Betrayal Part 3 (of 3)

by James Hillman

Continued from Part 2

I would like now to leave the question of what betrayal means to the son, the one betrayed, in order to return to another of our earlier questions: What might betrayal mean to the father? What it meant to God to let His son die on the cross we are not told. What it meant to Abraham to lead his son to sacrifice we are also not told. But they performed these actions. They were able to betray, just as Jacob the patriarch entered into his estate by betraying his brother. Could it be that the capacity to betray belongs to the state of fatherhood? Let us look further at this question.

The father in our story does not merely show his human imperfections, that is, he does not merely fail in catching his son. It is not merely weakness or error. He consciously designs to let him fall and cause him pain and humiliation. He shows his brutality. The same brutality is shown in the treatment of Jesus from his capture to his crucifixion, and in the preparations of Abraham. What happens to Esau and to Job are nothing else than brutal. The brutality comes out again in the animal skin Jacob wears to betray Esau, and the great beasts God reveals to Job as the rationale for his torment. Also, in the images of Psalm XXII as we saw above.

The paternal image–that just, wise, merciful figure–refuses to intervene in any way to ameliorate the suffering which he himself has brought about. He also refuses to give an account of himself. The refusal to explain means that the explanation must come, if it comes at all, from the injured party. After a betrayal one is in no position to listen to the explanations of the other anyway! This is, I believe, a creative stimulus in betrayal. It is the betrayed one who must somehow resurrect himself, take a step forward, through his own interpretation of what happened. But it can be creative providing he doesn’t fall into and stay in the dangers we have sketched above.

In our story, the father does explain. Our story is after all lesson, and the action itself as educative as an initiation, whereas in the archetypal tales and in much of daily life betrayal is not explained by the betrayer to the betrayed, because it happens through the autonomous left side, unconsciously. In spite of the explanations, our story still shows brutality. The conscious use of brutality would seem a mark common to the paternal figures. The unjust father reflects unfair life. Where he is impervious to the cry for help and the need of the other, where he can admit that his promise is fallible, he acknowledges that the power of the word can be transcended by the forces of life. This awareness of his masculine limitations and this hardheartedness imply a high degree of differentiation of the weak left side. Differentiation of the left side would mean the ability to carry tension without action, going wrong without trying to set things right, letting events determine principles. It means further that one has to some extent overcome that sense of uneasy guilt which holds one back from carrying out in full consciousness necessary though brutal acts (By conscious brutality, I do not mean either deliberately perverse brutality aimed to ruin another, or sentimental brutality as found sometimes in literature and films and the code of soldiers. )

Uneasy guilt, tendermindedness, makes acts double-binding. The anima is not quite up to the task. But the father’s hard heart is not double-binding. He is not cruel on the one hand and pious on the other. He does not betray and then pick up his son in his arms, saying, “Poor boy; this hurt me worse than it hurt you.”

In analysis, as in all positions of trust, we are sometimes led into situations where something happens that requires a consciously brutal action, a betrayal of the others trust. We break a promise, we’re not there when needed, we let the other down, we alienate an affection, betray a secret. We neither explain what we do, nor pull the other off his cross, nor even pick him up at the bottom of the stairs. These are brutalities – and we do them, with more or less consciousness. And we must stand for them and stand through them, else the anima renders our acts thin, listless and cruel.

This hardheartedness shows an integration of brutality, thereby bringing one closer to nature — which gives no explanations of itself. They must be wrested from it. This willingness to be a betrayer brings us closer to the brutish condition where we are not so much minions of a supposedly moral guide and immoral Devil, but of an amoral nature. And so we are led back to our theme of anima-integration, where one’s cold-heartedness and sealed lips are as Eve and the serpent whose wisdom is also close to nature’s treachery. This leads me to ask whether anima-integration might not also show itself not only in the various ways we might expect-vitality, related news, love, imagination, subtlety, and so — but whether anima integration might not also show itself in becoming nature-like: less reliable, flowing like water in the paths of least resistance, turning answers with the wind, speaking with a double tongue – conscious ambiguity rather than unconscious ambivalence. Supposedly, the sage or master, in order to be the psychopomps who guides souls through the confusion of creation where there is a fault in every rock and the paths are not straight, shows hermetic cunning and a coldness that is as impersonal as nature itself.

In other words, our conclusion to the question: “What does betrayal mean to the father? ” results in this – the capacity to betray others is akin to the capacity to lead others. Full fatherhood is both. Insofar as psychological leading has for its aim the other’s self-help and self-reliance, the other will in some way at some point be led down or let down to his own level, that is, turned back from human help, betrayed to himself where he is alone.

As Jung says in Psychology and Alchemy (pp. 27-8):

I know from experience that all coercion – be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion – ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.

What then is trustworthy in the good father or psychopompos? What in this regard is the difference between the white magician and the black? What separates the sage for the brute? Could we not, by means of what I have been presenting, justify every brutality and betrayal that man might commit as a sign of his “anima-integration”, as a sign of his attainment to “full fatherhood”?

I do not know how to answer this question other than by referring to the same stories. We find in all of them two things: the motif of love and/or the sense of necessity. The Christian interpretation of God’s forsaking Jesus on the cross says that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son for its redemption. His betrayal was necessary, fulfilling his fate. Abraham so loved God that he prepared to put the knife to Isaac in offering. Jacob’s betrayal of Esau was a necessity already announced in the womb. The father in our story must have so loved his son that he could risk the broken bones and broken trust, and the broken image of himself in his son’s eyes.

This wider context of necessity or love leads me to believe that betrayal – going back on a promise, refusing to help, breaking a secret, deceiving in love – is too tragic an experience to be justified in personal terms of psychological mechanisms and motives. Personal psychology is not enough; analysis and explanations will not do. One must look to the wider context of love and fate. But who can be certain when love is present? And who can say that this betrayal was necessary, fate, a call of the Self?

Certainly a part of love is responsibility; so too is concern, involvement, identification – but perhaps a surer way of telling whether one is closer to the brute or the sage is by looking for love’s opposite: power. If betrayal is perpetuated mainly for personal advantage (to get out of a tight spot, to hurt or use, to save one’s skin, to gain pleasure, too still a desire or slake a need, to take care of Number One), then one can be sure that love had less the upper hand than did the brute, power.

The wider context of love and necessity is given by the archetypes of myth. When the event is placed in this perspective, the pattern may become meaningful again. The very act of attempting to view it from this wider context is therapeutic. Unfortunately, the event may not disclose its meaning for a long, long time, during which it lies sealed in absurdity or festers in resentment. But the struggle for putting it within the wider context, the struggle with interpretation and integration, is the way of moving further. It seems to me that only this can lead through the steps of anima differentiation sketched so far, and even to one further step, towards one of the highest of religious feelings: forgiveness.

We must be quite clear that forgiveness is no easy matter. If the ego has been wronged, the ego cannot forgive just because it “should”, notwithstanding all the wider context of love and destiny. The ego is kept vital by its amour-propre, it’s pride and honour. Even where one wants to forgive, one finds one simply can’t, because forgiveness doesn’t come from the ego. I cannot directly forgive, I can only ask, or pray, that these sins be forgiven. Wanting forgiveness to come and waiting for it may be all that one can do.

Forgiveness, like humility, is only a term unless one has been fully humiliated or fully wronged. Forgiveness is meaningful only when one can neither forget nor forgive. And our dreams do not let us forget. Anyone can forget a petty matter of insult, a personal affront. But if one has been led step by step into an involvement where the substance was trust itself, bared one’s soul, and then been deeply betrayed in the sense of handed over to one’s enemies, outer or inner (those shadow values described above where chances for a new living trust have been permanently injured by paranoid defenses, self-betrayal, and cynicism), then forgiveness takes on great meaning. It may well be that betrayal has no other positive outcome but forgiveness, and that the experience of forgiveness is possible only if one has been betrayed. Such forgiveness is a forgiving which is not a forgetting, but the remembrance of wrong transformed within a wider context, or as Jung has put it, the salt of bitterness transformed to the salt of wisdom.

This wisdom, as Sophia, is again a feminine contribution to masculinity, and would give the wider context which the will cannot achieve for itself. Wisdom I would here take to be that union of love with necessity where feeling finally flows freely into one’s fate, reconciling us with an event.

Just as trust had within it the seed of betrayal, so betrayal has within it the seed of forgiveness. This would be the answer to the last of our original questions: “What place has betrayal in psychological life at all”? Neither trust nor forgiveness could be fully realized without betrayal. Betrayal is the dark side of both, giving them both meaning, making them both possible. Perhaps this tells us something about why betrayal is such a strong theme in our religions. It is perhaps the human gate to such higher religious experiences as forgiveness and reconciliation with this silent labyrinth, the creation.

But forgiveness is so difficult that it probably needs some help from the other person. I mean by this that the wrong, if not remembered by both parties – and remembered as a wrong – falls all on the betrayed. The wider context within which the tragedy occurred would seem to call for parallel feelings from both parties. They are still both in a relationship, now as betrayer and betrayed. If only the betrayed senses a wrong, while the other passes it over with rationalizations, then the betrayal is still going on – even increased. This dodging of what has really happened is, of all the sores, the most galling to the betrayed. Forgiveness comes harder; resentments grow because the betrayer is not carrying his guilt and the act is not honestly conscious. Jung has said that the meaning of our sins is that we carry them, which means not that we unload them onto others to carry for us. To carry one’s sins, one has first to recognize them, and recognize their brutality.

Psychologically, carrying a sin means simply recognizing it, remembering it. All the emotions connected with the betrayal experience in both parties – remorse and repentance in the betrayer, resentment and revenge in the betrayed – press towards the same psychological point: remembering. Resentment especially is an emotional affliction of memory which forgetting can never fully repress. So is it not better to remember a wrong than to surge between forgetting and resenting? These emotions would seem to have as their aim keeping an experience from dissolving into the unconscious. They are the salt preserving the event from decomposing. Bitterly, they force us to keep faith with sin. In other words, a paradox of betrayal is the fidelity which both betrayed and betrayer keep, after the event, to its bitterness.

And this fidelity is kept as well by the betrayer. For if I am unable to admit that I have betrayed someone, or I try to forget it, I remain stuck in unconscious brutality. Then the wider context of love and the wider context of fatefulness of my action and of the whole event is missed. Not only do I go on wronging the other, but I wrong myself, for I have cut myself off from self-forgiveness. I can become no wiser, nor have I anything with which to become reconciled.

For these reasons I believe that forgiveness by the one probably requires atonement by the other. Atonement is in keeping with the silent behavior of the father as we have been describing him. He carries his guilt and his suffering. Though he realizes fully what he has done, he does not give account of it to the other, implying that he atones, that is, self-relates it. Atonement also implies a submission to betrayal as such, its transpersonal fateful reality. By bowing before the shame of my inability to keep my word, I am forced to admit humbly both my own personal weakness and the reality of impersonal powers.

However, let us take care that such atonement is not for one’s own peace of mind, not even for the situation. Must it not somehow recognize the other person? I believe that this point cannot be overstated, for we live in a human world even if victims of cosmic themes like tragedy, betrayal, and fate. Betrayal may belong within a wider context and be a cosmic theme, but it is always within individual relationships, through another close person, in immediate intimacy, that these things reach us. If others are instruments of the Gods in bringing us tragedy, so too are the way we atone to the Gods. Conditions are transformed within the same sort of close personal situation in which they occurred. Is it enough to atone just to the Gods alone? Is one then done with it? Does not tradition couple wisdom with humility? Atonement, as repentance, may not have to be expressis verbis, but it probably is more effective if it comes out in some form of contact with the other, in full recognition of the other. And, after all, isn’t just this full recognition of the other, love?

May I sum up? The unfolding through the various stages from trust through betrayal to forgiveness presents a movement of consciousness. The first condition of primal trust is largely unconscious and pre-anima. It is followed by betrayal, where the word is broken by life. For all its negativity, betrayal is yet an advance over primal trust because it leads to the ‘death’ of the puer through the anima experience of suffering. This may then lead, if not blocked by the negative vicissitudes of revenge, denial, cynicism, self betrayal and paranoid defenses, to a firmer fatherhood were the betrayed can in turn betray others less unconsciously, implying an integration of a man’s untrustworthy nature. The final integration of the experience may result in forgiveness by the betrayed, atonement by the betrayer, and a reconciliation – not necessarily with each other – but a reconciliation by each to the event. Each of these phases of bitterly fought and suffered experiences which may take long years of fidelity to the dark side of the psyche, is also a phase in the development of the anima, and that has been, despite my emphasis upon the masculine, the main theme of this paper.

From the (out of print) collection Loose Ends by James Hillman ©1975 Spring Publications.

Comments (11 comments)

jaguarinthedark / April 20th, 2008, 6:47 pm / #1

I recently felt betrayed by a friend with whom I shared deep feelings. I seem to have come through to a deeper understanding of life – from my lack of primal trust of any substance due to an alcoholic mother and emotionally vacant father, I have carried a fear of people throughout my life (I am 56 now), but the fear, as I now understand due to this recent betrayal, is of the shock of betrayal. I am not so much afraid of intimacy – I crave it, really – but I am afraid of the shock of the apparently inevitable betrayal of trust. I see that most of the people I have trusted in my life have betrayed me – not from brute power, but usually because of their own narcissism, or mental illness that rendered me invisible to them during the betrayal. So once again I am faced with the patterns of my life. I must choose people who have no apparent mental problems to increase the chance that I can enjoy the treasure of intimacy and trust for a longer span, than is possible with the mentally ill – in which group I include narcissists (both my parents), feral people (incapable of intimacy), bipolar (exhusband), and of course alcoholics/addicts. All these people are narcissists, the variation coming from the addition of substances or obsessive behaviors. They are always the centers of their own universes, and cannot abide intrusion.

suzcan / March 26th, 2010, 6:03 am / #2

I can relate very well to your comments – I've had a similar experience in the last year which left me so shocked and shattered emotionally that a few months after the event, I became physically ill, was diagnosed with a life threatning disease and almost died.
It's a year later now and I've come through my dark night of the soul with much greater self-awareness. I realized through all of this is that I had betrayed myself in order to remain and in this relationship with the narciccist and in the end my self betrayal made it much easier for him to devalue me and then walk away. I've since come to the realization that any relationships with narcissits or addicts and mentally ill persons demand that you also betray or negate yourself in order to maintain these relationships. And this is the essence of what makes them so toxic.
I was actually attracted to these people who were charasmatic, intense and of course self medicating and self serving and I had very weak boundaries. I also think it requires a great deal of denial to be involved wtih these type of people.

Dan Rhys / June 15th, 2008, 9:20 pm / #3

Most of this essay it right on, especially the sections about the central mythology of betrayal in our collective and unconscious Christian nature. As Hillman himself points out in Terrible Love of War, we are all collectively unconscious Christians. I often wondered why I spit out the words “Jesus Christ” at life’s banalities, but of course even a science hardened contemporary psyche is put on the cross everyday.

The problem, and since this essay is from more than 25 years ago we don’t find much of what follows written here, is that Hillman has betrayed psychology, calling it a bullshit profession many times. He has pushed so far into the underworld of the western psyche, that he has given up on the basic needs of the personal experience and lost himself in a fog of totalitarianism, if I can use that term. A totalitarian ideology of continuous revolution on the psyche, undermining every image of initiation but the savage ripping away of security, daylight, hope, even humanity in a misguided attempt to lead everyone into eternal melacholia, the only valid state for him.

Do we really need that black a viewpoint James? Christ! Lighten up dude.

AmenASHandF / April 5th, 2010, 7:02 pm / #4

Something i've been reminded, The Cross is a old Egyptian symbol for eternal life. The word Egypt is Greek, the word Jesus is Greek, the word Christ is Greek…hmmm…..what does that tell us about Christianity…….the "African" name for the area known as Egypt -because Africa is Latin for Brother……is Kamut. So all this Life we r living is a phenomena by Life it Self & we r being PLAYED by our very minds & body…. but we should have the last laugh because it is Life who's THE BIG FAT JERK making us so stupid in killing each other & waisting so much time arguing WHEN WE CAN BE OUTSIDE HAVING FUN….!

Peder / November 16th, 2008, 10:45 am / #5

Garden-Artist says November 16th 2008 10:20 am

Indigenous Cultures did not think in terms of reducing life to Pathology. Instead they saw life as Initiation. Betrayal happens because consciousness from Birth projects everything external to itself: external dependence for everything. The rest of life is pulling back the psyches projection (INSIDE) where the center of Spiritual Self can only be found: Betrayal is a spiritual gift in disguise as each time it happens a “peace” of ourselves can come home into the core of self. Soul Retrieval is the other message of Betrayal. On a Soul Level everyone agree’s with each other to act out as a mirror what each most needs to know about themselves. There are no secrets. You can not even hide from yourself. If you put on a Mask then somebody will agree to Act out your mask for you. Then you will see what you believe about yourself. Hard to see through so many layers of distortion. Lost in the game of being a human.

James Hillmans Betrayal Essay I first heard as told by Robert Bly with Micheal Toms via New Dimensions. This is for me James Hillmans most important writing. The Bible being a story of Betrayal from cover to cover. Jesus said all this will you do and even greater things will you do. Jesus said everyone will go through Betrayal and if you end up wise coming out the other end: one then see’s that Betrayal is an INSIDE JOB: The Fairy Tale and all the characters in the story are inside each person: Unique to each individual, and our life work is to write and explore our own Fairy Story. Oh by the way Fairy Tales are betrayal from cover to cover, and for me they have better maps because a lot of people tell those stories and they include bits and pieces of their own maps in the stories….! External Betrayal Shows up through Law of Attraction because I was Self Betrayed and all other people did was show me what I believed about myself. Fairy Tales are full of Betrayal and full of Maps about how to find ones way out of betrayal and to maybe understand the meaning of it.

I wrote a paper to myself called (Metaphysics compared to Facism) Metaphysics seeks to be 100% self responsible and non-projecting. Facism is 100% lack of self responsible behavior. All self hate is projected. The worst type of Betrayal is Self Hate Mirrored back to a person. That is really hard to own and heal. Robert Bly said on that same interview that we had to reject and disown ourselves as children in order to be accepted by the big parents and culture. Bly then talks about Alice Miller and her book (Banished Knowledge) that every act of cruelty done conscious or unconscious is interpreted as an act of love. Later when Love happens why not throw some cruelty into it. Bly then says see that confusion. He said we’ll work it out some how.

Robert Bly’s most amazing lecture was in 1980 (Faces of the Enemy Conference) The San Francisco Esalan Institute has that Lecture: introduction by Sam Keen. Its called (What The Shadow Knows). That tape will explain a lot more what is behind and inside James Hillmans writing on Betrayal. Robert Bly is a genious with this topic. The other writing is by Marie Louise Van Franz and its called (Shadow and Evil in Fairy Stories): this book more than any other I have ever read goes into the massive compartmentalization of the western mind. How little we actually know, because most of the information has been made taboo. Its the hardest and most amazing and difficult book I have ever read. I can’t even describe it. Its beyond what I thought I knew. Alchemy is the closest term I can find to describe it. It turns heavy thoughts into gold.

p/s My teacher would catch me every time I would project my thought out onto the world. She would say that’s your stuff, that’s you talking to yourself. Nobody but you did that to you. Always bringing it back inside. Its by far the most difficult class I have ever done. I’ve been at it for 20 years. And Robert Bly quoted Marie Louise Van Franz: She said with out projection we would each be an isolated little thing. Attractions and Aversions can beat up a person equally. Afraid of the Good and Bad all at the same time. Both are attachments. Maybe Betrayal is a Polarity of Attachment. Like hot and cold. Hard and soft. Sharp and Dull. Like Holding on and Letting go are polarities of Attachment and Betrayal. The Core Essence of Self can not be Betrayed. Not in Real Terms, and The Elders in a Culture Know this. Olders on the other hand are as lost as any un-initiated young person. Malidoma Patrice Some of Bakino Faso Africa and the Mens Movement, also a Shaman and Author said any man 35 to 40 years old who still has War in his heart is viewed as a failure in the village and can not be welcomed as an elder. Here in the West the opposite is true.

AmenASHandF / November 16th, 2008, 2:16 pm / #6

found what u wrote very intune to what I’ve commented on simplisticly. Thk u for this input! It’s Wow! for me ; )

Peder / November 16th, 2008, 6:16 pm / #7


I appreciate that you like what I wrote. This website is great. I Googled James Hillman because this morning I was sort of feeling in a funk about World Events. And its really UN-REAL. I’ll paste in a copy from several weeks ago that talks about the illusion of VALUE. Or maybe its just a Huge Betrayal……..Maybe humanity likes to gamble big time… Las Vegas Nevada is huge.

All the best
p/s I never knew that planet Earth has been reduced down to a Price Tag until I read the article below. Updates on the article below can be found via the link provided.

I deleted the article on the Quadrillion Dollar Equasion because it would not paste in.

Renowned worldwide for the ATCA Briefings. Subscribe now.

AmenASHandF / November 16th, 2008, 11:59 pm / #8

Peder, hello,
Cool! I took a quick look & I’ll be readimg more into it this week. It’s 1 am here, have a long day tomorrow! Yeah, life likes to gamble big time. It’s some sort of fun with chance alot of us take and many of us not even doing it diliberatly. It actually is forced on us to act on thru desperation, really. That wishing it could be us if we just keep trying.
Thks, have an awesome week & Thankgiving!

Kevin / February 13th, 2011, 2:35 am / #9

Always remember this when betrayed . Ask yourself what part of this do you own. 99.9% of the things that happen to you, you create (think about it) .

Cathleen / October 18th, 2011, 10:51 am / #10

I think Mr. Hillman missed the part about Jesus being betrayed by his own people. He was a Jew, he lived a Jew and he died a Jew, rejected by the Jews as their messiah, whom they're still supposedly waiting on (I'm confused on that, not being that versed in Judaism). The whole Abraham, Adam and Eve story is the foundation of three patriarchal religions, and these stories are appropriate to that patriarchy (can you imagine a woman obeying voices in desert telling her to kill her son?).

AmenASHandFree / October 18th, 2011, 5:32 pm / #11

Religion means to bind and cage, this says a lot on what it is. it's just a manipulation on our nature from Nature cause there's a lot of research on the manifestation of words their logic and sound formation and we R actually designed to be manipulated to/by them. Love, God, Goodness, mercy, compassion etc are triggers so much they make impact in advertising, music,movies, shows,poetry, art etc… Yes imagine if it was a wom(b)an asked to tie up her son and kill him… It's all Novels like Steven Kings stuff. it's part of some humans powerful capacity to be able do this – and wOw how their imagination and creativeness wks! How peculiar how our own brains work in following it…

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