How Does Myth Work?

myth at work

We cannot escape myth. .

"Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse, or now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale, it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth." [Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces 3 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949)]

Myth is all about meaning. "[M]yth says with utmost seriousness something that is of essential importance. What is more, it is a way of living in the world, of orienting oneself in the midst of things, of seeking an answer in the quest for the self." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 226 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

Keen and Valley-Fox define myths as the "interlocking stories, rituals, rites, and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community, or culture." [Sam Keen & Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life through Writing and Storytelling xi (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989)].

"A living myth, like an iceberg, is 10 percent visible and 90 percent beneath the surface of consciousness. While it involves a conscious celebration of certain values [personified in heroes and villains] . . . it also includes the unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, the unquestioned assumptions, the automatic stance." [Keen & Valley-Fox, at xi-xii]. "[T]o the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible." [xii]

"The dominant myth that informs a person or a culture is like the 'information' contained in DNA or the program in the systems disk of a computer. Myth is the software, the cultural DNA, the unconscious information, the meta-program that governs the way we see 'reality' and the way we behave." (xii).

"The organizing myth of any culture functions in ways that may be either creative or destructive, healthful or pathological. By providing a world picture and a set of stories that explain why things are as they are, it creates consensus, sanctifies the social order, and gives the individual an authorized map of the path of life. A myth creates the plot-line that organizes the diverse experiences of a person or a community into a single story.

"But in the same measure that myth gives us security and identity, it also creates selective blindness, narrowness, and rigidity because it is intrinsically conservative. It encourages us to follow the faith of our fathers, to hold to the time-honored truths, to imitate the way of the heroes, to repeat the formulas and rituals in exactly the same way they were done in the good old days. As long as no radical change is necessary for survival, the status quo remains sacred, the myth and ritual are unquestioned, and the patterns of life, like the seasons of the year, repeat themselves." [xii-xiii]

"Beyond their basic quality as traditional oral tales . . . myths may take on many different forms and functions—as associated with gods and rituals, as affirmations or charters of lands, titles, institutions and beliefs, as explanations at various levels and as problem-explorating and problem-palliating in various ways, and as providing different kinds of mental and emotional relief and support. No definition of myths can easily cover all these possible uses, which overlap each other but do not coincide." [G. S. Kirk, "On Defining Myths," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 53-61, 58 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984):

All tales are not myths. "A myth is, or once was, used; a tale is, and always was, merely told." [Theodor H. Gaster, "Myth and Story," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 110-136, at 123 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

Myths are the "product of a way of knowing different from science, expressing truths independently of the knowledge, or lack of it, of scientific causes." [J.W. Rogerson, "Slippery Words: Myth," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 62-71, at 63 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

One aspect of this way of knowing is imagination. "In opposition to the Enlightenment view, the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries regarded myths as an expression of the deepest creative potentialities of man. Myths were a constant course of inspiration to dramatists, poets and painters; they expressed profound truths about human existence. . . ." [Rogerson, at 65]. It is, says Rogerson, this view of myth that is found in Jung's and Paul Ricoeur's work.

Myth is the "universal tongue of the human imagination." [Stephen Larsen, The Mythic Imagination: Your Quest for Meaning Through Personal Mythology xvii (New York: Bantam Books, 1990)]

"Seeing into the other world, using our imagination, requires a different kind of seeing. . . ." [xix]

"Blake could well be the first herald of the awakening of mythic imagination in modern Western civilization, and may have understood it better than anyone since the Platonists, whose tradition is probably the deepest historical taproot of mythic imagination in the West. [7-8]

"Myth and its little sister, fairy tale, make stories out of what we don't know we know. They negotiate familiarly with our wishes and nightmares. . . ." [Lore Segal, "Our Daughter Needs a Complete Cure" (Book Review), New York Review of Books, September 23, 1990, p.11]

With myth we see through the crusty overlay of everyday life. "To see mythically, then, is not just to fantasize richly or to dwell only on classic myths and fables. The mythically awake imagination would rather see through the ordinary-seeming surface of everyday life to discover the 'secret cause,' the mythic, archetypal patterns beneath." [Larsen, supra, at 50]. "A mind that is trying to personify or imagine the quality of the universe in depth will find itself mythologizing." [58]

It is the story/myth that confronts literalism. For Hillman, literalism is the enemy. "Literalism is sickness." Story "is the only mode of accounting or telling about that does not posit itself as real, true, factual, revealed, i.e., literal." It is the "thematic tales" of our culture that "channel fantasy." Mythic stories "present the archetypal modes of experiencing." [James Hillman, A Note on Story, 4 (4) Parabola 43, 45 (1979)]

In the meandering path of human history, it has been myth, mythic sensibilities and mythic stories that connects the individual to the world in a way that does not limit the world to immediate needs, local necessities, instrumental knowledge, disciplines, and formal modes of education.

[On the social role of myth in the explication of the relationship of the real and the ideal, see Theodor H. Gaster, "Myth and Story," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 110-136 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Myth may be defined then as "any presentation of the actual in terms of the ideal." (Gaster, at 112). "It is an expression of the concept that all things can be viewed at once under two aspects—on the one hand, temporal and immediate; on the other; eternal and transcendental." (112-113). This approach to myth suggests that in the struggle to figure out the relationship of the real and the ideal, we are doing ground work and preparing the opening for myth. One way that this relationship is made explicit is religion, another way is through mythology.]

"[A] living myth is always connected with a cult, inspiring and justifying a religious behavior." [Mircea Eliade, "Cosmogonic Myth and 'Sacred History'," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 137-151, at 138 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]. Eliade finds that "our best chance of understanding the structure of mythical thought is to study cultures where a myth is a 'living thing,' where it constitutes the very ground of the religious life; in other words, where myth, far from indicating a fiction, is considered to reveal the truth par excellence." [138]

The mythic "connects the individual to his clan and invests him with his social role, with his dramatic part." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 235 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

Myth is part of our make-up as individuals and the psychological recovery we undergo to become who we want to be.

We cannot escape or transcend myth because we act out the stories and myths available to us. "[A]ll men have and need conscious and unconscious premises that shape their experience, their interpretations of life and their behavior; and in every individual or society these premises are organized into a more or less coherent mythic whole." [Kenneth Keniston, The Uncommitted 272 (1965)]. "All men need, then, some more or less coherent set of implicit assumptions, symbolic meanings, characteristic configurations, and explicit beliefs that help them to organize and guide their lives, and we call this need a need for a myth." [273]

"One integrates life as story because one has stories in the back of the mind (unconscious) as containers for organizing events into meaningful experiences. The stories are means of finding oneself in events that might not otherwise make psychological sense at all. (Economic, scientific, and historical explanations are sorts of 'stories that often fail to give the soul the kind of imaginative meaning it seeks for understanding its psychological life.)" [James Hillman, A Note on Story, 4 (4) Parabola 43, at 43 (1979)]

"The 'cards' we have been dealt by fate are a hand from a recognizable deck, which, like the Tarot, is made up of a finite number of archetypal forms (fools, magicians, priestesses, hanged men, and so forth)." [Larsen, The Mythic Imagination, at 14]

"Jungian therapy, at least as I practice it, brings about an awareness that fantasy is the dominant force in a life. One learns in therapy that fantasy is a creative activity which is continually telling a person now this story, now that one. When we examine these fantasies we discover that they reflect the great impersonal themes of mankind as represented in tragedy, epic, folk tale, legend, and myth. Fantasy in our view is the attempt of the psyche itself to remythologize consciousness; we try to further this activity by encouraging familiarity with myth and folk tale.

"Soul-making goes hand in hand with deliteralizing consciousness and restoring its connection to mythic and metaphorical thought patterns. Rather than interpret the stories into concepts and rational explanations, we prefer to see conceptual explanations as secondary elaborations upon basic stories which are containers and givers of vitality." [Hillman, at 44-45]

"We might encounter seductive Aphrodite or warlike Ares and learn that the classic gods and goddesses are not dead, but very much alive in our individual psyches." [Larsen, at xxiv]

Hillman says, "My interest in story is as something lived in and lived through, a way in which the soul finds itself in life." [Hillman, at 45]

"If we can learn to recognize the heroes, demonic or shadow figures, and godlike images that occur over and again throughout the history of the human imagination, we may fare better when they beset us personally. Recognizing the archetypes might save us from succumbing to stereotypes." [Larsen, at xxiv]

In psychotherapy, Freud and Jung, Bruno Bettelheim and Eric Berne, have been certain that if they could explain and raise to consciousness the mythic script on which a particular dysfunctional bit of human behavior was based, they could eliminate it—or cure it—through demythologizing. The myths by which we live are empowering structures that affect our health, vitality, and psychological well-being. They can have positive and negative effects on our lives. [Larsen, at 13]

"Jung made it his life's work to show that only by understanding myths can one truly understand psychology, and vice versa." [Larsen, at 5]. "Jung searched all his life in the mythic depths." [13]

"Personal mythology begins with an individual's awareness of timelessness. With it comes the sense that our own individual lives, although they take place in an eternal now, are connected through that still point to people of all times and places. While we are alive, we tread the same earth on which the ancient shamans danced and sang their spirit songs, and King Arthur's men rode in quest of the holy Grail. Can it be that our journey through life is to be no less wonder-filled than theirs?" [Larsen, at 19]

Relating the Inner and the Outer: "[W]e make myths every day without knowing it. The myth, deep within ourselves, illumines every reality giving it direction and value. The myth is accordingly surely a universal, or fundamental, phenomenon which, while keeping profound motives, inexpressible emotions and feelings hidden within the secret of the individual, reveals through surface gestures, forms and words, something of that internality which, without ever growing old, lives on in man's heart century after century." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 230 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

Are myths true? "Myth is true history because it is sacred history, not only by reason of its contents but also because of the concrete sacral forces which it sets going." [Raffaele Pettazzoni, "The Truth of Myth," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 98-109, at 102 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)("To tell of the creation of the world helps to preserve the world; to tell of the beginnings of the human race helps to keep mankind in being, that is to say the community or tribal group." pp. 102-103)]

The truth of myth "has no origin in logic, nor is it of a historical kind; it is above all of a religious and more especially a magical order. The efficacy of the myth for the ends of cult, the preservation of the world and of life, lies in the magic of the word, in its evocative power, the power of mythos in its oldest sense, of the fa-bula not as 'fabulous' narrative but as a secret and potent force. . . ." [103] [See Theodor H. Gaster, "Myth and Story," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 110-136, at 136 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)("Before any general deductions can be drawn, it would seem necessary to determine exactly the meaning and frame of reference of native terms rendered 'true' and 'false.' Does 'true' mean, in this context, accurate, or historical, or real, or valid, or authenticated? Conversely, does 'false' mean untrustworthy, or unhistorical, or unreal (fictitious), or futile, or spurious?") (133)]

"The myth is neither 'true' nor 'false'; it is born, beyond our logic's horizon, in that 'pang' which comes upon man in the midst of things." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 229 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

"The mythic does not exclude the rational, it does not precede it in time, it does not entirely disappear before its advance. It co-exists with it, and is complementary to it." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 241 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)("In societies where, with the advent of the Logos, nature has come out of her darkness, the myth has been driven back into the shadows. It has become suspect or it has gone underground. But even so it has not disappeared. It subsists, it subsists in the depths and continues to enliven many of the forms of our culture or to externalise many a movement of the soul. it inspires poet, novelist, and orator. It is at the bottom of certain collective sentiments which to us seem as 'natural,' as 'demonstrated' as possible: national feeling, class consciousness, the republican ideal, etc. . . . It sometimes assumes the face of science and the diction of reason: It is called the idea of progress, theory of evolution, or materialism.")(242)]

Myth is the primitive, archaic, original man that is still in us. Myth emerges from the depth of our existence. Myth is the rational stuff of our pre-existence.

Myth is the way we try to deal with mystery. Myth is a realm of stories that render the particulars, the images, and the plots that make awe and wonder visible. We need myth to understand mystery.

"Consciousness is like a lantern on a dark night illuminating everything with a circle." [Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling 15 (Los Angles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989)]

"The mythic is that word which, from everywhere, calls men together and breaks up the darkness." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 234 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]

Myth informs as to how worlds and stories came into being. "[O]ne can say that any myth tells how something came into being, the world, or man, or an animal species, or a social institution, and so on. But by the very fact that the creation of the world precedes everything else, the cosmogony enjoys a special prestige." [Eliade, 140]. "Now this primordial, sacred history, brought together by the totality of significant myths, is fundamental because it explains, and by the same token justifies, the existence of the world, of man and of society. This is the reason that mythology is considered at once a true history: it relates how things came into being, providing the exemplary model and also the justifications of man's activities." [141].

"The myth leads back to a remote, primordial past: to events, heroes, gods who pre-exist everything that is." [Eric Dardel, "The Mythic," in Alan Dundes (ed.), Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth 225-243, at 230 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)]