The Water of Life

“Amidst a world increasingly disoriented and at war with itself, each person carries with them the seeds of a unique and valuable story trying to unfold. The youngest part of each psyche still longs to find the holy waters that can ease the pain of living and make life whole and meaningful again.” – Michael Meade

The Water of Life is a German folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm.  It shares a pattern with stories found all over the world:  the youngest brother or youngest sister, the one whom everyone else regards as incompetent, succeeds in a task or quest where the “wise” siblings fail.  In doing so, they bring new life to themselves and to the land.

Carl Jung analyzed The Water of Life in detail because it so neatly aligns with his theory of the four functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – which are known to many through the Myer-Briggs Personality Profile.  Jung believed that at critical points in our life, renewal comes through “the inferior function,” the one that is least developed.  This “least competent sibling” lives closest to the unconscious where the healing waters lie.

The story has been a favorite of those who write about folklore from a psychological perspective.  One of these is Michael Meade, who wrote, Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men in 1994.  The original version, which analyzed six classic folktales, was based on the work he did hosting large men’s gatherings with James Hillman and Robert Bly.  In 2006, he revised the book and renamed it, The Water of Life:  Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul in an effort to broaden the scope to include both genders.  One more update preceded Meade’s release of an ebook last year.

A new urgency informs the latest version in light of the economic and ecological crises we face.  All along, Meade emphasized that the story speaks to cultures as well as individuals, for both can become rigid and stuck.

So let’s look at the story.  Here is the whole text for those who wish to pursue it:

A king lies dying.  He calls his three sons and tells them only the Water of Life can save him.  The oldest sets out, looking neither right nor left and soon passes a dwarf by the side of the road.

“Where are you riding so fast, looking neither right nor left?” asks the little man.

“What’s it to you, runt?” asks the prince.

The dwarf is furious.  He speaks a few words, and before long, the oldest son finds the valley walls closing in on him.  He keeps going, looking neither right nor left, until he and his horse are wedged in the rocks unable to move forward or back.

The second son sets out, disrespects the dwarf, and soon he too is stuck.

When neither of his older brothers returns, the youngest begs permission to go on the quest.  Figuring his last son, who has  reputation for being odd, has no chance if the clever brothers are lost, the king is reluctant.  At last the third son wears him down and wins permission to venture forth.

When the dwarf asks where he is going, the youngest son gets off his horse and says, “I seek the Water of Life for my father who is dying.”

“Do you know where to look?” asks the dwarf.

“No,” say the prince.  “I have no idea.”

Because the youngest son is humble and shows him respect, the dwarf points out the road and gives him magical implements he will need to win the Water of Life.

The dwarf helps the youngest son

Others have written long chapters about this part of the story.  I could do the same but I don’t think I need to.  People who live with stories – most readers of this blog, in other words – are going to pick up the gist pretty fast.  Still, a few points that others have made bear repeating.

  • Jung used the dying king to illustrate the changes that come at midlife.  The energy that propels us into the world through our first three of four decades is often exhausted and in need of renewal.  Everyone knows the cliche of the business exec who turns 40 and buys a corvette and a trophy wife.  Most people are wiser than that, but it is the time when renewal comes from the parts of ourselves that we have ignored or suppressed while looking neither right nor left.  As Michael Mead put it, “Only when we are at the end of our wits do we turn to the deeper wit of the youngest brother.”
  • Students of folklore know that success most often hinges on finding a magical ally, and in many stories, the older and “wiser” brothers and sisters blow it as they do here, with arrogance.  It makes little difference whether we understand the dwarf as an archetype of the deep psyche or as our ancestors did, as a creature of the Otherworld which is never far away.  Respect is essential.  The unconscious can bring inspiration or neurosis; magical beings can bless or curse.
  • Meade calls the first two brothers, “the ego brothers.”  These are the “well adapted” parts of ourselves, the inner movers and shakers who get things done.  There are plenty of times in the modern world when you don’t want to look right or left, when you need to charge ahead.  But when our best ideas get us stuck, as they eventually will, we need the humility of the younger brother.  Free of ego, the first step he takes toward healing, both for himself and his father, is to admit, “I do not know the way.”

I read Michael Meade’s first version of this book in the early ’90’s, and it came to mind very powerfully last summer, when our government ground to a halt – as stuck as the brothers pinned between the rocks.  Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to hear even one of our leaders speak the truth and confess, “I don’t know which way to go?”  Unfortunately, no one gets re-elected that way; our leaders are still charging ahead, looking neither right nor left.

Intuitively we know there are times when business as usual no longer works.  As Meade puts it,“Once it has been lost, the Water of Life can only be found by wandering off the beaten path.”

To Be Continued

9 thoughts on “The Water of Life

  1. I’ve always enjoyed your posts about fairytales and folklore, and this one is no exception.

    I would love to see a political leader who is willing to say “I don’t know.” But our culture seems to be set up so that we all have to know all the answers all the time. It would be very refreshing to see a candidate admit their ignorance, and I actually think it could help them out if it were spun correctly. Unfortunately, I also think it will never happen.

    I think I said this in my blog once, although I don’t recall the exact post offhand. I know I’ve said it in person before. The most intelligent thing that a person can say is “I don’t know.” Those three words say so much about a person, and everything that they say is positive.


    • Thanks for the feedback, Adam. I appreciate it because I find these are the post I most enjoy researching and writing.

      I heard that one time, at a press conference, Harry Truman was asked, “What if your plan for such-and-such doesn’t work?” Truman said, “Then we’ll try something else.”

      Even such common sense might spell disaster on the campaign trail now. On the new Bill Moyers show, they gave an example of phrases from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address taken out of context and spliced into an attack add.

      I see little hope for our current political system to self-correct until things get a lot worse, or we wind up with a real third party. In that sense, The Water of Life reminds me of a statement I’ve seen attributed to Einstein – that the mind that creates a problem is not the mind that can solve it.


  2. I have never heard of this story, and I am an avid reader of Jung, so nice find! I really like how this story has exoteric and esoteric teachings contained within it. Perhaps I am taking the story out of context here, but I couldn’t help but think about the Buddha’s teachings regarding the middle way. Too often people focus on only balance, and maintaining “the path”; however, in order to really do this we must look to the left, and to the right, and adjust our course as necessary. Thanks for sharing!


    • You will find a great image of the middle way in the finale which I will post in a day or two.

      Jung’s colleague, Marie-Louise Von Franz, discussed the story in her works on the interpretation of fairy tales, so Jung may not have wished to poach on her domain. (I just remembered that now).


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