Iron John the Baptist
Not too many days ago I watched part of a religious TV
Saint Joseph, a.k.a. Joseph of Nazareth, the father,
or foster-father of Jesus depending on your theological
orientation. The participants were engaging in a veritable orgy
of obsequious doting on Saint Joseph, required to do so by his
on the official calendar of saints. In such cases, where
religious duty, defined by dogma, compels one to wax eloquent
subject about which there is nothing to say, it is always
able what people will wind up saying.
One panelist cooed on about how in our society, with its
family patterns, it is especially important to hold up
Joseph as a role model for fathers. Utter nonsense! If
ever an "absentee father," it was the good
saint. When Jesus
returns to Nazareth in Mark chapter 6, the locals do a
count of his relatives, listing his mother, four
brothers, and an
unspecified numbers of sisters. But no Joe. Was he dead
In fact we know nothing at all about Joseph of Nazareth.
look to extra-canonical legends about Joseph, the
even worse: in the various Infancy Gospels of the second
third centuries, Jesus is pictured as a kind of
Dennis the Menace, Joseph as a bumbling buffoon much
the dad character on the typical network sitcom. For
Joseph is unable to figure out how to get all the legs of
to come out the same length, but Jesus strolls into the
shop and miraculously lengthens them. That's m'boy!
If any New Testament character qualifies as the
Jesus, it is surely John the Baptist. Evidence from
implies that Jesus for a time considered himself a
the Baptist before he broke away to form his own
according to the other gospels Jesus never had aught but
highest praise for John, even calling him the greatest
history (Matthew 11:11)!
Admittedly we know scarcely more about John the Baptist
about Saint Joseph, but the significance of John as a
father-figure is not limited to the historical question. Its
real significance emerges in the dimension of myth and archetype.
And here I must invoke the recent book, now
much read, Iron
John by poet Robert Bly. Bly expounds an ancient legend found
Grimm's Fairy Tales, but probably far more ancient. It
the need, deep-seated in the male
psyche, for male initiation before one can enter upon true manhood. The work of
anthropologists and comparative mythology scholars like Victor
Arnold van Gennep, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade
force Bly's claim that from the beginning boys did not
fully navigate the passage into mature manhood without
being initiated by older men into ritual and vocational
a first, biological father wasn't enough; a lad needed a
father, a mentor, to initiate him. This mentor (or as Bly
calls him, a "male mother") might be an uncle,
a tribal elder, or
the village shaman (healer, priest, seer, mediator,
man," "witch doctor").
In the legend of Iron John, the initiator is the title
and he is a striking mythical type: the Wild Man or Green
familiar from rural English folklore but as old as Enkidu
pre-biblical Gilgamesh Epic.
In the story a wandering adventurer penetrates a
mysterious quarter of the forest from which no one has returned alive.
has often sent armed parties to explore the region, but
heard from again. But the adventurer discovers that Iron
titan of a man covered head to foot with rust-colored
beneath the surface of a lake from which he emerges to
unwary. The king's men proceed to drain the lake and
John. He is caged and put on show in the courtyard. There
king's son sees him.
One day the boy's golden ball chances to roll into the
John offers to return it if only the young prince will
But to do this the prince must needs steal the key from
reposes beneath the pillow of his mother the queen. At
does and accompanies Iron John into the forest. His giant
companion turns out to be quite civil, as well as a powerful
who comes to his aid at crucial points throughout the
After passing through many adventures in the course of
proves his own manhood, the prince beholds Iron John
this time the wild man's hirsute covering is gone, and
is revealed as a great golden king radiant with sun-like
splendor. He had been the victim of a magical curse which
to a bestial existence until he should aid a young prince
to fulfill his own destiny.
Bly interprets the story pretty much a la Jung. The Wild
the primordial maleness which must find expression in all
without which they will be but gray, faceless puppets of
mere echoes of the authentic existence they are born for.
maleness is neither chauvinism nor machismo, but rather
fairness, rejoicing in duty,
decisiveness and courage.
(Incidentally, Bly admits that there are equally
mysteries with requisite rites to enter into them, but as
he does not presume to expound them. He leaves that to
The Wild Man is there in all men, but it is submerged. We
and leave it buried, for we fear it will run amok like
the unbridled Id. But that only happens when a man receives
no initiation and the inner Wild Man bursts forth untutored.
street gangs are the perfect example here. These young
have no male initiators, but they have plenty of Wild Man
It is a dangerous recipe. By contrast, the neurotic,
introspective anti-hero that so preoccupied the intellectual
in the sixties can be seen as the result of the Wild Man
having emerged in any form at all.
To claim one's genuine manhood, Bly says, men must steal
from the apron strings of their queen-mothers and take to
road with an initiator (figuratively, but perhaps
as in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
must trust himself to a male mentor: a coach, a
advisor, a job supervisor, or a spiritual director, who
him under his wing as an apprentice. And eventually the
within, the volatile creative force that contains the
of the real you, will be seen to bear the image of the
a divine ego-ideal of maturity.
In Jungian terms, we might say the Wild Man is the Ego,
Sun King is the Self. One must let the Ego emerge,
and uncomfortable as it may be, or one will come to
one will remain arrogant and immature unless one allows
to emerge, a persona with wider dimensions and broader,
more generous horizons.
Bly says this whole scenario (to which there is much,
read the book) is not particularly Christian, though
it anti-Christian. It is more basic, a deep psychic truth
to human males as a species.
But I wonder if in fact we do not have a genuine biblical
parallel in the story of Jesus and John the Baptist. Consider
bearing of the Baptist after all. He appears in the
locust-eater clad in a hair shirt. Fortuitously, he is
John! And this hairy wild man is even found in the water!
Iron John lurked in the lake, John the Baptist wades in
A king, Herod Antipas, sends troops to apprehend him,
just as a
king sent men to capture Iron John. In the Iron John myth
role of the initiator begins at this point, once the
meets Iron John, whereas in the gospel John's initiator
precedes the arrest. Jesus is initiated by baptism in the
while John is still at liberty. But it is only after the
of John that Jesus launches his own movement, carrying on
work taught him by his mentor John the Baptist. And just
prince in the story invokes Iron John's aid from time to
does Jesus frequently cite the example of the Baptist to
authenticate his own actions (Matthew 11:7 ff; 17:9-13; 21:23-27).
Does John the Baptist ever graduate from Wild Man to Sun
His pupil Jesus does (see the Transfiguration story and
Resurrection subsequently, in some versions of which his
countenance shines like the sun). But the Baptist himself did,
his disciples eventually concluded that he, too, had
the dead (Mark 6:14) and was the Light of the World
suggests the Logos hymn of John 1 was borrowed from the
the Baptist and originally referred to John as "the
enlightens every man").
There is another, an older biblical Iron John analogue,
the Baptist's prototype the Prophet Elijah. John even
from Elijah the costume of the camel's hair tunic. In the
text Elijah is called "a hairy man," and the
great biblical scholar Ignaz Goldziher (Mythology Among the Hebrews)
that this description often denotes the symbolic identity
character as a personification of the sun, the hair
the sun's rays. Long-tressed Samson (whose name is simply
Hebrew for "sun") is an even clearer case of
this. Elijah finishes out his earthly course, as you know, by ascending
heavens aboard a fiery chariot! Now if that isn't a dead
giveaway, I don't know what is! He is the noontide sun.
So Elijah is both hairy Wild Man and glorious Sun King.
other aspects of the Iron John pattern as well. He is
arrested by the troops of the king (2 Kings 1:9-15), and
story is even closer to Iron John's, for the first two
troops dispatched do not come back: Elijah roasts them
solar fires at his command! And Elijah is an initiator!
the Baptist initiated Jesus who went on to continue and
his mentor's work, so did Elijah initiate Elisha, who
his master's work after Elijah's departure, with a double
of the latter's miracle-working spirit!
So I think Bly is mistaken: the Iron John archetype is to
found in the Bible, in both Testaments, and in fact if
anything to his analysis of it, then he has provided an
new hermeneutical key to understanding and applying these
passages. Perhaps the churches ought to think about building
their Confirmation and adolescent Baptism rites a new
very old) dimension of adult initiation. The biblical
are there for it. And if we did, we might wind up with a
Christianity less immature, less timid, than the one we
Robert M. Price