The Tao of Popeye


It seems I’ve always wanted to know who I am and why I am what I am. I smile as I write these words because they remind me of the very first official Popeye the Sailor Man cartoon: “I Yam What I Yam!”

Remember Popeye? He’s a runty, uneducated, playful, squinty-eyed guy with a speech impediment who sails the seven seas, adopted an infant foundling he calls Swee’Pea, and is in love with a tall, skinny drink of water named Olive Oyl. Unfortunately, his nemesis, the musclebound bully Bluto, is also attracted to Olive Oyl and keeps trying to kidnap her. When Popeye comes to her rescue, Bluto beats up on him until he starts feeling weak. Then he eats a can-full of spinach (and occasionally the can itself), which immediately gives him superhuman strength and problem-solving abilities to defeat Bluto. Usually.

I find two characteristics of this flawed little guy of special interest. First, he has found, and regularly uses, a magical panacea which gives him strength. Second, according to Wikipedia, he has a “near-saintly” perseverance to overcome any obstacle to please his sweetheart, Olive Oyl.

Now of course this is just a silly little cartoon meant to entertain and amuse. But like every story ever told by any human anywhere, there’s also an underlying psychological meaning. Why? Because the way the psyche is made influences our every thought, word, and action. So in psychological terms, I could say that Popeye represents the ego which has embraced the vulnerable inner child (Swee’Pea), found a wonderfully helpful way (spinach) to strengthen and stabilize itself enough to overcome adversity (Bluto), and connected with the inner feminine (Olive Oyl).

Why spinach? Well, when I google spinach I discover that its main nutritional element is iron. And when I google iron I find that psychologically it can symbolize inner strength and the will and determination to see things through to the finish. What is it Popeye always says? “I’m strong to the finich. Cause I eats me spinach.”

But Olive Oyl? Surely the name of this goofy, gangly gal can’t mean anything important, can it? Check it out. Apart from its many health benefits, particularly for the heart, olive oil has spiritual meaning. Olives come from the olive tree, which in the Bible is associated with love and charity. And olive oil was used for anointing kings and priests (earthly and spiritual authorities) and for fueling lamps which, of course, bring light, and by association, enlightenment. So psychologically, Popeye’s beloved Olive Oyl symbolizes the healthy inner feminine authority which brings spiritual enlightenment! I love it!

If you’ve read my earlier posts you’ll know why I can relate to Popeye. I’ve adopted an inner orphan.  I strengthen my ego by regularly “digesting” Jungian psychology and dreamwork. I wrestle with an inner bully who’s always trying to steal my feminine authority.  And I persevere in my efforts to connect with the Beloved of my psyche. Like Popeye, I don’t always defeat my bully, but I am getting stronger. And like Popeye’s relationship to Olive Oyl, the partnership between my ego and unconscious is by no means problem free. In fact, my failures are sometimes laughable.

But I, too, am determined to be “strong to the finich. Cause I eats me spinach!” I yam what I yam. And that’s becoming okay with me.

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15 Responses

  1. Thank you for “unpacking” this cartoon, Jean. I’ve got some fun old images now to work with on my inner quest to take care of my Sweet Pea, strengthen Popeye in the face of Bluto and be spiritually nurtured by Olive Oyl.
    Me thinks I’ll eat some some spinach for awhile with olive oil on it!

  2. Hi Que,
    Thank you. Your lovely comment gives me the chance to say to those not familiar with this way of thinking that finding the underlying meaning in the symbols around you is called living symbolically. It makes life so much more interesting and personally relevant than restricting ourselves to hard scientific facts alone. Life is so much more beautiful and mysterious than that!! (I forsee a future blog post on this topic….)
    But, of course, you of all people already know this. Your home and exquisite art are testaments to the mystery and beauty of life.
    Much love and gratitude to you,

  3. While doing some research on Popeye’s famous quote, I found your blog to be most insightful. I also read the link I shared below. Apparently, someone else found your words to be “inspiring” too.
    Thought this link might be of interest to you. My best to you!!

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Thank you for letting me know you found my post useful! I love this one. I followed the link you provided and found the person you were referring to who copied four paragraphs and used it as the bulk of his own post without crediting me for it. I’ve written a letter to him in private. I don’t want to publicly shame him in public, so I’ve erased the link, but I hope my letter will raise his self-awareness and possibly check any future tendencies to keep doing this! With much appreciation, Jeanie

      1. Your handling of this shows truly, you are a person of grace, integrity, and class!
        It’s easy to write about doing the right thing. Putting them into practice are qualities sometimes lost.
        But we know you are: “strong to the finich. Cause I eats me spinach!”
        Thank you for not only an insightful message, the powerful lesson too!! You have a new fan! I love who you “YAM!”
        And, I was pleased to see, he did do an update!

  4. I found myself here after a baffling dream where I was the lead in a play about Olive Oyl! I’ve never really given Popeye or any of the characters much thought so to have such a vivid and spontaneous dream was enough to make me go searching for meaning behind it. And the fact that Olive Oyl was the star of the plot, not Popeye, was just doubly confusing. Im going to have to ponder the archetypes you’ve put forth here and figure out what my subconscious is trying to tell me haha.

  5. Hi San, how wise you were to take this dream seriously and look for some potential meaning. That’s exactly what dreams are for: to wake us up to unconscious inner situations that influence us in our outer lives. My desire to be more self-aware is why I record and work on my dreams. Thanks for visiting my site. I hope your explorations bring you some helpful insights! Best wishes on your inner journey! Jeanie

    1. P.S. How interesting that you are the “lead” in a play. My book, Dream Theatres of the Soul is about viewing dreams as dramas (movies, stories, plays) and figuring out who the characters are. As the lead, you’re the star of this play. It’s all about you. All dreams are about the dreamer whose inner adventures they depict.

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