The Goddess and Her Gift:
An Analysis of the Fifth Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Paul F. McDonald - September 29 2001
A pretty young blond girl walks into a dark alley. Suddenly, a monster springs from the shadows and attacks her. If the girl is in a nineteenth century Gothic novel, she will inevitably faint. If she is in a twentieth century horror movie, she will promptly die a bloody death. If she is in a Joss Whedon television series, however, she will calmly turn to face it, deliver a well thought out pun, and proceed to kick its unholy ass back to hell.
Born of a simple desire to stand convention and cliché on its head, Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a new era of horror came into being. Though the initial 1992 movie of the same name was an inconsistent and watered-down version of the original vision, the series that debuted on the WB network five years ago was right on target. Developing a worldwide fanbase and a lot of critical acclaim, the story of a teenage girl from California chosen to lead the war against vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness has become a permanent fixture in popular culture.
When Whedon set out as writer and executive producer of the show, he adopted the inspired metaphor of "high-school-is-hell," literalized it by blowing up basic teenage fears and anxieties into actual monsters, and did nothing less than transform the journey through adolescence into a genuine mythic experience.
Adolescence being a fairly new phenomenon in human society (at least as we now think of it), it provided Whedon with a perfect playground in which to stage his drama. The inner life of the American teenager is projected outward, and the apocalyptic emotions of the age become real end-of-the-world scenarios. Myth is often defined as the sacred stories that humans use to make sense of the world as well as find their place in it, and Buffy is really the first to do this for adolescents. Myth is invaluable in the sense that it provides us with a context in which we can experience life, using symbols and metaphors as a way of conveying truths too difficult or painful to realize except through stories.
In various interviews, Whedon has cited Richard Slotkin as a major influence on the crafting of his own myth, particularly his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Slotkin writes that "through myths the psychology and world view of our cultural ancestors are transmitted to modern descendants," and that they can modify our very perception of reality with their "quasi-religious power." The work mainly addresses national mythology and how it affects national character, its results negative as easily as positive. His thesis is that the early American colonists saw the new world as a vast and untamed wilderness that needed to be civilized, though civilized through violence, in terms of "so much land preempted, so many trees hacked down, and so many indians and Mexicans left dead in the dust." The settlers wanted their fortunes regenerated, though violence was their primary means of achieving that goal.
The stories on Buffy are clearly inspired by some of Slotkin's ideas. "True myths are generated on a sub-literary level by the historical experience of a people and thus constitute part of that inner reality which the work of the artist draws on, illuminates, and explains," Slotkin writes in his introduction. Supernatural metaphors aside, Buffy is indeed shaped by historical experience (though hopefully not a sub-literary one), chiefly the collective journey of teenagers through high school. As one of them, Whedon is the artist who likewise assimilates and retells it. This is corroborated by producer David Greenwalt, who is so fond of reminding fans that "if Joss had had one good day of high school, none of us would be here."
Another striking parallel with Slotkin's work is the "frontier psychology" exhibited on Buffy. The elementary idea of the hero in myth was the monster slayer, born out of a time when humans were shaping their culture out of a hostile, dangerous wilderness. There is something of the classic Western in Buffy, with the motif of the "town tamer" being alive and well. When the show first aired on the WB, several captions told of a town or a city suffering through a series of murders, only when a young girl like Lucy Hanover showed up, they mysteriously stopped. This is a nod to the Western town overrun by villains and outlaws, until a lone gunslinger rides in and cleans them out, with outlaws being replaced by vampires, and the gunslinger by the Slayer.
What is unique about Buffy is that it does not take place in a distant frontier, rather in a suburban high school in a reasonably affluent neighborhood. The socialization process of civilization has become the new wilderness that has to be crossed, a post-modern wagon train with locker room bullies and wondering if one will be asked to the prom taking the place of roving bands of indians and wild animals, the physical hardships being turned into emotional ones. The demonized "other" is in fact a reflection of our own fears and weaknesses, no longer another race to be beaten or subjugated. What is also unique about Buffy is that it is a myth which is self-aware, and as such, does not advocate regeneration through violence. If anything, violence is a necessary evil on the series, one with very serious consequences, and as the climax of season five poignantly demonstrates, true regeneration only comes as a result of personal sacrifice and love.
It seems as if Whedon is intentionally correcting the mistakes of the past, while at the same time paying homage to them. The myth of the frontier is built on dualism, the oppositional style of thinking that sets one side against the other in mortal combat, whether it be with cowboys and indians, or civilization and wilderness. Buffy has played out in the same setting, an eruption of good and evil, Christian and pagan, crosses and spells, books and computers, crude stakes and high-tech taser blasters. Buffy herself has been repeatedly split down the middle, her life divided by her desire to be a teenage girl and her destiny to be the Chosen One. Yet instead of embracing all of one and ignoring the other, she strives to bring the fragmented pieces of her psyche together. Ultimately, this may be the central theme of the show as well as our lives, her struggle to reclaim a sense of wholeness a mirror reflection of our own.
The Slayer With A Thousand Faces
There were many factors at work when Joss Whedon created the character of Buffy Summers, one of which was most certainly deconstructing the masculine bias that has monopolized Western myth for so long. Over the course of five seasons, his heroine has evolved from a somewhat shallow mall girl into a strong and self-assured world savior. There has been much talk regarding Buffy as an icon of female empowerment, and while she does serve as a powerful vehicle for feminism, perhaps her inspiration is much more ancient than modern. Far from simply being a cardboard caricature walking about staking patriarchal vampires, she brings with her the legacy of the Great Goddess. Like Buffy herself, it is a legacy of mystery and contradiction, one that is steeped in fear and wonder alike.
Buffy's story really begins with the Neolithic period, when for the first time the role of women in primitive human society began to take on divine dimensions. In the Near East, in particular, female figurines and pottery began decorating the earliest settlements, perhaps used as shrines or talismans which would aid in the growth of crops as well as ensuring successful child births. With the development of early agriculture, the concept of the goddess was eventually inspired. From this origin point erupted countless incarnations of female deity, ones that usually revolved around motherhood and fertility.
By the Bronze Age, the Great Goddess was the primary deity, and the source of all power. This holds true throughout the Hellenic world, with Greco-Roman goddesses such as Aphrodite and Athena being celebrated. But it extended much further than the Olympian pantheon, with fertility goddesses such as Ishtar and Astarte revered in the Middle East for centuries. The female was likewise prominent in Egyptian mythology, with the Pharaoh sitting on his throne, and the throne being shaped in the image of Isis. She was the real seat of power. In the East, such ideas remained. In India, for instance, all spiritual power was called "sakti," and classified as female.
With the coming of the Indo-European communities and the Semitic tradition, the goddess has since been disenfranchised in the Western world, and women with her. A goddess figure did not really rise in the West until the cult of the Virgin forms around Mary in the thirteenth century. Yet in recent times, the female aspects of the divine have again fallen back into favor in the popular media, with Buffy being one of those incarnations.
One of the world's foremost authorities on the female nature of the divine, Heinrich Zimmer once wrote that "She is the perfect figuration of life's joyous lures and pitiless destruction: the two poles charged with extremist tension, yet forever merging." While these words are describing an Asian goddess, they are likewise evocative of Buffy. As a beautiful young girl, she is indeed a joyous lure to her suitors - human and vampire alike. As the Slayer, she is also pitiless destruction, beating back the armies of hell night after night.
It is symbolically important that the Chosen One is always a young girl, one given the power to be humankind's defender against vampires and demons. This can be paralleled with a mother's tenacious instinct to protect her children, only in the case of mythology, this is extended to include the goddess' relationship with the world at large. And as the late scholar Joseph Campbell points out in Primitive Mythology, the dual nature of the goddess is still evident. He speaks of the Indian mother-goddess Kali, the cannibal ogress who is simultaneously the goddess Annapurna who represents eternal abundance. According to Campbell, the imagery of the divine mother is associated "almost equally with beatitude and danger, birth and death, the inexhaustible nourishing breast and the tearing claws of the ogress."
With the thematic arc of season five being family, the idea of motherhood becomes integral on Buffy. Suffering complications after brain surgery, Buffy's own mother Joyce dies quickly and suddenly, leaving Buffy in charge of her sister Dawn. This brings to the forefront all the issues and ideas of motherhood and fertility, forcing Buffy to become a surrogate parent for Dawn, determined to protect her first and foremost as a symbolic daughter, and only secondly as the mystical Key made flesh that could wreak havoc on the universe. Certainly an interesting spin on the idea of immaculate conception, Dawn is created by monks as a fourteen year old girl and placed in the Summers' home, everyone's memories being adjusted accordingly. It is through Dawn that Buffy finally begins to reconcile some of the many contradictions that have defined her for five years.
Age of Apocalypse
From the beginning of Buffy's journey, there has been separation in one form or another. In Becoming Part I, the audience sees her called, and this represents her own fall from innocence into experience. She is cast out of the daylight and into the dark, the carefree days of school and friends and boys evaporating into the harsh realities of vampires and cemeteries and death. She is fragmented between being the girl she was and the girl she will become, and as if to drive the point home further, she arrives at her house only to hear her parents fighting in the background, the inevitable divorce breaking her old familial world apart as well. High school and Hellmouth then beckon her on.
This art most certainly reflects life. In his essay "Approaching the Unconscious," renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung explains why: "The sad truth is that man's real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites - day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end." Jung recognized the inherent problem of duality, and saw it manifesting in both personal dreams as well as societal myths.
The psychological dimension of Buffy becomes quite evident with its own depiction of warring opposites. All its characters walk in two worlds in one way or another. The good vampire Angel is also the evil one Angelus; the soft-spoken librarian Giles is also the hard-edged "Ripper;" the taciturn guitarist Oz is also a ravenous werewolf; even the clumsy TA Riley is really the Initiative's Agent Finn. All of them have a shadow side to their personalities, and all have dealt with them in different ways.
This conflict has been most evident in Buffy, and no easy ways around it are presented to her. The past is depicted as being a long series of Slayers trapped in the battleground between opposites, with most of them being slaughtered like animals. The present is not much better, even the Initiative's way being "lots of filing ... giving things names," and thus splitting them apart even further. Integration or even reconciliation becomes the driving force behind Buffy's quest to put back together that which has been broken.
In such a situation, Jung's "dissociation," or the fragmenting of the psyche, becomes a continuous and very real threat. Throughout season five, this is a recurring theme. The presence of the snake creature in Shadow signifies the Biblical fall into the knowledge of good and evil, in strong contrast to the opening scenes in the series premiere with the Wordsworthian image of children playing in the surf. It also symbolizes mortality, the fall from life into death, foreshadowing Joyce's fate.
This sharp division manifests in various ways, such as the split betweeen the two Xanders in The Replacement, or even Tara after her confrontation with Glory, the coherent whole of her mind disintegrating into insanity. Riley also experiences extreme psychic dislocation in his flirtations with the vampire underworld. Likewise, we see the continued fragmentation of Buffy herself, first through the invention of the Buffybot, and later in the two Buffys in The Weight of the World. Buffy is not able to escape her mind and free herself of paralysis until the split aspects of her true Self begin to come back together.
According to Jung, myths that give expression to and play out these psychological dramas in symbolic form are crucial to the modern world. "Our times have demonstrated what it means for the gates of the underworld to be opened," he once wrote, remarking that much of Western society in the twentieth century has constantly been in a "state of schizophrenia." The reason for this is that as science and technology have greatly succeeded in off-setting the literal interpretations of myths and religions, nothing has arisen to re-establish the symbolic, and the psychological, meanings that informed them. Certainly the Initiative in season four was meant to represent this, at least to some degree. Jung insists that "we have ceased to believe in magic formulas; not many taboos and similar restrictions are left; and our world seems to be disinfected of all such 'superstitious' numina as 'witches, warlocks, and worricows,' to say nothing of werewolves, vampires, bush souls, and all the other bizarre beings that populated the primeval forest." This "disinfected" world thus still has the same problems, only in different forms.
According to the Jungian analysts, the rational mindset of contemporary society is fine in and of itself, but if the irrational is completely disavowed, the underworld of the unconscious is always waiting to devour it. It can be positive that we do not see ourselves still at the mercy of gods or afflicted by the torments of demons, but these things have meaning beyond their overt form. The mental disorders and ordeals that they represent are no longer given expression in story and legend, and therefore are dealt with solely in clinical terms, if they are dealt with at all. For several generations, society existed without providing these things for its populace.
If this indeed the case, Buffy is playing a critical role for modern audiences, a kind of televised psychotherapy or projected dream. The "primeval forest" is being populated once again in this series. It recognizes the dangers of ignoring the irrational side of the past and ourselves. Various examples of this can be found in the fifth season. For instance, the Knights of Byzantium, with their belief that the "link must be severed," represent a kind of uncompromising medieval worldview, one that sometimes still informs Western civilization. The incongruity of seeing knights in chain mail and riding horses in modern day California symbolize this (strangely enough, Jung once remarked that in a dream he saw a "crusader" coming toward him in a modern city).
Likewise, the Primitive, the first Slayer, has twice come to Buffy in dreams and visions, an aboriginal spectre echoing the prehistoric savagery still lurking within. In Freudian terms, the Primitive perhaps represents the trauma that goes along with self-consciousness, the awareness that we are separate from the rest of the world, and largely at war with it. This would explain her own emphasis on isolation and destruction. She also represents Buffy's anxiety that a Slayer is at heart a murder, a beast that delights in the kill, much like vampires. This is why she tastes Dracula's blood in the first episode of the season, and her steadfast rejection of it foreshadows her own epiphany in The Gift. Actually, the scene is remniscient of Arthurian romance, when the warrior Siegfried tastes the blood of the dragon Fafner after he slays it, and then hears the song of nature. This represents a certain kind of reconciliation with the monster slain. Buffy also hears the song of nature, only her deepest nature, her human nature. The Primitive is a manifestation of her Slayer side and nothing else, much like the demon Angel turned into in Pylea, without the balance of his human soul. The first Slayer is what Campbell called the "human beast of prey," and the only thing that turned that beast into a true human being was the opening of the heart to compassion, to experiencing another's suffering as if it were their own. Compassion is incompatible with dissociation, and it likewise will eventually turn Buffy from just being an animalistic Slayer into a genuine human being.
Intimations of Immortality
Every season revolves around a single theme, and every season has a single villian. The fifth season produced Glory, an incredibly powerful though mentally unstable Hellgod who spends much of the year searching for the Key so that she can get back to her own dimension. Once part of a triumvirate of evil and suffering, she is exiled from her home and forced to live in human form, sharing a body with a medical intern named Ben.
In a previous essay, I mentioned the psychological aspects of the Ben and Glory pair, each representative of the animus and the anima, the repressed side of the opposite sex contained in that sex. Although they may seem visibly fine, in certain individuals this dual personality can have neurotic - even psychotic - effects. Neither Ben nor Glory are interested in anything but using one another for their own personal gain, often times even refusing to acknowledge the other's existence. This is metaphoric of the "man within" the woman, or the "woman within" the man, that is kept hidden and out of sight at all costs. Certainly Ben would rather live his life as a doctor, free of Glory's influence, just as Glory rages against Ben to her worshipful band of minions.
This inner duality points to a kind of destructive oppositional thinking, and Jung notes that many such alchemical figures manifest from the unconscious. In one of his essays, there is a picture of a crowned hermaphrodite from a 17th century manuscript that is quite evocative of the Ben/Glory relationship. In the end, Ben gives into his Glory side, unable to repress her with his will or "the right combination of drugs," and is devoured by her. The human can't come to terms with the "beast" inside, and both are finally killed by Giles.
The contrast between mortality and immortality was inevitably a big theme in year five. Living in a luxury penthouse, Glory is surrounded by groveling acolytes and longs to return to her own hell dimension where she can exist forever. In sharp contrast to this is Joyce, a single mother living in a modest home who dies even after a successful operation. Glory has the ability to destroy the known universe with the Key, and almost does so even after her demise. Meanwhile, in The Body, Joyce dies and not only does the world not spin off its axis, the sun is shining, birds are singing, and a random campus cop gives Xander a ticket for double parking.
The mortality motif is quite striking in relation to Anya, too. Once a thousand year old vengeance demon, she also has to deal with her inevitable death. After she is hurt by a vampire in Real Me, she grows upset with Xander because of the realization it triggers in her. She also finds herself unable to comprehend what Joyce's death means. She only comes to grips with mortality in Forever, realizing that she and Xander's lovemaking could eventually produce more life in the form of children. Symbolically, Anya is the one who finally remembers the Dagon's sphere because spherical objects often represent the womb or fertility, and she is growing closer to that part of life, especially with her impending marriage.
One of the big realizations of the series is that life does extend beyond the individual ego. Living in Sunnydale on the Hellmouth, all the Scooby Gang had to learn this lesson early. As Whedon mentioned in an interview, all of them would die for one another. As seen in Family, when they all gather around Tara, they share a bond even more profound than blood. Anya herself has progressed a great deal from the girl who ran away from the Mayor's Ascension in season three. In The Gift, she pushes Xander out of the way of falling rubble, and does so at great risk to herself.
Throughout the series, immortality is never something the good characters have wished for. The nature of heroism on Buffy has always centered around mortality. Angel's greatest wish is not to live forever, but rather to become human, even if that means death. Whedon has essentially been hinting that mortality is a big part of life, and without death, there could be no real life. One helps define the other. That the two are somehow in accord has been a prominent motif in primitive mythology the world over, particularly in planting cultures.
Certainly, Buffy is forced into dealing with this cycle last season more than ever. Because of her role as Slayer, she has always been associated with death. In fact, her own journey somewhat parallels Ben's, only she is able to successfully reconcile her own beastly predator instincts. There would be no Faustian bargain for her. Perhaps as a woman, she is inevitably better suited to deal with this, a woman being, as Campbell pointed out, "a vehicle of life." When she became Dawn's guardian, everything changed for her. She was able to embrace her mortality only because she realized that Dawn was a part of her, and a part that would survive her personal death.
All this leads back to Buffy's role as the Great Goddess of the series, and the issues of fertility and motherhood that comes with it. Her progression all season is moving away from her desire to be a child - and an only child at that - perpetually protected and resting at her mother's side. In the beginning, she is bitter and resentful concerning Dawn, her own role as "the baby" being decisively usurped once and for all. Willow once remarked that she was "16 going on 40," and this season indeed saw her live out a complete life, going from child to sister to mother and then willingly yielding to death so that the next generation could grow up and flourish. Campbell once wrote that " the central image for a woman might be of her holding a child in her arms, the child of her spiritual birth, since the imagery of biological commitment is translated even to the spiritual forms," and we get a visual of this in Spiral when Buffy picks up and carries Dawn, the child of her spiritual birth, in their flight from Glory.
The notion of divinity has been a comprehensive theme running throughout all this as well. It is presented largely in a negative way, at least in terms of Glory. She is a god, and she never lets anyone forget it. She detests the mortal coil, sees Earth as a lower plane of existence, and believes people to be worthless. While talking to Dawn in The Weight of the World, she points out everyone is continuously trapped in a cycle of drugs, violence, and despair, just "six billion lunatics looking for the fastest ride out." This ties in with the notion of duality in a big way.
It is the nature of evil, and hate as evil, to isolate and divide, to see disparate pieces rather than the whole. Buffy stands as a counterpoint to this limited view. She is "full of love," and at the end of The Gift, she "figures it out," meaning she comes to a comprehensive understanding of the cycle of life, with its balance of pleasure and pain, birth and death. The medieval thinker Peter Abelard interpreted Christ's crucifixion not as a ransom to be paid, but rather God's act of atonement, or at-one-ment, with humankind. The coming together or the two pieces of the cross signify this, and as Buffy leaps off the tower in The Gift, she too has her arms extended as if in embrace. Her sacrifice is all the more Christ-like in that it is her blood that closes the portal and saves the world.
As the goddess, Buffy is able to take in the whole, establishing the quiet human divinity of sisterly love. The smothering self-awareness of Glory would never allow such a thing, requiring that all attention be on her and her wants. This is no doubt one of the reasons why she hates Ben. She once says that her name is a "holy name," and something she constantly flaunts. The idea of the villain having a holy name seems curious and subversive, but not when the original meaning of the word is taken into account. In his book The Dynamics of Faith, Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has established that the idea of the holy is not something that originally meant saintly or was equated with moral perfection. Rather, it was linked to the numinous, to the other than human, and had a quality that could only be described as "divine-demonic." Tillich writes that "The holy can appear as creative and destructive ... its fascinating element can be both creative and destructive, and the terrifying and consuming element can be destructive and creative." The demonic would of course mean the triumph of the destructive over the creative, but they both had the same starting point. At its root is always an idolatrous faith, as represented by Glory's minions, stuttering around until they run out of praises and are simply left with "Oh ... Thou." Tillich provides a fitting context in which the Hellgod can be placed.
Overall, the dynamics between the idea of the god and the goddess play out well in season five. The dichotomy of Glory and Ben would have been well recognized by Heinrich Zimmer, who wrote how "All gods have a charming and a hideous form, according to how one approaches them." And while she does have similar paradoxes, ultimately, the Great Goddess "is the energy of the world, taking form in all things. All friendly and menacing facets are facets of her essence. What seems a duality in the individual god, is an infinite multiplicity in her total being." That infinite multiplicity is on full display in Buffy. Zimmer points out that in the goddess religions of India, the female divine, unlike the masculine gods, is ultimately beyond pairs of opposites, and is in the end the field of time and space itself.
Love Beareth All Things
The quest for wholeness that Buffy represents is finally resolved in The Gift. This resolution is hoped for or at least hinted at in all the various religious and philosophical systems that are founded on the insight of duality. It arrives from outside the box, one might say, a variable introduced into an already carefully defined equation. In the end, Buffy moves beyond all the structures of her environment, including the Watcher's Council, her parents, and her peers. She comes as the deconstructor of status quos, not a typical Valley girl living by a credit card, nor even a traditional Slayer forged by old rule and ritual. As Campbell said, she is the mythic hero "not of things become, but of things becoming."
As established, the Buffyverse is indeed a war of opposites, a set of collisions that shape the very nature of its reality. This is very much connotative of the philosophy of the Pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus. He believed that the father of all things is this war, but he also intuited that this surface dichotomy would eventually be consumed by an even stronger unity. This spirit he defined as "logos," and in it, "All shall become the One, and the One shall become All."
This notion of the All has been depicted in psychological imagery as a circle. Jung often identified the Self as a complete circle, and thought that originally, human beings had an innate sense of wholeness. The circle is used time and again in season five, particularly in magic rituals. In No Place Like Home, Forever, and Intervention, a magic circle is drawn or made by the various characters, what is known in Sanskrit as a mandala. When Buffy herself uses it, she is taken into a trance state, and sees Dawn as illusion rather than her sister. Yet this curious beginning leads her to a profound realization of wholeness in the end.
Buffy's completeness of Self was broken by her calling as the Chosen One, what might be seen as the emerging of young ego out of a childhood typically characterized by unity. This separation again suffers trauma and intensifies when Dawn is revealed to be the Key rather than her genuine sister. Jung insists that at some point in adulthood, a new relationship must be formed with that original Self. The dissociation needs to be overcome if any degree of mental health is to be established. In primitive societies, this psychological fracture is often deliberately brought on, the individual being taken away from the mother and forced to endure puberty rites that subsequently serve to reintegrate the person into the bigger world of the tribe. This is often represented by a wild animal, the animal of course being something firmly rooted in its surroundings. Buffy goes through much the same thing, literally losing her mother, participating in a vision quest guided by a traditional totem animal, and in the end emerging as a full member of not simply the local clan, but of the world itself.
The principal subtext of The Gift is Buffy's reclaiming the Self that had been fragmented so many times. This is foreshadowed in the various pairs of characters coming together in union. Certainly Xander proposing to Anya speaks to this, as does the renewed relationship between Willow and Tara, not to mention the restoration of Tara's mind. The lowering of the barrier spell symbolizes a kind of reconciliation between Buffy and Spike, and therefore not just male and female, but vampire and Slayer. All this culminates in Buffy herself.
It is fitting that the Self emerged when and where it did. According to his essay "The Process of Individuation," M.L. von Franz, a protege of Jung, mentioned that the Self is likely to appear in a time of danger in the "psychic weak spot." In dreams, the Self presents itself at "the point where the dreamer is torn by conflict and where he might, therefore, be able to unite the inner opposites." This area of danger for Buffy has always been the Hellmouth, and the apocalyptic crisis that Glory unleashed allowed her to spontaneously bring forth her complete Self and realize her gift in death.
While she did die for a few moments in Prophecy Girl, Buffy's sacrifice in The Gift is something entirely different. For one thing, in the first season finale, she does not willingly die at the hands of the Master. For another, she fulfills only one role, that of the Slayer. The Gift is another matter. Not only does she make her death her own, she fulfills all her roles at once. This is what Jung called the "transcendent function of the psyche;" this is Self, complete and total, playing out of all its aspects, and living out all its roles. The world of duality she was born into was forcing her to make a choice between Dawn and the universe, and it was one she finally shattered by transcending it all together.
Rather than being split between being the Slayer and the sister, the mother and the friend, Buffy's final act brings all her roles together. She cannot pick and choose, isolate and make separate any longer. On the tower, she becomes the "logos," the penetrating unity, the Slayer, sister, friend, daughter, and mother in one. By saving the universe, she is the Slayer; by accepting Dawn's place, she is the sister; by her last words of love, she is the friend; by keeping her promise to Joyce to safeguard Dawn, she is the daughter; and by her end acceptance of life with all its difficulties and hardships, the life she had begun to doubt had any point, she is the mother - the mother of the world.
The gift of death is something Glory could not have foreseen, nor would she have understood it if she had. Glory looks at collective humanity as a mass of "puppets" or "meatsacks." On one side, there is Ben, the mortal who can't withstand the temptation of immortality, the one of self-preservation, and on the other, the six billion lunatics who do not bargain to live forever, rather who seem to revel in their own degradation and self-destruction. Both are obviously unable to cope with the demands of conscious humanity and animal nature, still seeing duality as an absolute reality with nothing before or after it. It is Buffy who finds the balance, and in her death teaches the rest of the world how to live.
The fundamental flaw in Glory's thinking is that it assumes life and death are at root mutually exclusive things, when in reality it would be impossible for human beings to experience one without the other. They are part of a continuum, but more importantly part of a cycle, and this is the real basis of Buffy and Dawn's relationship. Glory could not have comprehended how Buffy would willingly die, while at the same time not be discriminating against life. Not even Ben's life. Campbell once said that myth was designed to put the mind in accord not with supernatural realities, but the inevitables of life here on earth, including death. This is what season five has been about. Buffy demonstrates that death can be joyous, and she does so not by shying away from it, but rather by running towards it, and running towards it in absolute triumph.
Buffy's graceful dive off the tower would not have been the same if she had been forced to sacrifice her life. The message would not have resonated if she had been drug, kicking and screaming, to the side of the platform only to be shoved off of it and then fallen helplessly into the energy portal. Her desire to give her life for her sister makes it the victory that it is. It metaphorically transforms her from being "just a girl" to the Egyptian goddess Nut who swallows the sun each night and gives birth to it each morning, the sun rising as she saves the world, and brings forth a new one. But her insight that she is not just herself but also manifest in Dawn points to an even broader realization, not unlike Paul Tillich's phrase, the "ground of all being." This is the primary mystical breakthrough, the one that supports the notion of a shared ground, a common unity, with all being. It is the finite individual charged with infinite potential - it is the divine recognized as part and parcel of the cycle of life itself.
Buffy tells her friends that "she's me," and with that statement shows just how far she has come from the girl who once told Dawn that she is "not [her] sister." It evokes Plato in one of his more poetic moments in Symposium, speaking of the love between two people that grows and grows until "each is both." The profound emphasis on love is no doubt meant to bring home the idea that love makes us whole, but there is more to it than that.
As with any series so psychologically complex, the question of the existence of reality is inevitable. The two female characters that are at the center of this inquiry are Dawn and Glory. Dawn is an illusion at the beginning of the season, a metaphysical wild card that brings with her suspicious motives and false memories. As for Glory, she also establishes herself as a threat to reality at the end of the season, for through her actions, dimensions would bleed together and the entire universe would disintegrate into chaos. The apocalypse this time around is a collapse into madness and schizophrenia, dissociation on an unprecedented cosmic scale.
Some have argued that Buffy should have allowed Dawn to kill herself in The Gift. They have been unable to figure out why she would die for someone who isn't really her sister. It is interesting to note Dawn's progression, especially in relation to Buffy. In the beginning, she largely refuses to allow Dawn a place in her family, and then later discovers she's not real at all. Yet by the end, she sees her as so real she's willing to let the rest of the tangible universe die rather than harm her in any way. This huge shift in the paradigm is slightly reminiscent of the girl in season one who is unloved and steadfastly ignored, and as a result, literally becomes invisible. Dawn constitutes a new paradigm in Buffy's consciousness, even with her non-existent past. Maybe what Whedon is trying to say is much more radical than love is what makes us whole. Maybe he is saying love is what makes us real.
Buffy as the goddess has proven to be perfect for conveying such lofty yet earth-bound sentiments. In some respect, Campbell's comments on the goddess could just as easily be applied to Buffy: "Her womb is the field of space, her heart the pulse of time, her life the cosmic dream of which each of our lives is a reflex; and her charm is the attractive power, not of a yonder shore, but of this." Her appeal indeed lies in "this." "This" is the one who brings about regeneration not through violence, but through birth. "This" is the quiet human divinity of sisterly love. "This" is the goddess who is the modern woman, and the modern woman who is the goddess.