I am working from the assumption that ancient myths contain profound truths, if we can unravel their symbolic meaning. I love this statement by the Perennial Philosophist Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words”.
So, what are myths, and how did they originate? Possible explanations are:
- they emerged from a creative source in the unconscious, like dreams, therefore without the involvement of consciousness. (We receive dreams but have no influence over their content.) They are messages from beyond.
- they were created consciously by seers, adepts, initiates, who were perhaps intending to conceal their secret, hidden knowledge beneath a veil of symbolism and allegory. (It is also possible, however, that a figure like a shaman or recognised seer had a visionary experience, which was then accepted by a whole tribe or culture.)
The former seems more likely, for myths share a symbolic language similar to dreams — they appear to have much in common. Keiron Le Grice talks about the mythogenetic zone, meaning the place where myths originate¹. This, of course, merely gives it a name; it does not help us to understand its nature. Mythologist Joseph Campbell also seems to agree with the first hypothesis; he says:
- “…myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation”².
- Myths are “spontaneous productions of the psyche” that “touch and exhilarate centres of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion”³.
It would seem therefore that myths are collective dreams for a whole culture. There then remains the question of transmission; how exactly did they appear in ancient cultures? It seems hard to believe that an ancient myth arrived simultaneously in the consciousnesses of various individuals, whether through dreams or other means, although this would fit with Carl Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious. Could there have been special individuals who received a mythological story in its entirety, which was then accepted by their community? This also seems unlikely. The question seems to me therefore to be something of a mystery.
If myths are spontaneous products of the collective psyche, then we humans cannot create them consciously. Myth creation in this sense is not happening currently, so perhaps we have to assume that the age of myth creation is past. Or do we? It seems that we still have a deep need for them, because of the functions they serve, witness:
- the attempts by various scientists to construct a new mythology out of what they perceive to be the truths of modern science. (This will be the subject of the next article in the series.)
- the obsession with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc., which, as Le Grice points out, cater “to a deep hunger for transcendence, inspiration, and enchantment, transporting us to a world in which human actions have a profound cosmic significance, a world that calls forth great heroism, and that elicits through its high drama the activation of the deepest virtues and powers… Our experience of a mythic reality is therefore restricted to… the confines of the movie theatre, or to the pages of a novel. As the credits roll or when we turn the final page of a book, so our participation in a world of meaning and enchantment comes to an end. We return to a world that could not be more different — a secular world, dictated almost exclusively by the practical concerns of everyday life”.
If the age of myth creation is indeed past, it seems that we may have to find ways to create our own.
1. Keiron Le Grice, The Archetypal Cosmos, Floris Books, 2010, p45
2. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fontana, 1993, p3
3. Creative Mythology: the Masks of God, volume 4, Penguin, 1991, p4
4. as footnote 1, p31