Three husbands (two abusive) and the eagle-boy

Max McDowell, a Jungian analyst, is  past-president of the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York. He has been in private practice in New York City for the past 30 years. Here he analyzes an Inuit story to demonstrate Jung’s approach to psychology.

Method of interpretation

Jung proved that legends, fairytales and all religions employ symbols which have psychological meaning. These symbols show how consciousness may evolve, an evolution which needs guidance but is too subtle to be depicted directly or explicitly; Jung showed that we discover this evolution through living, that we are guided by symbols which are necessarily mysterious.

Building upon the methods of Jung and von Franz, I interpret such stories by staying close to the details of each image and by looking for repetitions. When several different images in the same story suggest the same psychological point, then my interpretation is internally supported; the text functions like a Rosetta stone, the meaning of which can be determined because the same idea is expressed in three different languages.

I am also guided, as was Jung, by my knowledge of psychology. An interpretation succeeds when it accurately depicts changes that I see with patients and helps me to better understand what I see. An interpretation requires an “aha” moment, like the moment when a patient affirms a dream interpretation with a body reaction, a blush, or tears, or a sudden relaxation or exhalation.

The Eagle-Boy, interpreted

There was a man of very bad temper. All the time he beat his wife. When he was coming back from sea-hunting, he would call aloud,
“There, come out! Shake the snow off my clothes!” If she did not jump out in time and meet him halfway down, he would threaten her,
“Oh, I will kill you!”

 Two hooded men abducting a struggling woman.Jungian therapy

They carried her off.
Goya: Etching and aquatint, 1797-98.

At last one day his wife resolved to flee. She took a bucket full of water and set it before herself. Into that bucket she put a small package of meat. The bucket turned into a sea; and the package of meat, into a boat. She put her little infant on her back, boarded the boat, and set off.

The tale begins with a husband who abused his wife. The principle of yang was out of balance and therefore destructive; yang was not relating to yin but was oppressing it and devaluing it. The tale, therefore, is likely to be about the rebalancing of yang and yin so that they can function constructively.

The wife created the sea from a bucket of water and a boat from a piece of meat which means that her flight was symbolic, about inner, psychological development rather than actions she might have taken in the outer world. Because she practiced magic and created an inner world, this woman was a shaman; with the help of spirits she overcame two abusive husbands.

.This has to be understood on two levels at the same time: it is both about an outer-world fight that happens between several men and a woman, and about an internal fight, within a women, with inner manifestations of yang. To the extent that yang is unconscious, it tends to be uncultivated and destructive. The wife – who represents yin – left her husband but brought her baby boy, suggesting that yang was beginning to renew itself.

A current caught her and carried her toward the shore. She came ashore, and saw a large house. She stood before the entrance irresolute. In the house lived a man with his daughter. He was a widower, and had no wife. Then he said to his daughter,
“Go and see what woman is standing there!” She went out, and said to the stranger,
“My father bids you enter.” She entered, and they had a meal. The host said,
“Let us sleep!” They lay down. His penis was a fathom long. In the night-time it moved, and struck her little child. The child cried.
“Oh, the child is crying! I had better go out.”
“No, come back!” He wanted to copulate with her, but she stayed throughout the night in the outer house.

The next morning he went hunting. Before leaving he said to the woman,
“You may look at everything here; but in that corner there lies a white thing you must not look at. It is evil.”
“All right!” But as soon as he was gone, she thought,
“Why did he forbid me to look at that white thing?” She looked at it. It was a woman’s corpse, torn and lacerated by a large penis.

medieval rape.jungian therapy

Rape of Philomela by Tereus. 
Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Oh, she fled, frightened! Soon he came home and gave pursuit. She took along her water-bucket and the package of meat. She put the bucket down. It turned into a lake. Then she threw down a tuft of her own hair, and it turned into high woods along the lake-shore. She climbed a tree and waited for her pursuer. After a while he came, all the time following her fresh tracks. Thus it happened that he saw her face in the water. She was sitting above, in the tree.

medieval woman in tree.jungian psychoanalysis

Somme rurale de Jean Boutiller (detail).
Loyset Liedet, French, 1471.

   “Oh, you are there!” She nodded on her tree. The woman in the water nodded also. He could not understand his mistake.
“Oh, I will catch you yet! Let me plunge down!” He plunged down, and struck his head against the bottom. It was hard wood, being the bucket. He came up to the surface, and stepped out of the water. Then he looked down again. The face was still there.

 “Oh, I could not reach you!” She shook her head.
“Ah, indeed! But I will try once more, and this time I will tie a stone around my neck so as to have more weight.” He plunged down with a stone around his neck, and was nearly drowned. In the end he came ashore, and again he saw the face in the water.
“Ah, indeed! I could not reach you by any means whatever.” She shook her head.
“Oh, you beloved one!” Then she laughed aloud. He raised his head, and saw her on the tree.
“Aha, you are here!” He tried to chop down the tree with his penis, and in a short time cut it down; but the woman jumped over to another tree. The tree, in falling, hit the assailant, and he was killed.

The story concentrates fiercely upon the interaction between several men and the woman. This is because intimate relationships demand growth; it is through interaction that manifestations of yin and yang transform each other.

The woman met another aspect of yang, this one more linked to the feminine (he lived with his daughter) but rapacious. This aspect was expressed in sexual abuse which means that, unbalanced, it would crush relationship. The woman fled but then asserted herself by climbing into a tree, that is, into her own unfolding development.

Man and woman struggled to see each other as they fought. The man forbad her to see how he injured women but she did see. The man sought her in her reflection, that is, in his view of her beauty; and in the water, that is, in his feelings about her. His head (his viewpoint) was shaken and he was nearly drowned, that is, transformed by feeling. He chopped down her tree (her development) with his penis but the tree was so weighty that it killed him (transformed him).

Their encounter shows both yang’s rapaciousness and that it may be transformed. Yin is play and indirection. Yang’s aggression caused its own defeat. In the end it was the tree, another manifestation of nature or yin, which transformed yang.

The woman put her package upon the lake, and it turned again into a boat. She boarded the boat, and set off downstream. After a while she came to the shore, and saw another house; but she was afraid to enter there. In the house there lived a man with five daughters. He said to his daughters,
“Go and look at that woman and at her child. If it is a girl, drive her away; but if it is a boy, let her enter.”


tundra tent females.jungian psychoanalysis

Three Inuit in front of a tent: Left to right- Utak Enookoolook, Uttuqak (Utak’s mother) and Zipporah. Low Point, Inuktitut Natlua about 50 to 60 miles from Pond Inlet at the Navy Board Inlet.

One of the daughters came out, and said to the woman,
“The old man says, if your child is a little girl, then you must go away; but if it is a little boy, then you may enter.”
“Oh, I will not enter! You seem to be evil-minded. Indeed, my child is a boy; but I will not enter.” The girl went back without success.
“She refuses to come!”
“Oh, you are too awkward! — Go you, now, and call her.” He sent another daughter; and she said,
“The old man says if your little child is a boy, you may enter.”
“Oh, I will not enter!”

Finally the last daughter came out.
“The old man sent me to take your boy into the house.” She snatched the child away from her, and carried it in.
“Oh,” said the mother, “they have taken it by force! Now I must follow.” She entered, following the girl.

The next husband was better related to the feminine, perhaps because he had evolved through raising five daughters, apparently without the help of a wife! The woman feared him too but she was brought in by the initiative of a daughter – again yin had the power.

Her baby had to be a boy because this story is about the evolution of yang. The old man already had five daughters; his purpose was to educate a new dimension of yang.

A tall lad was sitting in the sleeping-room opposite the entrance.
“Where is my child?”
“This is your child!” The old man stretched the child’s arms and legs by pulling them, and made him a grown-up man.
“Oh, you are deceiving me! This is not my child. My child is quite small.”
“Indeed, it is your child. You may recognize him by a scar on his neck, caused by that penis.” Then she recognized him.

The next day the child went hunting, and killed a mouse. His new father was much pleased. The day after that he killed a hare. Then he killed polar foxes and wolves, and in due time even reindeer.

The story shows that the man understood sexual abuse and that he helped the boy to grow. The boy pleased him by hunting; this means that the boy was becoming conscious of yang’s killing potential and was learning to use it constructively.

The eagle dress of his new father was hanging outside of the house, on a horizontal pole. It was crying with the voice of an eagle. The boy tried to put it on, but could not do it. The dress was so heavy, he fell down under its weight. The Eagle-Sisters laughed at his awkwardness. In the evening their father asked him,
“How did you try to put on this dress? I presume you put your hands into the wings, and your feet into the feet?”
“Yes, I did so.”
“That was wrong. You should put your hands and feet together into the eagle’s feet, and let the wings hang loose.”

child.headdress.jungian psychoanalysis

Little Crow.


He did so, and the dress proved to be quite light. He put it on, and walked in the manner in which birds walk. Then he flapped the eagle-wings and flew up.

The man showed the boy a new dimension of yang, a bird, which represents far-sightedness, images, ideas, and the mind. He taught the boy how to use this aspect, just as baby birds are taught to fly. This shows that cultivated yang is transmitted culturally from father to son (or by either parent to children of both sexes).

The spiritual aspect of yang flew above all others and was at the top of the food-chain: it dominated the less-evolved aspects of yang.

He saw under himself a big mammoth (literally, a “master of mammoth’s bone”). He was as large as a house. His feet sank into the ground. He caught him, but could not lift him into the air. The mammoth was too heavy. So the mammoth fell down, and was sinking into the ground. He sank down to the shoulders, but the young man was still unable to free his talons. Then he called on the eagle-sisters for help. They came, and aided him to lift the mammoth again, and carried him to their father. The father was pleased.

“Oh, oh!” he said, “you are strong. At your time of life I could not do that much.”


eagle.sea.jungian psychoanalysis

Bald eagle.

Photo: National Geographic

After that the young man flew about and brought to his father all kinds of game. One day he saw a large whale, and caught it, but again could not lift it. So he called his eagle-sisters, and they assisted him.

The eagle boy caught first a mammoth and then a whale, but needed his eagle-sisters to carry them home. This evolved aspect of yang integrated the powers of yin. When a person possesses both phallic power and the capacity to engage and relate, then that person is powerful indeed.

What does it mean that the eagle-people ate mammoths and whales? The mass of mammoth and whale shows that ‘body’ yang is first dominant; then spiritual yang supersedes it. First we live out physical yang in our bodies, then we assimilate it into understanding and wisdom.

sperm whale underwater. jungian analysis

Sperm Whale.
Photo: National Geographic


dark line drawing on rock of mammoth. jungian analysis

Mammoth cave painting. Roufignac, France 


At last the father and his daughters said to him,
“We want to eat man’s flesh. We are not human. We are of a different nature, therefore we have a desire for human flesh.”
“And where shall I get it?”
“There is plenty of it in the world below.”
“All right!” said he. He flew down, and came to our world below. Men and women were walking along. He caught two, and carried them up. On the way he would let them drop, and then catch them again in mid-air. Thus he killed them and brought them home. He dropped them down to the ground near the house.
“There is your meat!”

Why did the eagle-people eat humans? When spiritual yang is not integrated with human reality, then it too is unconscious and destructive. Consciousness requires not merely intellect but the integration of all forms of knowing, including human sensation and feeling.

The destructive potential of unbalanced spiritual yang is shown by the effects of science and technology on our ecosystem.

h bomb.jungian psychoanalysis

H bomb test

What about the eagle lifting the body, dropping it, and catching it again to kill it? Eagles do this but the image is used repeatedly here for its symbolic meaning. The image shows how the spirit can destroy a person, using the person’s own human vulnerability to break him or her down with suffering. This is what happens to a person who is trapped in a manic or inflated state.

The Upper Beings ate of the human flesh; but his mother said,
“Do not eat of it. We are not of their kind. And this is not your real father. Your father is human. He lives there on the earth. He beat me too much. That was the reason why I fled.”
“Then I will go and find him.”

His father was paddling in a canoe. The Eagle-Boy descended, and perched on the gunwale of the in skin kayak with paddle and spear.jungian therapy

Inuit seal hunter with atlatl lashed to kayak. Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1929.

   “Oh, is it you?” His father recognized him. “Let us go home! I will take you to my home.”
“No, we are of a different kind from you. We live in the upper world. I shall take you to my home.” He took up with his talons the canoe, together with the crew, and carried it up. Then he would let it drop, and immediately overtake it and catch it again in mid-air. Thus he killed his father and brought him to his house. He dropped him down before his mother.
“Here he is! He shall not beat you any more.” That is all.

The mother confronted the eagle-boy with his human identity: he then went back and confronted his father. Again yin relatedness empowered him, this time to engage with his father’s abusive psychology. Abuse was still haunting his family until he faced it decisively and brought it into consciousness.

By facing the pain of his own father’s destructiveness the boy was integrating human suffering with his spiritual awareness. Spiritual yang could then function more consciously and therefore constructively: the boy became more whole.

Told by Ñịpe´wġi, an Asiatic Eskimo man, in the village of Uñi´sak, at Indian Point, June, 1901.

This tale was said, by the narrator, to come from the village Nu´yak, on the American shore.