The Nature of Myth

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD


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…The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.

-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

“Face it, or it will wear your face.”

In psychology, Freud gave a form to this universal rule of recurrence by noting that what we repress will resurface eventually as symptom, mood, anxiety, or dream. In history, Santayana suggested that we ignore the past at the risk of repeating it. Culturally, observed Susan Griffin, a collective secret does not go away: it hangs there in the emotional atmosphere. In philosophy, Nietzsche wrote about an “eternal return” long before Jung spoke of the perennial recurrence of primal ideas—ideas recurring in the sciences too. Ecologically, pans and shovels discarded by wayfaring Gold Rushers sometimes pop up out of the ground when earthquakes rattle San Francisco.

Something similar is true of myth. No one believes in zombies anymore, but we do believe in the computer whose glowing monitor forehead, speechless routines, and disturbing automatisms recall the Jewish legend of the Golem created out of magically animated matter. Few sing hymns to threshold-crossing Hermes nowadays, but piles of small rocks stacked into herms ceremonialize many a shoreline. The primal Earth Mother peers back at us from behind environmentalist slogans about Gaia. The hundred-eyed watchman the Greeks knew as the Argus lives on in technologies of mass surveillance.

“Coincidence,” we might blurt dismissively—in unconscious imitation of the ancient Roman practice of explaining uncanny events by evoking Fortuna, goddess of blind chance.

From within the industrial belly of our leviathanlike civilization it is difficult to look upon a storied world. Yet the simplest television remote control commands a greater profusion of scintillating imagery than the most potent magic wand of old. The priestly ritualist formerly covered in feathers now wears a white lab coat. The mystique of material Progress has been compared with enchantment by the golden calf. Flags are worshipped like religious relics protected from contact with the ground. C. G. Jung believed that for some, UFOs had taken over the role of angels; certainly their netherworld counterparts appear in costume at every science fiction convention. In the United States, standardized tests, spirit-smothering competition, and fantasy-killing curriculums loom over rows of students like the shadow of dark Saturn, paranoid eater of children. One of the tests is even called SAT.

Certain persistent themes and motifs, images and dramas recur again and again; a mythology education can highlight what they are, where they come from, and what they seem to want of us.

In keeping with the multidimensionality of myth, definitions of what a myth is abound. The word itself points back to divine poetic inspiration, which is one reason hard-headed thinkers like Heraclitus have always sneered at it. Plato found myths useful for philosophizing, and for the use of philosopher kings seeking to rule and beguile the masses. Another ancient, Euhemeros of Messene, gave his name to euhemerism, the belief that myths can be reduced to bits of disguised biography (he had seen the late Alexander divinized in the Near East) or explanations for meteorology. This idea returned via Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Max Müller, and the Nature School of mythology, both insisting that myths were allegories of the local environment. The Nazis would make much of this kind of cultural and biological “blood and soil” determinism in their own dark mythologizings.

Comparative mythology research took a somewhat different tack. For example, Claude Lévi-Strauss thought of myths as a kind of grammar used to make sense of the world and solve human problems. He spent a great deal of time sifting stories for their embedded oppositional codes. Mircea Eliade viewed myth as a source of personal and political self-renewal through contact with the sacred dimension of being.

A third trend, the anthropological, involved studying the function of myth in its cultures of origin. Sir James Frazer began it by collecting myths in his book The Golden Bough. Although not a strict euhemerist, he did take myth for pre-scientific magical thinking in the form of story and ritual. Inspired by Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski went beyond him by framing myth less explanatory than performative and preservative of religious values and moral wisdom. Even so, the study of myth had yet to break away from the eurocentric equation of metaphoric expression with savagery.

Sigmund Freud was among the first psychological thinkers to take myths seriously. He regarded them as collective expressions of erotic or aggressive infantile drives. “I am Oedipus,” he confided in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss, referring to the wounded king who would one day be preceded (as Freud was) by his daughter into exile. For C. G. Jung, myths were cultural expressions of the archetypes: universal patterns of potentiality such as Death, Rebirth, the Hostile Twins, the Divine Marriage, the Hero, Initiation, and the Divine Child. Mythic language is truer than scientific, Jung argued, because it remains closer to the sources of experience and consciousness.

The Hero figured prominently in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s understanding of myth as the symbolization of spiritual forces brought into human manifestation. He tended to read myths in terms of the archetypal Hero’s Journey of descent, initiation, and return. Believing that all myths everywhere belonged to this “monomyth” (Finnegan’s Wake), the experiential equivalent of Lévi-Strauss’s search for a basic mythic structure, he was nevertheless not as interested as Jung was in looking for archetypes, a pursuit he considered formulaic. He agreed with Jung, however, that monotheistic religions were myths that had forgotten themselves through being taken literally and hardened into creeds and “facts.” For James Hillman, this kind of literalizing depreciates the imaginal people of myth by reducing them to something beyond themselves.

Postmodern approaches to myth have tended to stress its protean character. For Jacques Derrida, myth has no ultimate source; it remains shadowy and virtual, ephemeral and elusive, like a cloud of texts referring only to each other. (The seafaring shapeshifter Proteus would not have it otherwise.) Postcolonial scholarship has reinforced this sensitivity to multiple perspectives floating free from any overriding master narrative.

According to the literary perspective of Scott Leonard and Michael McClure, myths are ancient narratives attempting to answer the enduring and fundamental human questions, such as: How did existence come into being? Who are we, and what is our role here? What are our values? How should we act? How should we not act? Thomas Mann would have added that myths form the foundations of life, “the religious formula to which life shapes itself.” For Christine Downing, myths are first and foremost tellings that originate in oral traditions. As a scholarly pursuit, mythology is logos thinking about mythos; but in terms of where myths come from and how they address us, they are stories that need retelling.

Springing up as oral traditions retold in particular times and cultures, myths are living repositories of collective wisdom, social practice, spiritual transformation, ecological awareness, and psychological insight. They represent the interiority of a people and their place, the colorful cloth that weaves the two together into a meaningfully narrated whole. They are the inhabited landscape dreaming about itself. Myth is deep psyche dressed in imaginative cultural garb: a bridge or fabric of stories that connects us to the transhuman, and through it, to the world’s innermost workings, which in the end are the same as our own.

“Myths are metaphors,” Joseph Campbell often pointed out; metaphors that symbolize the perennial, archetypal aspects of human experience. But although the underlying themes are eternal, the images that story them are constantly in motion. Mythology is to a time and place what a barometer is to the weather or a seismograph is to an active fault. Deep rumblings sound below the level of collective consciousness, and mythic images vibrate and crinkle, like the qualities of existence they image.

Myths can also give hints about what to avoid. The genie won’t always go back into the bottle, as Robert Oppenheimer learned at Trinity while testing the first atomic bomb. Large-helmed Mars and his assistants Phobos (“Fear”), Deimos (“Terror”), and their grim sister Eris (“Strife”) might make an effective intimidation team, but we wouldn’t want them running a government. Demote Pluto? Better make sure he isn't showing up somewhere else--like in some well-staffed plutocracy busy mining the Earth into an underworld.

Echoing Campbell, Mann, Hesse, Jung, and a host of other mythologizers, Rollo May compared the state of a psyche seemingly swept free of myth to the proverbial house cleansed of an evil spirit—who then came back with seven evil companions. In our day malignant nationalisms, religious ideologies, Frankensteinian science, and totalitarian agendas have usurped the place of authentic myths.

The loss of a conscious connection to myth is more than the absence of a charming picture of the world. At bottom it is a loss of stories that make sense of who we are, where we live, what we do, and what we should become. When people born blind regain their vision, at first they only see disconnected blobs of color. Contemporary life feels similarly disconnected to a heart devoid of a set of guiding myths. Little wonder, the widespread hunger for isms and ideologies that promise fixed orientations they cannot ever deliver. All are driven by the hunger, the cry, for myth.

But mythic beings won’t stay locked out or confined to a grid. In a rationalist, desacrilized world run by money, force, and hardware, they creep in from the margins and ruptures and edges disguised as symptoms, nightmares, political upheavals, works of art, moods of enchantment, and disturbing dreams. An education in mythology might or might not fill a gap in a humanities curriculum, but it fills a gap in the hungering soul with nourishing images, narratives, and timeless motifs. When properly digested they become food for the heart and therapy for the imagination. They summon us back to the natural terrains from which they originally sprang and to which all things return, even gods.

“All the world’s a stage,” remarked Shakespeare’s magician Prospero. Mythology tells us what that stage is thinking about.


© 2006 by Craig Chalquist.

West of the West