Review of Sylvia Brinton Perera's Queen Maeve and Her
Lovers: A Celtic Archetype of Ecstasy, Addiction, and
Healing. Carrowmare Books, New York, 1999, 490 pages.
By Stephen Morrissey
Before reading Sylvia Brinton Perera's Queen Maeve and Her Lovers, I thought religiosity in my family was mainly found in three prominent and well known priests who were part of my Montreal-Irish family. My great-great-uncle, Father Martin Callaghan, was the first Montreal-born pastor of St. Patrick's Basilica, serving there from 1875 to 1908. His younger brother, Father Luke Callaghan, was the pastor at St. Michael's Church, which was built in the Byzantine style, after Hagia Sophia. Father Luke was largely responsible for raising the funding and overseeing the construction of this church. Their other brother, Father James Callaghan, served at several Montreal churches as well as being the pastor at Hotel Dieu Hospital and The Royal Victoria Hospital. All three of these priests came from a humble immigrant background, were educated at the College de Montreal, and served the community with distinction. Surely they are the kind of men who are models for the spiritual life. But there was also a darker side to my family tree, including some relatives who were alcoholics.
With this background I found Sylvia Brinton Perera's Queen Maeve and her Lovers insightful and provocative. In this book, Perera's thesis is "that modern addictions represent debased forms of ancient rituals." Of course, she is not the first writer to make the connection between alcoholism and a Dionysian-like spirituality. C.G. Jung was influential in helping the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous formulate a spiritual approach to addiction. In a letter to Bill Wilson, AA's co-founder, Jung pointed out that "alcohol in Latin is spiritus, the same word [used] for the highest religious experience." For Perera, addiction is a corrupted manifestation of the old divine energy that was, in its original form, ecstatic and life-affirming. But we have little place for the old gods, such as Queen Maeve, whom Perera refers to as "one of the grandest figures in Celtic lore." Maeve represents the life-energy, the multiplicity and abundance of life, the sacred force lying behind growth, fertility, and abundance.
It is not possible to return to the ancient gods, even if we wanted to. Maeve represents, for Perera, the psychological and spiritual need for wholeness and oneness with the divine, or with what Jung called the Self. For some people, this is a part of the process of individuation. Addiction, in its many forms, is only a shadow of a spiritual experience. Intoxication in itself is not a spiritual experience, it is merely being intoxicated. Within the context of Celtic society, Queen Maeve and other Celtic deities and the myths about them, provided a very deep sense of spirituality that permeated every aspect of Irish life. Perera writes,
The spirits of the dead revisited the homes of the living after dark and on the festivals marking the open cracks in the agricultural year, especially at Samhain and Beltane when the new winter and summer cycles beganŠcaves, mounds, trees and water [were] places where the veil between this world and the next [were] felt to be easily permeable.
This expression of numinosity in daily Irish life was eventually lost. Perera writes, "As the old ways trickled down through the millennia, they became secularized: rites became revels, gods became 'little people', and sacred wine became intoxicating booze. A similar fate happens to the old gods in each of us."
Perera describes the archetype of Queen Maeve, how Maeve provided a way to experience religious ecstasy that had a socially acceptable place in society. This was a part of the process of individuation for certain people at that time. Perera describes the Tara tests that were administered by the druids to the high king, and some of the points raised by this test are still of value to us today. Perera tells us "they describe what happens to confirm us when we are on our destined path." Although in today's society, we aren't high kings and we aren't druids, the tests are and can still be of value to us. Four points are made: We might ask ourselves if we are "traveling towards a goal that the Self supports?" Is there "a fit between the purposes of ego and Self or destiny?" Can we identify a "primeval unity" existing behind apparent opposites, a kind of yin and yang of daily life? The final test is whether one has entered a stage of authority in one's life. If one has, then "it conveys the deep sense of entitlement and charisma that others intuit and cooperate to support."
So far, I have dealt with Perera's description of the positive experience suggested by a belief in Queen Maeve and I have only touched on the negative consequences. Many people who know intoxication do not experience individuation. The book' discussion and description of the psychology of addiction is disturbing. Perera, who is a New York-trained Jungian psychoanalyst, has worked with many addicts and has an intimate knowledge of the psychology of addiction. Anyone wanting to know more about addiction, the behaviour and psychology of addicts, whether it is to alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling, should read what Perera has to say. However, this is distressing material, as Perera describes manipulative behaviour and a psychology that is probably beyond the ability to be dealt with by anyone but a specialist.
This is an over-long book that would have been well served by the work of an editor. Perhaps there are two shorter books here, one on Queen Maeve as a Celtic archetype with some importance for people today; and a second book on addiction. The book grew out of Perera's insight that "the archetypal form patterns supporting the myths still resonate in deep and embodied layers of the human psyche and affect our modern response." With this in mind we see expressions of spirituality, whether truncated by addiction or in those who have done the work of individuation, all around us. This book helps us to understand more deeply this important aspect of life today; as well as what our ancestors might have experienced; and of the life of some of those we love, who struggle with addiction.
Published: The C.G. Jung Society of Montreal Newsletter, August 2002.