The world of symbols acts as a transitional space – between imagination and reality – for a better understanding of reality. It is the space where the defenses are removed and the encounter involves freedom and authentic feeling. The symbol indicates an essential relationship between two meanings: between an overt and a hidden meaning.

In the field of therapy, the symbol is used by the patient in his attempt to express his experience, in his anxiety to share with the therapist his feeling. The therapist is called upon to understand the dynamics of the client's symbol. The spontaneous expression of the symbol often surprises the client and he tries to realize its meaning. The mother who describes the relationship with her daughter as an autumn day, while the relationship with her son as a bright summer day, understands that an authentic path of self-understanding is being opened to her. Likewise, the philologist who describes the experience of teaching in the classroom as if she were to hand over an excellent poem to her students and have them crumple it up.

The therapist chooses to use the world of symbols to retrieve images, myths, phrases, which he believes will help the client to understand himself.

Greek mythology is full of symbolism that can be used in the psychotherapeutic process. The gods and heroes of Greek myths are anthropomorphic, beautiful, they live in the light, not in darkness, as in the mythologies of other peoples. They live in the light and adore beauty in all its forms. Beauty and light are two concepts that suggest affirmation in life.

Myths reveal the obsessive desires of the human heart. Myth is a guideline of existence, a form that looks to tomorrow, not a fossilized legend.

The myth of Perseus focuses on the painful path of self-knowledge from understanding family patterns, confronting the inner enemy that must be fought – the distortion of the soul – to the acquisition of self-knowledge, not as a finished conquest of the summit but a continuous struggle for maintaining the humility that comes from knowledge. A path of advancement on the one hand and reconciliation with life and man on the other.

Perseus is the son of Zeus and Danae. Zeus, the spirit, mythical father, impregnates Danae by taking the form of golden rain.

Danae's father, Acrisios, in order to neutralize the oracle that has prophesied that his grandson would kill him, decides to get rid of the mother and the child. He leaves them to their own devices. They are expelled from the palace and inside a chest mother and baby are thrown into the sea.

King Acrisios is overcome by the fear of death and does not know how to exorcise it by creating good relations with the descendants. Instead, the grandson's birth and growth act as a reminder of his own imminent old age and become a threat. The struggle to keep power as the highest good leads him to isolation. He wants his daughter to belong to him, so any choice of mate is flawed. He keeps her imprisoned, even though he knows that her spirit and emotions do not belong to him.

The sea, merciful, does not drown the mother and the child, but takes them to an island, Serifos. The king of Serifos captures Danae who puts all her hopes in her son waiting for him to grow up to free her.
The woman rejected by the father and then used by the partner passively waits only for her son to make her happy. The son gives priority to his mother's needs, with the result that his own development is inhibited, as he becomes angry with male figures of prestige and loses the ability to identify with them.

Danae, in the myth, represents the woman who faces life passively. In the psychotherapist's office she presents herself as a victim, wronged by the father, disappointed by the partner. She herself does not determine her fate and her attitude towards the therapist is also passive. He gives up unconditionally waiting for magical solutions, considers him omnipotent, flatters his possible vanity.

Many years later, at a king's banquet, the now young Perseus, at the king's provocation and in his eagerness to save his mother, promises to bring him the head of the dreaded mermaid Medusa, who petrifies anyone who looks upon her.

Repulsively ugly Medusa, according to another version magically attractive. Vanity is attractive and guilt is scary. Medusa's headdress is made of snakes. This headdress is also seen in the Erinyes. This common emblem underlines the solidarity between vanity and repressed guilt. Vanity is nothing more than the repulsion of guilt.

Medusa lives in a dark cave at the edge of the world with two other monsters, Stheno and Euryalis. They symbolize the monstrous distortions of the soul due to the distorted forces of the three impulses: sociability, sexuality, spirituality. Medusa – the sovereign as her name implies – symbolizes the perversion of spirituality.

Medusa symbolizes the fear, the despair in relation to the self, which overwhelms the vain soul when, in moments of clarity, it bravely faces itself naked. Medusa symbolizes the distorted image of the self, the guilt that is rampant, the dimly discernible, in moments where vanity collapses.

Petrification, a consequence of horror (Medusa's head – distorting mirror), is due to the inability to objectively endure the truth about oneself.

Essential danger that exists in the psyche: the exaggeration of the imagination against the self: vanity. Vanity is the perversion of the spirit par excellence. It is the opposite of clarity of mind: like a blindness to error. The feeling of guilt - when it does not immobilize, but leads to a feeling of responsibility - which is associated with every error, as long as it is not repelled by vanity, is the expression of the clarity of the spirit: it is the warning of the spirit against a disturbance of the harmony that would give the joy.

Often, some people turn to the specialist, asking for an easy magical exoneration. Easy absolution does not lead to redemption. The objective recognition of error, without exaggerating or minimizing its significance, and taking personal responsibility is the painful, liberating process.

At other times, the therapist is called upon to deal with people who are trapped in guilt and feel bound to it by unbreakable bonds, driven to self-punishment and freezing the flowering of life. It is important that the one who recognizes his error can move beyond the guilt.

In any case, the therapist is called upon to free the client from guilt for the faults of others. He often deals with people who carry ancestral burdens that are passed down from generation to generation.

Parents' unfulfilled desires seek to find satisfaction in children's achievements and guilt any differentiation of the child that is perceived as betrayal. It becomes difficult for the child who is in this burdened position to listen to his own wishes and his will power is nullified. Accordingly, the onus is on the child whose parents are very successful and take it for granted that the child will continue their own professional career.

The therapist is called upon to take advantage of the client's trust and, with the authority of his position, remove guilt so that desire and will are freed.

Clarity of spirit results in purity of activity (as opposed to sinful action) grounded in truth, goodness, and beauty.

In the clinical practice of psychotherapy, when the patient begins to search for himself, he is frightened at the prospect of self-knowledge, he is frightened to face his mistakes and guilt, and he prefers petrification. He is redeemed when the therapist assures him that in the long and exciting journey of psychotherapy, apart from the painful experiences he will touch, apart from guilt, from mistakes he will realize, he will give the value corresponding to his personal achievements that he has underestimated, he will discover his neglected virtues, he will know the power of his will and desire, he will experience the freedom offered by taking personal responsibility.

The role of the therapist is valuable as the treated person confronts himself. The danger of fossilization lurks. The therapist is called upon to reveal at the right moment the truth that the client is able to understand and process, to open the wound to such an extent that the healing process can heal.

In this unequal struggle, Perseus has a valuable ally in the goddess Athena who gives him her shining shield to protect him. The shield is the mirror where every man sees himself exactly as he is and not as he would like to imagine himself to be. To be able to kill Medusa without being petrified by her gaze, he must see her through Athena's shield which is the shield of self-knowledge.

Perseus defeats and kills Medusa. From the blood gushing from the wound emerge Chrysaor – the golden sword symbol of spiritualization – and the winged horse Pegasus, symbol of creative imagination. Perverse imagination must die for the two forms of creative imagination to be born.

All negative energy is transformed into positive, creative energy. Very often psychotherapy can release energies that were lost in the confinement of guilt, comparison, complaining, or wishing ill upon others.

In clinical practice the therapist is called upon to face the scapegoat. The one who has undertaken to shoulder the family's dissatisfaction and failure, freeing others from negative emotions and dysfunctional roles.

Perseus rides Pegasus and escapes from Euryale and Stheno who pursue him to avenge the death of Medusa. But they have lost their power after the beheading of the jellyfish as the spirit powers are released.

Leaving Perseus with Medusa's head reaches Ethiopia. There, on a beach, he finds himself in front of an unexpected sight: a beautiful girl had been tied to a rock and a sea monster is threatening to devour her. Andromeda, the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians, was punished because she boasted that she was the most beautiful of the Nereids.

The issue of hubris, loss of temper, arrogance that enters into comparisons and demands that one be better than everyone else in order to be happy is raised. Here, Andromeda, presents the other side of female nature, the opposite of its reassuring and purifying power.

Comparison, which begins in the family, is a permanent source of unhappiness because it does not highlight the uniqueness of each person but, as a Procrustian bed, destroys and flattens.

He who as a child lived the comparison, then perpetuates it in his professional and social sphere and moves anxiously to always satisfy the prestigious person who defines the "correct" standard.

Perseus frees Andromeda and redeems her from the threat, leading her to higher realms because he unites his life with hers by taking her as his wife. Perseus frees her from comparison as by becoming his wife, she becomes unique and complete in love and romance.

Perseus freed from the promises to his mother, having paid his debt as a son, can love and share his life with a woman.

But Medusa's head he keeps with him – a memory of the struggle, a protection against similar future dangers when he loses the measure of self-awareness.

He can stare at the jellyfish without becoming petrified because he can bear to see himself and his guilt clearly without becoming immobilized.

Perseus is asked to carry Medusa's head with him because the goods of self-knowledge are not self-evident to be preserved.

The condition of victory is not temporary exaltation, but keeping the hero at a constant level of exaltation.

Triumph over vanity easily turns into vanity of triumph.

At the end of psychotherapy, the patient is invited to realize that the journey of self-awareness continues, that the struggle with oneself is not over, that it actually never ends. He knows he will regress sometimes, but he is able to recognize it and, if he wishes, reverse it.

He is urged not to consider his treatment as a pedestal of superiority because in this way instead of using self-awareness to reconcile with others, he will isolate himself.

The myth of Perseus can be tapped into the healer's perpetual struggle with himself. As he offers the mirror of self-awareness to the treated, he is called upon to fight for the mirror's objectivity.

The therapist who moves safely and does not get caught up in the need to confirm himself will not make hasty interpretations, but will catalyze the process so that interpretations often emerge and are produced by the client himself.
The therapist is in danger of petrification when there is a great distance between his personal life and the way he works as a therapist.

The therapist is in danger of petrification when he considers himself omnipotent, invulnerable, above the limitations of common human fate and his personal limitations.

It is in danger of petrification or, in modern terms, burn-out, when it cannot see each person as a unique person but reduces them to an individual, without interest in producing the unique therapeutic relationship each time.

In the mirror of the truth of the therapeutic relationship, the therapist continues to evolve as he will feel his dark spots and bring out his potential by going beyond superficial counseling techniques that lead to petrification.
Kakridis I. Th. (ed. edition) 1987. Greek Mythology. Ed. Athens Publishing House.
Diel, P. 1966. Symbolism in Ancient Greek Mythology. Ed.
Hatjinikoli. Athena.

Eleni Karagiannis
Child psychiatrist – Group and family psychotherapist
6th Panhellenic Child Psychiatry Conference
May 15-17, 2009
Aigli Zapeiou, Athens