“The axiom is worth recalling here, because mythology was historically the mother of the arts and yet, like so many mythological mothers, the daughter, equally, of her own birth. Mythology is not invented rationally; mythology cannot be rationally understood. Theological interpreters render it ridiculous. Literary criticism reduces it to metaphor,” writes Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God™ Volume 1: Primitive Mythology.
There is certainly something intriguing about myths, even for the purely secular reader or commentator. Also fascinating is their durability and perenniality. It seems that myths survive in oral and written forms because there’s an aspect within them that resonates with us at a soul level, a level deeper than our own words, thinking, or conscious experience.
Myths—true, profound myths, not mere confected arrangements—reside as archetypes within our psyche’s foundation. They abide there either latently or with animation. Either way, they form (and inform) who we are. So they are not mere narratives or cultural-societal inventions, but rather bearers of truth about our essential humanity. And if we are inwardly awake and perceptive, we may observe how the personal, folk-soul, and universal myths are at play within us, and how they relate to the zeitgeist, which breathes around and through us.
In Primitive Mythology
Campbell also addresses the topic of suffering. Often in my MythBlasts I take up the theme that the interior journey towards transformation, self-discovery, and enlightenment is frequently accompanied by intense suffering, and indeed at times, even agony. Campbell states:
Suffering itself is a deception (upādhi); for its core is rapture, which is the attribute (upādhi) of illumination. The imprint of the rapture enclosed in suffering, then, is the foremost “grave and constant” of our science. Compassed in the life wisdom of perhaps but a minority of the human race, it has nevertheless been the matrix and final term of all the mythologies of the world, yielding its radiance to the whole festival of those lesser upādhis—or imprints—to which we now must turn.
Among their many missions, myths move us from a narrow vista or perception of ourselves (and the world) towards a more rounded vision and awareness. And specific myths can help us to find meaning in our trials and tribulations. They illustrate patterns imprinted into the core reality of the soul, and yes, often with the cost of suffering.
So in this sense, suffering is a given. A rugged necessity in the process of our development. Suffering shouldn’t be pathologized or viewed as wrong. And in a lofty sense, the ordeal is to be welcomed, embraced—loved, even—because we really only get to know the quiddity of ourselves through the transmutational crises that we’ve endured; not through all the times spent on the figurative “Cruisy Street” sipping piña coladas or the like.
Specific myths mirror our struggles back to us and connect us to something greater than ourselves. We could even say that they realign our somewhat restrictive and mundane selves to our larger Soul-Selves. Myths help us to embrace a multi-dimensional perception of ourselves by making the invisible and unconscious stories that we tell ourselves visible and conscious. But on the other hand, these myths may also expose some of our personal narratives, which are false and soul-disabling.
In this process of inner transformation we’re tempered. Tempered by the challenges, which life throws our way. And whether we meet these challenges well or poorly, we come to learn something more of our own nature. There comes with this experience a forging—a rhizome strengthening—and a deeper trust in that which is greater than our prosaic, everyday lives.
We can also support ourselves along this transformative path by getting into the habit of asking what is sacred about the very moment that we find ourselves in. What is the deepest message that may be disclosed to us at this particular juncture in time? Just as many folk songs are encoded with philosophical wisdom layering, we too may weave and marry the poetic and mythic into our lives, even into its supposedly more pedestrian aspects. And this is one way in which we dream the ancient wisdom forward to inform the present.
Yes, myths are timeless and transcendent, but when we don’t consciously invite them into our lives, we are prone to live them out unconsciously and compulsively, and therefore, sometimes quite destructively. The more we resist the presence and power of myths, the more their archetypal patterns push upon us. And so they must be recognized. When we can perceive (or at least intuit) the mythologies that influence our lives, we realize that the mythic realm is mightier than our prideful common sense.
Myths are oneiric manifestations of the unconscious, distillations of folk and universal truths, which is why we’re drawn to them; they enable us to observe what our psyche is up to. Then our actions can be understood within a wider context of meaning. These stories work on us, as much as wework the story. This two-way process illustrates the fact that there is a psychic center beyond our own.
Interpreting our experiences merely through a personal, and therefore reductive lens, is the expression of a person who is unawakened. We deplete our imaginal forces by honoring only the literalness of life. And when this depletion occurs, it results in a kind of soul flatness. When our primary modality of interpretation involves a symbolic component, then the myths have the potentiality to reveal pathways out of situations that are causing us great anguish. That is, if we indeed have the courage to follow them. And if we let them, myths will lead us.
Said another way, the gods and goddesses in the myths don’t just want to be read about, or talked about, or worshiped. They want to be lived. And they must sooner or later be lived for our own sanity, because in the most important analysis, they are us.
This essay was first published as a MythBlast
by the Joseph Campbell Foundation
in June 2022.
Image: The Mirror of Venus,
by Edward Burne-Jones. 1875. Biblioteca de Arte / Art Library Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Public Domain.