The Nature of Myth
Whenever a society is in a state of breakdown and breakthrough - what I see as whole system transition - it often requires a new social alignment that only the complex and comprehensive understandings of myth can bring. It is only the mythologically wise community that finds ways to mediate and so re-focus the shadow sides of self and society. In its Jungian usage, "shadow" refers to the repressed and dis-acknowledged aspects of self. When these same shadow qualities are recognized and reconciled, there is often a movement to greater maturity and depth of personality. Since time immemorial, myth and mythic knowing have served to balance shadow and light in person and culture; in this way preventing the exaltation of certain archetypal themes that if played out unchecked and un-orchestrated, could destroy the world. Never has this mythic knowing been more needed than today, when our shadows are lengthened by a nuclear sun that is threatening to lead us into a world of endless night. Thus, it is imperative that we understand the functions of mediation and integration that myth can provide for past, present, and future societies.
Joseph Campbell has observed how mythology serves four major psychological and social functions in any given civilization:
1. It provides a bridging between one's local consciousness and the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of the universe - the vast, overwhelming environment of Being. It reconciles local, historical space-time with the transcendent realms and the eternal forms.
2. Myth offers an interpretive all-encompassing image of this relationship. In artistic and religious form, it provides a "revelation to waking consciousness of the powers of its own sustaining source."
3. Myth empowers the moral order and brings about both a shaping and a conciliation between individuals and the requirements of their differing climates, geography, cultures, and social groups. Perhaps you follow certain ethical precepts because Moses received them on the tablets on Sinai millennia ago; or. you are a Navajo because many moons ago Spider Woman laid an egg and from it the Dine (Navajo) people emerged; or, perhaps you are an American because "four score and seven years ago..." Now, for those societies in which the local mythology still works, there is "the experience both of accord with the social order, and of harmony with the universe." However, those of us who are several times removed from that harmony - by virtue of the effects of industrialization on our lives, which includes the shattering of natural rhythms - find ourselves longing for that storied universe we were once so intimately a part of, that realm of Nature, that deep belonging.
Myth assures us that the universe fits together, even though we may live in towering glass houses and get our dogma from editorials in the media. But when the mythological symbols no longer work, there is a pervading sense of alienation from society, often followed by a desperate quest to replace the lost meaning of our once-powerful myths. The demonic, shadow side of this questing can be a willingness to comply with totalitarian regimes when all else fails. Or it can mean returning to a primitivizing fundamentalism that reduces consciousness to a limiting if comforting notion of the way things work.
4. The fourth and most important function of myth is to "foster the entering and unfolding of the individual in integrity," with himself (the microcosm); his culture (the mesocosm); the universe (the macrocosm); and finally with the pan-cosmic unity, the ultimate creative mystery, which is "both beyond and within himself and all things."
As Campbell also noted, much has happened in the last three hundred years to cause the timeless universe of symbols and archetypes to collapse in upon itself in just the way black holes swallow stars in the far reaches of the galaxies. Power driven machines, instantaneous communication, the scientific method, economics, and politics have become the central and controlling power of most social units. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, these fascinations have pulled our focus away from the mystery of life; in some cases they have even invited us to pretend there no longer is a mystery. This has severely limited our awareness of the world of spirit and drugged us into a coma of forgetfulness. We have lost our capacity to tap into the greening power of the symbolic and mythic resources of humankind. Gods, myths, and metaphors have been abandoned, then blamed for being dead.
And yet, Myth still beckons to us like a strange and beautiful country seen through the mist, only to retreat again when we have approached too near. Myth remains closer than breathing, nearer than our hands and feet. I think it is built into our very being. It winds its way through the labyrinthine pathways of our brain, codes itself into our cells, plays games with our genes, incarnates with us in the womb, weaves through the roles and rituals of our lives, and finds denouement with our death. Myth waters our every conscious act. It is the very sea of the unconscious.
Myths serve as source patterns originating in the ground of our being. While they appear to exist solely in the trans-personal realms, they are the keys to our personal and historical existence, the DNA of the human psyche. These primal patterns unfold in our daily lives as culture, mythology, religion, art, architecture, drama, ritual, epic, social customs and even mental disorders.
As Joseph Campbell once wrote: "The last incarnation of Oedipus, the continuing romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change." Is it any wonder, then, that our most popular television shows and movies brim mythically with thinly disguised high-tech scenarios rooted in the oldest stories in the world.
Myths, however. are not the same as fairy tales or legends. Fairy tales are essentially narrative complexes that collapse many mythic archetypal structures into one story. Myth has a more universal formulation than fairy tales; It speaks to the codings of the deep unconscious. Embedded in the psyche itself, myth engages the depths because it expresses in its own imagery and on its own terms the symbolic figures and actions of both the realms of the unconscious and the super-conscious - the mind of Creation.
Because of its affinity to the Creative Principle itself, myth not only excites our understanding, it evokes our own passionate creativity. How often in the midst of a creative moment have you felt your horizons expanding to mythic proportions? Suddenly, you know yourself to be a creator, a celebrant of the Mass of the World, a willing participant in the re-storying of Life with all its possibilities.
A myth is something the never was but is always happening. And this continual happening declares its presence in the news of the world. Daily, we see the flow of current events coursing through the time-deepened runnels of mythic themes. For example, the continuing conflicts between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, between India and Pakistan, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the struggles of the South Africans - black and white - all recall the myths of many cultures about two battling brothers: Cain and Abel in the Old Testament; Osiris and Seth in ancient Egypt; and among the West African Dogons of Mali, the mythological warring siblings Nommo and Ogo from the star Sirius.
Mythic themes are rampant in modern life. In the Middle East we find Dragon Kings snorting fire from the latest unnatural weaponry to protect their black gold from pale corporate prices. Drugs seep into the veins of those who could be heroes, tendering them as pathetic and dysfunctional as those in ancient tales who were lured to sip the poisoned brew of mad magicians, or were frozen into immobility at the sight of the Gorgon’s writhing snakes.
Then there are the money mad - individuals and countries alike - who are endlessly driven to seek the elusive Grail of material success because they have lost their inner spirit and can only look outward for identity and meaning. They resemble the mythic hero Percival, who, by remaining silent at the sight of the Grail when visiting the Fisher King at Grail Castle, failed in his spiritual task of asking the great question concerning the service of the Grail. As a result he spent years in brooding pursuit of the now elusive Grail. doing knightly things with no passion, and through his unconscious actions committing mayhem and adding to the wasteland his realm had become.
In all the dramatic, soul-threatening, even world-threatening, even world-threatening action of these present - day reflections of ancient myths one thing becomes very clear - these modern participants have not studied and lived the myth deeply enough to understand its true purposes. They have not played it through to the end. They have not understood that in the myth a force of wisdom heals and restores the wounded ones. They have not learned that the fierce Seth willingly become the vehicle that allows the greening power of his brother Osiris to be felt through the "million years"; that while Percival endures his years of dreary toil in the Wasteland, he is also learning to listen to others, and when the time is right, he is given another chance to ask the appropriate question.
I do not mean to imply that myth's major reason for existence is our education - nothing so narrow. But suggestions, warnings, and genuine guidance are encoded there that we would be foolish to ignore. Sometimes modern sensibilities demand that we change that story, or add to it, or make substitutions as we enact our own versions of the word's many myths. But we deny much of Life's juiciness when we fail to embrace as fully as possible the inexhaustible richness of the classic myth.
Other books by Jean Houston:
A Mythic Life