Keiron Le Grice: “Through the stories of myth, people in all times and all places have explained their relationship to the mystery of life, to the gods, to nature, to the cosmos, and to each other”. Myths reflect “the accumulated wisdom of the human race”¹.
Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words”².
This article is the first in a series, following on from a brief introduction. My purpose is a search for a mythology which might unite humanity, a common story to help us deal with the present crises facing us.
In the distant past mythology had great value. As the quotes above indicate, societies were inspired and drawn together by their myths, which provided unifying stories, a vision around which people could cohere. Mythology thus gave a sense of meaning, was an inspiration; it was part of a religious outlook, providing a spiritual connection to the cosmos, and the supernatural. Such myths now seem antiquated to many people, irrelevant in modern times. As Keiron Le Grice puts it: “Myths are thought to be explanatory stories created by the pre-scientific mind and are thus deemed outmoded, having now been superseded and replaced by the factual accounts of science… the rise of science supposedly dispelling earlier ignorance and putting an end to childish beliefs in supernatural causes”³.
A second problem is that myths are sometimes interpreted literally as actual historical events, rather than how they were intended, symbolically or allegorically. For example, some Christians actually believe that Adam and Eve were the first two humans. Apart from being so obviously wrong, such a foolish attitude supplies ammunition to those who wish to denigrate the importance, and underlying truth, of mythology.
Joseph Campbell, probably the greatest mythologist of all time, thought that a proper mythology served four functions⁴, saying that in the great living traditions these functions were served simultaneously and harmoniously:
1. the mystical or metaphysical. To waken and maintain in individuals a sense of fascination, awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe, not so that they live in fear of it, but so that they recognize that they participate in it, since the mystery of being is the mystery of their own deep being as well. To open the heart and mind to the divine mystery that underlies all forms… the experience of life as a tremendous mystery.
2. the cosmological. To formulate a cosmological image of the universe that will be in accord with the knowledge of the time, the sciences and the fields of action of the people to whom the mythology is addressed.
3. the sociological. To validate, support and maintain the norms of the moral order of the society in which the individual is to live.
4. the psychological or pedagogical. To guide the individual, stage by stage, in health, strength, and harmony of spirit through the whole foreseeable course of a useful life. Through knowledge of oneself and the cosmos, to guide the individual towards spiritual enrichment and self-realization.
I’m going to focus on the second and fourth functions. Following my introduction, I received a response from Colin Jay Treiber who suggested that we would need a new cosmogony before the appearance of a new mythology⁵. I suggest that the second function addresses this concern; we have to be sure that our new mythology incorporates the best scientific knowledge of our time (and also the best metaphysical knowledge). The problem is that modern science is engaged in a battle between an old paradigm of atheistic materialism, and a new paradigm which recognises its inadequacy, is not afraid to think outside the box, and not afraid of spiritual explanations, a true understanding of the universe. It goes without saying that the new mythology must be in accord with this new paradigm.
Turning to the fourth function, if Campbell is right, then mythology plays an important role. Modern western society, far from being healthy and strong, seems plagued by depression, addictions, eating disorders and obesity, self-harm, obsessions, compulsions, neuroses. All these can be subsumed under the general heading of ‘mental health’, which is currently a major issue in Great Britain, and probably elsewhere. Interestingly, Carl Jung attributes such problems to a lack of mythology: “We imagine we have left such phantasms of gods far behind. But what we have outgrown are only the word-ghosts, not the psychic facts which were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as possessed by our autonomous psychic contents as if they were gods. Today they are called phobias, compulsions, and so forth, or in a word, neurotic symptoms”⁶.
We could then move on to social issues like gang culture, random stabbings, mass murder — whether inspired by terrorism, or otherwise in the case of school shootings. And in the world of politics, just consider the quality of persons we are offered as leaders in the United Kingdom, the USA, and elsewhere. There seems to be something terribly wrong with modern societies. Could we not learn something from the ancients and their myths? As Le Grice says: “The loss of a spiritual perspective, and with it a growing sense of the meaninglessness of life, lies behind many of the social and psychological ills of our time” (p31).
“Despite the great achievements of modernity, something immeasurably important has been lost. With the rise of our technological consumer society, collectively we have lost a sense of the sacred purpose and the encompassing spiritual context of life. We have lost the awareness that human lives are rooted in a deeper reality transcending concrete individuality, an insight that was fundamental to most civilizations, and that gives to human existence a more deeply sustaining sense of meaning and purpose”.
“We seem to have no valid mythology that might turn the focus of our attention to the spiritual dimension of life and in so doing counterbalance the one-sided rationalism and materialism of our time… Society is no longer shaped by a guiding mythic narrative. The Western world has lost its living connection to myth”⁷.
1. The Archetypal Cosmos, Floris Books, 2010, p29, p73. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this issue.
2. This quote is found on many sites on the internet without stating the original source.
3. as footnote 1, p277
4. Here I have combined and paraphrased two sources, Joseph Campbell speaking on the first CD called Thresholds of Mythology in the series The Inward Journey, East and West, (the Joseph Campbell audio collection), and Keiron Le Grice’s account (p39f) based on Campbell’s writings from other sources.
5. Here is the full text of the relevant part of his response: “This is a theme which I have similarly put consistent thought into, although from a slightly different angle. I believe it is a cosmogony, rather than a mythology, which is first needed. For human beings first need to gain a conscious understanding of our place within the cosmic order of being (which we are capable of). Then, only after we accurately understand our connectivity to the greater universe will the stories and narratives which spread and reinforce this understanding emerge. The mythologies therefore will come after, and they will also be highly personalized to geographies and groups of people (although probably less personalized than in the past given our growing uniformity)”.
6. The Secret of the Golden Flower, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, p113
7. as footnote 1, p27–28