Snakes, Circles and Selves: Toward an Alchemy of Dramatherapy by Robert Landy
This year I attended my first Dramatherapy Conference organised by the British Association of Dramatherapists.
The 2018 theme was “Moving, progressing and coming back to self” and used the ancient Egyptian symbol of The Ouroboros – the serpent eating itself – to explore this.
The Key Note ‘Snakes, Circles and Selves: Toward an Alchemy of Dramatherapy’ was by Dr Robert Landy.
Beginning with two personal stories about going around in circles, Robert went on to explore the symbolism and significance of the circle, to the alchemists, to ancient civilisations, to Carl Jung and to himself.
During the talk, we were invited to draw a snake, draw a circle, draw a self, draw alchemy and draw dramatherapy. The talk explored further image and written definitions. The images included many created by Robert Landy, some by Jung and many from ancient alchemy sources.
Alchemy, in Egyptian was kēme, which means “black earth”. It relates to creation, transformation and the bringing together of opposites;
“alchemy is about integration, about two principles finding a connection. And you see the integrating part is a snake like, serpent like creature that holds together the male and the female.” (Landy, 2018)
Robert related this alchemical goal to his own role theory
“So in role theory, a healthy personality is defined as one who is able to live among their contradictory parts, the contradictory roles, between role and counter role, mediated by guides. In role theory that is the definition of a healthy personality.”(Landy, 2018)
Exploring guides further he looked at how Hermes and Mercury fulfil this role within mythology as they take messages between the gods and people. Art shows Hermes holding together the sun and moon “Another goal, very similar goal, again holding together the two principles, sun and moon is wholeness. The integration of opposites, the holding together of opposites which is the ultimate transformation”, and Mercury holding the Caduceus symbol with the intertwined snakes – a symbol still associated with medicine and healing.
Quoting from The Red Book by Carl Jung, Robert explored this goal of integration through the story called the Mysterium Encounter where Jung dreams he meets the prophet Elijah and Salome:
Jung: On the night when I encountered the essence of God, I became aware of an image. I lay in a dark depth. An old man stood before me.
A black serpent lay at his feet.
Some distance away a saw a house with columns.
A beautiful maiden steps out of the door. I see that she is blind.
The old man waves to me and I follow him to the house. The serpent creeps behind us.
Darkness reigns inside the house. A bright stone lies in the background. As I look into its reflection, the images of Eve, the tree, and the serpent appear to me.
After this I catch the sight of Odysseus and his journey on the high seas.
Suddenly a door opens onto a garden full of bright sunshine.
We step outside and the old man says to me.
Elijah “Do you know where you are?”
Jung: I am a stranger here and everything seems strange to me. “Who are you?”
Elijah: “I am Elijah and this is my daughter, Salome.”
Jung: “The daughter of Herod, the bloodthirsty woman?”
Elijah: “Why do you judge so? You see that she is blind. My wisdom and my daughter are one. Her blindness and my sight have made us companions through eternity”
Salome: “Do you love me?”
Jung: “How can I love you? Your hands are stained with the blood of the Holy one. I dread you, you beast.”
Salome: “You do me wrong. Elijah is my father and he knows the deepest mysteries. What wouldn’t you give for a single look into the infinite unfolding of what is to come?”
Jung: “Your temptation is devilish. You Elijah, who are a prophet and she the bloodthirsty horror. You are the symbol of the most extreme contradiction.”
Doubt tears me apart. Fear seizes me. I rush out. I am surrounded by the Black night. I do not love Salome. I fear her. Then the spirit of the depths spoke to me and said:
Spirit: “Therein you acknowledge her divine power.”
Jung: Apart from Elijah and Salome, I found the serpent as a third principle. The serpent taught me the unconditional difference between the two principles in me. The way of life writhes like the serpent, from thinking to pleasure, and from pleasure to thinking. Thus the serpent is a wise bridge. May the thinking person accept his pleasure and the feeling person accept his own thought. They are each other’s poison and healing.
For Jung, Elijah and Salome are opposites – the wise and just holy man and the self-centred and cruel sinful woman. Can Jung love them both?
The ouroboros represents these opposites:
‘The dragon is probably the oldest pictorial symbol in alchemy… It appears as the ouroboros, the tail-eater. Time and again the alchemists reiterate that it is a sort of circle like a dragon biting its own tail… He is metallic yet liquid, matter yet spirit, cold yet fiery, poison and yet a healing draught – a symbol uniting all the opposites.’ CG. Jung.
For the alchemists, failure to integrate these opposites would result in terrors depicted as destruction, torment and death. What would this lack of integration look like in modern terms? A lack of self awareness? Arrogance? Overidentifying as a victim? Lack of work life balance? Mental ill health?
Robert went on to explore his own recent fascination with circles and his depictions of them in photography and art. A Jungian analyst friend has suggested to him that he makes circles because he is trying to find the centre and wholeness in his life and trying to hold the broken pieces of his life together.
What about us? Can we find a way to love the worst parts of ourselves as well as the best? Can we accept and integrate both as part of us? The dark and the light? The creative and the self destructive? The murderous thoughts as well as the profound ones?
Robert closed by inviting us to personalise and integrate the learning for ourselves:
Close your eyes and reach out for a circle. Hold it gently and bring it in to your body.
Reach out for a snake. Hold it gently and bring it in to your body.
Reach out for a self. Hold it gently and bring it in to your body.
Please open your eyes. Make a circle in the room. See the others as part of the whole and see the opening in the circle and see yourself standing and looking. And see, for a moment, that which is unseen. (Landy, 2018)
The full talk (including the Puppet presentation before the talk) can be watched here: