“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The world is made of stories and myths. Ours is a symbolic reality that requires interpretation. Patrick Mahaffy writes that the great myths provide us with images and narratives that can help us understand our lives and find meaning, both individually and collectively. It is through myths, which transcends the limits of language, that we can access the transcendent mystery that lies at the heart of life. Myths are worldviews or ways of seeing the world and myth helps us understand how we see as well as what we see.
The myths are an inner reality, according to Bill Moyers, stitched into the belief systems through which we operate. Myths are an interior road map of experience drawn by those who have experienced and walked the path of life before. To engage with the myths is to access the universal forces, the archetypes, that direct the unfolding of the universe. The myths allow us to access the psychic heritage of humanity; they are the mind externalised. As Campbell’s quote above illustrates, the archetypes expressed in the myths are still very much active in the daily drama of our modern lives. Exploring the myths therefore is engaging in an archaeology of the mind and in a process of self-knowing and self-discovery.
Myth and narrative form the very basis for our lived reality. We are each living out our own personal myth. Campbell thought of the monomyth – that universal theme that emerges in all mythologies across culture and time of the hero’s journey as essentially a process of self-discovery in which the hero wrestles with the dark forces within and overcomes these irrational impulses. The ultimate aim of the journey is the development of the wisdom and power needed to serve others. The hero seeks to redeem the sickness of society.
To live and see and think mythically is experience the world poetically. The mythic imagination is what, in the Irish tradition, is called ‘silver branch perception’ – an illuminated way of seeing and being. For Campbell, myth is ‘the song of the universe’, ‘the music of the spheres’ the dance of life and death. The principal theme of classical mythology, according to Campbell, is that the secret cause of all suffering is mortality itself. The myths initiate us into the reality of affirming life in the face of death as well as acting as clues to our deepest spiritual potential, portals to delight, illumination and rapture.
To read myths is to engage in thinking in metaphor and meaning, rather that logic and literalism. Jean Houston writes that the Gods of the Greeks are not simply men and women writ large; nor are they personalised and deified qualities of love, war, authority, and death. Rather they are “felt presences who underlie and inform our existence”. They are real and yet possessed of their own reality. Just like Odysseus and other mortals who, through their adventures, evolve and mature, the stories of the gods show they are never static but involved in learning and growth too. The gods are numinous beings, who need interaction with humans in order to extend themselves. We need their promptings and knowledge to give us the impetus for living and learning. The gods and humans are always available for transition into “wiser and deeper versions of themselves”. Myths are adventures in growth and transformation.
The Jungian, Marie-Louise Von Franz, writes that myths embody the basic patterns of the human psyche. “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you”, writes Campbell. We can interpret the myths psychologically – that everything we encounter in a myth is an aspect of oneself. The gods, the heroes are all parts of ourselves projected into the stories, where they stand as a mirror so that we can see the nature of our minds more clearly. The rejected frog or dragon, the lowly serpent, are disowned aspects of the self – the shadow. These are often held in the deep waters, the ‘submarine palaces’. They are jewels that give light to the demon cities of the underworld. The herald of the ‘call to adventure’ in the hero myth often presents as dark, terrifying, or is seen as evil by the world. It may take the form of a beast, representing the depraved aspects of ourselves; or it may emerge as a mysterious figure, the unknown. Yet, as Campbell writes, “If one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow”.
The myths are guides, living realities, sources of wisdom, that, as Heinrich Zimmer noted, we can ‘evoke fresh speech from’, and learn to understand that speech, to help us navigate our lives.