The myth of Proteus powerfully displays the nature of Soul, exhibiting various archetypal faces. Drawn from the earliest Greek legends, Proteus appears as an old sea-god, Poseidon’s right-hand man, so to speak. He was said to be Poseidon’s shepherd of sea-beasts. According to Homer, he could see through all the depths of the sea. If one were to ensnare him, and, without releasing him, endure his shape-shifting tricks to the end, Proteus would reveal great knowledge of the present and future.
This is what happened to Menelaus. He had been told by Idothea, daughter of Proteus, about the Old Man of the Sea, that he could discover the information he sought by laying in wait and capturing Proteus when he arose from the waves, interestingly, at noon, when the sun is in mid-heaven. Noon is a liminal time, perfect for illumination from the unconscious. The gods seem to prefer appearing at the two liminal times of day, noon and midnight. Idothea taught Menelaus Proteus’ tricks so he would be well prepared when the time came to grab him. So, Idothea led him and three of his men to the place where Proteus would emerge from the sea. Idothea said to Menelaus,
First he will look over all his seals, and count them; then, when he has seen them and tallied them on his five fingers, he will go to sleep among them, as a shepherd among his sheep. The moment you see that he is asleep seize him; put forth all your strength and hold him fast, for he will do his very utmost to get away from you. He will turn himself into every kind of creature that goes upon the earth, and will become also both fire and water; but you must hold him fast and grip him tighter and tighter, till he begins to talk to you and comes back to what he was when you saw him go to sleep; then you may slacken your hold and let him go; and you can ask him which of the gods it is that is angry with you, and what you must do to reach your home over the seas (The Odyssey, Book IV, by Homer; translated by Samuel Butler).
Proteus represents the soul. During the Renaissance, the myth of Proteus was one of the most popular tales bespeaking the ambiguous nature and many visages of the soul. The figure of Proteus is a container for all the various archetypes of the unconscious. James Hillman writes,
Man’s Protean nature derives from inherent polyvalence of the psyche, which includes the grotesque, the vicious, and the pathological. Inasmuch as a mythical image is a containing presence, a means of giving form and sense to fantasy and behavior, the Protean idea could keep the soul’s many daimones in inherent relation (Hillman 203).
Jung believed the image of Proteus to be a “personification of the unconscious,” (Jung 216). He also says that Proteus “behaves…like a revolving image that cannot be grasped” (ibid.). This reminds me of my use of the image of the maelstrom to symbolize the nature of the soul.
As Homer’s story continues, Menelaus says,
We waited the whole morning and made the best of it, watching the seals come up in hundreds to bask upon the sea shore, till at noon the old man of the sea came up too, and when he had found his fat seals he went over them and counted them. We were among the first he counted, and he never suspected any guile, but laid himself down to sleep as soon as he had done counting. Then we rushed upon him with a shout and seized him; on which he began at once with his old tricks, and changed himself first into a lion with a great mane; then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water, and then again directly he was a tree, but we stuck to him and never lost hold… (The Odyssey, Book IV, by Homer; translated by Samuel Butler).
The soul is, at times, very elusive. We try and understand our lives, our dreams, our misfortunes, but the ultimate meaning behind these things is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. We continue to strive, however, realizing that the soul is a deep mystery. The many Protean faces manifest themselves in our dreams, in our daily activities, in our infirmities, and in all aspects of our lives.
Menelaus was able to hold on to Proteus until his shape-shifting had ceased. Then, Proteus gave him the information he sought. The soul contains the knowledge of all things. If we hold fast to the image, we will discover great riches in the depths of the soul.
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.
Jung, C.G. Aion. trans. R.F.C. Hull. Priceton: Bollingen, 1959.