Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.

Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

8 thoughts on “Myths and therapy

  1. Love the conclusion. I have a small collection of fairy tales and have been interested in various psychological interpretations or sociological explorations of their content. But bottom line for me is what the readers find in the images for themselves. Just as in any type of art there is what the artist brought to the piece interacting with what the viewer or reader brought to the piece. It can still be interesting to consider how cultural or subcultural groups symbolize or read symbols in stories, but for psychology, I think it is much more individual than many suggest.


    1. I agree with you. We can quibble with terms like myth, legend and folktale and discuss their discrete or overlapping roles or functions, but fundamentally any narrative (in whatever medium) is an interplay between narrator and audience, and all we can do as individuals in that audience is respond to it personally.

      Still, any attempt to throw light on the ‘uses of enchantment’ (a phrase coined by Bruno Bettelheim) is welcome! Just as long as, as McMahon says, there’s no ‘simple reductionist interpretation’.


  2. Another example of a cover unfaithful to the text, and poor exiting? Oh, dear.
    As one who believes that a great deal of psychology is babble, particularly Freudian versions, and that a good story usually started simply as a good story, I might not be a very sympathetic reader.


    1. Despite the ‘psychobabble’, I did find quite a few nuggets of gold in here when it was first published, and very little iron pyrite.

      By the way, I loved your sly aside about ‘poor exiting’ when of course we would all read it as ‘editing’…


    1. It’s a funny little publication from a small press that covers a range of esoteric, mythical, and folkloric subjects. McMahon kindly wrote an article or two for an Arthurian magazine I once edited (defunct since 2009) and I got a review copy from the publishers.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Frederick Sandys’ 1864 painting of Morgan Le Fay is pretty exuberant, isn’t it? 🙂 Fantastic mix of classical furnishings, Pictish symbols and leopard skin to get the unique exotic vibe, and those colours! I ought to do a separate post on it…

      Liked by 1 person

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