Dragons and Fairies: Healing Metaphors
Dragons and fairies are magical, mythological figures which may be used in sandplay as metaphors to represent a sandplayer’s world. Bradway and McCoard (1997) argue that sandplay is about reconciling opposite dynamics, such as a dissonance between feelings or thoughts and behavior. It is through the use of symbols and metaphors that sandplayers may begin to access the material hidden in their unconscious. Sandplay allows for a visual representation of might have been concealed from conscious awareness. Miniature dragons and fairies may provide sandplay therapists with a snapshot into the sandplayer’s psyche, such as deep feelings of loss.
Fairies symbolize creatures of transformation who “reveal themselves intermittently” which “might also be said of the manifestations of the unconscious (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969, p. 370). Unconscious material is typically pushed out of conscious awareness through ego defenses such as denial and repression (Freud, 1966). According to mythology, fairies appear most of the time in the forest. Trees embody many natural, protective elements and also represent the part of the Self that yearns for emotional and physical security (Kalff, 1980). Both the darkness of the forest and the deep roots of the trees symbolize the material believed to be grounded in the unconscious (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969). Chevalier and Gheerbrant (1969) propose that within the realm of psychological development, fairies may represent one’s striving for self-acceptance.
While fairies may be considered a metaphorical bridge between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the psyche, dragons symbolize “the ancient animal nature of the unconscious” (Howe, 2012, p. 344), such as unconscious motivations and reactions. Moreover, Chevalier and Gheerbrant (1969) point to the notion that dragons illustrate the struggles of inner conflicts that most, if not all humans tend to experience, such as wishes that may conflict with one another. With that in mind, Howe (2012) posits that dragons may not only be metaphorically found in the external world as in the case of abusive relationships or bully classmates, but may also be carried internally within one’s psyche, such as in the form of persistent self-reproaches, depression or distorted self-image. Fincher (2009) argues it is important to become aware of the impact the dragon archetype might have in one’s life and suggests the idea of taming the dragon by raising awareness of its existence within oneself. Sandplay paves the way for discovering one’s metaphorical dragon whether it may be external or internal, then, name it and tame it (Fincher, 2009) as the case may be.
Discovering the Dragon (sandplay activity):
- Acquire a collection of miniature dragons of different type (wings, no wings, two heads), different color (blue, red, purple) and different size
- Have the sandplayer select a dragon or draw/color a dragon, then place the drawing in the sand
- Stay with the metaphor and ask the sandplayer: “If this dragon could speak what would it say?” Observe the sandplayer’s bodily reaction and self-descriptive narrative as he or she gives voice to the dragon
- Witness the process as the sandplayer decides whether the dragon will be involved with other miniatures, other dragons, and to what extent. Notice the location and size of the other miniatures in relation to the dragon. Is there more than one dragon in the scene?
Stevenson (1994) submits that the color, size, and number of dragons in the scene are important symbolic frames of reference for the sandplay therapist. Stevenson champions drawing and coloring the dragon “as the picture becomes a lens through which the individual can get a new look to the problem” (p. 225). Furthermore, Stevenson argues that dragons are symbols “that represent strong polarities: authority/chaos, wisdom/ignorance, insight/deception, fire/water” (p. 222). Sandplay is the ideal medium through which to explore and eventually reconcile such polarities. That was the case with Randy, a first-grader who used play-fire, water, and dragons in the sand to reconcile his need to have friends versus his unconscious drive to bully them (Howe, 2012).
In her 2012 article, Howe details Randy’s transformation. Randy was a six year-old boy who was brought to play therapy by his parents to treat his tendency for bullying his classmates and disrespecting his teachers. Randy had been placed in the middle of a bitter divorce between his parents since he was a toddler and his acting out came to resemble what he unconsciously perceived to be the dragons in his life (his parents). Randy internalized and adopted the dragon archetype and in turn behaved as a dragon toward his teachers and classmates. Randy’s case illustrates how children may learn to bully from the way they may respond to their own family-of-origin. Howe (2012) refers to the “emotional poverty of hostility” (p. 345) to describe Randy’s isolation from his peers triggered by his bullying. Although Randy wanted to have friends, he was unconsciously driven to act out the rage he felt as the result of his perceived loss of nurturance from his family.
Howe (2012) submits that when one is literally hijacked by anger (which was the case with Randy), it is nearly impossible to consciously recognize at that very moment that one is being driven by one’s unconscious drive to retaliate. Howe approached Randy’s case as a case of wounds that had to be acknowledged to facilitate the healing process. Randy suffered from the loss of emotional nurturance from his parents and the loss of friendship from his peers. Howe determined that Randy’s emotional wounds triggered by his parents’ battles with each other had been buried in Randy’s hostility. Through multiple and consecutive sandplay sessions where miniature figures (dragons and humans) were engaged in horrific battles, Randy was able to visualize and externalize his internal world. Howe was also successful in increasing Randy’s parents’ awareness about their role in Randy’s acting out. With the help of Howe and sandplay therapy, Randy was able to transform acting out into sanding out.
In the world of sandplay, fairies are believed to be symbolic traveling companions into the unconscious and dragons may represent the material found in the shadow side. Bringing dragons and fairies together in the sand is likely to be symbolic of a need to reconcile polarities—the desire and the simultaneous fear to learn about oneself. Randy’s parents had been unaware of how their shadow side had taken over their actions and how it was affecting their son. As it is typically the case, Randy was too young to recognize the role of his family dynamics. With every study we learn more about the potential of sandplay as a medium to provide a safe and protected space under which to express indescribable feelings of loss. Randy’s parents were also experiencing losses—the loss of their marriage and the loss of being spouses to each other. Life is about grieving and managing losses. No one leaves this world without experiencing loss. Sandplay metaphors may act as healing agents in the grieving process.
Bradway, K., & McCoard, B. (1997). Sandplay – silent workshop of the psyche. New York, NY: Rutledge.
Chevalier, J., & Gheerbrant, A. (1969). Dictionary of symbols. Buchanan-Brown, J. (trans.) (1994). New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Fincher, S. (2009). The mandala workbook: A creative guide for self-exploration, balance, and well-being. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
Freud, A. (1966). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense (rev. edition). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Howe, L. (2012). War of the ancient dragon: The transformation of violence in sandplay. Psychological Perspectives, 55, 342-359.
Kalff, D. (1980). Sandplay: A psychotherapeutic approach to the psyche. Santa Monica, CA: Sigo Press.
Stevenson, R. (1994). Dragons as amulets, dragons as talismans, dragons as counselors. Death Studies, 18, 219-228.