Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

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These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

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Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

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As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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