In celebration and honor of passing the comprehensive exams in my Master’s program in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology, I’m sharing each essay I wrote. Here’s the final one. Here I was required to look at a piece of popular culture or media from a mythological and depth psychological perspective. Of course, I turned to Whedon, and then to my dear blue friend, Illyria. The handful of episodes she is in are amazingly dynamic and loaded. For more on Illyria –and here comes my shameless plug– check out Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion for my piece, “Touch Me and Die, Vermin!”: The Psychoanalysis of Illyria.
Myth and Psychology in Angel
Television shows offer a great avenue for telling mythological stories with detailed characters and events unfolding over a period of time. Series such as Angel provide viewers with a mythology that is as rich as those developed in ancient texts. A spin-off of the popular series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel captured viewers’ attention for five seasons as it explored the individual journeys of each main character in its ensemble cast. Throughout my course work at Pacifica, I have explored the mythological elements of this series. I examined thecharacter Angel as the modern Oedipus (Greek and Roman I), explored the series Angel as a Tragedy (Greek and Roman II), and examined the role and significance of the Apocalypse in Angel in relation to DH Lawrence’s Apocalypse (Approaches to the Study of Myth). Through this research, I have found the most provocative mythological and psychological storyline in Angel occurs in season five with the characters Wesley and Illyria.
One of the main characters in Angel is Wesley Wyndham Price. He is a human that works with the vampire Angel in this series about a group of misfits that fight against the dark supernatural forces in Los Angeles. Wesley falls in love with the human Winifred “Fred” Burkle, but Fred’s body is overtaken by the godking Illyria (an old one who once ruled in the world at the beginning of time). As Wesley mourns the loss of his love, he has to deal with the unpredictable godking who has replaced her. Illyria has one simple goal: to regain her full powers (beyond what her human vessel can contain) and reclaim her rule over the world. She believes she is better than humans. Her character is representative of the god complex, and as her ego faces defeat, Illyria comes to know emotional pain.
Joseph Campbell asserts that pain is a part of our humanity: “The impact of this horror on a sensitive consciousness is terrific – this monster which is life. Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that” (Pathways 3). This idea is illustrated throughout the Angel series quite often as all the characters face dangerous trials and tribulations. It is accentuated in the character of Illyria as she undergoes a great transformation and explores human emotions. Furthermore, the storyline with Wesley and Illyria includes the four functions of mythology, which Joseph Campbell asserts must be present in a traditional mythology, and which address living with the “horrendous presence” of life. Historically, a mythology itself would provide these four functions (discussed in detail below) for the members of a given a society. In the popular culture form, the mythology of Angel depicts the four functions within the story itself, allowing audience members to see the characters grapple with matters they can relate to. Though humans do not literally face the supernatural forces characterized in Angel, the truth of these battles exists in our daily lives as we struggle to live in this world.
According to Campbell, the first function of a mythology is cosmological and requires the individual to look at the mystery of the world and make some type of reconciliation with it (Pathways 104). Illyria and Wesley must make reconciliation with the world as it is, especially after they have both suffered great losses: she is no longer a ruler, and he no longer has the love of his life. This process of reconciliation may be even more difficult for Illyria because her previous status exempted her from human emotions. Though Wesley never suffered such a tragic loss as the death of Fred, he is at least familiar with the pain and misery of living in a world filled with disappointment, loss, and death.
In Illyria’s first appearance in the episode “Shells,” she is quick to express her views of the human experience as she examines Wesley mourning the loss of Fred: “This is grief. I’m watching human grief. It’s like offal in my mouth.” In a following comment, she declares, “Your breed is fragile.” In this early observation, Illyria quickly distinguishes herself from humans. However, by the end of the episode, Illyria learns her temple and army are destroyed, and she painfully expresses, “My world is gone.” She suffers disappointment, something she never felt as a godking. At this time of her defeat, she is really being born into this human world, and the first connection between her and Wesley occurs when he replies, “Now you know how I feel.”
Struggling through this cosmological stage, Illyria analyzes the world around her and concludes, “I’ve nowhere to go. My kingdom is long dead. There’s so much I don’t understand. I’ve become overwhelmed. I’m unsure of my place. But I exist here. I must learn to walk in this world.” Anyone who has suffered a significant loss can understand Illyria’s feelings. It is at this point that she formally asks a hesitant Wesley to be her guide. He agrees, and they both try to re-establish their place in the world. At this point, Wesley’s role also exhibits the fourth function of myth, which will be discussed below.
After acknowledging the harsh truths of reality, Illyria moves toward “[t]he second function [of mythology which] serves to present a universe within which the mystery as understood will be present, so that everywhere you look at it, as it were, a holy picture, [opens] up in back to the great mystery” (Campbell, Pathways 105). After looking at the mystery of creation, the individual begins to look at the meaning or significance of the self in this world. Illyria despises her human form, and as she examines the world around her, she feels trapped. Wesley takes her to a rooftop to offer some breathing room, though she still complains: “Your world is so small. And yet you box yourselves in rooms even smaller. You shut yourselves inside, in rooms, in routines” (“Underneath”). As Wesley tries to discuss the difficulties of existence that lie beyond the walls, Illyria begins to demonstrate the humanity she too “reeks” of, finally concluding, “We are so weak (italics mine).” Her ego is beginning to recognize that she is no longer a godking.
As Illyria continues her earthbound struggle, “The third, sociological function of mythology [which] gives you laws for living within your own society” appears (Campbell Pathways 107). This function encourages the development of a moral code. As her guide, Wesley has been trying to explain the differences between right and wrong to Illyria. When Illyria first chooses to participate in the climactic apocalyptic battle the protagonists face, her motives are not altruistic. Illyria herself explains, “I’ve been broken and humiliated. I will return in kind every blow, every sting. I will shred my adversaries. Pull their eyes out just enough to turn them towards their mewing, mutilated faces” (“Not Fade Away”). She is still controlled by her desire to assert her power. However, when Wesley dies in battle, Illyria begins to get in touch with her humanity. She mourns for him and expresses, “I’m feeling grief for him. I can’t seem to control it.” Illyria’s response to his death demonstrates she has developed the ability to emotionally connect. She is just starting to move beyond her own desires and function within the society she has found herself in.
Illyria provides an unadulterated view of human struggles, and Wesley shows how to deal with the passage of life from birth to death, fulfilling the fourth and final psychological function of mythology. According to Campbell, “All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (Myths to Live By 104). Once exposed to the human condition, we are all subject to the same vulnerabilities. This shared experience makes us all equal; no one is “above” the pleasures or the pain of it all. Wesley’s key role here is to teach Illyria learn to live in this world, while he manages his own suffering. It is important to note that it is not through any supernatural powers but through their choices that the characters in Angel, particularly Wesley, are defined as heroes. The greatest choice is the one to continue to face the despair in the world and to continue to fight for the world in spite of the pain. Throughout the series, and as seen in this storyline, Angel not only functions as mythology, but depicts ways to accept the pain of life. Campbell emphasizes that, “All life stinks, and you must embrace that with compassion” (Pathways 77).
Illyria makes negative comments about humanity that viewers can relate to, and one could ask why anyone would want to be human and experience all the suffering. However, it is through the pain that human life becomes magnificent. In a unique depiction of the four functions of mythology, Illyria reveals the terrifying truths of living in this world. By embracing life as the brutal force it is, being a part of it, and willing to sacrifice it honorably, Wesley depicts humanity is at its best.
Wesley, who had stated that he did not intend to die in this battle, gave his life for Angel’s worthy cause in “Not Fade Away,” the series’ finale that emphasizes the underlying theme to the series, to fight the good fight (both physically and mentally). His nobility portrays the importance of their stand against dark forces. Finally, Wesley’s sacrifice stands out because he still sought to live and fight alongside Angel despite all the recent pain he suffered. The strength of his character throughout all five seasons of Angel demonstrates a true hero and an inspiring image of humanity. Though he did not survive the final battle, one can hope that his guidance will live on through Illyria and through the viewers.
Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin, 1972.
— Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World, 2004.
“Not Fade Away.” Writ. Joss Whedon and Jeffrey Bell. Angel. WB. 19 May 2004.
“Shells.” Writ. Stephen S. DeKnight. Angel. WB. 3 March 2004.
“Underneath.” Writ. Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft. Angel. WB. 14 Apr. 2004.