A Mythological Perspective on Trauma

Carl Jung talks about synchronicity, meaningful coincidences. Last week I was preparing to record a podcast episode about the myth of the Wall of Valhalla. Loki, the trickster god, bets that a giant will not be able to build a wall around Valhalla strong enough to protect the gods from all of the other giants. If the giant can build it in one season he gets to marry the goddess of beauty, lust, and fertility, Freya. If he cannot complete it, he will go unpaid.

Once the giant is days away from completing the wall, the gods threaten that they will torture and kill Loki if he cannot find a way out of his devil’s bargain with the giant.

Loki finds a solution. He shape shifts himself into a female horse and seduces the giant’s horse. Preventing the giant from hauling stones and completing the wall.

In the end, Loki gained protection for the gods and gave birth to the greatest horse in the universe. Odin’s eight legged steed Slepnir, who is the fastest horse and can travel the world tree to all of the nine realms (For more on this myth, see Between Two Ravens Podcast, Season 2 – episodes 4 and 6).

The Monday before we recorded, I was scheduled to participate in a training on ‘embodied perspectives on trauma’. How understanding mindfulness and being present in your body can help, and is necessary to treat trauma. One of the perspectives given was regarding the function of equine assisted therapy. A form of therapy that involves trained horses, to help people get in touch with their emotion by interacting with a mighty beast that, as a prey animal, is hypersensitive to the reactions of others.

So a coincidence, but what meaning do I find in this symbol of a horse?

Mythological thinking (as opposed logical thinking; mythos vs logos) is an integrative process, like the thinking in dreams or symbolic reasoning. The symbols are not logically connected, but they have as many possible connections as you can find. Is Freya Odin’s wife or not? Can she be both at once? Is Loki Odin’s brother? Or one aspect of Odin as a trinity. Or is Loki an ancient fire god, or just some guy who showed up one day? It gets complicated. But I ask you to follow me on this pathway that started with my idea, “what does the horse symbolize?”

I don’t know if it is necessary to state, this is not therapy advice. It is a half-baked idea, maybe a theory in development, but certainly not practical advice.

Part 2:

Peter Levine is a trauma researcher. Author of “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.” To summarize his theory as succinctly as I can: 

  • Your brain has 3 layers. The reptile brain, the mammal brain, and the human cortex. The cerebral cortex in the human is more developed than any other animal. Humans evolved as prey animals. We were hunted in trees for millennia before we developed the technology to craft spears and become the predator. 
  • When a prey animal (gazelle, deer, horse, etc.) is hunted by a large cat, at the moment that it is captured, it freezes. It dissociates. It is the fight or flight or freeze response that is still present in our human nervous system. Connecting the fear center of the mammal brain directly to our hormone systems (adrenaline, cortisol, etc).
  • The freezing response is an evolutionary adaptation. Because sometimes the predator is not killing the prey immediately, but dragging it off to feed it’s young. If the prey animal freezes, it may “live to flee another day.” 
  • To connect the metaphor to humans. In the trauma response, humans often freeze. Dissociate from the body and the emotions. It is necessary to reconnect with the emotions and the body to “complete the trauma circuit” and complete the fight or flight response. In trauma, the fight or flight response repeats endlessly, because the conscious mind still needs to reconnect and complete that loop. When the conscious mind attempts to approach the fear provoking thought, it “flees” the thought and dissociates.

It’s a brilliant metaphor by Levine. But how do we reconnect? 

One creative solution is equine assisted therapy. Talk to a therapist who is a horse. Like your mammalian brain, you cannot talk to a horse using language (logos). You must approach it intuitively. And it will be able to feel whether you appear as a fearful prey animal, and it will assume that it also needs to flee. If you approach in “fight” mode, it will know instantly that you are a predator and flee. The only solution is to experience calm and the horse will recognize and reciprocate your calm.

This is likely how our ancestors tamed horses. Gradually and repeatedly approaching and expressing “there is nothing to fear”. Our ancestors may have experienced this interaction regularly. We have to hire a therapy horse.

Then you can “ride the horse.”

Part 3:

The symbol of The World Tree Yggdrasil in Norse Mythology is a metaphor for the human nervous system. If the 9 realms are states of being, states of experience in the conscious and unconscious, then the tree connects us to those. If we know how to travel the world tree. 

Another way to connect with the body is by paying attention to breathing. We cannot control the fight or flight response (the autonomic nervous system) consciously. We cannot tell the body to stop releasing stress hormones, stop sweating, stop the heart from pounding.

But we can tell the body to breathe in and breathe out. 

If the body is a very scared horse, it is difficult to persuade it to slow down and allow the conscious mind to ride. It can feel very uncomfortable to be present in the body. It feels safer to dissociate. 

But somehow we need to learn to be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ 

One method I learned on Monday to reconnect, to regain control, is the Wim Hof breathing method. You can google search for Wim Hof, the “Ice Man” extreme athlete, and watch videos about his training to do intense exercise, survive intense cold, and swim for extended periods under ice. Please watch the safety videos as well if you are considering trying his breathing exercises, as it may be inadvisable for people with risk of seizures, migraines, and other health issues.

But the short summary of his method is that you take 30 very deep breaths, hyperventilating, and then you hold your breath as long as is comfortable before then taking another deep breath.

I then realize this is something I did all the time when I was much younger and swam regularly. Pump your blood full of oxygen to see if you can swim the length of the pool without coming up for air. 

As I learn about this breathing method and then meditate while practicing it, I realize something.

You hold your breath long enough and your body starts to panic. It is supposed to release the same level of adrenaline you would get jumping for a skydive or bungee jumping. But the high levels of oxygen produce a sense of peace as well, which is supposed to be observable on brain scans. In a way Wim Hof has rediscovered what monks have known how to do for centuries, how to change your brain waves. Travel the world tree.

And I realize as I am meditating that I am both the panicking horse, and the tiger that has the horse pinned to the ground (halting breathing). And I am completely calm and can reassure the horse that I am in charge of the tiger as well.


What does this have to do with the myth of Loki and Slepnir?

Maybe you need to be willing to risk what is most beautiful, most precious to you.

Maybe you need to submit to a power greater than yourself.

And then you might gain the greatest wonders, and be able to travel the 9 realms.

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David Alexander

Psychotherapist | Writer

David Alexander is a practising psychotherapist based in New Mexico, USA. He started studying Greek Stoicism in 2020 as part of a journey of self-discovery and searching for answers about how to practically help myself and others endure the challenging times we are living in. He found Stoic Philosophy to be a useful jumping-off point to explore important questions: What is Human Nature? What is your Nature? It is towards this goal, to “know thyself,” that David started studying Carl Jung’s theories regarding the structure of the psyche (soul) and the workings of the unconscious mind. His goal in studying integrative disciplines of psychology, philosophy, and mythology is to better understand the self, thereby learning to better understand others.

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