The Dark Side of Transformation

May 11, 2010 at 6:32 pm Leave a comment

The sign of a true symbol is that it includes the dark side: the pain, the sorrow, the suffering. Symbols incorporate not only our hope and our love, not only the beauty, but also our worst nightmares. In the same way as nettles and flax are drowned, one of the most common tortures is water-boarding. In the same way as the nettles and flax are broken into pieces, people have been dismembered and quartered,  and  the Codex Justinianus mentions iron combs as instruments of torture.  Our ancestors knew the pain of the nettles and the flax.

When in the Iliad, the divine smith Hephaestus fashions a new shield for Achilles, he decorates it with a scene showing a group of young people on their way to the grape harvest. They dance and sing.  The song, however, not about the grape harvest but about the suffering we put the flax through in order to transform it into a cloth.

Robert Eisler published the history of this song in Folk-Lore 1951, revising it on his death-bed.  It seems to have spread from the Far East in the Neolithic period first to the Near East, then to Egypt and from there (around 2400BC) to the Mycenaean Greeks. Miraculously it still survived in the 20th century among the British and Irish flax-combers, spinners and weavers.

Unfortunately Eisler was so taken in by the Suffering of the Flax and later of the Rye (and probably of the spelt and the wheat), that he never answers the question why the harvesters of the grapes sing about the pain of the flax. Perhaps this is a better  place and time.

Dionysus stretching forth a goblet of wine

The group of young people sing the Lament of the Flax (the Linos Dirge) during the harvest of the grapes because of the close analogy between the god Dionysus, who transforms the grapes into wine, and the Goddess that transforms her flaxen hair of nettles into cloth.

Bronze combIn the same way as the hair of the Goddess is not only her hair but herself, Dionysus is not only the god of wine, but the wine itselfShe is the flax that is picked and tortured to death. He is every grape that is harvested and pressed. When his body has been crushed and his blood, the must, has “slept,” seemingly dead, in the darkness of the wine caskets, he resurrects, transformed into the new, intoxicating wine.

The Christian churches celebrate the same symbol. The wine is Christ’s blood, the bread is Christ’s body.  In the same way  Dionysus is crushed in the wine-press  and the wheat is cut, then threshed, that is, the grains are torn from the axes in the same way as the grapes are torn from the vine. The grains are then scorched by the fire, crushed by the millstones, mixed with water and placed in a hot oven to be transformed into bread. Every transformation is painful; to be transformed means to die, but in the same way as the moon always is reborn after the three black nights, the sleeping must transforms into wine, the grains into bread and the flax into a cloth.

Hans Christian Andersen understood this pain very well.  He gives one version of it in “The Ugly Duckling” and another one in “The Flax:”

The flax raised its small blue flowers toward the sun feeling very happy. It was growing so high and it knew that the long fibers would give the best linen. One day the harvesters came and pulled it up by the roots. It hurt. Then they began the torture. It was drowned in water, dried before the hot fire, broken, and combed. The flax thought of the sun in the field and its former happiness, but only when it had been spun and woven, it found time to be proud. It had become such a fine, lovely cloth. People then came with big scissors and cruelly cut it and pierced it with sharp needles and sew it into underclothes. “Now I am really useful,” thought the flax, “how happy I am.” After long wear the garments were too tattered to be mended and so another torture took place. The linen was torn to pieces, that again were laid in water and then passed through the mill and made into the finest whitest paper one can imagine. Beautiful poetry and fairy-tales were written on it and this really was the apex of happiness in the life of the flax. Many hundred books were printed and sold and the rest of the paper was laid on a shelf. “Now, ” thought the flax, “I am allowed to rest for a while. I wonder what will happen next. My fate is always to proceed to something better.”  However, the fate of the paper was to die in the fire. Now the flax shone and glittered more brilliantly than ever its flowers or the fine linen cloth had done. The smoke rose higher and higher and the flax thought with the greatest joy: “I am going straight up to the sun.”

It has always surprised me that Hans Christian Andersen, who in my opinion usually writes very sorrowful stories, perceiving the pain of the flax continues to describe its happiness. Every time it is tortured, the pain transforms it into something it could never have imagine. A white thin cloth of the best quality – what more could it wish for. To be sewn into undergarments, to be worn closest to the human body was even better. To be crushed in the mill and made into paper for a poet to use for his poems and tales was something it never had dared to dream about. To have words printed on it and then be sold to thousands of people was even better, but the apex was its end. It did not end in the fire; it was transformed into the light of the sun.

In The Spirit Mercurius,  C. G. Jung points out that “every spiritual truth gradually turns into something material, becoming no more than a tool in the hand of man”. The comb was both a symbol and a tool for more than thirty thousand years. When it stopped being a symbol, it turned into its opposite and became a sign of luxuria, “luxery,” one of the seven mortal sins. In art it became the attribute of prostitutes and of the mermaids who lured the sailors to an early death. I still feel the shock when I learned that the comb was used as an instrument of torture as late as four hundred years ago.

In our materialistic culture we need to be more aware than ever that we are not  the masters, but that the symbols influence our decisions as much as they have ever done.


Once in my young years I fell in a low ditch filled with stinging nettles with the bicycle on top of me.  I still remember  how helpless I was. There was nobody around and to move meant to be more burnt. In the evening I lay in my bed burning from fever inside and outside from the nettles. Like the Goddess that Combs her Flaxen Hair of Nettles, they are not cuddly, nice plants. We must treat them with respect and know how to touch them to avoid being hurt.

For the last one thousand years the combs have been a sign of sexual sinfulness, but in the Middle Ages and further back in time they were symbols of transformation. The Goddess, the anthropomorphic personification of the symbol, raising out of the unconscious depths asks for our respect.

End of the Goddess Combs Her Flaxen Hair of Nettles.


Dionysus as the grape and the wine: Walter Burkert, Homo Necans. The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. 1983, p. 213-20.

C.G. Jung, The Spirit Mercurius in Alchemical Studies, Collected Works volume 13.


Dionysus from Wikimedia Commons. Detail of an Attic plate from Vulci, Italy, ca. 500 BC.  The British Museum. Photo Jastrow  (2006).

Bronze comb from France.  Woman with goose-heads for hands. The teeth of the comb make up her skirt, ca. 700 BC. Drawing K.B.

Header by Nicole Fabbrini.

The bronze comb from a tomb in Denmark surrounded by two wild geese.


Entry filed under: Androgynous symbol, Combs, H.C. Andersen, Nettles, the Moon, Torture.

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