It’s 2020. As we grapple with changes to popular franchises and stories, we might wonder what is going on. Some may recognize ongoing negotiation surrounding concepts of myth and canon. What is myth and mythology? What role does have in modern society, if any?
According to the Oxford Lexicon, myth is described as:
(1) A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.; (2) A widely held but false belief or idea. -2.1: A misrepresentation of the truth. -2.2: A fictitious or imaginary person or thing. -2.3: An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing.
What is interesting to note is that to the ancients, myth (or the idea of myth) is tied closely to what they understood to be true. In some ways, they not only saw myth as true but as metaphysically as well as physically true. However, nowadays, we see myth as being false, no doubt due to its connections to spiritual faith and religion historically (Davis, 24-25).
Some Modern Takes on Myth
In his book Don’t Know Much About Mythology, Kenneth C. Davis explores myths around the world throughout history. In his Introduction, Davis tries to define myth and the role it plays in the creation of society, ritual, and meaning. He says,
Myths continue to fascinate me – and millions of others. Only most ofus don’t call it “mythology”. We like to call it “going to the movies.” For instance, on a cold Vermont night a few years ago, I went to see the second installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy […] Merits of the film aside, I was struck at how reverent the audience was. Chances are, a good many people in that audience were not churchgoers, and sitting in this darkened theater may have been as close to some form of collective spiritual encounter as any they might ever have experienced. And I thought further that this experience probably connected this twenty-first-century collection of strangers back to something much deeper, the act of sitting around a campfire three thousand years ago as someone recounted timeless exploits of heroes and monsters, Good versus Evil.Davis, 3-4.
He argues that many (but not all) products of popular media, due to their “international popularity”, can appeal to large portions of humanity, “tapping into our basic human need for myth” (5). These myths-in-the-making depend on a universal language and a universal meaning. Davis says that “myths were a very human way to explain everything” (23), which explains why myths continue today, particularly in spaces that remain resistant to human knowledge.
Quoting American Heritage, Davis suggests that myth explains “aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society”. He also refers to David Leeming, who apparently wrote that myth was/is “a projection of a […] group’s sense of its sacred past and its significant relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe” (24-25). In short, “Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be expressed in words” (Coomaraswamy, Davis, 25). Myth is “about what makes us tick” (25).
Davis’s quotes piqued my interest, and I decided to look up David Leeming. He seems to have piloted The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. I decided to shell out for a secondhand copy to see what Leeming had to say about the role of myth.
Surely both definitions of myths, as illusory stories and as containers of eternal truth, are valid simultaneously. The sacred products of the human imagination are in some sense true in ways that history cannot be. Myths might be considered the most basic expressions of a defining aspect of the human species – the need and ability to understand and to tell stories to reflect our understanding, whether or not we know the real facts. […] In this sense, myths may be thought of as universal metaphors or dreams, what mythologist William Doty calls “projective psyche models”…Leeming, p xii.
Leeming argues that myth reveals the “cultural and collective inner life of the human quest for self-identity”. Linking myths to similar endeavours, such as cave paintings, Leeming says that myths and similar works of human expression originate from “our defining drive to make a metaphor, to “tell a story”, a drive that continues to characterize the human species” (xiii). Now, I do think that sometimes understanding cave paintings can be difficult. Although we may think we understand the content of cave paintings (men killing a bear), we may not always be able to pinpoint the significance of the story which led to its creation as a painting. Nevertheless, stories and paintings that celebrate human achievement over the chaos of the natural world speak to development (if not existence) of human psychic and societal awareness.
Thanks to ongoing models of evolution, we may be encouraged to think that we are highest form ‘human’ can achieve. Does myth then have a place in such highly evolved societies? Many comparative mythologists like Leeming would argue ‘yes’. However, just as specifics of psychic or societal activities can only be inferred from myths or paintings, our psychic or societal activities can only hint at ongoing negotiations of myth. Leeming says,
…we do not consciously invent myths as myths any more than we consciously create dreams. […] myths are created by the collective imagination as metaphorical projections of the way things are in life. Myths emerge from our experience of reality, from our attempt to understand it, and from our instinctive need to clothe that experience in mimetic story and concept.Leeming, “New Mythology”, 283.
In the entry “Comparative Mythology, Leeming touches on work done by Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell as pioneers in the development of comparative mythology, archetypal analysis, and accompanying psychological work regarding the “collective unconscious”. These academics find patterns in myth and regard these cyclical symbols as indicators of subconscious archetypes – “the universal psychic tendencies that result in such ubiquitous themes in world mythology as the ex nihilo creation, the descent to the underworld, the concept of deity, and the hero quest.” This universal symbolic language built on archetypes allow for better understanding of human psychological, metaphysical, and societal development (79).
With two modern analysts referring to archetypes and universal symbology, I knew that I had to read Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. I started out with a second hand copy of Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, a long analysis of “primitive” myths and rituals. He explores how they relate to myth-making in general and ritual-building specifically. Campbell says,
The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same.Campbell, 3.
Interestingly, Campbell argues that humans need a “belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth”. He adds: “In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in direction ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology” (4). Due to its inherent psychological and metaphysical concerns, myth then, is not something we just tell kids. It’s not something that modern people can just abandon. Myth still can hold power today. Campbell writes, “For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations” (12).
I can see why Campbell has been largely abandoned by current academics in the modern departments of “English and Culture Study”. Postmodern critical theory combined with Cultural Marxist thought cannot appreciate, support, or negotiate with the universal, timeless, and symbolic nature of myth. I will broach this in another post/lecture, but although myth holds some diversity and multiplicity of approaches to various concerns regarding the human condition, the kaleidoscope of myth cannot be utilized effectively for political interest without serious distortion.
Campbell considers Thomas Mann’s views on myth. Thomas Mann argues that myth “is the foundation of life, the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious”. Mann and Campbell agree that “as any ethnologist, archaeologist, or historian would observe – the myths of the differing civilizations have sensibly varied throughout the centuries and broad reaches of mankind’s residence in the world”. However, although Campbell (and Mann) suggest that myths “the flickering modes of a “timeless schema” that is no schema“, the varying approaches to the various problems confronting developing humankind do not invalidate the existence of the problems themselves. Off the cuff, I think of the difference between Aladdin (especially of the Disney ‘myth’) and Daedalus. Both explore the motivation and process of self-elevation. One leads to a happy ending, one ends tragically. One praises risk-taking and resource management, the other decries the hubris of destructive desire. However, both myths appreciate and acknowledge the “problem” or the “risk” of self-elevation. Neither do they suggest that the desire to self-elevate never existed, does not exist, or should not exist.
Onto Jung. I managed to get another cheap copy of Carl Jung’s small ‘anthology’, Man and His Symbols. After reading the first chapter, I felt like my head was going to explode. There was so much I wanted to address. We can start with his quiet critique of the ongoing battle over ‘sign’, ‘symbol’, and the role of metanarrative within human culture.
Jung defends the symbol. He says,
“The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. […] There are many symbols, however (among them the most important), that are no individual but collective in their nature and origin. These are chiefly religious images.”Jung, 41.
Jung’s defense of the role of symbols requires us to embrace the existence of the historic negotiation and development of meaning. He bases his argument on the existence of archetypes, which he initially calls “archaic remnants” or “primordial images”. These images, apparently, have shown up in dreams and stories all around the world in different kinds of ways but with the same base meaning. This points to the psychic development of the human mind, self, and society. Jung defines archetypes as “a tendency to form such representations of a motif – representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern” (57-8). Myths therefore can be read not only as explaining local earthly phenomena or social rituals but can also speak to global human anxieties as humans became self-aware and developed culture.
As an intelligent designer, the evolutionary aspect of Jung’s argument is questionable to me, but to most readers, this could make logical sense. I haven’t developed my own response to Jung’s observations about patterns in dreams and myths. However, I do agree that dreams and myths do carry on significant messages from our past.
Jung continues to say that the “specific energy of archetypes” fascinates us. Comparing personal complexes to social complexes, Jung suggests that archetypes arise out social or collective anxieties. He states,
But while personal complexes never produce more than personal bias, archetypes create myths, religions, and philosophies that influence and characterize whole nations and epochs of history. We regard personal complexes as compensations for one-sided or faulty attitudes of consciousness; in the same way, myths of a religious nature can be interpreted as a sort of mental therapy for the sufferings and anxieties of mankind in general – hunger, war, disease, old age, death.Jung, 68.
What is so fascinating is that Campbell’s insistence that the societal, philosophical, and psychological health of a man is linked to his mythology is based in Jung’s support of myths as “mental therapy” (68). He argues that primitive man was more in tune with the archaic remnants of his unconscious. As time went on, primitive man handled the chaos of the world by imposing order through naming and rituals. Nowadays, the unconscious has been totally subsumed, although it still asserts itself through dreams. The modern man, seeing himself as having conquered Nature, feels like the old ways of naming and ritual are no longer needed. Though chaos is still just around the corner, modern man feels in control (71).
When I got to this point of the chapter, I nearly jumped up and down. Jung was describing something that I had been mulling over for some time. Why are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter so popular? Why is D&D back in vogue? Perhaps these films speak to subconscious desire. This desire cannot go unsated. Jung suggests that modern man’s suppression of the archetypal collective unconscious (and then myths, and then dreams) has led to a culture that has lost touch with psychological realities. He says,
“Yet in order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of instrospection. He is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food – and above all, a large array of neuroses.”Jung, 71,
As COVID-19 quarantine continues, people are given the opportunity to educate themselves within a broader historic perspective of humanity’s ordeal within Nature’s chaos. When times are good, people are less likely to worry about existential questions. However, when people are crushed by ongoing survival concerns, they will also be unable to take the time to consider said questions. The Buddhist Wheel of Samsara speaks to this important balance, where the hungry ghosts are too miserable to achieve Nirvana and the Gods are too wrapped up in enjoyment to want Nirvana. Only the state of Human (and male, because Buddhism is rather misogynist) is conducive to introspection.
Jung also suggests that while “life runs smoothly without religion, the loss remains as good as unnoticed. But when suffering comes, it is another matter. That is when people begin to seek a way out and to reflect about the meaning of life and its bewildering and painful experiences” (75). So are these ‘introspective questions’ about the way things are useful to modern man? Jung argues, ‘yes’. He states:
There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of all his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a “tale told by an idiot”. It is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to the life of man.Jung, 76.
I have already discussed this before: the need to mythic metanarrative runs deep in humankind. Jung’s support of myth-making as therapy, as metaphysical meaning-making, surprised me quite a bit. However, I could see how some people (read the School of Resentment) would dislike this since metanarrative is seen as a tool to normalize systems of oppression. Unfortunately they are unable to understand that myth itself transcends local, historically-specific movements. The use of myth to elevate a human movement cannot discredit myth or the existence of metanarratives as problematic anymore than rape can make the ideal of sexual encounters undesirable.
In summary, I will conclude with the second chapter of Man and His Symbol. Henderson wrote that “the analogies between ancient myths and the stories that appear in the dreams of modern patients are neither trivial nor accidental. […] In more ways that we realize, we are dependent on the messages that are carried by such symbols, and both our attitudes and behavior are profoundly influenced by them” (98).
I do believe that our understanding, appreciation, and negotiation of myth defines not only our society but our psychological health and our resulting approach to life. With a healthy thriving mythology, humans are encouraged to participate in a creative space that allows for individual, societal, and universal engagement with ongoing human anxieties and conflicts.
As I tackle some ongoing battles over canon and myth in the current ‘culture wars’, I hope to be able to refer to this definition of myth:
– universal and timeless
– speaks to the human condition
– cosmological and metaphysical
– symbolic and archetypal
– motivational and meaningful
– inspiring and instructive
With this foundation, you and I can start a journey into a literary exploration of the role of propaganda in creative productions, the impact of academic interests on cultural development, and the instinctive backlash of the general public.
Campbell, Joseph. Primitive: Mythology: The Masks of God. Penguin Books, 1987.
Davis, Kenneth. Don’t Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
Henderson, Joseph L. “Ancient Myth and Modern Man.” Man and His Symbols. Dell, 1964.
Jung, Carl G. “Approaching the Unconscious.” Man and His Symbols. Dell, 1964.
Leeming, David. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford Press, 2005.