Brothers & Sisters: Myth & Reality - selection





I want to begin with an active imagination.

Imagine the sister or brother you would most like to have…

Now think about the brother or sister with whom you have the most complex relationship…

Much of what I will say in this book lies in that painful space between your ideal sibling and your real ones, between the myth and the reality.



I have often wondered what might have happened had Jung and Freud used the Bible for their inspiration instead of Greek Mythology. Greek mythology is full of intense conflict between parents and children, such as, Chronos swallowing his children, Oedipus killing the father who had abandoned him as a child, or Demeter decimating nature in mad mourning for her kidnapped daughter. In contrast, the Bible, especially the Book of Genesis, has few such inter-generational conflicts.[i] Instead, the major emotional dynamics are between sisters and among brothers, a topic virtually absent from Greek mythology. In contrast, the greatest heroes of the Greeks, such as, Odysseus and Oedipus, were only children.

[i] The exceptions are: Abraham threatening to kill his son Isaac and Reuben sleeping with Bilhah, his father’s handmaiden, mother of his half bothers. The case of Noah and his son Ham is discussed below.

Jung on Brothers and sisters

Jung did understand the psychological importance of brother and sister archetypes. In Answer to Job, he wrote: “Yahweh had one good son and the one who was a failure. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, correspond to this prototype, and so, in all ages and in all parts of the world, does the motif of the hostile brothers, which in innumerable modern variants still causes dissension in modern families and keeps the psychotherapist busy.” (Jung, CW 11, ¶629).

Emma Jung gave two lectures on “the brother motif” to the Psychology Club in Zurich that have been, with sad synchroncity, lost.34.35 Jungian psychology takes much of its inspiration from mythology and fairy tales where sibling stories and tensions abound.  For example, in Grimm’s fairy tales, the youngest son who at first appears to be the despised simpleton emerges as the victorious hero 92% of the time.36 He is interpreted symbolically as representing the undervalued, inferior aspect of the personality.  Edward Edinger, author of The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament, wrote that the twins Jacob and Esau represent the division within the psyche between  “ego and shadow and ego and Self.”37  Siblings in dreams and fantasy were likewise understood as symbols of different parts of the personality, typically anima, animus, or the shadow. Mario Jacoby did discuss the distinction between an outer and an inner sister in connection with a dream (Jacoby 1984). John Beebe, who gave the first Fay Lectures, writes about his archetypal sibling counter-transference as a “transference brother, a fellow sufferer enjoying a respite from the arduousness of adulthood, and a model for the animus that will relate to some creative aspect of her personhood…experiencing the Self …[as] an ‘organ of acceptance.’ Jung and post Jungians understood the mythic power behind the archetype of sister and archetype of brother. But what lies at the core of being a sister and having a brother? What is at the heart of the archetypal experience of sisters and brothers?

Cooperation-Competition Continuum

As both a psychologist and anthropologist, I am often struck by the contrast in how each discipline relates to brothers and sisters. Psychology and especially depth psychology emphasizes  conscious and unconscious conflict in terms of ‘sibling rivalry’, ‘dethronement’ or even the displacement of marital conflict, in what has been called, Oedpial sibling triangles. On the other hand, in anthropology, siblings are viewed much more positively as the main social glue by which societies are held together. In some places, union of brothers and sisters as the main metaphor for how society operates. Universally, brothers and sisters, no matter how much they may fight among themselves, will join together to fend off an external threat as expressed in the Arabic proverb, "Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin, brother and I against the world."

Jung taught that every archetype has two, contrasting poles. The Great Mother is the all loving and nurturing Earth Mother as well as the devouring, destructive, regressive Dragon: Both Mother Mary and Medusa. Likewise, we may think about the brother/sister archetype as having opposing poles. At the negative pole of the continuum is the rivalry, hate and murderous rage based on chronic conflict of dominance and hierarchy illustrated in many Grimm’s fairy tales, Romulus and Remus, Seth and Osiris or the three sisters in Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the animal kingdom, the aggressiveness of siblings is passionately illustrated by pack of hyenas who are led by a female chosen by her ruthless ability to kill her own twin sister.  A comparable fratricide is recorded in the Book of Judges, Chapter 9 where Abimelech massacred his seventy brothers en route to establish a brutal dictatorship. Similarly, Turkish sultan, Mehmet II, introduced practice of confining all royal siblings in cages until an heir was produced upon which all the brothers were strangled with a special silk cord. My brother, my murderer.

At the positive pole is the profound solidarity, familiarity and loving togetherness, illustrated in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, Apollo and Artemis, Castor and Pollox, Isis and Osiris, twins in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the founding brother and sister of Japan’s royal dynasty. In the same savannah as the hyenas, and their interminable rivals, there is a true sisterhood. Pride of lions organized around a band of sisters (and other female relatives); male lions may come and go but the pride continues as a cooperative, life long sisterhood of lionesses. Our lives as siblings, I suggest, are played out along this "cooperation-competition continuum". We probably learn more about loyalty and competition from our sisters and brothers than from anyone else. As one sister put it:  “I don’t understand how people learn to live in the world if they haven’t had siblingsEverything I learned about negotiation, territoriality, coexistence, dislike, inbred differences and love despite knowledge I learned from these four: Bob, Mike, Kevin, Teresa. In some essential way, they were my universe, even more than my parents.” (italics in original).42

 “I understand” I said to him.

“I knew you would,” said my brother. (Tammuz 1999: 228).

You can never enter the same family twice.”

Our families are like houses; you get the room that is not yet filled.166a


Family niches, polarized identity and dethronement.

 Sisters and brothers more in common than any other human beings – both in terms of genetics and the home environment they share. They have both Nature and Nurture in common. One would expect siblings to be extremely similar. Yet behavioral geneticists discovered that brothers and sisters are no more similar than strangers. “Why are children in the same family so different from one another?” 168 

To my mind the most convincing answer to this question derives from the work of Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives.  Sulloway explains the striking differences between siblings using the analogy from the ecology of niches in evolutionary biology, such as Darwin’s finches.

Brothers and sisters simultaneously do and do not live in the same family. A firstborn entering the family has the ability to choose any niche and most opt for a niche typical of firstborns. A second born enters the family with at least one niche occupied and must search for a different available niche. If the firstborn niche is occupied, then they will have to look elsewhere.  If for reasons of temperament, disability or illness, the eldest does not occupy the firstborn niche, then that niche becomes available to a laterborn who may then develop the “bossy” characteristics of a typical firstborn. The relationship between sibs will be largely determined by the relative position of occupied niches within the family system. Each sibling also gets a different set of parents who are different in age, experience, wealth or happiness at the time of the birth of each child. To paraphrase Heraclitus: “You can never enter the same family twice.”

    When the niches are mutually exclusive, then each sib will develop a “polarized identity” towards the others. If one is bad, then the other will be the good one; if one is considered beautiful then the other will become studious, perhaps to hide the fact that she feels ugly; if one is mother’s favorite, then the other will be father’s favorite or nobody’s favorite. Each sibling is formed in the shadow of the other: the identity of one becoming the negative identity of the other. Unconsciously, such polarized identity takes the form: “I am not what you are.” The polarization will be most extreme for “high access siblings” similar in age and gender, which have the greatest need to differentiate from each other.

 The niche of firstborns lead them to be closer to parental values, to embody and carry out parental expectations and therefore to be high achievers.   Sulloway explains why firstborns are more likely to exhibit anger and vengefulness:

Firstborns have more reason than laterborns to be jealous of their siblings.] Every firstborn begins life with one hundred percent of parental investment. For laterborns, who share parental investment from the beginning, the reduction in parental care owing to a new sibling is never suffered to the same degree. Parents may try to discourage jealousy, and firstborns may often suppress this trait. Still, when parents are not watching, a firstborn’s display of rage can be an effective way of intimidating younger siblings…Siblings, to their parents chagrin are often obsessively concerned with distributive justice (“Who got more?”) as a way of repeatedly assessing parental investment. (Sulloway 1996:70). ]

Because they are identified with the established order, they tend to be more conservative, more willing to assert their authority, and less open to new experiences. Younger children come into a family with other children and therefore tend to have better social and interpersonal skills. They are more open to experience, to travel, to new ideas and to revolutionary ideologies, which imply an overthrow of the established order. Youngest children have the luxury of not having to grow up when another baby is born but also the danger that they will never grow or never overcome their identity as ‘the baby’ in the eyes of older siblings/rest of the family. In contrast to Sulloway, Alfred Adler (1949) argued that under certain conditions a youngest child with a strong power drive to prove himself may turn out to be the most successful sibling. Such youngest overachievers can succeed only when the traditionally achievement-oriented firstborn niche is not well occupied, as was the case for Scripture's most successful “baby brother”, King David. The prelude to his famous battle with Goliath (I Samuel 17:12-58) provides a classic exchange of the dynamics between an oldest and youngest brother.  Eliav, the firstborn, sees David unexpectedly at the battlefield and says:

Why have you come down here?  He said. “Whom have you left in charge of those few sheep out there in the wilderness? I know your insolence and your wicked heart”; you have come to watch the battle.”  David retorted, “What have I done? Must I not even speak?” (I Sam 17:28-9, JB).

 The eldest brother is bossy and demeaning while the youngest is struggling for recognition and status. Within Biblical sibling psychology, one of the central tensions is between a fixed, sibling hierarchy (“I am first and don’t you forget it!”) and a flexible, sibling equality (“We brothers and sisters are all equal together”). Firstborns benefit most from hierarchy while laterborns tend to push for sibling equality, or to overthrow the established (sibling) order. The worst cases of brother violence all revolve around conflict between sibling hierarchy and sibling equality, which if not resolved can become intractable. A good example is Sulloway’s own study of scientific innovators that revealed that firstborn, like Newton and Liebnitz, fought bitterly over priority, whereas laterborns, like Darwin and Wallace, almost always were ready to compromise. (Sulloway). Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King Jr. were first borns!

      Elder siblings may not be the only ones who have violent fantasies. Moses, like David after him, is another super successful baby brother. In his sublimated desire to overthrow the established Egyptian order, based on primogeniture, the rule of the eldest. Moses literally, enacts the vengeful fantasies of a younger sibling when (with Divine help) all Egyptian firstborns die in the tenth and final plague.

The idea of niches also helps explain the sibling psychology of the only child. A solo child carries parental expectations for both sexes, an so symbolically must be both “son” and “daughter”. Solo child occupies multiple niches at the same time. As a result, such a child is more likely to display both masculine and feminine characteristics. Solo children may be lonely in that they have no one to share the inner world of childhood or learn the lessons of taking turns but this is not always the case. At the other end of the life cycle, only child often find it hard to look after aging parents with no one to share the burden. But from a Jungian perspective, the key element is that in absence of real brothers and sisters, they may compensate and develop deeper relations with their inner brothers and sisters, imaginary companions who they meet in play, dreams, active imagination etc. Solo children who have a strong relationship to these inner siblings may never feel really alone. Only children who do not, may experience existential loneliness of a world without siblings and excessive attachment to parents.

 Niches may also help explain gender effects of older siblings on younger brothers and sisters. A boy with an older brother(s) tends to be more ‘masculine’ (and also more likely to be gay); a girl with an older sister(s) tends to be more ‘feminine’.174

In a metaphorical way, siblings often divide up the psychological space they share within the family environment. As we shall see, this division can take different form, some more destructive, some more benign. In Greek mythology, Zeus  forcefully but successfully divides up the world with his brothers, Poseidon and Hades. Each brother is absolute ruler of his own realm, whether Olympus, the oceans or the underworld. When the psychological space is divided up in an ether/or manner, (“Everything you are, I am not”) then the brother or sister becomes a shadow sibling, as mentioned above. Shadow sisters or shadow brothers divide up the world between them and then forbid the other to enter into their psychological territory. To divide up the world and forbid the other to enter one’s psychological territory makes siblings unconsciously dependent upon each other for an ultimate sense of wholeness. The shadow sibling is envied and hated for having those qualities denied in oneself. The result of such polarization is that certain attributes, personal qualities and characteristics are declared ‘off limits’ and ‘out of bounds’ to the other siblings. Since sibling identity is based upon polarization, to enter into their realm is perceived as a kind of symbolic invasion or even, to declare psychic war. If I am the smart sister, I can never be the beautiful one. Trying to be beautiful is to intrude upon my sister’s territory. If I never invade her psychic territory, I will never encounter the beautiful side of myself and I will live life cut off from it, just as my sister will never connect with her own intelligence. To live within the framework of polarized identities is to live in a world of fragmentation


34 Personal Communication, Emmanuel Kennedy, 2004.

35 Stewart produced a study of how birth order position affects styles of political leadership and described his reaction to the birth of his only sibling, born when he was six-and-a-half. His recollection of the birth has the quality of a “flashbulb memory:”

On the day my brother was brought home from the hospital I was wearing my red bandana around my neck, had my toy pistol on my belt and my uncle’s marine hate on my head. My mother and father came into the room. My father (himself a first born) was carrying the baby. In a jovial voice he said, “This is your brother; see, he has no chin, he looks like a fish!” I could only agree with my father…for many years after the fateful day of my brother’s birth, I did my best to ignore and neglect him.

Stewart, as if taking up the cue from his father, apparently tried to continue to live as an only child. Not surprisingly, he recalls a dramatic experience during his early teenage years that touched a deep chord, when he came across a novel in which the hero calls out in bitter irony, “Am I my brother’s keeper!” After college, their relationship changed dramatically and evolved into “a lifelong friendship and collaboration in our closely related fields” (Stewart, Changemakers, ix). Presumably being away from the family system and the negative sibling attitude of his father allowed him to redefine the relationship. Stewart does not discuss how this sibling dynamic may have influenced his work as a clinician.

Mario Jacoby does discuss the distinction between an outer and an inner sister in connection with a dream (Mario Jacoby, The Analytic Encounter, Toronto, Inner City Books, 1984). John Beebe, a Jungian analyst in San Francisco, writes about his archetypal sibling counter-transference as a “transference brother, a fellow sufferer enjoying a respite from the arduousness of adulthood, and a model for the animus that will relate to some creative aspect of her personhood…experiencing the Self …[as] an ‘organ of acceptance.’” See: J. Beebe, “The Case of Joan: A Classical Perspective,” in: The Cambridge Companion to Jung, P. Young-Eisendrath and T. Dawson (Eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 196.

36 See: B. Sutton-Smith, and B.G. Rosenberg, The Sibling, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg, in this pioneering textbook, developed a shorthand notation for indicating the place of a sibling within the overall birth and gender order. Moses, as the third child, following an eldest sister and middle brother would be represented as: FMM3. The birth order is listed by the number, the gender by letter. The scheme, however, has not really caught on. There is no widely accepted way of describing sibling sequence and birth order.

37 Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype, London, Penguin, 1986, 36.

42 op.cit. p.15-6.

166a Kelsh & Quindlen 1998:37.

168 Plomin & Daniels 1987.

174 For research of gender order on personality of younger sibs, see, Dunn 2001.