Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Review of The Irish Bull God by Sylvia Brinton Perera

The Irish Bull God: Image of Multiform and Integral Masculinity
Sylvia Brinton Perera, Inner City Books, Toronto, 2004, 155 pages
ISBN 1-894574-08-7

Review by Stephen Morrissey

The Irish Bull God is Sylvia Brinton Perera’s most recent book exploring Irish mythology. Perera is a pre-eminent Jungian thinker on this subject. In a previous book, on Queen Maeve, and now in this book, on the Dagda, she has helped bring attention to the relationship of ancient Irish mythological figures to our contemporary society. While her work on the Celtic Queen Maeve dealt with the problem of addiction, The Irish Bull God deals with defining a more balanced, whole, and sophisticated concept of the masculine.
     Perera’s book evolves from a period of her life in which she dealt with personal crisis, “the deaths of my brother, father, former analyst, and life partner.” At a less personal level, and as a resident of New York City, Perera also struggled with the “massacres of 9/11”. What helped her during this period of her life was the image of the Dagda, a male figure from ancient Irish mythology. Perera writes from her “personal sense of loss as well as my Western culture’s dishonoring and dismemberment of much that the Dagda represents.” This book, then, is Perera’s endeavour to restore the Dagda, or “the Good God”, the “Great Father”, the “Father of All”, and what he represents as an archetypal masculine figure, to public awareness.
     It is too complicated to recount the many stories that make up the legend of the Dagda, but the general theme has to do with his exuberant appetite for food, sexuality, and life. The Dagda is the High King of the Tuatha de Dannan, the fairy folk and supernatural beings who inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. His famous harp is made of oak, a magical tree for the Celts, that when played puts the seasons in their proper order. He is a figure of immense power who has a magic club with which he is able to kill nine men with a single blow, as well as return them to life if he desires. His cauldron is capable of feeding innumerable numbers of people. He is a protector of his tribe and his family, a father figure, but a figure who is large enough, and comfortable enough in his masculinity, that he is able to embrace equally the feminine. Placed in the context of contemporary American society, it is no wonder Perera finds solace in the Dagda; America has been attacked by terrorists from outside of the country and the masculine archetype is being redefined, and not necessarily for the better, by people inside the country. Placed in the context of her personal life, Perera has suffered the loss of the male presence that was so important for her. The urgency of her message is that we need a renewed image of the masculine and to this end she suggests that the Dagda provides such an image.
     For Jungians, one of the central qualities of the Dagda is that he unifies opposites. Perera writes,

[The Dagda] embodies a primal wholeness that vividly encompasses some of the mutually dependent polarities that humans are consciously struggling with today: life and death, nurturance and war, containment and rejection, creativity and destruction, ugliness and beauty, chaos and order, wisdom and ineptitude, male and female, receptivity and aggression, grief and comedy, refined sensitivity and lusty coarseness, ruling and submitting, abundance and deprivation spiritual enlightenment and chthonic power. (143)
     Perhaps the Dagda is a kind of ideal archetypal figure. He is neither a puer
aeternus nor a Senex in his archetypal role. In some ways he is a trickster, but if he is a
trickster then it is the kind of amorality suggested by the trickster who ends up revealing
a deeper message or lesson for the one on whom the trick was played. The Dagda’s
lesson is one that unifies opposites and suggests a subtlety to our awareness of truth.
Honour is the Dagda’s morality, and maintaining his honour in the collective
consciousness is important to him. But he is not solely an avatar of power and
destruction; he can restore life to those he has defeated, and he does this. This dual role of
masculine energy, creative and protective, is missing in geo-political conflict today.
     The Dagda is, of course, an idealized representation of the masculine archetype. If
one accepts archetypes as a template or pattern for the unfolding and realization of the
dynamics of life—something basic, essential, and preconscious—then the Dagda
provides a very powerful and authoritative ideal of the masculine. The Dagda’s authority
is not restricted to the mundane but encompasses the cosmic. Perera writes, “The Dagda
is master of all the arts that made up druid lore—the technical and magical control of
natural forces, music, poetic incantations, healing and prophecy.” (126)
     Perera assumes in her book that the reader has some familiarity with Irish
mythology. Of course, this is not usually the case, and perhaps Perera could have given
more back ground information on the Dagda. Some readers will have to do additional
research to get the full meaning of Perera’s book; however, this research is well worth the
time it takes. An objection to the book might be that the Dagda is really an old fashioned
father figure, albeit an ideal one. I don’t think this is the case at all; Perera writes,

The grandeur of the Dagda offers us a perspective to refocus and enlarge our sense of what masculinity could be. We can see that his attunement with relational, flowing process has a very different quality than it holds in patrifocal models. (141)
     In mythological figures such as the Dagda we find a life affirming and dynamic
vision of what it means to be truly masculine. It is through Perera’s work—by returning
the Dagda to consciousness—that she restores the masculine to its archetypal definition,
one that contains opposites, nurtures, protects, creates, and recognizes without fear an
equal partnership with women.
                                                                          St. Patrick’s Day, 2004


Published: The Newsletter of the C.G. Jung Society of Montreal, 2004

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