Please Sell Me a Dirt-Cheap Dragon
Trauma, Transformations, and Identity in Latvian Legends
Transcript of the talk by Evija Volfa Vestergaard at the conference: "Research in Psychotherapy and Culture: Exploring Narratives of Identity," Vilnius, 11- 12 May, 2018.
Let me begin by tell a story. This was reported as an actual event. It happened in Latvia.
There was a poor farmer. He wanted a helper—a dragon that would bring him riches. Wishing to have such a helper, the man headed to the capital city to buy one. In the city, the man found a shop where dragons were sold. He walked in. The man asked the shopkeeper: “Would you please sell me a small, tiny, a dirt-cheap dragon? One that would cost me very little.” The shopkeeper replied: “Sure! Why not?!” and sold the man a dirt-cheap dragon.
The farmer went home happy. When he arrived, the dragon set out to do its job. But the man was no longer pleased. The creature was hauling in dirt and filth. The man, the poor soul, kept pulling the smelly stuff away, but he couldn’t get the house emptied. It was piled full to the top with the stinky crap. Finally, exhausted and desperate, the man asked the dragon: “What is the matter?” The dragon explained that the man himself had wanted and bought a dirt dragon. He had gotten what he had asked for[i].
My talk is about a saboteur in the Latvian pscyhe and identity, historical trauma, and a potential transformation.
I will talk about trauma, but I want to emphasize transformation. Yes, we do need to go deep into the messy and the dark to understand our “as is” state. And we also need to see through it with a psychological attitude for our "to be" states. I am rather convinced that it is time for us to: Actively Imagine potential transformations for groups, and to foster breaks in outlived symmetries—outlived states of being.
This image and a number other images that help me communicate today have been created by the Latvian artist Ilze Avotiņa. She possesses a deep sense of the symbolical. These are illustrations from my book called My Dragon of Riches [ii].
When I talk about Trauma, Latvian identity, and transformation, I look for insights in a particular genre called the mythological legend. The mythological legend is a report of subjectively real event that involves human encounter with extra-human entities.
I have found significant similarities between the images and motives of the mythological legend and dreams and visions of individuals who suffer from the relational trauma that Donald Kalsched[iii] described in his book “Trauma and the Soul”.
Due to limited time, we cannot go into the details about the similarities today. But you can find those in my upcoming book titled “Trauma, Cultural Complexes, and Transformation: Folk Narratives and Present Realities,” published by Routledge, available later this year.
Kalsched explained, that in cases of trauma, beings from a mythical other world show up to protect victims for whom the realities of life have become too hard to bare.
Sometimes, though, the self-care system that is supposed to protect the individual, instead attacks it. It does so in a twisted kind of way—it wants to annihilate the inner child of the victim in order to prevent it from re-experiencing the trauma. It is alike an autoimmune disease that ravages the body.
In my view, what dreams and visions do for an individual, the mythological legend does for an entire group of people.
The ongoing theme of the Latvian mythological legends
In the Latvian narratives, I have found an ongoing theme of wealth and money. Also, the mythical beings rather than humans are the true owners of riches[iv].
The theme of wealth in the external world may be conceived psychologically as the tellers’ experience of worthiness in the internal world of realities. Symbolically, the narratives convey the tellers’ struggles with being valued.
In today’s Latvia, the experience of lack of being valued, in my view, manifests as self-diminishment. Dagmara Beitnere[v], a sociologist quoted…a prominent Latvian geneticist recently saying: “Who are we, Latvians, really? We are servants and farmers,” a poet referring to himself as a dark savage, a musician characterizing the whole nation as possessing a heavy mentality. There is a common self-reference among Latvians—we, the nation of herring-eaters[vi]. Also, it’s know that the best food for a Latvian is another Latvian[vii].
Individual trauma stems from troubled relationships between the child and its caretakers[viii]. Arguably, in the context of groups, traumas originate in complex relationships between those who hold the ruling power and their subjects—the people because of the same dynamics expressed on a macro level. To understand such dynamics, we need to look at events of history.
The first proto-Baltic tribes found themselves squeezed between the waters of the Baltic Sea and the larger neighbors—mainly Germanic and Slavic peoples. Much of the history of the Latvian territory is the history of foreign rulers. Germans, Russians, and at one point Swedes have been in control.
At the inception of the Latvian identity, a toxic fertilizer was applied. In the 13th century, when Germans began to rule, a social divide was created based on the language that people spoke. The imagination of the ruling German mind created the category of Latvian which referred to a social class of peasants. The category German referred to a high social status. These terms served to indicate one’s place on the societal ladder of importance rather than culture. The Latvian identity was equaled to property-less peasant.
Even at the end of the 19th century, two unenviable choices for a Latvian were to be a backward peasant, or to become either a German or Russian and, thus, non-Latvian[ix].
History in my body, mind, and my identity
A couple of years ago, I discovered that I have been a carrier of the toxin of this unenviable choice. I had my genetic test done. I ordered the test kit. When it arrived, I spit in the tube, sent it back to the lab and waited for 6 weeks to hear the results.
I knew that I was 50% German. My mother, my grandmother had told me that. On my father’s side, I was not sure. He could have been Latvian or Lithuanian. He spoke Latvian but had spent his childhood in Lithuania. He passed away much too young, I had not managed to ask him.
When the test results arrived, my identity shattered. The experience was alike that of discovering that my mother was not my mother. In my genes, there was not even a trace of German, not even 0.01 %. I did not sleep that night frantically attempting to make new neural connections according to the newly discovered data about myself.
Welcome to me! To me who turned out to be 85% percent Eastern European and the remaining 15% potentially Finnish. Welcome to me who also carries a greater number of Neanderthal genes than the average person from this region. Who new Neanderthals can come in small sizes?!
Having learned more about the Latvian history, I now know that on my mother’s side, I am a grandchild of those Latvians who did not fit the narrowly defined category of Latvians equaled to the social class of peasants. This non-fit had led to a certain dissociation. On my father’s side, the story remains unclear. All I know is that his family was of well-to-do farmers and because of that deported to Siberia by the Soviets.
Going back to the story about the poor farmer, I say that the original narrow definition that informs the national identity is the fertile ground that feeds the self- saboteur of the Latvian psyche. This self- saboteur is asking for little and piles the house full of the smelly crap.
The singer identity
There is one expression of the Latvian identity that seems to expand the originally limited assignment. It has to do with, perhaps, an innate talent. A German historian John Kolh wrote in 1841: “Every Latvian is a born poet, everyone makes up verses and songs and can sing”[x]. This talent is still obvious today. Latvian Song and Dance Festival has been declared by UNESCO a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
I get emotional every time I hear the choir of 20 000. It’s beyond beautiful. I pride myself on being a singing Latvian.
And now, I am risking being what Americans call “a party pooper”. Because, I will say that extolling singing, dancing, and plowing fields, while marginalizing other expressions, keeps the Latvian identity constricted.
Historically, singing, dancing, and plowing fields was, in the eyes of the rulers, a safe expression of the Latvian identity. In fact, the first choir gatherings were organized by German priests.
While for Latvians, uniting in choir became the earliest form of national self-awareness and expression, that national awareness did not expand into matters of political, societal, or economic relevance. Those were outside the “safe” zone for the rulers. And for Latvians, those activities belonged (and to a large degree still belong) to the non-Latvian, thus dirty.
Hubs and Nodes
The human psyche may be conceived as a network of hubs and nodes. Joe Cambray gave us a good description of this idea in his book on Synchronicity. Think of the hubs as the major archetypes around which childhood development is organized. Those are the archetypes that are well exercised, practiced, we identify with them, often merging our identity with them. The nodes, on the other hand, are less often visited. They form linkages in the margins[xi] of the psyche.
In the Latvian pscyhe, I suggest, the major hub is that of a singing framer, a lover of beauty found in countryside and art. The nodes are those of a business owner, a thinker, an innovator, and inventor, a statesperson, and a socially engaged citizen who also embraces the dirt of the city and money.
The historically marginalized activities[xii], however, cannot be avoided. They show up in distorted forms, like the thriving shadow economy in Latvia. A recent study[xiii] surveyed shadow economies in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Poland, and Sweden, and found that Latvia showed the highest acceptance of wages paid in an envelope under the table[xiv].
The beautiful Latvian soul that makes every Latvian a born poet, I suggest, has taken on the self-diminishing aesthetic attitude.
The term aesthetic attitude was devised by Joseph Henderson[xv] to refer to an attitude preoccupied with beauty and art. Those following this attitude found themselves isolated as they withdrew from external realities and disengaged from activities in the society.
Such disposition was, thus, “a form of misplaced autoeroticism that seeds . . . its own destruction.” It was both cynical and despairing as it spent time wallowing in utopic hopes and ideas[xvi]. One such utopian idea is that Latvia is going to be reborn from its countryside[xvii].
Every saboteur may be a helper
But recall, that every saboteur may also be a helper in its benevolent form. Our devils can be set to good work.
Hear this story: Taking care of her daily tasks, the farmgirl had gone to the barn. Suddenly, a big black man came in and said: “Let there be light!” And there was light. He went on, “Let there be food!” The food appeared. Then many devils showed up. They ate, drank, and danced. The girl was watching and thinking. Then she said out loud, “Let there be food for me too!”—and the food turned up. She then called the devils to come and eat from her food. The devils came, and among them came a little tiny devil. The little one said: “I will stay with you because the old devil gives me very little food. You are better!” Since that day, the farmgirl thrived[xviii].
I think, this story is about making use of the shadows of the pscyhe, and turning the marginalized into a source of a potential transformation.
Let us talk about potential transformations. Going back to Joe Cambray’s ideas about Hubs and Nodes. The nodes, with the weaker links, serve the pscyhe a particular function—both to stabilize the system and to provide it with flexibility. Cambray linked the movements in the nodes with the experience of synchronicities, which are linked with processes of maturation.
The moments of meeting with the dragons and the devils may be understood as such synchronicities. I want to make an important note here. The Latvian dragons are not the Western dragons that must be slayed. The Latvian dragons are more alike the Asian dragons of luck that require good care and that respond to the care with service and riches.
So, the meetings with the devils and the dragons take place not only when the external realities are too hard to bare, but also when we may be on the brink of a transformation[xix].
Breaks in Symmetries
Cambray explained, growth in complexity and in maturation happens when there are breaks in the old symmetries. The archetypal nodes may serve as the psyche’s areas of such breaks.
But, how do we mature from braking? The traditional Jungian understanding of maturation is a movement towards the unity and the Self. The recent advances in biological sciences tell us otherwise. The term adjacent possible was devised by Stuart Kauffman[xx], an American medical doctor and theoretical biologist. Kauffman argued that instead of a grand theory of development, evolution happens through continuously arising biological functions, the variables of which are not predictable.
Following from that, we play a role in shaping our individual lives. But it does not stop there—we have a responsibility for shaping the environment that infuse our lives. I am convinced that the first step in this responsibility is to imagine possibilities.
And so, I imagine possibilities for Latvia.
Transformation for the Latvian Psyche
First, let me point out a particular gift of the Aesthetic Attitude. According to Henderson it is endowed with “a high degree of patient observation of the phenomena of nature . . . [which may be] stabilized in an attitude from which fresh discoveries can be made” [xxi].
In my imagination, the Latvian skill of patient observation makes Latvia a place of amazing innovations & inventions.
I see Latvia as a place where people make technologies function in exceedingly innovative, practical and beautiful ways. There are some actual examples.
A Latvian company has built the smallest aircraft on the planet, an object the size of a shoebox, that can carry 110 kg up to 20 meters high in altitude, 10 km in distance[xxii]. Imagine this product delivering items that save lives, support educators, and businesses.
These Latvians are actually conducting innovations done nowhere in the world. They are not making their mark by being copycats.
Another Latvian company has developed technology to predict hearts attack before they happen. Yet another company brings Artificial Intelligence solutions to banking and finance. This company’s product can measure the wealth distribution of a nation's residents to understand the state of equality.
Think about that! The penniless peasant has created a tool that brings insights on the national distribution of wealth and equality.
My Learning & Invitation
I have learned from the folk narratives that the mythical second world shows up for Latvians as they struggle with money and riches in the external world of realities and, in the inner world, with the sense of worthiness.
The stories also communicate potential transformations. But, we must listen and participate in editing the narratives that do not sustain us. We need to be compassionate to ourselves, and also courageous and daring to say: “Let there be food for me too!” We must ask for more; not for a dirt-cheap dragon. It means—expand the Latvian identity to many more expressions—innovator and inventor amongst them.
I say: Let’s imagine what else is possible and be co-creators with psychological insights and far-reaching actions.
What does it mean for us, Jungians?
My invitation is that we help turn the dirt-cheap dragons into helpers. That we do that working with groups. I believe that we can use active imagination not only in therapy rooms but also outside their walls. We can help amplify that which can be imagined into a worthwhile action. We can follow the work already started by Jungians like Peter Dunlap who works in the field of political psychology.
I side with Dunlop in saying: “Individual development and cultural evolution are not separate phenomena but are twin dimensions of a single process of human transformation.”[xxiii]
We may follow Mary Watkins, a Jungian analyst with expertise in community psychology who has done extensive work with “insighting of the cultural changes . . . to mitigate psychological suffering.”[xxiv]
I suggest fertilizing our work with practices offered in other fields. Like, the practice called Theory U devised by economist and management expert Claus Scharmer.[xxv] It is offered by MIT as a free massive online course. The participants are asked to answer the question: “What kind of future I want to co-create?” Answering involves not only knowing oneself, but also walking in the shoes of others and, from there, going to places of new potentialities.
I hope that we together will have a rich time of learning today and tomorrow. And that we will go from here with inspirations and imaginations for our practices and communities.
Beitnere, Dagmāra. 2012. Mēs, Zemnieku Tauta? Pašreference Latviešu Kultūras Paradigmā [We, a Nation of Peasants? Self-Reference in the Latvian Cultural Paradigm]. Rīga: University of Latvia Institute of Philosophy and Sociology.
Cambray, Joe. 2009. Synchronicity: Nature & Psyche in an Interconnected Universe. Houston: Texas A&M University Press.
Dégh, Linda. 2001. Legend and Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Dunlap, Peter T. 2008. Awakening Our Faith in the Future. The Advent of Psychological Liberalism. New York, NY: Routledge.
Henderson, Joseph L. 1984. Cultural Attitudes in Psychological Perspectives. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Kalsched, Donald. 2013. Trauma and the Soul: A Pscycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption. New York: Routledge.
Kauffman, Stuart. 2014. "Prolegomenon to Patterns in Evolution." Biosystems (Elsevier) 123: 3-8.
Kursīte, Janīna. 1999. Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā, mākslā (The Mythical in Folklore, Literature, Art). Riga: Zinātne.
Lithuania Free Market Institute. 2015. Shadow Economies in the Baltic Sea Region 2015. Vilnius: Lithuania Free Market Institute.
Prateek, Sanjay. 2018. Baltic Startups are Doing Unbelievable, Unimaginable Things. February 16. Accessed February 18, 2018. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/baltic-startups-doing-unbelievable-unimaginable-things-prateek-sanjay/?trackingId=FQBM%2BBjIignUvbHl1tkiMQ%3D%3D.
Rislakki, Jukka. 2008. The Case for Latvia. Disinformation Campaigns Against a Small Nation. Translated by Richard Impola. New York, NY: Rodopi.
Scharmer, Otto Claus. 2016. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Vestergaard, Evija Volfa. 2017. My Dragon of Riches. Latvian Mythological Legends: A Depth Psychological Perspective. Mans bagātības pūķis. Latviešu mitoloģiskās teikas: dzīļu psiholoģijas skatījums. Riga: Madris.
Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira. 2010. Kultūra un latvietība [Culture and the Latvian]. Rīga: Karogs.
Watkins, Mary. 2004. "Liberating Soul Sparks: Psyche, Classroom, and Community." In Minding the Light: Essays in Friendly Pedagogy, edited by Anne French Dalke and Barbara Dixson, 23-42. New York, NY: Peter Lang Inc.
[i] (Vestergaard 2017).
[ii] (Vestergaard 2017).
[iii] (Kalsched 2013).
[iv] This observation was made by the prominent Latvian folklorist Janina Kursīte (1999).
[v] (Beitnere 2012, 152)
[vi] (Beitnere 2012, 148).
[vii] (Beitnere 2012, 152).
[viii] (Kalsched 2013).
[ix] (Vīķe-Freiberga 2010).
[x] As cited in Rislakki, 2008, 11.
[xi] (Cambray 2009, 52).
[xii] Beitnere (2012) observed that the “urban self-references do not form the link with the values of national identity” (100). Instead of including the capital Rīga, with its modernism, its exquisite architecture, sprouting industries in the image of the Latvian, preference has been given to the creation of an ideal in the image of a country manor (105). The city “is not a good taste in the mindset of a Latvian farmer . . . [and] the images of a merchant and a shop owner do not appear in the cultural narratives and the image of a ‘shopkeeper’ [bodnieks, in Latvian] stands in opposition to that of a farmer” (120).
[xiii] “And exhibited a highly negative relationship between government and tax-payers (or rather, non-payers)” (Lithuania Free Market Institute, 2015)
[xiv] The issue is lack of trust between people and Latvian government. This mistrust is more prominent in Latvia than in the other surveyed countries.
[xv] (Henderson 1984, 45-58).
[xvi] (Henderson 1984, 46). Henderson argued that all other attitudes but the psychological one were limited; that only the psychological attitude elicited the ability to adapt, and brought about “cultural objectivity” (7) that contributed to mature conscious identity. The psychological attitude was filled with consciousness about tendencies to identify with one-sidedness, either social, religious, artistic, philosophical, political, or other types. “The social attitude . . . is generally concerned with maintaining the ethical code of the culture . . . and assumes that if the social problems of our time were solved, all conflicts would vanish” (17). “The religious attitude . . . carries and ethical message and implements it with missionary zeal” (27).
[xvii] (Beitnere 2012).
[xviii] (Vestergaard 2017).
[xix] It is not surprising that folklorists have defined the mythological legends in terms of stories associated with coming of age or with life changing moments, like birth, death, and others. See, Linda Dégh (2001).
[xx] (Kauffman 2014).
[xxi] (Henderson 1984, 50).
[xxii] (Prateek 2018).
[xxiii] (Dunlap 2008, 237)
[xxiv] (Watkins 2004, 35).
[xxv] (Scharmer 2016).