“Myth, fairy tale, legend and great story provide a platform from which we can view and review our past, our current circumstances and situations, and perhaps, inform our direction as we step into our future.”
Myth and Me
Myth, fairy tale, legend and great story provide a platform from which we can view and review our past, our current circumstances and situations, and perhaps, inform our direction as we step into our future.
With a knowledge of mythology, I have come to experience life and the world I find myself in quite differently. I will share some of my personal “ah-ha” moments.
It is not uncommon for my friends, and probably the greater population at large, to think of myths as stories that are irrelevant in today’s world. People tell me they find the stories out-dated and boring. As a mythologist, I find the opposite to be true. I find many of the stories fascinating. And, when faced with a predicament of a personal, socio-economic, or professional nature, these myths have a way of offering me clues as to how to move through the predicament.
Below is an essay I wrote discussing what is meant by the word “myth.” I consider some of the great religious traditions alive today as mythological systems containing reservoirs of wisdom. For me, any story that offers a brief glimmer onto the wondrous, numinous, and ineffable, may be equated to being mythical. And, sometimes, even the briefest of these glimmers is enough to gain perspective on our life “predicaments.”
Inquiry into What a Myth Is
What is a myth? There are as many responses to this question as there are approaches to the study of myth. I think part of my attraction to “myth” and its study is the ambiguity contained in this word. However, there are two distinct viewpoints on what a myth is that I tend to favor. One perspective is exemplified by Emma Jung as presented in her book, The Grail Legend . The other is expressed by Joseph Campbell in a tape series of his titled, Courtly Love and the Grail Legends (see also Western Quest ). Both base part of their comments on Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach:
For Emma Jung, a myth is an expression of the psyche. This expression can be made manifest in image, ritual or story. Myth mediates between the Self and the ego. Myth is an archetypal expression and in this way makes available to the conscious ego what otherwise might have remained hidden. Myth is not only an expression from the psyche but it seems myth is an expression that speaks to the psyche. Myths provide the “ah-ha” moment of insight and a deep felt sense of satisfaction.
It is as if myth is an expression which scratches some unknown itch or quenches some unknown thirst. Myth is not just entertainment, but psychologically profound. Jung says that King Arthur represents the idea of wholeness as it was conceived in the first millennium. In Jungian psychology wholeness is an ideal that the psyche is striving for and what the process of individuation entails. This sense of wholeness is also represented by Arthur’s Round Table. Here is an example of myth making available to consciousness an archetypal image through concrete and abstract images; through the character of King Arthur and through his Round Table.
For Emma Jung, the repetition of an image or act as significant. She argues that repetition is not only a component of myth, but of ordinary life. She sees it as a design or pattern where contents of the unconscious become available to the conscious mind.
For example, in an early scene in Parzival , because of the Red Knight, the King has suffered a wrong, the Queen has been insulted and both, as a result, are out of countenance. This is the first indication of the disturbed and unredeemed state that is a prefiguration of the Land of the Grail disclosed later in the story. Also in this scene are the cup and spilt wine which is a prefiguration of the Grail itself. This redundancy in myth she sees as an expression of the psyche. This same prefiguration, she says, can be observed in ordinary life where certain situations repeat themselves again and again. At first, they may appear to be accidental and meaningless. Should one’s attention be aroused, however, by the frequent recurrence of such coincidences, and if these are more carefully observed, it will be noted that for the most part they are modified expressions of a significant natural tendency characteristic of the particular individual, until their meaning is finally grasped and their purpose accomplished.
Here again she sees myth as an expression of the psyche. It is one where psyche sets the stage so that unconscious behavior, through repetition, is brought to consciousness. This is not to say that any story that includes redundancy is a myth. But I argue that a story where redundancies bring about profound psychological insight is at least “mythical” if not wholly categorized as “myth.”
Myths also contain a certain amount of relevance for a human audience that relates to a human condition that is enduring for all humanity but newly experienced by each generation. Jung sees this as having a therapeutic value. Myths depict an archetypal event, a basic pattern of human behaviour, by which one may find one’s bearings or which can serve as a model.
An example of this is the hero, Parzival, who is not an outsider wandering around in a land of archetypal significance. He is, himself, archetypal, for the hero figure is one of those eternal, archetypal images which slumber in the depths of every soul and which determine human life and destiny in unsuspected measure. This relevance stemming from enduring human conditions and a therapeutic value within the image, ritual or story is a consequential factor of what a myth is. For Jung myth is an expression from the depths of the psyche. It is archetypal, redundant, relevant and therapeutic.
Joseph Campbell, on the other hand, identifies four functions of myth. I will review only one of these four areas. He sees myth as serving a mystical function. He describes myth as a path or means to the transcendent. Myth is an expression of the yearning of our spirit to unite with the “Ultimate.” Myth, then for Campbell, is the means by which a person or culture is put in touch with the deep mystery of what it means to be alive. The Grail is symbolic of this mystery. From it comes the means of sustenance. From this source everyone in the Grail Castle is served the meal each desires. It is ever renewing abundance. The myth does not explain the mystery, but puts the believer in accord with it.
In the book, Parzival , there are various expressions of different kinds of love (e.g. mother for son; love among a brotherhood; etc.).
Love can be a mystical experience. Campbell sees in the Grail Legends the beginning of a new world order where the noble heart, following its true inner knowledge, comes to the Grail. Instead of being rewarded for following the rules of society and being accepted into the Church through the sacraments, frequently from the hands of a tainted clergy, Parzival comes to the Grail Castle, not once but twice. This is due in part to his noble heart and steadfast love for Condwiramurs. Myth here is a vehicle of a change in consciousness and a foretelling of a change in the social order itself. It is Parzival, his noble heart and true love that are the redemption that save the Wasteland and restore it. Myth here again is expressing what being in accord with the mystery of life really is. In this case it is living authentically from your own center (that is if you have a noble heart).
The compassion that Parzival experiences toward the Grail King’s wound is the ultimate expression of love. For Campbell, love is the recognition of the humanity of the Other; a loss of self-centering. Through the experience of Love, a Oneness is experienced and thereby the unity of things. The noble heart is moved by compassion. In compassion an individual so commits him or her-self to the other that the boundaries of being two distinct individuals blur. This is a metaphysical realization. This is compassion. This is the Grail; the one life that is constantly pouring forth into the field of time and space that is transcendent of all thinking, of all naming, of all knowing. Here he emphatically expresses his opinion of what a myth is. It is metaphysical, mystical, in touch with the mysteries of life and transcendent. Not all myths will fill this bill, but it is a powerful expression of what a myth can be.
From the point of view of Emma Jung, myths are soulful, emerging from the depths of the psyche. From one of Joseph Campbell’s perspectives, myths are spiritual and lead us to experience a Oneness with the Source. Both perspectives are rich in their contributions to the study, understanding and definition of myth. They may appear to be mutually exclusive; one reaching down to the depths of being; the other reaching up to the transcendent. However, humanity is poised on the razor’s edge where these two forces, the soul and the spirit, exert a tremendous magnetic pull on us. Myth also provides the means to maintain our balance while these forces engage us.
Myth is an expression of the soul. Myth is also an expression of the spirit. Myth is the vehicle of their expression; a language if you will. The Grail Legends are examples of this expression or language. In them can be seen both the archetypal and the mystical. The Grail itself is symbolic of the One Life that is constantly pouring forth into the field of time and space which is the phenomenal world of ours; simultaneously archetypal and mystical. By allowing the play of both spirit and soul, myths and their study enrich every aspect of existence.
My hope in sharing this essay is that you might come away more open to the wisdom and insight some of the enduring narratives of myth, fairy tale, legend and great story may bring to the predicaments of your life.
* * * * * * *
Interview with Margo by Willi -
Give us practical incidents when knowledge of myth assisted and solve a predicament?
My daughter and I were a single unit from her age 2 to 23. We faced everything together and became very close. When she physically left home for college at age 18, and then psychologically left home again (in the sense that she joined the adult world) upon graduating from college at age 23, I experienced waves of deep sadness; what might be called the “empty nest syndrome.” When I looked at my situation through the Demeter/Persephone myth, I was able to see my “predicament” at a completely different level. I could see that my daughter was abducted, not by the King of the Underworld, but by the forces of Life. She had become the Queen of her world. The myth also reminds me that Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, are reunited annually for a period of time. Engaging my situation through the myth did not eliminate my sadness, but it did lighten the load and continues to help me move through the separation with a little more grace.
Do you agree that there is a withering of the old myth chiefs (Freud and Jung) and a rising up from new poets, singers and novelists?
Poets have always been the voice of myths. The great minds of depth psychology, Freud, Jung, and Hillman, among others, “have revealed that the patterns and logic of fairy tale and myth correspond to those of dream, the long discredited chimeras of archaic man have returned dramatically to the foreground of modern consciousness.” (J. Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faxes 255). Freudian, Jungian and archetypal psychology are only beginning to get a foothold in the United States. Cognitive and behavioral psychologies dominate the world of psychology here. Depth psychology continues to bring to the foreground of the Western mind the “chimera” of myths. As knowledge of depth psychology expands, I see a quickening not a withering. The poets continue to give new raiment to mythical themes.
How do you understand the role of sustainability and permaculture in the new alchemy and myths?
The image of the earth seen for the first time from outer space shattered the unequivocal existence of national boundaries. With that image, we began to see that we are an island in a sea of the galaxy. We saw a lovely jewel suspended in space. If we cannot make life on Spacestation Earth sustainable, where in the galactic seas can we go for resources to be shipped in? Our current rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor satisfying. We consume but never seem to be sated. Will we learn to co-operate and curb this rate of consumption to benefit all or will we maintain base desires to the demise of all? I see movement toward the former. Humanity has a long history of a desire to perpetuate the species. It seems to me that sustainability and earth-centeredness (as opposed to ego-centeredness) may well be the point around which a global myth will coalesce.
How does rock music support the mythos?
Rock, rap, grunge, jazz each in its own time and in its own way has also been a means to express archetypal images, for song writers, too are poets; e.g. Bob Dylan, America’s poet laureate of the 60’s. Sometimes the artist is swept up in the potency of the archetype and without the proper preparation and initiation is consumed by it; e.g. Jim Morrison of The Doors. As Joseph Campbell pointed out long ago, we are in a free fall. What the new myths will be has not yet become known and the old myths no longer hold a vibrancy. I am not convinced that rock music supports mythos. A comparison might be made to the effect of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope on a large part of that whole generation. The film became the basis of a pseudo-religion. This only pointed to the fact that we had a nonfunctioning religion. So too rock music seems to underline the fact that our myths are not working. However, as a creative expression arising out of the human mind, it DOES support the mythos in the quest for a working myth.
What characterizes mythic behavior?
A – Mythical behaviors, like myths themselves are not that easy to pin down. Mythic behavior can be seen in the life negating austerities of the Jain monk or in the dance of the whirling dervish. Mythical behavior aligns the individual with the myth. Mythical behavior is a devotion and commitment to the myth. But, there are so many variations that it is difficult to specify characteristics unique to mythic behavior. For example, I might suggest that mythic behavior revolves around a specific luminous quality, such as reverence. However, just about all Trickster gods are highly irreverent. Nonetheless, the behavior of these Trickster gods is mythic.
What might be the tip-off is the result of the behavior. If the effect of the behavior is to bring the individual &/or group to a higher level of existence or consciousness, that behavior could be termed mythic. The Hero’s Journey could be characterized as mythic behavior. It is mythic behavior for the hero to accept the call to adventure; to overcome adversity; to gain the boon; and to return with the elixir to the community. In the case of the Hero’s Journey, the quest itself is mythic behavior.
Can you give us some of the old symbols and some new ones that you are fond of in myth?
One of my favorite images is that of the snake and how various myths and cultures utilized this creature. In the Old Europe of archeologist, Marija Gimbutas, the snake was associated with the Great Goddess. Images of the Goddess were often rendered with a snake in each of her hands. In this case, the snake represented wisdom and rejuvenation.
In another case, while the Buddha was experiencing the beatitude of enlightenment under the Mucalinda Tree, the cobra serpent king, Mucalinda, whose home was in the roots of this tree, spread his great hood above the Buddha’s head protecting him from an out of season storm. When the storm passed, Mucalinda changed his shape into a young man and gave reverence to the Blessed One.
In the West, the snake is seen in less kindly light. The snake is seen as the tempter of Eve and associated thereby with Original Sin. There are many other myths with snakes as primary characters in the storyline. It amazes me how this creature has captured the imagination in so many different ways and in so many different cultures.
A relatively new symbol is that of the Grail. In grail legends, the grail could be a platter or chalice. The Grail is symbolic of the inexhaustible energies constantly pouring forth into the field of time (which is how Campbell so eloquently describes it). This symbol of the inexhaustible energies which serves to each according to his desires is yet another example of myths capturing the mystery of the inexplicable.
“…myths are spiritual and lead us to experience a Oneness with the Source.” What do you see at Oneness?
Myth is the means by which a person or culture is put in touch with the deep mystery of what it means to be alive. The myth does not explain the mystery, but puts the believer in accord with it. As in the story of Parzival, compassion for the wound of the Grail King was an expression of love which is a loss of self-centering; an experience of the unity of things. That is to say, Parzival went contrary to social convention and operated out of his inner truth. In compassion, an individual so commits him or her-self to the “other” that the boundaries of being two distinct individuals blur. This is a metaphysical realization. This is a Oneness.
Putting yourself in danger to protect your neighbor’s property from looting is a similar example of this loss of self-centering as we witnessed recently in Egypt. That we are our brother’s keeper is a metaphysical realization and leads to an experience of unity of things and to a Oneness we share with each other. Where you find expressions of unconditional love, of compassion for another’s plight, of moving away from our fragile ego’s self-centered position; you will find a path to Oneness.
“Myth is an expression of the soul.” Do you claim that myth is a universal power?
I do not claim that any single myth is universal across all time, regions, and peoples. What I would claim is that myth is a universal expression of humankind either originating in or mediated by the psyche. Evidence of ritualized behavior dates back tens of thousands of years. Myths have accompanied humanity since then to our current epoch. The question has been raised: Can we (humanity) survive without myths? It is my understanding that if we do not have dreams in our sleep, our well being declines. I suspect the same is true for the collective. If the collective does not have myths, for our own well being, we will create, adopt, or adapt myths for our individual selves.
Talk about the power of archetype and metaphor. When and how do these constructs work best?
Metaphors help us know the unknowable. We are all familiar with the metaphor “Life is a journey.” Life is not a journey. Life is Life, but it is so beyond full comprehension, that the metaphor gives us a glimmer of its profundity. Life is also a banquet, a garden, a dance, etc. All of the metaphorical truths enable us to grasp it more fully. Without understanding what a metaphor is and without having at our disposal a rich library of metaphors, our daily experiences are bereft of the richness possible.
C.G. Jung stated that archetypes could not be known. We speak of the unconscious as if we knew what it is. We sometimes overlook the fact that the unconscious can only be known by reference. Archetypes are similar. According to Jung and Hillman, the archetypal images in myths expose a single facet of the multifaceted archetype.
The more images we become familiar with the better able we are to complete the picture. However, the fullness of the archetype will never be completely exposed.
Myths are metaphors and vehicles of archetypal images. Archetypes are psychic energies that we play out all through life. The more myths we know, the more robust our library of metaphors will be and our ability to perceive the archetypes as they flow into our lives.
In general, is technology destroying myths?
I think technology is making us ask some hard questions. Mythology is a place to begin seeking the answers. For example, “what are our responsibilities when we clone life?” How do you answer that question without some benchmark? But answer it we must. Technology is also accelerating humanity’s trajectory. We do not now know what it means to be fully human and yet here we are integrating technology with our biology (the wet/dry interface). Technology just may be the force accelerating the emergence of the new myths. I do not think there will be an absence of myths. As humankind we are meaning-making creatures, so too are we myth makers. Technology has not yet changed that.
* * * * * * *
Margo Meck, PhD Bio –
I was born and raised in Eureka, CA. Eureka is gifted with being the center of the redwood coast. Except for a brief return, I have not lived in Eureka since I graduated with my first degree. Several family members continue to be residents of the community, so I have occasion to visit the region. Eureka is about a 5 hour drive north of San Francisco. During the late 60’s, when I was highly impressionable, Eureka was within the sphere of influence (ultimately, who wasn’t?) of San Francisco and the “hippie” movement.
Over the course of many years, I received several college degrees.
BA – History – Drake University, Des Moines, IA
BS – Mechanical Engineering – Bozeman, MT
MS – Business – University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX
MA – Mythological Studies – Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA
PhD – Mythological Studies – Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA
My working life is similarly varied as my life as a student was.
I worked on a pile driving crew in Portland, OR
I was a roustabout as a summer intern for Conoco Oil in Dickinson, ND.
I was a sawmill foreman for Weyerhaeuser Company in Raymond, WA
I worked as a financial analyst for a Money Manager who managed over $25B in Dallas, TX
I have also been a receptionist.
For the past 2 decades, I have supported myself as an accountant with titles from “full charge bookkeeper” to “Controller” for a company with 250 employees and sales over $20M.
I have traveled to Europe on 2 different occasions and visited Mexico once. I have lived in 8 states and been to 40 of the 50 plus DC.
I was with my husband for 15 years. We divorced and I remain unmarried. I was a single parent during my daughter’s age of 2 – until she graduated from college at the age of 22 and sole support for my household most of that time.
My interest in mythology began with my second viewing of Bill Moyer’s interview of Joseph Campbell. For 10 years following that viewing, I read everything I could by Campbell and several of the sources he referenced. I felt like I hit my own limit of understanding by studying this alone. I was fortunate enough to come across the program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. This is a world class school and, I believe, unique in its mythology degree. The course study took 3 years and then I was about 3 ½ years in writing the dissertation. My dissertation was on “Identity and Landscape” using mythology as a point of reference to the psyche’s experience. No doubt this topic came out of my experience of the redwood forested landscape of northern California.
I have one published article, but it is more of a memoir piece than an academic piece on mythology.
I am now entering my 3rd decade of interest in mythology. Currently, I am working with TheFilmSchool in Seattle, WA exposing their aspiring screenwriters to mythology. The world of mythology is so deep and extensive, I anticipate immersion in these waters for decades to come.
Margo Meck, PhD
Info at mythandmore.com
Join Us for more metaphors and green visions at openmythsource – reservoir