Mētis and Daimonic
Mētis and our Daimonic Anger
Its highly strung nature, its neighing, its sudden moments of panic, its mettlesome disposition, its unpredictability, the foam at its mouth and sweat on its flank – reveal the horse to be a mysterious and disquieting beast, a daemonic force. . . . horses which devour raw flesh are diametrically opposed to horses in harness, equipped with bit and bridle. Similarly, the bit fastened in the horse’s mouth acts upon the wild strength of the animal, affecting the mysterious violence which seems to equate the horse with one possessed or makes it a type of Gorgon. (Detienne and Vernant, 191-193)
The Greeks took the horse and its nature quite seriously as both a metaphor for a shifting and polymorphic challenge and an opportunity for the equestrians to cultivate their own mētis in its mastery. The word daimonic is specifically applied to the horse in Greek texts, spirited and magical with dual natures – both a battle-furied wild animal and a controllable, trustworthy companion. Detienne and Vernant note that a horse’s daimonic nature was compared to the mythic Gorgon, whose horrifying visage could turn a careless gaze to stone – in other words, its polymorphic nature was nothing to be trifled with. Both mares and stallions were the instruments of punishment for the unjust in Greek myth, carnivorously tearing apart the flesh of the guilty with their teeth or striking them down with their hooves.
But this daimonic creature also accepts bit and bridle. There is no confusion that this is a submission so much as it is a consent, as the Greeks sought a companion who retained its spirited personality, whether on the battlefield or behind the plow. They honored the fiery nature of the horse. In fact, the metal bit itself, holding the horse’s jaws and fashioned by metallurgical arts and the fire of the forge was believed fitting – one might say just – to the elemental nature of the animal. And on the battlefield, the noise of the bit in the horse’s jaws was meant to amplify and channel its power: “by virtue of its fiery nature and the metallic clinking sound it makes, the bit which moves in its mouth is also a kind of echo of the sinister sound which comes from the animal’s jaws.” This is the daimon “performing the dance of war” with the rider, communing with a shared mētis through the consented use of bit and bridle. (Detienne and Vernant, 195-196) The goddess Athena, with her characteristic mētis gifted by her mother Metis, is the patron of the equestrian, the charioteer, the mounted warrior, all of whom seek not only to control the horse, but to partner with its shifting powers to seize the opportunities at hand.
Athena’s role has wider connotations covering the whole system of behaviour which a driver of chariots must put into operation. It involves a quick eye, immediate reactions and paying close attention to unpredictable behaviour from the horses, to any unevenness in the track and to all the obstacles which might cause the chariot to veer off course but which a prudent driver, a hippomētis one knows how to turn to his own advantage. (Detienne and Vernant, 204)
With what I hope is prudent wisdom, I want to consider the spirited horse as a validating and therapeutic metaphor for the human daimon of anger, and how – like the cunning charioteer – we might consider seizing its power to manage the obstacles and opportunities in our own stories to just advantage. Rollo May followed the Greeks in anthropological attention to the term in his work, Love and Will.
The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples. The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both. . . The daimonic is the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate and increase itself. The daimonic becomes evil when it usurps the total self without regard to the integration of that self, or to the unique forms and desires of others and their need for integration. It then appears as excessive aggression, hostility, cruelty . . . But these are the reverse side of the same assertion which empowers our creativity. All life is a flux between these two aspects of the daimonic. We can repress the daimonic, but we cannot avoid the toll of apathy and the tendency towards later explosion which such repression brings in its wake. (123)
In the daimonic lies our vitality, our capacity to open ourselves . . . The daimonic needs to be directed and channelled. . . The daimonic fights against death, fights always to assert its own vitality, accepts no ‘three-score and ten’ or other timetable of life. It is this daimonic which is referred to when we adjure someone who is seriously ill not to give up the ‘fight,’ or when we sadly acknowledge some indication that a friend will die as the fact that he has given up the fight. The daimonic will never take a rational ‘no’ for an answer. In this respect the daimonic is the enemy of technology. It will accept no clock time or nine-to-five schedules or assembly lines to which we surrender ourselves as robots. (126-127)
Can you sense the opportunities for the metaphor of our human daimonic anger and the spirited horse? This daimon is also elementally associated with fire. It is combustion for our intelligence and drives in the world. When suppressed, we burn-out. When ill-fed, it rages unchecked and consumes. As May notes, there is a long-standing fear of the demonic, a derivation of daimon, for the risk of possession. But if the daimon of anger is also the spark of vitality that feeds justice – that is, that it is just that we live and not die, just that we throw off oppression of disease and tyrant, just that we retain our humanity rather than becoming dehumanized minions, just that we be shepherds of our time rather than automated by it. A horse is to be managed by its cunning driver and a bit to navigate the race or battle towards victory; similarly, we are to manage our daimonic impulses not by repression but well-bridled for a wise and creative power of the human spirit for our meanings and becomings.
Aristotle called this virtuous and flourishing companionship with our daimons a state of eu-daimonia. To be possessed like the horse-as-Gorgon, released to destruction and madness, is a dys-daimonia (Sperber, 41). To suppress and deny our daimons is a pathetic and pitiable anti-daimonia, marked by apathy and alienation from life and community. In the wisdom tradition of virtue, Aristotle suggests, eudaimonia is the just middle-way.
This is particularly relevant to anger, that vital force that sniffs out perceived injustices and rises up as a way of knowing. Without bit and bridle, anger might be put out to the wildlands for a season, but eventually it comes back in what Detienne and Vernant noted in the opening quote of the horse: its “highly strung nature, its neighings, its sudden moments of panic, its mettlesome disposition, its unpredictability, the foam at its mouth and the sweat on its flank.” Most of us know the experience of a possessing anger towards vengeance, towards hate, towards a desired destruction at any cost including our own. If we have a sufficiently developed mētis, we pull on our metal element and place the bit on our daimon’s vitality, harnessing it. From this perspective, it is right to name anger as normal to being human. And that it is our mētis wisdom that allows its mettlesome disposition to become the bridled companion we need, whether we go to war against oppression or plow rocky fields, fight against disease and circumstances that threaten our vitality or create passionate art, music, and craft. Mētis takes the measure of our actual situations and their potential meanings; our possibilities for justice are fueled well by the daimonic in a state of our flourishing eudaimonia. Peter Diamond makes the following apt comment in his book, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic:
Learning to consciously live with the daimonic requires developing a sense of self commensurate to this daunting task. Without establishing some unifying ‘center’ in the personality, consolidating our own ‘will,’ we are chaotically tossed about in the wild seas of the daimonic like some flimsy wooden ship in windswept waves. (223)
I love this quote, remembering that mētis intelligence is that power that Odysseus uses to navigate the stormy seas and ever-changing polymorphy and disorientation of the waters. We need a mētis that is no “flimsy wooden ship,” but rather a wily intelligence that shifts even more quickly than both the daimonic phenomena of anger and hunger for vengeance and the oppressive, unjust circumstances in which we find ourselves, ensuring this natural but spirited vitality is used for our constructive navigation rather than being lost to rage. Frankl’s Defiant Power of the Human Spirit is well-served by the creative bridling of the daimons, including anger and towards justice.
We are not very comfortable with anger as a culture, and we often deny anger its righteous power. I hear this from those who come and sit with me. “I’m not angry. I’m just frustrated.” “I never get mad but I am a little upset.” Discomfort with the faces of anger often leads to anti-daimonia and its depression, anxiety, dis-ease, apathy. Or the anger simmers under the surface, waiting to manifest its Gorgon nature in a flash of dysdaimoniac heat. I also see anger seeking others who can hold and express the anger that we are fearful of holding for ourselves. As I listen to my clients, it is not unusual that I am the one who gives voice to the unexpressed anger, feeling the heat of it rise up and speaking that I feel anger for you in your story of oppression. Often that is the opening that allows you to finally acknowledge the truth and power of that fiery horse in your own spirit and story. From there, we walk the path of creative defiance and not destruction.
I do find anti-daimonia of particular interest, as it is troublingly common in those in “burnout” and demoralization. We could consider Friedrich Nietzsche’s last years as an illustrative tale of the suffering that emerges from violent silencing of the daimonic. On a day in January 1889, Nietzsche left his rooms to go for a walk and encountered a cab driver on a noisy street who was brutally whipping a horse already fitted to serve with harness, bridle, and blinders. Nietzsche snatched the whip away, flung his arms around the animal and began weeping uncontrollably, eventually collapsing to the ground and creating quite the scene, to which the police were called. He entered into catatonic state and this brilliant philosopher never wrote again, was hospitalized in an asylum for the mentally ill, and eventually died in 1900 in his mother’s care – a profound and embodied powerlessness. Bearing empathic witness to the violence of the anti-daimoniac horse-beating, he is undone. I suggest we re-seize our metaphor and press to the problem of anti-daimonia: some persons beat and violate the generative, vital sparks of our nature into a broken submission. They whip and break their own spirits, or those of others. This, too, is a madness and it might be infectious. Let us draw on our anger in healthy ways to resist inhumane abuse and violation of spirit, just as surely as we resist an unbridled possession by its vengeance. Seek the middle way through stormy seas and we will sidestep of madness of both Scylla and Charabdis on either sides.
I am calling for a companionable relationship with our vital daimons. Mētis is alive in the charioteer who harnesses the vital spark with respect, puts it through its paces and exercises with deliberative care, shapes it with the daily practices of creative and cunning collaboration, including shaping anger to righteous anger, realizing justice in its multiple forms for self and others.
The intelligence of a driver full of mētis is the true rudder which guides the chariot. (Detienne and Vernant, 205)
We need that wisdom for our spirited parts. And as is said in the Psalms, “Be angry, yet do not sin.”
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Rollo May. Love and Will. New York: Norton & Company, 1969.
- M. Sperberg. “The Daimonic: Freudian, Jungian and Existential Perspectives,” The Journal of Analytical Psychology, January 1975.
- Peter Diamond. Anger, Madness and the Daimonic. SUNY Press, 1996.
- International Standard Version Bible, Psalms 4:4.
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Janēta Fong Tansey, MD PhD