panic, only increased, further threatening the illusion of myself as a strong, competent male, making my attempts to defend that self-image all the more frantic.  Unable to either win or give up my defense, I would suddenly find “something else” in control, completely unmanning me.

According to my wife, I would behave “like a hysterical woman” during these episodes.  This of course did nothing to booster the masculine self image I was striving to maintain.  My refusal to admit the existence of “feminine weakness” in myself paradoxically made me into the embodiment of the very traits I was trying my best to deny.  Attis was driven to castrate himself; I was rendered impotent to control anything, especially myself.

My therapist, who had a Jungian orientation, introduced me to the idea of the “anima,” the feminine element within a man’s psyche.  Jung’s ideas about masculine and feminine have been challenged as sexist and have been modified as ideas about gender have become less rigid.  But I continue to find Jung’s idea that traits associated with the opposite sex tend to be unconscious within an individual’s psyche useful in both my personal experience and my professional work as psychotherapist.  Just as with any aspect of one’s self which remains unconscious, when a man refuses to acknowledge his feminine side, it is apt to act as if it were an autonomous entity, taking control of him against his will.  The anima-possessed man, according to Jung, behaves like a “second rate woman,” unconsciously acting out the negative characteristics he associates with the feminine from which he seeks to distance himself.  So I acted the part of a stereotypical “hysterical woman.”  It is interesting to note that the priests of Cybele, who followed Attis’ example of self-castration and dressed as women, were called “counterfeit women.”

In exploring the background for my rage, I realized that the idealized image I had been trying to emulate had little correspondence with who I actually was.  My masculine ideal was formed around a childhood image of the rugged frontiersman who was equal to any task, always knew what to do and did it without letting his feelings show.  There was no room for “womanly weakness” in such a heroic figure.  But I do have many personality traits, which I have come to recognize are actually strengths, that are traditionally thought of as feminine.  If I was going to be Davy Crockett (my childhood hero), I certainly couldn’t put up with such “shortcoming” in my masculine persona.  In the service of an unrealistic masculine ideal, I tried to deny who I was, only to be reminded of my real identity in a most forceful and unwelcome way.

As I learned to more consciously acknowledge my other, feminine, side, the “anima attacks” became less frequent, eventually virtually disappearing.  When I stopped attacking my inner woman as it were, she stopped attacking me.  We became partners instead of opponents.  Giving up my need to live up to an idealized and unrealistic male image, I actually became more of a real man, in contrast to the illusionary ideal I had been trying to preserve against all evidence to the contrary.  I was better able to use both my masculine and feminine sides without being overpowered by either.

Conscious recognition of the feminine is not the same thing as unthinking surrender (as men so often seem to fear) to the power it represents.  Attis’ mistake was not one of refusing Cybele’s demands; it was rather a failure to consciously deal with them.  The myth seems to indicate that he didn’t say “no.”  He just tried to ignore her, with tragic results.  If one is to truly become a man, free from unconscious control by the anima, he must make an active decision to face and deal with the demands made on him by the feminine, especially those of the Mother, in both her personal (in the form of his actual mother) and archetypal forms.  

All boys first encounter the feminine via their mothers.  Attis’ father was unknown to him.  This is often the case in myths of the hero (Attis is a type of failed hero).   Men tend to form their identity as men more in relation to their mothers than their fathers.  In order for a boy to identify himself as male, he must first realize that there are some radical differences between himself and his mother.  At the same time, it is often his mother who tells him in so many ways spoken and unspoken what he must do to be her “little man.”

In order to be a “real man” then, a boy must somehow form an identity for himself as someone distinctly different from his mother while at the same time winning her approval by living up to her image of the ideal male, something his father, being only human, may well have failed to do.  A mother overly involved with her son may elevate him to a sort of semi-divine status, a danger reflected in myths of the divine son-lover (such as Attis) who never achieves full manhood.  Caught between the need to be differentiate themselves from mother while also needing her approval, it is no wonder so many men are confused about their relation to the feminine, both within their own psyches and as represented by the women in their lives.  

In the Grimm's tale of “Iron Hans” (see my "From Wildman to King") a little boy frees a caged wild man with a key that had been placed for safe keeping under his mother’s pillow.  As the fairy tale indicates, the key to unlocking primal male energy often comes through some sort of transgression of the mother’s authority.

It was very important for me to be a “good boy” for my mother.  I was told that I should “be like Jesus” (another divine son-lover figure), an impossible ideal if there ever was one.  I thought I had escaped this demand when I married someone from a very different religious background with whom I could and did do things my mother’s “good boy” would never do.  But at times I still heard my mother’s disapproving voice, often mistakenly thinking it came from my wife.

I discovered that I had never consciously faced and dealt with my mother’s expectations of me.  I tried to ignore them as Attis tried to ignore Cybele.  But, again like Attis, I found myself overwhelmed and reduced to impotence, helpless before the power of the unacknowledged mother whose voice I continued to hear.

Cybele was the Great Mother goddess, an archetypal, non-human entity.  We often make our mothers into goddesses (and goddesses are not always benevolent beings!), giving them an importance and power which does not belong to the human beings they really are.  If we are to reclaim the power we have thus given away, we must see through the image of the Great Mother, in both her nurturing and devouring aspects, that we have projected onto our mothers as well as other women in our lives.  It is impossible for a mere mortal man to have a sense of his own power if he is in a relationship with a goddess.

As I struggled with my mother issues, much to my surprise I discovered that she was actually quite different from the image I had formed of her.  She really did not demand that I remain forever under her power, threatening to withhold her love if I do not do so.  She was simply another human being, with good and bad points like all other human beings. 

I must admit that I still do not always see it this way, but these days I manage to more often see through my projections than I used to.  In the early days of my marriage, I often projected the critical maternal voice, the trigger for my rages, onto my wife.  But I also hear that voice less often.  Anger I may feel towards her now tends to be more clearly related to what is actually happening between us than with what I used to imagine was happening.  As I withdraw my image of the archetypal mother from my real mother, I also withdraw my anima projections from other women in my life.  My relationship with my wife, a relation Attis was unable to establish, is more real.  In taking back the power I had given up in an unequal relationship with the archetypal Great Mother, I am able to have a fulfilling relationship as a real man with a real woman who is my equal.


© 2008 James Moyers  May be reproduced with source credited.

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More about the male psyche: From Wild Man to King: Another Look At Male Myth and Initiation