Death is the fundamental fear of the [psychotherapist]. Actively working as its fundamental metaphor. The contemporary growth cult of optimistic therapies that focus on peaks, freedom, cures, and creativity is a manic defense against psychotherapy’s own ground, an acting-out promulgated as therapy. To be a psychotherapist and work in depth, one must in some way or another cooperate with Hades
– James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld
It is often said by the many that the prostitute was the first profession. I wonder: how closely did the assassin follow it? Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone might be interpreted psychologically as a rape of death—a state of being forced into the underworld, into the realm beneath conscious, everyday life. Some historians note Hades as being unique among the significant Greek gods because he did not have worshippers. He did not desire them. He did not desire any sacrifices. Why should he desire either? His sacrifices were found aplenty in death, and who is a better worshipper to the Lord of Death than he who makes his life devoted to its delivery? To suggest that Hades should have worshippers is to misunderstand the collective Greek psyche. Neither would Eros need its worshippers, because, like death, sex and love was such a common act among the mortal realms, and there were many patrons willing to make their very lives built around those acts. The creation of life and the creation of death are not by mere incidence the oldest professions among mortals. They are as such because they are the fundamental forces beneath all human desires and motives.
The psychopomp, or the guide that leads souls into the underworld, in Greek mythology was shared between Charon and Hermes, the latter of which also playing a large role in dreams and their interpretation for the Greek psyche. This role would later be recalled in Dante’s mythology of the Comedia, where he is lead by the psychopomp Virgil into the underworld to confront the demons there. These underworlds are strange places where the familiarity of the everyday realm is left behind. In most mythologies time, for instance, does not exist in the underworld or progresses extremely slowly compared to the conscious world. Freud was apt to note that the unconscious does not even possess a concept of time from which to work. As was Dante apt to write the warning before entering the underworld: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” When we pass into the underworld the wisest thing to do is to abandon any possible concept of pattern or expectation for where we are about to go, because relying off the wisdom we have learned in the conscious life will most likely only deceive us when we go beneath. Hermes, after all, was the great deceiver.
The archetype of the assassin is an image that has often been ignored despite its extensive and recurring presence in the mythologies and literary works of mortals. A man or woman who for some sort of compensation, be it money, fame, glory, or their own disconnected but nevertheless political reasons, seeks the death of an individual. Broadened, I do not think that in some sense it would be a mistake to call the perpetrator of suicide an assassin, one who kills for peace, for escape from consciousness and into the realm beyond, as long as the suicide is not done out of passion but planned for sake of the aforementioned reasons. We would not call one who kills their wife or husband upon discovering them sleeping with another an assassin. It seems too personal and too passionate to do so. The assassin seems more like one at least somewhat disconnected from their target in emotion. An assassin may very well be one who kills their significant other, but perhaps only permitted it is out of planned, rational or metaphysical reasons. To kill oneself after discovering one’s husband or wife has been unfaithful in the same sense would not be a suicidal assassination, but just a mere suicidal murder. But to plan the murder of oneself in order to descend into the realm beyond this conscious life, that, I’d imagine, a suicidal assassin would make.
To be raped into the underworld is one method of going into that realm, but there are just as many myths of heroes going into the underworld by their own accord. To achieve death by being assassinated, or to achieve it by one’s own assassination? That is the question. The relief one tends to find in death by their own will! A great freedom.
When I was younger I played a video game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For some reason or another the game’s tutorial pegged my playing style as that of an assassin, one out of about two-dozen classes available in the game. It seemed good to me, so I stuck with it. This character was named Ska Varan, and it was the character I would play that game through to completion and beyond for many hours of my life, until one day the character got stuck in a glitch. I had at this point developed a sort of sentimental affection towards the character. He was a cold-blooded Argonian (think lizard people) assassin who was feared by all in the land of Tamriel, undefeated champion and the deadliest bow to ever be known. He was not only the savior of the land who shut the Gates of Oblivion but also the leader of The Dark Brotherhood, the mythical guild of assassins. How sad and angry my fifteen-year-old self was when that fateful part of myself became stuck in digital time. I did eventually restart the game, as a different character and different race, with a different class. But I found myself continually reverting to the play style of an assassin. This held true even as I tried out other classes. A warrior. A mage. An alchemist. A witch-hunter. A crusader. A knight. My psychical drive would always strive to find a way to make that class into some sort of assassin, waiting in the shadows and, whether by spell, sword, or arrow, slay my victims one by one before they ever saw my shadow. Even when I did eventually try to play as an actual assassin class, I could never find the satisfaction I felt playing Ska Varan. No matter what I did I could not attain the perfection I felt I once had through my original character.
My analyst five years later interpreted my obsession with assassins in video games and history as a death wish towards my father. While I don’t disagree, I think there’s a lot more to it. As Hillman says, death is the underlying fear, the very grounding for the therapist. Not mistakenly the therapist has often been compared to the archetype of the psychopomp, the guide from the conscious realm to the unconscious one. Might we think of the assassin as a specific type of psychopomp? Perhaps one dealing particularly with death, confronting the necessity of death required, to some degree, to go into that dark and deep realm. This is a notion shared in some sense by many philosophers. Socrates’ last words, “We owe a cock to Ascelpius” has been interpreted as Socrates personifying death as a type of cure, as the cock was the traditional animal of sacrifice for Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, when one had been cured of an ailment. Perhaps Socrates viewed death not negatively or with fear but as an escape from the tormenting ignorance of life. Socrates was one of the rare souls born with a strong drive towards death, because he seemed to find the realm of the conscious life inferior to that of the unconscious one. This desire on part of Socrates was heavily criticized by Nietzsche, who, perhaps with some level of reason, sought an affirmation of life and will-to-power rather than of death and martyrdom.
Alan Watts, like Socrates, thought death was an important fate to confront while alive,
Everybody should do in their lifetime, sometime, two things. One is to consider death. To observe skulls and skeletons and to wonder what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up— never. That is a most gloomy thing for contemplation. It’s like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death and the acceptance of death is very highly generative of creating life. You’ll get wonderful things out of that.
This very quote, in its entirety, is recorded into the song “Death as a Fetish” by the band Starfucker in their album Reptilians, an album dedicated to confronting death yet with most of its songs toned and composed in a upbeat pop-synth musical style. What I really like about this album is that it kind of acts like a musical psychopomp, unifying the life drive, Eros, with the death drive, Thanatos, into a whimsical session with oneself and one’s own unconscious realms. It’s kind of like having an orgy at a funeral, which is always a great blast.
It’s very appropriate that Watts characterizes the confrontation of death as manure. Manure is a waste produced by the mortal, as is the body left behind after an assassination. Interestingly, the traditional sacrifice towards Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and dreams, was feces and household waste (and I’d like to imagine a spare corpse or two). In our modern world today the common view of dreams is simply that: waste, garbage, nothing of use but the mere discharged neural misfirings in sleep. In a certain sense, this common view might not be so far from the truth when read metaphorically with Watt’s characterization of death as manure in mind.
Sometimes in life we are given the opportunity to willingly delve into the realm of the unconscious. We go to see a psychopomp, we think about death or philosophy, we read literature, we enjoy art, or speak with a wise friend. Other times we are raped into the underworld. We are faced by a tragic death of a loved one, we have powerful dreams, we struggle with a great difficulty that causes us to introspect and look at our lives meaningfully, our video game character—rapt up with our libido—gets stuck in a dimension that we only experience observationally and never directly, nevertheless putting ourselves in a sort of stuck situation psychically.
The assassin, archetypically garbed in dark, shadowy clothing, equipped with a dagger, poison, and bow, or some weapon that kills silently and from a distance, could easily be reduced to a simple sexual image: the elongated and ever-present-but-concealed phallus ejecting its poison into the body of the object-of-hate. And we can also read it as psychopomp. But of course the therapist when being compared to the psychopomp is not to imply that once out of session you remain in the underworld. The therapist merely offers a glimpse into a realm similar to that of the one we find ourselves in the dreaming life during the waking life. A good therapist, like a good philosopher, in some way has us confront death, the inevitable fate of life, if only for a temporary moment in our day. Further more, he or she does this in the spots of our psychical life that we are most hesitant, most fearful of confronting death. The mortician and the gene therapist fear death alike, but in different areas of their psyche. Like a good assassin, the good therapist is apt at finding that weak point and, with steady, patient precision, finding the right time to strike while causing the least collateral damage and with the utmost stealth. To enter the analytic room, to confront the therapist, is, in a certain sense, to commit a temporary suicide, to experience a temporary assassination on part of the analyst. The joke that the word ‘therapist’ can be spaced out to read ‘the rapist’ is not, I think, mere happenstance, but a very meaningful allusion to the rape of Persephone by Hades, Lord of Death and his many stealthy harbingers.