Ares and Aphrodite in “Avatar”

James Cameron’s blockbuster hit movie “Avatar” appears, on the surface, to be a retelling of a popular story in which a warrior for one side in a conflict comes to love and appreciate the culture of the so-called enemy, and “goes native” or switches sides. The movie presents a dystopian view of Earth’s future where soulless corporations have destroyed the environment for monetary gain. One of these corporations is are seeking to do the same on Pandora, a planet in the Alpha Centauri solar system, and has brought in its own army of mercenary soldiers to make sure the local humanoids—the Na’vi—don’t get in the way. The Na’vi have a tribal hunter-gatherer culture that is based on respect for the planet and all of its denizens, even the plant life. Over the course of the movie, one of the human soldiers falls in love with the planet and its people and helps them defeat the invaders.

Many see the movie as romanticizing those who live close to nature as unspoiled and admirable, while demonizing technology-based cultures. The film has been widely criticized for this simplistic view.  Others criticize it for showing a white man saving the colored people who cannot save themselves. Yet if one looks at this movie with a mythological eye, several layers of more profound meanings can be found.

In his “Terminator” films as well as “Avatar,” Cameron explores how a technology-based society deals with the archetypal aspect of the human psyche personified by the god that the Greeks called Ares and the Romans Mars. Ares represents the quality of unthinking action often seen in men when they fight. He is “a force rather than a figure,” notes James Hillman in A Terrible Love of War; “what men do to one another in war is Ares; the possession that makes one insane and inspired, furious and deathless all at once.” When Ares possesses men, they can go berserk. This berserker quality can be a positive thing when men fight hand-to-hand. But we have moved from spears and arrows to weapons of mass destruction; from wars fought between city-states to wars involving half the world; from a siege lasting 10 years to a thousand years of conflict in the Middle East; from hand-to-hand combat to missiles launched by computers. In such arenas, with such weapons, Ares needs containment.

Originally Ares was part of a family headed by Zeus, who had the right and the power to stop any of the gods from excessive behavior. The unconscious psyche, says psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, knows when to stop; it is the conscious attitude that is capable of going too far. Unfortunately, the cold-hearted, “enlightened” (that is, conscious) scientist Apollo has taken over from Zeus in our modern Western civilization. Apollo, as Hillman points out, always fails at relationships. He doesn’t see the consequences to people of the machines he invents. Cameron has shown us what might happen because of Ares under Apollo’s rule in his “Terminator” movies: a future world that lies in ruin, where machines hunt down the few remaining humans.

In “Avatar,” Cameron contrasts two warriors: two avatars of Ares. Von Franz tells us in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales that that when there is a doubled motif—when two characters appear who seem to represent the same archetype—one may represent the shadow or negative aspect of the archetype, while the other gives us the positive attributes. The gung-ho Colonel Quarritch (Stephen Lang) is the negative Ares type. He is hard-bodied and hard-minded; he has no interest in anything but winning by all the means available to him, regardless of the cost. When we first meet him, he is strapping himself into an enormous mechanical suit of armor that amplifies every movement he makes. The suit protects him—but also distances him—from a world he perceives as being hostile and dangerous, a world he cheerfully sets out to destroy. He is Ares without restraint.

The compensatory avatar of Ares is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine confined to a wheelchair. Through the use of an even more advanced technology, Jake’s mind is linked to a body cloned from human and Na’vi DNA. Like the “AMP suit,” this body makes Jake twice the size of a human and far stronger. But this body has a heart and skin. Jake wears no armor; he experiences Pandora directly, nearly naked, exposed, natural. This is as it should be, for Ares, says archetypal psychologist Ginette Paris in Pagan Meditations, is meant to be entirely out in the open.

In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the dangers of a technology that distances us from the world around us and from each other. Humans, Abram insists, are designed for relationship not just with each other but with the world. More than that, “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” We only know ourselves through contrast with that which is not us. And we need that contact. “Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them,” says Abram. When Quarritch is inside the suit, it doesn’t matter to him what the environment around him is like. He is the machine.

Ares energy can also be tempered by Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. Aphrodite inspires us to perceive beauty in everything—even the terrible beauty of war that can make so strong an impression that veterans often long to re-experience it. To be brought back into balance, Ares needs that eye for beauty as well as another quality of the goddess, the very one Apollo lacks: the capacity for relationship.

The first humans to try to connect with the Na’vi in avatar bodies are scientists eager to study and understand. The Na’vi reject these Apollonian thinkers for not being able to see beyond their own paradigms.  But things change when Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), a Na’vi woman, comes across Jake when he is lost in the forest and fighting for his life. She sees that he “has a strong heart, no fear.” Neytiri’s function in the movie is as Aphrodite, and what Aphrodite loves most about Ares is his courage. In return, she helps Jake see the beauty of and love the world of Pandora and its denizens.

Jake eventually learns that that all living things on Pandora are connected biologically in a manner similar to the synapses in a human brain. The planet itself is sentient. The Na’vi call this sentience Eywa, the world mother. The Greeks would call her Gaea, the mother goddess of all. When war breaks out Jake asks Eywa for help, and she sends the creatures of the world to join the Na’vi in the fight against Quarritch’s troops and defeat them.

Other aspects of the Goddess also come to Jake’s aid. The scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) represents Athena, the rational side of the feminine. Athena is not dispassionate like Apollo; she is also the Goddess of War, and Grace joins in the fight on Jake’s side. The human warrior woman Trudy Chacón (Michelle Rodriguez) is Artemis, the huntress, while Moat (CCH Pounder) exemplifies Hera, queen of the gods. All these women save Jake at one point or another; without them, he would not have survived even a day on Pandora. In gratitude, he offers them his service as “a warrior of the Jarhead clan.” (Cameron sees that the military also follows a tribal ethic, which is why Jake can connect with the Na’vi where the scientists—scientists tend to be communistic, sharing knowledge as a group of equals—and the capitalist corporate people cannot.)

Cameron is tapping into other mythic traditions  as well. In the earliest Arthurian legends and the Welsh legends that predate them, Gawain is the Knight of the Goddess who protects women, water and springs, and the land, and is in turn given power by the great goddess. In a Vedic story, Indra the war god and Sarasvati the goddess of inspiration together defeat the demon Vitra who has swallowed all the waters, and so end the drought and restore the land. These myths reflect the concept of the wasteland that can only be healed through the union of the masculine and feminine. Jake honors the feminine when he fights for the land alongside all the avatars of the Goddess.

Psychologically there is another layer to the movie. The image of the dangerous yet beautiful forest often represents the unconscious: full of terrors, yet the source of what sustains us. If we want the unconscious psyche to speak to us, we have to treat it with respect, invite it to speak, create a channel. The Na’vi connection to the land and its creatures is a metaphor for how to open to the wisdom of the unconscious. But the humans in their walled-off enclave are so frightened of the shadow that they refuse even the slightest contact with the unknown—and as a result, are destroyed by their own fears.

Finally, the story of Jake and Neytiri portrays the stages of a love affair from giddy infatuation to mature love. When they first fall in love, Jake and Neytiri literally fly away together. When passion carries a young couple away, they fly off into the air, says von Franz, but this is not a real, earthly love. Soon enough, there is a betrayal of that perfect illusion, and both Jake and Neytiri crash painfully to earth. After a struggle with demons in the forest—shadow aspects of the unconscious—Jake and Neytiri finally see each other as they truly are. Jake sees the woman in her full power, while Neytiri sees the man at his weakest. Jake honors the goddess within the woman, and Neytiri sees the true courage of soul within the crippled warrior.

Seen from a mythological and depth psychology perspective, then, the movie does not suggest that we abandon modern technology and revert to a hunter-gatherer culture. The problem as Cameron sees it is not that we see technology as the way to a better life, but we have forgotten what makes life better, and so misuse our technology to destroy what we need most. In “Avatar” he posits a future in which we have found a technology that will allow us to touch the world and each other directly and immediately. He imagines a way in which we could not only restore our connection to our mother earth, but learn how to treat the unconscious psyche with respect and so gain access to some of its energy. He also shows us how to move beyond the illusions of adolescent infatuation to love each other in full awareness and acceptance. Cameron’s vision is of a future where we can heal the alienation from each other and our world that is currently leading us to destruction. If we can do that, as he suggests through both mythic and psychological imagery, we may not just save the world we now inhabit for ourselves, but open up our horizons to new realms.

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