Robert Bly: Iron vs. Copper
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notice that the soldiers in our story, when they arrive running alongside Iron
John's horse, are "clothed in iron." Iron belongs to Mars and Ares.
Iron was believed to be related to blood, because of the red hiding inside iron.
The ancients distinguished between two sorts of iron: magnetic iron, which is
associated with the sky gods and has "fallen from the heavens," and
ordinary iron, which is associated with earthly dark gods, such as Seth, who pursues
and kills the solar god, Osiris.
In astrology, iron governs the planet
Mars. Iron is often considered lucky, especially when found on the road. Horseshoes
can be used as protection against evil; and nails are set into cradles to protect
infants, or into beds to protect women in childbirth; scissors may be hidden in
the bed also.
Blake associated iron with intellect and with spiritual
warfare. We notice in fairy tales that the energy of the benevolent Father Spirit
appears at times in the form of small men dressed in iron. When the boy in our
story brings iron to the battlefield with him, he brings a great array of lucky
and helpful powers: horseshoes, magnetic iron, blood, the planet Mars, the sky-gods,
the Father Spirit, intellectual fight.
So far in this chapter we have
linked warriorhood to self-sacrifice and service to the King, to intellectual
combat, to clean fighting in marriage, and to the sharpness of the Vajra sword.
The Vajra sword should move in such a way as to cut apart what has been inappropriately
joined. When the sword has done its work and the Logos-Knife has cut well, we
will find ourselves less needy and more ready to enter the pairs of opposites.
We recall some of the pairs of opposites that Pythagoras named: light and dark,
limited and unlimited, male and female, the resting and the moving, and so on.
What if we feel too young to inhabit the dangerous space between male and
female? What if we don't like the fierce tension between straight and crooked
and don't feel up to so many opposites? The child in a messed-up family may feel
a ghastly tension between the addicted parent and the clean parent, between the
cold of the angry father and the heat of the loving mother, or between the cold
of the furious mother and the heat of the sorrowing father.
In such a
situation it's relatively easy to give up iron work and take up copper work. A
child can easily become a professional bridge. The child can become a conductor
made of that good conducting metal, copper.
A man's copper work probably
begins early by placing one hand on his father's wrathful chest and the other
hand on the earth; or perhaps he places one hand on his mother's anguished heart
and the other on the earth, or one hand on an adult's isolated head and the other
on the earth.
The boy who becomes a conductor values himself for the
complicated current that runs through his body, for his ability to conduct wrath
to the ground by a quiet reply, for the self-sacrificing stretching out of his
arms to touch each pole.
Many of us know this sensation of conduction from
early childhood: the mother and father talk to each other through the child. The
shame of the alcoholic father, for example, goes through our body heading east,
and the anxiety of the dependent mother goes through our body heading west. Fury
and contempt pass each other, meeting somewhere in the son's or daughter's chest.
If the child is a boy, the intense isolation of the father can run through
him with little resistance... copper is such a good conductor that the boy doesn't
heat up. The intensity of female suffering can flow through him without heating
him up very much either. I'm not sure how it is with girl children-I suspect they
heat up a little more.
The son loses his distinctiveness as a man by
learning to be a conductor; the daughter who accepts this task becomes, similarly,
a bridge, not a woman. When either son or daughter reaches adulthood, they will
notice many opportunities for similar bridging.
This way of treating
opposites has become extremely popular in the last forty years. When a man or
woman becomes a conductor, the act of conducting gives us the sense that we are
not shamefully narrow and limited, but that we have something for everyone. Of
course, in order for a person to maintain the illusion of being both limited and
unlimited, both child and bridge, both flesh and copper, that person has to ignore
many perceptions that slip into him or her at odd hours.
If a man has
become copper as a boy, he will likely continue working with that metal when grown
up. He may place one hand on the crown of his furious wife's head and the other
hand on the earth. He may become a public apologist, conducting to earth-through
his own body-centuries of justified female fury.
As fathers lose touch
with the warrior, fewer fathers give any modeling beyond the copper bridge when
faced with female anger. "My father never stood up to my mother, and I'm
still angry about that." Hundreds of men have spoken that sentence at gatherings.
Sometimes all that would have been necessary would have been for the father to
stand up for his boundaries, or for the limits of verbal abuse, and simply say
firmly, "Enough!" If the father cannot set limits to the mother's raging,
nor the mother to the father's "loss of temper," the children turn into
The more the man agrees to be copper, the more he becomes
neither alive nor dead, but a third thing, an amorphous, demasculinized, half-alive
psychic conductor. I believe that a woman sometimes finds herself channeling the
rage of dozens of dead women who could not speak their rage while alive. Conducting
that rage is dangerous.
Conducting large amounts of charm and niceness
is also dangerous. Ingesting excessive amounts of copper is an occupational hazard
for ministers, therapists, and priests, resembling the hazards of ingesting lead
that some factory workers endure. Contemporary ministers channel spiritual comfort,
coddling, and soothing, but at the expense of risk-taking and solitariness. Many
a male minister gives up his longing for solitude, and for the harshness and zaniness
of male companionship; and when they bury such as a minister, he's really made
mostly of copper.
Men and women, then, often become conductors not from
bravery or openness to change, but from a longing for comfort, for peace in the
house, for padded swords, for protective coloration, a longing to be the quail
hiding in fall reeds.
Becoming a conductor for male and female currents
is not the same thing as achieving androgyny. The Hermaphrodite is an image from
alchemy and becomes possible, as we mentioned earlier, on an inner plane after
years of distinctiveness: that is, years of cutting, opposites, and discrimination.
A false androgyny is achieved early on through conduction, but usually neither
Hermes nor Aphrodite is present.
This is a difficult subject, and it
is difficult to qualify statements in the right way. None of us has received very
good advice on copper work. Women in the early days of the feminist movement demanded
that men should do more conduction of anger for them. Women have long been tired
of being copper for men's domination fantasies; I suppose the early feminists
did not notice how much conduction men were already doing.
Iron John: A Book About Man
New York: Vintage Books,1990
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