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.

Image Credit:  Google Images

Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.

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0 Responses

  1. Hi Jeanie,
    Now that’s what I call remarkable story-telling! I loved how you separated all aspects and characters and put them back together in true Jungian relationship with each other … makes so much sense. I wonder if unconsciously the writer knew of this deeper story?
    ‘And like Popeye’s relationship to Olive Oyl … is by no means problem free.’ This totally caught my attention as I recognise how I seek to connect ever deeper to the inner feminine, only Brutus (animus) every now and then seems set on stealing the show.
    Just wonderful as I found myself relating to each role and lastly Ha-ha! Please know that this little Swee’ Pea is smiling and laughing and nodding in glee! Thank you for sharing and illuminating the story of Popeye. I’m hopeful there’s a new book on the horizon.
    Blessings, Deborah.

    1. Hi Deborah,
      I often wonder too if writers are aware of the deeper realities behind some of their stories. Consciously? Only sometimes I think. But unconsciously? Always. That’s why myths and fairy tales have universal appeal. Because their symbols and motifs and characters describe the unconscious life of the soul with all its struggles to grow stronger and more aware and healthy and whole.
      I know you are aware of the healing power of myths (by the way, my friend Elaine Mansfield and I will be doing a workshop on this subject for the Sarasota Jung Society next March; you can find the details on my website,, but I think most people have no idea how much comfort and hope they can find in a myth that speaks to their particular issue. So anyway, that’s why even a ‘silly little cartoon’ has healing power if we take the time to explore its deeper meanings!!
      Thanks so much for your always tremendously affirming words. Is there a new book on the horizon? I’m mot sure yet. I’m just resting in the question for a while…..hopefully not for Sleeping Beauty’s 100 years!!
      Hugs, Jeanie

      1. How awesome, you and Elaine, together, giving a workshop on the power of myths, deep sigh! … I’m positively turning into a ‘Green Woman’ on the spot … Ha-ha! You’re bringing out the ‘Witch’ in me! Two beautiful souls, opening their hearts and sharing their knowledge and insights thus far … it doesn’t get any better in my book! 🙂

        1. Thanks again, Deborah! We’re both looking forward to it. We enjoy working together and seem to inspire and bring out the best in each other. We’re hoping this joint endeavor will be magical for all concerned! Jeanie

    1. Hi Skip,
      Thanks for the great comment, my friend. I love knowing this piece had such a strong impact on you. Such is the power of story!! Maybe I should think seriously about Deborah’s question of whether there’s a new book on the horizon, and consider filling it with more pieces like this…. Jeanie

  2. Well, I be blowed! Bowled over and blown away! Shows what a little digging can do when we get to the story behind the story. I loved Popeye the sailor man as a child and now look at him and his relationships with a keener eye and appreciation …Thank you Jeanie. I loved your personal connections with him and may the iron continue to maintain you, flavoured of course with salt, the prima materia (I think).

    1. Thank you, Susan. This was a fun one to write. Finding the meaning behind the story is one of my favorite things to do. I do it all the time, as naturally as breathing, to just about everything: not just cartoons, but novels, movies, songs, poems, art, even the ordinary stories people tell over dinner. The soul speaks loud and clear if you know how to hear it, and I know you’re one who does. Thank you for your iron blessing. And yes, indeed, we always need a sprinkle of salt! Prima materia, indeed.
      Speaking of….did you ever read my story about the first Bible verse that ever spoke to me, waking me up to the meaning beneath the words? It was Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” I was 17 and suddenly I understood the metaphor! From then on, it was as if a light was turned on to a whole new world I’d never been aware of before. Such power in metaphors. Maybe that’s one reason why I like this particular piece so much. It was such fun seeing the metaphors in Popeye’s story.

  3. I’m applauding as I LOVE your metaphor and the story. It is funny as I had been thinking about writing a similar post about Popeye, but you learned far more about the meaning of Olive Oyl, spinach, and Brutus. I too, slowly am learning to be OK with Who I Am. I wish I had learned this many years ago. Thank you for a lovely and meaningful post.

    1. Thank you, Gwynn. “I yam what I yam” is a powerful statement, isn’t it? I agree. I wish I’d learned this many years ago too. I guess it’s not a very easy lesson to learn, especially when we’re conditioned to believe that all the adult authorities are right so if we’re different, we must be wrong. Wish there were an easier way to learn to trust ourselves! I guess life has to do it in its own time.

  4. I loved your breakdown of the Popeye elements Jeanie. It brought back some of my own family life to mind. My father was a WW2 sailor, had an anchor on his right arm and as he got older, got referred to by my mother , in a not always positive way, as “Popeye”. His character not as positive as Popeye’s, his catchphrases being “that’s how the cookie crumbles!” and “it’s just yer Donald Duck!” . Quite the fatalist.
    This was a great read, and between the info and the memories I had a few “yuk,yuk,yuk!”s.

    1. I’m glad to know this post was meaningful to you, Brian. And that you got some laughs from it. I can imagine that some of your memories of your particular Popeye weren’t all that funny. I’ve never heard of, “it’s just yer Donald Duck” before. I guess that means: this or that person, or experience, or life itself, is a joke, just a meaningless comedy…something like that? Yes, fatalistic for sure. War can do that to a person….it’s ruined the life of many a hopeful and innocent young man. So sad. Thanks for writing.

  5. Hi Jean,
    We are both fans of your blog and students of Jung’s wisdom and this post has really gotten things stirred up! We have also both been discussing your bible quote about “salt” and it’s symbolism:
    “.did you ever read my story about the first Bible verse that ever spoke to me, waking me up to the meaning beneath the words? It was Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”
    Is there somewhere that we can find your story and your interpretation of the symbolism? We would find that very interesting.
    Thanks so much for all your work, words and wisdom.
    Dick & Rae

    1. Hello Dick & Rae,
      I’m delighted to know this post has ‘stirred things up’ for you. As you no doubt know, that’s a sure sign your inner alchemy is at work, trying to add a new perspective to your current one, always pushing for the next stage of growth! The story I’m referring to is in my newest book, Healing the Sacred Divide, on page 99. This story is the first of many that describe my gradual awakening and expanding into greater psychological and spiritual awareness. I use a lot of metaphors and symbolism throughout the book to demonstrate this way of thinking. You can order the book on Amazon, and as you’ve probably noticed, there are links at the end of each post.
      I really appreciate your writing. It’s very gratifying to hear from people who’ve been touched in a meaningful way by something I’ve written. And thank you for your kind words.

      1. Thanks, Jean, what an inspiring story. We already had your book, but didn’t know where to find the passage. It was a wonderful archetypal experience, similar to Job’s declaration to God: “I had heard about you, but now I see you”.

        1. Yes! It was exactly like that! God was there all the time but I couldn’t see God with my literal way of seeing. What I learned that day, although I didn’t realize it yet, was that the way to God is through the metaphoric image! I hadn’t quite understood that until just now!
          And so we come back again to the mandorla, that middle space of creative imagination where two entities meet and enter each others’ space through dialogue. The result is like the chemical reaction between two elements in the alchemical vessel: together they create a newer, subtler, more purified and refined form of life….as in this dialogue we have just had. Thank you for instigating a conversation which has brought more clarity to my “salt” experience. I hope it has made a difference in you as well.

  6. Delightful. That damned Bluto has been chasing me around–and he’s bigger than I am. I need to take on a little Popeye power and smack down the bully. New mantra for this week is “I Yam what I Yam. It’s good enough for Olyve Oyl and it’s good enough for me.” Thanks for making me laugh at myself.

    1. Hahahaha. I love the image of Bluto chasing you around! What a bully he is/was/will always be as long as he dwells unrecognized in the unconscious of each of us. All we can do is keep searching for our own version of spinach! As you know, my source of power comes from digesting the symbolic images of mythology and my dreams.

  7. Great fun to think of Popeye this way. Brutus terrified me as a child. I somehow mixed him up with ‘Judas.’ And interesting to think of popEYE and the olive oil Lamp. Sort of a strange mystical union going on there. Really beautiful how you broke this all down and made the connections!

    1. Bluto…Blutus…Brutus…Judas. I can see the connection. Critics. Abusers. Rat finks. Betrayers. Kidnappers of purity and enlightenment. Good reasons to be terrified. You must have been an unusually sensitive and intuitive child to have responded so strongly to him and everything he represented. And now you’ve shown me a new connection I hadn’t made: PopEYE and the light! The eye of enlightenment. The conscious ego which sees. Wow. I love that. Thanks.

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