Symbolic aspects of disability



Everybody knows that the other one, and above all the “different one”, is the favourite target and receptacle of our negative psychological projections. The part, though always accompanying us, repressed and refused of ourselves that we could call, with Conrad, our “secret sharer” - that part of us that Jung calls Shadow – if refused, rejected and  not assimilated by our consciouness


meets us from outside. To say it using a well-known biblical expression, it is to point to the speck in our brother’s eye neglecting the beam in our own. There are innumerable daily, but also historic and collective examples of it: suffice it to think of the gigantic Shadow projection on Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals by Nazism, on Blacks in the United States or, more generally, on women by many religions, including Christianity. This – alas! – generalized and ubiquitous mechanism applies also to disabled persons. I think it could be useful to everybody to become aware of this mechanism and destructure it by seeing how the maimed person can be symbolically understood. I will deal therefore with materials provided by dreams and religious myths. This can’t obviously be an exhaustive presentation, but I hope, in the time given to me, to transmit at least some ideas on this theme.

The  maimed  person’s  figure  is  widespread  as,  so  to  say,  symbolic  character.  

A first example coming to my mind is the major role that forced – yet at times, but not always, voluntary – mutilations have in many initiation rituals. As you know, “initiation” means the whole range of rituals and rigorously encoded procedures performed to shift from a social and existential state into another one as, for example, from childhood to manhood, from girlhood to womanhood, from ordinary human being to medicine-man or shaman, and so on. These rituals are generally associated to very painful (for the initiate) practices and real mutilations. Among some African populations, for example, they extract a tooth, usually a canine; in Japan they cut the phalanx of the little finger; American Indians inflict very painful wounds - many people will perhaps remember the ones represented in a very raw manner in Elliot Silverstein’s old (1970) film “A Man called Horse” with Richard Harris. All of these are examples of imposed “mutilations” which don’t represent a “lose”, but an acquisition, in this case the acquisition of a superior social rank.



This can already teach us a thing or two. On a level of very great refinement of thought we can remember the famous episode of the dwarf belonging to the court of a Roman emperor. The legend says that, to the question if he suffered from his condition, he, being a deep neo-platonic philosopher, answered of being glad that Nature had endowed him with so little matter (opposed to the highest value of Spirit and absolutely negative in comparison with it). In this connection we can recall the category to which this dwarf probably belonged: physically maimed till deformation, jesters were known for their acumen and wisdom their masters frequently took advantage of, being also the only ones able to tell them those unpleasant truths that to whomever else would have cost their head. 

Expressions such as “don’t play the fool” or “he is a buffoon” could then be usefully reconsidered in the light of these considerations. When a child is “acting the fool” is often trying to damp the accumulated negative tension within the family, bringing a puff of joy and jocularity.


There are many great characters whose disability brought them advantage. Homer’s blindness must have sharpened its poetic and visionary ability. Beethoven’s deafness didn’t prevent, or rather perhaps facilitated, the composition of his sublime music. If you allow me to present a personal element, I am myself disabled, because I got a considerable reduction of visual acuity and visual field in one of my eyes because of a retina detachment provoked by a pebble thrown by a slingshot during one of a lot of battles between boys gangs. Well, staying blinded in bed for one month when I was thirteen, forced as I was to do after the surgical operation - at the time much longer, more complicated, and crippling during convalescence than now - was the opportunity of a deep reflection upon myself, which has not been extraneous, but rather very significant, for my choice, many years later, of dealing with psyche, mine and others’. I must say that the deep acceptance of that impairment  has made possible its symbolic transformation during my personal analysis through an extremely meaningful dream. I dreamt that I was in front of a motley glass door and, thanks the difference of visual acuity and colours perception between my two eyes, I could appreciate its deep beauty and get the key to open it; in a second part of the dream the same imperfection enabled me to become an expert of Sèvres porcelain which, as you know, is divided in “red” and “blue”. What was an impairment unfolded itself in a precious tool through which I could appreciate differences. Furthermore, that sort of deprivation developed in me a passion for images and art, immensely enriching my private and professional life. I don’t want, by this, to deny the suffering involved in every disability. But I want to state strongly that every disadvantage can reveal a hidden wealth which only reveals itself through its acceptance. It obviously is, even if not only and always, a psychic wealth, true treasures that a situation of so-called normality can, without our being at all aware of it, deprive us of. If we would make a sort of axiom out of it, we could say that to a physical disability can correspond a psychic development. As all of us know at our expenses, suffering is a great teacher, a teacher of life and not of death, such as it could become if one surrenders to despair, regret or cynicism. 

To stay in the domain of dreams, I would like to recall that the appearance in them of a lame figure or character is frequently a positive signal. Speaking in general, the apparition in a dream of the image of a person on a wheelchair, amputated or in any other way disabled represents an indication of something neglected of which one has to take care, thus offering the process of recognition of Shadow’s parts, which will allow their subsequent transformation, an opportunity. As Jung repeatedly recalls, it is from the part most despised that often comes a message of salvation and redemption. All of us know that it is from the darkest, most neglected and despised corner of the Roman empire that Jesus has come, as from a dark Bedouin tribe, at the time considered less than nothing by the western world, has come Mohammed and with him Islam, a powerful strength that has revolutionized half of the world. I would like to mention, in this connection, Jung’s extraordinary sentence concluding his Dream Analysis:

Don’t forget that from the Jews, the more despised people of Antiquity, living in the most despicable corner of Palestine or Galilee, came the redeemer of Rome. Why should not our redeemer be a Negro? It would be logical and psychologically correct.[1]

This call, in some dreams, is therefore strong and clear – what seems to be a carrier of infirmity or disability is, in reality, a depositary of development and redemption. Besides what could be an interpretation ad personam on the individual level, cannot there be in these dreams a more general message concerning everybody? A message like: watch how you consider the different one, try to get beyond your first impression and think how many things suffering can have taught him, and therefore how many things he can teach you. A message of this kind can tell a thing or two to whom has got ears to listen.  

God Bes (Dendera)

Passing now to a different symbolic kingdom, that of mythology, I would like to recall that the character of the deformed god is not at all unusual. 

Neglecting gods very far from us, at times really monstrous, belonging to religions alien to us, like those of Central America and of East, I would like to dwell on two divinities of our Mediterranean basin.

God Bes (Cairo)

God Bes (Istanbul)

The first one is Bes, a god belonging to both the Egyptian and Phoenician pantheons and therefore extremely Mediterranean.

Bes is represented as a dwarf with a very big head and protruding eyes, tongue hanging down, and flapping ears; he is bow-legged and has a bushy and tousled beard, at times even a tail. 

Despite his aspect, however, Bes is an auspicious god, inspiring joy and turning out worries; he has the ability to chase away bad spirits and dangerous or harmful beasts, watches over children, plays cheerfully harp and flute and happily dances at the sound of a tambourine beaten by himself.

It is also a god who presides over birth and associated, as mentioned before, to children and child gods.

Statuette of God Bes

Bes Amulet 1

As we can see, also in this case bodily deformity is associated to a positive message, a benevolence towards human beings and Bes, as god connected with birth and children, is also a promise of renewal, of new life.

He had even, in the first centuries of our era, a famous oracle and some prescriptions to consult him in dream have survived.

Bes Amulet 2

Bes Amulet3

It is clear, above all from this last detail, that Bes, despite the absolute earthliness of his aspect, is a fundamentally “psychic” god, whose benign influence has to do with liberation from worries, getting joy and cheerfulness and generally with pleasurable demonstrations of life which, in some way, considering his deep divinatory wisdom, include him in the category of buffoons I have spoken of before.

The message communicated by Bes despite his deformity and ugliness is therefore - recalling that he is often represented on mirrors, cosmetic articles, amulets and talismans - a message of joy, beauty, geniality, safeguard, good luck and, as mentioned before, renewal and fertility, since he protects marriage, women, pregnancy, children, home and beauty itself.



Bes Amulet 4

Bes playing harp

Bes playing tambourine

Bes dances

Bes Handle of mirror

Bes su poggiatesta

A god nearer to us is Hephaestus, or Vulcan, the great god of metallurgy whose forges have been located in various places, also in our beautiful island. If Etna is smoking, it is Hephaestus working at God knows what prodigious mechanical contrivance or marvellous artistic invention. According to one of the myths of Hephaestus, he was a victim of Era (Juno), in this case a mother-stepmother, like Mother Nature for many disabled persons. Let’s speak this unnatural mother:

Velazquez: Ephaestus' Forge

Listen to me, all you gods, with all the goddesses,
How Zeus gatherer of thunderstorms offended me first
After my having been his sedulous bride:
Now lo, without me he procreated sparkling-eyed Athena,
Excelling among all blessed immortals:
While instead is maimed in presence of the gods
My child, Hephaestus, with deformed feet; I made him all by myself:
I picked him up and threw him with my hands in the vast sea.
But Nereus’ daughter, silver-footed Thetis,
Welcomed him, and with her sisters took care of him:
Another world had he chosen, for doing pleasing things to the blessed gods![2]

Vulcan: Italian coin

Ephaestus, however, takes his revenge on the jealous, envious and malignant mother giving her a golden throne which, as soon as Era sits on it, inexorably imprisons her; only Dionysus, with his arts and wine, succeeds in convincing Hephaestus to free his too negative mother. Giving free rein to our psychological imagination, we could glimpse in this last part of the myth an indication of the technological possibilities – from vehicles to prosthesis to architectural facilities – which allow us to “take vengeance” on a malign Nature or at least to limit its damages. God of blacksmiths, with whom he shares the ambiguity of producing weapons or ploughs, and of artisans, Hephaestus reaches sublime, both technological and artistic, peaks.

Suffice it to recall, among them, the famous Achille’s shield, whose description takes many lines of Iliad; the beautiful self-moving maidens – an extraordinary anticipation of our robots!; the clever trap-bed by which he caught and exhibited to the mockery of the other gods Ares (Mars) and unfaithful Aphrodite (Venus). This brings to mind some points of resemblance that Hephaestus and Bes share. In addition to deformity of legs and bristly hair and beard, Hephaestus, in the various myths concerning him, has always to do with feminine beauty. “With all his monstrosity”, Alfonso M. Di Nola says, “Hephaestus is a lucky lover. In Iliad he loves Charis, “Grace”. In Hesiod he has as bride Aglae, the youngest of the Charites (Graces). His adventures with Aphrodite, given him by Zeus as legitimate wife, and who betrays him with Ares are well-known. He dares to attack Athena herself, and from this encounter Erittonius is born”.[3]

Raffaello: Heliodorus' room

The relationship between deformity and beauty, not reducing it to a trivial and senseless opposition, forces us to think. It could psychologically be thought that deformity of the body opens up to a series of “divine” and, as such, psychic beauties. Deformity can be the “door” through which one can reach beauty. It must not be forgotten Hephaestus’ artistic and technological skill I mentioned before. We can also assume that disability opens the way to a “specialization” of the individual, allowing him, being Hephaestus a god, to obtain, yet within his own limitations, “divine” achievements.

Jacob's ladder (contemporary sculpture)

I would give another example, this time taken from the Bible, in which a dream and a vision have, again, a paramount importance: they are the dream and vision of Jacob - the second has a great significance in connection to our theme.


They are told in Genesis

Jacob departed from Betsabea and headed for Harran. He arrived in a place where he spent the night, because the sun was set; taken a stone, he put it as a pillow and lay down there. He had a dream: a ladder stood on the soil, while its top reached the sky, and lo, the angels of God went up and down it. And lo, the Lord was in front of him saying: “I am the Lord, the god of Abraham your father and the god of Isaac. The soil on which you have lain down I will give you and your descent. Your descent will be as the dust of the earth and you will extend to west and east, to north and south. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed for you and your descent. Lo, I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go; then I will make you to return to this country, because I won’t abandon you without having done what I have told you.”[4] 

Jacob Epstein: Jacob's fight with angel

The vision takes place later:

Jacob's fight with angel (contemporary sculpture)

In the night Jacob got up, took his two wives, his slaves and his eleven children over the ford of Iabbok. He took them, helped them to go across the stream and made the same with all his possessions. Jacob remained alone and a man fought with him until dawn. As he didn’t succeed in overcoming Jacob, he hit him in the joint and the joint of Jacob’s femur got sprained, while keeping fighting with him. The other said: “Allow me to go, since dawn is rising.” Jacob replied: “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” The other asked: “What’s your name?” He answered: “ Jacob.” The other said: “Your name won’t be Jacob anymore, but Israel, because you fought with God and men and you have won!” Then Jacob asked him: “Tell me your name.” The other answered: “Why do you ask my name?” And lo, he blessed him.[5]  


How could we understand, obviously from a psychological, and not religious, point of view these two stories? A first thing that strikes us and that we can put to ourselves as a question is: why Jacob – having already received in dream the blessing and solemn engagement from God to have a country, a progeny like “the dust of the earth”, an extension in every direction, and also a guarantee of His own protection anywhere he will go and an insurance to never be abandoned – has then to face that fight “until dawn” and come out of it crippled to get a new blessing? If we human beings swear “in the name of God” to make holy and inviolable what we say, the own promise of that same God is sacred, inviolable and unchangeable to the nth power. Why, therefore? A first answer could be the following: the first promise and blessing are given to Jacob during the nigh and in a dream, in a state of unconsciousness, and therefore they could represent, from a psychological point of view, just a potentiality

Gustave Moreau: Jacob's fight with angel 

M. Segal: Jacob's fight with angel



As we know from experience, the unconscious is a planner and, as such, it offers intuitions concerning the future and perspectives which, however, the ego is called to realize. The second blessing, happening at dawn, when the night of unconsciousness and unconscious planning is over, can thus represent a potentiality come true and on which the ego has now absolute mastery. What, however, does the physical disability mean?

  It is a visible mark, like the change of name, of a second birth, of the establishment of the pact and of the received blessing, a bodily impairment involving a spiritual elevation, the possibility for Jacob to climb and to go down the ladder which was the core of the previous dream. Only so, physically maimed, is the spiritual ascent possible. We have gone back, on a much higher level, to the considerations made when speaking of initiation. Paradoxically, to rise we have to go down. Cannot we consider then the impairment of many disabled persons a sign of something that we could interpret as a possibility of spiritual development, even if paid a very high price? I believe that there is such a possibility and, keeping it in mind, that one can forget forever the hateful motto I used to hear in my childhood: “That God take good care of you against those marked by Himself”. These people, on the contrary, even in the form of suffering and impairment, have been touched by God and, as such, they have not only the right of our sympathetic consideration, but also of a sort of particular and holy “dignity”: this holds even more true for them towards themselves. As a doctor I know perfectly well that for many disabled persons we cannot hope for any psychic growth but, again as a doctor, I know that these same patients can teach us at least the humility, devotion and dedication incarnated, besides his technical competence, by our god, Asclepius.


[1] C. G. Jung, Dream Analysis, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 706.

[2] “Homeric Hymn to Apollo”, vv. 311-321.

[3]  “Grecia, religioni della”, in Enciclopedia delle religioni, Vallecchi, Firenze, 1971, vol. 3, col. 547-548.

[4] Genesis, 28, 10-16.

[5] Genesis, 32, 23-30.

Paper presented in Marsala, Complesso monumentale di San Pietro, December, 3th, 2004. _______________
Luciano Perez, M.D., psychiatrist and analytical psychologist, is a member of IAAP, Zürich and of CIPA, Rome. He is also a member of  Società italiana di storia delle religioni; Amici di Eranos, Ascona, Switzerland; and Honorary President of Amici della collina, Catania, a society for the study of archetypal and imaginal psychology.