Male potency, an erect phallos upon demand, is the effect Viagra is intended to produce. Although I have never tried that product, I hear that it works and that, under certain conditions, it could kill you. A similar problem was discussed in ancient Roman literature. The Satyricon, written by Petronius, centers around a well endowed and handsome young Roman called Encolpius. He is an ancient version of the modern Don Juan, who courts, seduces, and abandons tender sweet young things. Encolpius, whose name means “the crotch”, does not restrict his lovers to young women like Don Juan. Encolpius was attracted to his slave boy Giton as well as the young ladies. What his lovers share in common is important. They are young (16 or 17 years old), attractive, and effeminate. They represent his youth, which psychologically he is trying to penetrate, to recapture, restore. When we idolize youthful beauty in such a way, impotence is right around the corner.
James Wyly described the problem in this way. A client discovered his actual height was 2 inches shorter than he had believed himself to be all his life. His father and grandfather had also inflated their heights. Wyly says, “all three of these men grew up with their culture’s assumption that the taller, bigger, heavier and stronger a man is, the more masculinity he somehow possesses. If this assumption can lead to ignorance of something as fundamental and personal as one’s own height, we may well wonder what else in our collective culture has been distorted due to this apparent need to inflate the nature and dimensions of the masculine. The disturbing preoccupation of modern men with more and more power, limitless competition, machismo and violence suggest itself as one significant result of this inflationary process.” (The Phallic Quest: Priapus and Masculine Inflation, 1989, p. 11) And when we inflate the masculine, pruning is the compensation. Nature likes balance, so when we think too highly of ourselves (inflation), a deflation occurs (impotence). In the ancient story of Encolpius the god with the pruning knife is called Priapus.
Priapus represents the split off part of the masculine psyche. His parents were divine. According to Pausanius his mother was Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and lust.
His father was the adolescent version of Dionysus, or perhaps Adonis of late antiquity. The earlier Greek versions of Dionysus had a full beard and was of mature stature, a whole image of the mature masculine, but by the time of Pausanius (about 200 CE) the split in the masculine had already occurred. Rome was the model of conquest which our modern civilization regards as enlightened, and we see the adoration of youth all around us in the 21st century. Priapus was abandoned by his mother and raised by shepherds, who no doubt were impressed with his enormous genitals. He is the product of instinctual physical ecstasy (Dionysus) and sexuality (Aphrodite), which doesn’t stick around to nurture. He represents the effect of lack of the maternal which saddles that role upon the foster fathers.
Wyly puts it this way “the swollen, “inflated” phallus is the physiological instrument of male creativity. As such, it has provided a metaphor for masculinity for as long as humankind has been capable of metaphor (p. 11).” There is a proper (creative) way to express phallic inflation and there is an improper (a destructive) way. Encolpius represents the destructive path. He brags about his abilities as a lover, user, and abuser of others.
Wyly says that “he has a grandiose view of himself as lover, rake, and con man. His lifestyle is an offense to Priapus, who makes him impotent, thus endangering Encolpius’s view of himself and his relationship to his lover Giton.” (p.32)
Encolpius then begins a quest to find his lost potency, his erect phallos, his creativity.
Unfortunately Encolpius, like modern man, is always looking outside of himself for a cure. He goes in search of a healer and treatment which will restore his manhood. He endures more and more humiliation at the hands of divine prostitutes, pornography, and “doctors” who prescribe potions like Viagra. He mistakenly thinks that Priapus will return his lost creativity and tries to propitiate the god. In the end his search takes a curious turn, which is very instructive. Hermes takes pity on Encolpius and restores his sexual prowess. If we look at the god Hermes we can see the possible route for modern men in curing their sense of impotence.
Hermes is a god of the inner world more than any other. Communication is his forte, especially between the human and the divine realms. He is the messenger of the gods and his main domain is dreams. That’s the arena where the problem is sketched, where our inflation is acted out for us, and the possible cure suggested. If we can actively interact with the dream images, the problem of impotence can be addressed and a way discovered to create a new reality. Writer’s block could be seen as a form of impotence. The artist is blocked by unconscious forces (Priapus in ancient Rome), which makes him feel depressed, a failure in bed and on the page. Entering into dialogue with the force that dis-empowers is what Jung called Active Imagination.
If one dreams of one’s shadow characteristics artfully woven into the face of an old lover, like Giton, then we must find a way to interact, communicate, and listen to the voice of the unconscious by taking an active role. This is what the new age consciousness calls co-creation. The spiritual force which has been split off from the conscious self and pushed into the shadow of our personal closet must be engaged. We call this aggregate of unconscious stuff the Shadow. It shows up in dreams as the same sex as the dreamer, but as “other”, perhaps the old lover, a friend or antagonist. Engaging this Shadow part of the unconscious self can move the dreamer from “stuck” to “unstuck”. One must try to communicate, to embody Hermes, if his gift of grace is to be experienced.
One can paint, dance, draw, play music, to initiate communication and then one must allow the unconscious to speak. We must honor it with communication and artistic expression. As we acknowledge the existence of a force greater than ourselves and find a way in which to interact with it, magic happens. That’s the gift of Hermes. He is the master of synchronicity and you can only discover this for yourself by engaging in the process. That’s where you might encounter the messenger of the Divine Father Zeus. And like father like son, Hermes can bless you, or perhaps you’ll encounter Zeus, who also gifts us with potency.