By Susi Ferrarello, Ph.D.
Tears and Shame
“I cried so much that I feel empty inside. I’m tired of all these tears. They weigh like rocks upon my cheeks,” a client of mine said to me.
She was distressed because she was overcome with rage. She felt ashamed of her own nature and her inability to handle the challenges her life had presented her with.
I needed to find a way to help my client. I hated the idea of her having these “rocks” rubbing against her face as well as her perceiving herself as stuck in a fixed and immutable state.
Her tears reminded me of Myrrha, the protagonist of a particularly controversial myth.
A Word of Warning
This particular myth is cruder and more brutal than most, so read on at your own peril.
The Story of Myrrha and Cinyras
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a wonderful work of ancient literature that I recommend to all those fighting against their own desperation. The psychological transformations the various characters undergo show us how we can reconnect with our own sense of humanity, in both its good and ugly aspects.
The protagonist of one of the stories in the Metamorphoses is Myrrha, an exceptionally beautiful young woman. She is the daughter of Cinyras, a wealthy king of Cyprus. Unfortunately, the woman’s exceptional beauty provoked Aphrodite’s rage. The goddess also doesn’t approve of the girl’s attitude toward her suitors—she refuses them one after another, unable to make up her mind. As punishment, the goddess casts a spell upon her, which incites in her an overwhelming sexual attraction toward her own father.
Unable to deal with her unacceptable desires, Myrrha decides to end her life, but her old nurse comes to the rescue just in time, promising to solve her problem with a cunning plan.
The plan was this. Since Myrrha’s mother would have to stay away from her marriage bed for nine days in order to attend to Demeter’s festivals, the nurse sees in her absence an opportunity to put the two together. She suggests that Myrrha take her mother’s place in bed, pretend to be someone else and disguising herself under a veil. In this way she could seduce her father without arousing his suspicions and so satisfy her desperate lust.
King Cinyras is glad to have a new young lover, and for nine days they enjoy a passionate love affair. By the end of the ninth day, though, Cinyras grows curious about his lover’s identity and finally takes a peek at her face.
Imagine the shock, disgust, and horror that descends upon the king at this moment!
Unable to control his rage, King Cinyras lunges at Myrrha, intent on murdering her, but the young woman escapes.
Myrrha feels hopeless and desperate, crying ceaselessly, ashamed of herself and her own desires. She begs the gods to relieve her shame and change her nature.
At last the gods concede, changing her into a myrrh tree, and her tears are transformed into the tree’s perfumed drops of resin.
What I Take from This Story
The key to the myth lies in the tears of perfume. What was before shameful and onerous becomes scented and light.
Sometimes tears can have a life of their own—arising unexpectedly in public when you’re surrounded by others, but at other times refusing to come. In both cases their heaviness can drag you right down to hell unless you can manage a transformation. The transformative power of tears can uplift your spirit, making you feel normal again and as if the reasons for your grief are now mere nonsense.
Tears have the power to release the tension that comes with being human and even put you in contact with your own humanity and remind you of the limits of our own nature.
I worried about my client because she seemed unable to experience the transformative power of tears; they rolled down her cheeks without catharsis.
To me Myrrha’s story represents the universal shame of being human and the shock of encountering the darker parts of oneself. Still, nothing is fixed. Instead of continuing to live beneath an ethical judgment that either hides her shame or condemns it without mercy, she abandons herself to the wonder of life and begs for a metamorphosis.
Miracles can happen; hopes can perfume our tears and transform them into something better. They are our heralds of grace and forgiveness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Susi Ferrarello is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. She is currently teaching courses at the University of San Francisco, Saybrook University, and California State University: East Bay. She teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, Philosophy, and History for Carmenta Online Latin Tutors.