Petting Scorpions is an expression I came across in Daniel Smith’s book ‘Monkey Mind’. It is a small volume exploring the reality of living with anxiety disorders from a very personal point of view. In essence, Daniel is sharing his own story of dealing with his multiple anxieties from when they first emerged to the present day as an author, husband and parent. It is no happy-ending story, as he remarks himself. Rather it is a story that enables one to take a closer look at the siamese twin relationship one needs to accept when suffering from this kind of mental disorder. Anyone who has read the book will feel perfectly fine calling Mr.Smith by his first name; thus is the painful and sometimes hilarious intimacy with which his book is written.
Petting Scorpions, however, is also a wonderful expression as it relates to the ramifications of our own magical practice. In the 1920 book Ancient Egyptian Legends by M. A. Murray we find a strange tale about Isis and her seven guardian scorpions. Let me share it with you - so we can explore how it builds a bridge to the present day and anxiety disorders as described in Daniel's book: At dusk Isis is called forth by Thoth to wander the land and so she does together with her seven guardian scorpions. They come to a house in which a woman lives by the name of ‘Glory‘ or ‘Strength’. Seeing Isis and her seven scorpions approaching her house, she shuts and locks the door and refuses them to rest at her place. At a marshwoman’s house where the goddess and her guardians finally get to rest, the seven scorpions unite their poison on the sting of their brother scorpion, Tefen. Tefen then returns to the house of the woman called ‘Strength’ and finds a narrow crack between the door and its frame.
“Through this narrow space crept Tefen and entered the house, and stung with a sting of sevenfold power the son of the woman Glory. So fierce and burning was the poison that the child died and fire broke out in the house. Then the woman Glory cried and lamented, but no man hearkened to her, and Heaven itself sent water upon her house. A great marvel was this water from Heaven, for the time of the inundation was not yet.” (source)
Ultimately the sound of the grief of the woman reaches Isis. The goddess hears how the woman regrets not having let her into the house and “is filled with sorrow for her sorrow”. Thus Isis returns to the house and reawakens the child through the divine powers of her words.
In Dream Magic the way to interpret a house is as our very own mind. Literally, things that take place in e.g. the cellar represent dynamics of our subconscious mind, whereas events in e.g. the attic refer to things that occur in our thinking mind. The German term ‘Oberstübchen’ refers to this quite nicely and so does the English expression ‘One is not quite right up top.’ But what can we learn from this legend on dealing with anxiety disorders? Well, to answer this question let’s take a closer look at Daniel’s book. Here is a direct quote from its blurb:
“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence.”
From a psychological point of view the metaphor of the ‘demon’ seems to naturally spring to mind when dealing with such type of mental disorders. Let me share are a few good reasons why this might be the case:
- anxiety disorders to a very large extent revoke the human desire for control
- the reason for their existence is mostly experienced as highly ambiguous; their origin stories are deeply arcane
- their essential nature is shape-shifting; things that have previously been experienced without anxiety can suddenly be taken over by it; they simply change one’s perception of reality
- just like Tefen, the scorpion sent by the goddess, they will find entrance into our minds despite all protective actions and undermine our ‘Strength’ or 'Glory'
- just like Tefen they are easily experienced as divine punishment; however, unlike in the legend the sufferer doesn’t know what for and pondering this will make things just worse...
There are many more similarities of course and anyone suffering from anxiety will be able to extend this list if desired. Relating mental disorders to the demonic realm of course is nothing new. Already the Ancient Chaldeans understood their nakedness and vulnerability in face of the myriad of demonic influences surrounding them. Here is an example of how this influence was perceived in Ancient Chaldea - strikingly similar to the Egyptian legend of Tefen:
“They, the productions of the infernal regions, On high they bring trouble, and below they bring confusion. Falling in rain from the sky, issuing from the earth, they penetrate the strong timbers, the thick timbers; they pass from house to house. Doors to not stop them, Bolts do not stop them, They glide in at the doors like serpents, They enter by the windows like the wind.” (Lenormant, p.30)
Logically divine protection and guardianship, therefore, was of essential matter - and achieving it a task on which an enormous amount of daily practice and ritual activity was spent... However, as the story of Tefen tells us, trying to protect our ‘Strength’ from the influence of the demonic might be a Sisyphus task over which we easily could spent the better part of our lives - while not having any time left to actually life them? Furthermore the legend tells us, that trying to shield us from the influence of what we perceive as demonic might equally cut us off from the divine: As the woman called ‘Strength’ when locking her door for the seven scorpions also closes the door for the goddess Isis herself.
So maybe there is yet another meaning to the term ‘petting scorpions’? Something other than the reaction so many of our ancestors have followed: i.e. closing the door to shield themselves from it. Something the mysterious marshwoman - who allowed Isis and her demonic entourage to enter - knew that most of us have forgotten today?
Let’s turn to Daniel’s experiences with anxiety attacks again - and read what he actually meant when using the term I borrowed: Towards the end of his book the author meets a therapist who introduces him to a completely new way of dealing with his attacks. Rather than contemplating and lamenting about their occult origin stories and their terrible consequences on his present situation, the therapist suggests something completely different. Let me quote the dialogue that opens a whole new door for Daniel. The author is again rewinding his personal life story and reflecting on how his current day pain, suffering and anxieties are connected to early teenage experiences, when his therapist who had been silent for a long time replies with a barely stifled yawn.
“‘I’m sorry. Am I boring you?’
‘Oh, excuse me,’ he said. ‘No, go ahead. You were saying.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘What is it?’
‘Nothing. It’s nothing. Please continue.’
‘Well,’ Brian said. ‘It’s just that... you are in pain, right?’
‘Yes, I’m in pain. Of course I’m in pain. What are you talking about?’
‘You’re in active, right-now-as-we-sit-here, present-tense pain.’
‘Yes.’ I said. ‘I’m in active pain. What?’
‘It feels like you’re in a house, and the house is on fire, and you have to escape right now or you’ll burn to death.’
‘Yes. Exactly. Thank you. That’s exactly what it feels like.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Well, then if you’re in a house that’s on fire explain to me the logic of sending in the marshal to figure out what caused the fire. Wouldn’t it make more sense to - oh, I don’t know - put it out first?’ (Smith, p.198)
Daniel is completely dumbfounded. And it takes him a while and many month of practice to understand what his therapist Brian really meant with ‘putting out the fire first’.
What matters most when we suffer from anxiety attacks is not where they stem from or why they are here. What matters most is how we face up to them in the present day. Rather than trying to go back in time and undo our own history - something that rarely has worked - we might just want to confront our detractors head on and face the self-generated accusations and nightmares we project onto the screens of our own minds. And this is exactly what Daniel applies the term Petting Scorpions to: the seemingly dangerous process of attending to our own thoughts, especially the ones that precede the feeling of an anxiety attack.
Think of the marshwoman in the legend of Tefen: The door of her hut was open as she saw the seven scorpions approach. She knew that her instinct of locking the door and shutting herself in, trying to protect her strength and glory what make things just worse. The scorpions were already there. Therefore she did the only sensible, yet highly counter-intuitive thing: she allowed them to enter.
Now, she probably didn’t allow them to enter and went right to sleep, continued cooking or put her attention somewhere elsewhere. Instead she welcomed them to her house and attentively watched them. Allowing the scorpions to enter her house, didn’t mean she let down all her guards or abandoned common sense. She simply accepted that she had to share her house with them for a while - without being stupid or acting without discipline. However, the decision to invite the scorpions in, also allowed the marshwoman to make a new experience: She was privy to examine the scorpions from up close. What was distant, vague and scaringly threatening as a concept, suddenly turned into seven individual beings with real names, bodies and behaviors. The arcane or mysterious turned into mundane reality. There was no need anymore to make the seven scorpions bigger or more scaring than they actually were. Furthermore, together with the scorpions also the ancient goddess Isis hat entered her house...
Now, let's look up close at this to understand - what was it, that allowed the marshwoman to welcome the seven scorpions, while it forced the woman called ‘Strength’ to shut them out? In my eyes it were essentially two things:
- the marshwoman was prepared to let go of her previous state of safety in her house; she was mentally agile enough to understand that sudden change was upon her and clinging on to the past wouldn’t help prevent it at all.
- Once she had understood that her intuitive or emotional reaction would make things only worse, she overcame her own fears and acted with discipline. This is an important point to differentiate: Not strength made her actions matter, but discipline - i.e. despite her very real fears or atavistic instincts still executing on her set intent.
What others might call petting scorpions the marshwoman understood as the necessary act of letting go and facing up to the reality of her present situation. It seems after all, we don’t get to chose when Isis and her scorpions are approaching our house. We only get to chose how to deal with it.
“I didn’t yet realize that there is no cure for anxiety, just for perpetual treatment. I didn’t realize that a quarter century of anxiety had gauged deep, packed-earth ruts in my brain, and that the only way to stop my thoughts from falling back into those ruts was to dig new tracks and keep digging them, forever. I didn’t yet realize that that the only nonnegotiable approach to the anxious life is discipline.
So it has been that, over and over again, through the years, I have relapsed and returned, relapsed and returned. With no perfect discipline the relapses are inevitable, but I have learned to take measures so that they don't last as long as they once did, and so that the returns last longer and are less volatile. I have learned that the best safeguards against nervous collapse are responsibilities: jobs, contracts, assignments, and, above all, the blessed, bracing restraints of human relationships.” (Smith, p.206)